We all think we understand 1960s counter-culture in the modern era, given how strongly popular culture has mined the psychedelic era of American transformation over the years. Mondo Hollywoodland proves the opposite is true.
Janek Ambros’ film relies heavily on not just a figurative understanding of Hollywood in the 1960s but also the cult documentary it skews: Mondo Hollywood from 1967 by Robert Carl Cohen, which took two years to film and was described at the time by Variety as “a flippy, trippy psychedelic guide to Hollywood” which focused on the extreme aspects of what was otherwise a white, old-fashioned movie industry before the advent of the American New Wave around the same time. Cohen looked at nascent hippies, strippers, musicians and captured elemental trappings of the age, from anti-Communist riots to the aftermath of race riots. It stands as an artefact of a distinct era.
Mondo Hollywoodland is simply a painful attempt to both pay homage to Cohen’s film but also present a comedic lens with which to do so, one which completely and utterly fails on almost every level.
If the film has any real semblance of plot, it’s this: a mushroom dealer in modern Los Angeles travels around Hollywood looking to decrypt the meaning of the term ‘Mondo’ crossing paths while doing so with psychedelic drug-addled locals, movie industry figures and fringe political groups as he undertakes his journey. In this, the section is broken up into his dealings with who he terms ‘Titans’, ‘Weirdos’ and ‘Dreamers’. That’s about as much sense as you will get from Ambros’ film which very swiftly descends into a morass of cheap, unfunny, languorous scenes festooned with terrible actors, shot with what one suspects is designed to be a grunge, cod-documentarian lens but which just consistently looks cheap and amateurish.
Quite what James Cromwell is doing putting his name to this as an executive producer, even if he is nowhere near appearing in the picture, is anyone’s guess. He appears to have backed Ambros’ previous documentary picture Imminent Threat, looking at the aftermath of 9/11, so perhaps there is a personal connection. Perhaps he seeks to recapture the spirit of an era he grew up in. Ambros, to his credit, in discussing the film, outlines the importance of collaboration in trying to evoke the spirit of the 1960s:
The role of the director is overrated. It’s all about collaboration for this film and any film other than maybe very experimental personal films that don’t involve actors. I had worked with Marcus [Hart] in the past on several films and we originally came up with a basic structure and narration of the original VR doc version. Marcus is an incredible thinker, so he was able to really help me try to convey what I was trying to go for with the Titans, Weirdos, and Dreamers angle I was constructing. Having him around is like having William Goldman around; he knows how to immediately fix what’s wrong with a scene or sequence, almost always finding how to have a scene have more purpose that serves the overall point of the entire canvas. He has “writer disciple” which is very rare and absolutely crucial.
This magnanimity almost makes you want to try and dig out some semblance of cogency of competence in Mondo Hollywoodland but, honestly, it is almost nowhere to be seen. Conceptually, riffing on a piece of cult ephemera is admirable but only if there is something to say. This whole endeavour is simply a baffling arrangement of eccentric visuals, terrible acting, pointless scenes which go nowhere, and comedy—however subjective—which is extremely specific to a certain set of ideas. This didn’t look great, sound good or in any way entertain.
Perhaps the most accurate review of this comes from a reviewer on the website Letterboxd who said ‘this movie is probably better if you watch it high’. Maybe that’s how you find the meaning of ‘Mondo’.
Director: Janek Ambros
Writers: Janek Ambros, Chris Blim, Marcus Hart
Stars: Chris Blim, Alex Loynaz, Alyssa Sabo
Runtime: 1h 44 min
Country: United States