Vintage Cable Box: My Bodyguard, 1980

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“It’s not the gum that’s the worst.  It’s the boogers that scare me.”

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My Bodyguard, 1980 (Chris Makepeace), 20th Century Fox

Chris Makepeace is the epitome of what is now being called, the “beta” male; sinewy, bony, full of emotional mush, eternally trapped in the wonder years, and always praying for thicker muscle tone. He’s a small young man with soft features, expressive eyebrows and an unruly mass of hair on the top of his head. Besieged by his eccentric relatives, he (perhaps) involuntarily takes a back-seat to his hotel manager Dad, Martin Mull and libidinous grandmother, Ruth Gordon. They all live in the hotel Mull manages. It’s possible one could look at Makepeace and decide he is privileged, but Mull’s job indicates the upper-tier of a desperate working class.

First day of school at Lake View High in Chicago, Makepeace can’t find a seat in his classroom.  Enter Moody (slicked-back sleaze Matt Dillon) who presents the teacher with an apple while young Joan Cusack makes eyes at him.  Makepeace runs afoul of Dillon by first taking his seat, and second by joking about his name, Big Moody or “B.M.” for short.  This is rather brave for a sensitive soul like Makepeace’s Clifford Peache, whose mouth-breathing fast friend informs him Moody takes “protection money” from the students in exchange for, I would guess, his service in keeping the smaller kids safe from hulking school outcast, Ricky (Adam Baldwin).  It isn’t long before Dillon and his toadies harass Makepeace and shake him down for lunch money.  They figure because Clifford transferred from a private academy, he must be rich.  He swears he isn’t.  What’s the big deal here?  I went to a “private academy” a long time ago on a scholarship.  I also had a number of bullies.

Even after Moody is busted for extortion, the befuddled Dean lets him off with a week’s detention.  This spells trouble for Clifford because it compels Moody to make it his mission in life to terrorize the young man.  Bullies don’t understand or care for logic, and if they feel they are not sufficiently feared, they step up their respective games.  If there’s anybody the kids fear more than Moody, it’s got to be Ricky.  What confuses me is the physical characteristics of these sophomores.  A lot of them look like they’re 10 years old, and some of them look like they’re pushing 30, Baldwin included.  Moody’s campaign of harassment continues unabated, and Clifford is forced to consider other options.  He reaches out to Ricky for protection, but Ricky isn’t initially interested.  What, obstensibly, starts as a teenage nightmare becomes an interesting character study.  Clifford decides to make Ricky his project, and the two bond.

Baldwin strikes an imposing figure compared to Makepeace (and even Dillon), but he has a soft-spoken and gruff way about him, and he saves this coming-of-age tome of self-discovery from mediocrity.  Makepeace helps him find the correct cylinders for a motorcycle he has been rebuilding and then they take to the road in triumph.  The narrative beats are very similar to a love story, but this is about the beginnings of a true friendship.  Unfortunately the story gets bogged down under the weight of ancillary characters Mull, Gordon, and a surprise turn by John Houseman.  We understand that Makepeace’s family is composed of unusual and often, batty people, but it feels out of place here, as if director Tony Bill had envisioned a more epic and episodic story about a few weeks in the life of a kid he obviously adores but felt didn’t have the strength to completely carry the story.

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Despite my issues, I still enjoy this movie, and I feel the sting (a personal feeling) of all my bullies of younger years.  I was a bony, skinny young man, and then I had a growth spurt at 18.  After that, the kids stopped messing with me, but I’ll always remember a beloved Timex wristwatch stolen right off my arm, by a kid half my size.  When I confronted him, I could tell he smelled my fear.  He got right up in my shit while his friends stood behind me, probably waiting for me to make the first move.  I didn’t make a move.  I was frightened.  I was crippled with my fear, and I was ashamed.  Bullies aren’t always about superior height or muscle power.  It’s an attitude.  An attitude I could never successfully emulate.

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.

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