Vintage Cable Box: “National Lampoon’s Vacation, 1983”

“O God, ease our suffering in this, our moment of great despair. Yea, admit this good and decent woman into thine arms in the flock in thine heavenly area, up there. And Moab, he laid its down by the band of the Canaanites, and yea, though the Hindus speak of karma, I implore you: give her… give her a break.”

National Lampoon’s Vacation, 1983 (Chevy Chase), Warner Bros.

There’s no tradition like a new tradition, and I think I’m creating a new tradition. There are holidays, and there are holiday movies, and there are movies we play on certain holidays. We’ll watch A Christmas Carol or Scrooge or even Scrooged on or around Christmas. I know people who love to watch the Star Wars franchise movies on May 4th (we usually run them around New Years), but I have an idea for a Father’s Day tradition: National Lampoon’s Vacation. It is just about the perfect movie to play to commemorate the struggles of loving, responsible dads out there, and Chevy Chase is our embodiment of a hero despite his complete inability to achieve his goal. He has one goal: to take his family to “Walley World” (the most famous “Disney World” analog in the history of cinema).

Clark W. Griswold (Chase) is on a mission; a quest, a “quest for fun.” Roughly three-quarters of the way into the film, Clark sits down with his son, Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall), and shares a beer with him. As Rusty drinks the whole can down, Clark tells him about how he never had fun on all the vacations his father planned. This time, he’s determined to have fun and, at this point, he doesn’t care what he has to do to have that fun. His stubborn-streak and capacity for maintaining his composure in the face of his outright idiocy is truly inspiring to watch. Audiences tend to take comedy for granted: if it’s funny, it works. Chase’s performance is one of his most tragic, and he manages to create a fully-realized character even as the first frames of the film are unspooled. He takes Rusty to a dealership to get the new car, a “little sports thing,” for the trip. Salesman Eugene Levy cons him into buying the Family Truckster in “metallic pee.”

Clark plans out the whole trip on the computer. He has foreseen every contingency, every circumstance, every situation that might pop up, but that’s where the comedy kicks in. Comedy is like God, and we are the chorus. If you want us to laugh, tell us your plan. Of course, nothing works out as planned. They get off on the wrong exit in St. Louis. In one of the funnier (but also politically incorrect) sequences, Clark asks for directions back to the expressway, but is given a ridiculous runaround as his hubcaps are stolen and the words, “Honky Lips” are spray-painted on the Family Truckster. Next up is Dodge City, where he, unwittingly, antagonizes a barkeep who shoots him with blanks that causes their daughter, Audrey (Dana Barron) to go temporarily deaf. After that, they make the requisite trip to their white trash in-laws, headed by Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid).

Staged publicity photograph!

Eddie and his family are there to frighten Clark and his wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and keep them struggling in the middle class, paying taxes and behaving like good citizens. Eddie and his family represent those twisted few who fall between the cracks in a system designed to keep people trapped in collective “caste” systems in our nation. Clark loans Eddie some money to keep his crew afloat. From there, his finances are scuttled. Ellen is no help. While I absolutely adore Beverly D’Angelo (she’s very easy on the eyes, as they say), she is largely unsympathetic. I’m convinced her job, in the film, is to antagonize Clark, poo-poo his plans, and then cut him down when he suffers personal setbacks. Beverly, being a serious dish, makes it hard to stay mad at her. Eventually, she does give in to her husband’s lunacy, but only when she feels less desirable because of Clark’s infatuation with a “Mystery Girl” (Christie Brinkley) in a hot, red Ferrari who flirts with him on the open road.

Too often in today’s media and pop culture, fathers are given short shrift, treated as annoyances, regarded as morons with impossibly beautiful, open-minded, ethereal wives. It makes you wonder how these couples found each other in the dating pool, and then what made them decide to marry and have children. While Chase makes easy work of Clark Griswold, he also provides moments of reality and introspection in his wacky world. He bursts into tears at the thought of missing out on his children growing up. He wants to be desired, loved, and trusted, and he barely holds onto his sanity by way of the trip to “Walley World.” Director Harold Ramis directs a very funny script from John Hughes, with inspired bits from Levy, John Candy, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Imogene Coca that compliment the madness of his original source material: a short story he wrote for National Lampoon titled “Vacation ’58.” Released 34 years ago on July 29, 1983, National Lampoon’s Vacation is still one of the funniest movies ever made.

Sourced from the original 1983 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release, which was among our first movie purchases on tape. The movie continued to receive different format releases, and is available in Beta, DVD, Laserdisc (using the same art design as the clamshell release) and Blu Ray formats. The accompanying essay gives us a crisp synopsis while promoting the National Lampoon legacy. “After 2,000 miles of madcap calamities, the Griswolds ultimately arrive at Walley World. Again, alas, their quest for “fun” is riotously derailed in an action-packed comedy finale.” I have both the original Warner clamshell, and the recent Blu-Ray release. This is very interesting to me, because while I complained about the pan-and-scan format of a movie like Sudden Impact (filmed with the Panavision process), what we see in Vacation is what was shot; an open-matte format that gives us more visual information than the Blu-Ray release, which crops the top and bottom of the image in order to fill the 16:9 viewing area of modern televisions.

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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“Her Worshipfulness”

My friend and colleague, Mark Jeacoma, put up what is probably the most comprehensive yet concise list of notable deaths (I’m not talking about all the old soccer players who seem to drop dead of heart attacks every five hours) for the year 2016. In the last week alone, we’ve lost Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Michael, and the subject of this podcast, Carrie Fisher. It’s gotten so bad of late, we put together dead-pool lists. Who will kick the bucket next? We got our answer the very next day.

Carrie Frances Fisher (October 21, 1956 [fellow Libra] – December 27, 2016) was (oh wow, she was) an American actress, screenwriter, author, producer, and a public speaker. She was known for playing Princess Leia in the Star Wars films. Fisher was also known for her semi-autobiographical novels, including Postcards from the Edge and the screenplay for the film of the same name, as well as her autobiographical one-woman play and its nonfiction book, Wishful Drinking, based on the show.

Her other film roles included Shampoo (1975) [I remember her immortal, infamous line, “Wanna fuck?”], The Blues Brothers (1980), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) [She played the treacherous April who steals Dianne Wiest’s boyfriend played by Sam Waterston], The ‘Burbs (1989) [great movie, one of my favorites – “This is Walter!”], and When Harry Met Sally… (1989) [I only vaguely remember that movie, even though it was a big hit – I always thought of it as a rip-off of Annie Hall].

I was thinking about the role George Lucas wrote: Princess Leia. Stronger actresses like Sissy Spacek and Amy Irving read for the part – he wanted Carrie for her baby-face and Hollywood royalty currency, but it’s hard for me to say, she was a stronger actress in her youth, aside from a couple of good performances later on. Sissy Spacek and Amy Irving would’ve killed the part; they would’ve been too confident, I think. She brought a lot of strength and vulnerability to the part in the first two movies, Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back.

Mary Frances “Debbie” Reynolds (April 1, 1932 – December 28, 2016) was an American actress, singer, businesswoman, film historian, and humanitarian. Her breakout role was the portrayal of Helen Kane in the 1950 film Three Little Words, for which she was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer. However, it was her first leading role in 1952 at age 19, as Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain, that set her on the path to fame. By the mid-1950s, she was a major star. Other notable successes include The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953), Susan Slept Here (1954), Bundle of Joy (1956 Golden Globe nomination), The Catered Affair (1956 National Board of Review Best Supporting Actress Winner), and Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), in which her rendering of the song “Tammy” reached number one on the music charts. In 1959, she released her first pop music album, entitled Debbie.

Carrie Fisher (1956-2016)
Debbie Reynolds (1932-2016)

Vintage Cable Box: “Deal Of The Century”, 1983

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“For I do not do the good that I want. But the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.”

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“Deal Of The Century”, 1983 (Chevy Chase), Warner Bros.

An uncomfortable satire that crosses the line between ludicrous and oddly prescient, “Deal Of The Century” is a cold war romance about America’s obsessive love for military firepower. The first images in the film we see are an advertisement for the Peacemaker, a stealth-like drone craft capable of untold destruction and designed (it seems) specifically to neutralize conflicts in small Central American territories. The advertisement is disturbing not only for the child singing, “Someone To Watch Over Me”, but for the images of infants cradled in their mothers’ arms. Breaking down the demographics, Vince Edwards (with an imposing hawk-like profile) presides over a conference with advertising executives on how to sell this sleek instrument to the public and (more importantly) to nations in the market to buy.

In what is obviously a comment on consumer culture, we focus on slick arms dealer Eddie Muntz (Chevy Chase), as he peddles his wares. He eyes a lusty Sigourney Weaver in a bar; a fellow American lost in San Miguel, a fictitious sovereign Republic led by flighty fascist dictator, General Cordosa. His pitch to shady mercenaries is not unlike the approach of a used car salesman, but he prides himself on selling quality merchandise. Although Muntz considers himself an independent businessman, there is a disturbing bit of foreshadowing which predates the Reagan Administration revelations of selling arms to both sides during Nicaragua’s Iran–Contra affair. Caught in the middle of a helicopter fire-fight during a sale, Muntz is wounded, and loses his money and his merchandise. Design flaws are discovered in the Peacemaker’s offensive program (it appears the drone can suffer water damage and go hay-wire), which causes havoc at a demonstration for representatives of the Pentagon.

While recovering from his injuries, Muntz meets destitute broker and Peacemaker salesman Wallace Shawn, who promptly kills himself.  Muntz steals his $300 million contracts, and takes up his assignment to meet with General Cordosa.  Coming back to the States, Muntz’s friend, former Air Force pilot Ray (a diffident Gregory Hines), picks him up at the airport.  In his absence, Hines has become a born-again Christian who swears off selling weapons and embraces pacifism.  Weaver, revealed to be Shawn’s widow, seeks out Chase in an effort to steal back the contracts.  Edwards approaches Muntz and Weaver to gain their assistance in selling off his Peacemakers to General Cordosa. Muntz appeals to Ray to go in with him on one last job.  Ray is conflicted, and in a momentary fit of rage after a minor collision with an angry couple, he torches their car with his latest acquisition, a military-grade flamethrower.  By itself, this is a brilliant scene.

Ray begs Muntz to reconsider selling the Peacemaker to Cordosa because of the destruction it will cause.  Muntz likens his job to that of selling a product and nothing more, so Ray, in good conscience, cannot allow this sale to happen.  Ray steals a fighter jet and attempts to destroy the Peacemaker himself.  Unfortunately, the movie fails as a comedy, because of the deadly serious nature of the source material (a thought-provoking screenplay by Paul Brickman).  Director William Friedkin shoots the film as a drama with humorous moments.  The material is too moody to aim for the techno-terror style of the same year’s “WarGames” or the farce of Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb”.  There’s a lack of warmth to the enterprise.  Though Weaver and Chase are attractive enough, they lack chemistry, and their romance feels forced, as if it were shoe-horned into the narrative.

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Chase is intensely interesting as a man with no politics, with no compunction about selling weapons of mass destruction to opposing sides in a conflict, and no religion, when he comes into conflict with Hines and his burgeoning spirituality. It’s downright eerie how all of these weapons are now being used in common practice. Every day, we hear stories of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the loss of innocent civilian lives, women and children in the fiery fray. While the film, as a satire, doesn’t comment on the morality of using drones, it does poke holes in the supposedly “fool-proof” design of such weaponry. “Deal Of The Century” (for me) would’ve been much more effective as a straight-out black comedy than a meandering, unbalanced political satire about the mixed morality of capitalism and the destructive consequences it can foster.

Support the troops, not the drones.  Happy Memorial Day!

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.

NEW PODCAST: “The Johnny Carson Show”

Shatner-and-Carson

Welcome to BlissVille, Misadventures in BlissVille, and tonight we’re discussing Johnny Carson, the “King of Late Night”. Andrew asked me to watch the American Masters documentary about Johnny Carson, produced by PBS for Channel 13, here in New York City. It’s a very well-made documentary narrated by the actor Kevin Spacey.

This was a different time, perhaps a stranger time that young people may not be able to understand, or grasp, where a performer had to work very hard to make money. I remember reading an article, I think it was an interview in Life Magazine with Johnny Carson, and the article made reference to Carson starting out as a magician, really quite a talented magician. The documentary makes great play at showing the first book he bought, which was about card tricks and magic. You ever see the magician who got on the train the City every now and then? He would whistle to get everybody’s attention. Most New Yorkers keep their heads down, try not to make an eye contact, but this guy would come in – he had a big, funny hat, he wore a little cape and a tuxedo, and he had a big suitcase, from which would emerge some pretty awesome tricks. He would conjure birds from inside his hat, from up his sleeve. People always want to know how you can accomplish those tricks, and that spoils the fun for me. I don’t want to know how they do what they do.

The article didn’t do much to shed light on Carson’s personal life, and this documentary takes a brave stab at it, but it essentially tells the same story – Carson’s mother appeared to be a dominating, judgmental presence in his life, and he did everything he could to please her, but she remained completely unimpressed throughout his life – even to becoming the King of Late Night. He married four times, had children. One item I was not familiar with was Carson’s drinking problem, and I think we all sort of figured that Ed McMahon was the drunkard of the two. Imagine my surprise when I find he was sober through most of the shows, for 30 years even!

This is the end of our “William Shatner Letter Exchange” series of BlissVille episodes, and it has been incredible fun!  In a little under two weeks, we go back to a Shatner-less version of BlissVille.  We’ll talk the Monkees with Denny Spangler and Bronwyn Knox, and KISS with Mark Jeacoma!  After that, a well-earned Winter’s break and “The Twilight Zone”!

BlissVille Fridays: “Using The Whole Fist”

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FROM THE DESK OF JANE DOE

To Whom It May Concern,

Tonight we talk about “Fletch”, the 1985 comedy caper starring Chevy Chase, Tim Matheson, M. Emmet Walsh, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, and Geena Davis (in a small role as Larry, Irwin M. Fletcher’s go-to gal). Now “Fletch” is interesting for Andrew and me because it was part of a holy trilogy of movies we would run at the video store. Whenever we needed a pick-me-up, something to lift our spirits, we would play “Fletch”, “Glengarry Glen Ross” (of course), or “Clerks”. We would run other stuff like episodes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (from my personal collection), cool action movies like “True Romance” or “Die Hard”, or science fiction.

Most mornings I would have to open, I stopped at a diner around the corner, grabbed breakfast, and turned on “Neighbors”, the 1981 comedy starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. That was a great wake-up movie. My customers loved me, for the most part. They would bring me coffee and treats all the time. I even dated a few. Very few of our customers were annoying. There was that one old lady who was offended by the language in “Clerks” and demanded that we turn it off. Those were the days.

Sincerely,
I.M. Fletcher
P.S. Have a nice day!