Vintage Cable Box: “Brainstorm, 1983”

“Why do you have to die to let go?”

Brainstorm, 1983 (Christopher Walken), MGM/UA

Where does our yearning for technology originate? Is it the most foolish form of narcissism; the desire to create “artificial” life to earn god-like stature in the pantheon of universal nature? Where does virtual reality fit? Is that our fatal flaw as humans? That, rather than experience life through the natural receptors of our eyes we, instead, want to replicate reality through the circuitry of a computer’s architecture? As Brainstorm opens, scientist Christopher Walken samples a technology that allows him to experience the reactions of another. In this case, a goofy co-worker who tries a piece of steak with marshmallow sauce and a cherry on top. As a gag, he substitutes his interface for that of a chimp, which nearly fries Walken’s brain, but the test is successful. It’s a wonderful moment that also points to the inherent dangers of going down rabbit holes, or in this case, up jungle vines. It’s interesting to me the connection to primates, as I tend to view our human relationship with computers comparable to lower primates and their relationship to us.

Removed from the movie’s staggering science, we plunge into Walken’s strained relationship with his wife, Karen (Natalie Wood, in her final role). It’s never clear to me why they are separated, other than the requisite work-obsessed husband who doesn’t give enough of his soul to his marriage, or that Wood, while initially a warm person, is emotionally distant from her husband. Meanwhile, aforementioned rag-a-muffin/science dork prankster Gordy has the most fun, working flight simulators, riding horses and driving race cars all while recording the experiences for the software. Karen works out the marketing for the device. Her problem is to make the unit much smaller than it presently is (basically a motorcycle helmet with a lot of circuitry attached). She convinces Walken to reduce the circuitry so that it can be worn in something similar to a bicycle helmet. The applications of this device are off-the-wall. Machiavellian CEO of their firm, Alex (Cliff Robertson) is blown away by the system and immediately sees dollar signs. Walken and colleague Louise Fletcher are understandably worried about long-term effects on the brain and other consequences.

Let’s go back to the fatal flaw. Why do we put so much time and work into replicating and simulating life experiences rather than enjoying them on our terms? I understand practical applications. The movie takes pains to explain that the Military would love to get their hands on the technology, but there’s also the obvious “harmless” application: games. Unfortunately, as the movie pre-dates virtual reality technology being made today, it also makes recent attempts by Google and Microsoft look primitive by comparison. While somewhat cost-prohibitive right now, I can see a future where everyone will wear devices like these on their heads, perhaps experiencing simulated “life” while simultaneously engaging in the more mundane aspects of their real lives. Maybe parachuting into an active volcano while grabbing a carton of milk at the supermarket? Our friend, Gordy, produces the virtual reality equivalent of a “sex tape,” which he proffers to a co-worker, who then goes into what I can only call an orgasm-induced state of catatonia. If computers are perfect, yet imperfect man creates perfect computers, then computers aren’t really perfect, are they? Doy.

In the muddle of Walken and Wood’s domestic troubles, there was the very interesting (and disturbing) idea that feelings could be recorded along with the sight stimulation. I don’t think we ever go further than that, except to finally see that we, as humans, can become irredeemably lost in our thoughts and feelings, and that the computer will never know when to stop destroying us with our fears. There’s a lot to admire in Brainstorm, but the movie feels oddly cold, lacking the true human connection we need from Wood and Walken; the best scenes are when Wood relives their courtship and marriage, and the couple reconcile as she sings a song to him under a bed-sheet. It’s such a beautiful (and sad) moment, you wish there were more scenes like these. MGM and director Douglas Trumbull swore up-and-down all of Wood’s scenes were shot before her untimely death, but she feels like a ghost in this movie. Walken, with his unusual mannerisms, makes for an interesting protagonist. You never know what he’s thinking. Fletcher is exceptional and was robbed of an Academy Award nomination. Her death scene is spectacular. As she dies of a heart attack, she records her experiences on the virtual reality software. Brainstorm could’ve been an incredible movie with a little more heart.

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.

“All That Glitters”

I’m privileged to have Craig on the show. He lends an air of legitimacy to the proceedings. I urge you to go to his sites, My Life In The Shadow Of The Twilight Zone.  Also, My Life In The Glow Of The Outer Limits

These are two indispensable web sites, filled with voluminous references and facts about these remarkable television shows. Also, there’s lot of fan-boy stuff. When I started my podcast, I referred to his sites for information and notes.

Let’s move into our episodes. I’ve taken a cue from you and decided to break them down in a kind of thematic way. These are time-shifting episodes, of a sort. In “A Hundred Yards Over The Rim”, we have Cliff Robertson and a group of pioneers, I want to say, running wagons from Ohio to California, but his child, a young boy is sick, practically dying. Cliff crosses over a sandy hill and he goes back … to the FUTURE! Some 114 years into the future, the modern world with cars and jets, just lots of noise, like when that horrible cattle rustler wound up in the future because of the Professor’s time machine in “Execution”, except Cliff isn’t an idiot.

“The Rip Van Winkle Caper” premiered two weeks later, April 21st, 1961, written by Rod Serling, and directed by Justus Addiss.

This is one of my favorites, because it’s a story that depends on the stupidity of it’s central characters, DeCruz and Farwell. Seriously, those guys should have their own sitcom. DeCruz is a scientist, for crying out loud. This guy is supposed to be a genius. He figured out a way to cryogenically preserve people, and I forget if there was any explanation for why he wasn’t raking in the Science cash, this would be an incredible discovery. He would have a patent and become a millionaire all on his own anyway. Maybe he appeared on the Retraction Watch, and was discredited by conservatives and the like. So Farwell hooks up with a bunch of criminals. They steal a million bucks worth of gold, and the plan is to retreat into a cave, sleep in these modified 80s glass coffee tables for a hundred years, and then they’ll wake up and everybody would’ve forgotten about the stolen gold, and they’ll walk into a clean-slate, wonderful new future with a lot of gold.

Written by David Lawler
Additional Commentary by Craig Beam
Original Music by Alex Saltz, APS Mastering

Introduction Music: “’39” (Brian May) by Queen (from the 1975 album, A Night at the Opera).
Audio Clips: Treasure of the Sierra Madre (a 1948 drama starring Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston, directed by John Huston), Back to the Future (a 1985 comedy starring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, directed by Robert Zemeckis), “The Power of Love” (Huey Lewis, Chris Hayes, Johnny Colla) by Huey Lewis and the News, “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim”, “The Rip Van Winkle Caper”.

Recorded June 29, 2016

© BlissVille, David Lawler copyright 2016 for all original vocal and audio content featuring David Lawler and selected guests each episode. Original Music © Alex Saltz copyright 2015. This podcast, “That Twilighty Show About That Zone” is not affiliated with CBS Entertainment, the CBS Television Network, or The Rod Serling Estate. Any and all images, audio clips, and dialogue extracts are the property of their respective copyright owners. This blog and podcast was created for criticism, research, and is completely nonprofit, and should be considered Fair Use as stated in the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. section 107. It is not an official product, and it should not be sold nor bought; this is intended for private use, and any public broadcast is not recommended. All music clips appear under Fair Use as well. If you’re thinking of suing because you want a piece of the pie, please remember, there is no actual pie. We at BlissVille have no money, and as such, cannot compensate you. If anything, we’re doing you a favor, so please be kind. I do this ’cause it’s fun, and nothing else.

Running Time: 36:19

Vintage Cable Box: Class, 1983


“The dog died.”


Class, 1983 (Rob Lowe), Orion Pictures

Poor kid Andrew McCarthy (not exactly wrong-side-of-the-tracks, mind you) from a steel town (on a Saturday night looking for the fight of his life!) hugs his parents and says goodbye as he advances to prep school.  This is a kid who has obviously had to study hard, and work his way through life to reach the upper stratus of the rich kid’s world.  Upon meeting his new roommate, Skip (Rob Lowe) sizes him up as a complete rube and a naïve mensch who will fall for his practical jokes and ridiculous stories.  On the surface, Lowe’s pranks could be seen as exceedingly cruel (even driving McCarthy to tears), but they are necessary in order to forge the bond between the two young men as they cope with the rigors of encroaching adulthood.

McCarthy manages to bestow revenge upon Lowe (in the form of a fake suicide – not terribly funny, I guess you had to be there) and they become fast friends.  After a couple of episodes, usually involving young women and embarrassing hi-jinks, Lowe (in Christ regalia carrying a crucifix, no less) gives McCarthy a hundred bucks and a ticket to Chicago so he can get laid, or else he won’t be allowed back into the dorm.  McCarthy decides to take him up on the offer.  He goes to a singles club, and ultimately hooks up with a beautiful older woman (delicious Jacqueline Bisset).  While initially chaste, it’s obvious she’s very lonely and prefers to populate her surroundings with young people.  She finds McCarthy’s naïveté charming, and seems to be immediately attracted to him.  They have sex, and it is implied this is McCarthy’s first time.


Returning to school, he presents a pair of panties as proof of his dalliances, and regales classmates with stories of passion with an older woman, and earns the respect of his peers.  He has further interludes with Bisset.  They have a remarkably easy sexual chemistry (no difficult feat with Bisset), which demonstrates not only the success of the movie’s characterizations (the story takes it’s time in unfolding) but also places an important emphasis on sexuality in general as depicted in the eighties.  McCarthy shows wonderful maturity in his scenes with her (he’s a joy to watch, which is strange for me) even when he lets it slip that he loves her.  Her face goes blank for a moment, because she’s contemplating the ramifications of the statement (as an older women would).  This is a strangely thoughtful screenplay for an eighties sex comedy.

She takes him to New York and shops for him. While he changes his slacks, she spies his wallet, opens it up, revealing that he is, in fact, a high school student. She runs off. What I wonder is – how could she not know? She knows he is rather inexperienced as a lover. His youthful demeanor should’ve triggered something in her, so we approach somewhat controversial territory in that even if we bond with people on an intimate level, how hard would it be to accept that the years are wrong between us? McCarthy is depressed, and his grades are slipping. Lowe invites him up to his parents’ country estate for Christmas break. This is where the fun begins!

They get to the palatial spread, and Skip introduces his parents, Cliff Robertson, and one Jacqueline Bisset!  Turns out she’s a very bad girl.  What follows is stilted, awkward dinner conversation.  Bisset is in an unhappy marriage to a humorless, straight-shooting Robertson, which makes sense given her proclivity for casual sex with strangers.  Robertson chalks up her peculiar behavior to neuroses or a mid-life breakdown.  The movie then turns into a comedy of errors, where McCarthy has to shield Lowe from his relationship with Bisset, and then to provide a sounding board to Lowe’s disillusionment and dissatisfaction with his parents and adult life.


Even though they tended to irritate me in later movies, McCarthy and Lowe are just about perfect in this film, playing off each other like a younger variant of The Odd Couple; McCarthy is a straight-laced realist, and Lowe is a bad boy.  The terrific cast is a mix of old (Robertson, Stuart Margolin), new (John Cusack, Alan Ruck, Virginia Madsen), and the still-hot (Bisset).  Class plays as a reverse Blame It On Rio, from the perspective of the young male as protagonist, and also a pre-Brat Pack opus, but given the cast and subject matter (more sexualized) produced by a slightly-older generation of filmmakers than John Hughes, it’s more hard-hitting and less contextualized.  When Lowe’s character discovers the truth, he is mortified.  McCarthy tries to reason with him, but instead, they wind up fighting it out in mud-covered fields, which spills over into their dorm.  After beating the holy hell out of each other, they collapse in a heap and laugh.  This is one of the greatest endings of any movie I’ve ever seen.

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.