“The End of Vintage Cable Box”

I started the Vintage Cable Box series at the end of August, 2015. The series bowed with entries for Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing, the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle, Easy Money, and the Citizen Kane of teen sex comedies, Porky’s, directed by Bob Clark, who would later, inexplicably, bring us A Christmas Story (though both movies shares a nostalgic connection in their themes). Over 200 essays later, it’s finally time to pull the plug, and I thought I’d take this time to answer some questions and fill you in on my thought process. Cable television was an incredible oasis at the time; we’re talking 1984 through 1986, two short years. Growing up poor in Cincinnati and then Philadelphia, my Mother had a job opportunity in Tennessee, the State of her birth, and she thought we should live near some family at that time, so we moved down there in the late Spring of 1984.

Attack of the comically-oversized condom.

Philly had no cable in certain neighborhoods, usually anything below Broad Street in the “historic” sections of the town. Cable lines were considered unattractive and would detract from the beauty of the older neighborhoods. This has since been rectified with underground lines, but back then all you had were roof antennas, rabbit ears, and aluminum foil to improve reception of the 12 channels you were granted, three of which were VHF networks, and the rest were independent UHF sources. Add to that the fact we didn’t get our first VCR until probably 1986, so the television was practically a miracle sent down from heaven. We had a 19-inch RCA Colortrack on a rolling stand until I spilled chocolate milk into the back of it, and then all of our television came from a 12-inch black & white Sylvania. It cost $200 to have the television repaired (back then you had to have your electronics repaired), so we took it down to Tennessee with us, and then my Mother invested $125 in a used 25-inch Magnavox color console. It was magnificent.

No cable for you!

This is how I close every Vintage Cable Box article:

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.

So we come from a place with only 12 channels to a place with over 30 channels. Imagine the switch-over. This was the premium package. Compare it to today. I was looking at the cable box channel guide the other day. It isn’t just one HBO channel, it’s six. It isn’t just one Cinemax channel, it’s six. It’s East Coast feeds, and West Coast feeds. Forty sports channels. Twenty cooking channels. It’s countless news channels. In 1984, we were overwhelmed. In 2018, we’re drowning in entertainment options. I only wished we had a VCR, because I felt then (as I do now) the analog picture and sound was perfect. Cable television picture quality was much better than VHS/Beta quality. For a time, we had HBO and Cinemax, and The Movie Channel, which was probably my favorite for offering an incredible assortment of films and film festivals. This was my film school education. Every filmmaker would say if you wanted to know how to make films, just watch films. Technique comes from another place; the source of inspiration and style built somewhere in your psyche, and you can’t learn that in a school setting.

The Precious.

I dug in, and this is where my love affair with movies began. I make it a point to watch every movie I choose to include. Some movies were more difficult to find than others. Some movies were so terrible I didn’t want to continue watching, but I stuck it out for the sake of veracity. As I write this, I’ve just finished writing my review for 1981’s Rollover. I have a good set-up in the bedroom for watching old videotapes; a big-screen CRT* and a 4-head (admittedly mono) Sansui VHS VCR. Sometimes if a movie is available in a superior format, and reasonably priced, I’ll grab it, but I do try to stay as close to the time period as I can. I’ve given some movies much more time than they deserve (i.e. Screwballs, Jekyll & Hyde Together Again, They Call Me Bruce?). Other movies (personal favorites) were written on “auto-pilot” because I knew them so well. I could quote dialogue and remember key edits. There is also the sad fact that some movies get more promotion and rotation than others, and continue to be enjoyed today, while others disappear down a rabbit hole of bad production deals, shady financing, and limited distribution (i.e. Get Crazy, Somebody Killed Her Husband).

The obscuring haze of nostalgia.

I’ve received an enormous outpouring of praise from readers, as well as suggestions. I do take suggestions, but it’s usually when I’ve forgotten a title that did play endlessly on cable television within that admittedly brief window of time and, more importantly, when I’ve actually seen the movie in question. Vintage Cable Box is mostly about my remembrances of those years. On occasion, a reader will suggest a title, and it will not be representative to me of a movie I remember in the rotation of cable television. There were tiny little movies that played constatntly on cable television, like The Sender or Midnight Madness. There were big box-office blockbusters. There were the flops. As I write this, I’m reviewing Smithereens and Rollover, two very different movies. In that brief time period (1984-1985) cable television was an incredible, eclectic, diverse collection of unique entertainment, and most of it was exceptional. Sadly, it isn’t like that anymore. Cable television is a thousand channels, a lot of it prescribed in an algorithm-like fashion, designed to cater to the entertainment needs of a vast audience that does not include the likes of me. It’s so boring. Or perhaps, because there are so many choices, I’m not in a hurry to watch. In the old days, we didn’t have a VCR, so we had to be there – at a specific time, tuned to a specific channel, to watch a movie.

Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?

Consider the VCR. We laugh at VHS and Beta now. I did a whole series about the history of home video with David Anderson. In those days, it was the quite the coup to have all three Star Wars movies on tape playing through your old CRT. It mattered. Now we laugh because we have high definition, big screen. A movie theater in your living room! It’s amazing. How soon we forget. We also forget that too much of anything reduces value and appreciation. Now that we have so many choices, we stop caring about times and places. We won’t rush home so we can have dinner ready and watch our favorite show. Instead, you program the DVR, and take your time doing whatever you want to do. A couple of buttons pushed and I can record a whole series. In case I forget to record a whole series, I can just watch anything I want “on-demand.” No wonder we’re all getting fat!

There were titles I had considered reviewing but ultimately decided not to review. Tom Cruise comes to mind. He would be an obvious choice to evaluate because his work was crucial to the early days of cable television. He had a small role as Steve Randle in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders. After that, he appeared in Losin’ It (which I did enjoy) with Jackie Earle Haley and Shelley Long, and then Risky Business and All the Right Moves made him a huge star. Cruise wouldn’t explode in his popularity until the mid ’80s with Top Gun, Rain Man, and Born on the Fourth of July. He was little more than a teen heartthrob at the time I was watching cable television; the time-line of that very small window was crucial to my choices for the column. I think the ’80s was a time of Dudley Moore and Steve Guttenberg, teen sex comedies and slasher movies, John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg (though I don’t recall reviewing any Spielberg movies for Vintage Cable Box – it was another matter of time-line). Obscure titles were what I sought out originally. I thought about The Buddy System and Nate and Hayes, WarGames and Psycho II, Get Crazy and Rhinestone, not Tom Cruise.

Sorry, Tom.

I learned a few things, too. I learned that the (comparatively) smaller brain of the eleven or twelve year old child compared to that of a forty-five year old adult is much more willing to fill in the blanks of a shoddy narrative or a bad performance or a balls-out terrible movie than viewed through the narrow, rigid scope of maturity. I find I have very little time in my life now to throw caution to the wind and look at every movie coming out. My prejudices will extend to comic book movies and big-budget blockbusters; those movies are simply not made for me. In fact, I tend to look upon those my age who enthusiastically watch comic book movies with some degree of either pity or derision. Where I was willing to give a movie like Screwballs a chance when I was twelve, I won’t even watch a new Jurassic Park movie these days. I just don’t have the time to waste on dinosaurs, or talking raccoons for that matter. It all feels so ridiculously disposable. That’s what has happened to movies today. They’ve become disposable.

No thank you!

We come to the end of the journey. I did this for fun, but then I discovered I had regular readers. I want to thank each and every one of you. If there was one grievance from yours truly, it would have to be that I, in my estimation, wrote some really good material that wasn’t popular with readers because the movie I was writing about was not that popular. I could get big numbers on a title like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (in 3-D!), and tumbleweeds for The Big Chill, which I considered one my best written reviews. I don’t understand how that works, but thanks for reading all the same!

“Blue Thunder, 1983”

“Catch ya later!”

Blue Thunder, 1983 (Roy Scheider), Columbia Pictures

The disclaimer at the beginning of Blue Thunder swears up and down that the technology used in the film is real. So, it’s really more of a “claimer” and strikes at the very heart of director John Badham’s paranoia with regard to new technologies. It isn’t so much that there are whisper-quiet helicopters and other advanced weaponry utilized by the Military, but that these technical marvels can be used for more nefarious, fascistic purposes like spying on citizens and controlling the population. Hot-shot Vietnam veteran Roy Scheider and scruffy young partner Daniel Stern are helicopter cops (or”heli-cops” – neat huh?). I’m not sure how long helicopters have been in use for law enforcement. We hear them once in a while around here, and because of this movie, I tend to draw the shades. When Scheider and Stern aren’t busting the scum of Los Angeles, they’re checking out naked ladies doing naked yoga in skyscrapers. This is a fun job! Shenanigans are interrupted by a rape-in-progress and Scheider and Stern come to the rescue.

I still don’t understand the level of effort rapists put into their work, and this is after I had to watch five Death Wish movies for Extreme Cinema. Crabby boss Warren Oates (in his final film role) busts Scheider’s balls (and deservedly so) for peeping on Encino’s hottest, and Scheider suffers ‘Nam flashbacks – a lot of them involving rival pilot Cochrane (mustache-twirling douche Malcolm McDowell). This goes to Hell pretty quickly. The woman who was raped turns out to be a big-shot congresswoman and political big-wig. She was shot in the process and died in the hospital. Roy is taken to a top secret government installation where he inspects a brand new experimental helicopter called “Blue Thunder.” In the test, the helicopter maneuvers remarkably well, and mows down targets efficiently. Test pilot McDowell misses a lot of targets and cuts down mock-ups of innocent civilians.

Scheider goes on a test run with McDowell. McDowell sabotages his helicopter for no reason other than to kill him, but we didn’t need this detail to know they have mutual hatred for one another. We get that McDowell has an axe to grind, but does he have to be completely evil? There’s no talk of “the greater good,” or the need for advanced firepower. The movie is just one big thrill ride. Scheider and Stern get under the blades of “Blue Thunder,” and go on a test flight to check out the hardware, which includes highly-sensitive microphones and video recording technology. Once again, they use this incredible technology to check out girls, and listen to their cop buddies have sex. While snooping in the Federal database, Scheider discovers a connection between McDowell and the mysterious Project THOR. They tail McDowell to the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles. They record a clandestine conversation between McDowell, some Defense Department cronies, and one of the participants in the politician’s murder.

They all agree to “delete” Scheider, and they kill Stern. This is gripping! They pin Stern’s murder on Scheider, and Scheider is suddenly a man without a Country. Before he was killed, Stern hid the incriminating tape for Scheider, who gets his able-bodied girlfriend, Candy Clark (telegraphed early on driving like a maniac), to retrieve the tape (from a drive-in movie theater dumpster) and get it to a television station in a brilliantly edited and suspenseful sequence. This leads to some amusing helicopter battles, and what floors me is that all of this was done without the use of green screens or digital computer effects. Blue Thunder ends with a thrilling helicopter fight between Scheider and McDowell that leaves most of Los Angeles in ruins. This is a seriously exciting movie, directed by Badham, who would shortly follow-up this movie with WarGames (another techno-horror movie) less than a month later!

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.

“Smithereens, 1982”

“Please don’t do anything weird to me!”

Smithereens, 1982 (Susan Berman), New Line Cinema

Smithereens, in the opening shots, reminds me of early Martin Scorsese. Substitute angry Italians for good-looking punks. One such lady punk, Wren (Susan Berman) catches a young man’s eye on a New York City subway train. The young man, Paul (Brad Rijn), follows her all around town as she puts up flyers promoting herself. What she does is anybody’s guess. I assumed she was somehow involved in music. The Peppermint Lounge is rocking this night, and she bluffs her way inside to chat up musicians. These are real locations. You can tell from the lighting. In fact, it looks like the filmmakers snuck their camera in there and stole shots. Paul makes a date with Wren, but all she cares about is putting her name out there and promoting herself. Paul sleeps in a van. You might say he’s “experiencing homelessness,” but he isn’t. He’s actually well off and bumming his way around. He takes Wren to a bizarre horror movie, which seems to have been constructed specifically for this movie.

I love this New York. It’s populated with young punks hard-up for cash. Paul wants some kind of a relationship with the crazy punk chick, but she flirts with other guys, namely Eric (Richard Hell), intent on furthering her ambitions. Eric was previously affiliated with a marginally successful band called Smithereens, which had one record released in the ’70s. Eric doesn’t seem to have saved his money, and he comes off crazy-shady. She spends the night with Eric, returns home to find her apartment door padlocked by the landlady. She hasn’t paid the rent in four months. The landlady tosses Wren’s clothes out the window. She looks up Paul (whom she ditched the previous night), but he’s angry with her. She appeals to him and manipulates him. Together, they break into her apartment (wearing stockings on their heads) and grab some of her stuff, including her little television set.

This isn’t a conventional romance. The dialogue is real. You feel like you know these people, or you have known people like this. That’s not necessarily a good thing. The movie is unrelentingly bleak for being so real. New York City is only a brief lay-over for Paul. He’s on his way to New Hampshire, and Wren needs a benefactor in the worst way. Her family’s no good to her, and Paul is all she has. One night, while waiting for Wren in his van, he strikes up a sweet and interesting conversation with a kindly prostitute, who shares part of her chicken salad sandwich with him and keeps soliciting him as she does so. This goes right to the heart of the movie’s premise; New Yorkers are lonely people just looking to sit down and connect with other people.

Wren’s an interesting if frustrating character. She’s a sponge to everybody she knows. She uses and abuses people all in an effort to promote herself (and we’re still not quite sure what it is she does) or her “brand.” Paul is the only person in her world who treats her with respect, and she dumps on him consistently. I get that she wants to remain independent, but her behavior borders of self-destructive. She’s a Holly Golightly for the punk set. Paul wants her to go to New Hampshire with him. She never takes him up on the offer. You really want to smack her upside her face for all the bad decisions she makes in the movie. Director Susan Seidelman would go on to direct Desperately Seeking Susan, another quintessential ’80s movie about New York City’s labyrinthine underbelly.

Special Thanks to my pal, Andrew La Ganke for suggesting this title.

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.

“Lassiter, 1983”

“Cooperate and you’re a free man, Lassiter. Cross me and you’ll do twenty hard years.”

Lassiter, 1983 (Tom Selleck), Warner Bros.

A little jaunty piano-driven music kicks in and I think I’m watching The Sting, but no, we have Tom Selleck in Lassiter! This movie was very hard to find. Right up there with The Buddy System and Nate and Hayes. Selleck is some kind of a cat burglar. He’s not a very good cat burglar, and no he doesn’t steal cats. I thought the point of having jewels was to wear the jewels, and not lock them up in a safe, but whatever. A rosey-rumped British tart covers for him when he is caught snatching the family jewels. You might say she waxes his mustache, so to speak. This is cute. He’s a scam artist by trade, working in concert with Jane Seymour (and her beautiful ass!), who may or may not be his wife, girlfriend, or paramour. Jane bruises her feet nightly dancing with rich British bastards.

Lassiter is extremely hard to follow. It feels, to me, like whole sections of the movie were removed in editing, as well as a lot of character development. Our government, working with Scotland Yard corrals “expert” cat burglar Nick Lassiter into stealing “Nazi” diamonds. We’re not completely sure because the movie jumps all over the place pretending to be light comedy, international intrigue, and deadly boring cop drama. Jane Seymour is wasted in the movie, truly lighting up the screen with her beauty but relegated to being a long-suffering housewife-type. Meanwhile, we have Lauren Hutton running around killing men while she has sex with them. She’s apparently the keeper of the secret Nazi diamonds, but she leads a rich inner life. Okay, I’m with you, Movie!

The nudie cutie Hutton killed previously turns up dead and naked in an alley where head copper Bob Hoskins declares the investigation will be done the “hard way.” In other words, his way. Damnit! He’s a good cop! Hutton makes eyes (and thighs) with Selleck, which drives poor Jane up the wall. Scotland Yard wants Lassiter to steal $10 million worth of these Nazi diamonds or else they’ll send him to jail. What? My wife informs me this is Nazi money, therefore it’s a good thing to steal. Lassiter decides it’s time to hang it up, so he takes Jane Seymour with him, but is stalled by Hoskins who assures him he has his number. Okay. He extorts Tom to get the damned diamonds. I gather Lauren Hutton is a Nazi, and a man-killer, but the movie never lets us have any details. Everything is painted in broad strokes.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing and a good deal of fake moral ambiguity here with regard to Lassiter doing the right thing for his country. He nails Hutton, loots her safe, but can’t find the diamonds. We finally get to the feline thievery as Lassiter climbs a wall, slips in, and opens a safe. Nothing in there so he ducks (or cats, heh) out under the cover of night while dogs bark in the background. Lauren leads him to the real diamonds, cleverly hidden in a hideous bust of Hitler. Lassiter steals the real jewels. Hutton catches him and he punches her lights out. Nice. We get a “clever” Sting-style switcheroo where he fences the diamonds for cash and eludes the cops. In the end, Selleck gets the money and the girl. Lassiter is an editor’s nightmare. If this review appears redundant and disjointed, it’s only because the movie was redundant and disjointed. What a mess!

Sourced from the original 1984 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release. Fabrique au Canada! “A master thief sets out to steal a Nazi fortune!” The movie received a brief DVD release as well as appearing on laserdisc, but is unavailable in newer formats. “It’s clear from Lassiter that Selleck is ready for anything – especially the critical and popular acclaim his performance here deserves. Move over, Sean Connery and Roger Moore: there’s a new high-roller in the game of international intrigue!” I’ll stick with Runaway, thank you very much.

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.