The Smashing Machine is a documentary about Mark Kerr, a professional fighter in the pay per view mixed martial arts (MMA) industry. Mark Kerr himself is a great subject. He weighs in at 105 kg, stands around 6’2″ and for a sport that has more than its fair share of brutish and brutal looking men, outbrutes most of them in appearence and physique. However, he is also intelligent, articulate and expresses himself in such a way that in some scenes, as he has quite a high voice, if you close your eyes you’d think it was Woody Allen on screen.

However, it’s pretty clear very early on that Mark, no matter how nice and sensitive a guy he is in real-life, he is something else entirely in the ring. The documentary showed quite a lot of footage of earlier days minimal rules MMA bouts when head butting, wound and eye gouging and other such techniques were allowed. Mark was very proficient in these techniques. At the end of those bouts, his opponent’s faces often looked like they’d been through a meat-grinder.

I watched Modify earlier that week. It was a film with graphic surgical procedures, lots of blood and a fair amount of footage of people being cut, branded and sliced. A little difficult to sit through but nowhere near as difficult or as confronting as I found many of the fights in The Smashing Machine.

The rules these days for many MMA organisations have been changed so that the early ground-and-pound fighters like Mark Kerr no longer have as much of an advantage. (those interested may want to have a look at the Mixed Martial Arts entry in Wiki). It’s hard to say how much of the rules change resulted in Mark Kerr’s later losses and how much of it was due to his drug, relationship and attendent fitness problems.

But it is still the closest thing to a modern day gladiatorial bloodsport that we have. I’ve always liked the fighting sports and it annoys me that we get so little of it broadcasted during the olympics or whatever other games are around. I find MMA fights having minimal rules as the most compelling of all competitive combat sports. Not just because it allows a large variety of techniques to be used but because having stripped away most of the rules that permit safety and hence style and art to enter the ring, MMA comes closest to what battle really is – an ugly and violent affair.

But surprisingly enough, given my libertarian beliefs and my interests both in combat sports and other more fringe practices, having seen the Smashing Machine I now have ethical reservations on minimal rules combat.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with a couple of adults, trained and experienced in their sport, competing in as safe as possible an environment for prize money. It’s not that big a deal that the sport is risky (as mountain climbing or base jumping is) or that one or both of them will get hurt. The two in the ring know the risks, have taken punishment in the past and probably have a close relationship to violence which might otherwise be expressed somewhere else in not quite as sane, safe or consensual an environment. OK, maybe a MMA fighter getting his face beaten in isnt quite as consenting as a submissive getting a nail hammered through his penis, but it is part of the deal, part of the scene so to speak.

So, why these new scruples?

It is because the documentary, in potraying the lows as well as the highs of the sport, shows the raw fear and doubt on the MMA fighters’ faces before they get in the ring, it shows the injuries they sustain, the grief, self-doubt and emotional trauma defeat brings which, being so violent a defeat rather more resembles assault-victim shock than tennis star runnerup tantrums.

And also, the documentary shows that for even the most successful of them, while fame and glory are rewarding, it is primarily the money that pushes them into the ring.

Mark Coleman, who was 36 when he was trying to make a comeback in the documentary puts it pretty clearly “I’m doing it because I have four mouths to feed.”


Miyazaki’s films generally have the following elements: a very fully realised girl either prepubescent or just after, an even more fully realised world with a keen sense of the natural environment, various forms of flying, various types of monsters and no villains but definately antagonists.

The documentary I just saw had an interview with a japanese psychologist who has a keen interest in Miyazaki. He made a couple of comments about how he felt Miyazaki’s monsters are projected elements of himself, perhaps elements of himself that he is not comfortable with but which his protoganists, often those very young girls, have an instinctive trust for. He cites the scene in Totoro where Mei, a four year old, discovers a shed sized monster (ok, it resembles a large soft toy) in a tree and promptly leaps onto its tummy and falls asleep. The editor follows this interview with sketches of Chihiro in Spirited Away taking off her top.


Not if you know his work.

In his films, the girls are not objectified, as a viewer you inhabit the viewpoint, you know their feelings from the inside. His characterisations of the girls are complex and emotionally deep. My particular reading is that Miyazaki’s female protaganists are true extensions of his persona as opposed to those monsters which I believe tend to be his ideas, fears and wishes of external uncontrolable forces in the world that he wishes were benevelont. The reason why he chooses girls, I think, is for the simple reason that men in the Japanese culture have less freedom to demonstrate weakness and doubt, to express sadness and grief and hence are less flexible characters if one is interested, as Miyazaki is, in films about growth and struggle. It is no accident I think that most of his male characters tend to be variants of stoic fellas with a very limited emotional range and who, I find, tend to quite boring in comparison to his female characters.


As a film that brings a new look to the screen that integrates computer effects so well into its substance and feel, Sin City is worth watching.

But as a film that brings beauty and style to violence ala beat takeshi, john woo, akira kurozawa, sergio leone, coppola and tarantino, it has very little that is original or interesting. Rather it hammers away, upping the ante with more graphic gore, more special effects blood and less substance as the film continues.

Sadly, it doesnt make it as a noir film either even though it has the required cast of hard men and femme fatales and the rain drenched perpetual night-time backdrop. But it’s all window dressing. Overburdened with uninspired dialogue, endless voiceovers, the Sin City characters do not live. In every scene, they are pinned to a single interpretation. Noir lives in the ambiguity of silence and morality and in spite of the numerous killings and tortures, there is no ambiquity in this film. Or humour or any sense of irony and self-awareness. Purely on the plot and dialogue level, it is like listening to a semi-literate redneck describe a pitbull fight down to the last drop of blood.

Does anyone remember Dick Tracy, that 1990 movie starring Warren Beatty and Madonna? Reviewers marvelled at its dayglo look and its grotesque cast. I doubt many can remember much more about it now or that it sits in many people’s must view again list. Sin City will likely go the same way.


State of Mind is a documentary shot in Pyongyang in North Korea about a couple of school girl gymnasts preparing for the North Korean Mass Games.

It’s the details that are interesting. People live in large concrete apartment buildings and have food rations allocated to them (1 chicken and five eggs per person per month). Like Orwell’s 1984, every kitchen has a radio set to the national station which cannot be turned off. Pyongyang itself is all statues, decaying buildings and 8 lane highways with no cars.

Through the films narrow scope however, it seems that the people are getting on with life. The schoolgirls train between 2 – 8 hours a day for the Games with an intensity that any dedicated sports person would recognise although their dedication also seems to be mixed with fan ardour for the General that I’m more used to seeing in association with rock stars.

It could be that the government was very careful in selecting the participants or it could be that complete control of information flowing into the country is a worthwhile strategy, but the two families in the documentary seemed to genuinely love their communist state and genuinely hate the Americans. Phrases such as ‘Imperialist American forces wanting to silence laughter in North Korea’ and ‘so long as we have our General, we will be safe’ fall from their lips with ease and sincerity.

But in the end, the film only offered a brief and tantalising glimpse of North Korea. I left it with an immense curiousity about the state, the people and most of all the life there.