The Seventies stunk.
There, I’ve said it. I hated the Seventies. Anglo afros, ugly interior design, gas rationing and herpes — you couldn’t pay me to feel nostalgia for the decade of my birth. Feel free to call it a case of sour grapes for being so young at the time and not being able to really partake of the fun, but all I can remember about those years was wanting to get the heck out as fast as possible. The only thing worse than living through that era is suffering through the nostalgia (faux or genuine) for it.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons The Apple had me laughing hysterically all the way through. It’s a love letter to the stylistic excess of that time, only it’s been penned by illiterates with terrible handwriting. It’s an awful movie, to be sure, but it’s never boring, if only because they find something absolutely stupefying to point the camera at in every second of film. And as bad as the movie is, it actually manages to point its satire in the right direction and even feels weirdly timely — that is, when it’s not burning your eyes out with some of the most horrific production design since the Star Wars Holiday Special. Shock Cinema described it as “Can’t Stop the Music meets Logan’s Run,” two other Seventies artifacts guaranteed to clear the room in seconds.
The Apple is set in 1994 (yes…1994), when the world is more or less run by giant corporations, among them BIM (Boogalow International Music), a hybrid entertainment conglomerate and talent management company. Their head, the Faustian Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Shaybal, one of the Portuguese commanders in Shogun) voraciously recruits new talent, then brainwashes them with hedonism, drugs, and creature comforts to turn them into mouthpieces for his machine-made disco concoctions. The BIM songs themselves are so awful, so contemptuous of their audience that I’m almost positive they were written that way deliberately (by George S. Clinton, no relation, who went on to do the Mortal Kombat techno score that everyone knows and loathes). They’re like the worst of the Olivia Newton-John travesty Xanadu forcibly crossbred with a flashy car commercia l.
Boogalow??s latest creations, Pandi and Dandi (sexy black chick, white British dude), wrapped in layers of glittering fabrics and see-through PVC, tear up the stage at the World Vision Song Festival in front of a crowd of thousands of Glo-Stick wielding fans. Then come Bibi and Alphie (Catherine Mary Stuart and George Gilmour, respectively), a clean-scrubbed folksy duo whose acoustic-guitar love songs almost win the audience over…but Boogalow sabotages their act with a subliminal riot tape. He’s still intrigued by the reaction they’re able to evoke in his lemming-listeners, though, and invites them to his office for a more detailed audition. In the meantime, he’s concocted a new social craze, a body decal that must be worn on pain of jail time and fines.
Bibi and Alphie show up at Boogalow’s offices, only to be pressured into signing a contract within the hour and being whisked away for their first world tour. Alphie refuses, feeling the earth move under his feet (literally, mind you) at having his life signed away, but the more pliant and impressionable Bibi dives in headfirst, comes up looking like a Nina Hagen imitator, and is crooning BIM music in no time. Heartbroken, Alphie does his best to try and win his girl back, but he’s beset by temptations of all kinds, including a “trippy” orgy sequence that looks like it was filmed through a dime-store glass ashtray. The whole movie looks both expensive and cheap: the set designers used what seems like 200 square miles of prismatic Mylar and several tons of glitter and dry ice, and shot in “modern”-looking buildings like shopping malls and office building lobbies to give the movie a goofus faux-futuristic look.
Alphie’s salvation comes in the form of a leader of a band of hippies left over from three decades past, and the arrival of “Mr. Topps” (both played by Joss Ackland!) who leads the hippies to redemption in a giant golden limo that flies out of the sky. All of this is of course interlarded with one flabbergasting musical number after another, drenched in lurid, saturated colors and spastic choreography. The dance numbers are completely out-of-left-field: At one point the BIM bigwigs declare a “BIM Exercise Hour,” and shut the whole country down so the citizens can gambol in the streets (including, hilariously, a patient on the operating table who drops dead in mid-boogie). Even when the music itself is supposed to be good, it's terrible, so listening to it ad nauseam throughout is going to have even the most stalwart schlock-lovers pawing for the fast-forward button. (When the film had its theatrical premiere in the States, the disgruntled audience threw its souvenir LPs of the soundtrack at the screen.)
At 4PM sharp the whole country shuts down to "Do the BIM", with a newly-made-over Bibi leading the chant.
Small wonder the movie was a product of the Golan-Globus / Cannon Pictures stable, responsible for an astounding number of stinkers through the Eighties. To be fair, they did back a number of good, risky projects that were worth bringing into theaters: Runaway Train, Barfly, Powaqqatsi, Street Smart, Grace Quigley, Love Streams, and so on — but the vast majority of the Cannon stable consisted of macho action junk with Charles Bronson, or unspeakable stuff like The Apple. One of my favo rite movie production stories of all time (courtesy of an interview with Roger Ebert) was how director Barbet Schroeder browbeat Menaheim Go lan into financing Barfly by threatening to hack off one of his fingers; I can only wonder what the genesis of The Apple must have been like.
Danny Peary (of the Cult Movies series of books) once wrote that since there were so many good movies out there that are shamefully under-appreciated, celebrating the really awful ones for the sake of being awful seems like a waste of energy. He may be right, but there’s a difference between movies that are run-of-the-mill bad (boring, clichéd, routine) and stuff like this, which is bad in a way that approaches a sick level of genius. There’s no way you can deliberately make the kind of mistakes of judgment and taste you see in this film: they sincerely thought they were making something entertaining. What’s surprising is the move’s anti-American and anti-corporate stance, which looked forward from 1979 to see only crass commercialism and corporate logos crushing everything in sight. They were able to hit the mark with this part of the material, even if only in the same way that a stopped clock is right twice a day.
It’s been done far better elsewhere, too. Not long ago I came across an early film by Punishment Park director Peter Watkins, named Privilege. That movie dealt with a British rock star, Steven Shorter (Paul Jones, of Manfred Mann), who has become a tool of the government and big corporations to keep people docile, distracted and complacent. It didn’t always work, and the second half of the film slid into pretty heavy-handed territory, but the parts that were on were dead-on (and, if anything, even more relevant today than in 1967). Then again, maybe comparing the two movies is misleading. The Apple may be pretty lousy as a message movie, a musical, or a comedy, but boy does it ever work as a campy, freaky indulgence.