Menahem Golan, the Israeli filmmaker most famous for the many films he produced with his cousin Yoram Globus, died Friday at the age of 85. When I heard the news, I said on Twitter that ‘Menahem Golan made magical junk. This is like hearing Oscar The Grouch died.’ Then I got onto the Internet Movie Database and this started to happen:
Did you know Menahem Golan made a movie about fashion designer Gianni Versace where Franco Nero played fashion designer Gianni Versace?
— Jon Abrams (@jonnyabomb) August 8, 2014
Did you know Menahem Golan directed a film version of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT where Raskolnikov was played by Crispin Glover?
— Jon Abrams (@jonnyabomb) August 8, 2014
Did you know, the same year as JAWS, Menahem Golan directed Robert Shaw as twin brothers, one a jewel thief out to rob the other?
— Jon Abrams (@jonnyabomb) August 8, 2014
Delving into the filmography of Menahem Golan is yields fractal results. You start looking into one film and its list of cast and credits takes you down several different rabbit holes, and all of those are the all-day kind of fascinating. The Golan-Globus partnership, in its most prolific iteration operating the Cannon Group shingle they ran for a decade, unleashed a flood of daffy, distinctive films across the 1980s. The lasting reputation of Golan-Globus seems to be that of a schlock-house, but there are many legitimate gems there — I was taught RUNAWAY TRAIN in film school, for heaven’s sake — and again, many of these movies are as fun to think about and imagine as they are to actually sit down and watch, if not more so.
Today’s very good New York Times obituary goes some way to dispel the myth of Menahem Golan as a trash filmmaker — a veteran of the Israeli Air Force, he studied film at NYU and worked for some time as assistant to Roger Corman, another talented and thoughtful film director who is far better known for a producing resume which isn’t always reflective of the significant intelligence at play.
What is so striking about Menahem Golan’s early filmmaking career, about which I unfortunately knew very little, is how ambitious and socially aware it was. His films as director in the 1960s and 1970s have moral and ethical concerns, political dramas and literary adaptations. It’s startling to see the phrase “adapted from the stories of Shplom Aleochem” in the same filmography including films like OVER THE TOP and ENTER THE NINJA. It’s surprising to note how later in his career, Menahem Golan returned to more high-minded pursuits, which, if you really look closely, he never entirely abandoned in the first place.
Like most people, particularly those of my generation, my familiarity with the Golan-Globus production partnership began when I started noticing those names in the credits of all the goofy action movies I watched over and over again on cable as I was growing up. “Golan-Globus” is the kind of phrase that pops visually, the kind of name you pick up on the second you start to see it repeating. Golan and Globus produced an onslaught of action films designed to entertain and to earn on an international basis, working frequently with stars like Charles Bronson, Franco Nero, Sylvester Stallone, Sho Kosugi, Chuck Norris, and Michael Dudikoff. When ultra-violent action films started trending, Golan-Globus was there to ride the wave.
These guys were smart businessmen. Detractors may look at the output and dismiss the majority of the movies that were made, but film is an industry and Golan and Globus were serving a worldwide appetite. Note, to take just one example, how they got into the cartoon superhero business ahead of anybody else: One can fairly assert CAPTAIN AMERICA, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE and SUPERMAN 4 aren’t movies to be overly proud of, but neither can one deny the effort was way ahead of the curve. It’s probably best Cannon’s plans to make their SPIDER-MAN film fell through, but they sure were right to see gold in those hills.
Golan-Globus seized upon the ninja craze of the 1980s and churned out a slew of movies featuring masked assassins and their notorious disappearing acts. I loved them for it. There’s no sarcasm in my love for ninja movies — I am a student of the art of film and I know that there are objective standards of quality to consider. If Martin Scorsese made a ninja movie, it would most likely be a superior film to the ones directed by Menahem Golan or by frequent Golan-Globus helmer Sam Firstenberg. But Martin Scorsese still hasn’t made a ninja movie at the time of this writing, so you dance with the date who brought you.
Speaking of dancing, Golan-Globus were also savvy enough to pick up on cultural trends and commit them to film. Again, it’s just smart business — FOOTLOOSE was a huge hit in the 1980s and over the past decade the dance film became popular with the STEP UP series. So Cannon turned out films like SALSA and the BREAKIN’ series to serive the brief cultural windows of those respective crazes. The highbrow crowd may have scorn for this genre but in my opinion we need movies like these, because they are cultural snapshots. My favorite films are generally the timeless ones but I also find it interesting to see what people were into, over the past several decades. I’d argue there’s a genuine sociohistorical value to such films. And while the internet may repurpose its title today for crappy jokes, a Golan-Globus film like BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO actually means plenty to me. It isn’t just nostalgia — there is a genuine joy to the direction and the performances, a sincerity, enthusiasm, a jubilant energy to the soundtrack and the dance sequences. Directed by Sam Firstenberg in this case, the editing is at times sloppy and the camerawork (as in the ninja films by the same director) doesn’t do much more than catch the movement in the frame, but the boistrousness of the breakdancers and even the background mob beats a more polished Hollywood production anyday.
Music was of course a significant interest of Menahem Golan personally, or he wouldn’t have made THE APPLE, one of the most infamous cult movies ever, considered at the time to be a disaster but recognized by cooler people today as one of the most unusual and unique musicals ever made. It still is kind of a disaster, but the beautifullest kind. You can hear on the Projection Booth podcast’s APPLE mega-sode, straight Menahem Golan himself how profoundly the failure of THE APPLE affected him, but it’s also impressive to note that his directing career continued with hardly a noticeable speedbump: Beyond the dozens and dozens and dozens of films Golan-Globus oversaw during their heyday, Menahem Golan himself personally directed over forty films, at a clip of one per year or every other year from the early 1960s right up until the end of last decade. It’s a body of work and a story that really deserves more examination than this space is able to provide — whoever grabs that ball and runs with it clearly has the makings of a great book.
Here at Daily Grindhouse we literally live on the kind of films Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus made and made possible. It’s painful every single time we have to say goodbye to our favorite performers and filmmakers and creative people — it never isn’t — but when you lose a figure like Menahem Golan, who cast such a distinctive shadow over an era, you lose even more than a valued individual. It’s the passing of an entire movement, an epoch, a chapter closed. It may be a long while before we see anyone let loose so many wild, silly, and sincere movies again.
Some of my fellow DG contributors may be adding their own remembrances to this post, which I will otherwise close with a massive poster gallery depicting the library Menahem Golan built. (This gallery is not by any means complete.) Our thoughts and best wishes are with his family and friends at this time.
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