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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Vintage Cable Box: Class, 1983

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“The dog died.”

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Class, 1983 (Rob Lowe), Orion Pictures

Poor kid Andrew McCarthy (not exactly wrong-side-of-the-tracks, mind you) from a steel town (on a Saturday night looking for the fight of his life!) hugs his parents and says goodbye as he advances to prep school.  This is a kid who has obviously had to study hard, and work his way through life to reach the upper stratus of the rich kid’s world.  Upon meeting his new roommate, Skip (Rob Lowe) sizes him up as a complete rube and a naïve mensch who will fall for his practical jokes and ridiculous stories.  On the surface, Lowe’s pranks could be seen as exceedingly cruel (even driving McCarthy to tears), but they are necessary in order to forge the bond between the two young men as they cope with the rigors of encroaching adulthood.

McCarthy manages to bestow revenge upon Lowe (in the form of a fake suicide – not terribly funny, I guess you had to be there) and they become fast friends.  After a couple of episodes, usually involving young women and embarrassing hi-jinks, Lowe (in Christ regalia carrying a crucifix, no less) gives McCarthy a hundred bucks and a ticket to Chicago so he can get laid, or else he won’t be allowed back into the dorm.  McCarthy decides to take him up on the offer.  He goes to a singles club, and ultimately hooks up with a beautiful older woman (delicious Jacqueline Bisset).  While initially chaste, it’s obvious she’s very lonely and prefers to populate her surroundings with young people.  She finds McCarthy’s naïveté charming, and seems to be immediately attracted to him.  They have sex, and it is implied this is McCarthy’s first time.

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Returning to school, he presents a pair of panties as proof of his dalliances, and regales classmates with stories of passion with an older woman, and earns the respect of his peers.  He has further interludes with Bisset.  They have a remarkably easy sexual chemistry (no difficult feat with Bisset), which demonstrates not only the success of the movie’s characterizations (the story takes it’s time in unfolding) but also places an important emphasis on sexuality in general as depicted in the eighties.  McCarthy shows wonderful maturity in his scenes with her (he’s a joy to watch, which is strange for me) even when he lets it slip that he loves her.  Her face goes blank for a moment, because she’s contemplating the ramifications of the statement (as an older women would).  This is a strangely thoughtful screenplay for an eighties sex comedy.

She takes him to New York and shops for him. While he changes his slacks, she spies his wallet, opens it up, revealing that he is, in fact, a high school student. She runs off. What I wonder is – how could she not know? She knows he is rather inexperienced as a lover. His youthful demeanor should’ve triggered something in her, so we approach somewhat controversial territory in that even if we bond with people on an intimate level, how hard would it be to accept that the years are wrong between us? McCarthy is depressed, and his grades are slipping. Lowe invites him up to his parents’ country estate for Christmas break. This is where the fun begins!

They get to the palatial spread, and Skip introduces his parents, Cliff Robertson, and one Jacqueline Bisset!  Turns out she’s a very bad girl.  What follows is stilted, awkward dinner conversation.  Bisset is in an unhappy marriage to a humorless, straight-shooting Robertson, which makes sense given her proclivity for casual sex with strangers.  Robertson chalks up her peculiar behavior to neuroses or a mid-life breakdown.  The movie then turns into a comedy of errors, where McCarthy has to shield Lowe from his relationship with Bisset, and then to provide a sounding board to Lowe’s disillusionment and dissatisfaction with his parents and adult life.

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Even though they tended to irritate me in later movies, McCarthy and Lowe are just about perfect in this film, playing off each other like a younger variant of The Odd Couple; McCarthy is a straight-laced realist, and Lowe is a bad boy.  The terrific cast is a mix of old (Robertson, Stuart Margolin), new (John Cusack, Alan Ruck, Virginia Madsen), and the still-hot (Bisset).  Class plays as a reverse Blame It On Rio, from the perspective of the young male as protagonist, and also a pre-Brat Pack opus, but given the cast and subject matter (more sexualized) produced by a slightly-older generation of filmmakers than John Hughes, it’s more hard-hitting and less contextualized.  When Lowe’s character discovers the truth, he is mortified.  McCarthy tries to reason with him, but instead, they wind up fighting it out in mud-covered fields, which spills over into their dorm.  After beating the holy hell out of each other, they collapse in a heap and laugh.  This is one of the greatest endings of any movie I’ve ever seen.

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.