“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!

Vintage Cable Box: A Christmas Story

“Aunt Clara had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually 4 years old, but also a girl.”

A Christmas Story, 1983 (Peter Billingsley), MGM/UA

It used to be that you would unknowingly discover a film, and with such an innocuous title as A Christmas Story, you’d likely flip to the next channel. Very little money was spent on marketing movies already past their prime release dates in theaters. Cable television channels would advertise movies making their broadcast premieres. You might find occasional print advertisements in TV Guide, but more often than not, movies would disappear down a hole, until they were discovered many years later. It would take years to see a movie released to videotape, so word-of-mouth was often all a filmmaker could depend on to get his or her movie seen.

A Christmas Story was not a critical and only a marginal box-office success upon initial release, grossing $19 million against a $3 million budget, but it was purchased by Ted Turner when he acquired MGM/UA’s back-catalog and holdings in 1985. Revisionist film critics now consider it a modern-day classic, and marathon showings of the movie dominate basic cable to this day. Watching the movie non-stop last Christmas, I was struck by how hypnotic the whole enterprise can be. The movie is a string of episodes and those episodes are in constant rotation. It’s like watching the old “yule log” presentations on Channel 11 – it just keeps going … and going … and going. Thanks to digital archivists like Rolando Pujol, that yule log has thankfully returned to channel 11.

So it’s the 8th of September and we’re in the middle of another heatwave here in New York, and I am sweating, but I try to conjure up images of snow and bitter cold and Flick’s tongue frozen to a pole and I’m almost there. I like Christmas. My daughter was born on Christmas Day, and while it may be a drag for her, it’s easy for her mother and me to put together a mega-birthday celebration complete with a tree and some lights, a cake, and a mountain of gifts. We all take a day off from being jerks, mostly because we’ve got a nice big meal and presents waiting for us when we get home. Humanity sucks in general, but for one day out of the year, we don’t suck as much.

Based on a collection of stories and anecdotes by Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story introduces Ralphie (a brilliant Peter Billingsley), a nine-year-old with a simple request.  All he wants is a Red Ryder BB gun (with a compass in the the stock, and a sundial).  He gets the easy, infuriating brush-off: “you’ll shoot your eye out” over and over from everybody he makes this request to, including a mean-spirited department store Santa Claus.  The “episodes” or anecdotes in the movie include a hideous yet indescribably beautiful lamp shaped like a leg Ralphie’s dad (Darren McGavin) wins in a contest, the hillbilly Bumpus dogs that terrorize McGavin every chance they get, the bullies Farkus (with his maniacal laugh) and Dill (the toadie), the triple-dog-dare, the bunny suit (the pink nightmare), the furnace, the curse word, and the aforementioned adventure with a frozen pole.  In the end, Ralphie gets what he wants.  Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you can still guess what happens.

It’s interesting to me that family movies were not as big in those days as they are today.  I only remember a few of them.  In fact, family movies are all Hollywood has to depend on to put keesters in the seats.  Movies based on toys, video games, and cartoon products are the movies that make the big bucks, because they are made (seemingly) for the whole family.  In 1983, it was a different story.  Most of the money was being made from sex comedies and horror movies.  “Family”-oriented movies were relegated to made-for-television status.  Disney had suffered major financial overhauls due to their creation of a cable television channel, and they were not making many animated features.

Jean Shepherd’s narration is quaint. He sounds like he is describing the peculiar activities and rituals of the human race to aliens from other planets. Of course, the characters (especially those from Ralphie’s family) are quite familiar to us. His dad is well-meaning, somewhat temperamental, and often wrong. His mother (played by adorable Melinda Dillon) is the voice of reason, and a good sport to put up with her husband’s antics. His little brother, Randy, is an idiot and an anorexic in potentia. The bullies are monsters. I never understood why two kids (one of them a half-pint) could scare four moderately-sized kids so much they had to run in opposite directions.

So leave it to Bob Clark, of all people, to craft a sweet and wonderful holiday movie for children and adults to enjoy. He had just finished Porky’s 2: The Next Day and did a complete about-face with A Christmas Story. I’ve always been impressed with directors who try to broaden their horizons by working in multiple genres. In addition to the Porky’s movies, Bob Clark made horror movies (Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things), thrillers (Murder By Decree), and social commentary (Turk 182). He also made some stinkers, but his body of work more than made up for it. He died in 2007.

I’ve had several conversations with some very interesting people over the last few weeks with regard to their respective roles in the concept (not the holiday with religious implications) of Christmas.  I came to the conclusion that Santa, that Christmas is for everybody.  It’s mainly for children.  Christmas is a child’s holiday.  It’s about presents and trees, and ornaments, and decorations.  It’s about a delicious meal.  It’s about tipping your hat on a cold night to a stranger.  Christmas is for everyone.

Merry Christmas Everybody!

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: Rhinestone, 1984

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“All right, we’ll go to your place and you can show me your organ. But I’m warning you, it’d best be having music coming out of it.”

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Rhinestone, 1984 (Dolly Parton), 20th Century Fox

Sylvester Stallone is a smart guy.  Betraying his brutish looks, muscular physique, and propensity for violence, Stallone understands his incredible history, and his ability to re-invent his image.  He’s played rogue cops, underdog boxers, and disillusioned soldiers.  He’s gone down the road of pristine drama (Cop Land), and screwball comedy (Oscar), but pairing him head-to-head with Dolly Parton proved to be such a misfire from inception that it isn’t hard to see why he stayed away from this kind of culture-clash comedy for the better part of his career.  Given the opportunity to rewrite Phil Alden Robinson’s (Field of Dreams) screenplay, and then turning down Beverly Hills Cop to appear in this movie, Stallone shows he’s not afraid to take ill-advised chances in film.

Like every decent screwball comedy, this one begins with a bet.  Dolly’s Jake Farris is contracted to perform nightly at an admittedly popular tourist trap country bar smack dab in the middle of New York City run by Ron Leibman.  She makes a deal with Leibman to turn the first person he spots into a country music star.  If she succeeds, she can get out of the slave contract with Liebman (who can’t help but be sleazy about the whole thing).  They go out to the street and Liebman picks a dizzy cab driver named Nick for this Pygmalion-like transformation.  Of course, given the multi-cultural climate of New York City, Nick would be the very last person Dolly would agree to tutor in the ways of country music, but Leibman wants to make this as difficult as possible for her.

For a moment there, Nick thinks she’s coming on to him.  He takes her back to his home, where his Mama (playing it to the hilt, constantly circling the table to babble in a foreign language and deposit more food) makes spaghettis and gravy.  See, Dolly’s all skin and bone as we know.  So it’s unusual that in addition to a clash of cultures, we also have a clash of stereotypes.  Stallone is a good-natured meathead and Dolly’s a sassy redneck chick (and hot, to boot!).  Dolly decides to take Nick down to her ancestral home in Tennessee.  It’s funny that I was living in Tennessee at the time this movie premiered on cable television.  There didn’t seem to be much hootin’ and hollerin’ going on when I was living down there.  She teaches him to walk and to talk like a redneck (or “rhinestone”) cowboy-type; chewing tobacco, and developing a John Wayne swagger.

Dolly makes for a charmingly baroque figure in her dusters, cowboy hats, and leather boots, but Stallone, I think, tries too hard to be funny here when playing it straight would have benefited the humorous idea.  The rolling of his eyes and mugging for the camera, along with Travolta-hair style make him more menacing than endearing to me.  You can tell Dolly is really trying to teach him, not only about country music, but the unspoken language of dependency with which actors must relate.  In fact, Dolly is the saving grace of this movie.  Nevermind her looks – this broad is insanely talented; as an actor, as a singer, as an entertainer!  The only time the story doesn’t feel genuine is when the screenplay forces them to be closer.  The way I see it, the movie’s not a love story.  It’s a dare.  A dare to turn a cab driver into a star.  A dare to cast Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton in a movie together.

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It’s here that we get into what makes a bad movie (although I disagree with that notion).  Watching or reviewing and evaluating a movie is, was, and always has been a subjective experience.  For example, you might consider Rhinestone to be a seminal work of art, a masterpiece; it did it’s job, for you.  You come across an imposing cluster of terrible reviews.  You talk to people who say the movie is “terrible”, or worse.  Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 15% “tomatometer” rating.  In those days, before the advent of blanket advertising to guarantee good opening weekend numbers, box office was the only indication of a movie’s failure.  This doesn’t mean you’re wrong for loving the movie.  It only means fewer people agree with your opinion, and it doesn’t mean you have bad taste in film.  If, in your view, the movie does it’s job (the outlandish prospect of pairing Parton with Stallone, and the silly screwball narrative), then it succeeds.  Rhinestone succeeds.

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.

 

A Year of Vintage Cable Box!

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“Our technology forces us to live mythically”

Marshall McLuhan

My first crush.

Cable television is a beautiful woman (or man, I suppose) who gets into your brain and relaxes you.  She wants you to sit back and unwind.  Just imagine slender fingers rubbing and squeezing against your tense shoulders, then forming a fist to dig into the middle of your spine, and then you hear a satisfying crack and the ease of your joints.  I love her.  She is, as Homer Simpson would say, my “secret lover.”  This is me as an 11-year-old, unlocking the treasure trove, finding the honey pot, and witnessing boobies and enthusiasm, and strong language; the use of the “f” word.  I remember gasping when I first heard it.  I didn’t gasp anymore after I saw Scarface for the first time.  Cable television is different these days; the Pandora’s Box – she offers too much and gives nothing in return.  I looked at my guide the other day – a little over eleven hundred channels, crystal-clear HD, on-demand – anything I want, I can have.  In 1984, we had thirty channels, and if there was something I wanted that wasn’t on cable, I went to the video store.  Bear with me.  I’m not going to start up a diatribe about how things were better when I was a young’in.

Vintage Cable Box is something I always wanted to do.  I wanted to go back to that time when I was a young man, with burgeoning puberty pounding down the door, and Alyssa Milano’s gorgeous face, and Jacqueline Bisset’s tanned body and wet t-shirt, beckoning me.  I tune into Porky’s and come to the realization that there is a whole other world out there: the world of the coaxial cable and the heavy metal box on top of my 25″ Magnavox color console.  From there, innocence becomes a degree of intelligence (not much, but I was eleven, mind you) where cable television becomes my peculiar form of film school.  I can’t tell you how much I learned about movies, about making movies, about filmmakers, watching cable television at this time.  This is my life.  My life is movies.  I eat them up like popcorn.  The Man with Two Brains was the first; turning it on just as the cable guy was leaving the premises – it was exotic.  On the screen, a buxom blonde with a ridiculous accent flashes her bare breasts at Steve Martin.  The cable guy acted like it was no big deal, but we never had cable.  We seriously didn’t.  No cable television in Philadelphia.  My mother had a great job opportunity in Lebanon, Tennessee.  She had family down there, so we moved.  It was a higher quality of life (in theory, but not really).

My second crush.

As the old saying goes, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.” We got the premium (or deluxe) package. HBO and Cinemax (which would alternate premiere movies; sometimes HBO would get it first, sometimes Cinemax would get it first. Either way, and in lieu of a videocassette recorder, movies were repeatedly shown. Sometimes they would even be broadcast simultaneously, perhaps a couple of seconds out of sync, and with slightly different color gradients and schemes – HBO always seemed a tad bit brighter than Cinemax. We had The Movie Channel for a time as well, until my mother started assessing the bill. The Movie Channel was interesting. You would find unusual, even obscure films often programmed as retrospectives, and this is how I learned about filmmakers. You would see a handful of Brian De Palma films like Home Movies, Dressed to Kill, Carrie, and Get to Know Your Rabbit programmed alongside Scarface to coincide with that film’s premiere. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, and The Trouble with Harry were programmed to coincide with the 1984 re-release of those movies. This is why I can never get behind arguments (usually from older people) that TV rots your brain. I don’t know what they’re talking about. Film, in and of itself, is an education, and television was the vehicle (or the medium – per McLuhan) for this delivery system. Me not dumb! Good, write, good!

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).

I had always wanted share my specific views and history of cable television in the early 1980s.  For a more in-depth analysis into the history of Pay TV and cable television, I suggest Ben Minotte’s fabulous Oddity Archive.  I had the opportunity to interview (with Mark Jeacoma) Mr. Minotte for the VHS Rewind podcast.  He’s an exceptional (and curious) fellow.  The other channels I remember from those times were CNN, Nickelodeon (and Nick at Nite), MTV, TNN (aka The Nashville Network), and WTBS (not just TBS – it was considered a “superstation”, like Chicago’s WGN), the local affiliates, and a couple of bizarre public access stations.  I remember flipping to one of those stations and seeing our landlord at the time, an old Baptist pulpit-punding minister, broadcasting his own show!  He seemed like a nice man, but he wouldn’t allow us to keep any pets.  Nick at Nite was an astonishing find.  I discovered The Bob Cummings Show, Bachelor Father, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.  What I remember, in the days before cable television, the UHF stations in Philadelphia: channels 17, 29, and 48.  Channel 17 WPHL would run Star Trek and The Outer Limits.  Channel 29 (WTAF, later to become a FOX affiliate with terrible reception) would run Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.  Channel 48 WKBS (which went out of business in 1983) would show Creature Double Feature on Saturday mornings and afternoons.  Sometimes, if your antenna was in a good position, you could get the Vineland, New Jersey UHF channel.

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When I launched Vintage Cable Box on August 31 last year, I fully expected to begin the odyssey with Porky’s, but Wes Craven’s passing away over that weekend prompted me to change up my schedule, so I put out three reviews: Swamp Thing, Porky’s, and Rodney Dangerfield’s Easy Money. Looking at the reviews now, they seem more like perfunctory write-ups, descriptions of plots more than any true evaluation. I don’t think I really kicked it into gear until The Osterman Weekend (September 23, 2016). My Big Chill review the following week I rate as one of my best. National Lampoon’s Class Reunion was a sobering reminder that many of the movies I enjoyed as an eleven-year-old I could not stomach today. Some (very few) of these movies are absolutely horrible to watch. Class Reunion kicked off my first Halloween retrospective. I reviewed horror movies for the entire month and got my first big hit with my review of Amityville II: The Possession. Horror movies get great numbers for me.  What really sells today is nostalgia, and you could even look back on a failed movie, a terrible movie, and express some level of nostalgia or affection for it, but if you can’t drum up that enthusiasm in yourself, it’s not going to work for your readers or your listening audience.  I know I have this problem on occasion

Which brings me to those reviews I might have phoned in, because I couldn’t get into it while loving it as a child, and then considering it some form of exquisite torture in my later years.  November brought me The Rosebud Beach Hotel and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen.  December’s Christmas cheer brought me The Man Who Wasn’t There, but it also brought me my biggest hit, A Christmas Story (to be rivaled only by Midnight Madness).  I think the elements of popularity and nostalgia (not to mention affection) combine to bring about a newfound interest; it’s not necessarily about how well you think you write.  If you are writing about something a reader has in the back of his or her head, that they remember, that they adore, you’ll get a lot of readers.  Get Crazy, a movie that barely had a release yet exploded on cable television, made me think about some hidden gems; the over-budgeted movies that scam-artist financers would sell to investors from which they would pocket the difference and laugh all the way to the bank.  It’s sort of like the plot to Mel Brooks’ The Producers.  Other examples include Somebody Killed Her Husband and (perhaps) The House of God.

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It’s amazing to me how some movies hold up, while others are terribly dated and get worse with age.  I remember adoring Breathless, They Call Me Bruce?, and Jekyll and Hyde – Together Again.  Now I hate them.  I can’t stand them.  In December, I launched a bit of a mini-series in that in appeared to me that several movies were being made at the time with writers as their central characters:  Deathtrap, Author! Author!, Romancing the Stone, Best Friends, and Romantic Comedy.  Nobody would ever dare make a movie about a writer these days.  Romantic Comedy would find it’s way into my series about Dudley Moore.  Moore was all over cable television at that time.  Dudley Moore’s particular skills revolved around his man-child characters, always unsatisfied, depressed, and yearning (or lusting) after women while negotiating his advanced years.  Sometimes, he would take a dramatic detour (Six Weeks), but those digressions were infrequent.  Mel Brooks’ 90th birthday was coming up, and I remembered seeing several of his movies (in another wonderful Movie Channel retrospective tied to the premiere of his To Be or Not to Be remake) so I put together the four that received endless play.

Stacey Nelkin get’s crazy!

There are also the unexpected deaths that changed my schedule (as with my very first review).  I mentioned in my (very quickly cobbled together) review of The Woman in Red that Gene Wilder’s passing forced me to rush that write-up.  I had originally planned to continue my articles up to the point we got the HBO satellite service in Philadelphia, and The Woman in Red would be featured.  The same situation forced me to publish a review for Garry Marshall’s Young Doctors in Love.  After the death of David Bowie, I wrote up the review for The Hunger.  I have a schedule in place, and I tend to write reviews well in advance of publication for this very reason.  So what are we up to?  At last count, 74 reviews have been published.  I had initially expected to put out an article once a week.  I figure I have about another year’s worth of material.  We’ll see what happens, but this has been a wonderful trip back to my past, and I hope you (the readers) will continue this journey with me.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: “Porky’s”, 1981

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“That … tallywhacker had a mole on it. And that mole is the key to it.”

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.

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“Porky’s”, 1981 (Kim Cattrall), 20th Century Fox

As a standard teen sex comedy narrative, “Porky’s” is based on repetition, and a curious parochial attitude in which something good (read: sexy) happens to one of our protagonists, and then almost immediately, that protagonist is punished for his pleasure. In one key scene (the basis for the poster, no less) our plucky heroes are spying on girls through peepholes in the shower. One of them decides to tempt fate by sticking his … ahem “tallywhacker” through the peephole. It is then that girls coach, Miss Ballbricker, grabs the offending appendage and pulls on it, causing our hero a respectable amount of pain.

“Porky’s” follows our teen heroes from one sexual misadventure to another. The story takes place in 1954. Imagine “American Graffiti”, but with significantly more skin. It’s a low-budget coming-of-age movie with a top-rate cast, excellent acting, photography, and a story that doesn’t condescend to, or patronize it’s audience (other than a haphazard subplot about bigotry, but I’ll forgive writer/director Bob Clark for that misstep). The movie was a tremendous hit for Fox, earning over a hundred million smackeroos at the box office, but it was on cable television that the movie’s success truly blossomed, as it were. While our parents forbade us from the pleasures of Pee-Wee and Wendy in the theater, they couldn’t stop us from checking it out on our vintage cable boxes!

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“Porky’s” was followed with two sequels, the competent “Porky’s 2: The Next Day”, and the dreadful “Porky’s Revenge” (with music from George Harrison!). Most memorable is the beautiful Kim Cattrall, hilariously nicknamed “Lassie” because of her penchant for high-pitched squealing during sex. Dependable character actors, Alex Karras and Susan Clark (from TV’s Webster), as well as Art Hindle, and Nancy Parsons, fill out the cast of mostly-unknown young actors. Bob Clark directed one of my favorite 70s horror movies, “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” as well as the perennial holiday classic, “A Christmas Story”. Sort of puts a different spin on “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. You can hear my podcast at Misadventures In BlissVille and you can visit my Facebook group page.

“Vintage Cable Box” artwork by Bronwyn Knox.