Thursday, July 23, 2020

The Loose Cannon's Legacy

Over the last few years I've dived in rather deep with 1980s action movies. As hard as it might be to believe, I wasn't as big into them when I was a kid. It is something I got more and more into as I got older. Just like many kids born in the '80s and came of age in the '90s we were taught that actually the '80s were really lame and Not Cool and Too Cheesy. The edgelord '90s were where it was at, and things were always getting better.

However, as I got older, I began to realize something counter to what I had believed. The 1990s were not very good, and have aged worse than the 1980s did. Now, I personally had many good times in the decade of parachute pants and Friends and have many great memories in my personal life. It wasn't bad just because the culture doesn't particularly hold up. 1995 was a great year, for instance. But culturally, aside from video games and music, most of the good cultural material dried up by the dead center of the decade. By 1997 there was nothing left of even the best parts of the 1990s. It was as if they evaporated overnight.

I remember this moment even at the time. Though I wasn't what the kids call a "consoomer" at the time, I did notice that everything I enjoyed growing up was disappearing at once. It was bizarre experiencing it in 1997, but even more odd when you realize that no one else really appeared to notice at the time. They just sort of let it happen.

Then, as I sat through the long, interminable slog that was the 2000s, I noticed folks finally admitting something went wrong. Whole segments of subcultures were forming online dedicated on their dead favorites and questioning just what went wrong. Critics such as James Rolfe, the Angry Video Game Nerd (Then the Angry Nintendo Nerd), popping up online to reminisce about the past and show how it wasn't quite how we remembered it, though he clearly had a love for his youth and dedicates much of his spare time preserving the era for future generations as a hobby. This was happening in the middle of the '00s and still occurs today.

Other critics popped up at the time who didn't have Mr. Rolfe's passion with cheesy shtick or love of the weird, nor did they even play characters--they just ranted and screamed about everything you loved as a kid sucking. This batch of critics would go one of two ways: they would quit and become normal functioning members of society, of they would dig their heels in and champion subversion. Remember that old cartoon about how critics of the '00s always said everything you loved sucked? They warped into something much darker and more hateful by the '10s.

At the time, however, it was clear that two sides were forming. One that thought the past had a lot worth preserving and taking forward, and the other who wanted to demolish everything with a wrecking ball. This is a split that only went deeper as time went on.

It was about that time that I decided to go back and look for myself. It wasn't as if there was was anything to lose doing it. The pop culture of the 2000s was so vapid that I had little choice if I wanted to enjoy something. What else was there to do?

So I rewatched movies I hadn't see since I was a kid, some TV shows, and even some music. On top of that I began looking for stuff I had never experienced before from the same era. I wanted a fuller picture. There was a lot of content to go through, though at the time youtube, pirates, and the like actually preserved this stuff. Unlike today.

Nonetheless, I discovered a lot of interesting things along my journey. By the time the '10s rolled around it almost didn't matter that pop culture was dead. There was just so much to go through that I hardly noticed what was going on outside my door. This obviously was both a blessing and a curse, but it did give me higher expectations for what I allow in my brain. No longer could I except anything that couldn't even live up to Arnold Schwarzenegger's Commando in action or comedy. If you can't close to a movie that (at the time) is only 15-20 years old then how can you look at yourself in the mirror? Shaking the camera like you're constantly having a seizure while standing on a fault-line isn't going to make up for it.

In fact, this attitude is what eventually led me to things such as the Pulp Revolution and starting the Cannon Cruisers podcast, both of which are still going strong. It turns out that not only was I not alone in my assessment, but a subculture was growing that was rejecting those that had discarded the past for new frontiers that just weren't bearing any fruit. The more I looked into this the more disillusioned I became.

What I discovered through all of this is that there was definitely a loss of heart, tradition, and ambition over the years. Even though I was a rugrat at the time, 1984-1987 was pretty much peak pop culture with original ideas, zany experiments, and hotblooded innovation, going on in just about every arena you could think of. And this isn't nostalgia: I wasn't old enough to remember this period. This is from me going back and delving into what I'd missed and experiencing most of it for the first time. For instance, if you watched a movie from this time period, even if it was technically inferior, it would still offer an untold level of entertainment. Perhaps the Greatest Generation finally retiring from the arts by the end of the '80s gave plucky Baby Boomers, inspired Jones, and fresh-faced Gen Xers the push they needed to show they could stack up. Either way, there was a lot happening at the time and it is hard to surmise just how much there was.

Case in point, there is Cannon Films, the notorious b-movie studio that allegedly put out some of the worst and best movies of the decade, depending on your point of view. Though if you explore the cinematic space during that time period they were hardly the worst--even their abysmal movies aren't anywhere close to the worst of the era. When a Cannon movie is bad it is still wild and creative. And that is a spirit that has been lost in the modern era. Not even good movies from today have that spark of wild joy.

Cannon Films was a struggling 1970s b-movie studio that was bought by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus under their Golan-Globus Productions. They wanted to break into Hollywood and make movies, and that's precisely what they did. By 1979 they had their own studio to do with what they pleased. But no one would expect what came next in the decade of madness known as the 1980s.

For the next near 15 years Cannon was the go-to purveyor in action and excitement. They made rental stores the hip location for kids to grab the newest insane adventure romp, they helped make home video a viable format, and they managed to break out big into pop culture with their lower budget fare. When you thought of 1980s pop culture, Cannon Films was one of the first things that came to mind.

Which is why it is odd that none of this is documented much at all. One of the reasons I started Cannon Cruisers is because there was just no one talking about this interesting era. Sure, there's constant talk of those tired space "Star" franchises, the usual chatter about oddball horror and the big budget fare from the era, and even the usual Arnold and Sly's movies, but rarely does anyone talk Cannon Films anymore.

This is a shame, because Cannon Films is possibly the most interesting film studio ever created, almost as weird as their movies, with some of the best production stories you will ever hear about. Aside from a pair of competing documentaries (worth watching!), there were no books, video series, or other podcasts, centered on the cousins and their company. For a while it seemed Cannon Films was destined to fade away into obscurity.

Until now.

Find it Here!

I was recently approached by the author of a new book to see if I wanted to read it for myself. When I saw what it was I jumped on the opportunity. It covers the exact topic I just mentioned. Suffice to say, getting a copy didn't change my overall thoughts on the product being that it was exactly what I was looking for.

Writer Austin Trunick decided to compile The Cannon Film Guide which is meant to cover every Cannon Films production from 1980 up to their closure in the 1990s. It is a in depth dive into Cannon, their productions, and the climate at the time they put their flicks out. The background and biographical information helps tremendously, as well.

However, because there is so much information he had to split it into three different volumes. The first one, which I am talking about here, covers 1980 up to 1984. Essentially, it covers the same time span we did on season one of Cannon Cruisers. If that seems like an odd place to stop, well, it's not. 1984 was the year Cannon finally took off, so this book more or less covers everything up to their explosion into the mainstream. It would have to considering it is a 550 page behemoth. Putting all this together in one place would create a book longer than The Stand. But despite the length there is no bloat to speak of. It's all pure information and background.

For those of us who have an eye for this period in pop culture this book is what we've been waiting for. It's a deep dive into one of the most interesting aspects of the 1980s pop culture. But there is more to it than just nostalgia.

It starts with a foreword by Cannon alumni Sam Firstenberg, director of such films as Revenge of the Ninja, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, Ninja III: The Domination, and the first two American Ninja movies. These are some of the company's most well known movies. He goes quite in depth on the beginning of the studio and how they came to be.

"Golan impressed me right away as a very decisive man who made abrupt decisions with no hesitation. Looking for a break into the industry I asked him to join his production and he hired me to work on his production on the spot, without even blinking. Right away he impressed me as a very colorful man with a very loud and commanding personality. I worked for Menahem Golan in many different roles through the 1970s, from courier to production assistant to assistant director, and then as a feature film director beginning in the 1980s, after he and Yoram Globus acquired Cannon. The creative atmosphere and the cinematic culture of Cannon were like no other film production organization of their time. There was a sense of openness and adventure amongst the rank and file of the employees, all emanating from the man at the top: Menahem Golan."

Right away Mr. Firstenberg solidifies what we had all figured. A studio as wild as Cannon Films would have to be run by a man as mad as they were. Menahem Golan, from all accounts, had a bizarre sense of creativity and inspiration about him. But this character of Golan is what gave Cannon the character it had.

You could say a lot about Cannon Films, but you can never call it faceless or uninteresting. Considering the decade which was anything but either of those things and you can see how significant it is that Cannon still sticks out.

From the beginning of this guide we are given a gander at just who runs the studio, and it is a man who takes chances and is willing to try anything in a decade where anything went. Even then he went beyond that. It explains much about Cannon's character and how the studio ended up being the success that it was.

Mr. Firstenberg goes further:

"At Cannon, the creative decisions were based on Golan’s gut feelings, and that’s how they launched projects with Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, and the likes of Runaway Train, Otello, American Ninja, Breakin’, and on and on and on. Some of these projects were financially risky, but nevertheless they were made. That’s why so many moviemakers were attracted to work for Cannon."

Can you think of a studio head like this now, never mind one with such a dynamic personality? The wider industry tended to hate Cannon for purity reasons, but it was rather clear that their intentions were purer. They just wanted to create movies and make money doing so. Which is, supposedly, the point of the industry in question, though we all know better now.

Either way, thanks to Golan's leadership and Globus' financial sense, Cannon gained the reputation it did among the people who counted: the customers.

Golan was the character with dynamic personality, but when you have someone like Yoram Globus to manage financials you can leverage your budgets and rely on overseas markets to make sure you don't overspend. Many would make fun of Cannon for being low budget, but even they weren't the lowest in town and could use their budgets quite ell when they wanted to. Nonetheless, this was their formula: produce a film for cheap, make just enough back on home video and the overseas markets, and then put it into the next one to build an audience. This simple formula is what carried them from obscurity in the early '80s up to superstar status a mere handful of years later. The cousins had a straightforward formula, and it worked.

But the most telling passage is this one:

"In the 1960s, traditional, independent, low-budget exploitation and genre b-movies gave way to an emerging new wave of independent, expressive, and personal cinema and a different breed of American movies, the likes of Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, and so on. The major studios followed suit and started to produce more artistic, expressive, personal films, and Hollywood abandoned their “bread and butter” movies. Cannon Films seized on the opportunity and penetrated the vacuum that was created and, together with others, occupied this abandoned field. Certain types of audiences all over the world had felt betrayed and yearned for more of the old-fashioned genre flicks: action, horror, sci-fi, and the like. The 1980s also saw the emergence of the home video phenomenon, the videocassette tape rental economy and the rise to power of major independent production and distribution companies to supply the product that was missing from the marketplace. Cannon became the largest of them all, producing more than 530 movies."

There is much more to the foreword than this, but this one statement says it all. Around the 1960s the bigger studios started to abandon audiences. If it wasn't for the success of several wildcard success in the 1970s and '80s they might have abandoned them sooner. These were the studios that kept the spirit of excitement alive. Those who remember the pulp attitude and wonder where it went i the wider world can see that it still existed in places like Cannon Films.

You see, they knew there was a large audience not getting what they wanted. So what did they do? Ignore it? Call it bad names? Deliberately produce movies that spat on these inferior subhumans? No, Cannon did what they were supposed to do and what the wider industry was supposed to do: they catered to the audience. They gave them what they wanted.

And Cannon cashed in while doing it. They provided a product, and the audience exchanged their hard-earned beer money for it. It feels like such a foreign attitude, especially these days, but this is how it is supposed to work. This didn't used to be such rare knowledge, but I suppose at some point the industry forgot it.

Mr. Trunick then has his own preface in the book which starts out with this:

"Like many of you, I grew up in the era when your whole weekend’s entertainment was decided during a Friday night trip to the video rental store. It was in those places where Cannon reigned supreme, and their recognizable logo could be found somewhere on almost every shelf in the store. Thanks to my local mom-n-pop shop’s lenient policies toward renting violent, Rrated movies to minors, I was exposed at a young age to film classics such as Invasion U.S.A. , New Year’s Evil, and American Ninja. I learned early on that a movie didn’t need to be “’traditionally good” to be great. For the rest of my film-loving life, the sight of the Cannon logo at the front of a movie would stir up happy, fluttery feelings within my heart. If you’re reading this now, my guess is you might feel the same way."

He invokes a strong image for anyone of Gen Y or younger Gen X, but it is a very accurate one for any who lived during that time frame. Going to the video store and discovering treasures in the form of painted VHS boxes and weird video game covers with wacky titles was a common weekend activity. You never knew what gem you might find hidden in the tangle of new products and inventive ideas. For many, this is what the 1980s were most known for.

Cannon understood this feeling, even at the time. Their dominance of the home video and overseas markets showed brains for a studio regularly considered brainless. But this method, taking advantage of an audience who wanted content, worked for everyone involved. As it is supposed to. Cannon Films ruled the roost for good reason.

I would dare say the only type of person who would say they have bad memories of seeing the Cannon Films logo on a box is probably a joyless husk of a human being regularly confused with a stick in the mud. If you wanted to be taken for a ride and have your head filled with wonder and excitement, then there were few places you could get it the through a Cannon movie. Those opposed to this, I would imagine, are probably the same types that cheered when Hollywood abandoned more general fare back in the 1960s. In other words, they take themselves too seriously. They have forgotten what fun is.

On top of the interesting background and biographical information, The Cannon Film Guide also covers 40 movies each with an extensive plot summary, production info, trivia, and sometimes with intriguing interviews with those involved in the production. Even if you have a passing interest in the subjects in this book it is fascinating to read and look into the era. There are some obscure tidbits to be found, too!

Now, unlike most books I talk about here, I still haven't finished reading this all the way through. In between projects in both writing and reading hasn't left me with as much time as I'd like to go through the entire guide, but with over 550 pages there is more than enough content to keep you invested for a long time.

I plan to go deeper on a movie by movie basis in my proper read-through, but looking through the material I've seen has left me with little choice than to heartily recommend this to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject. It is something that has been needed for a long time. The Cannon Film Guide is a book that is important for those creating new similar culture or interested in studying the old. For fans of action, adventure, horror, and pulp excitement, it is a must read that will satisfy as much as Charles Bronson blowing up a drug dealer with a rocket launcher outside a roller-rink. If you know what that is a reference to then this book is for you.

This gets my highest recommendation. I will have to get a physical copy when the opportunity arises. It is most definitely worth the investment, and I eagerly await volume 2.

As I said earlier, the 1980s had much going for them we take for granted. This was a time when creativity sold, and both content creators and audiences got what they wanted. This created an exciting climate that many still look on fondly. There hasn't been a time period like this since. Looking back on it I can say the 1980s deserves a better reputation than the one it gets from the mainstream. Nonetheless, you know better, and that is what counts.

We should close this out with a quote from the epilogue of the guide:

"The mid-1980s—covered in the second volume of this series—saw Cannon release their most ambitious slate of movies ever. Not only did they spend significantly more money on their budgets, but their jaw-dropping 1985–1986 schedule saw the company juggle more film shoots than even the major studios would think feasible."

There is always more on the road ahead, so keep vigilante. With a pulp mindset you can do just about anything, and that's the way it should be.


  1. Never forget that what we lost was taken away on purpose by people who knew exactly what they were doing.

    It's heartbreaking these days hearing Zoomers wax nostalgic about soulless corporatist product like the MCU, Cal Arts cartoons, and EA games.

    1. From my experience, when they look into it most Zoomers tend to get redpilled pretty quick. They're better than Millennials who do nothing but mock their past and Ys who still think it's 1994, however.

      But there isn't much you can do with people who think the 2000s were anything but the wasteland of grey goo they were, just as some Ys actually think 1997 was peak pop culture. Taste is what it is. We used to be better about it, though.

  2. Let me say that we need to bring back the true action man film. The science fantasy epic the cowboy movie as well as original new ips that will try new stuff. Ever since the 00s the hollywood and mainstream entertainment went down hill. And now western video games and music are becoming stale and lifeless.

    1. Any change is going to have to come from the outside. Thankfully, there are a lot of us working on it!

  3. I share the author's love of all things Cannon. When you saw that logo come up on the screen you knew that what came next wasn't exactly going to be Citizen Kane, but it also wouldn't be a waste of the next 90 minutes of your life. You knew you were about to be entertained with a capital E.

    As to their creative financing of the movies, that has become standard operating procedure for Hollywood. Not only is the sale of foreign rights included in the budget, but they also add things like tax breaks for states trying to promote film making. In some cases, those tax breaks can be sold to other companies.

    1. They were smart enough to keep their finances and budgets low enough so that a bomb wouldn't damage them and just one movie performing well would be a net positive. If they would have stayed the course they would still be around today.

      But that's just how it goes.

  4. The trajectory of the movie industry is very similar to that of music, and for the same reasons.

    More insights into the "cool" stuff that was only liked by the elite clique, and funny too: