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.

Vintage Cable Box: Little Darlings, 1980

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“Do you realize that I am almost the only virgin in camp? Every girl knows this secret life except me. Look at it this way. It’d be a learning experience.”

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Little Darlings, 1980 (Kristy McNichol), Paramount Pictures

On a strange hot summer night, I pop in the old Paramount tape of Little Darlings. I remember the juxtaposition of Kristy McNichol kicking a guy right in the nuts before hopping into a convertible on her way to the summer camp bus, and Tatum O’ Neal going to the same bus in a Rolls Royce. Angel is a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. She’s a jean-jacket-wearing little hottie with a chip on her shoulder. Ferris (Ferris?) is a spoiled little rich girl predisposed to shit-eating grins and compulsive lying, but more on that later.

The two girls hate each other, so you know they’re going to wind up best friends by the end of the movie. They even fight on the bus ride. It’s unusual watching girls display this kind of behavior. They push each other, they mix it up, compare the size of their burgeoning boobies, and talk openly about sex and birth control. Both girls find themselves harrassed (for different reasons) at the camp. Ferris and Angel are very quickly revealed (in ways I can’t quite explain) to be virgins, and one particular brat offers up $100 to the first girl who can lose her virginity before camp ends.

The girls engage in the usual summer camp antics; softball, boating (with dreamy counselor/stud Armand Assante – I keep using that word a lot lately), and hiking. Tatum hits it off with Assante (who seems to be flirting with her) as they discuss France and astrological signs. It’s times like this that I wonder if I have what it takes to be a camp counselor at a girls camp. Yes! Yes, I do! The girls choose their intended targets. Tatum, of course, choose dreamy Armand, and Kristy has her eyes on young Matt Dillon. Dillon is very much her speed and the kind of guy she would date anyway. While he seems tough with street-born good looks, he is revealed to be sensitive and vulnerable, and the way she sizes him up is fantastic.

This is an unusual film for 1980, coming out (pun!) at the peak of summer camp movies; at least comedies that didn’t involve super-human killers who wear hockey masks.  It’s an interesting reversal of gender motivations, where we have the girls acting as predators in the tribal ritual of lust, and the men are depicted as the prey; essentially clueless as to the intentions of Angel and Ferris.  The filmmakers are careful to not exploit the girls, and the clever scripting (by Kimi Peck and Dalene Young) plays to the strengths of McNichol and O’ Neal (I can understand why girls flocked to this movie when it was released), both utterly adorable in this film.  A very young Cynthia Nixon is hilarious as some kind of a crazy hippie flower girl.  McNichol, in particular, is a brilliant actress.

“Can two teenage girls go to summer camp together without driving each other crazy?”

In an interesting twist, Tatum, her face glowing, lies that she had sex with Assante (who politely brushes her off in a sweet scene), and Kristy lies that she did not have sex with Dillon.  In reality, Kristy understands all of the consequences of a sexual relationship, while Tatum romanticizes it to the point of losing all touch with her specific actuality.  I think what I learned from the movie is not that girls are objects to be lusted after (they most definitely are, in my view), but that girls are capable of the same kind of behaviors we normally attribute to the male of the species.  The men in this movie are photographed as objects of beauty and game to be conquered, and I find that to be refreshing.

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.