“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.

Vintage Cable Box: Avanti!, 1972

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“Here we do not rush to drugstore for chicken sandwich & Coca-Cola. Here, we take our time. We cook our pasta, we sprinkle our Parmigiano, we drink our wine, we make our love…”

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Avanti!, 1972 (Jack Lemmon), United Artists

A pre-credit sequence Jack Lemmon wears what looks like golfing togs, propositioning a well-dressed fellow American a few seats behind him in an airplane. We can’t hear what they’re discussing, but soon after, they get up and retire to the tiny bathroom. As this unusual exchange has aroused the curiousity of just about everybody on the plane, including the pilots and stewardesses, they emerge from the bathroom wearing each other’s clothes. This is a five-minute set-up that bids a fond arrivederci to the conventions of a decent attention span in order to set up a visual joke and ciao to the more permissive sexual humor of the seventies. Avanti! is a groundbreaking achievement in that regard.

Lemmon is on his way to Naples to claim the body of his deceased father, Wendell Armbruster, Sr., a corporate Baltimore-money tyrant, who appears to have expired in a car crash. It’s interesting that Lemmon’s approach to the material, the reaction of his father’s death, and the ensuing romantic adventure is one of mild annoyance at every person and every situation that threatens to road-block his return to the States. Lemmon discovers his father was not alone in the car. Under the guise of traveling to Naples every year for ten years of spa treatments, Lemmon’s father has been having an affair with a British tart in a Same Time, Next Year kind of capacity. He hooks up with the daughter (Juliet Mills) of Armbruster’s mistress, takes an instant dislike to her (as he does with everyone in this movie), and sets about making preparations to ship the body back to Baltimore.

Lemmon is a man embarrassed by his father’s dalliances, and would do everything he could to keep those secrets, but Juliet (knowing well in advance of Lemmon her mother’s escapades in Naples) is a romantic at heart, and as lonely a person in her own right as Lemmon, but at least she admits it. She wants their bodies buried up on a hill overlooking the bay. Lemmon, of course, disagrees. He doesn’t want to publicize and celebrate their flagrant and careless behavior. In fact, he’s such a sour-puss in this movie, it’s shocking Mills is attracted to him at all (and personally speaking, I would’ve kicked him right in the nuts after his “fat-ass” remark). Of course, this being Italy with passion and romance in the air, it’s not long before they conduct their own clandestine affair. Unfortunately, their romance feels perfunctory to a romantic comedy set in Italy.

The bodies go missing, and Lemmon is convinced Juliet had something to do with it.  This subplot involves a romance between the hotel maid, Anna, and her lover, the valet Bruno, which is extraneous and adds to the running time (a whopping 2 hours and 20 minutes!).  What’s a romantic comedy without a little murder and intrigue?  In one of the more publicized scenes from the movie, Lemmon and Mills sunbathe nude together on a large rock in the middle of the bay, under sight of boats, curious onlookers, and helicopters.  It seems they are recreating the exploits of their parents.  Bruno wants to extort them for their behavior.  This enrages Anna (who always liked the old man and his mistress), who kills him.  What I enjoy about the film is that it seems to be a mere excuse to travel to Italy and photograph the gorgeous views(good enough reason for me).

As I inferred, this is an unusual movie; produced at the end of a creative cycle of sex comedies that only made vague implications with regard to carnal passion, expectation, and lust. I’m reminded of director Billy Wilder’s more successful entries,The Seven Year Itch (a personal favorite), The Apartment, and Irma la Douce, but these were unusual times. Nudity and sexual content became more prevalent in adult-oriented films, as did contemporary ideas about the sexes.

One particular element of the screenplay (and the stage play upon which Avanti! was based) has characters consistently commenting (in mean-spirited fashion) on Juliet’s character’s weight and physical characteristics.  Her character is written as being “short and fat”.  According to other sources, Wilder even asked Mills (the older sister of Hayley Mills) to gain weight for the role, yet to me and others with whom I have watched the movie, she doesn’t appear to be overweight at all, and what’s more, she’s actually quite beautiful.  Perhaps her wide face and frumpy manner existed in strict defiance to the new era of Twiggy; the anorexic, tall supermodels of the late 60s.  Watching this movie, I can understand why women are under such tremendous pressure to maintain an attractive physique.

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As we usher in a new season here at “Vintage Cable Box”, I reflect on the long, hot summer; the chaos and the politics, the terror and the splendor and remember the movies and the daydreams into which I have always fallen, and I remember the door to those dreams is always ajar.  No need for permesso here.  Avanti always!

Coming Next Month! Halloween all month at “Vintage Cable Box!”

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.

A Year of Vintage Cable Box!

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“Our technology forces us to live mythically”

Marshall McLuhan

My first crush.

Cable television is a beautiful woman (or man, I suppose) who gets into your brain and relaxes you.  She wants you to sit back and unwind.  Just imagine slender fingers rubbing and squeezing against your tense shoulders, then forming a fist to dig into the middle of your spine, and then you hear a satisfying crack and the ease of your joints.  I love her.  She is, as Homer Simpson would say, my “secret lover.”  This is me as an 11-year-old, unlocking the treasure trove, finding the honey pot, and witnessing boobies and enthusiasm, and strong language; the use of the “f” word.  I remember gasping when I first heard it.  I didn’t gasp anymore after I saw Scarface for the first time.  Cable television is different these days; the Pandora’s Box – she offers too much and gives nothing in return.  I looked at my guide the other day – a little over eleven hundred channels, crystal-clear HD, on-demand – anything I want, I can have.  In 1984, we had thirty channels, and if there was something I wanted that wasn’t on cable, I went to the video store.  Bear with me.  I’m not going to start up a diatribe about how things were better when I was a young’in.

Vintage Cable Box is something I always wanted to do.  I wanted to go back to that time when I was a young man, with burgeoning puberty pounding down the door, and Alyssa Milano’s gorgeous face, and Jacqueline Bisset’s tanned body and wet t-shirt, beckoning me.  I tune into Porky’s and come to the realization that there is a whole other world out there: the world of the coaxial cable and the heavy metal box on top of my 25″ Magnavox color console.  From there, innocence becomes a degree of intelligence (not much, but I was eleven, mind you) where cable television becomes my peculiar form of film school.  I can’t tell you how much I learned about movies, about making movies, about filmmakers, watching cable television at this time.  This is my life.  My life is movies.  I eat them up like popcorn.  The Man with Two Brains was the first; turning it on just as the cable guy was leaving the premises – it was exotic.  On the screen, a buxom blonde with a ridiculous accent flashes her bare breasts at Steve Martin.  The cable guy acted like it was no big deal, but we never had cable.  We seriously didn’t.  No cable television in Philadelphia.  My mother had a great job opportunity in Lebanon, Tennessee.  She had family down there, so we moved.  It was a higher quality of life (in theory, but not really).

My second crush.

As the old saying goes, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.” We got the premium (or deluxe) package. HBO and Cinemax (which would alternate premiere movies; sometimes HBO would get it first, sometimes Cinemax would get it first. Either way, and in lieu of a videocassette recorder, movies were repeatedly shown. Sometimes they would even be broadcast simultaneously, perhaps a couple of seconds out of sync, and with slightly different color gradients and schemes – HBO always seemed a tad bit brighter than Cinemax. We had The Movie Channel for a time as well, until my mother started assessing the bill. The Movie Channel was interesting. You would find unusual, even obscure films often programmed as retrospectives, and this is how I learned about filmmakers. You would see a handful of Brian De Palma films like Home Movies, Dressed to Kill, Carrie, and Get to Know Your Rabbit programmed alongside Scarface to coincide with that film’s premiere. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, and The Trouble with Harry were programmed to coincide with the 1984 re-release of those movies. This is why I can never get behind arguments (usually from older people) that TV rots your brain. I don’t know what they’re talking about. Film, in and of itself, is an education, and television was the vehicle (or the medium – per McLuhan) for this delivery system. Me not dumb! Good, write, good!

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).

I had always wanted share my specific views and history of cable television in the early 1980s.  For a more in-depth analysis into the history of Pay TV and cable television, I suggest Ben Minotte’s fabulous Oddity Archive.  I had the opportunity to interview (with Mark Jeacoma) Mr. Minotte for the VHS Rewind podcast.  He’s an exceptional (and curious) fellow.  The other channels I remember from those times were CNN, Nickelodeon (and Nick at Nite), MTV, TNN (aka The Nashville Network), and WTBS (not just TBS – it was considered a “superstation”, like Chicago’s WGN), the local affiliates, and a couple of bizarre public access stations.  I remember flipping to one of those stations and seeing our landlord at the time, an old Baptist pulpit-punding minister, broadcasting his own show!  He seemed like a nice man, but he wouldn’t allow us to keep any pets.  Nick at Nite was an astonishing find.  I discovered The Bob Cummings Show, Bachelor Father, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.  What I remember, in the days before cable television, the UHF stations in Philadelphia: channels 17, 29, and 48.  Channel 17 WPHL would run Star Trek and The Outer Limits.  Channel 29 (WTAF, later to become a FOX affiliate with terrible reception) would run Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.  Channel 48 WKBS (which went out of business in 1983) would show Creature Double Feature on Saturday mornings and afternoons.  Sometimes, if your antenna was in a good position, you could get the Vineland, New Jersey UHF channel.

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When I launched Vintage Cable Box on August 31 last year, I fully expected to begin the odyssey with Porky’s, but Wes Craven’s passing away over that weekend prompted me to change up my schedule, so I put out three reviews: Swamp Thing, Porky’s, and Rodney Dangerfield’s Easy Money. Looking at the reviews now, they seem more like perfunctory write-ups, descriptions of plots more than any true evaluation. I don’t think I really kicked it into gear until The Osterman Weekend (September 23, 2016). My Big Chill review the following week I rate as one of my best. National Lampoon’s Class Reunion was a sobering reminder that many of the movies I enjoyed as an eleven-year-old I could not stomach today. Some (very few) of these movies are absolutely horrible to watch. Class Reunion kicked off my first Halloween retrospective. I reviewed horror movies for the entire month and got my first big hit with my review of Amityville II: The Possession. Horror movies get great numbers for me.  What really sells today is nostalgia, and you could even look back on a failed movie, a terrible movie, and express some level of nostalgia or affection for it, but if you can’t drum up that enthusiasm in yourself, it’s not going to work for your readers or your listening audience.  I know I have this problem on occasion

Which brings me to those reviews I might have phoned in, because I couldn’t get into it while loving it as a child, and then considering it some form of exquisite torture in my later years.  November brought me The Rosebud Beach Hotel and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen.  December’s Christmas cheer brought me The Man Who Wasn’t There, but it also brought me my biggest hit, A Christmas Story (to be rivaled only by Midnight Madness).  I think the elements of popularity and nostalgia (not to mention affection) combine to bring about a newfound interest; it’s not necessarily about how well you think you write.  If you are writing about something a reader has in the back of his or her head, that they remember, that they adore, you’ll get a lot of readers.  Get Crazy, a movie that barely had a release yet exploded on cable television, made me think about some hidden gems; the over-budgeted movies that scam-artist financers would sell to investors from which they would pocket the difference and laugh all the way to the bank.  It’s sort of like the plot to Mel Brooks’ The Producers.  Other examples include Somebody Killed Her Husband and (perhaps) The House of God.

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It’s amazing to me how some movies hold up, while others are terribly dated and get worse with age.  I remember adoring Breathless, They Call Me Bruce?, and Jekyll and Hyde – Together Again.  Now I hate them.  I can’t stand them.  In December, I launched a bit of a mini-series in that in appeared to me that several movies were being made at the time with writers as their central characters:  Deathtrap, Author! Author!, Romancing the Stone, Best Friends, and Romantic Comedy.  Nobody would ever dare make a movie about a writer these days.  Romantic Comedy would find it’s way into my series about Dudley Moore.  Moore was all over cable television at that time.  Dudley Moore’s particular skills revolved around his man-child characters, always unsatisfied, depressed, and yearning (or lusting) after women while negotiating his advanced years.  Sometimes, he would take a dramatic detour (Six Weeks), but those digressions were infrequent.  Mel Brooks’ 90th birthday was coming up, and I remembered seeing several of his movies (in another wonderful Movie Channel retrospective tied to the premiere of his To Be or Not to Be remake) so I put together the four that received endless play.

Stacey Nelkin get’s crazy!

There are also the unexpected deaths that changed my schedule (as with my very first review).  I mentioned in my (very quickly cobbled together) review of The Woman in Red that Gene Wilder’s passing forced me to rush that write-up.  I had originally planned to continue my articles up to the point we got the HBO satellite service in Philadelphia, and The Woman in Red would be featured.  The same situation forced me to publish a review for Garry Marshall’s Young Doctors in Love.  After the death of David Bowie, I wrote up the review for The Hunger.  I have a schedule in place, and I tend to write reviews well in advance of publication for this very reason.  So what are we up to?  At last count, 74 reviews have been published.  I had initially expected to put out an article once a week.  I figure I have about another year’s worth of material.  We’ll see what happens, but this has been a wonderful trip back to my past, and I hope you (the readers) will continue this journey with me.

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: The Woman in Red, 1984

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“Come and get it, Cowboy.”

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The Woman in Red, 1984 (Gene Wilder), Orion Pictures

I had not planned to cover The Woman in Red until next year, but Gene Wilder’s passing prompted me to look at the movie again. As far as I know, the movie did not premiere on HBO until 1986 when we had already moved back to Philadelphia. We missed our HBO so much we bought a satellite dish (at a cost of $30 a month), and installed it on our rooftop (at a time when Philly did not have cable television below the Broad Street line). What I most remember about the movie was the heavy promotion it received during it’s initial release. The publicity and the advertisements thoroughly peddled Kelly Le Brock and the memorable (if tedious) music of Stevie Wonder.

San Francisco advertising executive Gene Wilder is negotiating a hi-rise ledge and wondering what he had done to find himself in this position.  He recalls that one day four weeks ago, he was sitting in his car in a parking lot when he spotted a woman in a red dress walking down the street.  She passes over a grate, which blows hot air up her dress, revealing her matching red panties.  She turns back, stands over the grate and starts dancing.  From then on, Gene is smitten.  He is immediately infatuated with her, and tries to set up a date with her, but mistakenly reaches co-worker Gilda Radner instead.  He seems happy yet unsatisfied in his marriage to Judith Ivey, recalling Tommy Noonan’s roving eye and boredom in The Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe.

His friends are of no help to his burgeoning infidelity and thoughts of desertion.  They ogle women constantly and screw around behind their busy wives’ backs.  Joseph Bologna (fresh from Blame It on Rio) is a cad, and Charles Grodin plays a character he knows best: well-meaning and mild-mannered, but with a touch of hysteria.  All is not well as Bologna is informed his wife is divorcing him, so the central fear of loneliness is a preoccupation in Wilder’s character.  Evidently, men are all big talk until the shit hits the fan.  Interestingly, because Wilder refuses to discuss his feelings of ennui with his wife, he comes across as a gibbering idiot on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Ivey, livid over Bologna’s impending divorce, and all the terrible stories that accompany it, informs Wilder she is a violently jealous woman.  Her revelation horrifies Wilder.  Meanwhile, Gilda awaits her “date” with the clueless Wilder, who never arrives because he had no idea he was making a date with her.  In an unusual montage, we see Gilda sitting alone in an empty restaurant, Bologna sleeping and drinking alone next to pictures of his children, and Wilder unable to sleep next to his wife in the bed they share.  The next day, a furious Gilda keys his car and breaks his antenna.  When he discovers his mystery woman had a love of horseback riding, he arranges a meet-cute with the girl at the stables.

The two hit it off, and once Le Brock shows even the mildest of interest in Wilder, his life turns around.  He is happy and confident.  He buys new clothes, and tries to give himself a new hairstyle, to which his friend hilariously compares him to Robert Redford.  As with Dudley Moore and Bo Derek in 10, Wilder manages to get Le Brock into bed, but before he can consummate his lust, her husband arrives home early, and he must escape, by climbing out on the aforementioned ledge.  Where Moore was turned off by Derek’s casual attitude regarding sex, Wilder’s screenplay and direction emphasize the loneliness of his character.  He photographs Le Brock as though she were a goddess just out of his reach.

With a charmingly dated appeal, this is a movie made for the PG-13 rating.  While PG-rated movies in the late 70s/early 80s treaded lightly when it came to certain kinds of violence and off-color language, the introduction of the PG-13 rating promised movies with adult humor and themes that could be watched and enjoyed by kids.  This was the promise, but it was not kept.  PG-13 movies were produced (starting in the early 90s) to guarantee as many asses in the seats as PG movies did twenty years before.  The Woman in Red is a rare example of a movie that would be rated R (restricted audiences) if released today.

Gene Wilder never set out to become a comedic actor.  It was only when collaborators such as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen discovered his gift for controlled mania, and an unerring capacity to stretch the imagined boundaries of sanity with every character he played, were we truly witness to the birth of that comedic legend.  His first film was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.  Brooks cast him as the neurotic accountant Leopold Bloom in The Producers.  He would appear in Start the Revolution Without Me and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but it wasn’t until 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) that he began to make a name for himself as the reluctant comedian.  He would make Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles for Mel Brooks, as well as a series of successful comedies with Richard Pryor.  In addition to The Woman in Red, he would write and direct The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, The World’s Greatest Lover, and Haunted Honeymoon.

I’m gonna miss him.

A very special thank you to Christopher Hasler 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.