Saturday, February 18, 2012

My own private golden age

My wife's been away for the week, in America of all places (she went to the Gone With the Wind Museum and Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta - advance warning: there will probably be photos to follow) and since I always find that isolation breeds nostalgia, I pulled out my old big box VHS of How To Beat The High Cost of Living (1980), a treasured possession that I haven't actually watched - just packed and unpacked as I moved from flat to flat - in about twenty-five years.

I can top that, I'll bet you're saying to yourself - I've never seen it at all.There's a good chance you haven't even heard of it either. And I'm not even saying you should. It's a film that never gets mentioned anwhere for any reason, and the film encyclopaedias all have not a single good word to say for it (unless Maltin's observation that it features Dabney Coleman in a rare romantic lead qualifies as a recommendation).
Halliwell even goes so far as to call it reprehensible, which is harsh indeed, even by the guvnor's own standards.
I savoured again, as I often do, the wonderful smell of its padded plastic box, and the superb cover art, featuring a painting of the three leads, seemingly naked but for their shoes, but with their modesty well covered by a big wooden barrel strapped to their shoulders, on which is written the title of the film.
But this time, I went a stage further than usual - the devil making work for idle hands, or at least unupervised ones - and actually took it out of the box and popped it in the machine.
The following 105 minutes were sheer pleasure, and I suppose the time has come, in fact is probably long overdue, to explain why.

See, there's a particular species of American comedy. It was made between, say, 1975 and 1983. (After that, and it's modern; before that, it's vintage.) It takes me back to a pivotal point in my life: when I was old enough to feel part of the zeitgeist, and yet too young to actually be catered for by it. Although I took a keen interest in new films, they were more often an affair of posters and trailers than things I actually got to sample firsthand.
And they've never seemed quite so adorable since.
I recently saw the Dudley Moore film 10 for the first time. Until then, it was a mythical film, that my parents went to see, and talked about afterwards. In fact, it still is. Because while I quite enjoyed it, the idea that it could have been that same film my parents went to see in 1979... well, I don't believe it.
(They were quite hard to please, my folks. They didn't go to the cinema often by the time I was around, and every time they did - 10, Airplane, Close Encounters - they came back disappointed. Every film was quite good but not as good as it was cracked up to be.)

Stir Crazy, Scavenger Hunt, Private Benjamin, Stripes, How To Beat The High Cost of Living... these are the comedies of the Video Age.
Oh! to be there again, in the golden age of video rental, the dawn of home entertainment: that sublime innovation that took Hollywood so much by surprise that as late as 1982 they still thought they could get away with filling Airplane II with several big, long clips from Airplane disguised as flashbacks, on the grounds that people wouldn't have seen them in two years and will enjoy laughing at them all over again. (How weird does that look now when you buy both films in a two-for-one set, and the only time anyone ever watches Airplane II anyway is after they've watched Airplane at least a hundred times.)

Partly because I've always made a fetish of ownership, and partly because I used to fantasise I ran my own tv station that programmed its schedules to suit the extreme idiosyncrasy of my own tastes, the video revolution was my revolution. Every subsequent technological innovation passed me by, incurring my profoundest apathy if not actual resentment. Video, though, was like growing a new sense. I was obsessed by its potential, and the new world it opened up for me.
My parents' reluctance to embrace it only made it seem the more magical. We got our first player later than anyone else I knew, and the agony of visiting friends' houses, and seeing their neat row of indescribably sexy black tapes, is one I can still evoke at will, so potent are its emotional echoes. I still love handling VHS tapes - proper ones, I mean, from the early eighties, that weigh something like twice as much as the wishy-washy ones they started making in the 90s.
The video rental shop was, for me, a temple, akin to what a golden age picture palace must have been for those lucky enough to enjoyed thirties movies on their first run. Going to the cinema was a passion, but pound for pound it never gave me the sense of excitiement that walking into a video shop did.
This - be in no doubt, whippersnappers - was nothing like going into Blockbuster video. There was nothing slick or soulless about these places, and each shop was a private business: there were no chains. They were everywhere, and the choice varied from a shelf or two in a newsagents, to a dedicated rental shop that had a couple of rooms, lined with rack upon rack of these enchanting, face-out boxes, films I'd never seen or heard of, but each one calling to me by name, in a voice like Marilyn Monroe's.
The first thing that struck you, and the first thing that comes back to me as I do the old a la recherche routine, was the smell. It was a combination of dust, plastic baked in sunlight, fag smoke, and, if the store was also a cafe (like the John O'Peg video library in Crowlas, Cornwall), cooking fat. (When the John O'Peg closed in the 1990s, I bought some of its old display cases so as to wallow in their intoxicating scent. I still have them but, sadly, the aroma fades more and more each year, corrupted, like the rest of us, by the scents of modernity.)

Crownhill Video - another early 80s favourite: long gone now, but the sign, last I checked, was still proudly hanging.

There was something incredibly physical about a VHS tape: they smelled great, they felt great in your hand, they looked great, with their paper label between two windows showing the tape on big reels, deliciously evoking the look of a spool of film but in what seemed the most space age of new forms. (Beta, the format we plumped for at first, only had one window, and looked lopsided.) DVD never seduced me this way, though I fell for its obvious benefits in terms of increased storage potential. I doubt the day will ever come when people rhapsodise about the golden age of Netflix either.
Simply put, if your life was movies, the early 1980s were the best times to be alive. And yes, I am including the thirties here: in the thirties you were lucky if you saw any of the great movies more than once, and you had to wait a whole year between Marx Brothers movies, and four years between Frankenstein movies. In the video age, with a rental library in almost every street and BBC-2 to fill up your blank tapes for you, you could go on movie tours the like of which no previous generation (and, sad to say, for various reasons no subsequent one either) could even have imagined.
But while tv schooled you in the classics, the range in the video shop was more eclectic, and there was a lot of whatever happened to be around at the time, which meant a lot of comedies from roughly '75-'83. And while the great films are films for all time, these, because they have no meaning to me other than the circumstances in which I encountered them, have become all the more evocative for having no higher, or at least further reason to commend themselves to me now.

And I still haven't explained about How To Beat The High Cost of Living.
Well, as I was saying, it's part of that generation of American comedies that I discovered in the first years of video. They had something in common about the look of them, but they also had a certain jokelessness in common too.
This is not to say I didn't like them - far from it - but I felt like I was undergoing some sort of adult initiation, when each box said that the film was the most hysterical romp ever, and in fact it would turn to be sedately-paced, with what few jokes there were very well spaced out, but in their place a certain hipness, an understanding of which I felt sure I would grow into, but was happy to feign for now. They seemed sophisticated to me, on this basis. I was sure that when I hit adulthood it would all click into place, and I would see what I was missing.
In fact, they seem exactly as unconcerned with my reaction towards them now as they did then.

I suppose I must have rented How To Beat the High Cost of Living (a title I will ensure I don't have to type out in full again in this post) because of the cover, which seemed to promise a sartorially compromised Jessica Lange. Lange, of course, was sensationally gorgeous at this time, with only King Kong behind her, and Postman Always Rings Twice around the corner. Though her features hardened as she aged, at this point she was beautiful to a degree few could boast since Veronica Lake. (The promised nude-in-a-barrel scene never materialised, though.)
An incidental reward would have been the re-teaming of Richard Benjamin - then my favourite comic actor, mainly on account of Love at First Bite - and his co-star from that magnificent movie, Susan St James, who has a nice husky voice, a good way with a one-liner and, this time round, dark hair. (What I didn't realise until recently is that the film is also written by the same screenwriter, Robert Kaufman.) I wasn't then and am not now quite so enamoured of Jane Curtin, but it's nice to see the two stars of Kate and Allie teamed before they were Kate and Allie (if anyone remembers Kate and Allie, that is).

But you still haven't told us anything about it, Matthew.
Okay, okay. Don't rush me.
It's a caper comedy, with Curtin, St James and Lange as three old school friends who are desperately in need of money and decide to stage a robbery. Their local mall is doing a promotional competition the centrepiece of which is a giant 'money ball', a glass sphere stuffed with thousands of dollars in notes. The mall is next to a river, and the gals plan to canoe into an underground tunnel, come up underneath the ball and steal the money. Needless to say, it doesn't all go to plan.
There. Happy now?

There are a few laughs, lots of smiles, more plot and characterisation than you'd get today if you stacked twenty comparable movies end to end, and a friendly cast of players, a bit like in Cheers.
I have to say I enjoyed it as much as ever, if not more.
Do I urge you to seek it out? Not really. There's too much in my appreciation of it that's accidental and purely personal, and even I don't know how much is objective and how much sheer familiarity, and while it's far from inconceivable that you'll enjoy it, I'd be surprised if you were driven to own and cherish it as I do.
But I expect that a lot of people reading this will know what I am talking about, and will have a film or group of films that they love and react to in the same way, because of some accident of historical circumstances unique to them.
So I suppose what I'm really recommending you watch is whatever those films happen to be for you.

What are they, by the way? Let me know.


VKMfanHuey said...

Well, believe it or not, I remember this one pretty well...except for the now inexplicable fact that I DON'T remember Jessica Lange being in it... well, I was probably focused on Jane Curtin - for that background, of course she was on Saturday Night Live for quite a few years, and I watched that as a at the time, she was the only one I knew...
Anyway, I remember watching this one on HBO back in '81 or so, I was 13-14-ish, and there are two things I remember - one, the 'cash sphere' thingy that they try to suck all the $$$ out of, AND the 'quick flash' of Jane curtin topless - well, it obviously wasn't her, since the topless part was a 'neck down' shot...the reason why I remember that bit (other than I'm a dude, duh...) was that I was viewing this with my mom, a young kid, anyway... a bit awkward!
But yes, this one is a pretty good representation of the late-70's early 80's US flicks... Late-Carter / Early Reagan era, if that has ANYTHING to do with it...
...and yes, I had (and still do) a pretty big crush on Jane Curtin...and Jessica Lange, of course... :-)


VKMfanHuey said...

...oh yeah, hope your better half enjoys ATL and the MM house...been there, done that, as we are only about 3-ish hours away by terraplane...or 'auto' if you prefer...
MM's house has skyscrapers across the street from it...pretty funny looking...there's a 'museum/gallery' deal a few blocks over from the actual house... but the house itself isn't very big...don't be thinking 'Tara' size...
There's a good bit of stuff in ATL - of course, the Coca-cola 'world' is cool, and next door to that is a great aquarium...has the only 'whale sharks' in captivity... and lots of good restaurants and other stuff.


whistlingypsy said...

Although I have heard of and certainly recognize the actresses in the photos, this is a film I have never watched. I seem to recall it popping up on cable/satellite when I was a mere child (not as mere as I would like to think), but I always confused this film with “How To Steal A Million” because of the similar title. I can only say, in retrospect, when I think of this period in American films, we don’t seem to have had much of a sense of humor (but “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” seems genius compared to “Hangover”).

Your reminiscences of the allure of films and the tactile appeal of videos speak to similar experiences of many fans of celluloid. I have never been a collector of films, but I do recall the sublime thrill of discovering a long dreamed of title at my local video rental store. I spent many years of my youth and childhood watching classic films on the screen of local art theaters and movie houses, which probably inspired my affinity for the audiences who saw these films for the first time in the same theaters. These theaters still survive but have succumbed to economic pressure and currently screen only first-run “art films” (this is a source of nostalgia for me similar to your video-love reminiscence).

I have visited the great state of Georgia, but I never made the trip to the GWTW museum or Margret Mitchell’s house. I hope your wife enjoys her visit to Atlanta with its legendary Southern hospitality, and look forward to many photos and stories.

whistlingypsy said...

I meant to ask you where you spend most of your time posting these days: Movietone Cameos or Movietone News. I was also wondering if you could give me a bit of background on Gracie Fields. I’m working on a post that will include two of her films, and I have a few questions. Can you tell me why she was known as “Our Gracie” with seeming affection? I thought this was because she helped lift spirits and keep moral high during World War II, but then I discovered she, in fact, spent a good part of the war making films in the states. I also discovered a video clip of Peter Cook discussing his hatred of Gracie Fields, and the commentator essentially responded that by comparison at least she wasn’t as bad as George Formby. Is she still remembered fondly or has she, as most performers of her age, been lost to the mists of time?

Matthew Coniam said...

She flew back in yesterday, so I have all the GWTW stories to enjoy today...

I have problems keeping up with all my blogs. There's just too many now. I try to get something new on all of them once a week, but there's always a straggler. (At the moment it's The Dennis Wheatley Project.) I find I tend to go through phases, where one dominates over the others. But I try to update Cameos every time I see a film, so there's usually something new there every day, or at least every other day.

I could talk about Gracie forever! Shame you stumbled upon that clip, which was from a horrible programme called Room 101, dedicated the (new) British love of cynicism, sracasm and bile. Cook is really too good for it and is at least being funny; the presenter, whose name escapes me for a moment, was a truly nauseating character, no longer to be seen on tv these days.
He of course knows absolutely nothing of Fields, or the equally magnificent Formby, but instead argues from a position of proud ignorance that is the British default mode on all cultural matters.
Here's a link to my review of her film Sing As We Go, and by all means drop me a line at if you want me to expound further on why and how genuinely she was known as Our Gracie!

Thanks, both, for your comments.

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