VINTAGE CABLE BOX: “American Pop”, 1981

cable-box-001-2696“A stripper gettin’ dressed ain’t beautiful unless she’s ugly to begin with.”

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“American Pop”, 1981 (Ron Thompson), Columbia Pictures

“American Pop” is a song with a simple rhyme; the condensed history of recorded music from big-band to punk, where the journey begins over a hundred years ago with Russian émigrés traveling to the United States to escape Cossack persecution. The descendants of an extended family fight in wars and face episodes of tragedy while trying to realize their musical aspirations. The story settles with young Tony, a Long Island punk who writes songs by night, washes dishes by day, all the while fighting an increasing dependency on heroin.

Tony reunites with his long-lost son, Pete, who also shares an interest in music. Together they deal drugs to high-profile musicians. Tony’s addictions grow worse and he sells his musical instruments in order to pay for more drugs. He abandons Pete after taking all their money. Pete, obviously learning from his family’s missteps in life in pursuit of their own musical dreams, is hired on-the-spot by a musical group whom are stunned by his talent.

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This was the nadir of adult animated features, and because of rights issues with the music used in the soundtrack, a forthcoming video release was blocked until 1995. The same problems arose with a pending video release for “Heavy Metal”, another cult favorite. Animated adult movies are not produced anymore. The market is now consistently geared for children.

“American Pop” is an incredible movie to behold; predating “A Scanner Darkly” by 25 years, this mixed media marvel uses rotoscoping to create realistic movements in astonishing dance and music sequences (which recall classic Disney), and the result is tremendously rewarding. Ralph Bakshi, most notably, directed the first X-rated cartoon, “Fritz The Cat”, as well as a popular adaptation of “Lord Of The Rings”, and later, “Cool World”. “American Pop” serves to remind the audience that talent and dreams are not enough to succeed in this increasingly cold world. Sometimes all we need is a little luck.

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. You can hear my podcast at Misadventures In BlissVille and you can visit my Facebook group page.

“Vintage Cable Box” artwork by Bronwyn Knox.

“Gary, Get Me A Scotch!”

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Uncle Joe’s, Jersey City, 2002

 

“I’d say “unfocused” sums it up nicely. The basic concept (I guess) seemed to be taking a look at underground music with The Shy Guys being the central, unifying element. I mean, that’s weird enough as it is, but that could, at the very least, be charming. My best guess as to what actually ended up happening was Dave Moviemaker started out making this just about the Shy Guys and then stumbled across these other bands (DBA, Unlovables, Ergs). And he obviously liked them enough to want to include them. Problem is, it’s all kinda stuffed in the middle with little to no context.”

Grath Madden

“I have a secret. We were never all that enthusiastic about it. It’s just that, some dude was making a god damn movie about our lives, for no reason except that he was crazy. The very least we could do was pretend we thought it was an awesome and good idea.”

“We were of course flattered that some dude was working hard to make a movie about our bands, and excited at the possibility, however small, that it might promote our music. But you weren’t there to watch it unfold every step of the way, dude. It was pretty obvious almost immediately how disastrous this shit was.”

Chadd Derkins

“Well, basically, Dave (the film maker) ruined this movie by not understanding the scene or the relative importance of the bands, and the relevant unimportance of other bands featured in the movie. Chadd ruins his own scenes by being boring and uncomfortable and comes off as extraordinarily boring. Jon and I make this movie by being ourselves.”

“Basically, Dave dropped the ball from the beginning, even though we repeatedly told him who the important bands were and that we were ultimately unimportant. He didn’t listen.”

Chris Grivet

From the years 2002 to 2005, I was indisposed, directing a documentary on the pop-punk scene in New York City called “American Punk NYPP”. I remember adding the “NYPP” (New York Pop-Punk) to the end of the title to distinguish the source material and separate it from any other documentaries on the subject, should they occur, and also because in the “honeymoon” period after shooting, I was seriously considering sequels; traveling to different places around the world to capture the punk and pop-punk theme on a global level.

The film was finished in 2005, but life got in the way. I had basically a hand-shake deal with Film Threat DVD to release the movie. Mitchell Bard, then head of acquisitions for Film Threat, saw the movie and wanted it. He even stepped in and defended my editorial choices when I got into rows with my co-producers, wrote a letter strongly endorsing my final cut, and making preparations for DVD release (and even screenings). Film Threat DVD went under, I quit my day job, and Bronwyn and I had a baby.

I always had the movie in the back of my head, but distribution was next to impossible without some support, and as we got farther and farther away from any projected release date, the chances were that “American Punk NYPP” would simply become a relic. The idea of making money at that point seemed laughable. You couldn’t just get a movie out there to be seen unless it was advertised, given some DVD pressing, and getting the stuffy indie press to care. I made this movie for no money, not a dime. Nowadays, it’s a whole different matter. It’s a lot easier to get word-of-mouth going and we have the ease of YouTube and Vimeo, not to mention torrent sites (but we won’t talk about that).

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Mikey Erg at CBGB – the greatest drummer in the world.

 

I was looking at the Knock Knock “Boreds” (whimsically misspelled) to get some thoughts on my movie, “American Punk NYPP”, and it moved me (for a minute) that people were still talking about the film, from 2004 to 2010, but as we go along, the comments go from hopeful (“… when the hell is the movie coming out?”) to bitter and downright nasty (“This was a terrible idea for a project. it has always sounded amazingly unfocused and pointless.”) Incidentally, this was not terrible idea for a project. Ever seen “Left Behind”? That was a terrible idea. How about the latest Superman and Spiderman reboots? I find it hard to believe I committed a mortal sin in the world of filmmaking.

Basically a lot of rhetoric and, let’s face it – acidic bullshit, had been going back and forth between the principal people involved. Some collaborators heaped shame on themselves, and some heaped it on me. I had known the guys in the bands for a few years. They had tenacity and ambition and that’s the kind of story I wanted to tell, but as we shot the interviews (two years, if I remember correctly), the subject grew, got bigger and bigger and it became more about the cultural phenomenon, the pop-punk scene in New York City.

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Johnnie Whoa Oh and Chadd Derkins

 

I would say that the people commenting (especially the nasty comments) are too close to the material and the experience to truly understand either the narrative, or the points we were trying to make. They do not know of the world they had collectively built. The message was simple: there’s a whole other world out there you don’t know anything about, bands toil in obscurity and anonymity but they have devoted followers. These are kids. Kids in bands! They were intellegent, rational, thoughtful teenagers who picked up guitars and drumsticks and tried to change the world with their music. That’s actually all that matters to me. I don’t care what anybody else thinks.

Despite Chris Grivet’s claims, I was wildly open to their ideas. Jon Vafiadis was the person who supplied me with all the information on other bands, arranged interviews and shows to record, and essentially hooked me up in the pop-punk world and we plunged into that world with nothing but vigor and enthusiasm. We profiled bands who had achieved various levels of success and we interviewed interesting people. I remember telling Jon we needed more “cheesecake” in the movie and he hooked me up with Galaxy Rodeo and The Unlovables. The final cut of the movie is 70% other bands, with Triple Bypass and The Shy Guys as a “framing” story, an exemplar band; the standard by which my movie measures all of the other bands. At the end of the day, I have many witnesses to that fact.

Chadd Derkins surprises me most of all. Of all the people I interviewed and had the privilege of spending time with, he was one of the most enthusiastic and vocal supporters of not only the film proper, but the shooting process. All you have to do is look at the film to see his beaming countenance. He was like a kid in a candy store whenever we shot. He invited us to his rehearsal space. He invited us into his home, gave us a tour of his house and his extensive music collection, and performed an impromptu song for my assistant, Neena. Now, he claims he was either forced or coerced to do the song. I don’t remember holding a gun to his head. He even calls the movie “disastrous”. I don’t know to what standard he elevates his film-viewing experience, but I don’t think my movie qualifies as disastrous. More likely, “monumental”. Yeah, I like that word.

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My wife, Bronwyn, looking cheery at Luxx, Williamsburg

 

Granted as opinion, people outside of this scene seemed to enjoy the movie immensely. They enjoyed Grivet and boring, uncomfortable Derkins and just about everybody we talked to while shooting. People outside of the business were tickled and fascinated by these talented young men and women. These are the people this movie was made for, not insecure musicians but real people.

So how could I see these comments, these feelings about what these kids were a part of, and not feel in the slightest sense betrayed? I mean, seriously, the shift is subtle but goes from being completely jazzed about seeing the movie, about the enthusiasm generated among the hardcore fans and friends of these bands – to apathy, to lambast, to outright dissing. I went ten years without providing the much-needed counterpoint, or lending my voice to the discussion, and I got bit on the ass for it. I never treated those people with anything less than the utmost respect, courtesy, and good humor, and this is what happens. I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back, and I was made to look incompetent as a result of these comments.

As to why there was never a proper release for the movie, I believe I’ve already covered that. Things happen. I had a deal with Film Threat DVD but I went broke and Film Threat went out of business. Bronwyn and I had a baby in 2006, and believe me, when that happens, your priorities change. Now that my daughter is somewhat capable of keeping herself busy, I’ve decided to go back to the final cut, dust off my old gear and give the movie a decent transfer.

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David Lawler and Pia Vivas of Galaxy Rodeo

 

So last night I find that I’ve been immortalized in a song by The Jerkingtons called “Hello I’m Dave Lawler, I’m a Filmmaker”. An amusing piece, it takes shots at me making the movie and then “putting it on the shelf” and that after I’m done with the movie, I’ll “go back to my job at Blockbuster Video” (I lost that job in 1998 or 1999, years before I started shooting). Also that I stopped going to shows after I finished shooting. Yes, that’s true. It’s called a year-and-a-half of editing from 70 tapes worth of footage. Dicks. Again, try having a kid and going broke while somebody is tapping on your shoulder asking when you’re going to release a fucking movie.

I went to bed last night cursing their names in my sleep. My wife tells me, “It’s easier to write a song than make a movie. They don’t understand.” She happens to be right. Especially if you’ve heard The Jerkingtons. Dicks.

An Interview With Martin Mander

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This is art when you look at it; a conglomeration of circuitry, the beast under the hood like the Hemi in the Plymouth Barracuda bubbling and percolating and ready to peel.  Martin Mander is an artist, and an engineer.  He is an innovator, and an inventor.

To look at his “Retro-Future TV Conversion”, an old Sanyo television housing the guts of an LCD monitor, I can appreciate his love of old-school design aesthetics juxtaposed or, more accurately combined with high technology, forming a beautiful balance of mechanization.

There’s no arguing the world of our future has given us incredible new technologies.  We have cell phones.  We have enormous televisions, and a variety of applications with which we choose and view our respective entertainment and products, but the culture of design (for me, at least) reached it’s nadir decades ago.

Think of the Atari 2600, the faux-wood panel design and the simple delight of a joystick with a big red button.  True, nostalgia may guide our eyes (and hearts) when we reach a certain age and pine for lost youth, but I believe when our resources are limited, we turn outward and desire a pleasing package.

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Martin has brought that design together with the inner workings of a (comparatively) ancient technology to create such unusual items as the “Raspberry PI Media Centre”, a reworked Sanyo VHS VCR (top loading!) with the backing of a high definition screen.

First, I want to ask you about your background.  Where (and how) did you learn electronics as they apply to these projects and your creations?

I’m not sure I made a conscious decision to “get into” electronics, as a child I just really enjoyed taking stuff apart to find out how it worked. My Dad was a craft, design and technology teacher at the time so there were always a lot of cool tools and projects around, and a well-equipped workshop to tinker in.

A friend and I would sometimes pool our money to buy a circuit kit to make, which is probably where it started getting interesting – our biggest success was an FM transmitter, you could tune a bunch of radios in a busy shop to its frequency then stand outside and prank the shoppers.

More recently our flat screen TV broke and on dismantling it I was struck by the tiny amount of space taken up by the circuits, I think this was what got me thinking about how much modern electronics you could fit inside an old piece of tech. Really I’ve just learned as I’ve gone along, building on the basic skills I learned at school to move a project forward.

Would you say that you are drawn to the aesthetics, the design, or the machinery that exists inside the box?

My favourite projects combine a strong retro design with really modern components inside, so I’m usually after something unusual from the 70s / Early 80s that has a classic look about it, so it’s aesthetics mostly.

It’s really hard to find good retro tech at a reasonable price though, so I tend to pick up non-working items which need some help to make their original charm show through. This also makes me feel less bad about tearing classic devices apart.

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When I looked at your creations, I was reminded of a quote by Fellini (this may be misattributed or paraphrased) where upon first viewing Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, he said, “Computers are beautiful.  Rip a man apart and he is hideous, gruesome.  Dismantle a computer and it remains beautiful.”  Is this how you feel about the machinery and technology you seek to improve?

I’m not sure I’d go as far as beautiful but I often have a real feeling of respect for the original designers when tearing down old tech, sometimes the insides are very elegantly put together, using consistent screw sizes, labelled circuit boards and so on.

The VCR was a great example of this, as it effectively combined complex electronics (for the time) with motors and levers to physically manipulate magnetic tape in a totally reliable and precise way.

There is a tremendous subculture devoted to technology from the past.  Mark Jeacoma, the administrator and co-creator of VHS Rewind! collects vintage computers and gaming systems.  I know of many other people who also collect antique electronics.  I keep an impressive assemblage of Warner Brothers VHS clamshell tapes.  Do you collect items that you do not integrate into your creative projects?

Absolutely – it’s an eclectic collection but I find it especially hard to resist vintage telephones, radios and TVs. Often these will stay unconverted if they’re fully working and I don’t have the heart to dismantle them, other times I’ll pick something up purely for the feeling of nostalgia, like the ZX Spectrum computer and bag of classic cassette games I bought most recently. The only trouble with collecting older items is storage – I picked up three top-loading VCRs recently and they take up a vast amount of shelf space!

Do we collect such things to remind ourselves of our youth, or is there a practical curiousity in wanting to know how things work, how systems are created and maintained before we fully understand their applications?

In my case it’s very much a reminder of my childhood and teenage years, some of the Pioneer hi-fi separates I use every day have been in the family since the 1970s and the dancing VU meters really bring back the carefree days of vinyl and cassette tapes.

I guess my conversions make a practical statement of how much technology has changed since then, fully embracing new developments but still with a misty eye on the early days of practical home technology.

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Now that we’ve re-explored the past, let’s look into the future.  We’ve moved away from the analog world, and are in the full embrace of this digital grip (like my analogies?).  I have a friend who makes a living in web development and information systems, and he tells me it’s only a matter of time before physical media is completely vanquished and everything will be a collection of bits, all entertainment will be streaming, and discs, cartidges, tapes, and cassettes will be museum pieces locked up in vaults, consigned to oblivion, thus the concept of ownership will no longer exist.  Thoughts?

I have a similar view if I’m honest, we no longer have a DVD, CD or cassette player in the house and all our media is stored on network or cloud storage, consumed via streaming boxes, phones etc. I think the demise of physical media is a little way off yet, but technology is certainly headed in that direction.

The culture of ownership is the main hurdle, we’ve grown accustomed to collecting media like books, having a physical collection that sits on display and says something about the personality of the individual. It’s hard to make the shift to pure content as album and case art are often part of the joy of our collections – seeing the original “Empire Strikes Back” cassette image you posted on Facebook recently transported me right back to the days of browsing and renting videos from an actual shop.

I do quietly mourn the demise of VHS though, even our local charity shops have stopped accepting VHS tapes as donations now, and when you consider how many are out there it’s a vast amount of plastic doomed for the landfill. As a maker I’d love to come up with a practical and modern re-use for these old tapes so they can live on.

Do you enjoy the new technology?  Blu-Ray?  Ultra HD?  The more advanced gaming systems?

I do really enjoy keeping up with new developments, I think the Chromecast is my favourite at the moment as it offers new, practical and fun entertainment possibilities, it’s great to mirror a phone screen on the big TV for looking at maps, exploring Street View and creating multi-user YouTube playlists.

I’m pretty sceptical about blu-ray, I think streaming will make it the Betamax of the HD world sooner or later. We don’t do a lot of gaming, the kids have DSs and an original Wii, and I dip into the Playstation 2 occasionally – though mostly to play old Atari games!

Finally, to my mind, it seems we are given wonderful pieces of technology that, what is called, “backward-compatible”, but only to a point, but the technology is not “forward-thinking” – that is it seems to become obsolete in a twenty or even fifteen-year cycle, and then newer, supposedly better technologies come along.  What would you like to see in the future as this technology develops?

Part of me would like to see products deliberately designed in a more universal and modular way, so that individual parts can be upgraded rather than having whole devices that are essentially disposable – although having said that the availability of cheap modern devices is what makes my conversions possible!

On the content side I think a universally aggregated “library” of music, books and video is coming pretty close, which will enable easy consumption of any content without having to choose between different providers like Netflix, itunes and google. My phone’s already starting to do this in a clunky kind of way, offering me slightly creepy recommendations based on my tastes and linking off to different online providers to grab the content.

Here are some links to Martin’s incredible contraptions:

http://www.instructables.com/id/1981-Portable-VCR-Raspberry-PI-Media-Centre/
http://www.instructables.com/id/Retro-Future-TV-Conversion/
http://www.instructables.com/id/Upcycle-a-70s-TV-into-a-Monitor/

“Happy War (Xmas Is Over)”

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“So this is war, and what have you done?”

It’s all over much too quickly. Christmas is a handful. Right after Halloween, we start getting the circulars, the flyers, the wasted tree catalogs (my favorite being Williams Sonoma, what with their $100 macaroni & cheese lobster, so gosh-darn decadent!) True multi-faceted meanings of Christmas and the holiday season in general; the first day of the rest of your season is a time of true store-bought joy.

My daughter rules Christmas. Her word is law. Christmas is also her birthday, so it’s a double feast, a double celebration, double cake and pie, extra whipped cream. I love her, but jeez – tone it down, pull on the reins and let us all catch our breath (I know she won’t). There’s a whole bunch of new toys she isn’t playing with, and what really matters is the package. Tearing into those meticulously-wrapped boxes is part-and-parcel – the celebration.

Skimpy tree in the corner needs to come down, but pick-up isn’t until the 5th, so all we’re doing is collecting needles at this point. Television is the worst; advertisements manipulating heart-strings, telling me I’m the worst parent in the world because I won’t buy my 8-year-old daughter a $200 iPhone (hell, it’s contract free!). This kid breaks things just to prove a point, but she can’t help it. She’s a kid. Cell phones are supposed to be toys for adults, not children.

I saw the coolest thing at my nearby Rite Aid. It was an Atari 2600, not with cartridges. All the games were pre-loaded into a console that was modeled after the Atari 2600. It had the joysticks included, and it looked like so much fun. I might just buy it in clearance. I never had an Atari. The best I could manage was a second-hand Coleco Vision that smelled of old socks. I paid for the thing with bus tokens, 5 packs, which meant I had to take a long walk to school for five weeks. My friend, Jeremy, scoffed at me. He had a Commodore 64, so he was definitely The Pimp!

I like one thing about Christmas – decorating the tree, getting all freakin’-fun-festive, and then I get that tune stuck in my head; something stupid from a television commercial, something from Target. Visions of sugarplum fairy entrails roped around a gorgeous Douglas Fir dance in my mind. “A Christmas Story” plays non-stop and I’ve got the dialogue memorized. I keep telling that kid not to stick his tongue to the pole – what an idiot!

Now we slam abruptly into the New Year. My Christmas tree is giving me the finger. It really is! I peak past the doorway from the kitchen and there it is, flipping me off…but it’s so festive! God kill us all, every one! So this is war, and what have we done? I don’t mean “what have we done?” as a simple, rhetorical question, but a droning David Byrne mantra – “My God! What have I done!” I’ve become an enabler in the holiday tradition.

“Let It Go”, the song tells us. So we’ll make some soup for the poor, because if there’s anything television tells me, it’s that poor people love soup. That should calm the shakes and bring us swan-diving into 2015! Hug a cop! Yeah, I said it! In summation, Christmas is a horrible holiday; at once filled with so many historical and religious inaccuracies, but also a foundation for materialism-induced misery and…it’s all over much too quickly.

Happy New Year Everybody!