“Smithereens, 1982”

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

Smithereens, 1982 (Susan Berman), New Line Cinema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.