Blonde Hairy Super Ninja Enters “The Octagon”.

The Octagon (1980)

It’s about time I reviewed a Chuck Norris film. The whole idea for “Trailer Park Ninja” stems from the goofy white guy martial arts ninja craze that was happening in the early 80’s. I remember it as being a sleazy combination of lingering 70’s macho male culture embraced by burned out stoner kids who were discovering “Ninja” movies.

You could go to any flea market back then and buy cheap, and usually dangerously low quality “throwing stars” and nunchucks, and it seemed like every 14 year-old guy I knew had a few laying around. I knew a couple of different teenage boys that happened to live in the same trailer park, that were really into this ninja thing. Also Ozzy Osbourne and weed, although I’m not sure how all of that worked into their ninja lifestyle.

Anyway, “The Octagon” seemed to have been one of the more influential movies for that strange ninja stoner culture, as well as 80’s ninja movies in general. I hadn’t seen this Chuck Norris epic in decades, but recently found it on Netflix and decided to check it out.

Chuck is a retired Karate champ, and is hired by a wealthy woman that is having trouble with attacks by ninjas. Presumably, this was a common problem for the wealthy back then (if it wasn’t, it should have been). The plot is needlessly involved. I mean, it’s an early 80’s action film about ninjas, and there are tons of plot holes which a simpler plot would have made less obvious, but it manages to (mostly) move along at a decent pace.

In any case, there are flashbacks to Chuck Norris’s childhood (he always plays a character in his movies, but I can never think of him as anyone but Chuck Norris), where he’s shown training as a martial artist alongside his obviously evil half brother, and it’s revealed that the two become lifelong enemies fighting over a prized sword. None of this matters, it just explains why Chuck Norris somehow has an evil Asian half brother that’s training a paramilitary group of mercenaries and ninjas somewhere in Central America.

I know, makes complete sense right? The mercenaries training at this ninja camp cover most evil categories of bad guys that were common to the 1970’s, and the ninja camp is their training ground, because it somehow makes sense that being sneaky like a ninja, and being able to stick a throwing star in the back of someone’s head are valuable life skills for a villain to learn.

And that’s about all anyone needs to know. Essentially, the plot is an unlikely series of events designed to get an unwilling Chuck Norris to find the training camp and beat a bunch of ninja ass.

Along the way, we’re treated to some mild R-rated sideboob nudity, a few scenes where people are dispatched with ninja stars or swords, and a whole slew of ninja dudes that look like they were the template for the G.I. Joe Cobra Commander.

I don’t think I’m spoiling much to reveal that Chuck wins in the end.

So is “The Octagon” entertaining? It’s not completely boring, but it’s not as great as I remember. Another case of a film that could’ve been improved with more nudity and violence, as the absence of those things makes you actually have to pay attention to the plot, which is goofy as Hell.

“The Octagon” is cheesy and silly as any early 80’s action film that you are likely to find. The numerous scenes where we hear Chuck Norris’s thoughts in the form of narration are a good example. Rather than just have him speaking, someone decided to was a good idea to apply a weird sounding echo effect on his voice, and that corny attention to detail is evident in nearly every scene. “The Octagon” could easily have worked as parody if it had come later in the Ninja Movie cycle.

Yet through it all, Chuck Norris exudes a certain charm that’s hard to place. He has a strange soft spoken voice, and a scary scary mustache. He might be the hairiest blonde man I’ve ever seen, but the fucker is suave, no denying that. I can see why aspiring tough guys loved his films so much. I’m surprised that he hasn’t been embraced as an icon in butch gay circles. But I better be careful, Chuck Norris might track me down and thoroughly kick my ass for saying that.

It’s also interesting to watch this film, as well as many of the action films made in America during that era, because the martial arts scenes look so “tame” compared to the fight scenes most of us are accustomed to nowadays. They just don’t move as fast, and the punches don’t look like they hurt as much as something out of a Jackie Chan film. It’s doubtful that an action film of this style would fly today, though I’m sure a lot of flea market throwing stars got bought by aspiring “ninjas” back in the early 80’s as a result of this film.

“The Octagon” is fun and adequately entertaining, if not the classic it’s rumored to be. For someone wanting to watch a vintage Chuck Norris film, I’d suggest “Lone Wolf McQuade.” It’s a lot better.

I’d give “The Octagon” 6 ninja stars out of 10, and 7 if you really enjoy old 80’s ninja movies.

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The Media, Body Image, & The War on Pubic Hair… Fashion Evil.

Recently, I encountered a discussion where a female “plus-sized” model was being discussed, and the conversation drifted into the subject of what society believes is attractive in a female. It was suggested that the projected ideal of feminine beauty is a limited one, and that it is pushed by a patriarchal structure that allows men to subjugate women to a specific standard of beauty.

I will admit that this idea struck me as odd. I visualized a frightening villain’s lair on a mountain, where a small cabal of evil old men got together and decided how to keep women in their place this year, hatching a nefarious plot to decide what the rest of us will find attractive in a woman.

That unlikely scenario is merely the one that formed in my mind (I do that, my mind tends to move towards the weird end of things) but if I look toward existing social factors and their history, it is impossible to entirely dismiss the idea of paternalistic forces that have long existed to subject women to cultural rules. It is clear that many men still fear female sexuality unless it is corralled in ways that benefit themselves.

The massive and continual influence of Abrahamic religions throughout the world and in this country illustrates this. Those religions have always exerted an enormous, perhaps THE most enormous, social control mechanisms in the US.

Until rather recently, it was almost unheard of for a person to not claim affiliation with a mainstream religion, and even those that quietly disbelieved were still influenced by social customs derived from paternalistic religious tradition.

Still, I feel that the accepted view of feminine beauty is not the result exclusively of paternalistic forces. It is true that by suppressing and controlling female sexuality, one of the reactions to that suppression is an increase in the objectification of the female body. The very act of a woman showing a little skin is still transgressive and can stir emotion in cultures where women are encouraged or forced to cover themselves or dress modestly.

But this isn’t intended as some argument that women aren’t subjugated to paternalistic forces intended to control them. I think that it’s obvious that women are often treated badly in our culture when they step too far out of line. No, they usually aren’t killed like they might be in some particularly shitty regions of the world, but the non-compliant woman does face pressure and backlash that a male might not.

I would argue that the social rule book that seeks to control women, to make them behave, also seeks to a lesser degree to control men that transgress, but I’m not suggesting that there aren’t sexist forces bent on controlling women. There are so many factors that affect gender issues in this country, that you could fill books discussing them. People have, and continue to do so, and I don’t intend to do that here. Instead, this is meant to explore a few points that I think affect a set ideal of feminine beauty as much or more than living in an inherent paternalistic culture.

The only thing I will offer to suggest that this isn’t purely a one-sided phenomena is that men are also guided by many of the same societal forces that women are. I mention this not as a way to suggest that men have it “just as bad” as women, or to draw a direct comparison, but merely to point out that both genders are subjected to social pressure involving appearance.

Men and women both tend to cultivate an appearance that they think will be attractive to potential mates. Look at the current trend of young guys with giant beards. Think that would be happening if enough women were repulsed by having sex with bearded guys? I guarantee that there would be a stampede to the razor aisle the moment guys realized that having a big ass beard wasn’t gong to help them get laid anymore, and might actually prevent it.

There is a popular Internet meme that shows a photo of Marilyn Monroe, and makes the point that she is an enduring sex symbol and was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, but would now be considered “fat” by modern standards. And a casual look at sex symbols from the past 70 or 80 years will show that many of them were much bigger, much curvier, than most sex symbols from the last decade or two. And are those women still considered “beautiful”? I think most people would agree that they were. So what happened?

It’s estimated that the average dress size for an American woman is currently a size 14, so why are we bombarded with images presenting that as a “plus size,” while the models and celebrities that are usually promoted as attractive are much much smaller? What changed?

One of the reasons that popular ideas of beauty have moved away from the larger, more curvy ideal of the female body is simple. Marketing.

We have increasingly as a culture had our very idea of what we “are” marketed to us. And increasingly, what is being marketed is an unattainable ideal of beauty.

In the distant past, being fat and pasty was the ideal of beauty. Only those individuals wealthy enough to avoid manual labor and to have a surplus of food were able to stay pale and grow fat. It was a display of power and prosperity.

Look at the very different way society regards overweight people today. Being fat is often associated with people of a lower income, and many people consider an overweight person to suffer from a lack of self control, or other unattractive personality traits.

Why the shift in perception?

It has to do with changes in our society. It is much easier for a person that has accumulated a certain level of wealth and social status to eat healthy foods, and to tailor their lifestyle to activities like attending a gym. When you’re working two lousy low-paid menial jobs, things like expensive health food and a gym membership are potentially out of reach. When an individual busts their ass doing landscaping or some other menial job just to survive, the idea of spending their money to perform additional physical exertion might seem crazy to them.

In short, being poor doesn’t make pursuing a high societal standard of beauty an easy choice. Dental care and a high level of fitness are not luxuries everyone can afford. Being fat is thus no longer associated with wealth, but with poverty, and is not attractive to most people anymore.

The attainment of an idealized form is constantly promoted by our media as the goal we should all chase, and that’s increasingly aimed at both genders. Men are often fed the same message that women were traditionally bombarded with, that in order to be happy and of value, that they must fit a certain physical standard. It is true that an ugly man with power and money still has an advantage over an unattractive female with a similar level of power and money, but that sexist inequality is slowly changing, and I think it’s largely because of how the media markets to us all.

And what does this kind of saturated marketing achieve?

It basically places value on that which is difficult or impossible to obtain.

Look at it this way. Most people can save up and buy some form of car, but only a small minority of us are ever going to be able to afford a Lamborghini. The luxury brand is valued because of it’s exclusivity, and that applies to any item that people perceive to be obtainable by only a small minority of individuals.

Technological changes have brought into play several forces that affect this. First, the Internet has made it common for many of us to be presented with an almost constant reinforcement of unrealistic beauty. The culture of celebrity worship has never been stronger.

The media has also pushed an old fantasy, but in new ways. The idea that if someone is pretty enough, all they have to do is get the attention of the right person, and instant stardom will surely follow. Witness the new crop of “celebrities” that have become famous by a leaked sex tape, or the incredibly popular talent show format of dreck like “American Idol.” Seemingly anyone that’s good looking or popular enough can become a huge star overnight. It’s a revision of the old “Starlet being discovered walking down Hollywood Boulevard” stories from decades ago.

At the same time, technology has made unreal, actually unreal, depictions of beauty commonplace. We’ve all seen recent examples of airbrushed, or more likely “Photoshopped” models on magazine covers or websites, and this has become more and more popular over the last two decades.

When reality of body image becomes “inconvenient”, technology continues to rescue us, and to feed us a new view of human beauty. The problem is obvious. When that artificial standard starts to become the ideal that people actually compare themselves to, what are the social implications of that unreality?

Women have always been unfairly judged and valued for their physical appearance, and now they’re increasingly being told to alter themselves to better match increasingly unrealistic body images. Why? Money of course. There’s not much to be had marketing the concept that it’s acceptable to be an average looking person, but plenty to be made promoting an impossible ideal of beauty.

Look at the plastic surgery industry. Increasingly, average people turn to various procedures to better meet that increasingly high ideal. There is a well publicized case of a woman that started out pretty enough, but decided that she wanted to look as close as she could to a Barbie Doll. Enter the surgeons, hundreds of thousands of dollars exchanged, and her appearance also completely altered. What sounds like a science fiction story is viewed by many as a success.

I will mention another trend that has sprung up over the last twenty years ago – THE WAR ON PUBIC HAIR.

Yes, and what a hairy war it is. I came of age in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. At that time, most women I encountered did not shave everything off.

Even a casual perusal of any nudie magazine or pornographic film up to about the early 90’s proves that as a society we weren’t previously hung up on women having pubic hair. To most people, the idea that it would soon be normal for a large percentage of adult females to shave everything, would have seemed like a strange direction for our culture to go.

This trend seemed to gain momentum from a media push towards a more standardized and plastic view of female beauty. About the same time that regular women seemed to break out the razors for a more complete body shave, I noticed that, in mainstream porn like Playboy Magazine, the photo editors were adding a synthetic gloss over the models, reducing the obviousness of any pubic hair, and making their whole bodies look unnaturally toned, shiny, and poreless. The level of artifice was suddenly very high, higher than even Playboy had pushed it before.

Since then, I’ve encountered numerous men and (this strikes me as somehow sad) women that think any female that doesn’t shave everything is “gross.” That opinion seems so weird and unsexy to me. By all means, shave whatever you want, but when people start projecting their own hang-ups on others, that’s a weird way to think.

Yet one thing these trends HAVE achieved is to have made us all, but particularly women, subject to a new physical standard, that is farther away from anything naturally achievable by most humans. And of course, since most of us weren’t born with this unreal look already in place, there are lots and lots of businesses that would love to charge us for the service of altering ourselves to better fit that mold.

It’s probably easier feed women the fantasy that if they can just lose another dress size they’ll be afforded the honor of being able to buy something that will make them more attractive than it is to just make the same dress for larger women. It’s a way of reinforcing their insecurities for profit.

If those same clothes were marketed to women of all sizes, then the exclusivity would be diminished. It’s a way of ensuring that only the “right” kind of people – mostly wealthy and incredibly (sometimes artificially) fit looking people can wear your clothing line. It’s an elitist way of protecting the “brand” and it seems to work.

So, is all of this some organized patriarchal plot to keep women down? I think there are plenty of ways that our society treats women poorly, and that patriarchal influences are still there, but I think that societal standards of beauty have been modified. Ideals have slowly changed into something less natural, and just as controlling, but for reasons of commerce and profit as much as keeping women in line. Of course, in many cases, it IS men that are pulling our strings and running the businesses that prey on insecurities. I think there is a difference of intent, although the intent is still evil.

Finding new ways for women to hate themselves, then selling them a solution, is a wildly profitable enterprise. We have to ask, what’s the end game? Better yet, what would happen if everyone in the world wised up, all at once?

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Struggling Musicians, and the War They Wage.

If you are a struggling musician, there is a constant war that you’re waging.

You may say, war? Are you crazy? I’m a sensitive artist, and my talents will soon be known.

Yeah, good luck with that. The thing is, every musician out there is fighting an uphill battle, whether or not they acknowledge it.

There are a few exceptions, like folks that view their musical pursuits as a hobby, and one that they have no interest in taking beyond their bedroom or home studios. They play for the sheer joy of it, and nothing else. However, even these pure hobbyists can become the enemy of aspiring “serious” musicians under the right circumstances. More on that scenario shortly.

However, the struggle is on many fronts. Most musician types seem to start out with an idealized view of what it’s like to be in a band. After all, we’ve all been fed the same fantasies about being instantly discovered and immediately famous and successful. Sadly, these are almost always fantasies, and one that millions of people have. One look at a “Guitar Center” catalog proves this point. Plenty of cheap entry-level instruments all marketed with “The perfect tool to help launch you to success!” copy.

Every single 13-year old kid whose parents buy one of those entry level guitar and amplifier combo packs thinks he or she is going to be a huge star. We all do at one point or another. Picking up a guitar and learning a few chords is all it takes to create a lifelong passion for playing in some people, and that’s a very special and cool thing.

The reality is that any serious move from playing alone and only for fun into the “joining a band” scenario introduces a player to the war.

First, just finding the right people to play with is enormously difficult. Most people who are in their first few bands are in them because a few friends decided to form one. There’s no real audition process, or networking. Your best friend Jim whose parents gave him a drum set for Christmas last year wants to “jam” with you, and he has a friend that he used to play soccer with, and that guy has a bass. You can all meet at Jim’s house to jam in the garage. Thus are born many first or second, or maybe even third bands. For the most part, they last a short time, until one or more of the members get bored with music or find another hobby. Maybe a few last through high school, or even manage to play a few “shows” in someone’s backyard or garage.

In these situations the war is a minor one. The enemies encountered are likely to be a neighbor that wants your band to turn everything down, or a parent that doesn’t want you to “waste” too much time chasing dreams of being a rock star. There will likely be mild scuffles, and occasional head-butting between your friends/band mates or from the aforementioned concerned parent, but nothing too dire. This is essentially the last time many people will seriously entertain any thoughts of trying to “make it.” Soon, the prospect of college or other pressure from impending adulthood will chase away any fantasy of becoming a successful (generally interpreted as “rich” and “famous”) rock star.

However, for those that continue to harbor dreams of success in a band, the next stage in their war is where things get more intense. This is where most of us are no longer living in the protected environment of a parent’s home. Some have moved on to college and have started a second stage similar to their high school years. They’ve discovered a few of their college buddies play instruments, and the natural next step is to form a band from these alliances. The perks are increased from the high school version, any person in a college band is more potentially fuckable than the same person would be if they weren’t in a band, and college is a strange environment where people are experiencing new things. The goofy Emo band that a guy loved in the 10th grade might start to seem stupid, and suddenly funk might be the edgy sound he longs to create. Most colleges also have venues that cater to students, and some of these will allow bands to play real gigs. Success seems right around the corner!

But there’s a war going on, right? So whose the enemy here? Well, usually it’s your band mates, and the fact that you’re all mostly there to earn a degree and then move on to “real life” where for most people, music is a hobby, not a serious pursuit.

For those that are still interested in that pursuit, but who didn’t go to college, things are perhaps clearer. The reason for that is that along with their musical aspirations, they must also make a living somehow.

I know guys that opted out of music scholarships at prestigious schools because they wanted to pursue their bands full time, basically a nightmare scenario for the concerned parent of a high school kid in a band. Either being young dumb asses or just not caring, they figured it would be a lot cooler to throw away that college experience for what they thought would be the more direct path to rock stardom.

These people often DO form bands, and also alliances with other people in other bands. Local “scenes” tend to develop, because everyone is chasing a similar goal. At their best, these sorts of scenes inspire a lot of creativity, and some truly good bands result. But they also usually create rivalries, which brings us to another aspect of the music war.

Yes, if you’re in an even slightly popular local band, some people will love you and support you. You might become a locally famous scenester, and have a certain amount of local cred. Often this will lead to a relatively comfy day job working at a trendy record shop or music venue. You may even become one with the enemy itself – the local music reviewer (we’ll get back to this).

But you’ll also probably make a few enemies, in some cases with people you have barely interacted with. Other people in shittier or less popular bands will be jealous haters if your band is doing well. Many musicians share a toxic personality trait – low self esteem mixed with a large ego. Any perceived slight is enough to create an imagined enemy. When I was in a semi-high profile local band, people I didn’t even know seemed to hate me because of the band I was in. It was stupid, but is often the norm.

Then there are the venues. More accurately, the people that own and run the venues you’re going to want to play in. The people that own any bar or club are really interested in one thing – making a lot of money, generally from bar sales or the cover they charge for entry. They don’t give a shit if you’re in an awesome new band called “Death Hippie” and the music is genius. If they think that the only people you’re going to bring to their club are your significant others and a handful of good friends, “Death Hippie” isn’t getting the gig, or will get wrangled into some abysmal “pay to play” deal, where the band has to pre-sell a certain number of tickets or ends up paying the club.

In a lot of cities, the only types of bands that clubs want to feature are cover bands, because they tend to bring in enough drunk idiots to make a lot of money. Understandable, but not ideal for any musician or band trying to push their own original songs.

Fortunately, larger cities usually have a handful of venues that will feature bands playing original material, and that will allow new bands the chance to play without too much hassle. These are the types of clubs struggling bands should try to find. Generally, the more of those type there are, the better a town’s live music scene.

In the long run, all bars and clubs are in the business of making money. If your band isn’t going to help them do that, then why should they let you play? It’s not a matter of artistic merit, it’s a matter of economics. It’s also why some bands end almost before they get a chance to play out. There aren’t enough venues with an owner adventurous enough to take a chance on something that might not pack the place.

Another enemy that can destroy a band’s chances at local success is the local music reviewer. Almost any city of a certain size will have a weekly local music and culture paper, or the Internet equivalent. As such, they will also have a number of reviewers going to local shows. All it takes to hurt a developing band is one or two shitastic reviews by one of those people. And bands take this stuff seriously. I used to know a band critic for “The Austin Chronicle” who got occasional death threats from bands she’d given bad reviews to. On the other hand, I’ve also seen cases where some local band that wasn’t great got rave reviews, probably because someone in the band was a pal of the reviewer.

So what’s the best tactic for besting this enemy? Have someone cute in your band fuck them, or better still, gut the reviewer like a fish. That would be my advice. If those aren’t options for you, then I would try to evade the creepy eye of the critic until your band is popular enough that their potential scorn can’t hurt you. But really, just murder those guys. No good music scene needs them.

After one has been pursuing their musical goals for a few years, one of two things usually happens. They may become almost ridiculously positive people. This is not a bad thing, but it’s really a survival strategy. Because if they let the negativity and rejection they’ve faced chasing their dream affect them, they’d probably never leave their bedrooms again.

The other extreme are the shell shocked, battle hardened music veterans. They’ve been in gigging bands for years, and have adopted an “us verses them” attitude. Understandably, it usually is a realistic attitude to have. They’ll generally have a very professional, but jaded way of dealing with everything. No longer caring if their band mates are friends with one another, everything is a business decision, even their haircuts. They’ll sometimes talk about all of the sacrifices they’ve made for their art, but it’s just as honest to say that they didn’t make “sacrifices” so much as decisions, and some of those decisions don’t guarantee success.

A lot of the time, these types of individuals and bands will uproot from whatever not-so-happening scene they currently live in, and flock to places like LA, or wherever the new hotspot for music is. The problem for them is that they soon discover that LOTS of similarly motivated musicians made the same decision, like thousands of cutthroat pirate businessmen following the same trends.

Another huge enemy to the aspiring musician is the acquisition of a significant other. Yes, some manage to score the golden ticket, and actually find a muse that doesn’t want to capture them and then force them to quit doing the things they were attracted to to begin with, but a lot of them don’t. It’s a cliche for a reason.

And it makes sense. Being the boyfriend or girlfriend, or husband or wife of an even slightly successful musician is tough. They’re going to be away from home for long periods of time, and there will be attractive men and women throwing themselves at them. For someone that’s young and still really motivated to chase fame and fortune as a musician, it’s probably best just to avoid serious relationships. Sounds harsh, but it’s true. I’ve seen more band drama caused by an angry significant other than any other cause over the years.

The “war” is a life-long one for many of us. Playing music and being in bands gets in your blood – Almost anyone that’s played a few live shows will know what I’m talking about. The idea of just permanently leaving that behind seems incomprehensible, but maintaining one’s sanity and relationships while trying to go further with musical goals is a tough road to follow.

But it’s the only one some of us CAN follow. Our goals may change, and the ways in which we pursue those goals may change too, but quitting entirely is just not an option.

I always try to remember that haters are going to hate, that fools and creeps will try to tear you down, but in the long run, at the end of your life, you can still say “fuck it, I did something here, and it was worth it.”

But first you have to start murdering all of those troublesome club owners, music critics, and rival bands.

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Cheech & Chong – Up in Smoke: Worthy Classic, or Lowbrow Idiocy?

Drug-humor duo Cheech and Chong made their first foray into the movies with this late 70’s flick. Being as the movie seems to have been in permanent rotation on cable and video almost since its release, and is a cult classic, I thought I should check it out. I’ve seen bits and pieces of “Up in Smoke” over the years, but never sat down to watch the whole film.

A bit of disclosure, old Skintaster here doesn’t smoke weed, nor indulge in illegal drugs. My few experiences with various party favors never seemed to be much fun, so a lot of the drug culture that Cheech and Chong base their act on might be better received by someone that rolls with 420 several times a day. Still, one does not necessarily have to be a pirate to enjoy pirate movies, and I like drug based underground comics, so maybe I could find something to love about this film.

“Up in Smoke” concerns the adventures of drug-addled screw ups Pedro De Paca (Cheech), and Anthony “Man” Stoner (Chong). Stoner’s rich parents (who only look ten or fifteen years older than their “son”) threaten Anthony with military school if he doesn’t get a job by the end of the day. His Volkswagen Bug breaks down, and Pedro stops after confusing Anthony for a hitchhiking big-breasted woman, because he’s wearing unconvincing drag to get a ride.

They quickly discover a common bond in their pot habits, and so a friendship is born. I guess this film sort of serves as the pair’s origin story.

The plot ambles on from there. They almost go to jail, continually try to score weed during a citywide pot shortage, are pursued by Norbert the Narc stand-in Sargent Stedenko (Stacy Keach), and enter a battle of the bands at the end. Somewhere in there they encounter several weird druggie women, and are oblivious to the fact that they’re driving a van actually made out of marijuana.

The story is really just a framework for various set pieces to happen. There’s no serious plot development in “Up in Smoke,” It’s really just a set up for Cheech and Chong to do their thing.

So is it funny? It has its moments. I can see why this would probably be a lot more fun if one was in an “enhanced” state of mind though. Pretty much every humorous situation involves lowbrow drug or sex humor, about the kind of thing someone would expect to hear in Junior High. Nothing wrong with that necessarily, but it’s not sophisticated humor at all. There’s also occasional lapses into racial stereotyping that I have a feeling many people might not see the humor in. At one point an Asian news woman introduces herself as “Sayonara Sushi” or something equally dumb… I can’t remember… Just for a cheap joke. Now, I’m not super sensitive about that kind of thing, but it wasn’t very funny, and I think some more sensitive viewers might question who thought it was… Of course, sensitive viewers are probably not this film’s target audience anyway.

The movie most reminded me of “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers” comix by Gilbert Shelton, although those are more funny. In fact, seeing this film, I was trying to figure out who comes out looking worse – The drug addled protagonists, or the uptight reactionary cops trying to bust them? It’s certainly a good reflection of why I can’t stand to be around burn out stoners for too long.

Curiously, this film had a few sexual situations, but never showed actual nudity, a strange bit of unexpected restraint for a late 70’s film about drugs and counter culture dropouts.

The battle of the bands scenes at the end were interesting. They were shot at “The Rainbow”, and look like the bands were real local punk and new wave acts from the time period. One of the more interesting things about “Up in Smoke” is all of the footage of late 1970’s Los Angeles; the film captures the look of that time and place well.

So does the film deserve its status as a cult classic? I guess it’s not a terrible way to spend an hour and a half. Cheech and Chong have a certain goofy charm that makes the dull parts, and there are quite a few, go by quick enough. I think it still gets a lot of its cred from the notoriety of those two guys more than anything that’s actually great about this film. There are definitely better drug and sex fables from the same time period.

All in all, I’d rate “Up in Smoke” at 6 giant joints out of 10. You could probably bump that number up a little if you’re a chronic pot smoker.

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“Rape Squad” – Feminist Exploitation Film, or Proof the 1970’s Were a Special Time?

Rape Squad (1975)

I caught this 70’s rarity on Netflix under the alternate title “Act of Vengeance,” about as generic a title an exploitation film could have. I had seen “Rape Squad” mentioned in reference books about grindhouse and exploitation movies, but had never run across it before. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but this film was much weirder than I was prepared for.

The plot is a fairly simple one. Independent young Linda (Jo Ann Harris) seems to have a good life. She owns a successful food truck, and has a studly casual boyfriend. Everything goes to Hell when she’s raped by a guy wearing a hockey mask that forces her to sing “Jingle Bells” while he assaults her.

When Linda goes to report the rape, she finds that the cops are dismissive and don’t take it seriously, basically claiming that there’s almost no chance they will solve the crime. There’s a whole lot of “You were probably asking for it” kind of dialogue, and Linda’s dickhead boyfriend also shares that opinion.

Worse still, the Jingle Bells rapist has been quite busy, and Linda meets a bunch of his other victims at the police station. Since they realize that the cops are not going to do much other than tell them that they should probably “get over” being raped by the Jingle Bells bastard, and move on with their lives, the women decide to form their own vigilante group to seek vengeance.

They enlist the help of a female karate expert to teach them how to beat the shit out of guys (mostly involving kicking them in the balls), and the newly formed Rape Squad is ready for action.

That’s the plot in a nutshell, and after punishing a series of abusive guys, including a nightclub owner with a reputation for cornering unwilling women at his sleazy 70’s make out pad, and a pimp that’s abusing one of his streetwalkers, the group finally has a nighttime showdown with Jingle Bells in a park.

A lot of the proceedings are formulaic, which is to be expected in a 1970’s exploitation/revenge flick, but the general tone of the movie is pretty yucky. Not because of the fact that rape is one of the central themes, but because of how the material is treated.

It took me awhile to figure out what was so wrong-feeling about this movie, and then I realized what it was. “Rape Squad” has a story with a strong feminist message (unsurprisingly it turns out it was written by a woman), but the material is presented in the same way that any standard exploitation drive in movie of the time would’ve been handled, with lots of gratuitous nudity and objectification going on. It was directed by a man, and any feminist message is buried under a ton of standard exploitation film making, aimed at a primarily male audience.

For instance, the scene where the victims of Jingle Bells form their squad takes place in a sauna, where they’re all chit chatting in the nude. There are a lot of scenes like that.

The film kind of reminds me of Jack Hill’s movies. “Rape Squad” looks a lot like “Switchblade Sisters,” but is not nearly as fun or stylish. Nothing is portrayed in a very realistic manner, and that does provide a slight cushion between the sexist handling of sensitive material.

Pretty much every male in the movie is either patronizing and dismissive, or a total potential rapist sleaze bag. It’s easy to cheer on the vigilante women as they best those guys. But the film suffers from that weird contrast. It wants to have a message, but it also wants to objectify these women in a way that’s not congruent with that message. I’m not offended by women being shown naked in exploitation or horror films, but there’s something creepy about having that nudity presented in a rape scene, and then having the actual rapes treated less seriously than is usual. We’re still meant to ogle the various naked female parts on display, and that’s a major contrast to the way an exploitation film like “Make Them Die Slowly” handled the ugliness of rape.

In any case, the whole film has that disjointed “What were they trying to do here?” feel, and it’s hard to take seriously. It would be like trying to make a family film out of “Hostel.” Some elements just don’t work when combined.

The film also suffers from a lot of the “stupid mistakes” that women always seem to make in these types of movies, like being captured or attacked because their shoe heel breaks, or going off alone when they know the enemy is about. Again, that works against a film that’s supposedly about empowering these women.

On the other hand, “Rape Squad” is certainly not the most offensive 70’s exploitation film I’ve ever watched, and it moves along at a brisk pace. There are enough fun scenes with the vigilantes kicking some 70’s scumbag ass, and I would probably recommend the movie to anyone that likes the revenge formula, and who isn’t REALLY uncomfortable with the subject matter. I won’t apologize for “Rape Squad,” but I won’t champion it either. It’s another to put in the “1970’s were a pretty twisted decade” file – entertaining on a trashy level, but definitely not the empowering story its author might have wanted it to be.

If I gave out ratings, I’d give this one 4 leering bastards out of 10.

 

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Caligula – A Cautionary Tale Involving A List Actors, Historical Drama, And a Whole Lotta Fellatio.

Caligula (1979)

I’m going to admit straight away that I love the famous train wreck that is the movie “Caligula.”

You might be asking yourself “How is that possible? that film is a piece of shit. No one could love it.”

And that opinion would be hard to argue with, but I’m going to try to anyway. It’s true, “Caligula” is a total mess, but it’s a fun mess to behold if you’re in the right mood.

I’m sure on paper, “Caligula” sounded like it was destined to be a great cinematic classic. The cast is chock full of A List talent, a few of which were, and are, considered some of the best thespians in the world. With Malcolm McDowell in the title role, and a supporting cast including Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren, and John Gielgud, I’m sure this movie seemed like a sure thing. Then came the pornographers. Wait, what? (more on that shortly.)

“Caligula” also had the benefit of being scripted by famous writer Gore Vidal, who developed the story from an unproduced TV mini series by Roberto Rossellini. When Vidal and Rossellini were unable to find anyone to fund the movie, Vidal made the ultimately terrible decision to approach Penthouse Magazine kingpin Bob Guccione.

What had been originally intended as a modest and realistic historical piece was transformed into a lurid spectacle by Guccione, who eagerly agreed to produce the film if is tone became more over the top, and if a lot more sex and nudity was added. Vidal and Rossellini jumped at the opportunity, perhaps out of desperation, or believing that the increased bankroll might benefit the final production.

After attempts to lure established mainstream directors like John Huston into the project, Guccione brought in Tinto Brass, a relatively new director best known at the time for his controversial Nazi Sexploitation film “Salon Kitty.” Production for “Caligula” began in Rome in 1976, and experienced trouble from the get-go. Vidal and Brass apparently hated one another, and original lead Maria Schneider dropped out after being troubled with the level of sexual content and nudity. The were also problems completing the film’s elaborate sets, which were designed by art director Danilo Danati. So basically, almost no one involved with the film was getting along very well. The original script was frequently altered or improvised on, and it shows in the final cut.

Add to the already messy production about six minutes of hardcore porn shot by Guccione, and edited into the film (it’s telling that during the graphic and real sex scenes, none of the principal actors are ever in the shot) and you have an almost unwatchable and offensive “epic.”

The plot? Well, it’s supposed to cover the rise to power and downfall of Rome’s famously eccentric Emperor Caligula, and it covers a lot of the stories I’ve heard in the past. He was romantically involved with his sister, maybe his horse, forced the wives and daughters of high ranking officials to be prostitutes, and so on and so on. In the end, he’s killed of course, no real spoiler there.

Some of the acting is great, with some of these A-listers putting in good performances. Malcolm McDowell attacks his role of the mad emperor with gusto, and while it’s not his greatest role, often stepping into some serious overacting territory, it works for a character like Caligula. Most of the supporting cast with speaking parts is adequate, and there are throngs of extras, whose job seems to mostly be to stand around naked. They do that well enough. Most of the sets look like sets, and are infused with a sheen of slimy artifice. They look like they were created for an ambitious fantasy film more than anything approaching realism. Basically, “Caligula” works as a series of really horrific set pieces, more than as a cohesive narrative. The film slows down in numerous places just to roll out some atrocity for us to stare at – beheadings, forced sodomy, rapes, very little time goes by without something horrible happening to someone on screen. For what it’s worth, these scenes do possess a certain amount of style, and Malcolm McDowell grants a certain manic silliness to all of it. It’s easy to be offended, but hard to take very seriously, a strange balance indeed.

Then there’s the porn. “Caligula” has almost constant nudity throughout, and a lot of simulated and unsimulated sex and perversion on display. Every once in a while, an ordinary scene will turn a corner, and the viewer will get a brief glimpse of someone sucking cock. It’s jarring and weird.

There are also a few set pieces that are essentially showcases for pornographic sex acts. Weirdly enough, Guccione seems to have had no problem showing lots of cunnilingus and fellatio, but very little graphic intercourse. I mention this because it’s a strange juxtaposition, watching a five minute scene with multiple people giving or receiving oral sex, but in the same shot there are people that are supposed to be fucking, and it looks like it’s faked. There are two or three brief shots that look like real intercourse is happening, but I always wonder why Guccione didn’t show more of that. I mean, he already took the film into X-Rated territory, why not go the distance?

As noted before, none of the major actors are shown in these porno scenes, for the obvious reasons. The dirty stuff was filmed later, then edited in. Again, I wonder why? Was Guccione trying to make sure “Caligula” would receive a limited release? It took three years to complete, did he even care anymore at that point? Was cocaine just way better back then? So many questions, so few answers.

Despite a large budget, and high end legitimate actors, “Caligula” often looks and feels cheap. It has the same qualities that a lot of Italian exploitation films from the late 70’s had – a certain cheapness that is compensated for (or attempted to be) by being transgressive, showing more sex and violence than Hollywood ever would have.

I’ve seen interviews with Malcolm McDowell, and he HATES “Caligula.” Really, who can blame him? I’m sure a lot of the better actors in that film weren’t pleased to have their performances bookended by scenes of guys ejaculating on women’s boobs, or a dwarf getting his cock sucked. In the case of Malcolm McDowell, “Caligula” seems to have been a turning point, where afterwards the good roles just weren’t coming along as often.

Now, me? I find all of it pretty fascinating to watch. Not much is handled very well. The sets are ambitious, but still look fake, all of the naked people are kind of boring after a few minutes, and the only thing propelling the movie along is the steady stream of sex and violence. The movie also runs far too long. I’ve always thought that a pretty good 90-minute exploitation film could be culled from the uncut version. But I find it all interesting, like a cautionary tale of how a movie could just go so terribly wrong, how so many high level actors could find themselves in such a turd, and how one should never ever let a guy like Bob Guccione have any creative control over their movie unless they want scenes of dwarves getting blown spliced into their historical epic.

So obviously, “Caligula” is a terrible movie by any objective criteria. But while a bit long and boring, it can still manage to shock and entertain someone that’s expecting it to be bad. I don’t give out ratings, but if I did, I’d give “Caligula” five fellated dwarves out of ten.

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Why Fear Gay People or Equal Rights?

There is no reason for modern people to hate, fear, or persecute gay people.

That’s my thesis statement for this little rant post.

For years, I have heard arguments (almost invariably really weak arguments) that homosexuality is a blight on our society, and that by allowing gays the same rights as heterosexuals, and by fighting against continuing discrimination, somehow civilization will crumble, and there will be people fucking in the streets.

Those arguments often hinge on religious beliefs, so let’s get that one out of the way first.

Here’s the deal. Religious people (and that covers a lot of ground, but since the majority of religious people in America still self-identify as Christians, I’ll address them, although this can apply to many faiths): Quite simply, if you believe in any God and a hierarchy of holy beings, and you guide your opinions and life choices based on that belief, then you must accept that, to anyone that doesn’t believe the same things as you, some, maybe all, of the things you believe sound like fairy tales.

I am not an atheist, and I do not particularly like the completely close-minded, smart assed atheists that seem to often dominate conversations about the value of objective fact verses faith. It should be noted, that while those people often drown out the more reasonable, or at least less abrasive voices among atheists, they are not representative of all of them.

Still, even to a person who is open to the concept of religious belief as a guide for moral decision making, not all religions believe the same things. If I decided that I believed in a giant magic rabbit that granted wishes as long as I listened to Led Zeppelin albums day in and day out, most people might not believe that. If after a great deal of time, my Magic Bunny Zeppelin religion gained millions of followers, many people might do like most of us in this country. We’d show quiet respect for the weird belief systems of others, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else.

And that’s important, because “quiet respect” is vastly different than “actually believing” what someone else does. Respect also works as a two way street. It’s impossible to respect a person with a belief system you find odd or unbelievable if they don’t extend that same respect in return.

So most of us are content to live in a modern society where it’s understood that not everyone shares the same religious beliefs, or any belief at all, but where we are respectful enough to allow people to worship as they please as long as no one is getting hurt. There’s a balance at work.

But that respect quickly erodes when someone expects the rest of us to conduct our lives in accordance with their religious tradition. I’m sure most Christians would be displeased if say, the local Wiccans expected everyone to go “skyclad” on Tuesday because their religion demanded it.

My point here is not to beat up on Christians or other religious people, and it’s not my intention to ridicule anyone. It’s to point out that what might make total sense to a religious person within the bounds of their own belief system may be completely weird or unbelievable to other folks. It’s not fair or acceptable to expect others to live their lives by someone else’s belief system. Our society has managed to bang out various laws and traditions that seem acceptable, or at least tolerable to most of us. Sure, friction arises often enough, but there aren’t violent wars on America’s streets over religious disagreements for the most part.

So, the “Gays are bad because the Bible or Koran (or whatever) says they are,” doesn’t hold a lot of water. It certainly isn’t a good argument for discrimination against gays, unless we also want to enforce other religious laws that have become inconvenient to most modern civilizations.

Besides, in the case of Jesus, he said absolutely nothing damning gays. That stuff all belongs to the Old Testament along with other things most of us have decided isn’t a good fit for a civilized society. I like to think that the Jesus of the New Testament taught a lesson of inclusiveness and forgiveness, not exclusion and hate. Just my interpretation, but I don’t know how so many of Jesus’s followers get the opposite message.

So, if we set aside religious opposition to gays based on ancient rule books, what’s left?

Well, there’s the argument that gays being allowed to marry (a way of society acknowledging their relationships as valid) will somehow undermine the structure of our civilization and open the floodgates to all sorts of truly deviant behavior. I don’t understand how this slippery slope argument is supposed to be compelling. At one time it was socially unacceptable for women to wear pants, and the fact that it’s now normal for women to wear pants didn’t snowball into some indecent trend where people go naked from the waist down on casual Friday.

I’ve heard arguments that if gays can marry, then what will stop people from marrying their dogs? Well, first of all, very few sane people want to marry animals. Secondly, since the animal can’t agree to get married, that argument doesn’t really work on a logical level. The fact that society has loosened its grip on certain things over the years does not mean that a significant number of people are going to push the envelope of acceptable behavior into ridiculous extremes if homosexuals are allowed the same basic rights and freedoms as heterosexuals.

Another angle of this argument that’s used often is to point out the more extreme elements of Pride Parades – men walking around almost naked, as if that proves that allowing gay marriage would compel nearly-naked leather men to hang out everywhere in public, dongs-a-flopping. I can say with great resolve that this is unlikely to happen. For one thing, a Pride Parade is not indicative of the average behavior most gays are going to engage in normally. It’s a Pride Parade – a celebratory moment, that sometimes trends towards the extreme. The guys walking down the street during the parade wearing a banana hammock? Probably work straight (see what I did there?) jobs and have more or less normal-looking lives most of the time.

Then there’s the simple “It’s not natural” responses, intended to cast homosexuality as an abnormal condition or sexual perversion, and in doing so, trying to paint it negatively in the way that we might Peeping Toms. Basically no reliable sources back that view up anymore. Homosexuality might not always have had this status, but it is certainly a normal part of the human condition, and one that has been with us since the very beginning. Often, the people that push the “It’s not normal” opinion, claim that homosexuality is a choice. I find that line of reasoning to be ludicrous, and for a simple reason. What heterosexual has ever made the choice to be straight? Because I don’t ever remember being presented with a “choice.” I suddenly started noticing girls, and realizing that they stirred certain feelings in me. There was never some moment where I chose them over guys. And to the heterosexuals that believe in this “choice” concept, I have to ask. Did you ever consider sucking cocks or touching other dudes? Ever consider man-on-man sex as a viable option? Because if they didn’t, how can they say that gay people chose to be gay? Sexual orientation seems to be something most people are born with, one way or the other. For that matter, if sexual orientation is a choice, why would anyone choose a lifestyle that’s likely to cause them great discrimination and possible danger from those that will hate them? The answer to this is simple. There is no choice involved.

This same lame argument also frames equality for gays as somehow being detrimental to children – that somehow having society regard homosexuality as a normal lifestyle will turn straight kids gay. How this transformation is supposed to take place I have no idea, and I reject it for the same reasons that I reject that “choosing to be gay” scenario. Straight people are going to be straight, and gay people are going to be gay. There may be some shades of grey in there somewhere, but eventually a person generally settles into one camp or the other. Being taught that it’s OK to be gay isn’t in any way going to convince a straight kid to become a homosexual. The fact is that a proven detriment to children is growing up gay in a society where that lifestyle is persecuted. This fact is certainly borne out by the disturbingly high rate of suicide among gay kids.

Finally, the arguments against granting gays equal rights just come down to some weird hatred or distrust of gay people. I’ve heard folks state that the idea of gay sex repulses them, for instance. Fair enough, the idea of it isn’t my cup of tea either, but here’s the deal – granting equality to gays doesn’t mean that straight people have to watch them fuck. Here’s a secret – I don’t want to see MOST people have sex. Even people we think would look awesome having sex, probably really don’t. The average American looks pretty horrid these days. Look around. Do you want to see most of your neighbors pumping away at each other, flopping around and huffing sweatily while they get their jollies? Me either.

Gays probably are equally repulsed by the idea of straight sex, so it works both ways. Society has decided that most of us don’t want to see other people fucking, and has passed laws to keep that from happening, so just because Jack and Bill decide to get married doesn’t mean that we have to watch their bedroom activities.

I guess my point is that it doesn’t matter who other consenting adults want to fuck, it doesn’t in any way affect me, or any of us. The best neighbors I ever had were a gay couple. They had a nice house and yard, rarely talked to me other than waving hello, and never had the cops called to their house – something a few of the straight couples on my street could not claim.

Oh, and I never had to watch them do it.

I think that among some straight men, part of their dislike of gays stems from some stupid feeling that gay men want them. I’ve dealt with a few pushy gay guys that hit on me over the years, but I’ve dealt with a lot more pushy straight women doing the same thing. For most guys, I think they need a better sense of perspective. Are they knee deep in females that want to fuck them? No? Then what makes them think all gay men want to?

Finally, there’s the old argument that “Marriage has always been between a man and a woman,” and that by altering this unwavering LAW OF MARRIAGE, society will crumble. Again, some people must think that all it would take to destroy civilization is a good dose of the Gay, and that’s a pretty troubling realization.

But has marriage always been defined as a bond between a man and a woman? The answer is no. Polygamy has been, and is still practiced throughout the world, and same sex unions which were recognized by society were practiced in antiquity, going back as far as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Same sex marriages are not a new thing.

When it comes down to it, there really is no valid argument for why one group of consenting adults should accept second class citizenship or discrimination simply because a large number of people are uncomfortable with their lifestyle. There are lots of people living lives that I would hate to live myself, but which I fully accept as OK for them. In the final analysis, nothing that other adults do within the confines of their own relationship or bedroom affects me negatively, and I bet that’s the case for most of us. The idea that it’s still acceptable to treat homosexuals abusively, or to demand that they accept less than the rest of us simply because we’re uncomfortable with their existence, is a blight on our society. In the long run, treating each other fairly and with respect does not erode civilization or our personal religious beliefs, it actually builds the bonds that form civilization, and still allows for our differences.

There is no real way use logic to prove that hatred or discrimination is somehow good. In fact, the interesting thing in attempting to do so is that logic will actually prove the opposite is true. Hatred is not a virtue, and it is a killer of the human spirit.

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