The sixties were years of sexual revolution, but doesn’t “revolution” imply a rotation of three-hundred-and-sixty degrees? In other words, you’re back where you started?

As the decade progressed, second-wave feminists began to suspect they were agitating gender dynamics without actually changing them. Did the pill just enable men to have destructive fuck-and-chuck relationships? Would no-fault divorce be taken advantage of by all-fault men? Was pornography another avenue for the exploitation of women? Would all of this social turbulence settle with Tarzan still on top and Jane still at the bottom?

Consider Hugh Hefner, and consider Playboy. In the 50s and 60s, Hef cultivated an image as a progressive titan, publishing fearlessly about race and sex and drugs. His first interview was of Miles Davis. His lithographic abysses of skin were sold as a form of female sexual liberation.

Playboy Enterprises operated a line of gentleman’s clubs, which hired attractive female help known as “bunnies”. Advertisements were everywhere: as a bunny, you would travel the world, meet celebrities, and earn up to “$200-$300 a week”—a fantastic sum for a young woman with no qualifications in the sixties. Gloria Steinem (then a freelance writer) became curious about the reality of a bunny’s life, and applied for a job at one of Hef’s clubs.

Steinem’s adventures down the rabbit hole were published in the the May and June 1963 issues of Show. They are now regarded as early examples “New Journalism”, personal accounts where the reporter’s voice melds with (and becomes) the story. A Bunny’s Tale pre-dates Hunter S Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and Normal Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago by about five years, although obviously Sinclair, London, and Orwell published similar material in book form decades earlier.

Things start the way they continue: deceptively. Steinem fills in an application at the Club’s 59th Street office, giving her age as 24. The hiring manager cautions that this is awfully old to be a Playboy bunny but she might squeak in under the wire. Good news for Steinem, who was almost thirty at the time.

She gets the job, and then comes Bunny School: which is a crash-course in mixology, deportment, and how to perform the “bunny dip” without splitting your corset. Steinem was really annoying here, to be honest. She’s just smug as a peach, and the article has a tone of “Isn’t it funny that an overeducated Jewish gal like me is doing something like this?” We get contempt-dripping anecdotes about how dumb and shallow the other girls are. The applicants take an exam, and Steinem makes a point of mentioning that she got the highest score despite answering seven questions wrong on purpose. She may not think much of the girls, but the more experienced bunnies still have much to teach her.

There’s more to bunnying than stuffing your corset and hoping clients don’t pinch your tail: the job has multiple layers to it. Your technical job is to do typical “hired gun” type stuff like greeting customers, running the hat check desk, and waitressing the floor. Your theoretical job is to represent the Playboy brand. Your actual job is to inspire men to drink as much alcohol as is medically possible.

Steinem must navigate these conflicting requirements. Bunnies are forbidden from dating Club members—a private detective agency is shadowing them, making sure they don’t do this—but Steinem hears of a girl who was fired for not going out with a high-status Club keyholder. Sometimes you can refuse to tell a customer your last name, but other times, you can’t. Rules apply, until they don’t.

Years ago, Andrea Donderi wrote a now-legendary comment about “Ask Culture” vs “Guess Culture”. Essentially, in Ask Culture you are allowed to ask questions. In Guess Culture, however, you are supposed to intuit and “feel” your way around issues—you actually get penalized for asking questions, because they mark you as a social simpleton. “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.”

The Playboy Club is Guess Culture: Hard Mode. Steinem has a Bunny Bible with all sorts of rules she’s meant to follow, but those aren’t the actual rules. The real rules are as invisible as phlogiston, and must never be spoken aloud. Girls are just supposed to know them.

One unspoken rule is “build a good rapport with the busboys”. Bunnies need tips. An efficient busboy will clean your table and make it look presentable for new customers. A faster turnover of customers means more money in your pocket. But if you get on a busboy’s bad side, he can find all sorts of ways to fuck with you—like pocketing your tips, and insisting that the customer stiffed you. You will have no way of proving otherwise.

Some other things Steinem noticed about bunnying.

  • It’s physically exhausting. Hours range from “long” to “what the fuck”. She describes being on her feet from 7:30pm to 4:00am, and then having to go to a photoshoot at 11:00am. She loses five pounds. Her feet swell. Some of the other girls recommend rolling bottles under her feet, to relax the arches.
  • Is she allowed to take a break? Again, that’s the “Guess Culture” thing I mentioned. You might be allowed or you might not be.
  • It’s expensive. Bunnies get nickeled and dimed to death. Each girl has to kick in $2.50 a day to cover costume maintenance (a hard sneeze can break the zipper), and $5 a pair for nylons. The Playboy Club, of course, will not compensate anyone for anything, although there is a 25% bunny discount at a local beautician.
  • Steinem does not earn the advertised $200-300 a week or anything close. Bunnies make a flat $50 a week (NYC’s minimum wage), plus maybe $30 a day in tips, of which the club takes 50%. Hat check bunnies have it the worst. They make no tips, and are paid $12 a night. Steinem doesn’t now how this is legal, and maybe it isn’t. Later, she encounters a girl who made $200 in one week. Steinem regards her as a freakish lottery winner.
  • Bunnies are not above ripping off the Club. On her first night, she gets a dollar tip. Like a rube, she asks a fellow bunny who she should give it to. She’s told to store it in “the vault”—ie, stuff it down the front of her corset, out of sight.
  • Bunnies trash-talk the clients constantly behind their backs. One of Steinem’s new friends refers to Club keyholders as “suckers”. Another indicates she preferred working at the Chicago club because the men there were stupider, and more inclined to think they’d gotten “in” with you.
  • Bunnies break the “don’t date keyholders” rule constantly, particularly in the case of rich ones. There are ways to make money from men that technically aren’t prostitution. Maybe he will buy you an expensive fur coat, and you will be so smitten that you will ask for his apartment number.
  • Bunnies will stuff the front of their corsets with socks, tissue paper, and spare bits of hose. Plastic garbage bags are frowned upon, because it won’t allow your skin to “breathe”, meaning you’ll sweat more and (it’s theorized) your boobs will shrink.

There is an atmosphere of suspicion hanging over the bunnies. They come and go, and are not to be trusted. In particular, Hefner is terrified that the bunnies will start “merchandizing” themselves and get his clubs busted for prostitution. Private detectives will occasionally approach off-duty bunnies and pose as johns, offering them hundreds of dollars for sex. Girls that accept are fired, and added to a company-wide blacklist. Yet at the same time, they are clearly supposed to use their physical appeal to get men to buy drinks. The subtext is clear: bunnies are supposed to appear available, but not actually be available. As Dworkin once said, the only fiction in pornography is the smile on the woman’s face.

As a bunny, you lie a lot, and are lied to in return. Steinem is told by a (male) doctor working for Playboy Enterprises that she must receive an internal examination before the Club can hire her as a waitress. This sounds so obviously suspicious that she calls the Health Board to check, and sure enough, New York has no such requirement.

Any nightclub of any size is a Darwinian jungle, with management as the apex predators. They survive by winnowing deserving and undeserving humans as ruthlessly as Dachau in 1933. Essentially, your position in the club (or even whether you’re allowed in the door) depends on where you stand in what I call the Nightclub Pyramid.

The top of the Pyramid? Rich men. Nightclubs love guys who drop a thousand dollars on bottle service, who tip $100 just so they’ll have an excuse to flash the gangsta roll in their pocket. They rely on rich men to survive.

(Also in this group are status-rich men—ie, club promoters, D-list celebrities, and the owner’s annoying twerp brother. These do not contribute to the club’s bottom line in the same way, but are nevertheless considered rich-man adjacent).

The next level? Beautiful women, who are necessarily to attract rich men. This can be problematic, because such women (or at least the subset that go nightclubbing) are capricious. If a club has bad vibes they just bounce: beautiful women are desired everywhere, and club doors fly open for them. Without beautiful women, you don’t have rich men, and then you don’t have shit.

Most nightclubs hack the system by hiring beautiful women. The Playboy bunnies occupy a confused social position: they are nominally high status, but work at the club’s mercy, and are vulnerable to economic exploitation.

(If you’re wondering about the rest of the Nighclub Pyramid, the third level is “plain women”, the fourth level is “whale shit”, and the fifth level is “poor men”.)

Steinem soon discerns that there is no career track for Bunnies, and no upward mobility. Despite the superficial glamor (and the fact that a PI agency is stalking you), it is a waitressing job with an uncomfortable uniform. Steinem soon quits because she has an article to write (and also, they’re beginning to ask questions about her failure to provide a social security number for her fake identity), but turnover is high in any event. A lot of girls seem to entertain dreams that they’ll meet some dashing and unattached movie star, but this is like Hefner’s “posing for Playboy helps your film career!” line—at a certain point, you’re a sucker if you believe that will happen.

Despite all of this, it does seem like an action-packed and distinctly unboring job. Probably a step up from working in a secretarial pool or selling Avon or whatever most women did in 1963. Even dissatisfied bunnies are dissuaded from unionizing by the fact that it’s an extremely attractive job. If bunnies enacted a strike, the club could fill their positions in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

I often felt that Steinem was portraying it in the worst light possible. I did find an article by Chialing Young King (breezily referred to in A Bunny’s Tale as a “Chinese Bunny who stuffed her costume with gym socks”), who has markedly more positive memories. She says it was sometimes possible to make $500-1000 a week, and that Hef’s sleazy enterprise was actually the sexually and racially liberated paradise it pretended to be!

But Steinem’s message rings loudly and convincingly from the pages, particularly in a post-Manson, post-Altamont world: always question the counterculture. Don’t let people piss on you and call it rain. Guys are not reading Playboy for the articles, getting naked is not a cheat code for sexual empowerment, and the Easter bunny is not real.

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This is a great movie to watch with 30-40% of your concentration. If you are doing your taxes, texting a friend, and watching the dog chase a ball around, you will enjoy Spider-Man II. Good director. Good action sequences. The colors pop. But believe me, you don’t want watch this movie with your full attention, like I just did.

Nothing makes sense.

  • Peter Parker swings from webs that come from above the city skyline. What are the webs attached to? Passing planes? The moon?
  • Peter Parker throws two robbers out of a car as Spider-Man, and then drives the car to Mary Jane’s recital. When he arrives, he’s dressed in a suit. The implication is that he dressed while driving, like Mr Bean.
  • Who rebuilds Doc Ock’s lab after it’s destroyed? What contractor would work with a fugitive from justice who has killed people?
  • Why is Doc Ock even able to return to the lab? Shouldn’t there be cops or security staking out the scene? How is he able to wander around the city without attracting attention? How does he conceal four 20-foot metal tentacles the size of sewer pipes under a coat?
  • Doc Ock needs money to rebuild his lair, so he robs a stereotypical Movie Bank(tm) with a vault full of bags of money like a cartoon. Those bags spill open to reveal that they contain gold coins. What’s he going to do with those? Nobody takes payment in gold coins. Is this a period piece set in 17th century Tortuga?
  • The train is literally the monorail from the Simpsons. Doc Ock destroys the brake lever (not the brakes themselves, mind you. The lever.) The train then accelerates out of control, as indicated by a speedometer with a helpfully gigantic SPEED INDICATOR label.
  • Why doesn’t Doc Ock build body armor? Or wear a kevlar vest? Or even button up his shirt? He’s the most vulnerable supervillain I’ve ever seen. A good-sized potato, properly flung, could stop him.
  • Peter Parker tries to stop the speeding train with his legs. Even the extras on the train think it’s a dumb idea.
  • Doc Ock snatches Aunt May out of a crowd and drags her to the top of the building. What does he need her for? He doesn’t know at this point that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. To him, she’s just some random lady.
  • In the ensuing fight, Spider-Man catches Aunt May with a web as she falls. He then whiplashes this 70-year-old woman back upward with the kind of G force that would get a trained pilot invalidated for six months with ruptured blood vessels. She ends up comically hanging from a statue by her cane, while emitting mild, unconvincing screams.
  • Doc Ock tells Peter Parker “bring Spider-Man to me!”…and then pointlessly throws Parker into a brick wall at a speed that might easily have killed him.
  • Doc Ock incapacitates Spider-Man, ties him up, and drops him off at Harry Osbourne’s pad. He doesn’t take two seconds to lift Spider-Man’s mask and learn his identity. His ties are so weak that Peter Parker breaks out instantly, with no apparent effort. I guess Doc Ock just got lucky that Spider-Man stayed unconscious for exactly the right amount of time.
  • If Peter Parker is strong enough to hold an entire steel-framed wall on his back, why is he working as a pizza delivery boy? The man could do the work of a crew of Teamsters singlehandedly.
  • When Peter Parker abandons his Spider-Man alter-ego, crime increases by 75%. Note that this isn’t “robberies” or “murders”. Just “crimes”, in general. I guess tax evasion and mortgage fraud are also going through the roof in Spider-man’s absence. (Note that in 2004, New York had 1,425 crimes per day, about ten to twenty times greater than Movie!New York’s crime wave.)

Etc. This was just death by a thousand cuts for me. It doesn’t help that it’s “superhero loses his superpowers”, my least favorite plot device.

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A crude Australian animated film “created” in the sense a blocked drain “creates” a sculpture of hair, Go to Hell!! is as cult as you can get without an IV of Kool-Aid. It’s ugly, but fascinating. I want a world where more things like this get made, regardless of how few people watch them.

Essentially a one-man production, Go to Hell!! has the shortest end credits you will ever see in a feature-length 2D animated film. “Character design: Ray Nowland. Storyboards: Ray Nowland. Layouts: Ray Nowland.” Etc. There are digital effects (credited to Leaf Nowland), but we are talking about tens of thousands of drawings, done by hand, by a single man, for a film with commercial prospects beyond hopeless. Nowland really wanted this son of a bitch to exist, and it’s worthy of attention for that reason alone.

It was made in 1997, and licensed to Energee Entertainment in 1998. It played a few times on SBS’s Eat Carpet, which was a late-night revue for strange and outre programming (basically an Australian equivalent of MTV’s Liquid Television). I’ve heard rumors that it was once sold on DVD and VHS: evidence does not support this. More people claim to have been molested by Bigfoot than have watched the film. Little information exists about Go to Hell!! and I cannot answer urgent questions such as “why does the title have two exclamation points and not one or three?”

It is not possible to watch Go to Hell!! legally. If you want to do so anyway, someone uploaded a 240p copy to Youtube (how did they get it…?), and someone else made a typically awful AI “remaster” with wrong colors and part of the frame missing. Pick your poison: both look like shit.

The plot is…interesting. It seeks to describe the arc of the cosmos, and it does so at an incomprehensibly fast gallop. Go to Hell!! has the tone of a drug-addled stranger jabbering conspiracy theories at you on the bus, and a visual style to match.

The movie starts out on a a near-future version of Earth. With an eco-crunch about to hit, a wealthy businessman called GD announces that he will journey into space with a reservoir of Earth’s genetic material to save it from extinction. But there’s a dark side to GD. We see his personal life: he’s a dirtball who hynotically brainwashes attractive young women into sleeping with him (“your nipples will explode with delight when you think of GD!“). His seemingly heroic mission is actually just a way to escape his vengeful wife, who has caught him in flagrante delicto with his new secretary.

This charismatic but sleazy character seems modeled on Kerry Packer, the billionaire media mogul who was famous for his dramatic personal life, including flings with models and Page Three girls (one such relationship ended with the girl committing suicide). Fun fact: a guy who lives down the road from me was actually friends with Packer in the 90s. Well, acquaintances, I suppose. Actually, he was the Telstra IT technician sent to Packer’s hospital ward to wire up his TV with a satellite downlink (when you’re a billionaire media mogul you can afford to do things like that). He was advised by a personal assistant to not speak to Packer, or even make eye contact with him. Other than that, they were best mates.

Anyway, GD arrives at an interstellar space station, accompanied by his son Little Red and his new fuck-bunny Angel. (Red: “are you my new mommy?” Angel: “not in a million years.”) Shortly after, nuclear war breaks out on Earth and the planet is destroyed. I hate it when that happens.

Stranded in space, GD catches a lucky break. He discovers a distant planet which is capable of harboring life. Using genetic experimentation (and a suspended animation chamber that allows him to slow down his own aging), he populates it with ape-like creatures, who he thinks he can bend to his will. But there’s one person he cannot bend to his will: his own son.

Almost from the jump, Little Red is portrayed as a force of corruption. He breaks into a hydroponics garden on the space station and destroys a large quantity of fruit. More seriously, he takes another boy on an unsanctioned space walk: the boy dies in a tragic accident. GD pulls some strings to keep his son out of trouble, but Red has few friends aboard the space station, and he flees to the planet as soon as he can. There, he begins corrupting GD’s apes into disobeying his father’s will and thinking for themselves.

At this point, you’re probably like the detective at the end of The Usual Suspects, noticing fifty obvious clues at once. Like how GD’s name is GD, and his secretary is named Angel, and Angel calls Red “you little devil!” at one point.

There are several ways to view Go to Hell!! One is as an Australian Fritz the Cat: a “counterculture” film aimed at stoners. The tone is sophomoric, and there are fart and dick jokes aplenty. The final shot is of a man taking a piss while wistful piano music plays.

The second is a grand (but cynical) retelling of the Christian eschatological narrative. From Genesis to Exodus to the Gospels to Revelation, it stays the same: GD has a plan to “save” humanity (ie, enslave them), and Red messes everything up. Admittedly, “the Bible, but postmodern” isn’t the most original thought ever thunk, but here it’s done in an ockerish “‘straya, cunt” way that I hadn’t seen before. For example, we see Jesus “walking on water”…by surfing.

The third is as an art film. Go to Hell!! is at it’s most compelling when inner vision and outer form twist together in strange galvanic chemistry, producing confusing but always fascinating animated filmmaking. Large stretches of the film (particularly at the end) are wild expressionistic romps that seem unrelated to the story, yet the movie is much stronger for them. When Red is “tempting” people, cuts rapidly stagger between his smirking face and a diabolic devil face, almost fast enough to trigger epileptic attacks. Maybe it’s for the best that Go to Hell!! aired in the graveyard hours, or it might have a body count.

As mentioned, the film tries to tell virtually the entire story of the Bible, and do plenty of other things in between. It’s wildly overstuffed, and moves breathlessly fast. At times you wish it would slow down, because there are a lot of nice moments that get trampled.

For one thing, the writing is often genuinely witty (GD: “I have risen, as was predicted!” Man 1: “who predicted that?” Man 2: “I don’t know, but he was right.”) For another, it’s smart: probably too smart to be viewed while punching a cone at two in the morning. I wonder if stoners got the joke about GD’s name, which is a reference to the Hebrew practice of dropping out vowels (compare with YHWH). Or the way GD’s “angels” become deformed by generations of inbreeding, and look…well, surprisingly close to the way angels are described in the Bible. Elsewhere, the humor gets a bit broad, such as when GD tries to save humanity with a device called Active Radiation Kills…geddit?

Although Christianity serves as is the scaffolding for the film’s story, the story is unabashedly secular. God is portrayed as a lecherous pervert, and his angels as deformed mutants. The Devil is the only one on humanity’s side. Right through history, we see vignettes of the same pattern playing out, with God (GD) having a plan for us, and the Devil (Red) foiling it. He does what wrestling fans call a “heel turn”, becoming the movie’s heroic figure. As soon as the story enters modern times, we enter overt Ralph Bakshi territory. GD is getting increasingly upset with Hitler, who he regards as evil. We’re obviously meant to note the parallels between Hitler’s camps and GD’s own crimes (he once destroyed every life form on the planet to make way for his apes). This is pretty on-the-nose stuff, and more daring than Bakshi ever got.

There’s a lot I like about Go to Hell!! The style, the vision, the way it takes no prisoners and gives no fucks. The moments of seeping dreamlike weirdness that exist between story beats, the way a snail leaves a glistening trail of slime behind it. All of this works perfectly. The final shot of the movie is eerie and thought-provoking. Maybe GD himself was being manipulated by a power beyond his understanding. Maybe it’s turtles all the way up, as well as down. Who knows?

There are also many things I don’t like. Ironically for a film with an atheist sensibility, it can get a bit didactic and preachy. Red gives a long speech to humanity at the end that’s basically just an Earth Day recruitment ad. We have to save the environment, manage our resources, etc. It’s so self-serious and so tonally out of place that I wonder if it was meant as a joke. After all, it’s the Devil giving that speech.

And the requirement that it follows the Bible’s story means things feel really forced and shoehorned. I was bored through all the parts re-litigating Exodus. I wish Nowland had found a way to tell the core of the Exodus story, instead of just literally making it “GD controls a human called Pharoah, Red controls a human called Moses.” I already know what happens in Exodus. I don’t see the point of making a cheap animated version of The Ten Commandments. Here, the movie is in flight from its strengths.

I haven’t mentioned the animation. As I’ve said, it was made by one man, and looks pretty good, viewed in light of that fact.

The economics of 2D animation are paradoxical. Technically, you can show literally anything in animation: it’s not necessarily harder to draw a planet exploding than it is a man boarding a bus (it might be easier—outlandish subject matter means the audience will forgive more cartoonish cheating.) The downside is an extremely high per-foot production cost. Each minute of 2D animation costs thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

But this is partly why I enjoy 2D animation. It’s the Twitter of filmmaking. Animated films are tight and focused out of necessity, and they almost always have a clear creative vision. Yes, that vision might be “Reagan-era toy commercial”, or “Mindy Kaling staging a Wehrmacht-style occupation of a beloved franchise and making it all about her”, but there’s no possibility an animated film will devolve into self-indulgent “shoot three hours of nothing and call it a film” auteur rubbish.

Ray Nowland was once a big fish in Australia’s tiny animation industry. He is credited on Marco Polo Jr vs the Dragon (the first Australian ever) and worked for Yoram Gross’s studio (he was principle character animator on several Dot and the Kangaroo films in the 80s, along with Blinky Bill: The Mischievous Koala). He also did some work for Burbank Animation, under the name “Ray Nowland”.

If you’re a fan of Australian animation, you might spot a few easter eggs. Like this shot of a dead koala, which has a Doom 2 “killing Commander Keen” energy.

And while I’m not going to go and check, I strongly suspect that the shot of the kangaroo hopping away is from Dot and the Kangaroo‘s final scene.

[edit: I checked, and it’s not. But given the Blinky Bill reference earlier, it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re supposed to think of Dot. I forgot how sad that movie is: the ending made me tear up a little.]

Watched by few, loved by fewer, Go to Hell!! deserved better than it got, which was apparently nothing at all. Maybe word about it will finally start to spread. It was Ray Nowland’s first and last film as a director. His alpha and omega. Where is he now? Is he even still alive? Who knows. God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world.

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