Back in the dark days of the early ’70s, during the years of blacked out Steeler games and when people really only needed a channel selector that went up to 10, a spark was lit.
Something called “Star Channel” happened. To get Star Channel, a large guy with a heavy tool belt and a pronounced butt crack would appear at your house and attach this wooden box to the top of your television. It was the first cable channel I ever knew.
As a young teen, I always wanted to see the movies that they’d advertise on regular television, but the coolest looking ones were always rated R, and I was too young. The trailers were always kick-ass even if the movies, looking back, were B-level camp. B-level camp, as it turned out, was pretty cool. And Star Channel brought it all home to me.
First off, there was nudity. I must have watched “Slaughterhouse Five” a hundred times. I couldn’t tell you much about the movie except this guy winds up in a posh “laboratory” run by aliens who are studying humans, when, much to my adolescent surprise, the aliens pop a naked Valerie Perrine into the equation. I very nearly died. Truly awesome.
What followed was a parade of films that left “regular” television in the dust. Because of Star Channel, I can recite long sections of Charlton Heston’s “The Omega Man.” End of the world zombie movies with motorcycles and machine guns are cool! It was the beginning of the end.
Therefore, dear traveler in the Vault, we’ll return to an innocent time when the ’60s were dying and disco hadn’t yet been conceived. It was a time when really bad songs were playing on AM radio, but we THOUGHT they were cool. Some of the movies truly were. Some were not. Here’s a sample.
1971 – Nicolas Roeg
Rated R: 95 minutes
Vault Rating: 8
Here’s a British film about a teen girl and her kid brother who become stranded in the desert outback of Australia. Struggling to survive, they encounter an aboriginal boy who is on walkabout, which is a rite of passage where the boy must wander and live off the land.
The film is really a stunner, dealing with a sudden clash of cultures where the girl (Jenny Agutter), from Adelaide and resplendent in her school uniform, is unable to adapt to native ways. Her little brother, by contrast, adapts easily – as children often can – to different custom.
Director Roeg makes heavy-handed but purposeful cuts in examining the respective cultures. Where the aborigine (David Gulpilil) catches, cleans and cooks his food, the audience may wrinkle its nose at a kind of primal savagery. But sudden, bloody cuts are made to modern slaughterhouses to bring home the idea that even our sanitized culture exists in the very same way; indeed, that perhaps our sanitized city life is less honest, more of a charade.
Still, important similarities are drawn. There is an element in the film of attraction, drawn between a native boy and a city girl, both beautiful, both coming of age, that does not quite bridge the cultural gap. This nicely draws the film’s theme into plain view.
Oh, there is nudity, but it takes a notion of National Geographic nudity and wrinkles it up a bit. By substituting a white girl, it is as if Roeg is questioning the audience and digging at differences in the cultural meanings of the naked form. There are two swimming scenes in the film, one in a swimming pool and one in a pond, that subtly respond to one another.
In the end, Roeg seems resigned that cultures cannot directly adapt, that childhood passes away and innocence dies.
None of this did I take away when I first saw the film on Star Channel, but certain images stayed with me for the better part of 30 years. On a recent viewing, I really discovered the film for its true value. You should too.
1969: Dennis Hopper
Rated R – 94 minutes
Vault Rating: 8
Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut deals with another clash of cultures. This time we’re not dealing with aboriginals and whites in Australia, but instead with hippies and rednecks at a crossroads in American history.
The story deals with Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda), flush with cash after a big cocaine score, who set out on their motorcycles to discover the “real America.”
At first, the film plays like a travelogue as the leads are filmed traveling through scenic midwest locations on their now famous (and stolen before the end of production) bikes. But the film breaks late toward a real message that seems now to have predicted a savage death of the peace movement. Hopper, who was in a drug induced paranoia throughout filming, might not have even seen his own wisdom at the time.
The film’s voice, to me anyway, seems to be best captured by a young, Oscar nominated, Jack Nicholson, who portrays George Hanson, a deep south A.C.L.U. lawyer who we find jailed after a bender. He takes up with Billy and Wyatt on their way to Mardi-Gras and some of the more important dialogue is his.
Nicholson talks about how the counter-culture, with its talk of peace, love and freedom, threatened the mainstream. He speaks truth in one key scene about how people can become dangerous when their world view is challenged.
“Easy Rider” was notable on many fronts, but perhaps most important because the film’s style took off in American culture. Peter Fonda’s “Captain America jacket” and the signature red, white and blue gas tank on his chopper were a middle finger to the establishment and the source of cool to the anti-establishment.
The film’s soundtrack was one of the first to use popular music (now a staple in films) and forever cemented the image of biker macho to Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild.” Much drug use is done right on screen and the cast was reportedly stoned most of the shooting schedule. An acid trip is captured near the film’s climax and plays like a bad dream with exposure effects that were accomplished accidentally.
The overall effect, especially so far down the mainstream as I am today, is thoughtful, maybe even knowing in its cynicism and provides an unkind vision of the times for those of us who came later. It is another film that has more to offer an adult viewing. Someone who only knows the film by reputation might be surprised.
Death Race 2000
1975: Paul Bartel
Rated R – 79 minutes
Vault Rating: 6
Much has been said about Roger Corman’s movies. He’s a producer prone to make a notable movie — not always to be confused with a “good” movie — out of very little. His films often were offensive by any standard and just as often outstanding in concept if not in form.
Corman has produced scores of films since the 1950s. He had an Edgar Allen Poe phase in the early sixties, a naughty nurse phase in the late 60s and early ’70s and metric tons of creature features along the way. Consider some of these titles: “A Bucket of Blood,” “Carnosaur,” “Chopping Mall,” “Big Bad Mama,” and, delightfully, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.”
“Death Race 2000” is a ham-handed exploitation of media and cultural violence. Naturally, the film was widely criticized for being too violent by those who didn’t get the joke.
David Carradine, who had become a big television star with the series, “Kung Fu,” but who had not made his mark in the cinema, got off to a questionable start as the racing hero, Frankenstein. Co-starring was the as yet little known Sylvester Stallone as Frankenstein’s arch rival, Machine Gun Joe Viterbo. They are among four teams in a televised transcontinental road rally where victory is gained by running over the most pedestrians.
The film takes on a cartoonish quality; specifically akin to that old Saturday morning fare, “The Wacky Races.” You know the one? It featured Dick Dastardly and Mutley, Penelope Pitstop and Professor Pat Pending in his Convert-a-car. And Carradine’s “Frankenstein” character very much resembles a proto-Darth Vader. Stallone’s “Joe Viturbo” is the caricature essence of a prohibition era mobster with a dialect that hadn’t changed much by the time of “Rocky” the following year.
This all takes place in a kind of sci-fi future dystopia. It’s a lot of fun to look back on movies like this, when the year 2000 was in the distant future but is now in the recent past. In this future-perfect world, large scale wars have resulted in a kind of dictatorial president who defends the homeland and distracts his subjects with the wild violence of the national pastime, the Death Race. Oh, the loony joy of it.
Back in the day, I remember going to the Clearfield County Fair where large tents with sawdust floors were home to a cadre of pre-historic video games. We’re talking second-generation pong-level stuff here. But one of the games I enjoyed most was based on this film. In it, you had a forward gear, reverse gear, steering wheel and gas pedal, and the aim was to run over as many pedestrians in 60 seconds as possible. When you mowed down a target a tombstone popped up.
Violence? Yeah, you betcha! Nudity? Yeah, it had that too, if you can take a love scene between David Carradine and a pre-disco ’70s bombshell seriously. Thanks, Star Channel!
Destroy All Monsters
1968: Ishiro Honda
Rated G – 90 minutes
Vault Rating: 5
We shall back track from the year 2000 to 1999, when a future tense United Nations has established a base off the coast of Japan to study the huge monsters that had made life so miserable in Tokyo for so long.
But when an alien race of women take control of Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and many of their lesser known buddies, it’s rampage time in cities around the world!
For fans of the type only, the better “guy in rubber suit stomping through models of Tokyo” fare is either “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” “The War of the Gargantuas” or “Godzilla’s Revenge.”
Still, a recent viewing of this film on DVD was fun. The 10-year-old in the house, who only knew Godzilla from a Game Cube game (which, I might add, is more lifelike) was interested in it, too. But Vault viewers need not waste the time and effort.
1972 – Douglas Trumbull
89 minutes: Rated G
Vault Rating: 6
Another future imperfect finds the world overpopulated and overdeveloped to the point that the only living forests have been set in orbit in huge domes aboard the space ship Valley Forge.
Drifting in space with the last remaining vestiges of Earth’s biological diversity, we find Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) who, among the space craft’s skeleton crew, is a kind of Lorax who argues on behalf of the trees. He grows his own food in the starlit domes and suffers the derision one might expect from a crack-pot’s crew-mates.
When the order comes for the Valley Forge to jettison the forests and return to commercial service, Lowell is placed in a moral dilemma between following orders and protecting the magnificent domes. The choice Lowell makes sets him on a natural space odyssey to the dark side of Saturn.
Along the way, Lowell makes use of three robot drones, Huey, Dewey and Louie, to keep the ship running, tend the forests and even to play poker with him. These robots, which were operated by amputees placed within, take on a life of their own and perhaps presage George Lucas’s “droids” five years later in “Star Wars.”
Strangely, this film embodies something of who I am. It follows on the heels of Stanley Kubrick’s great “2001: A Space Odyssey” and seems wise even with its dated hippie charm and drawbacks. It talks about an overcrowded Earth and didn’t we just witness the birth of the 300,000,000th American last month? It talks about the utter and irreversible destruction of the Earth’s environment which, it seems to me, our culture is determined to accomplish to devastating effect.
Look, I missed the ’60s. I missed The Beatles. I missed the protests and didn’t understand why everyone around me was glued to the news at dinnertime. But I saw this film when I was 11 or 12 on Star Channel and it stuck with me, somehow, like some of these other films did. And I felt what my older brothers and sisters were talking about and somehow the cultural message of the times was left there for me to understand years later.
And “Silent Running” is not a great film. It’s OK. The special effects and some other elements of the film, especially for its pre-digital time, were outstanding, though. Maybe I just like the film because I saw it when I was little and it left an impression. Perhaps you, dear reader, don’t wear the nostalgic sunglasses through which I view things. Even so, after revisiting the film last week, the film still works pretty well.
Now that cable channels have run amuck, I suppose it is whimsical and naive to hearken back to the days of the first cable channel, to life before “basic,” “expanded basic,” and “pay per view.” For the most part, all cable has really brought us is a better diet of sex and violence.
Oh, sure, there are channels for science, history, politics, cooking and dozens of movie channels, but that first one, Star Channel, burst onto my conscience. I saw it and it was good. Hell, I could spend hours just watching the trailers that ran between the movies.
It wasn’t long before Home Box Office came along and the world moved on and innocence died.
Hey! You’re welcome. And so are your comments. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll post your comments in the regular vaultmail. And until cable companies give us al-a-carte tiers … enjoy!