Vintage Cable Box: “The Twelve Chairs, 1970”

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“I hate people I don’t like!”

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The Twelve Chairs, 1970 (Ron Moody), Universal Marion Corporation

While ostensibly labeled a “Mel Brooks comedy”, The Twelve Chairs, the under-appreciated 1970 follow up to The Producers, and essentially a lively chase across the then brand-new Soviet Union, the narrative follows devastatingly dramatic and tragic narrative beats. Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody, in a brilliant performance) was, at one time, of noble Russian blood; an aristocrat, who held vast properties, large mansions, whole swaths of acreage; acquiring treasures from around the world, but this was before the Bolshevik Revolution when all private property (for some strange reason) became public property. That is to say the “property of the People”; the people being the communist government.

When the communists came to power, they seized everything, including a garish dining room set consisting of a table and twelve chairs.  Before Vorobyaninov’s mother-in-law dies, she tells him of fabulous jewels that she sewed into the cushion of one of the chairs.  She also spills the secret to Priest Fyodor (Dom DeLuise, oddly out of place in this movie), who promptly shaves his ridiculous beard and abandons the church to find the jewels.  For reasons that are never explained, thief and con-man Ostap (Frank Langella, in his film debut), gets wise to the booty and hooks up with Vorobyaninov to find the chairs before Fyodor does.  This mission sends them to bizarre places, like the hilarious “Museum of Furniture” (where the chairs were recently on display) only to find they’ve been split and sold off.  Ostap poses as a clerk, forges the sales records and sends Fyodor off on a wild-goose-chase, where he terrorizes a beleaguered couple he is convinced possess the remaining chairs.

While Vorobyaninov and Ostap bond, in my view, they are at cross-purposes.  In a telling scene near the end of The Twelve Chairs, they argue and come to blows when Ostap suggests they beg for the money to purchase the remainder of the chairs.  Ostap schemes that Vorobyaninov should pretend to suffer epilepsy and then they will take money from sympathetic pedestrians.  Vorobyaninov is adamant in his refusal.  He is nobility, he insists.  Ostap labels him a parasite, and (almost proudly) proclaims that he has begged his whole life.  Vorobyaninov relents.  Now he knows what it means to beg, and while his pride may be wounded, he knows this is the only way to survive.  While Ostap is interested only for the riches, I believe Vorobyaninov wants to simply retain his dignity.  It is an incisive revelation, and occurs in a Mel Brooks movie at a time when we don’t know if we should laugh or cry.

Even more shocking is Fyodor.  A man of the cloth transformed very quickly into a monster at the first thought of riches.  As the concept of communism crept into Russia, notions of materialism (and more importantly, god concepts) deteriorated under the ideology of labor and financial equality, thus eliminating the need for God (or, as my wife, speculated, “the promise of riches and eternal happiness in Heaven”).  Father Fyodor exists as an anomaly; something that should not exist in the Godless Soviet Union.  Once he has made the leap to the greed and inequities of Man, the surprising cynicism of Brooks’ screenplay (based upon Ilf and Petrov’s classic piece of folklore and legend) becomes more pronounced, and also, curiously satisfying.  Where Fyodor has lost his humanity because of his greed,  Vorobyaninov has found his humanity when he realizes his survival depends on his greed.

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Ron Moody as Vorobyaninov delivers what is, in my mind, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) performances in the history of cinema for the modern age. Vorobyaninov is a miserable little man desperately holding on to outdated notions of honor and imperalism. His face lights up at the prospect of taking back the jewels. He suffers embarrassments at the hands of Ostap who shames him for his lack of vision and street-smarts. He expresses violent rage at the thought of demeaning himself, and then he eventually acquiesces to the lunacy of the situation. This is an incredible rendition of a man who turns his back to the “progress” of the new socioeconomic order. While Brooks’ outstanding screenplay adaptation was nominated for the WGA Award, and Langella won a National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor, Moody was robbed of any nominations or awards, which is staggering to me.

Even more staggering is that this is a Mel Brooks movie. There are the requisite sight gags (with emphasis on stand-alone visual cues), and silly sped-up chasing and action sequences, and memorable one-liners (as well as a Mel Brooks cameo), but the emphasis of this story rests in the tragedy of the old man, not the manic machinations of the corrupted priest. This is a cynical film, but stays true to the Brooks philosophy of the corruption of power, and the overwhelming dominance of greed.

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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BONUS PODCAST! “Dance Your Cares Away!”

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Everybody’s scared. I pretend to be brave, but I’m scared as Hell. I do not want the Eagles of Death Metal to perform in these continental United States, at least the lower 48, the contiguous States. I don’t mind if they perform in Hawaii, or Alaska, or all of our subjects, The Virgin Islands, Samoa, Puerto Rico.

Rudy Giuliani recently blamed the creation of Isis, or ISIL, on Barack Obama. His logic is that because, this is his words: “If we had not taken our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, ISIS never would have emerged,” Giuliani said Monday during an appearance on Fox News.

Americans seem to be extremely confused and don’t know how to handle their anger at these latest tragedies. I went to the good ole Wikipedia and looked up a list of terrorist attacks in the year 2015, and the list was quite extensive, from January 2nd up to now – the day before the attacks in Paris, 43 people died and 240 people were injured in Beirut, and Wikipedia is referring to the aggressors as “Islamic State” (which sounds somewhat generic) or ISIL. There are other terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram, something called Al-Shabaab, Ansar Al-Islam, and many more.

I made a joke the other day on a friend’s post where I said, basically – “Well, if we really wanted to feel safe, we should set up these Syrian refugees in “camps” of a sort … oh … never mind.” People liked the joke, actually, because I was making a point that, perhaps 40 or 50 years ago, our government would’ve had no compunction about taking people we deemed to be enemies, such as the Japanese, relocate them and put them into Interment Camps, right? I don’t care that they’re American citizens when I’m talking about safety and security, okay? If we’re at war, we have to get serious – when the war is over, we’ll buy you a brand new house and a brand new car, but for right now – you’re an enemy by proxy – this is the logic. Enemies-by-proxy. I know you’re good people. I know you wouldn’t kick puppies in the street. I know you don’t beat your children. For years, we heard the stories about how horrible it was, people, wholesale up-ended and taken to places with barbed-wire. Yes, I know it was a tragedy, but now in the wake of these terrorist attacks and what appears to be an influx of Syrian refugees, displaced, looking for greener pastures, I’m not saying I condone the practice, but I understand the logic. People like to lie to themselves and say, “oh our Country would never do that.” Surprise, we did! Look at how we treated alleged Communist sympathizers for 40 years. Not even card-carrying Commies, just people interested in the ideas. Look at what we did to them.

If it gets terrible enough, for this country – we are another 9/11 away from becoming complete out-and-out Nazis, I believe this.

Audio clips:

Dana Andrews from “Twilight Zone” season 4, episode 10, “No Time Like The Past”

Dennis Hopper from “Twilight Zone” season 4, episode 4, “He’s Alive”

Brigitte Gabriel CNS News

 

BlissVille Fridays: “We’ll Gather At The Roadhouse With Our Next Of Kin”

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New season! Join us as we discuss Andrew’s recent whirlwind cruise line trip to Europe. We also talk about the horrors of California.

It should go without saying (at this point) that Andrew and I have fairly loose tongues and we tend to pepper our speech with obscenity and profanity.  This is because we record a podcast in an atmosphere where we like to be comfortable.  If you are easily offended by harsh or foul language and terse pronouncements, don’t listen.