One of the best things about exploring the arts is the ability to learn something new, often in unexpected ways. Sometimes it’s the little details in a film which, under examination, divulge some aspect or secret about the filmmaking process that went otherwise unnoticed. Sometimes it’s discovering that there’s an entire subgenre of film that’s gone entirely ignored and is ready for exploration. This is where writer/director/actor Janek Ambros’s Mondo Hollywoodland (2019) sits on the spectrum of personal experience, a strange and wild entranceway to an entire subgenre exploring what it means to be “mondo.” The term, born from the Italian word for “world,” came to apply to psychedelic, mockumentary-type films made from the late ‘50s to the early ‘80s which explored taboo subjects like sex, racism, ethnocentrism, death, and more. With the fascination with death, specifically, the film series Faces of Death would continue well into current contemporary cinema. Ambros’s Mondo Hollywoodland is less interested in death and more about how the mainstream, counter-culture, and the arts swirl together to create our deformed reality.
Sometime between 2016 and 2020, a being from the 5th dimension (voiced by Ted Evans) arrives in Hollywood in an effort to discover what lies within the city that makes its living in the artificial. The first person he meets describes the town as “mondo,” but refuses to offer a definition. Instead, the man directs the being to a mushroom dealer by the name of Normand Boyle (Chris Klim) who can explain. Thus begins a trip through the titans, weirdos, and dreamers of Hollywood in an effort to elucidate the being on what it means to be “mondo.”
Before diving into Ambros’s Mondo, it’s worth noting that there’s another Mondo subtitled Hollywood Laid Bare! written/directed by Robert Carl Cohen which similarly explored three sides of the cultural within Hollywood. Where Cohen’s is considered a documentary, Ambros’s is very clearly a mockumentary, using the framework of an extra-dimensional being as the audience’s proxy and serving as the perspective from which the audience observes all. This is, at times, inconsistent, as the film also offers several moments where the internal process of Boyle (typically tripping balls) manifests via strobing, shifting color filters, and other reality warping techniques. Where it works best is in moments like Boyle going to purchase a firearm at a private seller’s home and the camera continually moves, looking like someone trying to survey what’s around them. While it can be a tad unusual for audiences used to more conventional faire, the looser direction of the framework makes the narrative conceit more believable and, therefore, the story more immersive. Smartly, Ambros really only uses this camera style when Boyle is involved, offering something a tad more conventional when following the other characters. Herein lies another inconsistency, the film is a mockumentary, so the audience follows different characters through each of the singular segments before coming together in a loose manner in the end: if our formless proxy is traveling with others so that they can be tracked/interviewed when not with Boyle, then why is the camerawork so different? Also, not all of the characters highlighted in each of the three sections matters to the conclusion of the underlying narrative revealed by the conclusion. This doesn’t prevent anyone from enjoying the film as a whole, but it is a striking issue as we spend so much time with characters for them to go nowhere toward satisfying the concerns of the “plot.”
Additionally, the examination of the three cultures is almost entirely made via exaggeration. Boyle’s Hollywood executive friend Ted (Alex Loynaz) is a coke-hound who produces award-winning films like The Blind Painter while tending to a former Disney Channel actress who loves her drugs and is more interested in the concept of acting than in the specifics. There’s a lot of stereotypes loaded into these two characters without much examination toward the thing they are satirizing. Are we supposed to find Ted appalling or appealing? Are we meant to criticize him for his choices or are we supposed to evaluate ourselves for why we don’t? Going back to the briefly mentioned scene where Boyle goes to purchase firearms: California is largely considered a blue (Democratic) state, consisting of Progressive or Liberal ideals. It’s more often lambasted as a bastion of debauchery from the Conservative Right. So is the scene meant to criticize Boyle for going from peaceful mushroom seller to seeking out violent means to protect himself? Are we intended to find the image of infant children playing around or near the firearms and ammo unsettling in what is clearly a fairly typical thing for the private seller? Is it meant to provoke and, if so, whom? The only thing that writers Ambros, Chris Blim, and Marcus Hart seem to know for sure is that people are a series of conundrums and contradictions, often out of fear or selfishness. Which, unlike what Boyle suggests is the meaning of “mondo,” may be the very definition of it.
If you’re into indie film or you like your cinema with a provocative edge, Mondo Hollywoodland may be for you. There are plenty of ideas within it, as well as plenty of culture vs. counter-culture that will seem substantive, that is until the characters themselves seem overwhelmed from the sheer moral superiority of each side. Frankly, I can’t tell if this is a bug or a feature, but the ending sure implies a definitive meaning in terms of who the “good guys” are, which therefore implies that the film knows who the “bad” ones are, too. Somewhere between the psychedelia and stereotypes, it would’ve be nice to know where the moral line exists for a film that doesn’t seem to have one.
Available on Amazon Prime Video August 3rd, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Mondo Hollywoodland website.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.