The Incredibly Bad TV Show: In Bed With Nastassja

10 pm on a Saturday night, and here I am, tucked up with a large supply of junk food, a packet of ProPlus, and the world’s most beautiful woman. And you wonder why TC is infrequent. But sadly for my ego, Nastassja’s presence is limited solely to two video-tapes: ‘Bella Mafia’, recorded when it was shown on C5 during the World Cup, and ‘The Ring’, purchased from the Virgin Megastore.

These are part of her second assault on Fortress Hollywood. Despite movies like ‘Cat People’, and a slew of generally favourable reviews for Kinski, her first attack on the hearts and minds of the American audience was repelled at some cost. Specifically, two movie studios: Zoetrope, who did ‘One From the Heart’, and Goldcrest, sunk by ‘Revolution’. With a reputation as box-office poison, she retreated to Europe, for a decade of art movies, marriage and motherhood.  Following her divorce, she returned for another try, and after perking up the low-budget action pic ‘Crackerjack’, had a decent hit alongside Charlie Sheen in ‘Terminal Velocity’. Since then, it’s been back to her usual pattern of critical success (‘One Night Stand’) and commercial failure (‘Father’s Day’).

There is, however, one addition to her bow, in the form of TV miniseries, with the two titles mentioned above prime examples. Running almost three hours each, excluding commercials, it seemed sensible to schedule a double-bill for purposes of comparison, so having cleared the decks of housemates, and loaded up at the supermarket, I took a deep breath and plunged into an all-night session of high-quality American television…

Bella Mafia

Nice start: two minutes in, and Nasti’s character, Sophia, is already getting her knee sucked by her boyfriend. Despite showing admirable taste in calling her “the most beautiful creature in the world”, he’s about to leave Sicily for Harvard. Unfortunately, he ends up taking Kidnapping 1.0.1, because his father is mob boss Don Luciano (Dennis Farina), whose rival Peter Carollo wants in on the New York docks. The good news: Michael is returned. The bad news: he’s slightly lacking in the pulse department. Cue Luciano swearing a blood oath to kill, dismember, and otherwise discomfit those responsible. Oh, and Carollo has a Dark Secret, in the shape of a crippled son locked away in a monastery. This will be important later, trust me.

Meanwhile, Nastassja is pregnant by her dead boyfriend – it’s like a flashback to ‘Tess’, seeing her toiling in the fields at a home for unmarried mothers, a peasant banged up then rejected by the local nobility. Unlike Hardy’s heroine, however, she does get into the family, after being almost run over by another son, Tino the stutterer (conveniently coincidental car crash #1). Sophia’s son has been adopted, so in yet another ‘Tess’ conjunction, she marries Tino instead, without telling him of her dark secret.

Their wedding is populated by a lot of American men in suspiciously snappy suits, with their molls and daughters. However, Don Luciano is making enemies because of his continued refusal to work with Carollo, strongly suspecting him of being his son’s killer. Meanwhile the rest of his offspring are also getting married, more or less respectably – “less” definitely being the case for the one who gives casino dealer Moira (Jennifer Tilly) a bottle of champagne, provoking the immortal exchange:

  • “That’s an awfully big bottle”
  • “I’m sure you can take all of it…”

At least, I think that’s what he said.

11pm, and the first fringes of tiredness drift across my view. Sophia’s adopted son, Luca, runs away and, in one of those random events that only happen in TV mini-series, appears in the same place as Carollo’s crippled son Giorgio, whom he befriends. [I said he’d be important. Regular viewers of this sort of thing can probably tell where the cross-family friendship is going to end up] But it’s okay, as Sophia is pregnant again herself.

Years fly by without anyone – least of all Nastassja – really looking older. So before we know it, Luca is in his late teens, and when Giorgio dies, his dying request is for Carollo to adopt Luca, who has been his only friend. When Carollo gets arrested soon afterwards, Don Luciano offers to testify against him, and Luca goes after Luciano, totally unaware it’s actually his family he’s killing. Indeed, Luca murders every male in the family, which seems a bit excessive, even to his foster father, who disowns him. Here endeth part one. I’m yawning, but bearing up.

The second part of this exercise in “Mafia girl power” was shown the same night as Scotland rolled over against Morocco, so I actually saw some of it, having given up on the football after Morocco’s third goal went in. At the start, with all the Luciano men dead, the other families are trying to pick the bones clean; the Don’s widow (Vanessa Redgrave – who now seems to have aged several decades since part one) tries to shoot Carollo in court, but misses. Luca, peeved at being disowned, does it for her, then gets knocked over by a car carrying his mother and aunts (conveniently coincidental car crash #2),  giving him a brief sojourn in the family home. Oh, the irony… He then leaves, as his actions have, understandably, put him high up on the Mafia shit-list.

Midnight. The first ProPlus tablet goes down, as the girls move to New York. Luca is falling in love with one of his cousins, Rosa (who looks pleasntly like Brooke Shields). Hmm…this ‘Something Weird’ video catalogue has plenty of interesting titles, doesn’t it? Anyway, the Lucianos offer to hand over the family property to their rivals, in exchange for the names of whoever killed their men, but the Mafia try and take the deeds by force, only for Luca to rescue them.

Oh, dear: Luca now turns his attentions to Mummy, adding an Electra Complex to the Needlessly Complex, already present in the form of an irrelevant subplot which has the widows trying to steal casino chips. But after Sophia discovers from the police that Luca killed her child, husband and various other relatives, the vengeful women drug him, tie him up, and stab him. Only then does Sophia find a locket, which proves he was her son – though I could be mistaken, since I don’t remember the locket ever being mentioned before. Sophia ends up as head of the family and at Rosa’s wedding to another mob family, they start to poison those who ordered the killlings. The End.

1 am. It was only at the end that I realised the major point of the film: how Sophia changes over the course of the series. To start with, she is not so much glowing, as totally incandescent, but by the end has become absolutely cold and callous, with the “eyes of the devil”, as someone says. It’s a startling transformation, but it happens so gradually that you hardly notice; an impressive performance, by any standard. And that’s where the series’ strength really lies, in the acting. While Linda LaPlante’s story is flimsy, and probably wouldn’t make a great deal of sense looked at through critical, or even less sleepy eyes, the cast is top-notch, with Jennifer Tilly particularly outstanding. In addition to those named above, who all perform well, you’ve also got the likes of Tomas Arana (from ‘The Church’), and veteran Franco Nero in supporting roles, which makes this a heavyweight by miniseries standards. I wouldn’t mind watching it again. C+

The Ring

Fortified with a bag full of industrial-strength buttered popcorn, we plough into ‘The Ring’, beginning in 1934, with a woman committing suicide after her affair with a Jew is discovered. Ten years later, her daughter Ariana is, hey presto, Nastassja, and in her late teens. This is something of a shock given she finished ‘Bella Mafia’ pushing 40; it’s amazing what a huge age range she can cover. But at least she’s German here, something of a rarity in a career which has seen her as everything from a Dorset peasant to an American stockbroker.

In this film, she’s also seeded #1 on the cast list, although the only other person in the cast list you might know is Michael York (undergoing a bit of a renaissance after ‘Austin Powers’) who plays her father. They’ve been helping Jews escape the Nazis, but when their own plans to flee to Switzerland are discovered, they have to split up. Ariana stays behind as a (somewhat feisty) decoy, but is arrested; father and brother Gerhard make it, but father is shot on his way back across the border to get her, leaving poor Nastassja all alone, the only name star, who must hold things together for the 137 minutes still to come – at £11,99, it’s good value, if nothing else! Luckily, she’s befriended by, and eventually marries, a Luftwaffe officer, but her house is requisitioned as barracks, and the only piece of property she has left is her mother’s ring. In Zurich, Gerhard is also running out of money, and has to take on menial work to make ends meet, at least until he meets an art dealer’s daughter.

2 am. I can feel my eyes drooping; I have this horrible feeling that it won’t be long before I decide to close my eyes and just listen to the dialogue, and then… Time for another ProPlus, and a pause at one of the myriad obvious commercial breaks for a quick game of ‘Deathtrap Dungeon’, while I wait for the caffeine to kick in.

2:40 am. A helping of cheerful hack ‘n’ slash later, and it’s back to the grind – somehow, ‘Bella Mafia’ was easier viewing, maybe having breaks with actual commercials helps, or maybe it’s the lateness of the hour. I find myself getting annoyed with the terribly twee, shot-from-the-back-only love scenes, and the frequent leaping around beteen characters and countries. I wonder briefly whether a frozen Sara Lee chocolate gateau would be edible.

Adding to the confusion is a third sub-plot involving Max, one of the Jews they helped escape, but I’m not currently sure how that’s going to fit in. As the war ends, Ariana is sent to safety by her husband, and ends up having to fend for herself all the way from Berlin to Paris. Ariana’s husband dies, and Gerhard gets his girlfriend pregnant and does the decent thing i.e. moves to Paris. Ariana is caught up in the stream of refugees, though this only seems to happen so we can have the predictable scene of bro’ and sis’ nearly but not quite meeting on the road. All the shots of tired refugees shuffling aimlessly around reminded me of ‘Schindler’s List’, though fortunately without the tedious agenda.

3 am. Ariana changes her name to Anna Gorne, to get passage on a Jewish refugee ship – a Jew-boat, hohoho… A medic named Paul, with “love interest” tattoed on his forehead, turns up and takes the sickly looking Ariana in. Max also endures a “nearly but not quite meeting Ariana” encounter, while her brother changes his name, and recognises a painting, which Max had sold to his father-in-law, the art dealer. However, the most important thing to happen this hour is that I discover some Opal Fruits, and can get my blood sugar back up.

There’s one quote from ‘The Ring’ that bears repeating: “I once swore that if I ever had a child, there was nothing that could make me give him up. And nothing can.” If Nastassja says that particular line with additional feeling, it’d be no surprise, given the entanglements over the children from her marriage to Ibrahim Moussa. She even made the front of the Evening Standard, with one particularly bizarre story:

Kinski arrested ‘after fight with husband’

“Actress Nastassja Kinski has been arrested after allegedly attacking her former husband, Egyptian film producer Ibrahim Moussa. Both were arrested and booked at Los Angeles Van Nuys police station for battery. Police reports say Kinski scratched Moussa’s face with her fingernails in a brawl which is the latest development in a long-running battle between the couple for custody of their children Aljosha, 14, and Sonia, 12 Kinski, who has had them baptised Catholics, confronted Moussa in a rage when she discoverd he planned to have Aljosha circumcised for religious reasons…”

Gerhard’s wife turns out to be faking her pregnancy, so he leaves her and heads back to Berlin to look for his family, unaware they’re dead or a continent away. The time scales here, as in ‘Mafia’, are dead weird: after whipping through a decade before the first advert break, everything else has apparently been crammed into two months. This only becomes apparent when Ariana turns out to be pregnant by her Luftwaffe guy – last seen alive way back in paragraph two. Time for another pause, I think: VR Baseball [Minnesota 3, Seattle 2, as if you care]

5 am, and the final episode. I think it’s safe to say this is not Kinski’s finest hour, largely down to the material. Indeed, it’s not even her finest thirty seconds: I doubt anyone could make anything out of this sow’s ear, and watching this pap makes me realise just how edgy and extreme ‘Bella Mafia’ is in comparison. It’s a nice reminder of why I don’t watch mini-series. The scary thing is, at the start of a tape was an advert for no fewer than ~~ others, all based on Danielle Steele books. I don’t know if the novels are as cliched, shallow and, frankly, Jew-heavy as the film (it has enough annoying characters to make anyone turn anti-Semitic), but I’m certainly not going to make the effort to find out.

Back on screen, Paul throws Ariana out when he discovers the baby is not his; fortunately, Max finally tracks her down, just after the birth, and Kinski’s smile when she discovers Gerhard may still be alive is awesome – the sort men would climb mountains to see – and almost makes the preceding 140 mins worthwhile. Almost… Together, they head back to Zurich to look for him, then on to Berlin – where Gerhard is looking for them in turn, having been reconciled with his wife. And when he sees his father’s grave, with fresh flowers on it…

Forward 25 years, for no readily apparent reason, and with no explanation for what happens in the intervening decades. In perhaps the most implausible of all the coincidences which pepper this film, Kinski’s son is unknowingly going out with (pay attention, now) his mother’s second ex-husband’s daughter. But this only causes a reconciliation between Ariana and Paul; she gives her new daughter-in-law the family heirloom ring. On their honeymoon in Europe, and not far behind in the implausibility stakes, they bump into brother Gerhard in an art gallery, now sporting a dreadful goatee. He recognises the ring as his sister’s, goes back to America with them, and there’s not a dry eye in the house.

5:40 am. Four hundred and sixty minutes after starting, with the first faint traces of dawn peeping over the houses, I finally stagger to the end of a disaster movie, in the truest sense of the word. I should probably have expected no better from the man who gave Tom Hanks his debut in ‘He Knows You’re Alone’. Y’know, I love Nastassja ‘n’ all that, but…well, any chance of ‘Cat People 2’? E+

TC Travel #2: Que-bec to Basics

Montreal is a city suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. It desperately wants to be French, yet its position near the cultural behemoth of America inevitably means a lot more popular contanimation than the powers-that-be want, and there’s also the legacy of Canada’s days as a British colony. Yet this is not necessarily a bad thing; Montreal possesses many of the benefits of France and America, but largely without the occasional arrogance which can sometimes be a facet of both. Even the simplest thing reflects this internal tension, such as the humble hot-dog, omnipresent, as on American streets – except, half the time it’s called a “chien chaud”. For this is a province which actually employs Gestapo-like inspectors to go round and check the language used on signs, ensuring that the French version is bigger than the English one. Such pedantry defies belief – you can’t legislate language like this – and hearing such things certainly tends to put me off the idea of living there.

Which is a shame, as the city is otherwise very appealing, with a lot to praise. Culturally, it’s quite amazing; given its size (barely a million in Montreal itself) there is a hell of a lot going on. In July alone, there’s a big Jazz festival, and the Just For Laughs comedy festival, as well as the reason we were there, Fant-Asia, a wonderful month-long showcase for (vaguely) genre movies, which beats into a cocked hat anything London has to offer in the field. Besides, how can you dislike a city where the majority of the population sound like Antoine des Caunes?

It helped a great deal that the Canadian dollar was at a record low, so most things tended towards ‘ridiculously cheap’. Cinema-going, for example, worked out about half the price it is here, whether you went to big, new movies or rep theatres – one of the latter charged C$2.50, all day every day, which is barely one pound. This does bring home just how expensive it is in London these days; the refurbished Odeon Leicester Square now has £10 seats. Never mind leopard-skin fabric, at that price, I want real leopard. Needless to say, full advantage was taken of this value, and we averaged more than one cinema trip per day during our stay, both at Fant-Asia and regular cinemas – once we’d worked out which were showing films in English, which dubbed into French, and which in English but with French sub-titles.

DANGER These men organise the FantAsia film festival.
If you see them, do not approach them.
They will rot your brain, and corrupt your morals
to be just like theirs. You can tell, can’t you?

This was a good way of avoiding the weather, best described as chAnGEaBlE, even by British standards. Any given day almost inevitably brought sun, clouds, and thunderstorms, with hail an optional extra. It was all quite enough to freak out Chris, who lives in Arizona, where they have just two seasons – summer, and “waiting for summer”. God knows what Montreal is like in the winter, but you can get some idea from the fact that their parking meters are not placed by the road, but in the shelter of the buildings, in order to stop them getting buried…

Shopping in general was also reasonable, albeit confused by the application of “goods and services tax”, “harmonised sales tax”, “taxe sur les produits et services” and “provincial sales tax” (the first three are actually one and the same), which were never included in the price shown, seemed to vary on a semi-random basis, and were in any event reclaimable on the way out of the country if you spent enough. To balance this horrendously Americanised idea, the currency was solidly British, with dollar coins, notes whose colours varied with their value, and even a bi-metal $2 coin – good practice for the £2 one introduced shortly after I came back…

One great idea which London could do well to copy, is the massive network of shopping malls which is buried under the city, linked together by the Metro. There must be a couple of thousand shops down there, not including the restaurants, cinemas, and just about any other service you care to name. It would be quite easy to wander around for days without ever seeing daylight, and it’s a great way of bypassing the savagely wintry weather. It does, however, imply a certain geological stability, so I don’t think it’s a concept which will catch on in California or Tokyo.

The central street, St.Catherine, has a distinct wealth gradient – walking along from one end to another, it gradually evolves from seedy and run-down, through commercially brisk, to disturbingly up-market, like a core section of Montreal’s economic life. Along its length, however, it remains cosmopolitan, strip-clubs rubbing shoulders with boutiques in a way that would probably be impossible in many cities. It’s all quite compact, with virtually everything within walking distance, save perhaps the Olympic Stadium, and that’s easily reached on the impressive Metro trains.

There is an old part to Montreal, down by the St.Lawrence River, but it’s not something you’d really notice, and is largely indistinguishable from the rest of the city. However, the Notre Dame Basilica is a cracking structure, capable of holding 6,000 worshippers, whose interior contradicts a somewhat drab outside, and there are plenty of other nice pieces of architecture, in a variety of styles – some of the almost Art Deco stuff is especially outstanding. In this aspect, it probably has more in common with European cities than most North American ones.

On the other hand, it doesn’t appear to have much distinctive local cuisine – though you could say the same about Britain, which has similarly glued together a ragbag of cultures. You’re not stuck for choice: the food court in the bottom of the Eaton Centre mall alone offers everything from massive smoked meat sandwiches to Japanese noodles. As is by now traditional, we tried the local kebabs, and found them to be smaller than the British variety, and completely wrapped in the pitta – a snack rather than a meal. The beer front was much the same as America, with Molson dominating the market (whatever you do, avoid Molson Hi-Dry, a beer possessing the temperament, taste and effect of bottled rattlesnake), but with a slate of real ales to track down and try out: Sleeman’s was eminently drinkable.

We had a great apartment, in a complex run by a brother and sister, five minutes from St. Catherine. It was self-catering, but I think we only cooked one meal there – hell, who bothers with things like washing-up when you’re on holiday? – surviving on a combination of eating out and junk food. Plenty of supermarkets and stores around, though I was fairly freaked by the tank of live lobsters, largely because I never realised what BIG buggers they are. Respect to their claws.

I was there for the World Cup Final, and even found a station which took the BBC commentary feed, so enjoyed the dulcet tones of John Motson, not some American going about “being double-teamed in the red area” – though generally, the North American coverage of the World Cup was better than expected. ABC got round the advertisement problem by having, say, a Nike logo in the top left of the screen; every ten minutes they’d quickly say “this portion of the game is brought to you commercial-free by Nike”, then get right back to the match. A neat solution to a thorny problem. Given the result, Montreal was probably almost as good as being in France itself. Every goal was greeted with cheers, and people rushed out onto their balconies and waved flags, while the final result led to a procession of cars in the street, with much, typically French horn-blowing.

This kinda sums up Montreal; American openness with Gallic flair, and the result is pleasing, albeit radically different to New Orleans, where French and American cultures also mix. Must be the British influence, plus perhaps the chilling impact of the climate. Regardless, it is a city which works, managing to welcome visitors without sacrificing itself to them, and there’s every chance that I’ll be back in future – perhaps for 1999’s Fant-Asia festival…

“Banned From Television” = Banned From Video

In February, the BBFC announced, with much trumpeting, that ‘The Exorcist’ had finally been passed on video – a decision undeniably linked to the recent departure of chief censor James Ferman, who gave the film considerably more credit than it was worth. But the BBFC giveth, and the BBFC taketh away. At virtually the same time, and with a great deal less publicity, they refused two titles video certificates: Lucio Fulci’s ‘Cat in the Brain’ and the mondo documentary ‘Banned From Television’. The former was really no surprise – Fulci’s reputation alone meant that it was likely to get scrutiny, even though it’s nearer to the Peter Jackson school of excessive gore than anything which would threaten the fabric of society. [A bigger shock was that anyone actually wanted to release this tedious piece of dreck] The latter, however, perhaps deserves more investigation. First, here’s the press release sent out by the Board, explaining their decision:

“As the authority designated by Parliament with the responsibility for classifying videos under the Video Recordings Act 1984, the Board must determine whether or not a video is suitable for a classification certificate to be issued to it, with special regard to the likelihood of video works being viewed in the home. In making this decision, the Board must also have special regard, amongst other relevant factors, to any harm that may be caused to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society because of the manner in which the work deals with criminal behaviour, illegal drugs, violence, horror or sex.

The Board carefully considered this video in the light of these tests. The main consideration for the Board was the question of harm referred to above. In short, does the work have the potential for anti- social influence?

In the Board’s view it does. It is a compilation of scenes of extremely violent death, injury and mutilation, many of which are repeated in slow-motion. The commentary draws attention to the grislier aspects and in effect invites enjoyment at human suffering. The inclusion also of sex scenes reinforces the impression that the purpose of the video is to provide entertainment. There is no attempt to justify the images by placing the incidents in any other journalistic or educational context. Whatever current relevance the images might have had when they were originally photographed has been lost in the general compilation of horrors. The Board is conscious that a particular genre that has always been identified as entirely unacceptable is that of so-called ‘snuff movies’. Their main identifying feature is that at least one of the participants is actually killed. Banned From Television is only different in that, instead of a death being created for the work, actual death and injury is collated from a wide range of pre-existing sources to create the work.

The Board has concluded that the video is potentially harmful because of the influence it may have on the attitudes and behaviour of a significant proportion of likely viewers. The instinct of concern and compassion for the suffering of others is a basic social necessity. So is respect for the dignity of real human life. By presenting actual human death and mutilation as entertainment, the work, in the Board’s view, has the potential to erode these instincts. There is a danger of it falling into the hands of young and impressionable persons (whatever its classification) and of some significant brutalising effect on their attitude to human life and pain.

The Board has considered the possibility of cuts as a remedy for these difficulties. It has concluded, however, that they would be unlikely to modify the tone and effect of the work acceptably.”

Naturally, having read the above, it became my moral duty to see this film, and it proved no problem to pick up a copy on a recent trip to the States – alternatively, why not order over the Internet, at Three volumes available, all major credit cards accepted. [The irrelevance of the BBFC grows on a daily basis…]

My dislike of Mondo movies (and indeed, Mondo TV like “Police! Camera! Action!”) has previously been documented; partly because you need no real skill to put one together, and partly due to the pseudo-moralising that inevitably accompanies them. While Banned from Television is refreshingly free from such cant, it remains little more than a selection of “Bloody hell! Rewind that!” moments: a smorgasbord of crashes, police brutality, executions, animals on the rampage, criminal activity, etc. Interestingly, in some cases, sound effects have been added, so otherwise silent security video footage suddenly records gunshots. Mind you, far worse is the natural sound made when someone gets hit by a train [a clip which is on the TC website, and represents perhaps the epitome of the BH!RT! moment]. And the tape is censored, even if it says much about American attitudes that the only thing obscured, amid all the death and destruction, is a policeman’s dick.

But should it be banned? Of course not. This isn’t death video per se: while some clips are patently terminal, in others damage is slight – a source of wonder in itself – and a third group are left annoyingly unresolved. The main factor for inclusion isn’t the pain or injury, which are irrelevant – far more important is the BH!RT! quotient, though the supposedly “sexy” stuff – footage of lap dancers and the audience at a 2 Live Crew concert getting carried away – is largely tedious and tame.

I’ve watched enough fake mayhem to fuel a minor Balkan war, yet the real thing still appalls. The most horrific thing I ever saw was BBC News footage of Israeli soldiers deliberately and cold-bloodedly breaking Palestinians’ legs with boulders, and most of the clips here are similarly disturbing; man’s inhumanity to man is terrible to behold. Brazil is now crossed off my list of potential holiday destinations, having seen their police’s fondness for casual brutality and summary execution. Rodney King got off very lightly.

I doubt a normal citizen would feel any “brutalising effect”; if you aren’t shocked by parts of this tape, you’re clearly there already. It’s almost a relief to be upset by things like an El Salvador cop shooting a demonstrator in the chest at point-blank range – it just shows that cinematic violence only desensitises you to…cinematic violence. Mind you, my feelings for the victims did vary: I’ve little sympathy for anyone who takes part in bull-running, and the public execution of rapists is merely justice being seen to be done.

The video is valid, because this stuff happens, and people should be free to see it happening. I’d heard about the brutality of Brazilian police, but the reports of death squads no longer seem hyperbole – and nothing drives home road-safety better than seeing a car get absolutely totalled by a juggernaut. Rather than losing “respect for the dignity of real human life”, you come away with a new-found awareness of just how fragile and delicate it is; this ain’t the movies, where cars fly through the air and people crawl out slightly grazed. Here, you get shot, you fall down, you die. The BBFC’s claim that it’s “presenting actual human death and mutilation as entertainment” is wrong: it is eye-popping and jaw-dropping, but it’s also gut-wrenching and brutal, which is exactly how violence should be. The BBFC’s decision leaves the public with no perception of it beyond that of Hollywood, and in the long run, this may be potentially more damaging.

[2021 update. And, of course, you can now watch the whole thing on YouTube, BBFC be damned…]

“The rules are…there are no rules”

Cage Fighting Women: £13.99, Quantum Diamond
Extreme Catfighting: £12.99, Visual Entertainment

Fighting women may be classified by two criteria: useless/vicious and cute/ugly. Thus, Mima Shimoda is vicious-cute, while Jane Couch is vicious-ugly. The “ladies” [quotes advisedly used] on Extreme Catfighting tend to the cute end of the spectrum, but despite their efforts, remain inept – they wouldn’t last two minutes with Couch or Shimoda. Indeed, few last that long with each other: all five fights combined total barely quarter of an hour. Most of the 80+ minute tape is interviews, slow-motion replays and analysis, interpretation and sexual innuendo from two severely annoying commentators.

The basic concept, ring-based combat for women with few rules, is sound. However, fighting skill is irrelevant, and indeed discouraged, in favour of large breasts and skimpy costumes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, except the result is, it falls uncomfortable between sexual titillation and gratuitous violence. Thus we get repeated replays, both of escaping mammary glands and a very nasty looking injury, when one of the girls is taken down and her knee bends forward. This combination makes for queasy viewing.

Part of the problem seems to be matching fighters: all too often, an obvious imbalance in size or skill means the outcome is never in doubt. Only once do they get it right, and that bout not only goes the distance, it’s easily the best on the tape, combining boxing with ground-based grappling. A contrast in styles is one thing, and indeed part of the ethos of Ultimate Fighting is to compare different disciplines, but what we get here are far too many ‘squashes’. There’s nothing to suggest the fights are anything but legit – the brief duration points in this direction. However, one wonders whether there’s much point in watching a display of what largely amounts to martial incompetence, rather than arts.

Cage Fighting Women is the opposite, with no concession to aesthetics in its mix of kick-boxing and Ultimate-style octagon bouts. There is also no colour commentary, a mixed blessing, as I’d like some background info. Holland and Russia provide most of the participants (it’s a Dutch video) and there’s no doubting the women are chosen for skill rather than beauty – partly because the Russian ones in particular are scary. However, perversely, this tends to mean more tedious action, chary and cautious manoeuvring being the order of the day.

Also in contrast to Extreme Catfighting; only one fight is stopped, the others all go the 6- or 10-minute distance, perhaps reflecting superior training and stamina in these competitors. This is particularly apparent on defense; they know how to block and hold an opponent at bay even when they go down on the ground. This is largely only interesting from a technical point of view, for a layman like me, interested merely in an adrenalin buzz, it’s not really captivating to watch.

And this may be the most important conclusion, if any inference can be drawn here: theatrical, staged violence is far superior to the real thing. Oh, and that cute women are better fun to watch than ugly ones – but, hell, we knew that already…

American Excess

[Well, it’s a good title: why not use it more than once?]

A name like ‘Trash City’ means some video labels look down on you, and won’t give you the time of day. But to others, you’re the target audience, and when you’re talking about Quantum Leap and their nine volumes of LPWA women’s wresting…no sooner said, than a large cardboard box was sitting on the floor here at TC Towers. Not to be confused with the LPGA (which has more lesbians), the Ladies Professional Wrestling Association dates back to 1989, but is undergoing something of a renaissance recently, as these nine tapes – and hopes for an upcoming program of promotions – show. Since you can buy them in HMV, you can’t plead obscurity as an excuse, and nor is incomprehensibility a viable defence, since they’re all in English. Er, well, American, anyway…

Super Ladies’ Showdown contains the only United States pay-per-view women’s wrestling event, a 1992 Rochester, Minnesota show, featuring a contest to determine the “Japanese ladies champion”. The J-stars featured, Eagle Sawai and Harley Saito, aren’t the creme de la creme; decent enough journeymen, mind, but in footballing terms, the equivalent of Wimbledon and Middlesborough. Despite this, at 120 mins, it’s good value for money, and the contrast in styles is interesting. The Americans, relying on strength, are clearly fazed by the Japanese aerial assaults and high kicks; they have problems adapting, and look sluggish in comparison. The audience, however, are impressed: after initial boos, Saito becomes the fan favourite, even over local girl Denise Storm. Outside the tournament, the other bouts are less memorable. The Terri Power/Lady X title bout, however, has spark and life, with Power perhaps close to the level of the Japanese. Aside from the usual grey sources i.e. other fans and the Internet, this tape is probably your best chance of seeing some of the Japanese women in action.

Super Ladies Showdown 2 is actually not really connected to the first one at all, save one bout, Desiree Petersen vs Shinobu Kandori, which looks like an unused portion of the PPV. It’s probably the best bout too – I’d say Kandori is one of the top five in Japan, and it shows in her skill and aggression. Indeed, a recurring theme through the tapes is that the best wrestlers have a Japanese connection. Now, whether this is because the good ones go to Japan, or because they get good over there, I don’t know. The LPWA is certainly international, with Petersen apparently being Danish – not that this stops the audience chanting “USA! USA!” – and Australia, Mexico and Italy are also represented. Add some decent tag action with Team America (Heidi Lee Morgan and Misty Blue Simms) taking on the Nasty Girls, and overall it’s not too far short of its predecessor, despite lacking any structure.

Power Slam is another compilation; the problem with these is a tendency for the commentators to refer to previous bouts which, through the glory of editing, turn up later on, or indeed, on an entirely different tape! However, the enthusiastically opinionated Jim Cornette is great fun to listen to, always going off with loud-mouthed wit. Inside the ring, the highlight sees Reggie Bennett team up with Terri Power: in April 93, the latter was part of Dreamslam, a cross-promotion event widely regarded as the best  ever in Japanese women’s wrestling. They’re a formidable pairing, and an Italian girl, Madusa Miceli, is another good find on this tape. It climaxes in a chaotic and confused Battle Royale, with no less than twenty-four women in the ring simultaneously.

The Main Event provides a good showcase for Reggie Bennett, one of the veterans of women’s pro wrestling. She was part of the abomination (admittedly an amusing one) that was Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and, despite being 37 years old, spent the early part of this year out East, in Aja Kong’s ARSION group, and did very well from what I saw. Bennett started off as a body-builder and has also had a minor movie career – you can see her in Stallone’s arm-wrestling film, ‘Over the Top’, and ‘Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone’. Elsewhere, Madusa Miceli demolishes her opponent with disturbing efficiency (yet again, I suspect a result of Japan-based seasoning), and the Lady X/Bambi title fight is also a pretty good contest. The work-rate on view there is impressive, with both women clearly giving their all, and the result is in doubt right up until the end.

Wacky World is different in that the matches have a vague theme i.e. they’re more or less off-the-wall. For “less”, read a wrestler casually smashing a cream pie into a commentator’s face on the way to the ring; for “more”, try a tag-match, the Glamor Girls versus ‘The Beast’ and Reggie Bennett, over possession of a large toy rabbit called Harvey. That one is as stupid as it sounds – it’s the sort of thing GLOW would do – but actually works because it’s pitched perfectly, balanced between deadly serious and very tongue-in-cheek. However, I should point out that the ‘Glamor Girls’ are neither glamorous nor girls – I suppose calling themselves the Bloated Post-Menopausals wouldn’t prove as catchy. Most of the other battles are merely slightly quirky, though the Desire Petersen/Lady X fight is robust almost to troublesome levels, with Petersen flying into the audience and off the top rope. The tape also lets you see commentator Jim Cornette – and he looks disturbingly like Jeffrey Combs…

Super Challenge starts brightly, with Malia Hosaka + Bambi brawling against the Nasty Girls – like all the tapes, it’s an ‘E’ certificate, though I’m not quite sure this is what the rating was intended for! Malia Hosaka is also in the other top bout, against Madusa Miceli: a nice contrast, Japanese-born against Japanese-experienced. After, oh, some nine hours or so, I’m beginning to get the hang of calling these, and in most of the bouts you can kinda tell who’s likely to win: extraneous interference aside, good tends to triumph over evil more often than not. And it’s not until the title bout between long-time LPWA champion, Australian Susan Sexton, and The Beast – 60 matches in all – that we get the first submission.

Once you see the likes of Toyota and Kansai in action, it may be hard to go back, and for the hardened fan, American women’s wrestling could seem more a curio than anything else. However, such comparisons are probably unfair, while the Japanese brand remains such an underground cult. For the novice, these tapes are an entertaining appetiser, especially for those unwilling to handle incomprehensible Japanese footage. Super Ladies’ Showdown is the best, and makes a good starting point for anyone interested in the spectacle.

Others available include:
Double Trouble!
Grudge Matches!
Wild Women
Super Ladies Showdown 3
All titles £13.99.
Credit card telesales: 01480 455125
or by cheque, payable to Quantum Leap, to:
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