Bombast: The Apple, After the Fall
Life and death are nothing but show business in twenty-and-fourteen.
This paraphrase of a line from Menahem Golan’s 1980 The Apple, which I am indebted to a Twitter acquaintance for, was proven in spades last week after a spate of prominent celebrity passings, of which the first and by far the least widely mourned was that of Golan himself. It can’t be said that the news came as a surprise. A friend who saw him and cousin/partner Yoram Globus at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, which I attended in early July, reported that Golan was looking a bit worse for the wear, while the most vivid memory that I have of a 2010 phone interview that I conducted with him is a three-minute uninterrupted coughing fit that occurred in the middle of the chat.
I wrapped the Village Voice profile piece that resulted from that interview by waxing elegiac for “a film culture richer with wild cards, buccaneers, and gate-crashers, blissfully oblivious to the mandates of good taste, willing, as with [Jean-Luc Godard’s] King Lear, to sign a $1.5 million contract for a scriptless movie on a napkin.” (In retrospect, I think that it’s perhaps incorrect to presume obliviousness, of which more anon.) This ain’t just whistling Hatikvah—in 1987 alone, Cannon Films, co-chaired by Golan, released not only King Lear but Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly, Jerry Schatzberg’s Street Smart, and Andrei Konchalovsky’s Shy People, the last two films showcases for top performances by, respectively, Morgan Freeman and Barbara Hershey. That same year Cannon released The Barbarians, a sword-and-sorcery neo-peplum film directed by Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust), starring “The Barbarian Brothers” Peter and David Paul; the Golan-directed arm-wrestling opus Over the Top; and Masters of the Universe, a consummately terrible live-action He-Man film starring Dolph Lundgren and (I swear to God) Frank Langella as Skeletor that would go a long way towards irreparably shattering the Cannon Films piggybank. This 1987 promo video, set to Sammy Hagar’s “Winner Takes It All” (the theme from Over the Top), is a relic from this heyday. The fall was soon to come.
The above cross-section of releases gives a pretty good idea of the Cannon strategy: one for the groundlings, one for prestige. This is not to reduce Golan and Globus’s motives to the basest grubbing for money or recognition. There was obviously an eccentric personal vision behind their corporate identity, as any entity that was content merely to settle for accolades would not have put out so many interesting films instead of tony costume dramas and literary adaptations. You could say a lot of things about Cannon, but no one could accuse them of going middlebrow.
The Cannon stratagem, which depended on milking cash cows like Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, and Michael Dudikoff to underwrite the art films, says something about how Golan and Globus thought about culture—which brings us to The Apple, one of a staggering 45 films credited to Golan as a director. (He wasn’t entirely above the lure of the classics, having made a 2002 adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment starring Crispin Glover, which I have not had the pleasure of seeing.) A true outlier in the Golan corpus, The Apple has gradually eclipsed even his 1977 Operation Thunderbolt, a raid-on-Entebbe actioner fairly throbbing with Israeli patriotism, in popularity. I’m not here to riff on a dead horse, but to inquire into what The Apple suggests about Golan’s relationship to film art, and what its cult reputation says about the terms in which we ourselves think and talk about culture today.
For those who have not taken a bite out of The Apple, the story—and I should mention that Golan is credited as the screenwriter—is as follows. The setting is America in 1994. The film was in fact shot in the fall of 1979 in West Germany, mostly inside what appears to be a series of shopping malls and corporate parks. In this dystopian future, a multinational called BIM (Boogalow International Music) rules the pop landscape with a spangled iron fist, quashing any conceivable challenge to their dominance. For example: an unknown boy-girl duo, Alfie and Bibi, from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, threaten to upset BIM-backed ringers Dandi and Pandi at the Worldvision Song Festival. Once Alfie and Bibi slowly overcome the catcalls of the jaded audience with their honey-toned duet, BIM head Mr. Boogalow orders his manservant, a lithe flamer named Shake, to undermine their performance by playing cacophonous feedback over the PA system. (It’s an improvement to my ears, but never mind.)
Mr. Boogalow is played by the Polish actor Vladek Sheybal, most familiar—to me, at least— from his turn as the Russian General in John Milius’s Red Dawn a few years later. He wears a Mephistophelean goatee, a plum-colored tuxedo with massive lapels and a silver cummerbund, and cubic zirconia-encrusted jewelry which appears to have been filched from the drawer of a Sarasota retiree’s vanity. Such sartorial flights of fancy are the fashion of the day, diligently obeyed by Dandi and Pandi (Allan Love and Grace Kennedy), a biracial, somewhat androgynous duo—he has long blonde hair, while the scoop front of his silver lame jumpsuit reveals a baby-smooth chest. Belting out lyrics which preach moral equivalency (“There ain’t no good / There ain’t no bad” begins their beyond-good-and-evil anthem “Do the BIM!”), Dandi and Pandi lead their enthralled audience in a stomp-along chant accompanied by kung-fu calisthenics. Their aggressive, glam-fascist aesthetic is not so far from that of prefab concoction “Beef” in Brian De Palma’s 1974 Phantom of the Paradise, which was released to Blu-ray by Scream! Factory last week, though The Apple is five years down the line, and so glam is here conflated with then more-or-less contemporary disco. Alfie and Bibi (George Gilmour and Catherine Mary Stewart), are both white, wholesome, square-jawed, earnest folkies, and they perform a white, wholesome, square-jawed, earnest song called “Love, the Universal Melody.” (You can’t dance to it, but it does elicit emotional swaying.) The contrast between these two duos lays out the defining dichotomy of The Apple, designed as a morality play in which good and evil do exist, the latter represented by the corporate-controlled electro-artifice of Boogalow and BIM, the former by the holistic, unplugged, back-to-nature mellowness of Alfie and Bibi.
The allegorical tug-of-war begins in earnest when Alfie and Bibi, following their near-coup, are invited to a debauched BIM party, which might be mistaken for one of the lavish Cannes shindigs for which Golan and Cannon were once famous. Bibi, being a woman, is drawn to the luxe life as Eve was to the apple. Serenaded and pawed by blow-dried imp Dandi and seduced with the promise of pieces by “in” fashion designer Ingrid Stockinger, Bibi signs her life away to BIM. Alfie, struck by a phantasmagoric vision of Boogalow as the devil reigning over a Hell House version of the netherworld, declines. Keeping his precious indie cred intact but losing his girl, Alfie goes to live in a cold water tenement flat where he’s doted over by Miriam Margolyes, playing one of those warm, earthy, chicken soup-wielding Jewish mothers that Vera Gordon used to specialize in. He records a drippy, mournful, over-orchestrated ballad called “Where Has Love Gone?” and gets the “I don’t see a lot of money here” treatment at the studio, while Bibi has her first BIM-backed hit in “Speed,” which posits amphetamine abuse as a kind of patriotic duty. Taunted by the image of Bibi’s face on omnipresent billboards, Alfie makes a last-ditch attempt to win her back by crashing yet another BIM soiree, this one full of he-shes and resembling a Studio 54 production of Fellini Satyricon. Failing to accomplish his goal but instead roofied and raped by Pandi, Alfie comes to on a park bench where he is being looked over by a hale, frank, bluff, hearty fellow with a flowing gray beard and a floppy, broad-brimmed Walt Whitman hat who leads him to an encampment of “refugees from the Sixties, commonly known as hippies.”
Back in BIM-land, it’s the morning after, and the sight of Shake wearing a speedo and an Amazing Stories kimono while lasciviously pronouncing “sauna” is enough to make Bibi suddenly ashamed of her life of sin. She sets out to rejoin Alfie, and they are reunited in the cave refuge of the hippies, like the catacombs of the early Christians. Some time later—time enough for Alfie to have acquired a blonde infant and Richard Jordan’s beard from Interiors—BIM storm troopers under the command of Boogalow come crashing through the woods looking for Bibi, who is to be tossed in the slammer for breach of contract. The police round up the flower children and begin marching them towards an undoubtedly grim fate when the procession is interrupted by the arrival of “Mr. Topps,” played by a guy who looks like a post-crash diet Laird Cregar with flaxen blonde hair, who Raptures the freaks up to his white Cadillac in the sky, where they will depart for a better life in the beyond.
This Mr. Topps is apparently a God figure whose long-prophesied return is central to the belief system of the hippies. I say “apparently” because we haven’t heard him spoken of up to this point. The Apple presents itself as a Rockist, “Burn Down the Discos” tract, but despite the fact that the hippies are the film’s ostensible good guys, Golan is able to summon up very little interest in them, and spends as little time in their patchouli-scented company as possible, preferring whenever he can to film transvestites swanning about and drinking out of huge triangular tumblers. Golan cannot locate the spiritual glory in resistance or opting out, as François Truffaut does when he leads Oskar Werner’s Guy Montag to the “book people” in his Fahrenheit 451 (66); what Golan conveys instead is that, to paraphrase Pauline Kael on Fellini Satyricon, he thinks it’s a ball to be a pagan. Far more than Gilmour and Stewart’s Alfie or Bibi, the film’s star performance is Sheybal’s as Boogalow. One exchange in the contract-signing scene even suggests that Golan regards Boogalow as a sort of alter ego. “Boog is already selling your first album,” Shake tells Bibi. When she protests that she and Alfie “haven’t even made it yet,” his response is, “First you sell it, then you make it”—this is a wink-wink reference to Cannon’s own production line technique, which relied heavily on hustle and pre-sales to keep the conveyor belt running smoothly.
Boogalow hogs all the best numbers—that is, the most spectacularly awful ones—too. There’s “Showbizness,” referenced at the beginning of this piece, and “How to Be a Master,” which sounds like canned reggae with vocals by Vlad the Impaler, in which Boog expresses sentiments worthy of a concentration camp kapo. (“Step on those who fall!”) Though The Apple lays down its scene in a future America, a glimpse of West Berlin’s Fernsehturm (TV tower) betrays the actual location—I believe it may take place in the same “universe” as 1982’s R.W. Fassbinder-starring technothriller Kamikaze 1989. Golan, born in Israel in 1929, was a proud Jew who changed his surname as a patriotic tribute to the Heights, and would have been more than a little aware of the recent historical legacy of Germany, which looms over the film. “Do the BIM!” is adopted as the official theme of the country’s “National Fitness Program,” which requires the citizenry to engage in a mandatory daily hour of Jazzercise, an edict which smacks of official Körperkultur. In one scene, Margolyes’s stock-Jewish landlady (“You kids today, you’re so meshuga…”) is stopped in the street because she isn’t wearing her “obligatory BIM mark”—it’s a stick-on holographic triangle, but one has a funny feeling that Golan is evoking the Judenstern yellow badge.
At the same time that Golan is aligning BIM and its lockstep followers with the fascists, he paints them with much the same brush that the Nazis used to paint their cultural enemies—depraved, barbaric, having altogether too much fun—though here the issue is degenerate pop instead of degenerate art. If I didn’t know who had made The Apple, I would be tempted to call entertainment magnate Boogalow, with his eyeshadow and his glitter-dusted beard and his Oriental sensuality, a caricature of Jewish cosmopolitanism—see the press conference in which he answers reporters’ questions in French, German, Italian, and American—but perhaps it is better to say that Boogalow is representative of the effeminizing effect of culture, and leave it at that.
The film’s moral and aesthetic confusion doesn’t end here. The musical alternative offered by Alfie and Bibi is entirely insufficient as a contrast or counterbalance to BIM’s military-industrial-musical complex—it’s drippy, anodyne, wet-blanket stuff, closer to The Carpenters than “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It appears that Golan is trying to harness some of the (more than faintly homophobic) sentiment of the famous Disco Demolition Night bonfire at Chicago’s Comiskey Park here but, confoundingly, the jackboot crack of the bi-furious BIM sound “rocks” quite a bit harder than the neuter folk offered in its stead. (The film’s vision of a future that is sneeringly cruel and queered up—these two aspects inextricable from one another—is somewhere near that of Anthony Burgess’s The Wanting Seed.) When Alfie’s ineradicable convictions reduce him to slumming it up, the pseudo-Lower East Side that he is consigned to is clearly a constructed set. All of this suggests that the authentic life which is set up as an honest, decent alternative to BIM’s decadence is in fact nothing more than another false front, a series of signifiers denoting authenticity. God is the Devil! The Lamb and the Goat have fused as one!
The actual 1994 was, on the pop culture front, very different from that imagined by The Apple. Arbiters of youth culture were in the sway of Mr. Topps, and the authentically lived life was extolled. The phrase “The ’90s are the ’60s turned upside down” was bandied about, though what precisely that meant I was never sure. We had Woodstock ’94 and rock stars who would sooner suck on a shotgun than corporate dick. Interscope exec Steve Berman, playing a major-label scumbag, commanded a mock Eazy-E to “Sign your life… I mean your name… on the contract” in the “Dr. Day” video, but Dre and Death Row knew better. America had awoken from the lull of the pop narcotic and was rocking again, having seen hair metal, Paula Abdul, and Milli Vanilli for what they were: the product of conspiracies by sinister, BIM-like record labels to gin up pop phenomena that they themselves could control. People drank out of cylindrical glasses.
America wasn’t primed for The Apple in 1994, but its midnight-movie legend grew with each passing year and now, 20 years later, when certain tied-and-true Us Versus Thems which had held fast since the days of the “refugees from the Sixties” no longer sufficed to explain the cultural landscape, it is very much a Movie of the Moment. Pitchfork, a popular music review website founded in ’95 by a sallow, whey-faced Milwaukee teenager named Ryan Schreiber as a forum for shoddy writing about “indie” guitar bands, has just run a primer on “20 Essential K-Pop Songs” by one Jakob Dorof, praising the “hyper-realized pop commodities” and “hugely saleable genius” of the South Korean music industry. The least of us—that is, the journalist caste—have internalized the art of marketing and marketing as an art, and so a host of catchy new terms have emerged which put a fresh coat of paint on ideas about taking pop entertainment seriously that are at least as venerable as Gilbert Seldes’s 1924 The Seven Lively Arts. The enthusiast of the today’s neo-Tin Pan Alley tradition is now a “Poptimist,” in whose prose the word authentic is scarcely found unencumbered by scare quotes, while the staunch fetishist of “realness” (I went and did it!) can now choose from any number of punk bands whose members met at obscenely expensive liberal arts universities.*
In short, the world has finally, very nearly, attained the chaotic grotesquerie of The Apple. Lines like “A computer for a heart” in Boogalow and Shake’s “Showbizness” plugs into contemporary Singularity chic and, released today, Bibi’s “Speed,” which has it that “America, the Home of the Brave / Is popping pills to keep up the pace,” would’ve launched a cycle of thinkpieces reading it as satire, as surely as Lana Del Rey’s “Brooklyn Baby” or Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain or any other contemporary text which begs interpretation as criticism-by-way-of-exemplification. There ain’t no good, there ain’t no bad!
I suspect that Golan’s thinking on Trash, Art, and the Movies was, by contrast, rather binary, despite what the self-subverting The Apple betrays about him. If the Norris vehicle Missing in Action, released by Cannon in November 1984, was Golan’s Dandi and Pandi track, then Love Streams, released in summer of the same year, was his Alfie and Bibi cut. Here the metaphor becomes problematic, because one is in fact a masterpiece, and the other is a worthless piece of offal. (I leave it to the reader to puzzle over which I am designating as which.) As clearly as Menahem Golan’s track record as a producer, The Apple reveals a man who venerated the sublime, and couldn’t stay away from the ridiculous. Passions for either, not to speak of both, are always in short supply, and so I salute his passing, and wish him a happy journey in the white Caddy of Mr. Topps.
* Pop quiz: are you a Vulgar Auteurist, or do you prefer Slow Cinema? Trick question. If you accept the validity of either designation, step in front of an Amtrak.