I’ve been feeling extremely nostalgic lately for movies that used to be in constant rotation on HBO in the early to mid 1980s. I was too young to be watching them but, you guessed it, I watched them anyway. Remember, I’m part of the last generation of latchkey kids that grew up with the freedom to roam far and wide across the neighborhood and beyond, to consume as many sugar-filled tubes of paper (Pixie Sticks!) as we wanted, and to watch whatever the hell our little hearts desired because helicopter parents weren’t a thing yet.
No surprise that fantasy movies like The Beastmaster, Sheena, both Conan the Barbarian and Destroyer, Excalibur, and Heavy Metal were favorites back then. What red-blooded American kid wouldn’t love beautiful people, action and adventure, or medieval sword and sorcery? Plus, let’s not bury the lede: nudity. Besides video rentals, HBO was the place to enjoy uncut films at home.
Yes, of course I also watched some Fraggle Rock, sure. But HBO represented so much more in the mind of a budding film fanatic. It was where I could see adults doing very adult things, being sexy and dangerous and violent and just generally being cool as hell. Even a non-fantasy, uber-adult contemporary film like A Chorus Line, set in a New York theater and featuring a shadowy Michael Douglas being a dick to a stage full of dancers was riveting to me as a child. The dancers were obviously gorgeous and stunning to watch, but I was also moved by their passion for dance and just how excruciatingly difficult a career choice it was. The amount of pain and rejection was staggering to my adolescent mind. To be judged so critically and harshly while doing something you love? I connected with that, even then. It was eye-opening, a window into the world of adulthood that awaited: be passionate, kid, but grow some thick skin while you’re at it, or you’ll never make it out alive.
We rented a lot of movies, but HBO was where I could count on watching whatever I wanted when I was alone, with no parent around to nix an R-rated film. The infamous sex scene between Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren in Excalibur was mind blowing. The dearly departed Tanya Roberts in a loin cloth (in both The Beastmaster and Sheena) was so seminal an adolescent moment that I still treat it with the reverence usually reserved for cherished family memories or career milestones. Heavy Metal was the first time I realized animation could be just as raunchy as live action. HBO opened doors into the worlds depicted on the VHS dover art that I drooled over at the video store, but that my parents usually didn’t let me rent. Yet their supposed parental duty to shield me from sex and violence at that tender age never seemed to extend to HBO, weirdly. I suppose even they realized I was growing up and could handle more than they assumed.
Now I want to curate a mini marathon of movies I first watched on HBO. This nostalgia even led me to pick up copies of Excalibur, Heavy Metal, and A Chorus Line recently, so it’s probably going to happen sooner than later. At a time when almost any movie you want to watch, new or old, can be found streaming somewhere, it’s a trip to remember when we were at the mercy of the programmers at HBO. Those folks curated our viewing experiences, helping develop our cinematic tastes moving forward. Curation is a vital part of the experience of film love, at least I sense it is for my generation. There’s an element of excitement curation provides, which streaming really can’t compete with unless you actively engage in the curation yourself. Seeing as I love to do that, it’s never a concern, but I certainly do miss the days of landing on HBO only to discover a movie about to begin that had previously caught my eye at the video store. I don’t think it’s wrong to admit to missing those serendipitous moments. They truly were sublime.