“Zapped, 1982”

“Sometimes life is like an onion. When you peel it, it makes you cry.”

Zapped, 1982 (Scott Baio), Embassy Pictures

Scott Baio has been given a gift. He’s a brilliant young man – a scientist! All day long in high school, he wears a lab coat cand conducts experiments involving marijuana, alcohol, and white mice. I remember my Mother told me a story about how she placed second in the County Science Fair. She was feeding alcohol to fruit flies to observe effects and consequences. Even second place, the experiment was an official board selection and an article was penned for Scientific American circa 1964. I look at all that past aptitude and then look at my Mother these days and I wonder where it all went. We’re capable of so much sagacity in our early years and then the fever dies down as we watch our hopes and dreams taken away from us like garbage on a regular Monday morning. Back to the Baio! He wouldn’t be an enterprising young man without a Huckleberry, would he? Huckleberry, in this exercise, is played by stalwart Baio-buddy, Willie Aames (who would in short order join him for Charles in Charge). Aames serves as the Baio-id, perhaps the Hyde to his Jekyll; untamed libido and dissolute greed.

This is the requisite high school of movie-maker wet dreams; clean-cut kids, extremely short cheerleader skirts, and students who look at least a decade older than they should look. Right away we have our cliques, as identified by hair color: the brains are brunettes, and the blondes … well, let’s just say they have more fun.  Scatman Crothers (in a hilarious bit), looking for Baio’s stash of Jack Daniels), accidentally spills some “Super Growth Plant Food” into the “Cannabis Extract.” This must be one of them California high schools, huh? Huh? Because … pot was recently legalized in … nevermind. Scatman unwittingly creates a mutant potion when Aames (being a scamp!) pours beer into the mixture, which will shortly give Baio powers. Incredible powers! Incredible powers of telekinesis! Meanwhile Felice Schachter’s Bernadette (who we don’t know is actually a fox without her ridiculous glasses) keeps pestering Baio for an interview. Interesting that Felice beat out Demi Moore and Helen Slater for the part. They eventually hook up, but you know this is going to happen. An accident ensues and Baio is exposed to a chemical reaction.

Baio’s parents (Roger Bowen and Marya Small, who I just saw in a Kolchak episode) are, of course, ignorant to his plight. They seem like the kind of people who watch 20/20, and you have to wonder how they get along in bed. Instead of communicating with their son, they interrogate him about drug usage and check him for tracks in his veins. Remember Matthew Broderick’s parents in WarGames? Same deal here. Baio develops his powers, slowly at first, but then they blossom in the most awkward of ways. He fantasizes (during class) about Heather Thomas stripping in front of him while repeatedly calling his name, and he gets a hard-on. He is called on by his teacher and arranges for the map display to unravel all over her and school principal, Walter Coolidge (Soap’s Robert Mandan). The cast is populated with television actors. Back then, television and movies were separate islands, and actors never dared tread the waters between. This is why Zapped! feels like a television movie for most of it’s running time, until the boobies start popping out. It’s weird to me the producers felt pressured to add nudity to the movie to give it an R rating. That just doesn’t happen today.

Now we get to Baio’s special gift. This is a young man who could help people. He could be a real, literal superhero. He could do some heavy lifting, tugging a couch or piano out an apartment window for his moving buddies with his mind. Instead he uses his newfound talent to expose breasts. This is the Aames-as-Satan connection. Bizarre, in that Willie Aames (a very popular child actor) became a born-again Christian in the ’90s and was known for his character, Bibleman (a true superhero!). Bibleman’s alter-ego, Miles Peterson, would not approve of this garden variety-Buddy Lembeck’s obsession with sex and profit for fun. Felice crack’s Baio’s blue steel facade and falls in love with him, which is sweet. I’m a fan of their love. I don’t like him trying to remove her top with his mind as they make out, but otherwise Zapped! is a lot of fun. It feels like a TV movie that was recut (with added nude scenes) for the less-uptight European audience. There are parody bits throughout the movie; the funniest of them being Star Trek (with an obvious Millenium Falcon/U.S.S. Enterprise model hybrid), The Exorcist (involving a “possessed” ventriloquist’s dummy), and Carrie. Thank you, Scott Baio, for making us laugh at love … again.

And thank you to Mark Jeacoma, who suggested this entry to me a long time ago, as well as hosting these articles for going on two years now! For an entertaining podcast on the subject of Zapped!, check out Mark’s discussion of the movie with Chris Hasler.

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.

“My Favorite Year, 1982”

“I’m not an actor! I’M A MOVIE STAR!”

My Favorite Year, 1982 (Peter O’Toole), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

In 1954, amiable young nebbish Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) is a junior writer for the King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade when his childhood hero, movie matinee idol Alan Swann (Academy Award-nominated Peter O’Toole) guest stars on the show. This is a dream come true for Benjy, but it quickly turns into a nightmare when Swann proves to be an immature drunkard and an unprofessional hack who can’t rise to this most auspicious of occasions. Swann is a has-been with a genuine shot at becoming relevant again, but as we know from recent news, movie stars are unlikable douchebags. Didn’t we always know that? Benjy is heartbroken to see that his hero is a skirt-chasing alcoholic, even as he assesses him with the filters of his youth. Joseph Bologna’s Stan “King” Kaiser is no saint either. An unrepentant jack-ass in his own right, Kaiser is deluded as to his comic chops, but what he lacks in talent he makes up for in his bravery. In strict defiance to crooked Union boss, Karl Rojeck (the great Cameron Mitchell!), Bologna portrays a popular parody of him on his show every week. Rojeck retaliates with intimidation and sabotage on his set.

When Swann shows up late (and drunk) for his first call, Bologna fires him on the spot. Benjy sticks up for Swann. Bologna agrees to take him back under the proviso that Benjy keep an eye on him for the duration of rehearsals and the show, which is to be broadcast live. Swann is wheeled into a posh hotel room at the Waldorf Astoria because nobody can trust him to stand on his own. He has “breakaway” clothing that can be easily removed as he refuses to undress for his bath. His able-bodied chauffeur clues Benjy in to Swann’s lack of funds, secret stashes of booze, and an strained relationship to his estranged daughter, Tess, who lives in Connecticut. Yet, as pathetic as he appears, Swann still knows how to fill out a tuxedo. Meanwhile, Benjy awkwardly pursues production assistant K.C. (Jessica Harper), who keeps shooting him down. Swann advises the young man on how to better improve his position with her. This is a 1954 romanticized by Benjy Stone; a New York City we only see in classic films. Big beautiful cars. Men and women dressed impeccably. Automats. Through a haze of nostalgia, we see that people behave very much (as written, that is) like they do today, especially with regard to the behavior of celebrities.

We get into the day-to-day details of working on a comedy show, and remember this was way before the trappings of 30 Rock (coincidentally where the Comedy Cavalcade is shot). There are some wonderful character beats. Lainie Kazan (as Benjy’s mother) wonders why her son would hide his Jewish heritage with a pseudonym. Anti-semitism being as prevalent back then as it is today required many people to hide their ethnicity behind banal surnames. Swann masks his profound depression with booze and flamboyant theatrics. Kaiser seems to suffer selective Tourette’s and the only way to calm him is to hit him over the head with his script. Benjy’s affection for K.C. borders on harassment in turns with his jealousy and obsession, but then he arranges for a big dinner of Chinese food (boxes filled with dumplings) in the office, which is sweet, and then he charms her with his tutilege on how to properly tell a joke. They screen old Alan Swann films and he annoys her by reciting the dialogue verbatim (a tactic I use to annoy my long-suffering wife). Luckily, she shuts him up by kissing him (a tactic my wife uses to shut me up sometimes). The film moves along briskly and Swann excels at rehearsals. Benjy takes Swann home to meet his bizarre family in Brooklyn.

When pressed by Benjy’s Uncle Morty about the latest gossip surrounding him, Swann confesses, “People like me wear targets. I’m blamed for a lot of things I had absolutely nothing to do with. On the other hand, because of who I am, I get away with murder in other areas. I suppose it all balances out in the end.” As he is idolized and fawned over by Benjy’s family and residents of their apartment building, Swann becomes depressed and must drink. The morning after, Swann absconds with a police officer’s horse and takes Benjy for a galloping tour of Central Park. Benjy encourages him to repair his relationship with his daughter. Swann hilariously freaks out when he realizes the show is to be performed live rather than taped. Rojeck and his goons crash the live broadcast and Swann with Bologna fight off the bad guys in front of a thrilled audience. This is a fun, charming movie produced by Michael Gruskoff for Mel Brooks’ Brooksfilms, directed by Richard Benjamin from a script by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo. It was a wise move to have Benjamin direct the movie rather than Brooks, as Brooks would, most assuredly, have placed more emphasis on the sight gags and comedy and less on the living drama O’Toole summons in his performance. Benjy’s sunny epilogue feels out of place. The movie is populated with character actors from Brooks’ (and colleague Carl Reiner’s) movies. This is a refreshing change of pace from last week’s dismal Misunderstood.

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 Groove Tube, 1974”

“I’m in the driver’s seat! I’m runnin’ the show! I’M THE FUCKIN’ PRESIDENT!”

The Groove Tube, 1974 (Ken Shapiro), Levitt-Pickman

The day I write this review, Ken Shapiro has died at the age of 75. In the Gray Lady’s obituary, Shapiro is credited as a founding member of the Channel One Theater in New York, with Chevy Chase and Lane Sarasohn. This was an unusual comic environment where sketches or skits would be pre-recorded and played back on monitors for an audience, truly taking Marshall McLuhan’s operating thesis of “the medium” being the message to an extraordinarily interactive degree. This entertainment delivery device would inspire sketch comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live and SCTV. Three years later, John Landis would direct the similar The Kentucky Fried Movie from a script by Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker. Also in the obituary was a fact of which I was not aware: Shapiro was a popular child actor working for, among others, Milton Berle, under the name, Kenny Sharpe. He used his earnings to later finance The Groove Tube.

The pre-credits bit spoofs 2001; A Space Odyssey with an assemblage of ape-like creatures and Ligeti-like music gathered around a monolithic television set. Curtis Mayfield urges us to “Move on Up” in a funky credits sequence that takes us through a montage of technological advancements. Next thing we know, the apes are getting down to the groove tube! Shapiro plays a Bozo-like Koko the Clown who (with the assistance of Magic Monkey) advises parents to leave the room during “Make Believe” time so he can read erotic literature to children watching the show. The vignettes are broken up with commercials for products such as “Mouth Appeal” toothpaste and a disgusting substance known as Brown 25, a fine product from Uranus Corporation. The Kramp TV Kitchen “Heritage Loaf” sequence sends up cooking shows with overly-complicated recipes and instructions. As the host’s instructions become more and more nonsensical (“Insert the olive pits into the pitted cherries.”), the faceless cook attempting to follow his instructions, becomes more and more frustrated.

The center-piece of the film seems to be a parody of cop shows entitled The Dealers starring Shapiro and Richard Belzer as a pair of inept junkie drug dealers. As with people who get high on their own supply, their collective paranoia gets the better of them and they either flush most of the product down a toilet or eat it when they fear the fuzz is tailing them. When Shapiro assesses their impending poverty (after a striking animation sequence) and his burgeoning homosexuality, he turns and looks at the camera and the show becomes a public service announcement espousing the dangers of drug addiction. The Dealers brings the movie to a screeching halt, but the action picks up again with a commercial for Butz beer (“The President of Beers”) and a precursor to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update with the Channel One Evening News anchored by Shapiro. Belzer plays the President of the United States in an uncanny, unsettling prognostication of our current President.

What’s surprising to me is that The Groove Tube’s material still holds up (even the penis puppet!). Perhaps the only content that appears dated (sadly) is the brazen sexuality with full female and male nudity. Originally rated X and then trimmed to get a hard R rating, the movie was an enormous hit for the time, earning $20 million at the box office on a budget of $200,000. A popular video rental that received endless play on cable television, The Groove Tube was given a limited DVD release from Hen’s Tooth Video and as of yet has not appeared on Blu Ray, where it would benefit from remastering. Chase would beat out Belzer for a coveted spot as a Not Ready for Primetime Player in the original Saturday Night Live lineup. Shapiro is the true star of his movie. A remarkably funny and physical comedian, it’s a shame he only made one more movie after this, the 1981 Chevy Chase comedy, Modern Problems for Fox co-starring Patti D’Arbanville and Dabney Coleman. Shapiro retired from filmmaking dissatisfied with the studio process.

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.

“An American Werewolf in London, 1981”

“A naked American man stole my balloons.”

An American Werewolf in London, 1981 (David Naughton), PolyGram Pictures

To appreciate An American Werewolf in London is to understand David Kessler’s predicament. Back-packing with buddy Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) through the moors, they come upon a quaint pub called The Slaughtered Lamb. The locals can sniff out the Colony blood and take an immediate dislike to them. Before they hurriedly leave, they are warned to stick to the roads and “beware the moon.” Jack is attacked and killed by a large, fur-covered beast with fangs, and David (David Naughton) is injured. While David recuperates from his injuries and flirts with pretty nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter), he is visited by undead Jack, who informs him they were attacked by a werewolf, and that David will transform into a werewolf at the next full moon. David writes off Jack’s warning as symptoms of impending madness.

What if he’s right? What if he’s going mad? A lot can be ascribed to psychosomatic underpinnings; that the brain controls the body to a certain extent, and if you truly believe and adapt to your surroundings, you can control those surroundings (including the suspicious appearance of fur and fangs). If what you believe is your reality, and in your reality, you believe you are a werewolf, you will become that thing. The same predicament befalls Nicolas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss (one of Cage’s few movies I can stomach) with similar results. The core of the movie’s logic depends on the character’s disbelief of the facts as they are handed to him by his undead friend who, in various stages of realistic decomposition, continues to warn him and then to advise him on the best (or most efficient) ways to off himself so that he doesn’t murder innocent people.

Nurse Alex has taken him into her home and he avails himself of her unexpected British hospitality. A charming romance blossoms between the two, even if she thinks he’s completely off his nut for insisting that he will become a werewolf. They have a wonderful, foreshadowing conversation about David’s theory that a werewolf can only be killed by someone who loves it. The next day, she goes to work and later that night, he transforms into a werewolf, and the sequence is truly frightening. If not for the immense pain Naughton appears to be going through, then for his complete astonishment at what is happening to him. The transformation puts us, the audience, in the room with him, and as we watch it, we become complicit in his secret. He charges off into the night and kills six people; all of whom join Jack to visit him in a porno theater in Picadilly Circus the following day.

With the central conceit (the suspension of disbelief) of the story out of the way, we can enjoy the strange humor of David’s condition. Not completely a comedy and not all the way serious, director John Landis shopped his script around for ten years before he found financing. It was only when he had three box office hits in The Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, and The Blues Brothers under his belt that he was able to finally make the movie. An American Werewolf in London, along with The Howling, were the two big werewolf movies of 1981 and, while sharing Rick Baker’s startling tutilege, also exist in a world of werewolf movies. Both movies reference the classic 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. movie, The Wolf Man, written by Curt Siodmak. An American Werewolf in London is a fun, sexy, horror movie that transcended both horror and comedy genres and was enormously influential on movies that would follow.

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 World According to Garp, 1982”

“It can be a real adventure having a life.”

The World According to Garp, 1982 (Robin Williams), Warner Bros.

What is a “Garp?” According to Hume Cronyn (when informed of his grandson’s name), it sounds like a fish. He’s off by a consonant, but if the other side of the glass in his particular fishbowl is the world, it’s a world T.S. Garp is never permitted to enjoy. Various attempts to improve his condition are undermined by his attention-seeking mother, Jenny Fields (Glenn Close), who is inspired by Garp’s desire to become a writer by writing her own book – a speculative satire/self-help tome titled, A Sexual Suspect, that becomes an enormous hit and solidifies her status as a cult-like leader to millions of disenfranchised women all over the world.

Meanwhile, Garp marries and has children with high school sweetheart, Helen (Mary Beth Hurt), and tries to further his own writing career, but is overshadowed by Jenny at every turn. Interestingly, her legion of dedicated followers greet Garp with nothing but disgust, marginalization, and objectification due to his status as a man. These are oddly prescient themes in 2017; those that define themselves by their identities, lack of perceived privilege or status have now become the spirituous bullies of others. One does not have to imagine Garp’s frustration in his world to understand what he is feeling. Unfortunately, Irving’s story lacks a strong narrative focus, but this has always been a failing of his fiction.

In John Irving’s estimation, we (as characters) are tiny little chess pieces inhabiting an immense board. For every decision that Garp makes in the story is based upon the reactions or anticipation of either fellow characters (or pieces) observing him or situations that have arisen without his knowledge or consent. Aside from one tragic incident occuring later in the story, he is essentially blameless in everything that occurs. At least that’s how I interpret the story. There is a forever changing and evolving world, and then there are the forced masses, chained to ideals or weighed down by family that keep us stationary and stagnant. Garp is the embodiment of this stagnation.

Aside from the curious disconnect between the story’s collection of eccentric characters and the audience, Garp is a fascinating, unforgettable personal journey into one man’s private Hell. Robin Williams (in an early strong, dramatic performance) is immensely watchable, even as he tries to give us some distance from his comedic stage work. He’s not quite there yet as a credible dramatic lead. I think Williams learns more from his capacity for humor in creating a dramatic performance than the other way around. For reference, consider Good Morning Vietnam and Good Will Hunting and compare those characters to Garp. You’ll be surprised to see how much he had evolved as an actor.

Glenn Close gives the keynote performance for the film. The characters shift and the narrative turns on her character’s every decision. In fact, she’s so good in this movie that I absolutely hate her. She creates such a real person in the midst of all the catharsis that you’ll swear she’s a member of your own family. She has this irritating pleasantness and a robotic smile that you feel she’s patronizing her sycophants in addition to her family. Strangely, the most sympathetic performance in the film comes from John Lithgow portraying Roberta Muldoon, a one-time football star who had a sex-change operation and must negotiate the waters of her own fishbowl as “she” tries to connect with fellow human beings in a cruel, prejudiced world.

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 Trouble With Harry, 1955”

“He’s asleep. He’s in a deep sleep. A deep, wonderful sleep.”

The Trouble with Harry, 1955 (John Forsythe), Paramount Pictures

Young Jerry Mathers hears gunshots and arguing in the idyllic Vermont countryside. He stumbles across a dead body. It’s a body everybody seems to know, with the exception of the strange artist Sam Marlow (John Forsythe). Along the way, he picks up various tid-bits, little nuggets of information with regard to the owner of the dead body, a disreputable sleaze from Boston named Harry. Introducing the cuddly, fiercely intellectual Edmund Gwenn, hunting for rabbits, mistakenly believes he has shot Harry dead when he comes across him. Along the way, he makes a date with neighbor Mildred Natwick for some blueberry muffins and elderberry wine.

Jerry runs home to tell his mom (cute Shirley MacLaine), and before Edmund can dispose of the body, they’re up to see Harry. Shirley seems awfully happy Harry has bitten the dust, as it were. Edmund can’t seem to get any work done, because the entire town trapses through; among them, an absent-minded doctor who trips over him, and a drifter who steals the dead man’s shoes. Enter the handsome Sam, who barters his art for supplies and food at the general store. Nosy sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano) aims to level a fine at whomever he catches shooting off guns on his “posted” land. You get the feeling this is a small town, because everybody knows everybody.

The Trouble with Harry is an unusual film, even for Alfred Hitchcock. He (and his writer John Michael Hayes) make sure not to make enemies of his leads, even the shifty Wiggs. It’s almost a slice-of-life about small-town folk who get to know each other in a more intimate way as a result of a body being dropped in their collective lap. Out sketching later, Forsythe comes across the body. Being an annoying artist-type, he sketches the body. Edmund confesses to the crime he possibly couldn’t commit, whereas Forsythe speculates Harry was destined to die at this particular place, at this particular time, and that Edmund did the Universe a favor. When we’re having discussions about existentialism, we’re not especially interested in a murder-mystery. The Trouble with Harry is a black comedy.

Forsythe makes an agreement with Edmund that they’ll dispose of the body if they can prove Shirley’s innocence in the matter. To that end, Forsythe gets chummy with her. They have a mutual attraction for one another, as much as she tries to dissuade his interest. She’s not good with men. That won’t stop Sam. He loves her and he loves her son. They have a strange, flirtatious first encounter. I wonder if this movie would be a good companion piece with Rope; wherein we have characters debating treacherous action under the guise of intellectualism. Where Rope was more in the vein of melodrama, this movie is played strictly for uncomfortable laughter.

Negotiating Shirley’s scatter-brained take on her relationship with Harry, Forsythe (probably against his better judgement) courts her, and bands together Natwick and Edmund to create a more appropriate death scenario for Harry so that no one will face criminal repercussion. It complicates matters when each character takes it upon themselves to conceal Harry’s body without telling anyone else their plans. Along the way, love stories develop; one young and one old, and these are very charming entanglements. If a less experienced, perhaps younger filmmaker were to tackle The Trouble with Harry, he would, almost certainly, be accused of not understanding the value of tone in storytelling. In the hands of a grand experimenter, The Trouble with Harry is great fun and makes perfect sense.

Two Davids Walk Into A Bar presents a very special episode devoted to the five “missing” Alfred Hitchcock films re-released to theaters in 1983, and on home media in 1984 and 1985: Rear Window, Vertigo, The Trouble With Harry, Rope, and The Man Who Knew Too 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. 

“Irreconcilable Differences, 1984”

“This Civil War ain’t gonna get me down. I’m taking my act to a brand new town. This belle rings in old Atlanta. I’m gonna find myself a brand new Santa!”

Irreconcilable Differences, 1984 (Drew Barrymore), Warner Bros.

At the end of a particularly biting monologue delivered by Drew Barrymore to her befuddled, self-absorbed parents (Ryan O’ Neal, Shelley Long), she tells them they have “irreconcilable differences.” My mother jumps up, points at the screen and shouts, “What a little bitch!” I’m like, “Why?” I don’t think she gave me an answer, except to say Drew should have respect for her parents. In her world, parents were always right. Children were meant to be seen and not heard. Shut up, Drew! I don’t agree, and I am a parent. She has a valid point to make. When a child commits an atrocity; something we read about in the morning papers, my first question is always, “Where were the parents?” This must be the disconnect between the baby-boomer generation and their generation X offspring. They were too busy living second childhoods to care. Drew, essentially, takes her parents to court so that she can emancipate herself or, at the very least, get the Hell away from them.

Generation X-types aren’t completely innocent in the exchange either. They tend to spend way too much time playing video games, brandishing new tattoos, and reading comic books when they should be perfecting basic skills like combing their hair and shaving their neck-beards, but I kid! I didn’t mean for this to become a speech, but I always mean for my tone to be sarcastic. Little Casey Brodsky (Drew) hates her parents, or maybe she tires of their antics. Dad Albert is an up-and-coming filmmaker. His wife, Lucy, assists him to the point of rewriting his scripts (while not receiving credit). It must irk her to see their success attributed only to her husband. After a couple of hits, Albert is the toast of the town. He hires aspiring actress, Blake (Sharon Stone, in an early role) for his next film, and when it becomes obvious to Lucy he has subscribed to the Peter Bogdanovich playbook, she divorces him.

Bogdanovich (for those of you who don’t know) famously courted the beautiful Cybill Shepherd despite being married to production designer Polly Platt. The affair destroyed several relationships and killed Bogdanovich’s career after the failure of his bizarre musical, At Long Last Love. Married (at the time) writing couple, Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer parody this opus with Atlanta, a musical version of Gone With The Wind. I was never a fan of Gone With The Wind (I think it’s a terrible movie), but I think I would’ve been interested in seeing Atlanta. This misstep also kills Albert’s career and Blake dumps him. As the meteor of his success collides with Earth, Lucy’s star rises. She writes a tell-all memoir of her time with Albert, hilariously (and subversively) titled, He Said It Was Going To Be Forever, which becomes an enormous hit. There’s a nice bit of visual symmetry with all of Albert’s belongings being shuffled out of his mansion in a U-Haul as Lucy moves her stuff in.

What charms me about the movie is that Albert and Lucy still love each other, and they do love their daughter, even if they don’t know how to show it. They seem to use Casey as ammunition in their feud. Albert suffers what appears to be a heart-attack. Lucy rushes to his side at the hospital. She leaves in a huff after learning it was an anxiety attack. Albert seduces Lucy into a one-night-stand so that he can get the option to direct her memoir, which infuriates her. This is enough material for the court to determine that their housekeeper, Maria, should be given guardian status of Casey. My mother’s instinctive reaction to the material is not an isolated story. Irreconcilable Differences divides audiences along age (and gender) boundaries, and if you examine the film closely, you’ll see that whenever Ryan or Shelley are on the screen together (or even separately), Drew is shunted off to the side, filling the background of the scene.

Meyers and Shyer craft an interesting take on the dissolution of a marriage, drawing on inspiration from old Hollywood fables and the break-up of writers Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein in Ephron’s languid memoir, Heartburn, but told from the point-of-view of a child. As an adult, it is difficult to understand Drew’s predicament. She wants for nothing. She’s obviously given adequate shelter and safety, and we must always remember that children tend to be preoccupied (to a pathological level) with their creature comforts, yet I don’t agree with the “little bitch” assessment. She’s more precocious than anything else. She’s wonderful to watch in the movie, though she has a tendency to mumble and not seem to understand much of what she says, but she was nine years old at the time of shooting, so I can’t fault her. She is, at her core, genuine.

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.

“Richard Pryor: Live In Concert, 1979”

“What-choo takin’ my picture for? Who you gonna show it too? ‘I got a picture of Richard Pryor!’ ‘Who gives a fuck?’ Sit yo ass down! Motherfucker, sit down! You know you ain’t got no film in the camera. You just bullshittin’ just flashin’, ain’t nothin’ flashing. Sit yo ugly ass down!”

Richard Pryor: Live In Concert, 1979 (Richard Pryor), Special Event Entertainment

Comedians (Jon Stewart among them) have long made reference to a “holy trinity” of stand-up comedy, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin, who had paved the way for modern comedians to practice their particular skill. The stand-up comedian tells a story, transforms the story into a joke, and waits for his or her audience to respond, often with laughter. Lenny Bruce is a bit before my time, so I understand the variations of Bruce and the evolution of his humor with Carlin. Carlin’s emphasis in his performance was in the machinations and manipulations of our common language. Bruce, from what I’ve seen and heard, placed his emphasis in shocking the audience; much like the way modern comedians shock their audiences. Richard Pryor’s considerable talents are invested in heartbreak, isolation, and anguish.

To say I was shocked, or floored into submission to Pryor’s incredible brand of levity upon first seeing Richard Pryor: Live In Concert would be a dramatic understatement. I had never, ever seen anything like this before, and most likely, will never see it again; even as more and more comedians attempt to shock and inspire us. Louis C.K. came close, but, compared to Pryor, he is a pale imitation, and a pretender (as talented as he is) to that specific throne. When I say I was floored, I mean (upon first viewing) I was on the floor, laughing so hard it hurt. This is the funniest (hence the greatest) stand-up comedy film I have ever seen. The film is a moody, unpretentious, raucous journey through the life and personal turmoil of a man with failings; either in his personal life, or in his difficulties as a husband, and a father, or professional foibles as an entertainer. Yet, he can make you think, and make you feel good about yourself.

The Terrace Theater in conservative, predominantly white Long Beach, California sets the stage for the invasion of Pryor. He even makes fun of his predicament; to see a swarm of his black fans among his white fans shows that comedy can bring us all together. To see whites laughing alongside blacks (with no virtue signalling or judgments being made from either party) makes me feel good. It gives me hope. Language being more elastic in 1978 as opposed to these heady times, he makes repeated and unrepentant use of the “n” word, and despite what Ice Cube thinks about the subject, no one person or group can own a word, and to take that word away is to take away our understanding and appreciation of the word, as delivered with the master craftsmanship of Richard Pryor. Pryor would recant somewhat in later years for his liberal use of the word, but he railed against censorship, even when it was self-imposed. These words belong to all of us. It’s just that some people are better at using them. Pryor’s humor was rooted in his danger, his capacity for self-deprecation, and his emotional and chemical dependencies.

Pryor tells stories about his family; growing up the child of an extended poor family in Peoria, the tutilege and discipline (“Go get me something to beat yo ass with!”) of his grandmother, the bizarre wisdom of his father, and his various brushes with death. He speaks of an experience where he had suffered a heart attack, and thought he had died. In the hospital room, he opens his eyes and sees a bunch of concerned white faces looking down at him and he thinks, “Ain’t this a bitch. I done died and wound up in the wrong motherfuckin’ heaven.” In this new age of heckling and overly-sensitive, unoriginal comedians, Pryor works with ease, talks to the crowd; even when interrupted by his adoring fans, he engages them and you feel that there is no wall between him and the people in the seats. He completely owns the Terrace Theater. Comedy seems to be such an incredibly subjective art (horror movies are the same – they live or die based on our direct, subjective impressions of either what’s funny or what is terrifying to us) that everybody’s top ten lists on the subject will be different person to person, but Richard Pryor: Live in Concert is always on everyone’s list.

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.