“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!

“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.

“Starman, 1984”

“You are at your very best when things are worst.”

Starman, 1984 (Jeff Bridges), Columbia Pictures

In 1977, the Voyager space probe was launched containing examples of Earth’s excellence, not the least of which is a golden vinyl pressing of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The disc includes examples of our DNA, maps, photographs, and message from the children of Earth. A few years later, an alien spacecraft crashes in a Wisconsin bay, near the home of the recently widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), who spends most of her nights mourning her dead husband, Scott (Jeff Bridges) by drinking herself silly and watching old home movies. An alien lifeform (what appears to be a glowing silver ball) emerges from the crash and enters the Hayden homestead. The lifeform finds a photo album and clones itself from a lock of Scott’s hair. In a terrifying bit, Jenny wakes from her drunken stupor to see a naked infant quickly grow into full manhood. She promptly passes out under the weight of what must be a hallucination.

In short order, our Military is tracking the crash of the ship. NSA director George Fox (Richard Jaeckel) and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientist Mark Shermin (Charles Martin Smith) rush to recover the craft and determine the plotted trajectory of the alien ship to be the Barringer Crater near Winslow, Arizona. “Starman” essentially abducts Jenny and forces her to drive him to Winslow so he can make an important rendezvous. Their dynamic is built on her fear of this familiar-looking creature: an alien made to resemble her husband. You can see the torment in her face as she tries to reconcile the fact that this creature is a child in man’s body; a new life in a dead man’s body. She attempts to ditch him, and she tries to run. He tells her he means her no harm, and she believes him. The dynamic changes to one of mutual fugitives on the run from the law, and we get into familiar John Carpenter territory. Up until this point, other than the cinematography and synthesizer-driven score, this movie could’ve been made by Steven Spielberg or James Cameron.

John Carpenter has a specific gift for ratcheting up the tension, and he tells the story from the point of view of a confused and lonely protagonist in Jenny Hayden. Karen Allen is truly one of our most underrated actresses. Her only other big role in this time period was as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark; a role she would reprise in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If there was one word I would use to describe her, it would be “real.” She is perfect in the role of the audience’s surrogate as she reacts to all of “Starman’s” antics. Her wide, expressive eyes marvel at miracles, large and small, and the movie clings to her chemistry with Bridges. As she begins to possibly remember her attraction to her husband via “Starman,” she tries to leave him again with her money and her keys in the hopes he will go undetected without her accompanying him the rest of the way. Bridges learns the meaning of self-sacrifice. “Starman” and Jenny make love in a train car and she becomes pregnant, despite her infertility. Later, with no money and no car, they arrive in Las Vegas, where Bridges tinkers with a slot machine and wins them $500,000.

Charles Martin Smith is hot on their trail and places Fox’s men around the diner where they are eating. As Fox had revealed his intention to study the alien by means of autopsy even though the aliens were technically invited to study Earth, Smith has had misgivings about his assignment. When “Starman” tells him he finds humanity to be beautiful, Smith decides to let them go. In a hilarious bit, they both kiss him and thank him for letting them go. The movie is in turns scary, tragic, and humorous. Pretty much the human condition right there. Think of Starman as a sexy version of E.T., but I would argue Starman is the better movie for offering a richer story about adults rather than children. Starman was nowhere near as successful as E.T. at the time of it’s release, but it was a popular HBO exclusive and video rental. The Jeff Bridges performance is one of innocence and curiosity. The closest analog, for me, would be Brent Spiner as Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both characters embrace humanity and learn to mimic it, with difficulty. The only difference being that “Starman” can produce a child biologically with Jenny Hayden. Bridges received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Every day John Carpenter isn’t making a film is a loss to us all.

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.

“Reckless, 1984”

“Whatever happened to you, Rourke? You used to be normal.”

Reckless, 1984 (Aidan Quinn) MGM/UA

Aidan Quinn (in a recurring bit) finishes a can of Iron City beer, places the dented can at the edge of an overlook. He kick-starts his motorcycle, runs the vehicle to the edge of the railing, swerves and boots the can off the edge. He shouts in victory. You might say he’s … reckless. Daryl Hannah likes to drive with the top down even in the early winter. This looks like a steel town on a Saturday night, and Aidan’s looking for the fight of his life. There’s a definite separation of classes here: the rich but powerful minority, and the rest which we would classify as the “working poor.” Daryl’s boyfriend Adam Baldwin (in a change of pace) is a privileged kid with a nice job waiting for him after high school, courtesy of his old man. There’s a lot of familiar faces in Reckless; Haviland Morris, Jennifer Grey, Dan Hedaya, Cliff De Young. Other than Quinn and Hannah looking way too old to inhabit the bodies of high schoolers, Reckless is an endearing and genuine movie, less Breathless and more Baby, It’s You in the category of tormented rebels. This was a popular sub-genre in ’80s teen movies.

Baldwin and the popular kids do their level best to humiliate Quinn, especially after Baldwin notices his interest in Hannah after he watches her practicing her gymnastics. After Quinn and Hannah are randomly selected as “dates” to an upcoming dance (I don’t know how that’s supposed to work), despite Baldwin trying to rig the dance, the two kids get to know each other. Quinn’s old man (a fantastic Kenneth McMillan) gives him a five for the dance. He’s not up on economics. A five won’t even get you a pack of Trojans. At the dance, Daryl’s all dolled up in a hot red number, and Quinn’s wearing his Dad’s best blazer. Quinn swaps out Larry Graham for Romeo Void, and we get a great, classic ’80s dance sequence, which plays as more of a ritual mating practice than entertainment. Baldwin, in a jealous rage, tries to break up the dance but he’s playing with the fires of passion! She hops on the back of Quinn’s motorcycle, and they’re off to the races. He takes her to his favorite spot: the overlook, where he tells her he likes being scared, which isn’t creepy at all. Quinn plays the street-punk asshole with her, which only makes her more curious about him. Why do the good girls always like the bad boys?

After a nice burst of story and tension in the first act, the movie settles in for some remarkable character examination. Baldwin is a control freak who routinely affronts his prize girlfriend. Quinn’s old man is a raging alcoholic in danger of losing his job (and his life) at the plant. His football coach (De Young) tries to bust his balls but finds himself humiliated by Quinn’s sharp wit, so he cuts him from the team. Believe me, I know how that feels. The Quinn performance works because you understand what he’s going through, unlike Richard Gere in Breathless, who comes off as unnecessarily obnoxious. He gets thrown out of his house by his Dad after he chews him out for spending his day off from work with a floozy. Meanwhile, Hannah can’t seem to cope with the lack of adventure and excitement in her life. They meet up and break into the school, dig through the confidential files, get drunk and vandalize school property while Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” plays in the background. This is the one scene I remember verbatim from this movie. It’s an exceptional moment right up there with The Breakfast Club for de-coding teen angst. Their love scenes are crazy-hot and feel real to me.

It seems Hannah and Quinn are on divergent paths. She’s on the fast track to college, credit cards, and adulthood, and he is going nowhere doomed to be trapped in the town that killed his father. They clash when he calls her out for perceived privilege and a “fake” existence. It’s been done a million times before and after, but Reckless is a superior example of this kind of culture clash. This movie knocked me on my ass. Working from Chris Columbus’ (yes, that Chris Columbus) script, James Foley’s directorial debut is remarkably confident. He knows he has lightning-in-a-bottle with Quinn and Hannah, so he keeps the focus on the two young leads while other characters dance around them. The movie was edited by Albert Magnoli, who would only a short time later direct Purple Rain. The beautiful naturalistic photography was achieved by Michael Ballhaus. Foley would go on to direct At Close Range, Glengarry Glen Ross, and later, the Fifty Shades of Grey sequels. Columbus, of course, would later direct the first two Home Alone movies, Mrs. Doubtfire, and the first two Harry Potter movies. I guess Kevin Smith was right. In Hollywood, you kind-of fail upwards.

Happy New Year from Vintage Cable Box!

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.

“Misunderstood, 1984”

“Baby Jesus wouldn’t eat this rotten junk.”

Misunderstood, 1984 (Gene Hackman), Producers Sales Organization

An all-out laugh riot from start to finish, Misunderstood is a wacky, sexy, screwball comedy about a father and son trying to re-connect after a bizarre mishap which results in zany, madcap antics and heartwarming life lessons. Actually. I’m sorry. I have the wrong notes here. Misunderstood is a 90-minute suicide note. I think that’s what I meant to say. Like Six Weeks, this is a movie completely immersed in the melancholy. We start at a funeral for Ned Rawley’s (Gene Hackman) wife, played in flashbacks by Susan Anspach. The flashbacks occur as the body is layed to rest in dismal superimpositions; moments of joy, hugging, kissing, etc. There are happy children on swings, and really what is being played out in the past serves as an uncomfortable contrast with Hackman’s present-day mood. Emotionally unavailable and obsessed with work, he’s now saddled with the unwanted responsibility of primary care for his two sons, Andrew (Henry Thomas) and Miles (Huckleberry Fox).

As a morose authority figure, Hackman acquits himself well. I don’t think he cracks one smile in the first act, but he has to lay it on the line for Andrew, who has to shepherd the younger brother through this living hell of life without their earthy mother. While he’s man enough to express some degree of affection for the little one, he’s got a chip on his shoulder when dealing with Andrew. One of the movie’s failings is the lack of a backstory for Hackman to give us an indication of his hostility. We know that he’s some sort of a shipping magnate-cum-local politician working out of a spacious palace in Tunisia. He’s much more comfortable at his desk than he is eating dinner with this family of strangers. The housekeeper/governess is at her wit’s end negotiating with the children. Andrew is a little rough on Miles, like most older siblings, and you get the feeling is always on the verge of striking him. Much of the story comes from flashbacks. There’s a beautiful moment where Andrew sees a framed drawing of his late mother obscured by a pot of flowers.

Exploring his newfound world of loneliness, Andrew spies on neighbors, dares himself to hang from the edge of a scary tree with crooked branches and observe a ritual burial, where he bursts into tears. This is such a maudlin movie! Everyone (including strangers) go out of their way to help him cope with his loss. We begin to understand that the loss is heartbreaking for Hackman, but devastating for Andrew. Hackman has lost his lover and the mother of his children, but Andrew has, in a way, lost his life (perhaps a portion of his developing personality). Yet Hackman is suffering too. They mourn in different ways. Hackman has buddy and brother-in-law Rip Torn (dressing like Tom Wolfe) and his staff to rely on, but Henry Thomas’ Andrew is almost completely alone, so he acts out in rebellious ways. Huckleberry Fox plays a similar character to his little Teddy Horton from Terms of Endearment; just a cute little energetic boy designed to irritate Henry Thomas. I kept wondering throughout the movie why Hackman was being such an asshole to his older son while babying Huckleberry.

There’s a bit of brief suspense when Miles insists Andrew take him to the center of town where the little boy promptly vanishes causing Andrew to go ape-shit looking for him. He navigates a sea of unfriendly faces and isolates Miles’s voice. It’s a well-paced, well-directed scene and it shows that Henry Thomas can do a lot more than stare slack-jawed at a friendly botanist from another planet. This is a Jekyll-and-Hyde story about children; Miles represents the cute little ball of energy you wish was your son, and Andrew is a plaid and cords-wearing nightmare come alive. Eventually Hackman warms to him, after a race with Torn up and down the jagged cliffs on the breakers of the photogenic Tunisian beach. It’s possible Hackman’s character sees too much of himself in Andrew. Like Checkov’s gun, the tree branch ultimately turns out to be Andrew’s literal downfall. I blame Huckleberry for that one as his added weight (after he insists on trying the branch himself) proves too much. In a final bid to connect to with his son, Hackman comes to the realization he is a terrible father. Like I said, this is an all-out laugh riot!

Misunderstood is an extremely difficult movie to find. It took me over a year to track down a suitable copy to watch. According to lore, there are two different endings, but the version I watched is the movie I remembered from cable television. The movie was never given a DVD or Blu Ray release. I’m not even sure if it was released on laserdisc. Misunderstood was shot in 1982, and not released until 1984. Director Jerry Schatzberg previously made Honeysuckle Rose, Scarecrow (also with Hackman), and The Panic in Needle Park. He would later direct No Small Affair with Jon Cryer and Demi Moore. The end is in sight for Vintage Cable Box. Only a handful of titles remain to explore. It’s been an incredible adventure. I really don’t want to look at any more depressing movies.

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.


“The Neverending Story, 1984”

“We don’t even care whether or not we care.”

The Neverending Story, 1984 (Barret Oliver), Warner Bros.

It used to be that if you had a few bucks, you made a movie. You had a little more money in the coffers, you’d make something tantamount to extravagant. If you had a ton of money, you’d make an epic movie. “Epic” (in the old days) used to mean 3-plus hours; usually a historical narrative – a Gandhi, a Lawrence of Arabia, a Ben Hur. It was a special night to go out and see an epic movie. Nowadays (here come the old man pants!) every movie is a damned epic and for no good reason (and they’re not good at all). There’s no earthly reason the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit (not even counting the extended editions on home media) movies have to clock in at three hours a-piece. Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story is an epic fantasy adventure movie on Slimfast. It’s a lean, economical 96 minutes. It tells a great story and then quickly gets the hell off the screen so we can go home and process.

Admittedly, because we are separating literature from film, The Neverending Story relies on a conscious form of contrivance. A literal absence of matter and energy known in legend as the “Nothing” is devouring the Universe and is about to engulf the land of Fantasia. The leaders of Fantasia summon a young warrior by the name of Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) to rescue an ailing Empress (Tami Stronach) who will stop the “Nothing,” provided she is given a new name. The kicker to all of this is that the story is being read (from a book entitled The Neverending Story) by a boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) in our present-day world. Bastian is a Spielberg-type child: smart, but lonely, from a broken home with a parent (Major Dad’s Gerald McRaney!) who doesn’t understand him and even scolds him for mourning his dead mother. Jeez.

The rubrics of the story require Bastian to be a bullied introvert so that he can exact revenge on his tormentors; in this case, three psychotic little pricks who drop him into a dumpster. I’ve never understood the bully logic. How do you build on the thrill of terrorizing children? How come wonderful stories of enchanted lands are never experienced by horrifying, spoiled little bastards? Perhaps they would learn not to be spoiled little bastards if confronted with furry luck dragons and ridiculous giant turtles. Speaking of contrivances and dragons, Atreyu, in a moment of danger, is saved by said luck dragon, Falkor (possibly my favorite character in the film). Astride the giant creature, Atreyu can reach his target before the “Nothing” devours the world, but (in a great bit) they require the help of Bastian, who they know is reading their story.

It’s like if you took all the best parts of a book, or a story, or a ballad, and put them into a movie knowing you only had a limited amount of time to get it done, to get the movie’s adaptation down, and the audience satisified. The best movies work on their own terms with cinematic language. The worst adaptations are slavishly faithful to the literary source material. This is the movie Peter Jackson wanted to make. The early ’80s were an awesome (even gnarly) time for fantasy films: Conan the Barbarian, Legend, Willow, Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, etc. It also harkens back to a time when movies were made with hands, not microchips. The creatures in the movie are astonishing to behold and it’s wonderful to see players interact with them on an actual physical level. Director Petersen’s next movie (a personal favorite) would be 1985’s Enemy Mine, starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr.

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.

“Rope, 1948”

“By what right did you dare decide that that boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed??!! Did you think you were GOD, Brandon!!?? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him??!! Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave!!?? Well I don’t know what you thought or what you are but I know what you’ve done!!! You’ve murdered!!! You’ve strangled the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as YOU never could and never will again!!!” 

Rope, 1948 (James Stewart), Warner Bros.

Rope is an insane film, and it’s made on the presumption of a gag, a practical joke, perpetrated by master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock on his unsuspecting audience. This fits into Hitchcock’s theory of suspense. When questioned about the ideas of suspense, Hitchcock offered a simple scenario: two men sitting at a table talking while a bomb (that the audience can see) ticks away underneath. The audience wants to tell the men at the table to get out of there because a bomb is about to go off. That is suspense to Alfred Hitchcock. In Rope, it is not a bomb, but a dead body. I wouldn’t know how to begin describing what unfolds unless I did it from the false beginning, the anonymous entry of our two leads; these young men, Brandon and Phillip, college pals and roomies in a beautiful New York apartment, who decide, for no other reason than lazy curiosity and “moral superiority,” to strangle their friend, David, to death.

While Brandon (John Dall) is enthralled, amused, and satisfied by the act, his partner-in-crime, Phillip (Farley Granger) is horrified and disgusted, so we get two sides of a strange yet symmetrical coin. These are two “privileged” kids. They get everything (all the basic necessities and more) they want in life, and we, as the audience, are supposed to hate them. They (mostly Brandon, the obvious leader) decide to keep the body in a trunk with the rope that was used to strangle David, and then to use that trunk as the centerpiece for a dinner party they are throwing at which they have invited all of David’s closest friends as well as his mother and father, and their school housemaster (James Stewart). Phillip is unhinged, mainly because, I believe, he is worried about being caught. We never do get into Phillip’s head, while we, perversely, understand Brandon’s motivations, and his curious vanities.

The guests file in and the “fun begins,” to quote Brandon. He wants to make this a mad experiment. Perhaps he wants clinicians and psychologists to analyze this moment until the end of time, even as he rots away in a jail cell or a padded room. He wants to know why his victim, David, was so important to all of the invited guests: a young lady engaged to David, a former suitor to David’s betrothed, the victim’s parents, and the victim’s teacher. This creates a drama in Brandon’s head, and he enjoys it. This is like a dry-run of American Psycho, wherein we see these respected, wealthy socialites conferring with one another as despicable acts are committed. Strangely enough, the tone of the movie suggests black comedy, while the abbreviated sets and long takes suggest theater, at it’s broadest. It makes you wonder what other horrid acts Brandon and Phillip are capable of.

Jimmy Stewart acts as the anger and the conscience of the audience. Since the remainder of the guests are blissfully ignorant, Stewart’s character (who had previously speculated with the young killers on the nature of evil and the imposed eugenics of murder in a socialized structure) easily comes to the conclusion. He suspects Brandon and Phillip have done something terrible, unforgivable. He chastises his young charges, repudiates their callous indifference, and sentences them to death in his eyes for their misdeeds, and you’re damned if you’re not with him as he destroys them with his words. He has such power in his words that he owns the movie for as long as he’s in it. Stewart plays games with the attendees, questions them, and makes dubious statements, but what it all comes down to is watching Brandon and Phillip collapse under his interrogations. Rope is a powerful statement.

I received a very nice message from the administrator at the Vintage HBO Guides Facebook group, and I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of my readers.  I’m forever grateful my work is being enjoyed.  Thanks!

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.