Thursday, June 5, 2008

“We’re Cannon Films and We’re Dynamite!”

As a child of the Seventies (a mere babe of the Sixties), I tend to look down on Eighties nostalgia, since so much of it is purely tacky and not even (ahem) innovatively or offensively tacky. Well, there was one independent movie studio, Cannon Films, that pretty much embodied the era, for better and (mostly) worse, and thus I was interested to see that one British fan has created a Cannon tribute site, and has posted countless trailers (and logos, he loves the studio’s logos) on, where else, YouTube.

First, the site. Reading the voluminous materials he’s collected on Cannon Films, you do learn a lot about the company (and there are plenty of wonderfully overwrought posters and video-box art to delight yer orbs). To put it plainly, Cannon Films started in the late 1960s, handled a number of foreign features, like the great Inga (1968), and also produced some terrific low-budget American films, like Joe (1970).

The studio’s best-known incarnation started in 1979 and ended exactly a decade later, when “the Go-go boys,” Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus too over (their names were really both Globus — Menahem named himself after the Golan Heights). G&G had the instincts of exploitation filmmakers, but Golan also harbored artistic ambitions, and under their guidance, the studio produced a very mixed bag of movies, ranging from their first hit, Breakin’(1984), to enormously popular bad action flicks and modest arthouse hits.

You can find all of the Cannon trailers here on YT, but I thought I’d single out a few for special consideration. I will avoid the most obvious of their productions, the lower-budgeted films that did boffo box-office, things starring Charles Bronson (aging Bronson), Stallone (post-Rocky/Rambo Sly), Norris (then just an ex-karate champ, not yet the superstar), and Van Damme (on his way up to a pretty rapid descent). Cannon also fostered action heroes who were solely their own, like Michael Dudikoff and Robert Ginty (check out this trailer for Exterminator 2 -- ah, the VHS “buzz”!) I will instead point out the kind of sleaze picture I would actually make tracks to attend, things like The Naked Cage (1986), a fairly standard but still pretty vigorously sleazy women’s prison picture:


Golan and Globus were top-shelf merchandisers who did things that even Menahem’s former mentor Roger Corman hadn’t thought of, like shooting two films with one star simultaneously (Missing in Action and its sequel) just to maximize productivity (sounds like Bollywood). They also tried every so often to do weirdly mingle things they knew were popular internationally (like romance, and rap music!) with stuff that wasn’t (like an opera star and a clearly European-based plot). Here, as with many of this poster’s trailers, is a trailer for an unknown item called Berlin Blues (1988) that is most likely more entertaining than the film it represents — something that makes this YouTube poster’s trove all the more essential.

The studio got fairly enterprising as the money from the kickboxing and breakdancing movies flowed in. One experiment consisted of making features out of fairy tales (taking a major leaf from Shelley Duvall’s “Fairie Tale Theater”). And just to make the films more memorable (and damnably kitschy), they were turned into musicals.

Like Snow White (1987, starring Diana Rigg and Billy Barty!)

Or The Frog Prince (1986, with the girl from Annie, Helen Hunt, and Pee-Wee’s “Jambi,” John Paragon):

Or two older Broadway vets markin’ time, Robert Morse and Sid Caesar in The Emperor’s New Clothes (1987)

Golan’s artistic ambitions led him to direct some very middling pictures, but I would single out his Mack the Knife (a post-Cannon effort, thus not rep-ed on YT) as it has got to be the most misguided Threepenny Opera adaptation ever mounted (with a new, mediocre translation, and Oliver!-like choreography — "consider yourself" un-entertained!). Of course, Golan also directed The Delta Force(1986) so he knows how to make some first-rate, grade-A exploitation crap when he wants to.

But there were “art pictures” from Cannon made by other directors. Much as Coppola had with Zoetrope, the Go-go cousins funded famous directors to make films for them. Some of the results were misguided (my least fave Polanski pic, the execrable Pirates; Godard’s ambiguous and amusing but meandering King Lear(1987) — which opens with this conversation between JLG and Golan), and some were decent (Barfly with Mickey Rourke doing Snagglepuss, Maria’s Lovers with a very sexy Nastasja Kinski and a perennially crying John Savage, Runaway Train). A small handful were excellent (That Championship Season, 52 Pickup — not an art film, but a quality thriller). The two that were by far the best and were true auteurist masterworks were Robert Altman’s terrific adaptation of Sam Shepherd’s Fool for Love (1985):

And Cassavetes’ final personal film, Love Streams (1984). No trailer for this has been posted, but here is one of the most beautifully genuine moments, showing Gena Rowlands’ perfection and Cassavetes’ own view of the tenuousness nature of love:

I would end on that beyond-par sequence, but I must point out that Cannon also produced two Funhouse favorites, two movies that are so far over the top they deserve to be celebrated, but in a much different way than Love Streams. They are Norman Mailer’s brilliant bit of oddball noir Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987).

And a jaw-dropper par excellence, the sci-fi rock musical (with Biblical overtones) The Apple (1980).

Oh, and as for the Go-go twins? They both left the company in 1989 (after their Superman sequel, among several other things, flopped). They continued to make excellent kitsch (including both Lambada movies!) and are both still alive, causin’ trouble and makin’ movies in Israel. It is noted on the Cannon Films tribute site that Menahem had a big success with a Sound of Music production that found the Nazis (and everyone else, of course) speaking in Hebrew.

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