Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Farewell To Trash (2010)

 Farewell To Trash
[Interview with Lachlan Huddy August 2010, published in the first issue of Michael Adams' online magazine Wordy Mofo]

It was almost “Titfuck!”—exclamation mark mandatory. “Schlockbuster” was another title jockeying for the prize. “Blackbastard Video”, “I Spit On Your Video” and “Video Sleazy” were all in contention, too. In the end, though, simplicity carried the day, and Brisbane’s first, finest and filthiest alternative video store was baptised Trash Video.

“It’s a good filter,” says owner-manager Andrew Leavold of the evocative moniker. “That kind of passive, mindless consumption that categorises most movie-watchers. It’s a good filter to scare them off.”

Since 1995, Trash has been the proud purveyor of everything beyond the flow of cinema’s mainstream. Shock, schlock, art, grunge, indie, cult, foreign, rare, grotesque or sublime—if it exists outside the realm of casual moviegoing, Trash is the place to find it. Burning to take in Microwave Massacre, the self-declared worst horror movie ever made? It’s in the Trash stash. Can’t track down Leni Reifenstahl’s 1930s Nazi propaganda Triumph of the Will for that modern history essay? Pick it out of the Trash. And while you’re there, why not indulge some nostalgia and plump for the Twin Peaks Season Three double-VHS pack? Yes indeed, Trash is everything the modern video shop isn’t: cluttered with obscurity, disorganised, and bursting with character.

But to speak of Trash is to speak of Leavold, its indefatigable founder; the store is but an extension of the man himself, for whom the creation and consumption of culture—popular and otherwise—is more than a business or pleasure: it is a way of life. And has been for a long, long while.

“Basically this was an idea that I had when I was ten,” Leavold says. It’s a July afternoon and we’re talking over the counter of Trash’s current store in Brisbane’s West End. To the left sit neat piles of rental DVDs stacked thirty and forty high; to the right the store computer is near-buried under posters and VHS and other bric-a-brac your local Civic would’ve sold off by now. There’s a touch of gloom in the air, but we’ll get to that later—for now there’s only Leavold in a Coney Island T-shirt, with his errant blonde hair framing a wild-eyed face, telling Trash’s tale. It is, he says, “a story of childhood obsession taken to ludicrous extremes.”

The son of a civil engineer, Leavold spent his early years globetrotting with a father who tended to accept “filthy overseas jobs” throughout the Middle East. Starved of pop culture care of the slim pickings on Arabic television, Leavold took his first step along the road to Trashy treasure with the advent of Betamax (a videotape format, for all you post-Gen X-ers). Late-night gems like “old fucking Vincent Price films” and “the most grotesque horror films that were just coming out as part of the Italian New Wave” infiltrated the Middle East through pirate video networks, the “Betamax Grapevine”—and found a spellbound audience in ten-year-old Leavold.

“The Indian guys who used to run the local video store used to wait for me to come in,” he recalls fondly. “I’d pedal up on my bicycle and they’d go, ‘Ah! We have a new zombie film for you. But don’t tell your mother!’ And they would feed me fucking vile garbage… It got to the point where my mother had written to every one of the video shops I was a member of saying, ‘Do not give my son any more horror films’.”

But it was too late for little Andrew: an idea had taken root. “All the time, I kept dreaming about having a video shop that had all these movies that I loved in it. This kind of anal obsession as a ten-year-old to control culture.”

It was an obsession anal enough to persist throughout high school and into his first job, during which he was “blowing every fucking paycheck on a pile of VHS.” When his trove hit critical mass—at somewhere around 2000 tapes—Leavold went public and Trash Video was born, its first home a little walk-up over indie music club The Zoo in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. It was a fine neighbourhood to raise an alternative video store: grungy, unpretentious and not quite suitable for the under-twelve set. But time waits for no cult film fan, and after five years, when Trash’s stock had more than tripled, the Valley had mutated.

“Trendy fuckheads on bad drugs,” Leavold laments. “When all of a sudden you find yourself surrounded by stores that sell $80 fucking can openers, it’s time to go. The lease was up; we thought it was either sink or swim time. We either try to do this somewhere else on a larger scale or give up. And luckily one of our readers on our email said, ‘Why don’t we try West End?’ That was ten years ago.”

And what a decade it’s been. Trash’s stock has swollen to a horde of more than 16,000; a silent partner has come on-board as co-owner; a 2003 documentary — Escape From the Planet of the Tapes — has been made about the store and about Leavold; and a loyal, close-knit community of renters has entered Trash’s orbit. In the few hours I’m here, Leavold greets every walk-in with a smile, easy conversation or a few flicks reserved just for them: “Have I got something for you?” is a regular refrain. No clinical efficiency here; just a shared love of the movies, a gentle reminder of how unifying a force cinema can be.

Still, this is retail. It can’t all have been sugar and spice and everything nice. Can it? “I’ve seen you rip up someone’s membership,” a friend and regular customer says to Leavold, smirking, before quoting, “‘Just get out! No! No, I don’t care what you say! Just get out!’”

Leavold is reflective. “Yeah. There have been a number of those public meltdowns...I hate a lot of people for years. I carry grudges. Anyone who transgresses the rules of politeness here.”

And what are those, I wonder?

“It’s based on ever-changing brain chemistry,” Leavold grins, with a good-natured twitch of the nostril.

There’s one particular memory, of course, that stands at the top of the Trash heap. “Worst customer experience,” says Leavold, “was probably having an elderly gentleman ask for rape-themed videos, specifically rape between a father and a daughter.” I guess we’ve all been there.

Outside Trash’s hallowed aisles, meanwhile, the past decade saw Leavold cement both himself and his store as cult cinema icons with Film Club, weekly screening nights across Brisbane that ran until 2006 showcasing the best, worst and weirdest of Trash’s back catalogue. He also launched Schlock Treatment, his weekly cult film TV show on Brisbane’s Channel 31—and added his own cult curios to the world of cinema.

2003’s Lesbo-A-Go-Go, Leavold’s no-budget homage to 60s sexploitation icon Doris Wishman (a woman oft-referred to as the female Ed Wood) is “porn without porn”, a cheap, tawdry faux-morality play that propels hapless heroine Sugar from one hideous travail—cemetery rape, drug addiction, rape-during-abortion—to the next before having her stabbed with a syringe and condemned by a priest as she’s dying on the footpath. Shot in grainy black and white and featuring no sync sound, Lesbo is as trashy in its delivery as it is vile in its content, and leaves you in need of a shower and a good stiff drink—right on the money, in other words. It’s elevated by a soundtrack just this side of kick-ass and a frankly awesome psychadelic colour sequence, and is a tremendously fun, sustained in-joke for Wishman fans.

Like any cult film worth its salt, Lesbo offended audience sensibilities and ignited a riot of ire amongst the moral majority—particularly when a drunken interview that Leavold gave to Brisbane newspaper The Courier Mail left the mistaken impression that there’d been more than just simulated sex going on during a shoot at Toowong Cemetery.

“The article basically said we were filming gang-bangs on open graves,” Leavold deadpans. “And immediately there was a shitstorm.” Quite sensational for a film which, Leavold thinks, could have scraped in with a PG-rating. “None of what you see on the screen is explicit. There’s no profanity whatsoever. There’s no onscreen salaciousness. It’s all implied.”

After three years the shitstorm had slackened enough to allow Leavold back behind the camera for 2006’s Bluebirds of Peace and Destruction, a fictionalisation of the lesbian vampire killing in Brisbane’s Orleigh Park in 1989. With $2000 from a generous Trash customer, Leavold set about crafting the tale of three damaged women who abduct a family man and murder him to drink of his blood.

“I thought, right, the only way to do this is to totally improvise it,” Leavold says. “Get two genuine…” He pauses, selecting his words.

“Crack whores?” offers the teenage work experience girl, familiar with the story. “I wouldn’t say crack whores,” Leavold replies. “No, I would say two girls who are no strangers to the sex industry.” He cackles infectiously.

The girls may be no strangers to the sex industry, but they’re no strangers to credible emotion, either; Bluebirds’ documentary aesthetic is complimented by engaging naturalistic performances from its lead actresses—friends of Leavold’s then and still—and a fantastically foreboding score. Assembled with taut editing, it’s a snappy, authentic and brutally effective ride into Brisbane’s seamy underworld.

Then there’s the upcoming The Search For Weng Weng. If there’s a magnum opus in Leavold’s life so far, this is it: a guerilla doco about Weng Weng, star of For Y’ur Height Only, a Filipino spy thriller about a kung fu-kicking midget James Bond.

“Weng Weng was, I think, was one of those catalytic moments where cinema changes forever,” Leavold says. “Literally a bolt from the sky. I’d never come across a film that was so inadvertantly a masterpiece… Somehow that absurd image of a kung fu-kicking midget had a weird kind of humanity about it and I wanted to know where he came from, what his real name was, I wondered if there were other Weng Weng films.”

Filmed over four years and as many trips to the Philippines, The Search... is now in post-production, Leavold struggling to, “get across the surreal nature of the Philippines and the bizarre way that things just literally fell out of the sky during the search for Weng Weng in order to piece that story together… that layer of weirdness and serendipity that covers everything.”

In the meantime, his work on Search gave birth to Machete Maidens Unleashed!, the new documentary from Not Quite Hollywood’s Mark Hartley, which had its premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival on July 24.

“I signed [Search] over to a producer here,” Leavold explains. “She approached ABC. ABC went, ‘We’d rather have a more conventional, essay-based documentary on B-filmmaking in the Philippines, like Not Quite Hollywood, so why don’t we get that nice chap who made Not Quite Hollywood to make it?’ And I went, [sighs] ‘Fine’, graciously stepped aside, and Mark came onboard.”

Leavold’s time in the Philippines also seeded the idea for a fittingly spun-out feature film, which is now at second draft stage and has secured partial funding. “It’s about an Australian who goes to the Philippines to try and make a dwarf kung fu remake of The Harder They Come, the Jamaican Spaghetti Western. Ends up losing his fucking shit, you know, Francis Ford Coppola-style.”

And is there any better way to lose one’s shit?

Amid it all, his exhaustive research into Weng Weng caught the eye of Brisbane academia, and landed him a place in—of all things—a doctorate. “Griffith University said, ‘Why don’t you just turn it into a thesis? You’ve done all your research. Now just write the damn thing.’” So the directorial credit for The Search for Weng Weng just might read Dr Andrew Leavold…

With so many balls to juggle, it’s a miracle that Leavold can keep them all in the air and still have time for the store that started it all. But can he?

“You know,” he says, gesturing around the shop, “you spend seven to ten hours here, you have very little enthusiasm for anything else.”

Ah. Remember the touch of gloom in the air we were speaking about earlier? Here it is. According to Andrew Leavold, digital’s killed the video shop. After fifteen years as Brisbane’s—and Australia’s—largest cult video store, Trash Video is closing its doors against the harsh light of a changing media landscape, in which the likes of Foxtel IQ, Netflix and Bigpond Movies are rendering quaint local video stores, with their physical constraints and limited stock, all but obsolete.

“The idea of an old-fashioned video shop has well and truly had its day,” Leavold says, and it isn’t the voice of bitterness, nor defeat, but the voice of a man content to move on. “The onus now is on ownership. It just means that we’re consuming culture in a different way now. Much more immediate. And, I think, with the switchover of technology, that’s our cue to exit as gracefully as we can.”

With the day winding down, I finally take my leave from Trash. I’ve stayed far longer than I’d planned, but it’s an easy place to get lost in. I pause, peering down the aisles at the rows and rows of VHS and DVD, thinking of the films inside each, the weird, the enchanting, the scandalous. Somewhere here is the mutant fish baby from Corman’s Humanoids from the Deep; the mad, murderous, Buddhist Jew-burner from the nutso Czechoslovakian horror The Cremator; the prehistoric stop-motion wonders from dino-western The Valley Of Gwangi. Soon they’ll need to find new shelves from which to ply their strange nightmares and stranger dreams—and perhaps no-one will take them in. It’s a mournful thought, and I almost feel that words should be said, some goodbye prayer.

“Titfuck!” Leavold chirps to me in parting.

Says it all, really, doesn’t it?


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