A Year of Vintage Cable Box!

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“Our technology forces us to live mythically”

Marshall McLuhan

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Alyssa! My first crush.

Cable television is a beautiful woman (or man, I suppose) who gets into your brain and relaxes you.  She wants you to sit back and unwind.  Just imagine slender fingers rubbing and squeezing against your tense shoulders, then forming a fist to dig into the middle of your spine, and then you hear a satisfying crack and the ease of your joints.  I love her.  She is, as Homer Simpson would say, my “secret lover.”  This is me as an 11-year-old, unlocking the treasure trove, finding the honey pot, and witnessing boobies and enthusiasm, and strong language; the use of the “f” word.  I remember gasping when I first heard it.  I didn’t gasp anymore after I saw Scarface for the first time.  Cable television is different these days; the Pandora’s Box – she offers too much and gives nothing in return.  I looked at my guide the other day – a little over eleven hundred channels, crystal-clear HD, on-demand – anything I want, I can have.  In 1984, we had thirty channels, and if there was something I wanted that wasn’t on cable, I went to the video store.  Bear with me.  I’m not going to start up a diatribe about how things were better when I was a young’in.

Vintage Cable Box is something I always wanted to do.  I wanted to go back to that time when I was a young man, with burgeoning puberty pounding down the door, and Alyssa Milano’s gorgeous face, and Jacqueline Bisset’s tanned body and wet t-shirt, beckoning me.  I tune into Porky’s and come to the realization that there is a whole other world out there: the world of the coaxial cable and the heavy metal box on top of my 25″ Magnavox color console.  From there, innocence becomes a degree of intelligence (not much, but I was eleven, mind you) where cable television becomes my peculiar form of film school.  I can’t tell you how much I learned about movies, about making movies, about filmmakers, watching cable television at this time.  This is my life.  My life is movies.  I eat them up like popcorn.  The Man with Two Brains was the first; turning it on just as the cable guy was leaving the premises – it was exotic.  On the screen, a buxom blonde with a ridiculous accent flashes her bare breasts at Steve Martin.  The cable guy acted like it was no big deal, but we never had cable.  We seriously didn’t.  No cable television in Philadelphia.  My mother had a great job opportunity in Lebanon, Tennessee.  She had family down there, so we moved.  It was a higher quality of life (in theory, but not really).

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As the old saying goes, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.” We got the premium (or deluxe) package. HBO and Cinemax (which would alternate premiere movies; sometimes HBO would get it first, sometimes Cinemax would get it first. Either way, and in lieu of a videocassette recorder, movies were repeatedly shown. Sometimes they would even be broadcast simultaneously, perhaps a couple of seconds out of sync, and with slightly different color gradients and schemes – HBO always seemed a tad bit brighter than Cinemax. We had The Movie Channel for a time as well, until my mother started assessing the bill. The Movie Channel was interesting. You would find unusual, even obscure films often programmed as retrospectives, and this is how I learned about filmmakers. You would see a handful of Brian De Palma films like Home Movies, Dressed to Kill, Carrie, and Get to Know Your Rabbit programmed alongside Scarface to coincide with that film’s premiere. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, and The Trouble with Harry were programmed to coincide with the 1984 re-release of those movies. This is why I can never get behind arguments (usually from older people) that TV rots your brain. I don’t know what they’re talking about. Film, in and of itself, is an education, and television was the vehicle (or the medium – per McLuhan) for this delivery system. Me not dumb! Good, write, good!

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I had always wanted share my specific views and history of cable television in the early 1980s.  For a more in-depth analysis into the history of Pay TV and cable television, I suggest Ben Minotte’s fabulous Oddity Archive.  I had the opportunity to interview (with Mark Jeacoma) Mr. Minotte for the VHS Rewind podcast.  He’s an exceptional (and curious) fellow.  The other channels I remember from those times were CNN, Nickelodeon (and Nick at Nite), MTV, TNN (aka The Nashville Network), and WTBS (not just TBS – it was considered a “superstation”, like Chicago’s WGN), the local affiliates, and a couple of bizarre public access stations.  I remember flipping to one of those stations and seeing our landlord at the time, an old Baptist pulpit-punding minister, broadcasting his own show!  He seemed like a nice man, but he wouldn’t allow us to keep any pets.  Nick at Nite was an astonishing find.  I discovered The Bob Cummings Show, Bachelor Father, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.  What I remember, in the days before cable television, the UHF stations in Philadelphia: channels 17, 29, and 48.  Channel 17 WPHL would run Star Trek and The Outer Limits.  Channel 29 (WTAF, later to become a FOX affiliate with terrible reception) would run Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.  Channel 48 WKBS (which went out of business in 1983) would show Creature Double Feature on Saturday mornings and afternoons.  Sometimes, if your antenna was in a good position, you could get the Vineland, New Jersey UHF channel.

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When I launched Vintage Cable Box on August 31 last year, I fully expected to begin the odyssey with Porky’s, but Wes Craven’s passing away over that weekend prompted me to change up my schedule, so I put out three reviews: Swamp Thing, Porky’s, and Rodney Dangerfield’s Easy Money. Looking at the reviews now, they seem more like perfunctory write-ups, descriptions of plots more than any true evaluation. I don’t think I really kicked it into gear until The Osterman Weekend (September 23, 2016). My Big Chill review the following week I rate as one of my best. National Lampoon’s Class Reunion was a sobering reminder that many of the movies I enjoyed as an eleven-year-old I could not stomach today. Some (very few) of these movies are absolutely horrible to watch. Class Reunion kicked off my first Halloween retrospective. I reviewed horror movies for the entire month and got my first big hit with my review of Amityville II: The Possession. Horror movies get great numbers for me. What really sells today is nostalgia, and you could even look back on a failed movie, a terrible movie, and express some level of nostalgia or affection for it, but if you can’t drum up that enthusiasm in yourself, it’s not going to work for your readers or your listening audience.  I know I have this problem on occasion.

Which brings me to those reviews I might have phoned in, because I couldn’t get into it while loving it as a child, and then considering it some form of exquisite torture in my later years.  November brought me The Rosebud Beach Hotel and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen.  December’s Christmas cheer brought me The Man Who Wasn’t There, but it also brought me my biggest hit, A Christmas Story (to be rivaled only by Midnight Madness).  I think the elements of popularity and nostalgia (not to mention affection) combine to bring about a newfound interest; it’s not necessarily about how well you think you write.  If you are writing about something a reader has in the back of his or her head, that they remember, that they adore, you’ll get a lot of readers.  Get Crazy, a movie that barely had a release yet exploded on cable television, made me think about some hidden gems; the over-budgeted movies that scam-artist financers would sell to investors from which they would pocket the difference and laugh all the way to the bank.  It’s sort of like the plot to Mel Brooks’ The Producers.  Other examples include Somebody Killed Her Husband and (perhaps) The House of God.

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It’s amazing to me how some movies hold up, while others are terribly dated and get worse with age.  I remember adoring Breathless, They Call Me Bruce?, and Jekyll and Hyde – Together Again.  Now I hate them.  I can’t stand them.  In December, I launched a bit of a mini-series in that in appeared to me that several movies were being made at the time with writers as their central characters:  Deathtrap, Author! Author!, Romancing the Stone, Best Friends, and Romantic Comedy.  Nobody would ever dare make a movie about a writer these days.  Romantic Comedy would find it’s way into my series about Dudley Moore.  Moore was all over cable television at that time.  Dudley Moore’s particular skills revolved around his man-child characters, always unsatisfied, depressed, and yearning (or lusting) after women while negotiating his advanced years.  Sometimes, he would take a dramatic detour (Six Weeks), but those digressions were infrequent.  Mel Brooks’ 90th birthday was coming up, and I remembered seeing several of his movies (in another wonderful Movie Channel retrospective tied to the premiere of his To Be or Not to Be remake) so I put together the four that received endless play.

Stacey Nelkin in Get Crazy

There are also the unexpected deaths that changed my schedule (as with my very first review).  I mentioned in my (very quickly cobbled together) review of The Woman in Red that Gene Wilder’s passing forced me to rush that write-up.  I had originally planned to continue my articles up to the point we got the HBO satellite service in Philadelphia, and The Woman in Red would be featured.  The same situation forced me to publish a review for Garry Marshall’s Young Doctors in Love.  After the death of David Bowie, I wrote up the review for The Hunger.  I have a schedule in place, and I tend to write reviews well in advance of publication for this very reason.  So what are we up to?  At last count, 74 reviews have been published.  I had initially expected to put out an article once a week.  I figure I have about another year’s worth of material.  We’ll see what happens, but this has been a wonderful trip back to my past, and I hope you (the readers) will continue this journey with me.

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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“His Eyes As Flame”

10

Written by David Lawler
Additional Commentary by Alex Saltz
Original Music by Alex Saltz, APS Mastering
Introduction Music: “Love Potion #9” (Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller) by Coffin Nails (from the 2014 EP “Murder on the Orient Express”)
Audio Clips: “Love Potion No. 9” (a 1992 film written and directed by Dale Launer), “Three Little Bops” (1957 Looney Tunes cartoon), The Honeymooners “Young Man With A Horn” (Episode 26), “The Chaser”, “A Passage For Trumpet”.

Recorded January 13, 2016

Note: The episode was recorded a couple of days after musician David Bowie died, so I added a couple of tributes. The first was my rather horrid (mis)interpretation of “Changes” from the 1971 album “Hunky Dory” and the second tribute occurs after the end of the episode, a few seconds of the church bells at Dom Tower in Utrecht. The bells played “Space Oddity”.

© BlissVille, David Lawler copyright 2016 for all original vocal and audio content featuring David Lawler and selected guests each episode. Original Music © Alex Saltz copyright 2015. This podcast, “That Twilighty Show About That Zone” is not affiliated with CBS Entertainment, the CBS Television Network, or The Rod Serling Estate. Any and all images, audio clips, and dialogue extracts are the property of their respective copyright owners. This blog and podcast was created for criticism, research, and is completely nonprofit, and should be considered Fair Use as stated in the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. section 107. It is not an official product, and it should not be sold nor bought; this is intended for private use, and any public broadcast is not recommended. All music clips appear under Fair Use as well. If you’re thinking of suing because you want a piece of the pie, please remember, there is no actual pie. We at BlissVille have no money, and as such, cannot compensate you. If anything, we’re doing you a favor, so please be kind. I do this ’cause it’s fun, and nothing else.

Running time: 31:30 Direct Download

New Episode! “The White Album, Disc One”

Disc-One

Vegas, Baby! : Polonium In Every Pocket : Slave-Picked Shrimp Gumbo
That Rickman Dude : Every Restaurant Called “Saffron”
The Continuing Story of Bernie Sanders
Thin White Duke : Having Fun In Harney County

“Fletch” (a 1985 film starring Chevy Chase), “Back In The U.S.S.R.” by the Dead Kennedys(Lennon/McCartney), “Glass Onion” by Cajun Cook (Lennon/McCartney), An Evening With Kevin Smith, “Ashes To Ashes” by Warpaint (David Bowie), “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” by Cassie Willson from YouTube (Lennon/McCartney).

“To Die, To Sleep”

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Written by David Lawler
Additional Commentary by Colin Hall
Notes Cribbed from Todd Van Der Weff.
Original Music by Alex Saltz, APS Mastering
Introduction Music: “Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)” by David Bowie.
Audio Clips: “Cat People” (a 1942 film produced by Val Lewton, directed by Jacques Tourneur, and starring Simone Simon). The Twilight Zone, “Perchance To Dream” and “Judgment Night”.

Recorded November 26, 2015

© BlissVille, David Lawler copyright 2015 for all original vocal and audio content featuring David Lawler and selected guests each episode. Original Music © Alex Saltz copyright 2015. This podcast, “That Twilighty Show About That Zone” is not affiliated with CBS Entertainment, the CBS Television Network, or The Rod Serling Estate. Any and all images, audio clips, and dialogue extracts are the property of their respective copyright owners. This blog and podcast was created for criticism, research, and is completely nonprofit, and should be considered Fair Use as stated in the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. section 107. It is not an official product, and it should not be sold nor bought; this is intended for private use, and any public broadcast is not recommended. All music clips appear under Fair Use as well. If you’re thinking of suing because you want a piece of the pie, please remember, there is no actual pie. We at BlissVille have no money, and as such, cannot compensate you. If anything, we’re doing you a favor, so please be kind. I do this ’cause it’s fun, and nothing else.

Running Time: 29:48 Direct Download

Vintage Cable Box: “The Hunger, 1983”

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“Are you making a pass at me, Mrs. Blaylock?”

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The Hunger, 1983 (Catherine Deneuve), MGM/UA

Bauhaus is considered “post-punk”, which is simple short-hand for the in-between years of the death of Disco, the birth of New Wave, the seminal jazz of New Romantic crossed with what would become Goth and Alternative. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” opens The Hunger with Peter Murphy performing appropriately aloof. Can you imagine New York City in 1983? It was a city alive, steeped in bastard culture, the figurative melting pot; millions of people doing what they wanted, all the time stiffs in cheap suits acted as though they were in control. They weren’t.

I love this movie because it speaks to a city that no longer exists, but only in photographs; the difficult photographs you can’t upload. The photographs you have to dig up out of your photo albums and scan if you want anybody else to see them. It was an uncomfortable, even excruciating mix of the pop culture sensibilities of the time.

Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie are a crazy-sexy, chic couple of kooks, fabulous and beautiful, but they also happen to be vampires. They subsist on the blood of the unknowing, live in a fantastic brownstone (with an elevator!) – that’s what comes from immortality; at least you know where to keep your money, but nothing changes. People still want. People are still victims of their stupidity. Nothing changes for this pair. All they seek is food. Bowie begins to notice his aging. It’s not fair. He was promised immortality from Deneuve’s embrace, and now he’s pissed.

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Enter Susan Sarandon’s character, Dr. Sarah Roberts, who seems to be pioneering work in advanced aging, which sparks Bowie’s interest. One of my favorite bits in the movie has to be Bowie waiting all day for Roberts to see him, meanwhile he has aged 50 years in the waiting room, while she ignores him. This is what it feels like in a doctor’s waiting room! Eventually, he is consigned to a coffin, and Deneuve gets friendly with Sarandon, and when I say “friendly”, I don’t mean pleasant, cordial smiles and flowers. Deneuve’s only (albeit predatory) interest in Sarandon is sustenance and companionship; the same, self-serving reasons she chose Bowie’s character 300 years before.  In her highly-publicized (not to mention extremely erotic) love scene with Deneuve, Sarandon is deliberately made up and photographed to resemble Bowie.

The Hunger was unfairly maligned at the time of its release for being nothing more than a feature-length MTV music video. The first time I saw the movie on cable, I was instantly smitten with the visuals and the long dialogue-free passages telling a story in pictures, and the presence of the super-cool Deneuve and Bowie as sophisticated New York vampires who masquerade as music teachers during the day and blood-thirsty creatures by night. When laserdiscs became affordable, I actively sought out this title, so I could see the film unfettered and unmolested in letterbox format.

The bloody and (admittedly) ridiculous finale notwithstanding, The Hunger was an extremely influential film, not only to modern cinema but the mythology of vampire movies as they would evolve in the next thirty years. As depicted in Whitley Streiber’s source novel, they are not dreamy-eyed teenybopper bait yearning to be loved. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing searching for food, and when they find you, they will destroy you.

The Hunger was Tony Scott’s first feature-length film. He would go on to an illustrious career; the director of choice for action movies, Tom Cruise, and Denzel Washington. Scott directed Top Gun, Revenge, True Romance, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State among many other movies. He died in 2012. Mr. Bowie passed away last week, so I rushed this one in tribute to the Thin White Duke.

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.