“The World According to Garp, 1982”

“It can be a real adventure having a life.”

The World According to Garp, 1982 (Robin Williams), Warner Bros.

What is a “Garp?” According to Hume Cronyn (when informed of his grandson’s name), it sounds like a fish. He’s off by a consonant, but if the other side of the glass in his particular fishbowl is the world, it’s a world T.S. Garp is never permitted to enjoy. Various attempts to improve his condition are undermined by his attention-seeking mother, Jenny Fields (Glenn Close), who is inspired by Garp’s desire to become a writer by writing her own book – a speculative satire/self-help tome titled, A Sexual Suspect, that becomes an enormous hit and solidifies her status as a cult-like leader to millions of disenfranchised women all over the world.

Meanwhile, Garp marries and has children with high school sweetheart, Helen (Mary Beth Hurt), and tries to further his own writing career, but is overshadowed by Jenny at every turn. Interestingly, her legion of dedicated followers greet Garp with nothing but disgust, marginalization, and objectification due to his status as a man. These are oddly prescient themes in 2017; those that define themselves by their identities, lack of perceived privilege or status have now become the spirituous bullies of others. One does not have to imagine Garp’s frustration in his world to understand what he is feeling. Unfortunately, Irving’s story lacks a strong narrative focus, but this has always been a failing of his fiction.

In John Irving’s estimation, we (as characters) are tiny little chess pieces inhabiting an immense board. For every decision that Garp makes in the story is based upon the reactions or anticipation of either fellow characters (or pieces) observing him or situations that have arisen without his knowledge or consent. Aside from one tragic incident occuring later in the story, he is essentially blameless in everything that occurs. At least that’s how I interpret the story. There is a forever changing and evolving world, and then there are the forced masses, chained to ideals or weighed down by family that keep us stationary and stagnant. Garp is the embodiment of this stagnation.

Aside from the curious disconnect between the story’s collection of eccentric characters and the audience, Garp is a fascinating, unforgettable personal journey into one man’s private Hell. Robin Williams (in an early strong, dramatic performance) is immensely watchable, even as he tries to give us some distance from his comedic stage work. He’s not quite there yet as a credible dramatic lead. I think Williams learns more from his capacity for humor in creating a dramatic performance than the other way around. For reference, consider Good Morning Vietnam and Good Will Hunting and compare those characters to Garp. You’ll be surprised to see how much he had evolved as an actor.

Glenn Close gives the keynote performance for the film. The characters shift and the narrative turns on her character’s every decision. In fact, she’s so good in this movie that I absolutely hate her. She creates such a real person in the midst of all the catharsis that you’ll swear she’s a member of your own family. She has this irritating pleasantness and a robotic smile that you feel she’s patronizing her sycophants in addition to her family. Strangely, the most sympathetic performance in the film comes from John Lithgow portraying Roberta Muldoon, a one-time football star who had a sex-change operation and must negotiate the waters of her own fishbowl as “she” tries to connect with fellow human beings in a cruel, prejudiced world.

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.

“The Ruling Class, 1972”

“The last time I was kissed in a garden, it turned out rather awkward.”

The Ruling Class, 1972 (Peter O’Toole), Avco/Embassy

The English system baffles me. From what I was led to believe, it has the more Socialistic financial trappings of most of Central Europe (even revising those standards in their entry to the E.U.) while retaining a matriarchy to keep up royal appearances and requiring heavy taxation of it’s working classes. Meanwhile, there is a Parliament; work-a-day politicians who keep the trains running on time and sustain a cock-eyed benevolent fascist dictatorship. You have to wonder how the well-fed higher-ups control this ridiculous England without losing their minds. In Peter Medak’s equally ridiculous satire, The Ruling Class, we are given an approximation of an answer: they have lost their minds. In the first few minutes of the film, one such man, the 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) wears a variation of his uniform with the important modification of a dancer’s tu-tu and hangs himself.

At the reading of his revised will, his friends and enemies are horrified to hear that the estate will be passed on to his son, Jack (Peter O’Toole), who is also cousin to the Queen. Upon his announcement and arrival, Jack enters dressed as Jesus Christ, with robe, long golden locks, and beard, but it isn’t that he is merely dressed as Christ. He believes he is Jesus Christ. Though he locks horns with his Church of England relatives, an examiner diagnoses Jack as a paranoid schizophrenic. Hilariously, when asked how he knows he is God, Jack simply states that when he prays, he discovers he is talking to himself. His transformation is no different than the proverbial red-headed stepchild’s journey home to inform her family she has discovered Scientology, but since this is a young man of royal stock and lineage, poised to inherit an unimaginable clutch of power and privilege, his family agrees he must be destroyed for the good of the Crown.

Trading off one set of bizarre rubrics for another and unleashing hypocrisy in the form of off-putting musical sequences isn’t enough for Peter Barnes’ irreverent stage play (which he also adapted for the screen). When Jack insists his doctrine will be one of peace, charity, and love (What would Jesus do?), he puts fear in the hearts of the dogged politicians who really only want his power and wealth. They scheme to distract him with a woman (beautiful Carolyn Seymour as Lady Grace) who, with all her might, attempts to seduce Jack, but is instead seduced by Jack. She falls madly in love with him. It’s interesting how Jack (Jesus Christ) invents and improvises his belief system. Apparently it’s fine for our Lord and Savior to take a wife in Jack’s twisted interpretation. Whatever. I’m an atheist, but it’s quite charming to watch Seymour and O’Toole indulge in an impromptu rendition of “My Blue Heaven.”

When the dimwitted Dinsdale tries to alert Jack to his family’s treachery, he violently withdraws, sensing his strategically constructed walls of illusion coming down. As much as Jack wants (needs) to be Jesus Christ, and though he hangs from a fabricated crucifix in times of insecurity, he would never bring himself to strip to nakedness and pierce his flesh with nails. He marries Grace in an empty cathedral. At the reception, Jack puts party hats on all the miserable nobles. This is where the movie succeeds: as a tarring, jarring rebuke of the affluent – those who merely inherit their privilege and execute nothing of use with it. They are, truly, the most worthless of the world. Upon a visit to a sanitarium, he comforts the inmates with prayer and song. The examiner conducts psychological experiements. He passes a lie detector test. He then undergoes electro-shock therapy (in a method reminiscent of Return of the Jedi when the Emperor tortures young Skywalker). This sequence juxtaposes Jack’s “exorcism” with the birth of his child with Lady Grace, and it is truly terrifying.

However electrifying O’Toole is (Ha!), the film relies on his madness to carry it through the more mundane and tedious passages. Barnes is a writer in love with his words, and what The Ruling Class could’ve used was another pass at the screenplay, and more time in the editing room. Peter Medak’s direction is (perhaps appropriately) stagey, but also cold and emotionless. Maybe it’s because he shoots the movie from the point-of-view of the unlikable outsiders who view Jack’s madness as a form of eccentricity. Even after Jack is relieved of his demons, we spend nearly another hour trying to determining who he has become. He stutters, suffers Tourettes-like aphasia, and possesses murderous impulses. The Ruling Class would’ve been brilliant if the filmmakers had dispensed with the notion of shooting a stage play and instead focused on the strength of film. The aristocratic air and the manipulations of the power-mad in the film would make it an interesting double feature with A Clockwork Orange.

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.

“Where the Buffalo Roam, 1980”

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“This is a party, not a safari!”

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Where the Buffalo Roam, 1980 (Bill Murray), MCA/Universal

“He was … known for his lifelong use of alcohol and illegal drugs, his love of firearms, and his iconoclastic contempt for authoritarianism. He remarked: ‘I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.'”

I figured in this review of the notorious 1980 folly, the unprescribed medley of moments in the life of celebrated writer, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Where the Buffalo Roam, I would adopt the persona of celebrated writer, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. As long as the persona does not irritate, dear reader. Fishing cap? Check! Extra-long cigarette holder? Check! Hawaiian t-shirt? Check!  In a phrase, he was celebrated for being celebrated.

His memories exist as a wild anecdote, only partially rendered impotent by the gross complications of a film director who has lost his personal sense of humor, and instead relented and choked from insatiable gasps of Bill Murray’s star power. He lives in a swanky cabin in Colorado. His fax machine belches, demands tasty portions of words, with which he is not ready to part. Instead he shoots the infernal machine, and sicks his Doberman on the tasty testicles of his Nixon effigy. He looks at a picture of his beloved hippy attorney, Carl Lazlo (Peter Boyle) and remembers those times, some ten years back in San Francisco. Lazlo is an idealist. He defends the weak. Helps the helpless! He’s God’s own prototype! To weird to live. To rare to die. I know. I stole those words directly from the real Thompson, but I can’t help it. The man was such a brilliant fuck-face, it’s hard to imagine anyone (even Master Johnny Depp) portraying him in any meaningful way.

Lazlo spends a lot of his time defending young idiots on marijuana possession counts.  I understand his reasoning.  These are victimless crimes, but in trendy San Francisco, end-of-the-decade, with colleagues seducing him to the dark side; rich clients and cushy digs, Lazlo doesn’t care.  In these all-important character scenes, we become convinced we’re watching the story of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s lawyer (which is probably interesting enough to work on it’s own) instead of a story about the celebrated icon.  Lazlo is demoralized watching his clients sentenced to hard time in prison for what would amount to (in my view) petty misdemeanors, but such are the breaks in the world of the old and powerful.  He flips out when a particularly young client gets five years in jail for possession of one joint.  He’s held in contempt, while Thompson sits on a deadline and makes his editor (Bruno Kirby) pray for Lazlo’s swift release (and also for all the people of the world).

We move forward a few years as Thompson is covering the Super Bowl.  I don’t think he has any interest in covering sports, but he runs up a huge expense account at the hotel where he is staying (including Crab Louie and sixteen grapefruit).  He trashes the hotel room, dresses the staff in football equipment. and causes a ton of havoc on his floor.  The next morning, Lazlo (wearing a Nixon mask) catches up with him.  He stopped being an attorney full-time, and now cavorts with the younger set.  Thomspon ditches his assignment to become Lazlo’s traveling companion.  I wonder if, in these later scenes, Lazlo isn’t simply a figment of Thompson’s potent and overactive imagination.  Lazlo tells him he’s been “reborn”, running guns for paramilitary types out of Mexico.  Whatever floats your boat, Lazlo.  He wants Thompson to write a story about the “struggle.”  The movie is a push-pull of idealism and gluttony that never kicks into gear, mostly because I think those so-called revolutionaries of the time could never get their shit together in a worthwhile way.

The movie is a mess, editorially, with no flow except for episodic moments in which Murray crosses paths with Boyle’s Lazlo.  For his part, Boyle is extraordinary, but he acts in a vacuum.  Murray’s Thompson is a baroque caricature.  While obviously devoted to playing this part (with some guidance from the real Thompson), he comes over as an inebriated middle-child with autism, hiding a feverish addiction to alcohol and other various substances.  Despite good production locales and photography, Where the Buffalo Roam does no favors for the time period, and the social and the political unrest it attempts to show us.  I often wonder if this is the beginning or the end of self-destructive behavior, as Thompson’s exploits become bigger and more dangerous with each scene change.

Later releases of the movie remove key bits of music, due to rights issues, and replace them with “sound-alike” tracks, which make the whole thing even more unbearable to watch.  In retrospect, I had the same issues watching Terry Gilliam’s similar Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, however that movie improves on subsequent viewings, but Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s legacy has been tarnished by his God-given desire to numb himself in any way he could.  In a way, Thompson was his own prototype.  Too rare to live, but always ready to die.

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It still hasn’t gotten weird enough for me.

“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

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: Repo Man, 1984

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“The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”

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Repo Man, 1984 (Emilio Estevez), MCA/Universal

A state trooper pulls over a ’64 Chevy Malibu, and asks the bizarre driver what’s in the trunk.  The driver tells him, “You don’t wanna know.”  The trooper opens the trunk and is instantly disintegrated, and all that is left is a pair of smoking boots.  This opening bit sets the tone for what is to come.  The dystopic contemporary depiction of a Los Angeles in the grip of poverty, writer-director Alex Cox’s Repo Man is a landscape of smashed windows and busted televisions, of manipulative evangelists, and UFO nuts.  Emilio Estevez is not quite a punk. more of a poser (the kind of person who admires the lifestyle, but really wants a house in the sticks with a 2-car garage – I know many people like this), because he holds down a steady job (until he loses his cool) in a supermarket, and while he joins his friends for nightly “mosh” sessions, he has more on his mind than getting wasted.

One day, he hooks up with Harry Dean Stanton (always a joy to watch in any film), who asks him to hot-wire a car for $10 because he “lost the keys, and his sister is pregnant.”  Estevez agrees, but wonders why a Mexican man is trying to stop him as he does it.  He drives off with the car, and Stanton leads him to a junkyard, where the car is impounded.  Estevez’s Otto isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he comes to the conclusion he just repossessed a vehicle.  Stanton offers him a job; good money and benefits, but Estevez hates these people, and I can understand why.  They repossess cars (a kind of legal version of theft) when the owners don’t make their payments, or for other reasons (say they’re late on house payments or utilities).  To Otto, they contribute to the downfall of a schizophrenic economy and the cultural wasteland.

When Otto discovers his parents have given his college money (See? Not a real punk!) away to a televangelist, he reluctantly takes up Stanton on his offer, and soon he’s lifting cars at an impressive rate.  He gets to know and bond with the denizens of the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation.  He listens to crazy theories about alien spacecraft and time travel, life and money, and, inexplicably John Wayne’s sexual orientation.  Otto’s life is turning around, and a schism develops between him and his punk friends (one of them bears a striking resemblance to my buddy, Noah).  He gets a kooky girlfriend, who is obsessed with the UFO culture, and he finds he’s been cased by spooks and weird chicks with mohawks.

The Malibu is making the rounds and a bounty goes out on the vehicle.  $20,000 to the person (or persons) who can repossess the vehicle.  It makes sense the vehicle would be hot (figuratively as well as literally), and Stanton is locked in a battle of wits with the Rodriguez Brothers, the only other hacks in the game as bad-ass as Stanton’s Helping Hand cronies.  You have an unusual convergence of like-minded nitwits in skid-row: car repossessers, alien abduction nuts, Feds, and religious fanatics all coming together to unlock the power of this vehicle.  In the mish-mash of social commentary littered about the grounds of Cox’s narrative, what we see are emerging trends.  Cox’s worldview is not unlike that of a punk.  There are forces out to control you, and none to liberate you.  That makes a whole Hell-of-a-lot of sense if you consider yourself disenfranchised.

The Malibu changes drivers a few times when the Rodriguez Brothers lift the car, which is then stolen by a couple of Otto’s friends.  The original, crazed driver taunts them into opening the trunk, and they get zapped.  He takes back possession of the car, picks up Otto hitchhiking, and promptly dies behind the wheel, after confessing to him that he had a partial lobotomy in order to negotiate the heavy stress of driving this beast.  As government agents, priest, rabbis, and UFO enthusiasts swarm on the vehicle, it emits lightning and fire, and only Otto and his co-worker, Miller (who told him earlier he refuses to drive and does all his thinking on a bus), can get behind the wheel.  The Malibu ascends into the air and flies into space.  We never really settle on what is inside the trunk.  The crazy driver tells Otto it’s a neutron bomb.  Otto’s girlfriend tell him it’s the corpses of two aliens that emanate dangerous radiation.  I’m guessing it’s a MacGuffin, merely to keep up our interest in the movie, but it doesn’t matter.  This is such an interesting and entertaining film populated with incredible characters that it doesn’t need this device (or vehicle, as the case the may be) to tell the story.

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For this movie to come out when it did, March of 1984, in the middle of the sex comedy and slasher film explosion, and the beginnings of the opening weekend mindset of Hollywood, Repo Man initiated a major smack-in-the-face to the conventions of filmmaking.  Similar in style to something like Jim Sheridan’s Breathless, but with a story and characters we give a crap for, Repo Man is a cultural send-up of science fiction, crime-drama, and tales of government paranoia.  It shows a side of Los Angeles we aren’t used to seeing.  An extraordinarily bold and gifted filmmaker, Alex Cox would follow-up Repo Man with Sid & Nancy, and the much-maligned (although I liked it) Straight To Hell.

Sourced from a VHS tape recorded off the Independent Film Channel (IFC), extended play, circa 2002-2003.  This was back when IFC ran uninterrupted films with no commercials.  Also on the tape were Harmony Korine’s 1997 oddity, Gummo, and the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers starring Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, and Brooke Adams.

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.