Film

Published on October 3rd, 2014 | by Greg Payne

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Mark Hartley And The “Electric Boogaloo”

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The independent studio Cannon Films was an iconic presence in the pop culture landscape of the eighties, unlike any other studio of the era, or of almost any era, in Hollywood. Israeli moguls Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were a pair of cousins who produced, promoted and in some cases directed the films that made up one of the most vibrant and fun outputs of any studio of the time, a studio whose slate of titles alone is sure to bring back wistful memories of a generation of moviegoers, not to mention that generation’s younger siblings who caught it all on video just as that particular medium was exploding.  However, while popcorn movies like Enter The Ninja, The Delta Force, Missing In Action, Breakin’, Cobra and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 may be what immediately spring to mind at the mention of Cannon Films or the sight of their iconic logo, those only paint half the picture. The Golan-Globus partnership also brought the likes of John Cassavetes’ Love Streams, Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train and Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly to the big screen. Golan and Globus had aspirations that stretched from the grindhouse to the arthouse, and strove to make that vision a respected reality.  To dismiss Cannon as just the company that churned out Death Wish 4 is to miss a big part of the picture.

There’s no better director than Mark Hartley to fill in that missing part. His latest documentary, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untamed Story of Cannon Films, is the third instalment in a loose trilogy about cinematic craziness from around the world. His first doc, Not Quite Hollywood, was a revelatory look at the rise of a parallel and profitable film industry in Australia that was miles away from the staid costume dramas of the sixties and seventies, a glorious strain of gonzo sensation the filmmaker termed “Ozploitation.” The follow up, Machete Maidens Unleashed!, jaunted to southeast Asia to explore the exploitation film industry that took root in the Philippines in the seventies, fueled by American filmmakers shooting low-budget monster, prison and war movies in the jungles. Hartley knows quite well both the mainstream and the fringes of world cinema both as a director but also as a vocal and adamant fan. Endlessly entertaining, Electric Boogaloo traces the rise and fall of Cannon, from their Israeli hit Lemon Popsicle being remade stateside as The Last American Virgin; through the glory days of Norris, Bronson and Stallone; through mind-blowingly odd periods of pop culture where two competing Lambada movies might find theatrical release on the same day; to the sad days when the Golan-Globus empire finally crumbled, partly because of financial shenanigans but also because, it’s poignantly argued, the two producers never shook their outsider, foreigner status in the industry.

I met with Mark Hartley to talk about Electric Boogaloo the afternoon after it had had its Midnight Madness premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. A full day of doing press (and taking his first trip up the CN Tower) hadn’t tired Hartley out a bit, and his enthusiasm for his subject was on full display. We talked about Hartley’s love of esoteric directors, why he gravitates to the filmic subcultures, and about The Go-Go Boys, the self-portrait of Cannon Films rushed into production by Golan and Globus themselves in the grand old indie studio quickie style for the specific purpose of beating Hartley’s documentary to a release date.

NTC: How do you feel it played last night?

MH: I think it played really well!

NTC: Was this your first time seeing it with an audience?

MH: No, no, it was the first time seeing it with an international audience. I’ve seen it with a Melbourne audience. It’s such a strange experience because literally, normally when you finish a film, there’s quite a bit of a break between finishing the film and having it screen, and there’s time to show it to audiences, and we had none of that with this film. We finished it literally four days before MIFF [Melbourne International Film Festival]. Last night I was still going, “I don’t know if this is a good or bad film,” you know?  I’m still waiting for the audience to tell me. I would have liked to have had a bit more time to title it, but I think it played pretty good.

NTC: I think you could hear people responding to individual film clips. Everyone had their favorites…

MH: See, that’s the big difference between this and the other two documentaries I’ve made. I mean, obviously with Not Quite Hollywood, for the audience there was a sense of discovery, and I always knew that wouldn’t be the case for the Cannon films, people know these films. And so what do you need to show them? Obviously seeing the best bits isn’t exactly as revelatory as what was in Not Quite Hollywood, so you need to back it up with stories about those films. And I think that’s why I wanted to make it less of a fan piece and more of “Okay, here’s the nuts and bolts about how this company operated and the stories behind the films.”

NTC: What drew you to Cannon Films as opposed to some of the other independent film companies of the era such as New World?

MH: Well, I covered New World to some extent in Machete Maidens. I would have loved to have done a Corman documentary, but it was already being made. Someone already made it, it’s called…what is it called? King of the B’s was its initial title, but I think it’s called something else. But anyway, someone already made the Corman doc. Cannon, literally it was all because of my love of [director] Michael Winner. With these documentaries it’s all about doing them to meet people that I have respected as a film fan and a filmmaker. It started by reading Michael Winner’s autobiography and he had great Cannon stories. And also people kept on hounding me about making one more documentary and I thought, okay, the first two have been very much rooted in the sixties and seventies, I should make one that’s very much about the eighties. And nothing signifies eighties moviegoing more than the Cannon logo.

NTC: You grew up in Australia; what was Cannon’s distribution like out there? Did [Australia] have the same film distribution for this kind of material as…

MH: Yeah yeah yeah! Most, the majority of these films were shown theatrically. Lifeforce was the first Cannon film I remember seeing, and I didn’t really think of it as a Cannon film, I thought of it as a Tobe Hooper film. But certainly all the King Solomon’s Mines, all the Breakin’ films, all those films got big, major theatrical releases in Australia.

NTC: Was the video revolution going on at the same time over there or was there a slightly different timeline?

MH: It was, yeah, I remember one of the first VHS’s I ever hired was Death Wish 2. And once again I didn’t think of that as a Cannon film, I thought of it as a Charles Bronson movie. Yeah, so it was only later when you sort of realized that…(thinks for a minute)…it’s funny, then I actively sought out more and more Bronson films like 10 to Midnight, and you realize they all have the Cannon logo at the start.

NTC: During your interviews…it’s a very “warts and all” movie. I mean, people were acknowledging that what they were putting out wasn’t necessarily great filmmaking. Did you ever run into someone who seemed…I won’t say “delusional” but who thought they were making much better art than they actually were? Or was everyone pretty much on the same page, we’re cranking it out…

MH: I think everyone…I don’t think anyone was deluded in the fact that they knew that some films were better than others. I don’t think we can say that everything that Cannon made was shite. That’s particularly unfair. The thing about Cannon films is that they are all very competently made. They’re professional films. They’re just quirkier than most of the professional films…

NTC: I may argue Superman IV with you…

MH: Well no, sure, Superman IV is an absolute unmitigated disaster. But that’s not that it’s incompetent, it’s because the budget was so restrictive. It’s funny, when I was talking to Richard Edlund, he said “You know, sure, the special effects, the majority of them are terrible. But there are three thousand effects shots in that film, maybe thirty percent of them are bad. That still leaves seventy percent that are actually pretty good.” And he’s right. The model shots in Superman IV are pretty good. The model shots of the cities and the bridges and the matte paintings…it’s just all the flying stuff and the back projection, well it’s not back projection, it’s all blue screen, that’s the terrible stuff. So no, everyone had very much a good sense of where Cannon fit in the grand scheme of quality.

NTC: In the interview I did with Colin Geddes, he described you as “the Ken Burns of irreverent film history.”

MH (deadpan but smiling): That’s quite insulting to Ken Burns.

NTC: What is it about b-movies, action movies that keeps drawing you back? What is it that appeals to you about that style of film?

MH: Well, Not Quite Hollywood was all about me reading the books on Australian [film] history and finding that all my favorite films were not included in them. And they were films that weren’t…we coined the expression “Ozploitation” which I think in a way is a bit derogatory towards the films in Not Quite Hollywood. People now use that as a blanket term for anything that’s shithouse in Australia. But you know, these were just genre films that could have played anywhere else in the world as genre films but they were so alien to everything else that was being made in Australia. And I loved those filmmakers and I wanted to shine a spotlight on them. With Machete Maidens it was about me loving the Corman protégés: Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, those guys. And that was the reason I made that documentary. So it’s weird that the subject matter I’ve gravitated to hasn’t necessarily been, it hasn’t been incredibly fringe exploitation.

NTC: You don’t strike me as…you know, the people who love the Razzie Awards, the so bad it’s good, the Birdemic stuff, you don’t strike me as the kind of guy who enjoys that.

MH: No, I’m not like that at all. People have this misconception after Not Quite Hollywood that I sit at home with a pile this high of exploitation films feeding them into the VHS player. I love all films. And I love well-made films, and part of the appeal of making this film was to meet filmmakers like Just Jaeckin and like Michael Winner and like John G. Avildsen, and I really wanted to meet Andrew V. McLaglen who’d made Sahara and made things like The Wild Geese and The Sea Wolves, which I loved. You know, I think because…particularly maybe when Not Quite Hollywood came out, there had been so few documentaries that were solely devoted to genre films that no one had heard of before, I think maybe that’s where a bit of a misconception started. But it’s funny, then I did go and make Patrick, which is a genre film but it’s trying very hard to be a film where, we want to make a film [like] if Brian DePalma had made a Hammer film.  So it’s very old-fashioned.

NTC: Do you think this is the right time to be doing these because as formats change, as distribution changes, these films are going to get lost?

MH: I think this is the time to do it purely because these interviewees can’t live forever. Between us announcing the project, researching it and starting to contact interviewees, and us actually making it, we lost Michael Winner, we lost Sylvia Krystel, there were people who were literally too old and frail that couldn’t be interviewed.

NTC: You lost Menahem Golan.

MH: Menahem Golan. Yeah. We could have interviewed him, but for obvious reasons, he didn’t want to be involved. That’s the reason to make these films, because the stories are going to get lost. I don’t think it’s about technology at all, I think it’s about the storytelling.

NTC: When Golan and Globus rushed out their own documentary, to beat yours, how did that process happen? Did you approach them and they said, “We’ve gotta do this.”?

MH: The only real history of Cannon is a book called Hollywood-a-Go-Go by Andrew Yule, which is very much a hatchet job.  And I think Menahem and Yorum are very wary about their legacy. When the first press release came out about our film, the word “exploitation” was used in the press release and I think they took great offense to that, because they consider themselves to also have made a lot of arthouse. And I think they owe more towards the big arthouse filmmakers than shlockmeisters. So it was all about getting them back on side. And I think that they were wary that we were going to do a hatchet job on them. So they were initially interested, but they wanted some kind of co-producer control, assurance over the project, which we couldn’t give them. And after that, all communication stopped and they announced their own project, rushed it into production and beat us to the punch. Which was great though, because it gave us an ending for our film! And also I think in a way, the film does benefit in hindsight by not having them in it, and only using archival material, because you’re totally focussed on them at that period, and hearing stories about them at that period, and you’re not so taken out of that moment by having interviews with these two guys in their seventies and eighties waxing lyrical about the old days. And I think it’s also quite an emotional moment in the film where you do see them now, and see them literally at the Go-Go Boys premiere in that still, which was quite possibly the last appearance they ever made together.

Electric Boogaloo maybe needn’t have worried Golan and Globus. While it’s not hagiography, what comes across more than anything is their enthusiasm for that strange business we call show, and the sincerity of their desire to give the audience a good time, as well as leave a mark on cinematic history. Mark Hartley’s hilarious wild ride of a documentary keeps the memory of those times alive.

Greg Payne

Greg Payne

An anglophile trapped out in the Commonwealth, Greg was born in Ottawa, did uni in Montreal, film school in L.A. and is now in Toronto. He idolizes Paul Weller, may actually favour Skins over Doctor Who, and studies Welsh for no easily understood reason. Recently drawn into the world of cosplay photography, you can find his page on Facebook at Very Frank Pictures.
Greg Payne
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