Film essay by: Witney Seibold
“I’ve just found the worst movie of all time. My brain seizes at the memory. This is not your average everyday New Wave sci-fi Biblical allegory musical. No, this is a very special New Wave sci-fi Biblical allegory musical–I mean ‘special’ in the sense of the Special Olympics. This movie resists summary–like an unexpected car-crash, it leaves you with nothing but fragmented impressions. What happened? What the hell did I just see?”-EFilmCritic
“A good musical is a truly powerful beast, able to capture a viewer emotionally in a way that straight cinema (or, usually, straight music) cannot. But there are few things on or beneath the earth which are viler than a bad musical. Hell is entertained exclusively by bad musicals. And this one is showing on the infernal IMAX, 24-7.”
“…And there I sit [after the film] with conflicting emotions — on the one hand, relieved like rarely before that the blessed credits are finally rolling, and on the other hand, pissed out of my gourd that this movie ever got made.”
-Nathan Shumate, Cold Fusion Video Review
“The Apple has no core, no heart to it. It is completely mechanical and emotionless (check the reunion scene near the end.) Some might say it knows the words but not the music, but it isn’t even sure what the words are. It’s an instantly obsolete movie, dead long after its time. Though there was probably never a time for The Apple anyway. It’s a ‘What were they thinking?’ followed by, ‘What am I watching?’ and ‘Why am I watching?’ kind of movie. The only answer to the ‘why?’ is that there haven’t been any car accidents in your neighborhood lately.”
-Keith of Unknown Movies
And I put “The Apple” on my 100-best list.
Why did I put “The Apple” on my 100-best list? It seems to invoke some rather unpleasant emotions in the online critics. They range from mere confusion to outright blinding, white-hot rage. I mention this film to a few of my friends and they screw up their faces, and must immediately and repeatedly express their desire to continue life without “The Apple” in it, lest I slip in with some cunning argument while they’re unprotected and drag them to it. They begin describing a long series of physical tortures, usually involving their eyes and a sharp stick, that they would rather endure than watch “The Apple.”
Yet others (hi, Sarah) not only dismiss mention of torture, but insist on going. They actually want to experience this odd little failed 1980 musical. In fact, back on Valentine’s Day of 2003, when I saw this film for the first time at a midnight screening, I found an entire army of enthused fans lined up to see this film. People came in costume. The entire audience laughed and snickered. Those who knew the lyrics to some of the ludicrous songs (“It’s a natural, natural, natural desire / Meet an actual, actual, actual vampire!”), sang along. We cheered. We clapped. We had the time of our lives. We wore BIM marks. It was this experience, these people, that helped “The Apple” onto the list.
There’s also a kind of genius in it.
Following my description of it, not to mention the rather glowing words of the critics above, you may wonder why I make such a bold statement. I’m going to describe a silly story, goofy music, bad acting, and one of the most unbelievable film endings ever committed to celluloid, and all throughout, I will stick to my guns, and insist that “The Apple” is one of the 100 best films. The reason it’s so wonderful an experience, I think, has to do with its own attitude toward its material i.e. it’s completely honest; it takes itself seriously. But more on that in a mo.
“The Apple” was made in 1980 by movie mogul Menahem Golan. It’s a musical, as I mentioned, but not showtuney, like the century of Broadway musicals that we’re used to. It’s the kind of New Wave music that was just coming into vogue in the 1980s following the death of Disco, but before Madonna, Michael Jackson, or the Punk scene came into their own. In other words, it’s bad music. It was a brief period in rock history that has been saved from obscurity only because of camp value. Rock was sort of on a downswing. It was an empty period when artists were busy cashing in, and not writing anything meaningful or personal (I think it has to do with Reagan economics, but I won’t take too much time postulating, seeing as I know little of economic history outside of what I personally witnessed as a child of that era). A few good artists came out of the New Wave (Blondie immediately comes to mind), but the bad New Wave music was really bad (Men Without Hats? “Our Love’s In Jeopardy?”). And the 1980s fashions that accompanied the New Wave were even worse. The Glam scene, you see, was also a child of this period, and from it we get heavy eye makeup, big hair, glittery clothing, a lot of pink, capes, jewelry, skin-tight pants, bright lights, big boots, a shiny plastic sheen. A kind of excess little seen before or since. See bands like Great White, Whitesnake, or Poison for the full effect. It was out of this excess and selling-out, out of this period of pop-culture history that “The Apple” sprung. The songs are all loud, not particularly witty, and feature a lot of synth. There’s a lot of hologram rainbow, on both the clothing and the vehicles. Oh man, is it ever ugly.
Ugly, yes. But not offensive. Especially not to those born from 1970 to 1985. We remember all this the first time around. And when we witnessed it, we had no frame of reference; nothing with which we could compare these in-retrospect-hideous fashions. This was the world, this world of New Wave and Glam. Watching it now, as a 25-year-old with a strong sense of irony and a penchant for nostalgia, I finally realized that the world, and its music and pop culture, is constantly changing. That the first pop world I grew up in was actually, in comparison to many others, a rather embarrassing blight in culture’s movement (“movement,” I say, and not “progress,” for who is to say whether or not we’re constantly growing or withering? I just say we’re constantly changing). So seeing all of those weird hairdos, eye makeup, and music… well, it was a way to laugh at myself. Have a sense of humor about the world in general. Let me see things in a larger context. Not to mention throw back to the halcyon days of youth when, for school talent competitions, kids would dress in pink tights and dance to Maniac by Michael Sembello. Seeing “The Apple” is more than a curiosity. It’s a short-range cultural time capsule.
(N.B. There are two films of recent years that seem to encapsulate these fads of the ‘80s without mocking them: “The Last Days of Disco,” and “Donnie Darko.” See them for further insight.)
The way in which all of this is shot… well, it’s competent. There’s not a lot of unnecessary coverage, there’s not a lot of murky lighting or poor framing. It’s not spectacular, but at least some quality went into the filming itself.
The story: It is 1994 (the future!). The world is ruled by the all-powerful BIM corporation run by the evil Mr. Boogalow (played by the odd-looking and joyful ham Vladek Sheybal, star of many B films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. He looks very Eastern European, indeed he’s Polish, so he often played the enemy spy, or the wicked overlord. “The Apple” is no exception). At the Worldvision song contest, the crowd is held in frenzied awe by Pandi and Dandi (Grace Kennedy and Alan Love), BIM’s current darlings. However, when Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart, who went on to be a regular on many soaps) and Alphie (George Gilmour, who only ever starred in one film), a young couple from Moosejaw (“I think it’s in Canada” The fey right-hand-man Shake, a man with gold lipstick and gems in his teeth, intones) take the stage, they begin to actually calm the audience down with their love ballad “Love, The Universal Melody.” People start crying. Mr. Boogalow cannot have this, and sabotages the number. Realizing a threat, I guess (It’s never really made clear), he calls Alphie and Bibi into central BIM. After an amusing dance number in the lobby, Mr. Boogalow offers a contract to the two. They must sign separately, though. Bibi is fine with all of this, but Alphie is suspicious.
In case the
Eden myth isn’t clear enough at this point, Alphie has a vision in the form of the film’s second most ludicrous moment: “The Apple” number. He envisions himself and Bibi in hell, dressed in leaves, led by the Devil, Mr. Boogalow, and the Serpent (Shake in gold body makeup and a snake around his head, a costume that must be sent o be believed). Pandi and Dandi off them the apple (“Taste the apple/mystery apple/Go on, take a bite/come and take a ride/ in our garden of de-li-hights”). The monsters, the upbeat New Wave music, the hair, the cave setting. It’s all so beautiful.
Bibi signs. She eventually becomes a star (compete with too much eye makeup), while Alphie, dejected, spends his time writing depressing songs (“OH! Where has love gone?”), and bantering with his new landlady (played by, of all people, Miriam Margolyes, a successful English character actress). There’s a number that Mr. Boogalow sings about being a “master.” It’s a song I actually like, despite questions about its necessity. There’s a number about taking amphetamines (“From New York down to L.A./everybody does it her way./ Poppin’ power/by the hour/ SPEEEEED!”). The speed number seems to be a fan favorite. I guess the heavy eye makeup, the dancing on shiny plastic motorcycles, the fact that they’re rather innocently singling about an illegal narcotic, all help it along.
By this time, BIM has become so powerful, that all must wear a BIM mark (a small BIM logo sticker), else they face a fine. And, for an hour every day, people have become required by law to dance to the BIM theme. We see nuns, cops, and even people in the midst of surgery stopping to dance. The montage of people dancing well… I think it was Truffaut who said something abut the montage being the most difficult and ungainly device in filmmaking. I got that from one of my professors at film school, however, and he was prone to embellishment, so it may be apocryphal. Truffaut or professor, though, I agree with the statement; montages are rarely done well. When they are, they can be magical. When they’re not, well, you have a bunch of cops and nuns dancing to Hey-Hey-Hey-BIM’s-the-way.
I must mention a scene in which Alphie goes in search of Bibi at BIM, for the song sung in this scene is a disco ballad that is unbelievably unseemly. Alphie arrives at a party, is fed a horrible green drink by Pandi, he begins to hallucinate, and is essentially raped by the gold-clad, obscenely writhing Pandi, while she sings horrid not-so-suggestive lyrics. (“Comin’/ I’m comin’ for you/ I want you to make me/and take me/ and move me/ and shake me/ and fill me up with your fire.”). Ahem. It made me shudder.
The ending, I mentioned, is one of the silliest I have ever witnessed. Witness: Alphie falls in with a group of park-dwelling hippies, led by a great hairy ür-man that looks like an unnatural cross between Ron Jeremy and Karl Marx. “They are refugees from the ‘60s,” he intones. Alphie is glad to fall in with these unwashed flower children.
The following all takes place in the last 10 minutes of the film: Bibi runs away from BIM, finally realizing that Alphie was right all along. She finds the hippies, they all sing, and Alphie triumphantly removes her BIM mark. Fast forward about a year. Alphie and Bib are now living peacefully with the hippies. Mr. Boogalow comes searching for Bibi with an army of BIM cops. She must return. She won’t give herself up, though, and the entire gaggle is arrested. And then! And then! Oh, this is the best part… Alphie tells Bibi to wait. Just wait. Mr. Topps is coming. Just wait for Mr. Topps. And, lo and behold! Up in the sky! A golden Cadillac alights on a cloud! Out steps a chubby, greasy guy in a white suit. It’s Mr. Topps! Mr. Topps stands in the way of the cops, and the hippies, singing “Love, the Universal Melody” begin to ascend. “Where are you going?,” Mr. Boogalow asks Mr. Topps.
“We’ll find a new world.”
“Certainly not without me,” Mr. Boogalow whines. “You can’t have a world without me.”
Without making eye contact, Mr. Topps dreamily replies “Let’s give it a try.”
And the hippies ascend into heaven.
The director of this film, Menahem Golan, also made films like “Delta Force,” and , with his partner Globus, produced the “Breakin’” movies as well as a long series of exploitation and b pictures. On the opening night, complimentary soundtracks were handed out to customers before the film began. Most all of said soundtracks were hurled at the screen in anger. The producers then tried handing out soundtracks at the end of the movie, and there were few takers. Those soundtrack albums are now incredibly rare and rather valuable. The film was shot in
West Germany, but looks like it was shot at the
City mall. The film is currently available on video, but only on a very limited basis. The only copies available are old, old VHS with panning-and-scanning done so poorly that often there aren’t even characters on the screen. It’s worth it, but there are flaws. I would wait for another midnight screening of it. Both the Cinemateque and The Nuart have had midnight shows of it, and it’s been quietly circulating the country. Keep an eye out.
I mentioned before that this film is so magical because of its attitude.
There are scads of musicals out there that are campy. I’m sure that you’ve already conjured up “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the infamous goof musical about extraterrestrial transvestites casually resurrecting sex slaves and corrupting Susan Sarandon. Certainly that film is a sillier musical with the same camp powers as “The Apple,” right? There’s also “Zachariah,” a self-procalimed “electric western.” There’s “Xanadu,” a film with its own cult, in which Olivia Newton-John plays a Muse. There’s the Elfmans’ Z-grade, zero-budget campfest “Forbidden Zone,” about a midget king from the fifth dimension, and his dealings with frogmen, old men preoccupied with sodomy, the devil (the legendary Danny Elfman himself), and The Kipper Kids making funny noises (the film is worth seeing just for Susan Tyrell’s evil bug-eyed rictus). But these films, for the most part, are, in a way, winking at the audience. Each of them is either knowingly over-the-top, or is, at the very least, kind of having fun with its material; they realize that the song they are currently singing may not have much to do with the narrative or emotional power, but is fun to sing and dance to. They each have a self-awareness (although some may be more self-aware than others), acknowledging the silly nature of musicals.
Musicals, after all, are inherently illogical. No one spontaneously bursts into song and dance in life, and even if they do, there’s rarely musical accompaniment, and no one else will know the steps. This is not a criticism, mind you. I love a good musical.
But “The Apple,” I suspect, is being totally honest with us. It wants us to take it at face value. The styles are over-the-top, the music is insane, but it’s all in the name of making a statement. The fact that they’re making a cautionary tale is one clue; cautionary tales are, by their nature, serious lessons, and cannot be taken lightly. Another clue is the Bible allegory; whether or not you use the Bible as your sacred text, most people at least see the Bible as at least a serious and definitive work of sorts. And those who know the Bible well, quote it, and look to it for lessons, are probably also taking it seriously.
And then there’s its tapping into the fashions of the time. The musicals listed above certainly follow pop trends, “Xanadu” especially uses current pop music as its fodder. However, most musicals have a sort of timeless quality; either they’re period pieces, fantasies, or can easily be transposed. “The Apple” is the one of the few musicals that is using pop trends, as opposed to merely utilizing them. As those currently mired in pop trends, or those who at one point in their lives devoted time, energy and money to remaining mired in the midst of pop trends (did you ever buy a poodle skirt, love beads, bellbottoms, a crimping iron, a snap-wrap? Do you even know what a snap-wrap is?) can attest to, pop trends are the most important thing in the world. Something inside you may know that the trend is, well, ephemeral by nature, but, man you’ll be dipped if you’re not going to wear the hot item to school on Monday. It’s that mindset, a mindset of needing to take part in all pop phenomena, that “The Apple” is tapping into. Or, more likely, it’s that mindset that the producers of “The Apple” are hoping to exploit. It’s this usage/exploitation/invoking/incanting of pop items that is the most obvious clue (at least to those who understand, or at least are familiar with the things being exploited) that “The Apple” does not want to be laughed at.
Yet, laugh we do.
In fact, the sheer awfulness and shameless, bare blatancy of the film is elating.
Why? Is it a form of cynicism in the eye of the viewer; are we laughing at, and not laughing with the film? Well, to be honest, there is a little of that going on. But, since, as I mentioned, the film is at the very least competent, I think that we are laughing a little more at ourselves, and our tendency, usually as teenagers, to get caught up in fashions that, at the time, seem wonderful, but now in retrospect, are ugly as all get out.
But the genius of “The Apple” lies, once again, in its honesty. It had the gall to try to be about something. It mixed things that shouldn’t be mixed: frank religious honesty, and transient pop culture. As Hank Hill once said of Christian Rock: “You’re not making Christianity better, you’re making rock music worse.” It tried so hard, and failed so miserably. But that it tried so hard is unavoidable. There’s spirit and obstinate energy that goes into something like “The Apple.” The fact that it’s a bad film has nothing to do with it. It’s magical, energetic, full of music.
It touches humans in a way that a lot of straightforward, “good” drama cannot. It allows us to see our folly, our hubris, our need to dress in silver, and, through a filter of 20 years, reflect on ourselves. Pop culture is still important to us, the messages are important to us, the film is important to those who have seen it and understood. This is what we were. There was part of us, as a culture, that produced “The Apple.” Whether it’s concocted by a cynical and greedy producer, or whether it’s outright demanded by the people, reflection on a unique experience like “The Apple” is an important step in understanding the nature of the art form, and our culture. There is truth in bad art. When someone succeeds, it’s elating for everyone, and we can see how great we are as a culture. When someone fails or is dismissed, well, that art does indeed show that there are minds out there who only kind of get it, that there are people lower down the pole. If you feel most artist are “above” you, than the bad artists can make you feel like there’s someone closer to your level. If you feel artists are just other people, then there’s comfort to be had from the fact that there’s someone below even you on the pole.
“The Apple” is one of the most exhilarating pieces of art I have seen. Awful, quotidian, goofy, unaware of how silly it is, and even a little painful. And beautiful, fun, wonderful and truthful. “The Apple” will be coming back to theaters for midnight shows in the future, and I highly recommend you see it. A DVD is due out in August 2004. Write to MGM and insist on full treatment. Because, gosh darn it, we need “The Apple” in our lives.
Mr. Topps, you can take me away.