“The Cannonball Run, 1981”

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“Officer, I sincerely hope you’re not a Catholic.”

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The Cannonball Run, 1981 (Burt Reynolds), 20th Century Fox

Early ’80s cable television was a dumping ground of racing movies; most of them starring Burt Reynolds and directed by the legendary stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham. You had your Hooper, your Stroker Ace, your Six Pack, your Smokey cycle, and you had The Cannonball Run (which spawned two sequels), which plays more as an excuse to hang out with your friends and make a fun movie than an effort to produce a serious racing movie. We’re not even fifteen minutes in and Burt (with buddy Dom De Luise) are working on hot cars, flying single-engine planes, and riding speed-boats as they try to figure out what vehicle to race in the famous “Cannonball Trophy Dash” from Connecticut to California. Burt gets the idea to use an ambulance after sustaining injuries in the resulting speed-boat crash, but first they need a patient and a real doctor, so they abduct (what?) Farrah Fawcett and a junkie doctor (hilarious Jack “I just gave her a little prick” Elam), so they can drive at high speeds.

The film is a veritable Who’s Who of late 70s/early 80s celebrities, both minor (Terry Bradshaw, Rick Aviles, Jamie Farr) and major (Dean “Father Putz” Martin, Sammy “The Chocolate Monk” Davis Jr., Roger “The Fly Who Bugged Me” Moore), as well as a few up-and-coming stars (Adrienne Barbeau, Jackie Chan).  Farr, as an Arabian Sheik, drives a Silver Shadow Rolls.  Chan drives a state-of-the-art Subaru GL with all kinds of gadgetry.  Roger Moore spoofs his “James Bond” persona as Seymour Goldfarb, a nice Jewish boy who thinks he’s Roger Moore, and drives a gorgeous Aston Martin.  Dean and Sammy are dressed as priests, driving a red Ferrari.  Buxom Barbeau and Tara Buckman drive a Lamborghini (the ultimate winners, but it doesn’t matter) and get out of speeding tickets by showing off their cleavage, until they come upon a similarly stacked State Trooper (Valerie Perrine).

We, of course, have a bad guy, but he’s not really a bad guy.  George Furth (a dependable character actor mainly known for ’70s television) is Arthur J. Foyt (a clever play on racer A.J. Foyt), a crusader (or what you’d call social justice warrior), looking to shut down this silly “Cannonball” competition.  The whole idea seems insanely dangerous, but the lure is a big money cash prize, so who can blame some of your more reckless racing enthusiasts for giving it a shot.  The only real problem in the narrative is that the movie takes too long to get going.  It’s like one of those old Plymouths you had to warm up in the garage for twenty minutes, except in this case it’s more like 35 minutes before we start up the engines.  This is understandable given the many characters and their vignettes, and that the screenplay (screenplay?) plays as a series of episodes rather than a cohesive narrative, but that’s okay.  This is such a fun movie – and never boring – that I don’t care.  It’s obvious everybody’s having a great time.  Burt Reynolds barely represses the urge to laugh in every scene with Dom De Luise.  Dean Martin is obviously drunk throughout the movie, and Sammy’s not that far behind.

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I’m not a fan of NASCAR, or any kind of professional racing (though I have good friends who are).  I don’t get it the same way I don’t get hockey.  I’m a baseball guy.  I tend to agree with David Cronenberg in that the ultimate “man-machine interface” is the man or woman who gets into his or her car in the morning and drives to work without thinking about it.  Plus, these competitions seem to be a serious waste of gasoline (also I suspect a good portion of the audience is there to see horrific crashes), but that’s none of my business.  I do, however, enjoy this movie quite a bit, mainly because it doesn’t take itself seriously.  There’s a brief shot I always remember when I think about The Cannonball Run.  Dean and Sammy pull over the ambulance to let the air out of the tires under the guise of offering a “blessing”.  They slide the door open and see a drugged Farrah smiling back at them.  She was truly beautiful.  Critics, at the time, steeped in Scorsese and Coppola-isms, were not appreciative.  A film snob myself, I don’t necessarily believe all movies should be serious masterpieces of style and form.  In fact, I think we should have an even (and wide) distribution of movies that stimulate our minds, and movies that go for the big belly-laugh.  Nothing wrong with that.

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.

Vintage Cable Box: Scarface, 1983

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“I always tell the truth, even when I lie.”

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Scarface, 1983 (Al Pacino), MCA/Universal

Let’s get the history out of the way first. Between April and October of 1980, 125,000 Cubans emigrated to the United States. Not knowing whether these Cubans represented their nation’s best and brightest, or if they were common criminals discarded by Castro’s regime, our government housed them in prison-like Little Havana communities, while they awaited vetting, processing, and eventual naturalization. Fictitious Tony Montana (electrifying Al Pacino) is one of these detainees. He and his friend Manny (Steven Bauer) are given green cards after executing a former high-ranking Cuban politician. Tony lectures his friend about the “American dream”, which boils down to money, power, and respect.

Scarface’s narrative is fairly straight-forward from there. Tony rises to power as a drug kingpin. Unlike his cronies, he possesses a sense of honor. He refuses to bow to notions of mindless revenge. He will not kill innocent people (i.e. women and children). He is fiercely protective of (as well as harboring incestuous desires for) his young sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). When his friend, Angel, is killed in a drug burn, he suspects his employers, sleazy Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham) and Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). Suarez is killed by cocaine supplier Sosa, and when Tony starts making deals without Lopez’s approval, Lopez tries to kill him. Tony kills Lopez, marries Lopez’s girl, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), and takes over the business.

From there (and with the help of montage), Tony Montana becomes the go-to-guy for cocaine. Growing increasingly paranoid from his own cocaine usage, he builds a custom state-of-the-art counter-surveillance system, and his mansion is built like a fortress. He alienates his friend, Manny, and berates his wife for her own burgeoning cocaine addiction. Don’t get high on your own supply, Elvira. When Tony is threatened with jail time for money laundering and tax evasion, Sosa steps in to offer him a solution, if only he will have an influential journalist killed. Tony refuses when he sees he is required to kill the man’s wife and children. Sosa retaliates, sending hit squads to his mansion.

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Scarface was unfairly marginalized during it’s initial release. Critics believed the film to be a glorification of excessive violence, while advocacy groups protested the film’s depiction of Cubans (prompting a hastily-added disclaimer at the end of the picture). The MPAA certified Scarface for an X rating three times before cuts were made to the infamous chainsaw scene, although to hear director Brian De Palma tell the story, he made very few edits to the scene, which was played and photographed more for tone than explicit violence. Over the years, Scarface has attained an enormous cult following. Pacino’s Montana character struck a chord with disenfranchised hispanic and black youth, as well as becoming a huge influence on most crime-drama films being made today.

Coming out at a time when it did, Scarface was not quite a transitional piece for De Palma. A year later, he would make Body Double, still absorbed in “Hitchcockian” motifs and themes while retaining his talent for individuality as a filmmaker. His “Hitchcockian” period had started in 1973 with Sisters, as well as directing occasional studio projects such as Carrie and The Fury. Watching Scarface, one can sense the bending (if not breaking) of the chains of style. De Palma utilizes shots and cinematography evoking Hitchcock (the use of cranes and back projection), bold primary colors and fascinating fashion choices meant to make his characters stand out in eloquent composition. Watching the movie (for the umpteenth time) with my wife, I was instantly reminded of scenes from Frenzy and Torn Curtain.

Scarface originally premiered on The Movie Channel in 1984 as part of a Brian De Palma retrospective, which included Carrie, Home Movies (a personal favorite), Get To Know Your Rabbit, Phantom of the Paradise, and Dressed to Kill. A few of these films will pop up in Vintage Cable Box. In addition, The Movie Channel ran the original 1932 Scarface with Paul Muni for comparison.

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.

Interview with Geno Cuddy

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Mark has the pleasure of interviewing internet tv host, Geno Cuddy and discusses a little of everything. You can find almost everything about Geno by following his links

https://www.facebook.com/OfficialGenoCuddy/

https://twitter.com/OfficialGenoC

https://www.youtube.com/user/GenoCuddy

https://www.youtube.com/user/GenoTheGiant

http://cuddysworld.blogspot.com/

Vintage Cable Box: Terms of Endearment, 1983

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“I don’t know what it is about you, but … you do bring out the devil in me.”

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Terms of Endearment, 1983 (Shirley MacLaine), Paramount Pictures

Aurora is constantly worried about her baby, Emma. When Emma doesn’t cry (in the pre-credit sequence), Aurora charges in and starts shaking her. Emma starts crying. Relieved, Aurora mutters, “that’s better” and then leaves the room. As long as Emma is crying, Aurora will know she is okay. Years after my daughter was born, I would go in and check on her. Okay, so I still do it. I just like to know that she’s breathing. That’s what parents do. We worry constantly, and if there’s only one element of Terms of Endearment that remains beautifully true, it is Shirley MacLaine’s awe-inspiring performance as Aurora Greenway. MacLaine is truly a mother in this movie. She is a mother in real life. In fact, it was her relationship with her own daughter that inspired friend William Peter Blatty to write The Exorcist.

The movie starts with the death of Aurora’s husband and her newfound single status, raising Emma to young adulthood.  Emma grows up to inhabit her mother’s values even if she has less-than-stunning taste in men.  She marries ne’er–do–well teacher Flap Horton (an infuriating Jeff Daniels), who knocks her up with three kids (while her best friend lives a happy and fulfilling life in the big city), keeping her trapped in a marriage she realizes is running on fumes at this point.  They have no money, and Aurora has to loan them money to survive, even though he has a full professor’s position at an Iowa college.  Aurora’s dislike for Flap extends to her not even attending Emma’s wedding, and then she completely flips out at the dinner table when Emma tells her she’s pregnant.  She protests that she’s not ready to be a grandmother, and to prove it, she courts next-door neighbor, astronaut and womanizer Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson).

While Aurora is trying to enjoy her life, she suffers in silence at her presumed betrayal of her husband, and Garrett bristles at the emotional responsibility of maintaining a monogamous relationship.  Emma conducts her own affair with a timid banker (John Lithgow) when she discovers Flap has been letting it flap around a little too much.  It seems he really enjoys his students, and not in that good, educational, inspiring way.  Asshole!  Eveything Emma has done for him!  Every compromise!  Every child!  This is what she gets?  On top of this, she gets fucking cancer!  I know, right?  This is fucked up!  What was supposed to be a routine flu shot turns into fucking cancer because the doctor notices some suspicious lumps.  He orders a biopsy, and that’s it – she’s got fucking cancer.  I remember this whole bit making me incredibly angry and sad watching it for the first time on cable television.  I knew I was in for an emotional rollercoaster ride, but I didn’t know we would jump the tracks and wind up in a ditch.

Emma puts all her ducks in a row.  She travels to New York City with her best friend, Patti, lives it up, meets new people.  She tries to bond with her children, sweet Teddy and incorrigible bastard Tommy.  She tries to make peace with Flap, but I think (in Emma’s defense) she always knew that Flap was a hopeless idiot.  A devoted (if not faithful) husband and father he may be, Aurora correctly sums him up as being careless and inconsiderate.  He agrees with her assessment, but he also holds her to task for never welcoming him into the family.  Emma returns home to die.  She spends her last days in the hospital.  One particular scene that always causes me to lose it is Aurora pleading, begging, and ultimately shouting at a nurse to give her daughter a shot for her pain (which she almost seems to preternaturally feel).  It is chilling and heartbreaking.  When Emma finally dies, Aurora is devastated and she clutches at Flap, almost unable to surrender to an embrace with a man she detests, but she has no choice now, as Flap is and always will be family.  That’s what we learn from Terms of Endearment.  We may hate them, and they may irritate the Hell out of us, but they are family.

This is such a damned good piece of filmmaking; pandering and manipulative, but also hysterically funny, with performances so good I almost forget the actors and actresses involved.  While I have stated this is MacLaine’s absolute showcase (for which she won a well-deserved Academy Award), ancillary performances from Debra Winger (as Emma), Daniels, Nicholson, Lithgow, and Danny DeVito (as one of Aurora’s early prospective suitors) are top-notch.  Nicholson is interesting to watch in this film.  As part of The Movie Channel’s premiere of this movie in 1984, there was also a Jack Nicholson retrospective which included Easy Rider, Carnal Knowledge, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Chinatown.  Terms of Endearment is the odd-movie-out for him; a sentimental, sometimes cloying family melodrama with colorful bursts of humor, Nicholson seems out of place.  Emma’s funeral scene at the end perfectly illustrates this point as he hangs back while the immediate family mourns, uncomfortably rocking back and forth with his hands in his pockets.

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James L. Brooks directs the movie with an incredibly sure hand, a love for offbeat humor and romance, but with such sophistication, it’s easy to forget he got his start in 60s and 70s sitcoms, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, That Girl, and Room 222.  He would follow up Terms of Endearment with Broadcast News, and Nicholson’s own showcase, As Good As It Gets.  Terms of Endearment would inadvertently kick-start a subgenre of movies in ’80s and ’90s known as the “chick-flick”.  Movies such as Beaches, Steel Magnolias, Mystic Pizza, and Fried Green Tomatoes were directly influenced by this movie.  Usually the formula goes that you have a clutch of female friends, who like to dance and share secrets about love and romance, and then one of them dies of fucking cancer.  Terms of Endearment is a movie like The Big Chill, wherein I have a difficult time understanding the character’s motivation primarily because of a perceived age or generation gap, but Terms of Endearment is still a stunning example of modern melodrama.

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.

 

Vintage Cable Box: The Atomic Cafe, 1982

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“We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies.”

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The Atomic Cafe, 1982, Libra Films

It was an unexciting, routine mission until they saw the damage. New Mexico, normally a parched, barren section of little Earth; sand and dust, before and after, shows no real effects until you throw in the half-constructed homes and livestock. The “Trinity” Test yields an image of great beauty, often repeated, but as beauty can be a drug with effects that diminish over time, the first mushroom cloud, the report of the first bomb detonation arouses the scientific community, and the first parties of people involved are labeled “mad-men” and “lunatics”; it’s eerie and strange how those voices were silenced over the ensuing years.

Not long after, Harry S. Truman appears in newsreels announcing the destruction of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which effectively end the war on the Asian continent.  The information is edited to remove the consequences of the attacks, but “The Atomic Cafe” pulls no punches.  We see the singed earth resting beneath stacks of bleached bones and graphic depictions of horrifying injuries sustained by the survivors.  The delicate sensibilities of pre-Eisenhower nuclear families that had no truck with unimaginable violence were too tender to witness the actual effects of the primary blasts, let alone the ash-ridden winters and radiation poisoning.

“PEACE!  It’s Wonderful!”  This is the post-war boom of America; the prosperity and the marching majorettes, returning soldiers, and dancing in the streets.  Operation: Crossroads begins with the “Bikini” Test, July of 1946.  The natives of the island sing “You Are My Sunshine” as the bomb is dropped, and an unbelievable cloud appears over the island.  The next year (1947 – “The Year of Division”), a new cloud forms headlining the “global struggle between East and West.”  In other words, Soviet Russia versus the United States.  The Cold War begins.

Propaganda films are quickly produced to demonstrate the threat of communism (like a virus) as it spreads throughout Europe and threatens to land on our shores.  Our “values,” or “freedom of speech” will be diminished, censored, and destroyed, and ideas like “humanity” and “emotion” are considered obsolete in Soviet Russia.  To counter this philosophy, our propaganda sells capitalism to the hilt as an antidote to the concept of communism.  Americans are encouraged to buy products, visit newly-built shopping malls; eat, marry, and reproduce – beef up our numbers.  Truman warns of atomic tests in Russia.  Protective devices, including boxes, suits, and bomb shelters are tested and then sold.  The police are militarized.

In 1950, as our government has enormous confidence in the ability to end any war with an atomic bomb, Korea is invaded.  The populace remains uninformed as to the true dangers of these new war technologies, and this is where the programming starts – by misinforming the public.  A character actor I recognize as James Gregory appears in a training film, wherein those preaching peace are ridiculed by the Military and civilians alike.  Paranoia reigns supreme; the impetus of which seems to have started when the Russians began testing their own atomic devices and then Senator Richard Nixon suspected espionage.  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are sentenced to death for selling secrets to the Russians.  These initial bursts of fear snowball, or mushroom into a full-fledged witchhunt.  HUAC proceedings begin, and those who question our government’s actions, or display sympathies that go against the grain of nation-worship are blacklisted, their lives threatened and their actions monitored.

Ladies and Gentlemen – I give you the Hydrogen Bomb!  Even more awesome destruction is guaranteed, but Russia remains one step ahead and devlops their own Hydrogen bomb.  Testing of animals near bombing sites is accompanied by “Atomic Cocktail”, a jaunty Django Reinhart-like ditty, and then there are badly-acted training films made to assauge and calm fears of devastation and radiation sickness.  Fallout shelters are constructed with emergency preparedness kits, and rudimentary haz-mat suits become the norm for fashion.  This new age of paranoia even has a mascot – Burt the Turtle.  Burt comes with his own theme song, “Duck and Cover.”

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Produced at the absolute height of United States fear and suspicion, where even my generation was indoctrinated to hate Russia and the principles of communism and socialism, The Atomic Cafe is a devastating documentary comprised of newsreel footage, Military training films, and flimsy speeches about safety, and broadcast news, as well as preaching the doctrine of capitalism and false analogies of free speech, and religious exceptionalism.  I have friends (my age) to this day who still possess a strange, undeviated, irrational hatred (read: fear) of anything that is not uniquely American, including our system of government, accepted systems of religion, and finance.  Why?  Why would they still continue to feel this way?  If they (as I) feel that our Nation, our system of government, and our potential for wealth and prosperity are unmatched in this world, they should have no fear.  Yet, the dogma persists.

As Americans go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new President, keep this in mind (as evidenced by The Atomic Cafe): politicians yearn for war, but soldiers pray for peace.  Politicians thrive in division, to keep us fighting each other instead of questioning our government’s practices.  Politicians exist to keep themselves employed; all of them, regardless of religion, race, or gender, with no exceptions, no Party rules, and no compunction about dropping mindless, soulless bombs on innocent people.  We’re capable of so much more than this.  Keep that in mind.  Please.

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.