Vintage Cable Box: Repo Man, 1984

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“The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”

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Repo Man, 1984 (Emilio Estevez), MCA/Universal

A state trooper pulls over a ’64 Chevy Malibu, and asks the bizarre driver what’s in the trunk.  The driver tells him, “You don’t wanna know.”  The trooper opens the trunk and is instantly disintegrated, and all that is left is a pair of smoking boots.  This opening bit sets the tone for what is to come.  The dystopic contemporary depiction of a Los Angeles in the grip of poverty, writer-director Alex Cox’s Repo Man is a landscape of smashed windows and busted televisions, of manipulative evangelists, and UFO nuts.  Emilio Estevez is not quite a punk. more of a poser (the kind of person who admires the lifestyle, but really wants a house in the sticks with a 2-car garage – I know many people like this), because he holds down a steady job (until he loses his cool) in a supermarket, and while he joins his friends for nightly “mosh” sessions, he has more on his mind than getting wasted.

One day, he hooks up with Harry Dean Stanton (always a joy to watch in any film), who asks him to hot-wire a car for $10 because he “lost the keys, and his sister is pregnant.”  Estevez agrees, but wonders why a Mexican man is trying to stop him as he does it.  He drives off with the car, and Stanton leads him to a junkyard, where the car is impounded.  Estevez’s Otto isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he comes to the conclusion he just repossessed a vehicle.  Stanton offers him a job; good money and benefits, but Estevez hates these people, and I can understand why.  They repossess cars (a kind of legal version of theft) when the owners don’t make their payments, or for other reasons (say they’re late on house payments or utilities).  To Otto, they contribute to the downfall of a schizophrenic economy and the cultural wasteland.

When Otto discovers his parents have given his college money (See? Not a real punk!) away to a televangelist, he reluctantly takes up Stanton on his offer, and soon he’s lifting cars at an impressive rate.  He gets to know and bond with the denizens of the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation.  He listens to crazy theories about alien spacecraft and time travel, life and money, and, inexplicably John Wayne’s sexual orientation.  Otto’s life is turning around, and a schism develops between him and his punk friends (one of them bears a striking resemblance to my buddy, Noah).  He gets a kooky girlfriend, who is obsessed with the UFO culture, and he finds he’s been cased by spooks and weird chicks with mohawks.

The Malibu is making the rounds and a bounty goes out on the vehicle.  $20,000 to the person (or persons) who can repossess the vehicle.  It makes sense the vehicle would be hot (figuratively as well as literally), and Stanton is locked in a battle of wits with the Rodriguez Brothers, the only other hacks in the game as bad-ass as Stanton’s Helping Hand cronies.  You have an unusual convergence of like-minded nitwits in skid-row: car repossessers, alien abduction nuts, Feds, and religious fanatics all coming together to unlock the power of this vehicle.  In the mish-mash of social commentary littered about the grounds of Cox’s narrative, what we see are emerging trends.  Cox’s worldview is not unlike that of a punk.  There are forces out to control you, and none to liberate you.  That makes a whole Hell-of-a-lot of sense if you consider yourself disenfranchised.

The Malibu changes drivers a few times when the Rodriguez Brothers lift the car, which is then stolen by a couple of Otto’s friends.  The original, crazed driver taunts them into opening the trunk, and they get zapped.  He takes back possession of the car, picks up Otto hitchhiking, and promptly dies behind the wheel, after confessing to him that he had a partial lobotomy in order to negotiate the heavy stress of driving this beast.  As government agents, priest, rabbis, and UFO enthusiasts swarm on the vehicle, it emits lightning and fire, and only Otto and his co-worker, Miller (who told him earlier he refuses to drive and does all his thinking on a bus), can get behind the wheel.  The Malibu ascends into the air and flies into space.  We never really settle on what is inside the trunk.  The crazy driver tells Otto it’s a neutron bomb.  Otto’s girlfriend tell him it’s the corpses of two aliens that emanate dangerous radiation.  I’m guessing it’s a MacGuffin, merely to keep up our interest in the movie, but it doesn’t matter.  This is such an interesting and entertaining film populated with incredible characters that it doesn’t need this device (or vehicle, as the case the may be) to tell the story.

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For this movie to come out when it did, March of 1984, in the middle of the sex comedy and slasher film explosion, and the beginnings of the opening weekend mindset of Hollywood, Repo Man initiated a major smack-in-the-face to the conventions of filmmaking.  Similar in style to something like Jim Sheridan’s Breathless, but with a story and characters we give a crap for, Repo Man is a cultural send-up of science fiction, crime-drama, and tales of government paranoia.  It shows a side of Los Angeles we aren’t used to seeing.  An extraordinarily bold and gifted filmmaker, Alex Cox would follow-up Repo Man with Sid & Nancy, and the much-maligned (although I liked it) Straight To Hell.

Sourced from a VHS tape recorded off the Independent Film Channel (IFC), extended play, circa 2002-2003.  This was back when IFC ran uninterrupted films with no commercials.  Also on the tape were Harmony Korine’s 1997 oddity, Gummo, and the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers starring Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, and Brooke Adams.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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Vintage Cable Box: “Wavelength, 1983”

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“Iris, they gotta put something on.  We can’t run around with three naked kids.  Not even in Hollywood.”

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Wavelength, 1983 (Robert Carradine), New World Pictures

Wavelength plays out almost like a hallucinatory daydream, seen through the eyes of a ghost-like Cherie Currie (who is always illuminated by key blue and green lights). She tells the story of how she met burned-out rock star Bobby Sinclair and consequently, a trio of aliens, whom can communicate with her telepathically. Cherie plays Iris Longacre, an earthy artist who hooks up with Bobby, and starts hearing strange whale-like sounds (like cries for help), somewhere buried within the Hollywood Hills. They take a walk around the neighborhood and come upon an enclosed structure, built like a fort, with barbed-wire fences.

Intrigued by her claims, Bobby takes her to meet an old miner (Keenan Wynn) who had assisted in the construction of a top secret Air Force base in the Hills. The reasoning being no one would ever suspect a compound in such a bizarre location. Wynn shows them a network of elaborate tunnels that lead to the base. Bobby and Iris make their way inside, and as they get closer, the cries get louder. As it happens, scientists are conducting an autopsy on what appears to be an alien, recovered from a crash site in the desert. It is this alien that is crying. Iris freaks out and screams in a kind of sympathetic pain. They are caught and arrested.

Examinations reveal Iris to be a twin (interesting in that Cherie indeed has a twin sister, Marie – who appeared with her in The Rosebud Beach Hotel), which scientists theorize give her latent psychic abilities. Iris and Bobby are reunited and then confined to the laboratory where alien canisters are being stored. The Government orders the base evacuated and sealed, effectively sentencing the kids to death. Bobby opens the canisters. The aliens come out. They look like naked, bald children. They have superhuman strength and preternatural powers, and they break down the doors, engineering Iris and Bobby’s escape. In a clever twist, the Government tells authorities to launch a dragnet for three missing “kids”, presumably abducted by Bobby and Iris.

The alien crash site is causing all the land around it to be subsumed in a poisonous environment. Witnesses and base personnel are dying off, and plant life is eroding. Iris and Bobby (with the help of Wynn and a pair of intrepid Native Americans) transport the remaining three aliens to their crash site. The movie (and the climax) bears some striking similarities to John Carpenter’s Starman (for which director Mike Gray coincidentally co-created the TV series spin-off), released a year later, especially with the revelation of the alien spacecraft: a mirror-like glowing sphere that casts a reflection.

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While obviously a low-budget science fiction, Wavelength is a beautifully-shot, impeccably edited (by Mark Goldblatt, who would go on to become Hollywood’s premiere action movie editor), swiftly-paced (yet thoughtful and sublime) and atmospheric film. Even in the murky, old VHS version, I can still appreciate the photography, but I would love to see an HD transfer. Robert Carradine shows he can act without having to dress up like a nerd. Cherie Currie is photographed like a gorgeous ghost, and at times, her performance is flirtatious, solicitous, and downright creepy. I love her face in this film. Director Mike Gray had previously co-written (with James Bridges and T.S. Cook) the screenplay of The China Syndrome, as well as an excellent documentary about artist Marc Chagall, The Gift from 1973. Gray passed away in 2013.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: “The Ice Pirates, 1984”

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“Whatever happened to ‘we rape, we pillage’?”

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The Ice Pirates, 1984 (Robert Urich). MGM/UA

“Long after the great interplanetary wars, the Galaxy has gone dry. Water has become the only thing left of value.” So sayeth the introduction accompanied by Bruce Broughton’s uplifting adventure score for a movie I loved when I was a kid. I think I loved The Ice Pirates because it had all the tropes of other science fiction movies without directly identifying itself as a spoof. It has a little Star Wars in it (a lot actually – the writers really like robots and robot-related humor) and a little Alien action (in the form of giant space herpes that infest a ship), and a little environmentally-conscious Soylent Green preachyness.

Robert Urich, in a role turned down by Kevin Costner (who would go on to make the similarly-themed Waterworld), leads a rag-tag group of pirates whose main booty appears to be – you guessed it, ice. Surprise! That’s where the title of the movie came from. His crew consists of Anjelica Huston (bad-ass swordmaster), Ron Perlman (a rather “flamboyant” Perlman), and Michael D. Roberts (programming genius). During a routine sweep-and-clear, they are captured by a beautiful Princess, who spares the men a painful castration, and forces them to take her on a mission to find her father, who disappeared searching for a fabled water-covered planet.

Urich’s old buddy, Lanky Nibs (aged prematurely due to a time-warp distortion) tells the Princess her father was searching for the fabled “seventh planet” that spun out of it’s regular orbit and into a new galaxy, but to reach that galaxy, the ship must evade further time distortions. One of my favorite scenes has Urich and Crosby getting friendly in a simulated holographic thunderstorm. As they travel through pockets of accelerated time, Crosby becomes pregnant and gives birth to their child. The child grows into manhood and saves the rapidly-aging crew from certain destruction at the hands of the Supreme Commander (played by John Carradine) all in the space of five minutes.

The Ice Pirates is a lot of fun, even watching it now. I’ve complained before about movies I loved as a kid that didn’t hold up well, and while I recognize the stupidity of this movie, at least I felt the filmmakers were having fun making it. The movie is a mosaic of unusual set design borrowing elements of space opera, bargain-basement Shakespeare, and of course, pirate movies. The pre-CGI visual effects and matte-work are still impressive. Most of the one-liners are cringeworthy, and while Urich and Crosby make an interesting Leia-and-Han-type couple, their chemistry is hindered by Crosby. While undeniably beautiful, her performance lacks energy.

Utilizing the old axiom about “stealing from the best”, the movie takes certain visual cues from other science fiction movies. It’s good cheesy fun. Some jokes seem way too racy (and racist) to have made it into a PG-rated action yarn. There’s a great bit where Urich is introduced to his child, who proceeds to piss right in his face. Spoiler for those who haven’t seen the movie: it was Earth all along!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.