Monsters, Inc. – The World of Very Large Vehicles

Monster Jam 2003
Bank One Ballpark, Phoenix, AZ,
25th Jan. 2003

Few things are more American than spending the night before the Superbowl at a monster truck rally. This is the kind of event which could only take place in a country where petrol is a quid a gallon, and whose approach to global warming may be summarised as, “You can have our SUV’s when you pry the keys from our cold, dead fingers.”

The audience for these events seems to have a similar demographic to professional wrestling: mostly white, and blue-collar to the extent that you feel out of place unless you have a baseball cap with the name of a tractor manafacturer on it. Yet there is something almost primal about the event which awakens long-stilled emotions, though where we’d once cower in our caves while mastodons made the ground thunder, now we down domestic beers and buy T-shirts. Or maybe it’s just cool to see things get destroyed.


It’s a relatively new “sport”, its origins dating back to the mid-70’s, when Bob Chandler’s Bigfoot, a converted Ford F-250 pickup, debuted in Michigan, crushing cars to the delight of crowds. Racing these beasts only began in the 1980’s, and that was one central point of the night’s entertainment. Eight trucks, with names like Black Smith, Gravedigger, Monster Patrol and Obsession 2, faced off in head-to-head sprints: a dash, a hairpin turn, then powering over four junkyard-cars to the finish. Maybe 100 yards, in about six seconds, not bad for machines weighing the best part of ten thousand pounds.

The scale of these things was hard to grasp, until you saw the drivers beside them – ten to twelve feet high, the tires alone almost six feet of that. Seeing these creatures flying maybe eighty or ninety feet long and twenty feet up, is like seeing a whale breach the ocean. The noise, too, was about what you’d expect from a 1,500-horsepower, 575 cubic inch, methanol-fuelled engine, which uses up several gallons per run.

Truck vs. School bus

With three hours to fill, a supporting cast was needed, in the shape of autocross and quad bikes. The former was the less interesting of the two, since the track for that was a simple oval with three speed bumps in – tactics will be familiar to anyone who has negotiated a road with sleeping policemen on it, i.e. fast as you can between the bumps, then crawl over them. Doesn’t exactly make for enthralling viewing, though it was an object lesson on what can happen if you try to take these bumps too fast – your wheel falls off.

More amusing were the quad bikes, not least because it pitted “Team Arizona” against “Team California”. The wrestling analogy was particularly valid here, since we strongly suspect that tomorrow, the same drivers might be “Team Texas” or “Team Colorado”, and the thrilling way in which the home side won smacked strongly of careful pre-arrangement. Still, it was nice to see the drivers showing personality, something otherwise lacking in an event where the vehicles are clearly the stars (bonus points to one autocross driver for thanking his foot doctor though!).

Truck 0, School bus 1… [Caterpillar gets the assist!]

The finale of the evening was the freestyle, where each monster truck was given 90 seconds and a clear arena to do whatever they wanted. More piles of old cars, buses and vans were laid around to assist in the process, and if you though the prior carnage was excessive, this would have caused some kind of seizure. Seeing something the size of an African elephant pop a wheelie at 60 mph is impressive, even if you’re not sitting in the seats towards which it is directly heading on two wheels.

It’s not the sort of event I could get hooked on, but will happily confess to having enjoyed the occasion, and driven home making surreptitious “Vroom-vroom” noises under my breath. The idea of steering one of these monsters round town does appeal – especially if that town was London. After all, who needs a parking space when you can simply run over the top of any vehicle in your way? No BMW, no Volvo, no busload of tourists could cross your path. And if that prospect doesn’t bring a smile to your face, go check your pulse…

Impact Zone Wrestling: Invasion, February 2003

IZW champion Mike Knox. Scary. Fact.

Rodeo Nights, Phoenix, Arizona
February 5th, 2003

Pro wrestling federations can break your heart. I’ve only been living in Arizona for 2 1/2 years, and we’re already on the fourth promotion in that time. Our first love was Western States, but they lost their venue. We had a one-night stand with Mountain Strength, down in Tucson, but they never called us back. Then, there was South Western Wrestling, but they’ve done nothing since October (though apparently, they’re not dead…just sleeping).

We went into all three looking for storylines we could follow from month to month, characters we could grow to love or hate, T-shirts we could wear with pride – something we could give our love to. All three let us down, but like innocent puppies, we still keep looking. Which brings us to Impact Zone Wrestling, the latest suitor for our affections. This wasn’t the first show of theirs which we’d attended, but we held off writing about them, for fear of bringing down the TC curse. However, after Invasion at Rodeo Nights – curiously, the same venue I first saw Rage in the Cage – we feel they deserve a token of appreciation and encouragement.

It may seem curious to have started up a new federation when the wrestling fad has clearly passed its peak. For me, the end of the WWE (we’re not allowed to use the F any more, for fear of a lawsuit from a bunch of pandas) came when Hulk Hogan was brought back. Never has a man with so little actual skill been so heavily hyped. But IZW consciously avoids the sub-soap nonsense into which the WWE has sunk (gay weddings?!?), prefering to concentrate on actual wrestling. For that alone, it deserves support.

This night’s action started with J-Rod versus The Hawaiian Lion – the former was touted as having 2% body fat, but guess that must have been entirely concentrated around his middle. The Lion had come up from South Western Wrestling. This one wasn’t quite terrible, but there were way too many air blows – as one audience wag shouted, “It’s supposed to be a contact sport!” Having seen the Lion before, we know he’s competent: we’ll leave you to decide where the blame for this one should lie.

Punk vs. Red

Next up was a bout between The Little Red Machine and The Shaolin Punk – the former’s Mexican, all-red gear led to some merciless ribbing from the audience, including comparisons with a tampon. This one was also a little sloppy, but very energetic. Although it didn’t look like they’d worked often together, they worked with each other and adapted well, even when things didn’t perhaps quite go as planned.

The womens’ bout is always a highlight, and is another way in which IZW kicks WWE’s ass; their women can actually wrestle, and aren’t just a glorified T&A show. Morgan (formerly Jungle Girl – a wise move) was facing Erica D’Erico for the position of #1 contender and a shot at Lexie Fyfe’s belt. Morgan had a significant size advantage, and we initially thought Erico would get punted all over the ring. Wrong. With some impressively athletic moves, including a huracanrana for the final pin, Erico got the win, and we look forward to see her take on Fyfe at a future event.

Next up was the interval, but before then was the little matter of the tag-title. Currently held by Hollywood and the Hardcore Kid, however, the Hardcore Kid was nowhere to be seen. His partner agreed to defend the title against the Killer Klowns, but this (understandably) peeved the Ballard Brothers – a Canadian duo, who’ve been favourites of ours since we first saw them, thanks to their Slapshot hockey shirts! [And hey, it’s a Commonwealth thing!] They had fought for a title shot at the last show, and won, but commissioner C.C.Starr over-ruled them, giving their slot to the Klowns, which did not go down well.

Wandered around the venue for a bit. Very Country and Western – could tell because the male toilet was labelled “Cowboys”. Seemed to be problems with the PA system, which kept cutting out and switching on at inopportune moments. Also not quite sure why we paid $5 more for ringside seats, since all the tables there seemed to have “reserved” signs on them and no-one seemed to be checking anyway. We ended up sitting a few rows back, but the view was fine. Ceiling could do with being a little higher too; these are tall men, doing acrobatic stunts off the top rope of a ring that’s perhaps eight feet off the ground…

The barely controlled chaos which is a Battle Royale

First up post-break was a Battle Royale – elimination required a wrestler to be thrown over the ropes. $5000 was supposedly at stake, but simple arithmetic makes that about double the door receipts for the evening. It seemed like every minor IZW wrestler was in the ring and, as is almost inevitable with this kind of bout, there was way too much going on. When things calmed down, and you could focus, it improved, but without much idea of who was who, or why, it remained cold. The winner was Rage, notable for his ability to clean and jerk his opponents clear above his head.

Before the next bout, we got the most amusing part of the evening, as Team Elite (Frankie Kazarian and Derek Neikirk) insulted their opponents, the audience, and the venue with equal venom, setting themselves up beautifully as the villains for their contest against Native Blood (The Navajo Warrior and Ghostwalker). This was classic tag-team action with the bad guys teaming up for all manner of foul deeds while the referee’s back was turned. Of course, they couldn’t win cleanly, relying on intervention in the shape of a chair-wielding Mike Nox – interestingly, this was about the only instance of “hardcore” wrestling in the entire night. No-one was driven through a table, nobody bled or was set on fire. And it was no less entertaining for that, WWE please note.

A Killer Klo..Ballard Brother
But is that make-up or cake frosting?

The tag-team title was on the line as the Killer Klowns got their shot at Hollywood and, er, Hollywood, in a handicap match. The clown gimmick has never appealed and these ones were neither funny nor scary, though did manage “creepy” on a couple of occasions. I kinda tuned out during this one, but the ending was superb. Jack Bull turned up half-way through to pinch-hit as partner for Hollywood, then stiffed him and let the Klowns take the win.

While we were still gobsmacked by that, the real Klowns – hogtied – hobbled their way out to the ring, and the impersonators in the ring revealed themselves as…The Ballard Brothers. They’d got their title shot, and won the belts; maybe not quite fair and square, but left as champions regardless. However, I think it’s safe to say that this one will run and run…

The final match pitted current IZW champion Mike Knox against wrestling icon, Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka – the latter has been in the business since 1969, and was one of the pioneers in aerial moves, hence his nickname. He was ECW Heavyweight champion, WCW tag champion, fought in two Wrestlemanias for the WWF, and his leap from the top of a steel cage at Madison Square Garden in 1983 is a landmark moment, which directly inspired the likes of Mick Foley. Oh, and he’s also from the same Samoan family which gave us The Rock.

Jim, a living legend, and Chris

The guy may be in his late fifties now, and is obviously not quite at his peak, though I hope to be capable of half the physical stuff he did when I reach his age – he still wrestles barefoot! Nox treated Snuka with the huge respect he deserves, and in the end gained victory only through feigning injury (very convincingly – well, it fooled me totally, Chris wasn’t duped!). But in the post-match melee, Snuka still got to do his trademark Superfly Splash: see previous comments about “when I reach his age”…

The next bouts are at the start of March, and we’ll be there, though the prospect, touted by C.C.Starr, of a battle between MTV’s The Real World and Tough Enough leaves us totally stone-cold – or perhaps, Stone Cold 3:16. Still, we’ll be there regardless: having been hurt before, we’re now somewhat wary of opening up our hearts (and wallets!). But perhaps, this time, it will be true love.

Spirits in the Sky

Not sure whether the space-shuttle disaster will quite make it into the pantheon of “where were you when…” moments. But for the record, I was wheezing my lungs out on the treadmill when Chris told me to turn on the news (hey, going outside and doing strenuous exercise here is asking for trouble – it hit 30C on Friday, and that was still January…).

At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, it was something of a shock, though my first thought, knowing the first Israeli astronaut was on board, was not of mechanical failure. I would just like to claim copyright on the idea of it really being a terrorist attack, which gets hushed up so that someone like Steven Seagal can hunt down those responsible.

It may seem cruel to say this, but it probably does good every now and then to remind people of what a dangerous thing space travel actually is. The shuttle was travelling at over Mach 18, 200,000 feet up – about twenty times faster and five times higher than a commercial airliner – yet if it had landed safely, would doubtless have been relegated to 30 seconds at the end of the evening news.

There is nothing new or exciting about the shuttle or its missions – the International Space Station is nice, but to the average member of the public, it’s indistinguishable from the Skylab of the 1970’s, so is hardly anything to get worked up about. Or, indeed, open the wallets for, and as a result, NASA’s budget has been static or cut in recent years. 2002 saw it at $14.5 billion, which sounds like a lot until you realise it’s less than one-twentieth of what was spent on defence by America the same year.

This is why NASA is still using the shuttle – a vehicle which made its inaugural flight in the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency – and why no replacement is even off the drawing board, leaving the shuttle with another twenty years in service. By the end of that, it’ll be 40 years old; can you imagine how loud the military would be screaming if their chief aircraft were built in the 1960’s? And the likely long interruption to shuttle flights (2 1/2 years after the Challenger disaster) will only make things worse.

What is needed is some project that will capture the hearts and minds of people – not just in America, but around the world, and once again make spaceflight a non-trivial event. Something which can combine technology and resources from many countries, and unite people, so that they can look up at the sky with hope rather than in fear. I can think of no more fitting memorial for the seven lost astronauts than that.

It Came From Tokyo: Japanese Movie Posters

Japanese Movie Posters
Chuck Stephens, Tetsuya Masuda, Kairakutei Black
Cocoro Books, $30.00


There can really be no argument: film posters are works of art, in a way that no other advertising medium can quite match. Hang a car advert on your wall, and people will look at you strangely, but a movie poster is simultaneously aesthetically pleasing, cool and a statement about your personality. Room with a View or Stewardesses in Heat? The choice is yours…

Bruce Hershenson’s collections of posters, mostly themed by genre, have done sterling work in gathering some of the best examples of such art, but are limited in scope, covering only the output of Hollywood. Just as great films are produced around the world, so it is for great artwork, and Cocoro Books’ collection of promotional material for Japanese movies is particularly welcome because it opens the doors to a world that is little known in the West.

The book is divided into seven categories: yakuza, sci-fi and monster, samurai, pink, horror, animation and new cinema. “Pink” is the Japanese term for erotic films, and the posters therein are eye-popping, simply because they are notably more explicit than anything permitted in America or Britain – along with the nudity, bondage and coercion seem common themes – making them perhaps somewhat questionable candidates for decorating your living-room.

Young Girls’ Holding Cell

Less likely to offend your maiden aunt are the yakuza films, featuring tough guys (and gals – in one case, even nuns!) looking…well, tough. The samurai section is not dissimilar; swords replace guns, but the emphasis is still on staring Very Intently. A number of the titles in the animation section may seem familiar, since it’s one area where Japanese cinema has made significant exports in recent years. But the poster for Ghost in the Shell is still different enough from the Western one to be striking.

However, my favourite section of all was the one devoted to the monsters, simply because these are films for which there is no real equivalent in the English-speaking world, as the woeful Hollywood Godzilla proved. Whether it’s the Tokyo Tower being destroyed by Mothra’s caterpillar, or what looks like a giant narwhal with a laser-beam coming out of its forehead (that’ll be Jigura, then), these provide a glimpse into a universe that is at once fascinating, frightening and surreal.

Ship of Bloodsucking Skulls

Each poster is accompanied by three or four lines of information on the film (studio, year, etc.), and trivia about it. Each section is also prefaced by commentary from Masuda and Black, talking about the genre’s history and place in society. These little mini-essays are teasingly short, and I would have welcomed their extension to greater length.

The book also operates as a catalog for Masuda’s store, @wonder, offering all the posters in the book for sale, at prices ranging from $20 for the new films, up to $150 for Sleepy Eyes of Death and the fabulously named Ship of Blood-Sucking Skulls. If the walls here weren’t already completely covered – with poster-tubed reserves waiting in the cupboard – there are a number I’d be very tempted to acquire.

Maybe instead I’ll just buy an extra volume of the book, so I can hack it apart and frame individual pages as mini-posters. But what, then, to do when we have Mothra on one side, and Son of Godzilla on the other? Better make that two more. Such cunning marketing, which requires the reader to purchase multiple copies of the book, can only be admired. Sigh… 🙂

For more information, see the publisher’s website – the book is also available from Amazon.