Cannon Films Presents Tough-Guy Kitsch

11/17/2010 4:00 AM |

The Cannon Films Canon

To say that “The Cannon Films Canon,” the title the Film Society at Lincoln Center has given their conspicuously ahistorical highbrow tribute to the films produced by schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus throughout the 80s, is ironic would be a gross understatement. Golan and Globus, the most recognizable stewards of the now defunct Cannon Film Distributors company, will always be known for making the 80s the decade of the never-ending franchise. These are the guys that brought you Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, American Ninja 4: The Annihilation, Penitentiary III and, oh yeah, Powaqqatsi, the Philip Glass-scored abstract tone poem about global inequality. The gaping cultural rift left between the cheesy, epoch-defining first four titles and the cerebral sensory assault of the latter film is staggering and well worth grappling with.

Sadly, for the most part, FSLC’s program doesn’t allow viewers to do that, possibly because Golan and Globus have been asked to attend the films for post-screening Q&A sessions. Golan and Globus understandably want to whitewash their legacy to appear more adept than their vast bulk of their work suggests. But while they did commission new pieces by Jean-Luc Godard, Franco Zeffirelli, Raul Ruiz and John Cassavetes, they also came perilously close to producing a live-action Spider-Man movie directed by Tobe Hooper. This never happened because, shockingly enough, their live-action adaptation of Masters of the Universe, starring Dolph Lundgren in a loincloth and Frank Langella in a cheap rubber skeleton mask, was a major dud. At best, these guys are accidental purveyors of quirky high art.

Attendees at FSLC’s program should probably start their tour of Cannon’s apocalyptically manic oeuvre with The Apple. Directed and co-written by Golan and released in 1980, this epically kitschy biblical sci-fi musical is bad in a stupendous way. The whole film is a put-on that I sincerely doubt Golan or Globus believed in, beyond faith in their own power to exploit the popularity of Jesus Christ: Superstar and Hair. Alphie and Bibi (George Gilmour and Catherine Mary Stewart), a musical duo whose popularity is measured by a hokey futuristic heart-rate monitor that records a live crowd’s enthralled response, are positioned as the Adam and Eve of the 90s (the film takes place in 1994). This makes evil record producer Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal) Satan, the record contract he’s offering a poison apple and God some guy who rides around in a white Caddy and descends from the heavens to liberate oppressed hippies camped out in an open field. Camp gold, yes, but not much more than that.

If Golan and Globus have a thumbprint, it’s the chauvinism that crops up in both their more standard, no-brow titles and several of their more unusually high-end, no-budget art flicks. Yes, big, hard American men protect womenfolk and other weak types from pimps and drug dealers in Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Damme and Charles Bronson movies, but they also have a strong presence in both the Norman Mailer-scripted adaptation of Tough Guys Don’t Dance and the John Frankenheimer-helmed and Elmore Leonard-adapted 52 Pick-Up. Mailer’s film is full of Spillane-level cavemen protags and feckless female coat-hangers-cum-supporting characters who spout redolently putrid lines like, “My pussy hair was bright gold in high school until I went out and scorched it with the football team.” The line makes sense in the context of Mailer’s novel but not at all in a movie where nobody, least of all Mailer, seems to give a flying fart as to what comes next, save maybe the oblivious Isabella Rosellini, who plays a mixed-up dame with a killer body. Tough Guys Don’t Dance’s ineptitude reaches a crest when Ryan O’Neal breaks down after discovering that his wife’s been sleeping around. His impotent wailing appropriately, though almost certainly unintentionally, evokes the ending of the original The Wicker Man.

52 Pick-Up is the better testosterone-fest, though its pervasive malice is undermined first by numerous explosions of unintended camp, then by Leonard’s stupid script. 52 Pick-Up literally ends with a bang: Roy Scheider traps a pornographer trying to extort him and blows him up but good. Scheider doesn’t originally pay up—though he claims, at least, to deeply empathize with his jilted wife (Ann-Margaret), whose budding political career is now jeopardized by his screwing around. Scheider still winds up protecting his lady—but damn, you gotta give credit to any film that explodes a bad guy into pulp while a Souza march is blaring in the foreground.

Realistically, if you wanted to be disoriented by the real Cannon experience, you should go to Lincoln Center to see Castaway, Nicolas Roeg’s 1987 yuppies-on-a-desert island drama, then take in Revenge of the Ninja at home. The former is one of Golan/Globus’ more artful phallocentric productions—Oliver Reed and frequently naked Amanda Donohoe both selfishly ignore the brutal disparity between their reasons for deciding to spend a year on a desert island together, but only Donohoe is shamed sexually when she sleep-fucks Reed and he half-screams, half-moans, “You’re dreaming! You’re dreaming!” Revenge of the Ninja will bring you back down to Earth with a racially insensitive story about an evil white guy fighting a righteous Asian family man . Golan and Globus produced some quintessentially screwy stuff but to ignore the overwhelming kitsch of their reign would be an irresponsible folly.

November 19-24 at the Walter Reade Theater