“The End of Vintage Cable Box”

I started the Vintage Cable Box series at the end of August, 2015. The series bowed with entries for Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing, the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle, Easy Money, and the Citizen Kane of teen sex comedies, Porky’s, directed by Bob Clark, who would later, inexplicably, bring us A Christmas Story (though both movies shares a nostalgic connection in their themes). Over 200 essays later, it’s finally time to pull the plug, and I thought I’d take this time to answer some questions and fill you in on my thought process. Cable television was an incredible oasis at the time; we’re talking 1984 through 1986, two short years. Growing up poor in Cincinnati and then Philadelphia, my Mother had a job opportunity in Tennessee, the State of her birth, and she thought we should live near some family at that time, so we moved down there in the late Spring of 1984.

Attack of the comically-oversized condom.

Philly had no cable in certain neighborhoods, usually anything below Broad Street in the “historic” sections of the town. Cable lines were considered unattractive and would detract from the beauty of the older neighborhoods. This has since been rectified with underground lines, but back then all you had were roof antennas, rabbit ears, and aluminum foil to improve reception of the 12 channels you were granted, three of which were VHF networks, and the rest were independent UHF sources. Add to that the fact we didn’t get our first VCR until probably 1986, so the television was practically a miracle sent down from heaven. We had a 19-inch RCA Colortrack on a rolling stand until I spilled chocolate milk into the back of it, and then all of our television came from a 12-inch black & white Sylvania. It cost $200 to have the television repaired (back then you had to have your electronics repaired), so we took it down to Tennessee with us, and then my Mother invested $125 in a used 25-inch Magnavox color console. It was magnificent.

No cable for you!

This is how I close every Vintage Cable Box article:

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.

So we come from a place with only 12 channels to a place with over 30 channels. Imagine the switch-over. This was the premium package. Compare it to today. I was looking at the cable box channel guide the other day. It isn’t just one HBO channel, it’s six. It isn’t just one Cinemax channel, it’s six. It’s East Coast feeds, and West Coast feeds. Forty sports channels. Twenty cooking channels. It’s countless news channels. In 1984, we were overwhelmed. In 2018, we’re drowning in entertainment options. I only wished we had a VCR, because I felt then (as I do now) the analog picture and sound was perfect. Cable television picture quality was much better than VHS/Beta quality. For a time, we had HBO and Cinemax, and The Movie Channel, which was probably my favorite for offering an incredible assortment of films and film festivals. This was my film school education. Every filmmaker would say if you wanted to know how to make films, just watch films. Technique comes from another place; the source of inspiration and style built somewhere in your psyche, and you can’t learn that in a school setting.

The Precious.

I dug in, and this is where my love affair with movies began. I make it a point to watch every movie I choose to include. Some movies were more difficult to find than others. Some movies were so terrible I didn’t want to continue watching, but I stuck it out for the sake of veracity. As I write this, I’ve just finished writing my review for 1981’s Rollover. I have a good set-up in the bedroom for watching old videotapes; a big-screen CRT* and a 4-head (admittedly mono) Sansui VHS VCR. Sometimes if a movie is available in a superior format, and reasonably priced, I’ll grab it, but I do try to stay as close to the time period as I can. I’ve given some movies much more time than they deserve (i.e. Screwballs, Jekyll & Hyde Together Again, They Call Me Bruce?). Other movies (personal favorites) were written on “auto-pilot” because I knew them so well. I could quote dialogue and remember key edits. There is also the sad fact that some movies get more promotion and rotation than others, and continue to be enjoyed today, while others disappear down a rabbit hole of bad production deals, shady financing, and limited distribution (i.e. Get Crazy, Somebody Killed Her Husband).

The obscuring haze of nostalgia.

I’ve received an enormous outpouring of praise from readers, as well as suggestions. I do take suggestions, but it’s usually when I’ve forgotten a title that did play endlessly on cable television within that admittedly brief window of time and, more importantly, when I’ve actually seen the movie in question. Vintage Cable Box is mostly about my remembrances of those years. On occasion, a reader will suggest a title, and it will not be representative to me of a movie I remember in the rotation of cable television. There were tiny little movies that played constatntly on cable television, like The Sender or Midnight Madness. There were big box-office blockbusters. There were the flops. As I write this, I’m reviewing Smithereens and Rollover, two very different movies. In that brief time period (1984-1985) cable television was an incredible, eclectic, diverse collection of unique entertainment, and most of it was exceptional. Sadly, it isn’t like that anymore. Cable television is a thousand channels, a lot of it prescribed in an algorithm-like fashion, designed to cater to the entertainment needs of a vast audience that does not include the likes of me. It’s so boring. Or perhaps, because there are so many choices, I’m not in a hurry to watch. In the old days, we didn’t have a VCR, so we had to be there – at a specific time, tuned to a specific channel, to watch a movie.

Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?

Consider the VCR. We laugh at VHS and Beta now. I did a whole series about the history of home video with David Anderson. In those days, it was the quite the coup to have all three Star Wars movies on tape playing through your old CRT. It mattered. Now we laugh because we have high definition, big screen. A movie theater in your living room! It’s amazing. How soon we forget. We also forget that too much of anything reduces value and appreciation. Now that we have so many choices, we stop caring about times and places. We won’t rush home so we can have dinner ready and watch our favorite show. Instead, you program the DVR, and take your time doing whatever you want to do. A couple of buttons pushed and I can record a whole series. In case I forget to record a whole series, I can just watch anything I want “on-demand.” No wonder we’re all getting fat!

There were titles I had considered reviewing but ultimately decided not to review. Tom Cruise comes to mind. He would be an obvious choice to evaluate because his work was crucial to the early days of cable television. He had a small role as Steve Randle in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders. After that, he appeared in Losin’ It (which I did enjoy) with Jackie Earle Haley and Shelley Long, and then Risky Business and All the Right Moves made him a huge star. Cruise wouldn’t explode in his popularity until the mid ’80s with Top Gun, Rain Man, and Born on the Fourth of July. He was little more than a teen heartthrob at the time I was watching cable television; the time-line of that very small window was crucial to my choices for the column. I think the ’80s was a time of Dudley Moore and Steve Guttenberg, teen sex comedies and slasher movies, John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg (though I don’t recall reviewing any Spielberg movies for Vintage Cable Box – it was another matter of time-line). Obscure titles were what I sought out originally. I thought about The Buddy System and Nate and Hayes, WarGames and Psycho II, Get Crazy and Rhinestone, not Tom Cruise.

Sorry, Tom.

I learned a few things, too. I learned that the (comparatively) smaller brain of the eleven or twelve year old child compared to that of a forty-five year old adult is much more willing to fill in the blanks of a shoddy narrative or a bad performance or a balls-out terrible movie than viewed through the narrow, rigid scope of maturity. I find I have very little time in my life now to throw caution to the wind and look at every movie coming out. My prejudices will extend to comic book movies and big-budget blockbusters; those movies are simply not made for me. In fact, I tend to look upon those my age who enthusiastically watch comic book movies with some degree of either pity or derision. Where I was willing to give a movie like Screwballs a chance when I was twelve, I won’t even watch a new Jurassic Park movie these days. I just don’t have the time to waste on dinosaurs, or talking raccoons for that matter. It all feels so ridiculously disposable. That’s what has happened to movies today. They’ve become disposable.

No thank you!

We come to the end of the journey. I did this for fun, but then I discovered I had regular readers. I want to thank each and every one of you. If there was one grievance from yours truly, it would have to be that I, in my estimation, wrote some really good material that wasn’t popular with readers because the movie I was writing about was not that popular. I could get big numbers on a title like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (in 3-D!), and tumbleweeds for The Big Chill, which I considered one my best written reviews. I don’t understand how that works, but thanks for reading all the same!

Vintage Cable Box: Trading Places

“I had the most absurd nightmare. I was poor and no one liked me. I lost my job, I lost my house, Penelope hated me and it was all because of this terrible, awful Negro.”

Trading Places, 1983 (Dan Aykroyd), Paramount Pictures

Eddie Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine lives on his wits. He masquerades as a homeless amputee Vietnam vet. He owes money all over town, and he boasts of limousines, “bitches”, and an unsurpassed knowledge of Karate. He proves to be the perfect, unknowing subject of a dual experiment initiated by the evil multi-millionaire Duke Brothers, Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche). The Duke Brothers want to know if a man’s success, personal and financial, is largely dependent on his upbringing or the lifestyle he enjoys – in other words, heredity or environment. They (with the help of unscrupulous security specialist Clarence Beeks), destroy top employee, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), his reputation, and his finances, and put him on the street. They give Valentine Winthorpe’s life, his job, and his luxurious Philadelphia townhouse.

Aykroyd is arrested for possession of PCP (planted on him by corrupt cop Frank Oz!), his credit cards are confiscated and his assets repossessed by the bank.  He is taken in by kindly hooker, Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), who helps get him back on his feet provided he reimburses her.  Meanwhile, Valentine thrives in his new position at the Duke Brothers’ financial firm.  He becomes the toast of the business world, while Aykroyd has to fend for himself for the first time in his life.  He sells his expensive Roche Vouceau watch to a pawnbroker for $50, buys a gun and, in a drunken stupor, tries to frame Valentine.

For his part, Valentine stumbles onto the Dukes’ “science experiment” and the modest wager (one fucking dollar!) between the brothers.  Lost in all of this is the ultimate outcome.  Valentine proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that a man can succeed in the right climate if he has business acumen.  Winthorpe can survive in an alien environment when he learns the acquired wisdom of compromise.  Putting their heads together, Aykroyd and Murphy concoct a scheme to supply a false crop report to the Dukes, who have retained the continued service of Beeks (an appropriately evil Paul Gleason) for a little bit of their own insider knowledge as they plan to corner the market in frozen orange juice futures.

Director John Landis’ best-reviewed film, from a clever (probably too clever for it’s own good) script by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod; some 33 years on, it still hits hard, but with a positive message – the people at the top will never understand the problems of the poor or disenfranchised, but if they care, there might just be a little hope on the horizon.  Note Eddie Murphy’s disposition throughout the movie.  He seems happy-go-lucky, but always suspicious – a character-beat prevalent in the movies of Preston Sturges, the godfather of the screwball comedy.  Dan Aykroyd’s character, once blissfully ignorant, has to live on the charity of decent, kind-hearted people; people he would never acknowledge in his former life as a master of the universe.  He discovers the downtrodden; particularly the exceptional Ophelia, can also have a head for business in addition to navigating their lives with very few resources.

Trading Places was a rare (for the time) literate comedy that became a box-office hit.  By telling the story from both sides of the financial (and cultural) divide, we are privy to the trappings of screwball comedy as viewed from a modern sensibility with fresh eyes.  Landis makes good use of distinctive Philadelphia locales.  The audience develops a working knowledge of how the Stock Market works and what brokers do (which seems more depressing to me than anything else), and how that system can be easily manipulated.  It’s quite frightening actually.  So frightening, in fact, that “The Eddie Murphy Rule” came to pass in 2010 when the Commodity Futures Trading Commission approved a ban of “misappropriated government information to trade in commodity markets.”  Wow.

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.