“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.

Vintage Cable Box: Something Wicked This Way Comes

“I won’t always be younger than you.”

Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1983 (Jason Robards), Buena Vista

There comes a time in every child’s life when he or she realizes his parents are not gods, not super-heroes; sources of steady nurturing and strength, but flawed, weak old analogs, begging for better days. Young Will Halloway sees this failing in his old dad (a heartbreaking Jason Robards) on the day Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival arrives in his small Illinois town. Will and his friend, Jim Nightshade, snoop and investigate. Easily spooked by an oddly porcelain Pam Grier’s tarantula, they run off. The next day, the carnival opens. Good-natured, one-legged, one-armed Ed takes a trip through the wacky Mirror Maze, where he sees a reflection of himself with missing appendages intact. Elderly and bitter Miss Foley sees a beautiful world in the Maze only she can imagine. Lonely men are seduced by gorgeous belly dancers, and given money and cigars.

Obviously, we have a carnival that promises and delivers on thrills and excitement, but of course there is a price to be paid for all that is given. Will and Jim are busted for trespassing in an out-of-order carousel, and they are confronted by Mr. Dark (freaky Jonathan Pryce). The boys stow away until after sunset so they can see what goes on here when everybody leaves. They see one of the townies, barber Mr. Cooger riding the carousel backwards, and being transformed into a child. His shop is closed down due to “illness.” The child takes up residence with Miss Foley, who believes him to be her nephew. Jim returns home to find his mother dancing with a man who is not his father. Will discovers Jim’s father rescued him from drowning during a picnic by a lake several years before. Robards regrets not having saved the boy himself, which stirs up feelings of inadequacy. Miss Foley looks into a mirror and sees a beautiful young woman staring back at her. She becomes this woman, but then is almost immediately struck blind.

Meanwhile a storm is brewing. Will and Jim smell lightning in the air, and a plague of spiders falls on Jim’s house. This is a truly frightening scene, even by today’s standards. Mr. Dark is aware of what the boys know about his crazy carnival, so he sets about looking for them. Dark confronts Robards (who hides the boys) and sees right through him. Robards holds his own, and begins to realize Dark’s awesome powers. The carnival seems to be consuming the town, devouring the hearts of it’s most promising people. In a way, the town was the prison of these people’s failures, and freedom from that prison equals death. Robards joins Will and Jim in their investigation of the carnival and it’s evil proprietor. Pryce’s Dark (as the Devil’s own stand-in) attempts to seduce the boys (particularly fatherless Jim) to join him in the carnival. Robards must fight Dark for possession of his son’s soul.

The film is truly marvelous to behold.  Ray Bradbury adapts his own short story (the story and an early spec-script becoming the basis for a full-length novel), “Black Ferns”, and Jack Clayton imbues his film with horrifying visuals that provide a grotesque counterpoint to initial scenes of small town beauty and Bradbury’s requisite hunger for nostalgia.  You can almost feel the dried leaves of October crackle under your feet.  A lot of the action is strangely intense for a film produced by Disney.  James Horner’s score is delightful.  Owing to problems in editing, the ending feels rushed in comparison to the build-up of everything that’s come before.  Richly drawn characters disappear three-quarters of the way through the film, and Pam Grier’s powers are never adequately explained.  These are minor flaws.  Something Wicked This Way Comes is a gem of a movie.

By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks.

Happy New Year!

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 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/