Wednesday 1 October 2014

At the LFF: "Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films"

The 58th London Film Festival opens next Wednesday with the premiere of Morten Tyldum's Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, and runs at venues across the capital until October 20th. Over the coming days and weeks, I'll be reviewing some of the highlights of this year's event, starting with:

Electric Boogaloo, a thoroughly entertaining documentary account of the schlock churned out by Israeli powerhouses Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus during the 1980s, proceeds at much the same whipcrack pace as writer-director Mark Hartley's previous Ozploitation primer Not Quite Hollywood. Five minutes in, and we've already learnt how Golan and Globus became the most successful Israeli producers of all time; by the ten minute mark, the pair have arrived in L.A. as fully-fledged studio chiefs. Hartley is mirroring his subject, you feel, cranking out these stories hard and fast, just as Cannon put out a steady stream of action fodder with one beady eye fixed firmly on the then-nascent home video market.

These movies were generally better observed as titles or posters than as movies per se: Schizo, Hot Bubblegum, The Last American Virgin ("see it or be it"), The Apple (not the Makhmalbaf, but a threadbare post-Hair venture described as "the Mount Everest of bad musicals", and directed by Golan himself from a script based on the Book of Genesis). Cannon were mired in the exploitation sector, handing paycheques to the unloved likes of Just Jaeckin (Lady Chatterley's Lover) and Michael Winner (from Death Wish 2 onwards), and unapologetically chasing the zeitgeist in turning such fads as breakdancing and the lambada into semi-profitable cinema enterprises, but Golan and Globus's devil-may-care attitude throws up rather saltier stories than might be told about the making of On Golden Pond or Ordinary People, and a parade of amused or aggrieved former employees who have no problem telling Hartley exactly what they made of the company's practices. 

Anyone with a working knowledge of the Cannon canon will be rubbing their hands in anticipation of the film getting past the Ninja and Exterminator franchises and onto the curious business of how the studio came to bankroll Jean-Luc Godard's version of King Lear: there's a says-it-all photo that shows Golan holding up the tablecloth that served as a makeshift contract for this unlikely communion of high and low art, on which the director's surname has been misspelt with two "d"s. Hartley, for his part, is developing a recognisably precise authorial style in framing such wild, reckless splurges of creative energy: he loves this stuff, while also recognising its limitations as serious movie history, and it's this flexibility that allows him to make snarky cuts from a Golan-Globus supporter or someone who sincerely believed Michael Dudikoff was the new James Dean to Oliver Tobias's despairing notes from the set of Mata Hari, or an actress burning a copy of one Cannon film on camera, or MGM exec Frank Yablans ruing the day he ever got in bed with these "slobs".

The pace is its own acknowledgement that most of Cannon's movies don't merit prolonged study, yet - right through to a tremendous punchline - it keeps generating laughs and unexpected insights. (Some sign of how screwy the Golan-Globus empire was: it here results in Bill and Ted's Alex Winter - a bit player in Death Wish 3 - giving one of the most astute readings ever offered of class structure in the films of Michael Winner.) If much of Golan and Globus's output came and went without lasting cultural trace, the pair at least took a chance or two: they were sort of right about the star potential of Van Damme and Lundgren, and they were ahead of the curve on seizing upon ageing stars and making superhero spin-offs. (The producers' Israeli proteges are behind the Expendables franchise, and in a galaxy where the flimsy Guardians of the Galaxy can become a billion-dollar megahit, it's hard to imagine how Cannon's Masters of the Universe wouldn't now do some form of business.) And you could argue it was worth all the Delta Forces and Missing in Actions to yield just one Runaway Train or Love Streams. It has obvious appeal for anyone who's ever spent time hanging around the counter of a video shop, but Hartley does everybody else the favour of fastforwarding through to Cannon's best scenes, so you don't have to trouble yourself with the other 85 minutes of dross.

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films screens on Thu 9 Oct at 11.30am in NFT1 and on Sat 11 at 1pm at the Vue Islington.

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