Spike and Mike’s Sick & Twisted Animation Show: 1998-2004

spike1The Spike and Mike Sick and Twisted Animation Festival grew out of an animation festival run by Craig ‘Spike’ Decker and Mike Gribble, which started in California in 1977.  The “twisted” side started in 1990 with a screening of the adult content animations in the Wheeler Auditorium at UC Berkeley, and grew from there to such an extent that by the start of the new millennium, the original festival was phased out entirely.  In the early days, Spike and Mike – sometimes along with their Scottie dog – would act as “ring-masters” for the show, and would also tour with the films round rep cinemas.

Many notable animators shown at these events would go on to greater fame, notably Bill Plympton and Mike Judge, as well as Trey Parker + Matt Stone. Although Mike died of cancer in 1994, Spike continued with the festival, which lives on to this day [though according to the website, the latest version “contains less monocle-spinning gross-out gags than S&T, and rather focuses on the flat-out best and funniest animated shorts that the world has to offer.”

To some extent, the purpose of the event has been removed, as the Internet now makes it a lot easier for aspiring animators to get their work out there. But after the jump, you’ll see reviews of the four festivals we attended in Arizona, from 1998-2004.

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It Came From Tokyo 2 (Via Boston…)

Silver Screen Samurai
Cocoro Books, $19.95

The samurai is an icon of Japanese cinema, standing for many of the same attributes that the cowboy does in Hollywood. His popularity may wax and wane as the decades go by, but will never die out completely, not as long as there is a yearning for simpler times, when a sense of honour and a weapon were all a man needed. The genre is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment, with Takeshi Kitato’s Zatoichi and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volume 1 showing the concept still has relevance in the 21st century.

It is thus a fitting time for Cocoro Books’ third volume of Japanese movie posters, after their general edition, and one devoted entirely to anime. Its 116 full-colour pages cover films from 1935 up to Kitano’s entry of last year, along with side-essays covering topics such as Zatoichi, or women in samurai films. These help explain what to look for in the posters, and the significance of the various elements therein.

For fans of the genre, this is an absolutely essential work, with many of the photos likely never before seen in the West. The sense of a auction catalog that permeated the first volume is toned-down, though prices are still attached to each item. Actually, they seem pretty reasonable: a 20×28-inch poster for the 1959 film, The She-Devil Lineage is only $35. Few original posters for Hollywood movies of that vintage can be had at such a low cost.

Razor 2: The Snare

As more of a dilettante when it comes to these films – who, if truth be told, doesn’t like cowboy movies much either – there was a certain sense of sameness about a lot of the pictures. A samurai, with sword and top-knot, stares out of the frame while projecting an expression of intense seriousness; red text sprays down one side of the image, like an arterial gush from one of his victims. Woman are rarely seen, active ones, even less frequently – and if you’re looking for miles of smiles, this is the wrong volume entirely.

In such homogeneous company, the odd one that bucks the trend stands out more than usual. Kurosawa clearly didn’t need to use traditional imagery for one of his takes on Shakespeare, Ran. Similarly, Nagisa Oshima’s Taboo [Gohatto in its native land] portrays an androgynous figure, in keeping with the unconventional nature of its story. I also noticed that more recent entries seem to be favouring black as a colour – guess it must be the new red…

The presence of no less than three indices – by Japanese, Romanized and English titles – is definitely a welcome addition, even if I’m certain this book merely scratches the surface, rather than making any claim to be comprehensive. While more narrowly-focused, and thus personally less interesting, than its predecessors, it is still worth a look for anyone with the slightest interest in Japanese cinema, design or even if you simply appreciate unusual art.

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

Kaiju Big Battel
A Practical Guide to Giant City-Crushing Monsters

Hyperion, $14.95

If we were neutral – though we certainly aren’t – we might have to admit that Kaiju Big Battel is a one-joke idea: “What would happen if you mixed the worlds of professional wrestling and Japanese monster-movies?” And, let’s be honest, neither of those fields are exactly deep in themselves. Yet, somehow, Kaiju is becoming far greater than the sum of its parts, and this book shows, without a doubt, that there is more life to the concept than perhaps even its creators expected.

What started off as guys in bizarre costumes hitting each other with cardboard buildings in Boston has become a merchandising juggernaut offering T-shirts, stickers, DVDs, even little packs of meat harvested from dead monsters. [The last idea is borrowed from Japan – I got Chris a tin of Mothra eggs for Christmas. On the other hand, a Kaiju sticker graces the previously pristine bumper of the Trash City PT Cruiser] And now, a 170-page volume that explains the basic concept for beginners, yet is sure to delight any existing fan of Dr. Cube, Silver Potato, Dino Kang and the other Big Battelers.

It begins with the origins of Kaiju, as an epic battle of good vs. evil, that previously destroyed cities, but is now constrained within the ring – despite the evil efforts of Dr. Cube and his posse to achieve world domination. It then segues into two-page pieces focusing on each Kaiju creature, and also describes previous Big Battels, the weapons used therein, how the monsters work, plus quizzes to test your “Kai-Q”, and handy survival tips for what to do if a Battel suddenly erupts nearby.

Like we said: there’s a lot more to this than you probably thought.

All of this is written in an utterly engaging mix of sarcastic English and Japlish – if you cycled the same text repeatedly through an automatic English-Japanese-English translator, you’d be in the right ballpark for that delightful hybrid. Hence, phrases such as: “Dr. Cube is mostly evil plastic surgeon helps hide him and in real is monster man with amazing bloody spattering squares type head.” The full-colour section in the middle is a repository of many such gems.

Should you be one of the ever-diminishing number unaware of the Kaiju phenomenon, this is an ideal place to start. If you have, you’ll still learn much from this tome, which received (and fully deserved) Chris’s highest award: being taken to the Post Office to amuse her while she’s in the queue. If it can calm, soothe, and entertain under such a stress-provoking situation, imagine what it can do for you…

For more information, see the Kaiju website – the book is also available from Amazon.

The Numbers Game

The Lingo of

Bingo. If you’re like me, the word conjures up images of seaside amusement arcades, largely populated by blue-haired old ladies. Sure, in Britain, there are bingo halls, but has anyone you know ever been in one? Still, our step-daughter Vanessa had been commissioned by her boss to investigate the game at a local casino – for reasons which, being honest, still remain kinda obscure to us. But it was a quiet Friday, and the prospect of spending the afternoon gambling at someone else’s expense, is not to be sneezed at. Sure, we’d prefer high-limit poker, but we’ll take bingo, if necessary.

So we headed out, only vaguely knowing what to expect. “What if there’s just the three of us playing?”, asked Vanessa. At 12:30 on a very pleasant Friday afternoon, it seemed like a valid question. At least, it was until we walked into the aircraft hanger which is the bingo hall at Fort McDowell Casino, and saw row upon row of players – and this was before the games had even started. We realised we would be far from alone. Except that is, alone in being born in the latter half of the 20th century.

Yes, while bingo in the UK struggles to escape the stereotypes, in the US, no such attempt is made and this is a game played by the near-dead. You may think I exaggerate, but I’m not joking when I say that we saw several people attached to oxygen tanks. This is probably partly because it is a remarkably cheap form of entertainment, and since you pay up front, you know in advance exactly how much you’re going to lose. We splashed out and bought the Level 2 books, which cost more and double the amount paid out, but you could play an afternoon session for as little as $5, and that would last a good three hours. Add in the free drinks and cheap food, and you have something that compares very favourably with, say, the cinema.

However, can’t say we found it a very social experience. There’s not much breathing space between the games, just enough time for them to check the winner’s card, and then it’s straight on with the next one. Even the games themselves were scarcely leisurely experiences: our buy-in got us eight cards per game each, and, especially at first, we struggled to keep up. Ten minutes in, I was feeling like a lab-rat, daubing out numbers in exchange for the slim chance of winning a piece of cheese.

And not all that big a piece of cheese either, especially in comparison to Britain, where jackpots are competed for across the whole country, and can create instant millionaires. Most games here had a maximum of $600, and if more than one person called “Bingo!” on the same number, the prize was split. Other differences: grids were five by five, with the center square a freebie always covered, and the numbers only went up to 75, rather than 90. No “two little ducks” either.

Adding to the complexity, we anticipated simplicity: play until someone gets five in a line, then go on to a big prize for the first to cover all their numbers. I think only one game was like that: instead, presumably to speed things up, you had to get a small subset of your numbers. For example, the four numbers in the top-right of your card, plus the left hand column and bottom row. These even had special names; that one was the “Love Letter”. There was also the “Hamburger”, the “Crooked Bow-Tie”, the “Semi-Erect Penis” and so on (okay, I made the last up), some of which could occur in more than one way.

And they had wild cards – one game, everything ending “9” was a freebie, in another it was every even number. So you had you to cross off numbers before the game, then as they were called, and then had to look at the resulting Pointillist abstraction, and try to work out if you were close to a winning combination. If so, the 2% of your brain not already burning up was then allowed to start getting excited.

Thank heavens for the little old lady sitting next to us with her husband, who took pity and explained what the hell we were supposed to do with the million pieces of paper in our game pack. She had the endless patience of a grandmother, serenely playing away, even as we quizzed her during the games (a serious breach of bingo etiquette, I’m sure). Without her, we’d have been dead in the water.

Speaking of “dead”, there was a scary moment at one point. We heard cries for help coming from another table, and paramedics (no doubt permanently on standby) rushed to the assistance of a player who was choking. “Ah, so that‘s the Heimlich maneouvre…”, I thought, having only ever learned it theoretically in my St. John’s Ambulance class. As Chris pointed out, not certain you’re supposed to lift the victim bodily into the air, but it clearly did the trick, and fatality was averted.

Two things impressed me: one, the rest of the players hardly noticed – must be an almost everyday occurrence, when you have several hundred old folk operating in a state of high tension for several hours. Even more amazingly, the victim went right back to her game. This did draw appreciative nods from the players around us – she was truly hardcore. Personally, if God dropped a bomb like that on me, I’d have taken it as a hint that this was not my lucky day.

Though given the frequency of good-luck charms throughout the hall, no-one was trusting to mere fate. Our deficiencies in this area are perhaps why it wasn’t our lucky day either. Chris let out a stifled shriek of “BIN…!” at one point, but that turned out to be a false alarm, and was rapidly converted to a clearing of the throat. Still, by the end, we were daubing away with the best of them, and indeed, were so into it that we were even discussing the possibility of a return visit. Now, we at least have a clue

Stomping Midgets

Midget Mayhem
The Swamp Stomp,
Scottsdale, AZ
January 24th, 2004

Our ongoing role as unofficial patrons of pro-wrestling in Arizona has taken us to some unusual places: skating-rinks in Tucson, high-school gyms, and downtown Mexican dives where you ask if they have any aspirin, and are told, “The person that sells the pills isn’t here at the moment.” This is why Saturday night saw us at the Swamp Stomp, a bar on Scottsdale Road, for an evening of, and I quote, Midget Mayhem.

Immediately we heard of the event, we were all systems go, though our attempts to buy tickets in advance were prevented by the vampiric presence of another pimp-bastard-ticket-agency, with their “convenience fees”, “service charges” and rules preventing even the venue from selling direct. But I have ranted about this elsewhere, and anyway, nothing could spoil our anticipation at the prospect of watching little people hit each other over the head with trash-cans.

To enhance the experience, alcohol is essential, of course. We’ve seen this kind of thing sober – the “minis” are a staple of the Mexican lucha libre TV shows we watch, Chris frantically trying to provide a running translation for me – and it’s amusing. But those who say, “I don’t need to drink to enjoy myself,” clearly haven’t been to midget wrestling. So our teenage son ‘offered’ to drive us there and back – quotes used advisedly, since initially we had to use the “You do remember who’s paying for that car?” gambit as leverage.

We rolled up half-an-hour before the scheduled start, ready for the heaviest session since our post-wedding party in London. The first thing we discovered, to our (and particularly Chris’s) delight, was that the venue was non-smoking. A personal “Well done” to the management for this, which almost guarantees we’ll be back there, in preference to places which leave you feeling like Hurricane Higgins’ ashtray [the whizzing sound you hear is that metaphor hurtling above non-UK readers’ heads. Higgins was a professional snooker player, almost always seen with a cigarette in one hand – and often, another in his mouth…]

Almost immediately, we discovered a fellow midget aficionado, though in deference to his status as one of the veterans in Arizona’s best-known pro-wrestling federation, we’ll withhold his name here. We agreed that said federation needed to expand and include midgets, forthwith.

The Swamp Stomp is the kind of place where customers get up and dance on the bars, usually encouraged by the MC. Potentially, this could be enormously irritating and/or tacky (see Coyote Ugly – or rather, don’t), but there was such a good-humoured spirit present that you couldn’t avoid getting swept up in the carnival atmosphere. I even got bought a beer by a complete stranger, in apology for his having to squeeze past me to get to the bar. After a decade of London pubs, where surly aggressiveness is part of the culture (and that’s just the staff), this was a shock.

They were also handing out raffle-tickets for various challenges – first person to show them their belly-button piercing, or wearing brown shoes – and Chris acquired one, somehow managing to convince the MC she had some grey hairs. Well, we were probably a decade plus older than the average attendee, and had fewer tattoos and piercings. Chris got all motherly in the ladies’, helping one over-indulged customer sober up – with miraculous results, we spotted her five minutes later, squirting another syringe full of alcoholic jelly into her mouth. Like I say, it’s that kind of place.

Not many men have a photo of their wife,
on her knees, with two midgets… 🙂

The warm up was some Midget Limbo outside on the patio, in which they acted as the stands for the poles. We had, by this time, firmly established ourselves at the bar, and felt disinclined to lose our spot, so opted to sit that one out, and wait for the hardcore wrestling. It was hardly a chore, between the bartop dancing, the people-watching, and the steady consumption of alcohol. Chris seemed to think the vodka was watered down, but without going into details, it’s safe to say her position on that had changed by the end of the night. By about 90 degrees. 🙂

Finally, the moment we had all been waiting for arrived: Puppet and Mad Mex stepped onto the bar-top and began to brawl. Fortunately, it was wider than average, but even so, it wasn’t the kind of surface onto which I would like to be thrown. From there, they eventually headed off into the crowd, the fight continuing, and were lost from view – when you’re four feet tall, this tends to happen quite easily. We went back to our drinks, imagining the entertainment over.

But, lo! What was this? A good 20 minutes later – though concepts like “time” were becoming steadily hazier by now – back came the deadly duo back through the place, still going at it hammer-and-tongs. Up onto the bar in front of us once more, Puppet caught Mex across the head with a garbage can lid, then tossed him inside the bin itself and pounded away some more. Finally, Puppet got the three-count for the win, to the cheers of the crowd. We left soon after, having seen all we needed to see, despite the victor’s enquiry, “Who wants to get drunk with midgets?”

Let’s be clear about this: even in our (by now, fairly drunken) condition, we felt nothing but enormous admiration for Puppet and Mex. They have what society perceives as a “disability”, and could easily sit around, waiting for government handouts, demanding concessions like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires cubicles for shower-dancers in strip-clubs to be wheelchair accessible. Some may call it demeaning, but their life lets them tour the country, brawl, get drunk, dance with women on bar-tops, and get paid for it.

What single man wouldn’t want to trade places with them?

[For more info, check out the Midget Mayhem website]