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Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Remebering Extreme World Warfare: Part V

How did the premier highflying wrestler, Jody Fleische, get accused of being a female prostitute? Did EWW attempt to invade the fledgling “New British Wrestling” promotion, FWA? Why did EWW get banned from Southsea? These questions are often prompted by subtle hints dropped by Chris (former “Mr Hardcore” now “Extreme Enforcer” and sometimes “Mean Gene”) O’Regan from time to time, but have never really been answered. As I write this next passage in my recollections of my short stint as a pro wrestling promoter I can’t help feel it is confession time.

EWW had thrown the gauntlet down in the smallest subculture of subcultures, British Wrestling. We rightfully stated that we were the first and only truly hardcore promotion in the UK in 1998. We were only the second UK promotion to hold a match in a steel cage and the first in the world to have it as a tournament final. We had also liberally used numerous props including chairs, fireballs and chains throughout the show that were, at best, special additions in other British promotions. Our attitude was aggressive and antagonistic like the American ECW, but our storylines were intended to be even deeper and more original than this now legendary stunt-filled promotion. Nothing in British wrestling had been so adult-based. CCW (Commonwealth Championship Wrestling) had been our springboard and immediately we would eclipse them on the British wrestling scene, but little did we realize others were also being inspired and a new generation of British pro-wrestling promotions was emerging.

It is arguable that the origins for these new promotions had grown from the scattered parts of CCW’s second and highest profile official show “Animal Instincts”. Phil Lowe, whose role in CCW I have never really been able to ascertain, had decided to form his own ill-fated promotion, the British Wrestling Alliance. However, it was the modest lightweight wrestler I had last seen scratching his bollocks on the way to the ring at “Animal Instincts” who would arguably make the biggest immediate impact on the British wrestling scene over the years – or rather it would be the promotion he created.

The Fratton Wrestling Association apparently had been in existence since 1993. Going by what I have since heard, and I may be wrong, it was virtually a prototype for the controversial backyard wrestling that would become popular in 1999 onwards, run by youngsters who had some formal training, but were mainly self-taught. We were first seriously alerted to their presence when an advert was emailed to us picturing Mark Sloan being slammed through a flimsy pasting table. We were young, proud and fired up about our position in pro-wrestling and immediately saw them as jumping on our extreme bandwagon. The stunt seemed like an insult to the stunts we had pulled off and, worse still, the show was using most of the wrestlers we had incorporated into our storylines.

Inspired by Lee Edwards’s Welsh DJ friend, we decided to visit the new promotion to suss the scene out. The outing was organized by Lee’s friend - we’ll call him LY - and there was clearly a mixture of agendas on the card. I felt that LY was after aggravation whereas the rest of us had varying degrees of curiosity and annoyance. Our ensemble included Stu “The Dominator” Allen, Josh Perry (our technical manager and “sleeping” partner), Jay “Pain” McDonald, Chris O’Regan and me. We followed LY’s car into Fratton, Portsmouth, the home of FWA, and out into Southsea...and then almost off the end of peer. My mobile phone rang. It was LY: “I haven’t a fuckin’ clue where I am goin’ mate!”

Eventually after being cruelly taunted by the various other establishments we could have booked rooms in we ended up at a godforsaken £16 per night bed and breakfast. We were greeted – if that was the word – by a landlady that had the measure of us from the start: a bunch of lads with a night of trouble on their agenda. However, we were polite and listened to the house rules carefully. One rule would be tested that night and prove not to be applicable: “If you want anything please use the bell before 11pm”.

“It’s the mystique I love” said Lee as he watched a fully costumed and very nervous Mark Sloan rush out to the front of the house to check the ticket situation. We were expecting a travesty of a show. We anticipated seeing old school British wrestling mixed with the backyard scene in a dismal attempt to replicate the Americans. The poster was an unimaginative affair. Described as “FWA: One” it was a monochrome picture featuring a ladder as the main star. This piece of gossip had already reached us: FWA had bought an official WWF ladder from America for a ladder match. It seemed like a big waste to us. The idea that the whole promotion was pinning its hopes and reputation on this gimmick made us feel less and less intimidated by the competition.

As we walked into the main auditorium we were more than a little surprised. Mark Sloan had created perhaps the best wrestling ring in the country. Modelled on the American design, it had a titanium spring underneath the matted area and knuckle pads in the corners. It would be a joy for all British pro-wrestlers who worked in it and eventually my bane for the Dead Souls routine. Behind the ring stood what I felt at the time was an ostentatious and superfluous video projection screen – or “video wall” as everyone liked to call it. I say superfluous as the point of a video wall with a live feed is to allow an the audience who are too far back to watch the action on the stage in a huge stadium venue. Most people who worked in what was soon to be labelled as the New British Wrestling movement didn’t support my view. My guess is that many saw the inclusion of a video wall as a prop associated with the big promotions in the US rather than as a functional service. On the other hand I was very much in favour of the use of the walls to provide animated graphics, entrance videos, action from outside the venue and as extra dramatic material to advance the storylines.

The show was being professionally filmed by someone I would learn was a partner in the promotion, Elisar Cabrera. Elisar, like me, came from a showbusiness family. His worked in the film industry and even produced some low budget exploitation films before his involvement with the FWA. The way he turned the whole of FWA: One into a promotional video showed great vision and potential. We were all surprised when an “Old School” wrestling match, which we shook our heads at in sad disbelief when we watching the show live, were used very cleverly to show the contrast between the “World of Sport” generation and the New British Wrestling provided by FWA. This contrast was the marketing tactic taken by most of the new promotions, starting with our previous promotion CCW. Seeing the then growing regard and mainstream popularity of US and Japanese wrestling the world over, we felt our number one priority was to show the UK that the new movement was very far removed from the days of Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy.

The audience certainly seemed to be behind the show. Even we, as hostile and biased spectators, had to admit this, if not to each other then to ourselves. Nevertheless, we enjoyed chanting “MFI” in reference to the offending pasting tables instead of the “ECW” chant that wrestling fans would make when a “hardcore” stunt was carried out. Our chagrin at this element eventually resulted in Stu paying LY £20 to “accidentally” fall through one of the tables situated around ringside while he was covering the event for his online show. It didn’t take much for the table to give and the act, although perhaps a little petty in retrospect, was one of the most entertaining moments of the night. LY, despite claiming a “black belt in karate”, was a rather unfortunately shaped individual and the sight of his rotund physique doing a Buster Keaton after leaning on one of the tables will always be up there with the Del Boy fall in “Only Fools and Horses”.

The show culminated in a “Rumble”. This was an American variation on the Battle Royal formula and was a popular annual fixture in the WWF’s calendar. It was around this time that we were beginning to get hot under the collar. Alcohol fused with a tribal protectiveness of our product made Stu and I particularly annoyed by the Gothic characters that seemed to be popping out to wrestle. We were very protective of our Dead Souls product and did not take too kindly to imitation. A wrestler called En?gma arrived on the scene with a black beard and a black Regency style shirt. This immediately irked Stu. In those times of paranoid rivalry it looked like to all of us as a blatant rip-off of Stu’s newly created Dominator character. Little did we realize that En?gma was one of the FWA’s original partners, he took his character role very seriously (perhaps a little too seriously), he would go on to improve his wrestling ability to a standard that would win him praise in the British wrestling press and that he was actually a very nice bloke. A not so amiable character was the far less creative “Crow” copycat who it was alleged was the cause of the problems that would occur later that night. Finally the icing on the cake and perhaps the only excuse Stu, Lee and I were going to need to have serious words with the promotion was the sudden blast of “Malice through Looking Glass” that announced the arrival of previous CCW wrestler, Excalibur. This little known yet anthemic black metal track by Cradle of Filth had been a Dead Souls mainstay since before my time with EWW.

Then something happened that changed everyone’s plans. From what I recall, and the facts remain blurred to this day, Jorge Castano flipped over the top rope during his match in the Rumble and accidentally kicked a member of the audience in the face. The woman he kicked turned out to be connected the Crow wrestler in some way. Matters then apparently kicked off. We must have ducked out when this happened because all of a sudden the music was off and the show was stopped with half the wrestlers being held in the changing rooms whilst rumours of a riot via the Crow’s supporters were heating up at in the bar. An empty ring surrounded by puzzled spectators who were being told that their money would be refunded served as the confusing middle to this incident. The next thing we knew EWW were being requested backstage to act as bodyguards for the wrestlers thought to be at risk by the Crow and his supporters. I couldn’t see any sign of the supposed trouble and nothing did happen, but Stu got his £20 back!

Later that night Jonny Storm, Jorge Castano and Jody Fleische and his girlfriend joined us for a meal out. Big Jay got quite wasted and his pranks swung between creating his interpretation of a hedgehog with traffic cones and attempting a strong man act with a car. We invited the guys to stay with us at our bed and breakfast. We knew we would have to smuggle them in, but we didn’t expect the sardine situation that ended our night. Stu did the classic mistake and locked his keys in his room. After spending a long time ringing the bell for our landlady to no availe we decided to crowd everyone into the remaining rooms. I got the better end of the deal with Jody and his girlfriend having to fight over a flannel on my floor. Whereas Big Jay, Stu, Josh and Jonny all piled into one room! Recalling the size of those pigeon coups the landlady called rooms, it’s a wonder there was enough oxygen for that ensemble.

It had gone midnight and most of the EWW brigade was asleep in drunken stupors. The Dominator didn’t sleep though. A mysterious creaking noise disturbed his kingdom of darkness. Then suddenly it was punctuated by an abrupt sound. Bang! This was immediately followed the sound of a small Essex accented curse, “Shit! Missed!” The creaking sounds continued and then another loud bang. This time the creaking noise stopped altogether “Ow!” and the Essex accent turned into a celebratory cackle. It became clear to The Dominator; the creaking noise was the unlikely snoring of Pain and the bangs were Jonny’s two attempts to shut him up by chucking a pair of boots at him.

The next morning breakfast was missed in a desperate attempt to pay the bills and to smuggle the four extra guests out via the outside catwalk. Jody, for some inexplicable reason, hadn’t figured out that he wasn’t down as a registered guest and wondered if he could get in a shower and perhaps some toast before we all left. Meanwhile I was doing my best to cover for his ad his girlfriend's stealthy exit whilst paying for the bill. The landlady was telling me off about the racket we had made the previous night. I was apologizing and explaining that we had asked for help to get into Stu’s room well before her 11pm cut-off time. My protest fell on deaf ears, as she had just clocked Jody and his girlfriend rushing up the stairs. She was in hot pursuit, but was not quite fast enough. Chris O’Regan’s room had the fire exit with a wardrobe conveniently placed in front and quickly aided their escape. This was the exit the more switched on Mr Storm had used as soon as he figured the game was up. Jody and his girlfriend just made it. However, the bizarre thing was the landlady, who arrived in Chris O’Regan’s room after them acted as if she didn’t know there was a fire exit there and began searching Chris’s room. She eventually conceded that the “two black girls” (poor little Jody and his ponytail) were hiding somewhere and would jump out on her later on in the day. There must be something in the water down there.

After paying my bill I was duly threatened with being blacklisted on the Hotel Watch for the whole Southend-on-Sea region. When Stu came to pay his bill after me he was apparently threatened with the middle-aged bodybuilder who was a regular resident at the bed and breakfast. Frankly the landlady was a more intimidating sight!

And thus began 1999 and our relationship with FWA. We had three shows ahead of us, plus a guest match on FWA’s second show and loads of controversy culminating in police involvement and even a spot on the Jerry Springer Show.

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Monday, 25 May 2009

Convince a Little Man: Peer Pressure in Film Drama

The tagline for the entertaining two-part 2003 TV mini-series “Hitler: The Rise of Evil” is the famous, yet sometimes contested[i], quote popularly attributed to Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing”. Unfortunately history reveals that “good” men (and women) have not just been passive or apathetical, they have also contributed to evil. Peer pressure wields an incredible amount of power over otherwise moral, respectable and rational people, as does the force of a natural leader, orders from a respected authority or a strong enough cause.

Another two-part mini-series, “Jack the Ripper” (1988), has Sir William Gull give Inspector Abberline these profound words when trying to explain how one person could convince a co-conspirator to aid him in committing a terrible crime:

“Convince a little man that he is serving some great cause; some grand experiment and he will do practically anything for you…He’ll burn witches for you, torture your enemies and he’ll do it with a smile if he thinks it is right”.

It’s a phenomenon that prompts many debates, especially among those arguing the case for or against religion or atheism. Cinema and television have used it as a focal point in many productions. The most obvious examples seem to be the film adaptations of William Golding’s novel “Lord of the Flies”. The story focuses on how the lure of savagery under a brutal leader is far stronger than leadership under the forces for reason, fairness and order. Jack’s path, in the story, is an easy and simple route akin to the “Social Darwinism”[ii]of the “Me Generation” that just believes in survival of the fittest and the most violent.

Classic bullying takes this extreme a stage further with the strong not just attacking whoever they feel challenges their authority but actually preying on the weak as if it were a right. “Ben X” is a Belgian film made in 2007 about an autistic boy’s eventual revenge on the bullies who humiliated and physically abused him. The film explores several interesting subjects including a genuinely sympathetic attempt to show the world through the eyes of someone with Asperger’s syndrome, the internet as both a place of sanctuary and persecution, and the fact that even in these supposed enlightened and politically correct times the afflicted are still openly abused. Perhaps the most disturbing issue raised is the way the main character’s main two persecutors are supported by the majority of their peer. The peer pressure in this instance is the lure of ridiculing the weak.

German cinema in the early 21st century has thrown up two films that deal with peer pressure in institutions, both inspired by dubious and controversial experiments, “Das Experiment” (2001) and “Die Well” (2008). The psychology behind what allowed Germany; now a liberal country with strict laws against extremism, to become an autocracy in relatively recent times is a subject that has fascinated many Germans. Interestingly both the experiments mentioned were conducted in the USA.

“Das Experiment” (The Experiment) is clearly inspired by the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. This was an experiment to determine how institutions, such as prisons, affect human behaviour. A group of predominately white middleclass volunteers were made prisoners and another group were made guards. The experiment was cancelled after only six days. Apparently the inmates had been increasingly humiliated and brutalized by the guards. “Das Experiment” dramatically took the whole matter to extremes and emphasized the point that brutality was bred by such conditions. The Stanford Experiment has been heavily criticized in academic scientific circles, as it was not peer-reviewed and some argue it was orchestrated for a predetermined conclusion. “Das Experiment” has a similar moral core to “Lord of the Flies”, but rather than putting normal middleclass boys in a savage uncontrolled environment they look towards a heavily controlled institution and argue that it produces a similar result.

Die Welle” (The Wave) is based on the alleged 1967 Third Wave experiment[iii]. This experiment was conducted in a high school history class over a week to demonstrate how easily an ideology like Nazism could win the hearts and minds of many normal people. Through a series of exercises to inspire strict discipline and community, the students saw immediate positive results and began recruiting others to the movement. There is even more controversy over the Third Wave experiment as very little material and no accounts are given outside those written by the school teacher who claims credit for conducting it. Nevertheless, there have been documentaries, two fictionalized feature films, an award winning young adult novel and even a musical based on the story. Whether the events happened or happened in the way popularly described is not the issue. There is something in the core idea of mass conformity that fascinates us as a species of individuals.

“Die Welle” seems to take a lot of its base material from the novel written by Todd Strasser[iv], where the whole experiment quickly gets out of control and members of “The Wave” start intimidating other students and even resorting to violence. In the novel, “The Wave” the teacher is able to convince his followers to abandon his movement after revealing to them the comparison with Hitler. However, Die Welle’s teacher leaves matters just a bit too long before he comes to his senses and reminds the students of the original purpose of the experiment and dangerous path they are now taking. Die Welle puts a far darker spin on the book’s ending. In the novel an enthusiastic and successful member of the now defunct movement expresses his sadness at the experiment’s termination because it gave him the popularity and also gave his life meaning. Before hand he had been unpopular and lacked motivation. In “Die Welle” the equivalent character takes matters to extremes and pulls a gun, wounding another student and killing himself.

“A Few Good Men” was a major US motion picture based on the Broadway play of the same name starring some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Of all the films and TV specials mentioned here it is easily the most commercial, but that doesn’t mean it handles the topic of peer pressure less seriously. The institution this time is the military, the US marines stationed in Guantanamo Bay. The story revolves around a legal defence team in the court-martial of two young low-ranking marines accused of murdering one of their fellow marines. It transpires that the accused marines had been covertly ordered to “train” the unfortunate victim with a “Code Red”, a type of unofficial discipline administered by fellow marines, when he went out of the chain of command to request a transfer based on his substandard performance and poor health. The victim is disliked by his fellow marines and superior officers, and his willingness to trade information on one of his soon-to-be killers disgusts the bullying Colonel who gives the order for the Code Red. This unintentionally ends in tragedy. Orders are justifiably a very serious matter in the military, but there is much controversy regarding unofficial rituals and methods carried out by fellow officers that range from “hazing” to outright persecution.

One small scene highlights the essence of herd instinct. After hearing witness testimony on Code Reds from a serving marine, the prosecution demonstrates to the court that this is not an official procedure. He requests that the marine show him where in the Marine Corps Outline for Recruit Training or any other official documentation issued to soldiers will he find information on Code Reds. The witness laughs and admits that there is none. “No further questions” the prosecution says smugly heading towards his seat, the manual in his hand. Without missing a beat the lead defence lawyer moves in for his questioning taking the manual off his opposition before the latter can return to his seat and asks the witness where in the book he will find the mess hall. The witness replies that the mess hall isn’t in the manual either. Following the logic implied by the prosecution, the defence makes the conclusion that the witness has never had a meal during his time at Guantanamo Bay. The witness replies that this isn’t correct; he gets “three squares a day”. When asked how he knows where the mess hall is when it is not in the book he answers, “I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir”.

However, sometimes the excuse cannot just be pinpointed on a great cause or seduction by primal instinct or even the charisma of a strong leader. All too often the “little man” does terrible things knowing that they are wrong and he does them when he puts his standing in a group ahead of his conscience. The fear of being excluded or ostracized by a group can have a very controlling effect on a person’s actions. This is a far harder subject for us to consider and even fewer films address it. There are two, however, that do a very convincing job.

“The Accused” is quite rightly critically acclaimed for tackling many difficult aspects of the issue of rape. Breaking with the stereotypical convention, even in the late 1980s, the lead character is not a virginal heroine who is pounced upon while she is minding her own business. She is a working class girl who decides to go out, get drunk and do what many people do when they want to get their own back on an ex-lover. In a horrific turn of events a flirtatious dance ends up with the girl being gang-raped in a bar in front of a crowd of jeering spectators.

The peer pressure is evidently displayed in the effect these onlookers have on the rapists. A student, Bob, feels compelled to join the rape presumably under the pressure of wanting to prove his masculinity to the older males, even though his fellow student, Kenneth, is disgusted and rings the police. The third rapist, a formidable looking thug called Kurt who holds the victim down throughout the previous two rapes, comes across as a slow witted man who aggressively throws off the student and then joins in to stave off the jeers he is receiving from the onlookers. Although already actively involved in the crime this character’s further actions are clearly influenced his peers.

Such action can be seen in the way a crime is committed by a group of people. Often we see them behaving in a frenzy, but as time goes on individuals feel the need to make their own personal contribution often trying to “better” the violence administered by the person prior to them. It is not unheard of for people not involved with the initial assault to be drawn into making a violent contribution[v].

Perhaps the film that most characterizes the effect of evil peer pressure is the Brian De Palmer directed “Casualties of War”, which was also based on a real incident. The film tells the story of a squad of American soldiers serving in Vietnam whose much-deserved leave time is cut short when they are re-deployed to a native village suspected of being sympathetic towards the Vietcong. The squad’s mentally unhinged sergeant, angered by losing his leave time and also vengeful because of the death of a comrade decides to order his squad to kidnap a village girl. The squad are then instructed to beat and rape the girl before eventually and clumsily murdering her – she is first stabbed and then gunned down on a railway track. The crime is then intended to be concealed by the cover of the war. However, this is not to be thanks to the conscience of Private Max Eriksson, the only man in the squad not to contribute to the rape. After he is almost murdered by one of the squad, an investigation is made and the murdering rapists are convicted.

The film largely focuses on the conflict between the sergeant and Eriksson, however, the relationship between Eriksson and another soldier, Private Antonio Diaz, which reveals the effects of peer pressure. Under normal circumstances Diaz would probably have never committed the indefensible crime of rape and murder. Diaz is reluctant to rape the girl and Eriksson knows this, trying hard to convince him not to join in the madness. However, in the end fear of the sergeant and the primal fear of going against the group force Diaz’s decision.

Diaz’s role is important as sadly he is very identifiable in most groups of people and therefore his fall is all the more uncomfortable to watch. He is the everyman: sociable, amiable, friendly, inoffensive and non-confrontational. Unlike various fallen anti-heroes we have seen in drama from Macbeth to Anakin Skywalker, Diaz was not gradually seduced by evil nor was there any valour salvageable from his crimes. He deserves our contempt, but deep down we know he is not a bad person. By comparison Penn’s sergeant may not be a straight-cut villain - the film opens with him saving Eriksson’s life and he clearly has some compassion for his fellow soldiers - but ultimately he and his main supporters are the agents of evil. They bully, they terrorize and they commit evil to satisfy their own warped sense of entitlement. Likewise, Michael J Fox’s Eriksson is not a formidable presence as the champion for good when the gang rape is being committed, but he certainly comes up to scratch before and after the murder. Diaz is Eriksson’s hope that there is some humanity left in the squad, a hope he sees dashed in front of his eyes. Diaz’s psychology behind the whole incident is summed by the response he gives to the prosecutor at his court martial.

“Prosecutor: You're saying, then you involved yourself in rape to avoid being ridiculed?
Antonio Diaz: When you go out on a patrol, sir you're not gonna be as good as you wanna be. These guys aren't helping you do anything. There's gonna be four people on that patrol, and an individual. And so I did what I did, and I got remorse about it. But I also got remorse about talking at this trial. I have a loyalty to the men I was out there with”

The loyalty Diaz speaks of is the need to be a part of a community. From our primate ancestry to the very origins of our civilisation we are social animals. We seem to operate best in small groups. The successful individualist who breaks from his caste may be aspired to and worshipped, but this has probably more to do with leader-worship than a desire to be alone. Chronic loneliness has been connected to life threatening conditions from mental disorders like clinical depression to cancer or even strokes. Some people, of course, are happy to be alone, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. The solitary are often persecuted and enforced solitude through ostracizing a person is a common form of punishment. And yet the hope many of these films offer comes from lone individuals like Eriksson in “Casualties of War”, Kenneth in “The Accused”, Markinson in “A Few Good Men” and Karo and Mona in “Die Welle”. Even the autistic hero of “Ben X” has his supporters. These characters are not leaders and not overtly strong people, but individuals nonetheless whose sense of morality or principles stopped them from conforming to something they could see was fundamentally wrong.


[i] “There is no record that Burke said this. The quotation became popular after John F. Kennedy began using it in speeches but after careful research by many persons, no source could be found. Bartlett's discontinued attributing the saying to Burke” – Zendam, “”
[ii] I use the term “Social Darwinism” not as any slight to the great Charles Darwin and his great Theory of Evolution, but in the negative sense opposed by the famous Darwin supporter, Richard Dawkins.
[iii] This experiment was allegedly conducted by Ron Jones to demonstrate the appeal of fascism to is sophomore history students. Apart from write-ups in three issues of the student newspaper, The Cubberley Catamount, the only other documentation of the experiment was an essay written by Jones.
[iv] This is the pen name of Morton Rhue. The novel, although essentially a novelisation of the 1981 TV movie “The Wave”, won the Massachusetts Book Award.
[v] Geoff Thompson often remarks in his seminars, his book “Watch My Back” and other works how the more lethal injuries in a fight come from those not previously involved.

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