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Menahem Golan Remembered: Cannon Films Mixed Awards Bait with Schlock

Menahem Golan, who died Aug. 8 at age 85, loved movies, perhaps too much. At its height, Cannon Films — the Hollywood studio Golan ran with his cousin, Yoram Globus — was releasing nearly one film per week: an eclectic bounty of awards bait and bottom-drawer schlock, all foisted on the public with a mix of carnival-barker rhetoric and vaudevillian flair. In the 1980s, the Cannon logo was unmistakable, along with its promise of cut-rate adventure starring Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, Lou Ferrigno or an up-and-coming Jean-Claude Van Damme. (That Golan never managed to team these signature Cannon brands in a single movie — an “Expendables” — boggles the mind.)

“It was an extraordinary experience to have a man who made decisions without thinking for three minutes,” recalls Andrei Konchalovsky, the Soviet emigre director who made four films for Cannon, including “Runaway Train” (1985). “That was the quality that also ruined the company, but it left me with carte blanche doing films. I never met another man in the film industry like him.”

Jerry Schatzberg added, “He really had a love for film, and I respected that.” Nevertheless, the director was at frequent loggerheads with Golan while making “Street Smart” (1987), a movie Cannon agreed to make as quid pro quo for its star, Christopher Reeve, appearing in the same year’s ill-fated “Superman IV.” At first, Golan proposed that Schatzberg shoot the New York-set movie in Pittsburgh, despite the preponderance of mountains in every conceivable shooting direction. “He said, ‘A big city is a big city,’ ” Schatzberg chuckled. (Eventually, they compromised on Montreal, plus a few days of shooting in Harlem.)

Golan began as a director and his sympathies tended to fall on the side of the artist. “He could never bring himself to fire a director,” said Globus during an onstage conversation with Golan in 2010 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where I had co-programmed (with Film Comment editor Gavin Smith) a tribute series titled the Cannon Films Canon. Though the pairing of august New York cultural institution and Hollywood exploitation factory may have struck some as odd, we were not the first to render homage: the year before, Golan had been similarly feted by the Locarno Film Festival. But we did engineer the public reunion of the two estranged cousins, whose long partnership had ended in acrimony — and an SEC investigation — during Cannon’s early ’90s fiscal implosion.

Most of that retrospective tilted toward Cannon’s artier fare: in addition to “Runaway Train,” there were films by Jean-Luc Godard (“King Lear”), Norman Mailer (“Tough Guys Don’t Dance”), Nicolas Roeg (“Castaway”) and Barbet Schroeder (“Barfly”). But we did make room for one late-night screening of Golan’s exuberantly terrible futuristic rock musical “The Apple” (1980), now a so-bad-its-irresistible cult classic. Presenting the film to an enthusiastic crowd, Golan recalled the crippling depression he felt after the film’s disastrous world premiere at the Montreal Film Festival, and his joy at seeing it belatedly embraced (albeit for reasons other than those originally intended).

There have been two Cannon documentaries: Mark Hartley’s “Electric Boogaloo,” which screens next month at Toronto; and Israeli director Hilla Medalia’s “The Go-Go Boys,” which screened this year in Cannes, in the presence of its eponymous subjects. “In the 1980s, they didn’t call this the Cannes Film Festival. It was the Cannon Film Festival,” Golan shouted from the stage that night, weakened by illness but with the showman’s irrepressible sparkle still twinkling in his eyes. At one point in Medalia’s film, she asks Golan to address the failures of Cannon, to which he responds that, when there are failures in his life, he erases them from his mind. That pretty much says it all.

“Yoram and I hope to be back next year with a new film,” Golan added that night — and if there is an afterlife, he is doubtless already wheeling and dealing there.

Charles Bronson, call your agent.

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