A Celebration of the Arthouse Cannon

Chuck Norris. Michael Winner. Charles Bronson. Michael Dudikoff. Sybil Danning. Sylvester Stallone. Jean-Claude Van Damme.

John Cassavetes. Franco Zeffirelli. Charles Bukowski. Angela Carter. Neil Jordan. Norman Mailer. Jean-Luc Godard.

Disparate as the above-listed artists may be, they all share one thing in common: they all made movies for Cannon Films. But while the first group is more synonymous with the notoriously bombastic and prurient production company’s ‘80s heyday, it’s the second group responsible for its handful of films that now stand as legitimate arthouse classics. 

Cannon Films—the production arm of The Cannon Group—was formed in 1970 by young upstart producers Dennis Friedland and Chris Dewey, who found early success importing softcore Swedish movies for the burgeoning erotic/arthouse fad. Usually, these films skewed more pornographic than not, but once in a while a legitimate art film would slip through, as in 1970 when Cannon released the avant-garde Fando & Lis, the feature debut from Alejandro Jodorowsky. Later that year, the company produced their one legitimate critical hit with Joe, a fiercely political, chillingly prescient, and startingly bleak character study from future Rocky director John G. Avildsen. The company expanded their production efforts off the back of Joe’s success, although for the most part, they stuck closer to their origins by making low budget exploitation films.

By the decade’s end, Cannon was in dire financial straits, so Friedland and Dewey sold the company to two Israeli emigrants looking to make their name and fortune in America: director/producer Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus. The duo had seen success in their native country with their teen sex comedy series Lemon Popsicle (the first of which they would soon remake in America as The Last American Virgin). Blustery hustlers of the old school, the two men tapped into their ‘80s audience’s hunger for sex and violence, turning out one B-picture after another. 

Actually, to call the majority of these films B-pictures is far too flattering—these were Z-grade pictures made for a buck, in order to make a buck and a half. But every once in a while, Cannon would achieve some legitimate success, either by tapping into an unknown’s star potential (Norris, Van Damme) or getting in early on a trend or fad (Breaking). But while these early years under the Golan and Globus regime produced some fun trash classics (amidst a lot of straight trash) and netted a decent profit, Cannon was running negative in the critical acclaim department. And unlike fellow schlockmeisters Lloyd Kaufman or Roger Corman, Golan and Globus craved prestige. So, they decided to buy some.

They went the opposite route of the aforementioned Corman, whose films often earned critical praise because he gave opportunities to young, hungry filmmakers. Instead, Golan and Globus reached out to established names who had hit a professional wall. In the documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, archival footage has Menahem Globus explaining his philosophy: “I’m not buying people – I’m giving them opportunities.” (This is followed by a hilarious scene wherein he demands an associate ink a deal with Peter Bogdanovich, before launching into a tirade about how Bogdanovich is a total loser.)

The first such auteur Cannon successfully reached out to was John Cassavetes. The godfather of American independent cinema, and one of the most heroically uncompromising and passionate artists to ever step behind a camera, Cassavetes had fallen on hard times by the mid-eighties. All of his films post-A Woman Under the Influence failed to perform commercially or even critically, and he was facing serious health problems from cirrhosis of the liver. So, despite his antipathy towards producers—not to mention the types of films that Cannon made (Cassavetes often liked to proclaim, “I hate entertainment!”)—their offer to finance Love Streams, his adaptation of Ted Allen’s stage drama of the same name, proved not only a lifeline, but ultimately, a valediction.

The film, which stars Cassavetes and real-life wife and muse Gena Rowlands as siblings, is one of his most challenging, but also most haunting and emotionally cathartic works. Although he would go on to direct one more film—1986’s screwball comedy Big Trouble, which he only took on as a favor to best friend and star Peter Falk after the original director was fired three weeks into shooting, and which he would subsequently disavow—Love Streams is Cassavetes’s true curtain call, thanks in no small part to the complete artistic freedom afforded to him by Golan and Globus (at one point, Golan asked him to consider cutting 15 minutes from the film’s runtime, to which Cassavetes responded by adding an extra fifteen.)

In the Cannon-produced making-of documentary, I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, the Man and His Work, Menahem Golan says of the experience: “If I’m going to do a John Cassavetes film…I had to give John Cassavetes the full freedom to create his film.” This was not merely a case of artistic largesse—Golan was also sending a message. As explained by Cassavetes’s longtime producer Al Rubin, Golan and Globus could now “go to any other director and say, hey, look, we just made a film with John Cassavetes, and you know how difficult he could be, and that just goes to show you how far we’ll go with directors.” 

The gambit worked, and soon, other serious directors—both established and up-and-coming—accepted their call. In 1985, Cannon made two films that garnered the type of critical attention they were hoping to receive with Love Streams (which, outside of winning the Golden Bear at 34th International Berlin Film Festival, was unfortunately all but ignored on release).

By the time Neil Jordan made The Company of Wolves for Cannon, he had already achieved notice for his writing and television work in his native Ireland, as well as his small first feature, Angel. But it was The Company of Wolves that set him on a course as one of the most acclaimed writers and directors of the following decade, during which time he’d nab one Oscar and many other awards. Based merely on its synopsis, The Company of Wolves seems like something that would fall within Cannon’s wheelhouse—a sexually charged horror-drama featuring werewolves—but it is in fact a much deeper and dreamier film than anything else they’d done up to that point (Love Streams excluded), as evidenced by its highbrow pedigree: an adaptation of feminist fabulist Angela Carter’s modern literary classic The Bloody Chamber, with Carter herself on co-scripting duties.

Much the same can be said of Runaway Train, released later that same year. Again, on paper, the film—about two prison escapees who hop aboard an unmanned and out-of-control locomotive—reads like a two-fisted, muscular crime-action flick of the standard Cannon variety. But while it is that to a degree, it is also a powerful existentialist drama, one that takes on the thematic and philosophical weight of a Dostoevsky or Conrad novel. This isn’t so surprising when you take into account that the script was developed and co-written by Akira Kurosawa, and the director was Andrei Konchalovsky, best known at that point as the writer of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood and Andrie Rublev. The film earned three Oscar nominations (Best Actor and Supporting Actor for co-leads Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, respectively, and Editing) and rave reviews from critics, and is considered by many of the people at Cannon during this period to be the best film the company ever made.

Between 1986 and 1987, Cannon made the majority of its ‘serious’ pictures, although these were by no means all critical or even artistic successes. John Frankenheimer made one of his best films with an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s sextrade thriller 52 Pick-Up, but its sleazy sheen and setting kept it from being recognizing as such. Roman Polanski’s Pirates—which Cannon distributed—was a major disaster, while Nic Roeg’s erotic drama Castaway met with tepid reviews before being mostly ignored by audiences (Roeg’s grotesquely perverse Oedipal psychodrama of two years later, Track 29, also distributed by Cannon, met with a similar fate, although the reviews were even less kind). 

However, the same year also saw Cannon produce and release Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Otello–itself based on William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello—the most aesthetically ambitious project they ever embarked on. While Otello was highly praised for its lush cinematography and set design, it didn’t receive quite the success Cannon hoped for, although it’s clear from interviews that it was a deeply meaningful film for them nonetheless. Golan loved Zeffirelli and took great pride in bringing him on board, while Zeffirelli, despite his initial skepticism towards Cannon, ended up proclaiming Golan and Globus the best producers he ever worked for, while also saying he considered Otello his best film. 

Cannon returned to the bosom of the bard the next year, by way of Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear. Golan thought he’d scored a coup when he signed the notoriously prickly auteur (literally inking the deal on a napkin in a restaurant), and while he couldn’t have expected the iconoclastic French legend to turn in a straight adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, neither was he prepared for the impenetrable film he did make. Godard’s King Lear is a Brechtian experiment that deals with Lear as a text, alongside numerous other heady literary, philosophical, historical and political ideas, all while embracing obfuscation and discarding everything you expect from a regular movie, such as makeup, costumes and conventional narrative.

Golan was furious at Godard for turning in so massively uncommercial a film, although he still allowed him to include a private (and antagonistic) phone call in which he chided the director for taking too long on production. Golan wasn’t the only one baffled by what he saw, with the film was furiously dismissed by critics when it debuted at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival and during its brief theatrical run. Today, it remains one Godard’s more notorious and difficult works, although its vociferous supporters (including Richard Brody, who named it the greatest film ever made in the 2012 Sight & Sound pole) hail it as a prime example of the film maudit—”the accomplished work of art that met with critical incomprehension and rejection at the time of its release.”

Fellow French New Wave director Barbet Schroeder also hopped on the Cannon train at the same time as Godard with Barfly , a grungy, semi-autobiographical alcoholism drama written by poet and novelist Charles Bukowski and starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. Although the film had a slightly troubled production—at one point, Golan stopped production, relenting only after Schroder barged into his office with a chainsaw and threatened to cut off his own fingers, one-by-one, until it resumed—Schroder still turned in a masterfully moody character piece, one of the great examples of loser cinema and a work that not only does justice to Bukowksi’s writing, but arguably does it one better. A critical success, it proved a commercial disappointment upon release, although as Bukowski’s popularity grew following his death in 1994, so too did the film’s cult status (unfortunately, it is currently difficult to see).

If Barfly shares a boozy, literary sensibility with Love Streams, they both also contain a certain seediness similar to many other Cannon productions, including Jerry Schatzberg’s gritty prostitution thriller Street Smart (which features an early breakout performance from Morgan Freeman) and Norman Mailer’s—who’d previously worked with Cannon on Godard’s King Lear—proto-Lynchian neo-noir Tough Guy’s Don’t Dance. The latter two films find a sweet spot between the grindhouse and the arthouse, but all of them—and, to a lesser extent Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up (although that’s a little more of a traditional action-thriller)—convey the seedy, neon decadence of the Cannon aesthetic (most notably displayed in their horror-action-crime hybrids 10 to Midnight and Cobra), making them truer Cannon Films spiritually than Zeffirelli or Godard’s efforts, or, for that matter, 1988’s documentary tone poem Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation, the second installment in Godfrey Rodrigo’s Qatsi trilogy, which was brought to Golan and Globus by producers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. 

By the time Cannon released Powaqqatsi, they had finally started earning recognition for their arthouse efforts, with Roger Ebert declaring “no other production organization in the world today—certainly not any of the seven Hollywood ‘majors’—has taken more chances with serious, marginal films than Cannon.” However, they had simultaneously gone the opposite route business-wise, investing more and more capital in large budget productions and ludicrously high contracts with big name stars. The failure of these movies, combined with other poor financial decisions, eventually led to the studio’s demise. 

Today, Cannon is looked back on with great nostalgia from genre hounds and cinematic trash connoisseurs, but it has never really received its proper due for the attention it gave to those serious, marginal films Ebert spoke of, even as some of the movies themselves have earned entry critical reappraisal (Love Streams, for example, was put out on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection in 2014). For as much cultural cache as boutique production companies like A24, Neon and Annapurna enjoy today, it’s impossible to imagine any of them making anything as legitimately experimental and uncommercial as Godard’s Lear

All these years later, it’s time to give the schlockmeisters their due, and induct the arthouse Cannon into the arthouse canon proper.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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