Vintage Cable Box: “Irreconcilable Differences, 1984”

“This Civil War ain’t gonna get me down. I’m taking my act to a brand new town. This belle rings in old Atlanta. I’m gonna find myself a brand new Santa!”

Irreconcilable Differences, 1984 (Drew Barrymore), Warner Bros.

At the end of a particularly biting monologue delivered by Drew Barrymore to her befuddled, self-absorbed parents (Ryan O’ Neal, Shelley Long), she tells them they have “irreconcilable differences.” My mother jumps up, points at the screen and shouts, “What a little bitch!” I’m like, “Why?” I don’t think she gave me an answer, except to say Drew should have respect for her parents. In her world, parents were always right. Children were meant to be seen and not heard. Shut up, Drew! I don’t agree, and I am a parent. She has a valid point to make. When a child commits an atrocity; something we read about in the morning papers, my first question is always, “Where were the parents?” This must be the disconnect between the baby-boomer generation and their generation X offspring. They were too busy living second childhoods to care. Drew, essentially, takes her parents to court so that she can emancipate herself or, at the very least, get the Hell away from them.

Generation X-types aren’t completely innocent in the exchange either. They tend to spend way too much time playing video games, brandishing new tattoos, and reading comic books when they should be perfecting basic skills like combing their hair and shaving their neck-beards, but I kid! I didn’t mean for this to become a speech, but I always mean for my tone to be sarcastic. Little Casey Brodsky (Drew) hates her parents, or maybe she tires of their antics. Dad Albert is an up-and-coming filmmaker. His wife, Lucy, assists him to the point of rewriting his scripts (while not receiving credit). It must irk her to see their success attributed only to her husband. After a couple of hits, Albert is the toast of the town. He hires aspiring actress, Blake (Sharon Stone, in an early role) for his next film, and when it becomes obvious to Lucy he has subscribed to the Peter Bogdanovich playbook, she divorces him.

Bogdanovich (for those of you who don’t know) famously courted the beautiful Cybill Shepherd despite being married to production designer Polly Platt. The affair destroyed several relationships and killed Bogdanovich’s career after the failure of his bizarre musical, At Long Last Love. Married (at the time) writing couple, Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer parody this opus with Atlanta, a musical version of Gone With The Wind. I was never a fan of Gone With The Wind (I think it’s a terrible movie), but I think I would’ve been interested in seeing Atlanta. This misstep also kills Albert’s career and Blake dumps him. As the meteor of his success collides with Earth, Lucy’s star rises. She writes a tell-all memoir of her time with Albert, hilariously (and subversively) titled, He Said It Was Going To Be Forever, which becomes an enormous hit. There’s a nice bit of visual symmetry with all of Albert’s belongings being shuffled out of his mansion in a U-Haul as Lucy moves her stuff in.

What charms me about the movie is that Albert and Lucy still love each other, and they do love their daughter, even if they don’t know how to show it. They seem to use Casey as ammunition in their feud. Albert suffers what appears to be a heart-attack. Lucy rushes to his side at the hospital. She leaves in a huff after learning it was an anxiety attack. Albert seduces Lucy into a one-night-stand so that he can get the option to direct her memoir, which infuriates her. This is enough material for the court to determine that their housekeeper, Maria, should be given guardian status of Casey. My mother’s instinctive reaction to the material is not an isolated story. Irreconcilable Differences divides audiences along age boundaries, and if you examine the film closely, you’ll see that whenever Ryan or Shelley are on the screen together (or even separately), Drew is shunted off to the side, filling the background of the scene.

Meyers and Shyer craft an interesting take on the dissolution of a marriage, drawing on inspiration from old Hollywood fables and the break-up of writers Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein in Ephron’s languid memoir, Heartburn, but told from the point-of-view of a child. As an adult, it is difficult to understand Drew’s predicament. She wants for nothing. She’s obviously given adequate shelter and safety, and we must always remember that children tend to be preoccupied (to a pathological level) with their creature comforts, yet I don’t agree with the “little bitch” assessment. She’s more precocious than anything else. She’s wonderful to watch in the movie, though she has a tendency to mumble and not seem to understand much of what she says, but she was nine years old at the time of shooting, so I can’t fault her. She is, at her core, genuine.

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: Firestarter, 1984

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“John, the friendly orderly, will make her happy because he’s the only one who can. And when John feels she has reached the moment of her greatest happiness, he will strike her across the bridge of the nose, breaking it explosively and sending bone fragments into her brain. It’ll be quick. And he’ll be looking at her face at the time. He will know her power. And when he dies, which I hope is very soon, perhaps he can take that power with him… into the other world.”

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Firestarter, 1984 (Drew Barrymore), MCA/Universal

We pick up in mid-story. David Keith and daughter Drew Barrymore are on the run from nefarious government agents working under the auspices of “The Shop”, a kind of CIA Science Branch that specializes in chemical warfare and drug experimentation. Some ten to fifteen years before, a drug called Lot 6 is tested in a double-blind study. Andy and soon-to-be wife Vicki (Heather Locklear) are participants in the study. While some are not affected (by means of placebo), and some have extremely violent reactions (one poor bastard gouges his own eyes out), Andy and Vicki begin communicating telepathically.

They marry and have a child, Charlie, with pyrokinetic powers, but members of “The Shop” (short for the Department of Scientific Intelligence) have been watching and studying the child’s growth, subjecting them to harrassment. Eventually they murder Vicki and attempt to abduct Charlie, but Andy has the power to push people; that is, he can manipulate them to do what he wishes, but his power comes at a cost. He suffers hemorrhages that will eventually kill him.

For a year, Charlie and Andy stow away in motels and keep running from “Shop” agents, who want to exploit Charlie’s power, and perhaps assemble a race of firestarters for use in future war campaigns. The scientist (Freddie Jones) involved in the original Lot 6 tests discourages any further study of her, while “Shop” head Captain Hollister (a wicked Martin Sheen) and psychopathic assassin Rainbird (George C. Scott) want to kill Andy and train Charlie to control her powers, where her father has always discouraged using them.

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They hitch a ride with kindly farmer Art Carney, who takes them back home to meet his wife (Louise Fletcher), but “The Shop” is right behind them. Carney does his best to fend off the enemy agents, and Charlie and Andy escape. They hide out in an old lakehouse, but are then quickly captured by Rainbird. Once imprisoned in a “Shop” facility, they are separated. Testing begins on Andy, while Rainbird ingratiates himself to Charlie, and pretends to be her best friend.

Under the tutilege of Hollister and Rainbird, Charlie’s powers increase. She is able to selectively set fires with her mind. Andy has not been taking the medication he has been prescribed to dampen his own telekinetic activity. He pushes Hollister into reuniting him with his daughter, but Rainbird has other ideas (he wants to destroy her and, in my view, gain her power – “the power of the gods”), and the movie ends with an incredible and violent showcase of fire effects (a variation on the climax in Carrie) in which Charlie destroys the “Shop” facilities.

Stanley Mann’s screenplay is slavishly faithful to the Stephen King book and Mark Lester’s direction is spot-on.  Tangerine Dream’s memorable score is one of the best I’ve ever heard.  Keith and Barrymore are incredibly believable as a desperate father and his precocious and dangerous daughter, and Scott and Sheen make excellent, mustache-twirling villains.  Barrymore was such a gifted young actress in this movie that King wrote a part specifically for her in 1985’s Cat’s Eye.  Reading King’s books, I’ve noted his distrust of authority and government (The Stand and Under the Dome spring to mind) as well as his fascination with children (Carrie, The Shining).  Several movie adaptations of King stories played on cable at this time, such as Cujo, The Dead Zone, and Christine.

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On a personal note, enjoying this movie as a kid (as I’ve said before, I love stories about kids with insane, god-like powers), I never thought I’d have a daughter of my own.  Barrymore, in this movie, reminds me so much of my daughter; not that she has the ability to summon fire, but the sweetness, the innocence of childhood imparted.  Firestarter is one of the very few movies out there to stress and comment upon the importance of fathers and their daughters, and for that reason, this movie earns very high marks from me, and it is one of my favorite adaptations of Stephen King.

Anyone who listens to a child’s crying with understanding will know that psychic forces, terrible forces, sleep within it, different from anything commonly assumed: profound rage and pain and lust for destruction.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Thanks for reading Vintage Cable Box’s Halloween 2016 Horror Movie Coverage.  I had a lot of fun watching these movies and I hope you had fun reading! 

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.