A B-movie king who set the stage for Israel’s film renaissance

A B-movie king who set the stage for Israel’s film renaissance

Menahem Golan, the king of shlock cinema who died last week, could be proud of the movie industry he left behind

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Menahem Golan, the father of Israeli schlock cinema and perhaps the greatest crossover success that this country’s tiny, Hollywood-hungry film industry has ever known, hadn’t been seen much of late before his death last Friday.

The freewheeling producer and director, known for his colorful personality and his fly-by-night business deals, had all but slipped into the shadows over the last decade, preferring to dabble in small, critically ignored projects and to let the Israeli film industry churn onward without him.

You can do that, at the age of 85, when your imprint has been so indelible. The Israeli film industry that Golan left behind looks nothing like the one in which he enjoyed his heyday – today, it’s all film-festival darlings telling cerebral stories of existential torment – but it’s unlikely that any Israeli director working on set today doubts the shoulders on which they stand. Golan, who shaped the careers of Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris and Jean Claude Van Damme, brought Israel to Hollywood long before Hollywood began knocking on the door here.

Alongside his cousin Yoram Globus, he founded Cannon Productions, a behemoth of shoddy business practices and lowest-common-denominator filmmaking that managed, against all odds, to churn out hundreds of successful films anchored by some of the biggest names of its era. The duo bought up ads in Hollywood trade papers, courted industry insiders at the Cannes Film Festival and built a cash-stuffed house of cards based on cult appeal and a hunger for critical acclaim.

“The company has always been cheerfully schizo, announcing its art films with the same gusto it uses for its exploitation product,” Roger Ebert said of Cannon.

Golan and Globus played fast and loose, infuriating creditors and producing both B-movies and debt with the same aplomb. They seemed to be willing to make movies about anything that would draw a crowd, earning their style of movie-making the term “exploitation films.”

Variety, in an obituary for Golan on August 8, quoted the late silver screen grande dame Shelley Winters, who once said of the cousins, “They’re like the old-style bastards. We hated them, but they loved films.”

Israeli producer Menahem Golan, right, and Swiss movie director Jean-Luc Godard, left, speak to the press in Cannes, France, after the screening of Godard's out of competition "King Lear," produced by Golan's Cannon group, May 17, 1987 (Photo credit: Pierre Gleizes/AP, File)
Israeli producer Menahem Golan, right, and Swiss movie director Jean-Luc Godard, left, speak to the press in Cannes, France, after the screening of Godard’s out of competition “King Lear,” produced by Golan’s Cannon group, May 17, 1987 (Photo credit: Pierre Gleizes/AP, File)

Before he was wooing Hollywood, however, Golan was producing and directing the movies that would become the building blocks of Israeli cinema – “Kazablan,” “Sallah Shabati,” “Operation Thunderbolt” and “Lemon Popsicle” among them. And even more crucially, he was pushing open the door for big-budget productions to film in Israel.

“He basically funded the industry in the 1980s,” says Boaz Hagin, a senior lecturer in the Department of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University. “People made a living on films like ‘Sahara’ and ‘Delta Force.’ He made Israel a legitimate place for filming.”

Golan, who was born in pre-state Israel in 1929, came of age as a director during the height of popularity of bourekas films, the wildly un-politically correct flavor of movies that based all of their (overly simplistic) plotlines on ethnic stereotypes and lowbrow humor.

“Sallah Shabati,” the 1964 satirical comedy about Israeli immigration, was a hallmark of these movies. Produced by Golan, the film not only introduced legendary actor Chaim Topol to the silver screen, it earned Israel its first-ever Oscar nomination for a foreign film. It also broke box office records.

“He made films in a more earnest way. They were never in quotation marks. He was just very confident,” Hagin says. “Menahem Golan just went out and did it.”

Golan’s style of filmmaking has all but vanished from Israeli film sets. Today, a confident, European-looking crop of young directors rules the industry, garners praise at international festivals in Berlin and Venice, and makes movies that, even when they are meant to be funny, have an intensely serious core.

Think Talya Lavie, with her bitterly funny, sadness-tinged debut, “Zero Motivation,” which brought audiences to their feet at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and is as much a comedy of errors as it is a tragic expose of sexism and glass ceilings in the Israeli military.

Think Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, whose “Rabies” and “Big Bad Wolves” wowed both Israeli and international audiences alike, shattered boundaries by proving that Israeli directors can indeed craft horror films like their American counterparts, and yet both bear, in their narrative heart, a dark, fundamental criticism of Israeli dysfunction.

And of course, think Joseph Cedar, the legendary, hyper-delicate director of “Footnote” and “Beaufort,” two of the most critically acclaimed Israeli films of the last decade. His films are always a meditation on Israeli society, on its fragments and flaws, and yet, if you look deeper, you will find that even Cedar knows the role Golan played in setting the stage for today’s cinematic renaissance – in “Campfire,” for instance, his beautiful, hard-to-swallow 2004 film about sexual abuse in Israel’s national religious community, which movie are the characters shown watching on screen? That’s right, it’s “Operation Thunderbolt,” Golan’s 1977 film about Operation Entebbe.

Today, the flavor of Golan and his long-shuttered Cannon Films can be found not in movies, but in the Israeli television business, which is hungrier than ever for foreign interest, foreign investment, and big-budget validation. There have been some major successes, like the crossover triumphs of “In Treatment” and “Homeland,” both of which began as modest Israeli television dramas. And there have been stops and starts, seen in NBC’s “Dig” and FX’s “Tyrant,” two television programs which began shooting on Israeli soil this summer but both had to pack up and leave when war with Gaza broke out.

What would Golan say, if he were still around and kicking?

“He is still fascinating to directors today,” Hagin says. “But if he were still alive and working, he’d probably be doing television.”

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