Vintage Cable Box: “The Keep, 1983”

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“You have released the foulness that dwells in all men’s minds! You have infected millions with your twisted fantasies! And from the millions of diseased mentalities that worship your twisted cross… what monstrosity has been released in this keep?”

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The Keep, 1983 (Scott Glenn), Paramount Pictures

An Argento/Goblins-like musical collage (courtesy of realist post-punk 80s staple, Tangerine Dream) fills our ears as Michael Mann’s chilling, underrated The Keep begins. Jürgen Prochnow’s strikingly pale blue eye gazes upon innocent Romanian villagers living at the base of an immense citadel. He is the Captain of a German Army sent (for strategic purposes) to control a crucial mountain pass, and the citadel (a castle-keep) is to be their base of operations.

The keep is maintained by a batty old man who warns the soldiers not to strip the walls of crosses made from solid nickel, but their unearthly glow (that a couple of dimwitted soldiers are convinced is silver) is just too tantalizing to ignore. Breaking through a wall, situated at the precipice of what appears to be an enormous temple, the soldiers are killed by a long-dormant entity. The spirit’s resurgence causes a creepy and mysterious (yet hauntingly striking) Scott Glenn to enter the picture. He charters a boat to Romania.

The SS arrives (under the command of the evil – Whew! Here we go – Sturmbannführer Erich Kaempffer played by Gabriel Byrne) and begins executing the villagers as Communists. Prochnow (as a soldier in the regular German army) locks horns with Byrne and warns him of the unusual power of the castle-keep, but Byrne ain’t hearin’ none of it. The Germans retain ailing Jewish professor Theodore Cruza (Ian McKellen, rocking a fedora, though not quite convincing as an old man) and his hot daughter, Eva, to translate the inscriptions on the castle walls. When soldiers try to rape Eva, the entity appears and causes their heads to explode. After confronting the entity, Eva’s father is rejuvenated, possibly cured, as he reasons the spirit feeds on it’s victims’ souls.

Eva escapes (with Prochnow’s help) and takes up residence in a nearby Inn where she meets up with Glenn’s ambiguous visitor.  For reasons that are never explained, they make love.  He tells her he’s a traveler from “everywhere”, whatever that means.  He tells Eva he is to guard against the resurrection of the entity (identified as “Molasar”).  Glenn is arrested by the SS.  He is revealed to possess super-strength and appears to be impervious to bullets.

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By itself – if you know nothing of the film’s troubled production history – the narrative holds up surprisingly well. Upon closer evaluation, I can see that enormous sections of the story were left out of the general release granted by Paramount. There’s simply too much in the way of stunning art design, set decoration, and cinematography to be relegated to a paltry 95 minutes.

Michael Mann’s original cut of the film ran some three-and-a-half hours. It is replete with his early style; that of gorgeous widescreen composition, moody performances, and synthesizer-heavy music, reminiscent of his previous work, Thief, and his later effort, Manhunter. This is a movie screaming out to be restored and released in Mann’s director’s cut; given the Blade Runner treatment. Strangely, the movie is not available in either DVD or Blu Ray format (indeed the version I recently watched was on an old laserdisc), but it did receive heavy rotation on cable channels in the early 80s, which is where I first saw it.

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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NEW PODCAST: “Nothing Will Happen Suddenly”

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I don’t regularly watch movies on Laserdisc, just those titles you can’t find anywhere, and this is what’s troubling to me. Consider that you have nearly every movie made eventually mass-produced for VHS, and then only a very small fraction of those titles were produced and marketed for Laserdisc. A larger percentage of those titles were produced for DVD, but not nearly as many for VHS, right? Blu Ray comes along and it’s, once again, a fraction of the titles produced for DVD, more than Laserdisc but still fewer and far between. Specialty companies, like (I’m reminded of Twilight Time and Criterion), come out and cost upwards of $50 because they’re on limited runs and Blu Rays are expensive to produce and distribute, so we’re getting fewer titles because streaming is popular. You’re not going to get those hard-to-find titles on Blu Ray because it’s a niche market and not worth re-couping production-run costs.

So I watched the documentary, “Rewind This!”, about the enclave of devoted VHS collectors, some of them famous, a lot of them with big basements and media rooms, who proudly display their wares. They know that physical product is on it’s way out, that this is something the Studios and Networks have wanted for years – the ability to control their own distribution, their own exhibition.

Remember Sony Corp. vs. Universal, 1984. Universal Studios sued Sony for developing home video recording technology, which is strange considering video recorders had been on the market for around 20 years before this case went to trial. I think it was only when prices went down and more people were buying VCRs that Universal realized they might lose money in the rental market. Then copy-guard and Macrovision and other copy protection devices were introduced to keep people from dubbing movies. I think Universal was the first company to use copy-protection, after MCA Videocassette, Inc. was dissolved and MCA Home Video was formed.

“Too Much, Too Soon: The Rise of HD and the Death of CRT”

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You want a new TV?  Okay, you look at the prices.  Steep.  You check out the Best Buy flyers.  Prices are coming down.  So you save up, buy a big-screen LCD, or LED, or (God forbid) Plasma TV, 1080p, 40 inches or more across.  You hook it up to your cable or satellite.  It looks great on the HD channels.  There are more HD channels than ever.  All your local programming is HD.  All the premium channels, the sports, the key basic channels all in big, bright, bold, colorful high definition.  It’s like having a movie theater in your living room!

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This is the problem. You have hundreds, maybe thousands of DVDS gathering dust on the shelf because they just don’t look that great on your new TV. You’ve spent a lot of money in the 20 years since the advent of the digital versatile disc and you don’t want to throw everything away. There’s a very good chance you won’t find another copy of “La Strada”.

You do your homework, research up-converting 1080p DVD players with HDMI hook-ups for your new TV. The good news is they’re fairly cheap. The bad news is they’re not that great. They suffer the same archiving problems, the same stuttering, jarring effect of your old DVD player. Blu-Ray swoops in like Han Solo to save the day, but for a price. The first commercially-available Blu-Ray player (from Sony) cost about a grand. It was a great, clunky thing that took several minutes to load a disc.

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As Blu-Ray players become accepted into living rooms, the prices go down, and it is now possible to find a decent player for under a hundred bucks, but these newer, cheaper Blu-Ray players do not have RCA/composite audio/video jacks, only one HDMI output and (if you’re lucky) a digital audio out, but you have to buy all-new gear to support it. Wasting money with new technology is nothing new. How many cell phones have you owned in your lifetime?

The problem is that these new technologies are rolled out before anybody knows what to do with them. I mention the composite jack problem because I’ve been looking for a Blu-Ray player to replace the old DVD player in my bedroom, but I keep a big-screen CRT (cathode ray tube) TV in there. I have my HD and my Blu-Ray player (which I love because it has a USB connection and wi-fi so I can watch almost anything I have on my computers) in the living room, and I will not let my old CRT go.

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The CRT TV does not have an HDMI jack, so if I shell out for a new Blu-Ray player, I’ll have to find a HDMI-to-RCA jack, not just a jack, but conversion box to decode the signals from the HDMI and make them palatable for my analog receiver! These jacks are very hard to find. You won’t find them at Best Buy for some reason. Electronics companies and retailers want to steer you away from CRT, once and for all. It’s not a conspiracy or anything. It’s just too confusing dealing with all these different formats and wires.

So why not just give up on the old CRT TV? Get with the program! Buy a brand new television! Not too long ago, I took a walk with my daughter down the road to a gas station. It was rubbish removal day in our small town and at the curb of nearly every residence was a television, sometimes more than one television. For the most part, they were CRT TVs, so we played a counting game. We counted all the televisions we saw.

This is a half-mile stretch of road that connects Putnam Avenue and Main Street. By the time we made it to the gas station, we had counted twenty-seven (27) televisions and I think three of them were hi-def. The basement of our new home is a graveyard for CRT televisions, and all of them work perfectly. It seems obvious people want their toys, and it makes disposing of old television sets very difficult, but considering over the last century most programming was produced for standard 4:3 CRT sets.

If you’re a connoisseur of old movies, television shows, and sports (in other words anything produced before March of 1997 when the first widescreen productions were broadcast), you know that most of those products look like crap on high definition screens. Chances are these shows were not given 4K transfers to HD or Blu-Ray. Only a few TV shows have taken that route (“Star Trek: The Next Generation” comes to mind, and now I hear a Blu Ray box set of The Monkees TV show will be released next year) because production costs make it prohibitively expensive to restore and remaster so many classic TV shows for a niche market of fans and pop culture junkies like me. From the late 70s up until the mid-90s, filmed television shows were immediately transferred to video and then edited from U-Matic or Betacam SP tapes which were then shipped to affiliates for broadcast.

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That’s where CRT comes in. It’s quite frankly the only way to truly enjoy all your favorite TV shows, even at the restricted number of pixels (480i as opposed to 1080p, but there is a reason for interlaced as opposed to progressive frames – interlacing fills in the blanks to provide a cleaner image whereas progressive pixels stick out like a sore thumb as they try to interpret DVD and video-tape signals). This is why DVDs and videotapes look better on a CRT screen.

If the rise of DVD wounded the VHS market, then hi-def flat screens killed it. For a while, there was an unusual compromise with high definition CRT television. These were 1080 interlaced tubes that delivered superior picture and were able to display live widescreen television. They worked perfectly with letterboxed TV shows and movies, VHS, DVD, and broadcast high-definition signals. At best, you could get the 480 lines for standard definition and up to 720p for high definition and 720p on CRT looked better than the highest resolutions produced even today. There were drawbacks. The obvious weight issue aside, there were voltage concerns and the coils would superheat. The first models were pricey and this was right before the first plasma and LCD televisions came into market.

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The technology was too fast for it’s own good.  There was virtually no product to support these new enhancements.  Even now, eighteen years out, DVD and Blu-Ray technology has not out-produced conventional video technology nor has it marketed the simplicity that a CRT television and a VCR can provide.  Physical product is being scaled back while the popularity of downloads and streaming soars.  They’ve made it more complicated, more computer-dependent, but not terribly simple.

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LG has introduced the “bendable” LCD screen.  Paper-thin and held in place with a simple magnetic pad, this new screen will weigh ounces and offer the potential of a 4K viewing experience.  Adapted to smart phone technology, we begin to see the possibilities of personal LCD screens in everybody’s back pockets.  Televisions can be installed virtually anywhere.  I have to admit I was extremely excited when I heard of this new development.

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Screens are getting bigger but it doesn’t matter.  There’s only so much visual information the eye can take in and when we go to a movie theater, our eyes selectively rule out anything with limited visual interest, and now we have to do that in our living rooms.  We have the 4K Ultra HD with hundreds of inches of screen space, yet our homes are getting smaller.  Is there a point to this?  Why, I think not!  It doesn’t ultimately matter because we need our toys and we will continue to purchase our toys, and scores of newer high definition televisions will join their CRT counterparts piling up in landfills across the country.

Originally published October 31, 2014 in VHS Rewind!

BlissVille Fridays: “Attack Of The Mobbed-Up Porn Guy”

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Tonight, we have a Super-Special Extra-Creamy episode with cherries on top featuring my old friend, Andrew La Ganke.  Andrew came to the fold recently because he shares a a particular talent with me: that of not being able to shut the hell up.  We’re not quite sure when we first met, but it had to be around 1994 or 1995, something like that.  We worked in a video store on the Upper West Side together.

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We’re talking about Laserdiscs. Remember those?

“You were heavily into laserdiscs, and got me into collecting as well. This was before DVD. This was before all the special features you find being packaged in videos today. We were renting out VHS tapes (we had no clue about DVD yet) – also the video store had an impressive adult section. I remember I was there one day and a salesman brought in a box of HOT titles, so to speak, and our employers sifted through the titles and bought what they wanted for the store. The guy, the salesman was wearing a trenchcoat, he was bald, he looked rather mobbed-up, you know? That was hilarious, and then they were asking my opinion of what titles to buy. I forgot my suggestions, maybe they were the nicest-looking boxes, cover designs that would really grab people, I don’t know.”

“I still have my player. It’s quietly gathering dust in my media center, but it still works. I have my laserdiscs in a storage bin in the basement. I have some of yours as well that you had lent me. I still have your “Abyss” Special Edition. Later on, this “The Abyss” special edition was re-released for DVD – obviously you can store more information on the DVD. The laserdisc package was enormous, four or five of those large discs, this was compact disc technology, converting audio and video to linear digital bits, there was some compression but not nearly as much as you would find on a DVD, but I think, now I’m not sure, but I think that was one of the reasons for what is called “laser-rot”, the problem that would occur from age, neglect; the fact that there was so little compression can cause these problems. On a DVD, you have to squeeze all this information on a comparatively tiny disc. I’m not sure about that.”

A note about the music: Our official BlissVille podcast theme has been added to this episode. The music is titled, “This House Has Eyes”, and it was composed and performed by Sean A. McCabe. The music appears courtesy of Audio Jungle and Envato Music.

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Questions? Comments? blissville1870@gmail.com