Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Underachievement Singles of the Year

No long list here; the single has long declined in importance and now with the advent of the iPod and both legal and illegal downloading, the prominence of a song that 'leads' is in sharp abeyance. And, of course there are the cases of an admittedly great single being released, the fourth or fifth off the same album, depriving it of its emblematic force as the horse's carcass is being flogged for all its worth. There were a few good singles this past year, and two in particular that will be remembered for a long time and transcended the standing of a merely strong track. A great single does not necessarily have to be a great song, just typifying a moment in time will often do, though it would be hard to argue against the following two tracks being great:

Crazy - Gnarls Barkley

Sitting at a Parisian bar last summer I overheard a drunken Englishwoman ask the barman if he could put on 'that song by Gniles Davis'; her details were a little awry but she knew what she liked. The first single ever to hit number one on downloads alone, and then stayed there for nine weeks, is the sort of thing that Smashee and Nicees would call 'timeless' and there is a truth in that truism. While much modern soul is either content to wallow in the inert navel-gazing destined for Buddha Bar soundtracks to be played in H&M shops all over Europe, this grabs the fine floor-sweeping tradition and goes with it. Straight into things with the opening bassdrums, a string of simple minor chords and a stinging chorus that delivers the song's familiar argument, rescuing it from association with dozens of maudlin power ballads down through the years.

Though the album St. Elsewhere was not so spectacular it was nonetheless a good introduction to a duo possessed of genius and a show that is destined to run and run.

Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above - CSS

Canadian Rockers Death From Above sadly expired this year but not before they were subject to the greatest tribute song since Jonathan Richman pressed The Velvet Underground on how they got 'that sound'. It exploded on the net during the summer and though it never charted anywhere its word of mouth success was, well, phenomenal. Sythesizers, theremins, a killer bassline, clunky, ungrammatical lyrics ('you knew my dreams when they were in my head/you knew my secrets, even in bed'), and a middle-eight that invites all manner of silly dancing. Making love to the bonecrunching disco metal of Death From Above over a prolonged period of time might result in something calamitous such as compound fractures or muscular dystrophy but the comehither of lead singer LoveFoxx is sensible enough to propose the two activities one after the other. As if the song couldn't be improved, it was twice, on the remixes by Spank Rock and Diplo, both of which are available on the 12". It has to be heard.

Chronicle of a Death Foreskinned

Only a week before Christmas comes the news that Jesus' foreskin has gone missing, stolen from a shoebox in the parochial house of Calcata in Italy. I will leave it to Slate to fill in the details, but what I find shocking is not the relative fuss being made over such an item of dubious providence, but the relative lack of fuss being made. This is the godly prepuce after all, does a slight taciturnity on the part of the faithful betray a lack of belief in its really having once hung on the tip of Jesus' johnson?

Scapegoats in Libya

Six Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor have been sentenced to death by a Libyan court for their supposed involvement in the infection with HIV of 426 children. The seven, who have been detained since 1999, have been accused of being at the centre of an international plot to kill Muslims, orchestrated, of course, by Israel. Despite it being proved by dozens of independent scientific tests that many of the children had been infected for up to three years before the arrival of the nurses in the hospital in question, and despite expert testimonies such as that of Luc Montagnier, the French scientist who was among the discoverers of the AIDS virus, the court has decided to find a scapegoat for the failings and corruption of Libya's health system.

There is much hot air expelled by neocon elements about the threat to Western civilisation by 'Islamofascists', as they call them. While the likes of al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hizbullah are not in any way favourable to democratic values, in the long run they are unlikely to do much serious harm. Judgements such as these, allied with similar ideological retrogressions such as the rise of Creationism in the US and the UK, are a much greater threat. No more than anyone with a firm belief in horoscopes should be put in charge of public policy or administer courts, then neither should religious fanatics, with a disregard for scientific opinion be.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Underachievement Albums of the Year

Like any self-regarding cultural pundit worth his sodium chloride, Seanachie announces here his albums of the year, in ascending order (it's better that way - you get to scroll down in time to the drum roll):

10. Magic Potion - The Black Keys
It's not quite so good as their previous effort but Akron, Ohio's finest (possibly only?) bluesmen provided a more than adequate substitute for the White Stripes this year. The lyrics are hoary and shopworn, the riffs greasy like the change handed out in American gas stations before the advent of credit cards. In a parallel world The Black Keys would probably have been filling your tank. Download for a sample: Strange Desire.

9. Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not - Arctic Monkeys
Alex Turner has been described as a Hogarth for the SMS generation, which, the sheer pretention of that pronouncement notwithstanding, has a certain degree of accuracy about it. His lyrics are as savvy and as sharp as Mike Skinner's, and those of Paul Weller, Ray Davies, Ian Dury and others before that (perhaps going all the way back to Hogarth, Chaucer even). The music is serviceable, just as Oasis' was in the early days, but they are only 19-20 after all. They might get even better than this. Here's hoping for it; to a lifetime of rhymes such as 'Rotherham/botherin' him' and 'summat/stomach'. I bet they look good on the dancefloor too. Little bastards. Download for a sample (if you've been living on Mars this past twelve months):A Certain Romance.

8. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!
Like the Arctic Monkeys, CYHSY got big on MySpace and their conquering of the world was predicted before the year began. The album manages to sound simultaneously accessible and experimental, not terribly unlike a certain New York band led by David Byrne, to whom they bear a strong resemblance. A friend of mine (currently exiled in Brooklyn) whined that they are 'for people that haven't heard of Talking Heads'. Talking who, Damien? There are enough low-key anthems here to keep light-fingered soundtrack programmers going for decades. Catchy stuff, despite themselves. Download for a sample: Heavy Metal.

7. Mi and L'au - Mi and L'au
This low-key gem was released in the UK and Ireland last year, but did not get here until January, an appropriate time for a winterly melancholic acoustic album written in a snowbound log cabin in Finland, the same cabin that adorns the cover. A couple on and offstage, the French L'au and Finnish Mi, have crafted a string of beautiful sad ballads, using as little as possible to wrench their melodies out of the chilly air. Friends of Devendra Banhart since 'before he was famous', their homecoming gig in Paris' Café de la Danse (supporting Vashti Bunyan) was a disappointment, marred by nerves and a few bum notes. But the weather's getting colder, and their album's on the turntable again... Download for a sample: Older.

6. Pieces of the People We Love - The Rapture
There are few bands that can afford to forego production by DFA and branch out instead for the very in-vogue Dangermouse, but The Rapture could. The result is a more sprightly affair than their brilliant debut 'Echoes'. The record bounces from the off, and even if there are not a huge amount of new ideas in the mix, this is music from one of the few rock bands that can make even seasoned dancers dance. Download for a sample: Don Gon Do It

5. Return to Cookie Mountain - TV on the Radio
Their name is as stupid as ever; the album's title is as silly as that of their first album, 'Bloodthirsty Babes and Desperate Youth' but TVOTR put not a foot wrong in the songwriting department. David Bowie popped in to sing, and though we don't know who did whom the favour there, the result, 'Province' was pleasing to the Underachieving ear. Elsewhere, Cookie Mountain is a wracked mix of trash guitars, electro-spirituals and the odd attempt at coaxing their pretentious fanbase into a bit of a groove. Foot-tapping stuff (albeit in slow motion). Download for a sample: Wolf Like Me

4. Gulag Orkester - Beirut
Zac Condon is only 20 (and was a year younger when he recorded this stunner) so he really ought to be out getting drunk and joyriding with his contemporaries; he's not legally allowed to drink in his native New Mexico after all. He takes his name from a nickname given to him by schoolmates because of his passion for collecting European folk music on vinyl (he was lucky he got away with a nickname, in most places he would have got an awful hammering for that). 'Gulag Orkester' with its broad range of instrumentation (ten years Sufjan Stevens' junior, he matches him for his virtuosity) and its assured assimilation of the music of the Balkans, the Levant and Mexico, might seem cynical and manufactured were it not for the age of its creator and the beauty of the plangent chants. Great title too. Download for a sample: Postcards from Italy

3. Nervous Cabaret - Nervous Cabaret
Elyas Khan, a Yorkshire man of Pakistani descent, fronts Nervous Cabaret and thus their music has been branded 'Qawwali punk' by hacks so lazy they file copy prostrate. There is a faint strain of the Islamic devotional music in the band's sound but they are more devoted, in fairness, to the high priests Tom Waits, Nick Cave and John Spencer, and Khan's voice, a voice so gravelly that it is might better be classified as 'lapidary', combined with an outrageous Yorkshire accent and mordant lyrics (check out the anti-tribute song 'Mel Gibson') ensures that the band are so original that they have thus far managed to avoid selling any records and getting any wide critical acclaim. Only the French have really plumbed for them, and if Khan, now based with the group in Brooklyn, has to leave England while public-school dullards such as Razorlight, Kasabian, The Kooks and The Guillemots prosper, the NME-prescribed future of British rock is bleak indeed. Download for a sample: Kid (sic)

2. Silent Shout - The Knife
If this album were as good as its predecessor, Deep Cuts, it would be number one, no bother, but Seanachie receives no retainer from the Dreijer siblings and so they occupy the number two berth. Not that I can really talk, as I was inexplicably unmoved by The Knife until this year. From the brooding disquiet of 'Forest Families' and 'Marble House' to the nostalgically techno-edged singles 'Like a Pen' and 'We Share Our Mothers' Health' (a commendably subtle use of an apostrophe to shame many a native English-speaker) the album is a grower from the inside out. Melodies are where you least expect them, dance beats where you least wish them to be, and the lyrics - skewed as ever in an alternative Swinglish - bear years of scrutiny. Download for a sample: We Share Our Mothers' Health.

1. Cansei de ser Sexy - CSS
Underachievement featured these charming Brazilian shitkickers as far back as July, as an antidote, if I remember rightly, to the horrors of our first encounter with Sandi Thom. Since then they have shortened their name for the international market, gone global, provoked grown men to act like teenage girls in their presence, gigged every single night and thus far kept their sanity, and released this accidental masterpiece. Accidental because they formed two years ago effectively as a joke and made it big, first in Brazil and then abroad via the Internet. But the band's self-declared technical limitations are scarcely noticeable among the ingenious synth-loops, the tight basslines and the guitars that switch effortlessly from the funk licks of 'Music is My Hot Hot Sex' to the power riffs of 'Patins'. The lyrics are also brilliant, and draw from the same strange well of global English as The Knife's, including the disarmingly beautiful 'Music is my boyfriend/ Music is my girlfriend/Music is my dead end/Music is my imaginary friend/ Music is my brother/Music is my pregnant daughter/Music is my sister/Music is my favourite mistress/ My music is where I'd like you to touch'. The album is a must-have but there is also a trove of stuff available on Limewire and other sites, such as their fantastic double-cover of 'One Way or Another' and 'Teenage Kicks', the Portuguese-language thumper 'Bezzi' and those two amazing remixes of 'Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above'. Of which, more soon. Gig of the year too. We can tell our grandchildren we were there. Download for a sample: All of it.

Seanachie also liked:
  • The Greatest - Cat Power
  • Riot City Blues - Primal Scream
  • First Impressions of Earth - The Strokes
  • In My Mind - Pharrell
  • Nice and Nicely Done - The Spinto Band
  • Broken Boy Soldiers - The Raconteurs
  • #3 - Suburban Kids with Biblical Names
  • The Warning - Hot Chip
  • What the Toll Tells - Two Gallants
  • Clor - Clor
  • Jacket Full of Danger - Adam Green
  • St. Elsewhere - Gnarls Barkley
  • Ballad of the Broken Sea - Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan
  • Ys - Joanna Newsom
  • Mr Beast - Mogwai
  • Kingdom Come - Jay-Z
  • Broken Social Scene - Broken Social Scene
  • The Life Pursuit - Belle & Sebastian

Monday, December 18, 2006

Checking Out the Girls

This time last year I caught, as the last film I saw before Christmas, the superb documentary Avenge Just One of my Two Eyes, by the Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi, in which he examines the contemporary popularity of Jewish suicide cults such as Samson and Massada in Israeli society while also observing the often pettily sadistic treatment of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli Defence Force at the illegal wall that cuts the West Bank in two. One of the last (new) films I will see this year is also Israeli and deals, through fiction, with the same topic, the constant stop-and-checks of both Palestinians and Israeli Arabs by Israeli conscripts on National Service. What makes Close to Home, directed by Vardit Bilu and Dalia Hagar, especially interesting is that the soldiers involved are all female, privates and officers alike. Only once do we see a man in uniform and the film focuses rather on the stiflingly boring patrols effected by the reluctant young women in West Jerusalem. There is much in the film that has been seen before, such as the women contriving ways to doss the day away and keeping a watch out for their superiors while their comrades smoke cigarettes and get their hair done. In a way it is like The Last Detail without the foreboding of that film's prisoner's fate. The two main characters, Smadar and Mirit, despite their smouldering sexiness (it may be the uniforms but the striking thing about all the women in this film is how incredibly alluring they are, even the more mannish officers), have a wonderfully Beckettian comic quality to them; the slightest twitch - many of which are the actresses' own - and each bewildering look radiates far beyond the immediate moment. Rich comic moments include the episode on a bus where a busybodying civilian 'tests' the ladies out by pointing out his own unattended bag as a suspect item, only to be threatened with arrest by them for his cheek. Outraged he screams to bystanders: "Chutzpah! Chutzpah!" with a verve not sensed in any of the English-language uses of that word. There is also the scene where Smadar and Mirit are detailed to the lobby of the Sheraton hotel for the duration of the Jerusalem Arts Festival, while an only-slightly-less-attractive pair of soldiers are left guarding the service entrance - the wan resignation of the latter couple recalls Keaton or Chaplin or even Truffaut's Antoine Doinel films.

Though I am unsure whether Bilu and Hagar intended this the film serves as an indictment of the IDF's treatment of Arab civilians - it is nobody but Arabs that are targeted, the Israelis do not shirk at racial profiling - and often the soldiers conduct their checks with a ham-fisted sense of duty, such as the scene where Smadar instructs an Arab boy to throw his falafal in the bin even though the inspection is complete. The opening scene, over the credits, is fascinating in its forensic study of the conveyor belt inspections in a check-point cabin, the cubicles of which resemble a cross between a doctor's surgery and a clothes boutique changing room, which renders the clinicalness of the inspections all the more discomfiting. There is however a bomb attack which allows the filmmakers to remind us that the patrols, however objectionable they sometimes be in their application, have a purpose, and it is likely that many Israeli citizens would have few pangs of guilt watching the inspections. But it is this neutrality of tone that allows the film to succeed in lowering the guard of the Tsahal method. It is something that is symptomatic of Israeli society itself, which is a paradoxical mix of advanced egalitarianism and frankly racist political policies.

With regard to Israeli film the last few years have seen a number of excellent films such as Raphael Nadjari's Avanim, Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz's To Take a Wife, the documentary work of Mograbi, as well as the continuing corpus of the country's pre-eminent filmmaker Amos Gitai, films that extend beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict to incorporate themes as varied as the struggles between secularism and religion, domestic violence and people-trafficking; there are some in Europe however that think that such films should be subject to a 'cultural boycott'. A letter signed by a number of artists and critics, including, regrettably a number of people I respect a lot such as John Berger and Brian Eno have called for Israeli cultural institutions to be shunned because of the Israeli government's increasingly rogueish behaviour. While Berger points out that he does not wish individual Israeli artists to be targeted, the problem is that such a boycott rapidly fosters an attitude of ignorance among the culturally-correct of Europe, one that is as dangerous as the vituperative harrassment of critics of Israel on US university campuses by the Israel lobby, led by snakes such as Daniel Pipes and David Horowitz. The upshot will inevitably be that genuine criticism of the Israeli state by its own citizens will go unnoticed in the West. Besides, would the supporters of this measure have appreciated a situation where the likes of Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer, André Brink, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba would have been sanctioned because they happened to be living in South Africa under apartheid, a regime they all fought long and hard against? By the same token, we could propose boycotting films from Iran, thereby depriving us of some of the greatest filmed work in the world and a vital alternative mouthpiece for progressive forces in that country.

The Weekend's Fitba'

Celtic narrowly fail to bury Rangers' title ambitions once and for all but they still remain seventeen points clear at the top. Meanwhile here in France the title race is already all but over, following the 4-0 demolition of second-placed Lens, in their own Stade Félix-Boellart, by Lyon, who are now effectively assured of a sixth successive title. St-Etienne, local rivals of Lyon, by whom their regional supremacy has long been usurped, moved into Champions' League qualifying position following a 3-0 win at home to Valenciennes. Admittedly les verts occupied a similar position this time last year only to fall behind catastrophically in the New Year; but at least this winter is no African Nations' Cup to decimate the squad as happened during this year's tournament in Egypt. Lyon's dominance of French football is so complete that it is hard to remember that the last club other than them to win the title was Nantes, back in 2001. The once-great Breton side have fallen badly and for the third season running are battling relegation, currently lying second-last in the standings. In an effort to stem the rot they have signed up Fabien Barthez, until recently unwanted by most football clubs in the known world.

Indian Sportswoman Hard In The Tackle

How's this for a bizarre story? Interesting that a gender test could be subject to such thorough rigour - this one called for a gynaecologist, an endocrinologist and a psychologist. One might have thought that a cursory physical inspection, in the manner of The Crying Game, might have sufficed. Unless, of course, 'Ms' Soundarajan (the Beeb remains faithful to her declared gender until further notice) has crossed the boundaries between the sexes. In which case, might we ask what is the legal standing of transexual people in the world of sport? And do the regulations unfairly penalise countries that are considered, however unfairly, to have a larger population of transexuals (I am thinking, of course, of Brazil and Thailand, among others)?

Friday, December 15, 2006

Ahmet Ertegun RIP

Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records and one of the most enlightened people ever to run a record company, has died following a fall at a Rolling Stones gig, aged 83. The Turkish-born ambassador's son founded Atlantic in 1947 with Herb Abramson, perhaps one of the finest examples ever of a successful Jewish-Muslim business collaboration. Artists on his roster were among the best such as Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Booker T and the MGs, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and today, Missy Elliott and The Streets. Ertegun started off a jazz fanatic and later broadened his horizons to incorporate newer forms of blues-based music. Atlantic might belong these days to Warners, as it has for a long time, but the quality is still to be found on its label. May he rest in peace.


Good atheist as I am I nonetheless have a fondness for films with religious themes. Not religious films such as the dourly devotional The Greatest Story Ever Told or The Passion of the Christ, nor Martin Scorsese's ethnic tourist trips The Last Temptation of Christ or Kundun. I really couldn't care less about the major personalities of world religion, on film at least, but it is the religiosity of ordinary people that I find fascinating. The obvious examples are Bresson and Dreyer, two-thirds of Paul Schrader's 'blessed trinity' - strangely enough, the third, Yasujiro Ozu, was so disinterested by religion as to be practically secular in his gentle, old-fashioned work - and there is also Lars von Trier, and even the anti-religious cinema constituted of such films as The Magdalene Sisters, Ken Loach's Raining Stones, Bunuel's Viridiana and The Milky Way. A film that is so remarkable as to bear immediate comparison to both Bresson and Dreyer is the second film by the young German director Hans-Christian Schmid entitled Requiem, which is one of the most moving portrayals of mental illness and undying faith that I have ever seen.

Requiem, based on the true story of Anneliese Michel, tells the tale of a 21-year-old German student Michaela, played by the brilliant Sandra Hüller - resembling a young Diane Keaton -, who is raised in the sort of diabolically-strict Catholic family that every Catholic dreads waking up one day to find it their own, and who suffers from an exceptionally debilitating strain of epilepsy that threatens her college career, and which she despairs of ever escaping. Tied to her strident faith, nurtured by an embittered harridan of a mother and a loving but sadly powerless father, and her obsession with an obscure martyred saint, her mental well-being wavers to a point that nobody, even her devout parents and parish priest, are capable of absorbing it in a way explicable to them.

Though it is likely that Michaela's illness is purely corporeal, the temporal location of her situation, after the loss in certainty among the German catholics, renders her trauma all the more unsettling. Her psychosis is not accepted, even by the clerics and the faithful, as spiritual due to their own faith's wavering, until it is too late. When exorcism finally takes place, it is much more disturbing than in William Friedkin's film because, as well as being patently inappropriate, it takes place amid an environment of such selfless love, with even the embittered mother casting off her coldness in her daughter's hour of need. We see a world of unconditional love and one where rationalism has supposedly killed off all lingering traces of religious superstition, but Michaela, in her conviction that her illness makes her special, constitutes a nightmarish throwback to the past. There is a great similarity to von Trier's mighty Breaking the Waves but this film avoids von Trier's algebra of suffering, a schematism that misled many of his critics into accusing him of rampant misogyny (it is there in his other films but exists only as a decoy in Breaking the Waves). Requiem rather progresses in a sober fashion with occasional fits of activity as the heroine tries to live a normal social life, and consequently suffers further seizures. The film's combination of static shots and intimate handheld camerawork recalls the Dardenne brothers and the opening two scenes draw the viewer in rapidly like no film since Rosetta. The film is set in the mid-70s but its period detail is for the most part restrained, no kitsch set design or platform shoes; the one concession to the era is a fantastic scene where Michaela almost breaks down trying to replace a dried-up typewriter ribbon. It is a scene that will be familiar to anyone that has felt unreasonably stymied by household obstacles, but it is rendered frightening by the intensity of Hüller's performance.

After years of so-so output, German cinema is once again a major creative force, which, to be honest, is the least that can be expected of Europe's largest country. As well as popular hits such as Goodbye Lenin! and Downfall there is also a new wave of young directors such as Schmid, Christoph Hochhaüsler, and Henner Winckler. Like the recent films of the last two, Requiem is distinguished by its heartfelt sympathy for young people, and its effortless dramatisation of their stories. But that boils Requiem down too much. There is an awful lot there. That's why I am going to see it again tomorrow.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Miles Offside

The Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi started off life in film as assistant director to the magisterial Abbas Kiarostami, an apprenticeship he achieved as a result of reading John Baxter's biography of Luis Bunuel, and being inspired to write to Kiarostami and ask for a job, just as Bunuel did in his youth. As cutting one's teeth in cinema go, it doesn't get better than that and Panahi has not squandered what he has learned. His debut film The White Balloon, a beautifully subtle children's film set on Iranian New Year's Eve won the Caméra d'Or at Cannes in 1994 and since then he has won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2000 for The Circle and also made Crimson Gold, two films which are among the greatest made anywhere in the world so far this decade. Panahi studied closely Kiarostami's method of filming and mounting fiction among a reality so fluid, shifting and uncertain that one never knows where the film might end up, forever being at the mercy of the vicissitudes of Iranian power changes, between judiciary and legislature, a quality that, as I have noted elsewhere before, is not too different from the 'Great Satan', the US.

Panahi's new film Offside focuses on the efforts of women, mainly working class Teheranis, to watch the decisive Iran-Bahrein World Cup qualifier of last October, in defiance of a law forbidding their presence, for the typically insane reason of 'defending their honour'. As in The Circle, which treated of the efforts of Iranian prostitutes and other 'loose livers' to evade the moral police, Panahi is courageously on the side of the fairer sex, and in this case his film was successful enough to persuade head head-the-ball Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to change the law and allow women into the stadiums. The film starts, as ever with Pahani, in media res, on a bus carrying football fans out to the stadium on the outskirts of Teheran. There are a number of women who find themselves coralled by the military police on duty for infractions of the law and Panahi constructs the drama around successive episodes that show up the law, and by extension Iranian society, for the insane absurdity that it is, such as the bravura sequence where a young woman, desperate to pee, eventually persuades her inflexible guard to let her go to the toilets. When there he instructs her to avert her eyes from the coarse Farsi graffiti on the toilet walls. The fact that the earthy female captives give as good as they get renders this act doubly absurd.

The women are all photographed without their chador, though crucially not with their hair uncovered (a restriction that Kiarostami circumvented in Ten by filming a shaven-headed young woman), though even still, filming women in baseball caps and military uniforms, in intentionally androgynous get-up is a risky and courageous act by the director, not to mention his actresses. Things such as these demonstrate how Iranian film directors must make do without freedoms that Western directors take so for granted that they abuse them readily, restrictions that have paradoxically turned Iranian cinema into one of the most thematically and formally inventive in the world. The film ends with celebrations among captors and captives alike as Iran qualify for Germany - though the fate of the women is still uncertain - and Panahi's filming of the street celebrations afterwards is breathtaking in its technical mastery; to shoot such a film on the night of the game itself - and much of it in the stadium - is astonishing. But then Panahi, like his mentor Kiarostami and the Makhmalbafs, and other filmmakers like Abol-fazl Jalili, has long been accustomed to fit his fiction to the template of everyday life and its potentially recalcitrant permutations. Offside may not be as rounded nor as possessed of such depth as his previous two films but it is still a remarkable feat of filmmaking. And, despite Kiarostami's mastery, Panahi has, by now made Teheran his own; when the provincial soldiers scold Teheran women for their outrageous morals, you can feel the glint of pride in the eye of the camera. Proud of being offside in the Mullahs' Iran.

A Poster In Au Petit fer à cheval

For a number of years I have been going from time to time to Au Petit fer à cheval, a charming little old-Parisian bar on rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais, which takes its name from the horse-shoe bar that dominates the front room, rendering space at the bar at a premium. It's not a regular haunt but it is welcoming enough whenever I go there and it is a ninety-second walk from my workplace, making it ideal for a morning coffee. The place is not as fashionable as it was about three years ago, when a fire temporarily closed it and thus forced the actor Romain Duris to find a new watering hole; the new place was the shabby brasserie La Perle five blocks up the street and which the crowd duly flocked to. For all those years I have stared at the large 5ft by 3ft poster of a now-forgotten 1959 French film by Claude Autant-Lara named La Jument verte (or The Green Mare, as it is known in English). It has piqued my interest for a number of reasons, mainly because Autant-Lara, who is best known for his Simenon adaptation En Cas de malheur starring Jean Gabin and Brigitte Bardot and who died six years ago this week - the very same week as the great Robert Bresson - was forced to stand down as an octogenarian European Parliament candidate for the Front National in 1989 after he described the Nazi gas chambers as a 'string of lies', sterner words even than his boss Jean-Marie Le Pen's infamous 'detail of history' remark.

But, apart from this there is the presence of Jean Aurènche and Pierre Bost as screenwriters, stalwarts of postwar French cinema, and who were at the time being vilified as purveyors of le cinéma de papa by Truffaut and Godard, only to later be rescued from oblivion by Bertrand Tavernier, writing the script for his superb debut film L'Horlogier de Saint-Paul, itself a Simenon adaptation. The film comes with the warning 'interdit aux moins de 18 ans', which made it racy enough for the day, as is attested by the review on the IMDb, which is unusually articulate for a commentary on that site. The poster also boasts projection in 'Franscope', evidently a product of les Trentes glorieuses, and the tagline is 'la plus belle conquête du cinéma'. Even after years here, and many hours of boredom, the essential pleasures are delivered just when you least expect. And I'm not even talking about watching the film. The poster itself is good enough for me.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Make Room For the Jocks, Paddies (and Latvians)

The fools and knaves at the Scottish Football Association are attempting to persuade UEFA to expand the European Champhionship finals to 24 teams, no doubt because of their historical ineptitude at getting anywhere near the damn thing. When we have seen how so many of the teams that grace the World Cup every four years are scarcely worthy of the epithet 'world-class', why would anyone want to see the also-rans of Europe trudge about in a tournament that is unarguably more competitive? It is bad enough that the cloggers of Austria and Switzerland will be present in 18 months due to their hosting of the next tournament. Scotland are supported by fellow mediocrities Latvia and Ireland, with whom they fielded an embarrassingly bad attempt to host those same 2008 finals. You'd think the FAI, given their handling of the Steve Staunton affair and the subsequent mauling by a team of Cypriot hairdressers, would see it best to lay low for a while and stop making pathetic excuses for themselves. Next they'll be asking to be made play only against schoolboy selections in competitive games.

A Wordie In Your Ear

Seanachie, in a particularly slothful mood, will catch a ride on the back of Eamonn Fitzgerald's always-entertaining, if politically-outré Rainy Day blog for his next post, which concerns a wonderful invention that is but two weeks old, namely Wordie, a web resource conceived and launched over Thanksgiving weekend. The concept is for users to post their favourite words, 'like flickr but without photos' and there are links to other lexicons on the web, including a wonderful visual thesaurus. This is great fun and is yet another of those brilliant web inventions to which one can lose half one's life. The hell with it, sometimes the www is more fun than real life. Limerick neocon Eamonn has an interview with Wordie creator John McGrath on his blog. Meanwhile among Seanachie's postings so far are 'afflatus', 'phalanx', 'comestible', 'gobshite', 'muppet', 'overhead' and Geoffrey Chaucer's beloved obscenity, 'cunt'. If you are offended, you should be.

Full Irish Buckfast

A brief post due to a busy day; news has reached us that a number of Irish councillors have called for Buckfast, the famed tonic wine made by the monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon, to be heavily taxed due to its contribution to alcoholism and anti-social behaviour. I have never been fond of the stuff and neither do I underestimate the nature of the alcohol problems in Ireland (and Scotland, where our celtic cousins are also fans of the tincture) but perhaps our lawmakers (a pleasure to use that word so beloved of the New York Times in an Irish context) might be better tackling the overall consumption of alcohol rather than scapegoating one drink, sales of which surely constitute but a wee drop in the ocean that is Irish drinking.

Monday, December 11, 2006

More News

A post a week back about the death of an acquaintance of ours, Mark Blanco, has since been supplemented by news updates in more influential media sources than Underachievement. Mark died after a 30-foot fall from a balcony at the East London home of Paul Roundhill, the soi disant literary agent of Pete Doherty (though those in the know describe Roundhill more accurately as a crack dealer). Doherty was also present and his departing the scene of the accident to go party in a hotel and trash the hotel room is, to put it mildly, distasteful. It may well be that the death was a genuine accident, but a London friend of mine currently living in Paris, and who frequented Doherty's circle for a year or two describes them as a vicious, self-serving, mendacious lot, who, for one reason or another have been allowed to offend with impunity for years now. I don't expect much to come out of any investigation into this.

Rot In Pieces

We all know by now of the passing of former South American hard man Augusto Pinochet; I have nothing to add to an assessment of the old bastard other than to say that I hope the worms give his corpse a good thorough going-through. It is sad, though inevitable, that he died in his bed, and was never made to suffer for his crimes but Chile can be proud of itself for the way it has fought back against the bullying and thuggery of the General and his supporters, without ever stooping to the same level as them. Due process was observed every step of the way in the state prosecutor's efforts to bring Pinochet to trial, and though this exercising of a democratic mandate was obviously enough to outrage those on the Chilean right, it did not rend the country in two, as conservative elements predicted. Current President Michèle Bachelet's government is to be congratulated for refusing a state funeral for the man, though she might find it hard to stomach that he will be buried with military honours, considering that she lost her father, a military man himself, in the same torture chambers that she and her mother were also brought to. I recall a quote of a supporter of Pinochet from back when he was under house arrest in London in 1999: they said that 'he saved the country; before he came to power, you couldn't even get blue jeans in Chile.' Sometimes if consumerism isn't working, it needs fascism to underwrite it. My greatest fear is that there would be many in European countries that would think the same way.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Mary Carey, Not Quite So Contrary

Struggling R&B artist Mariah Carey has decided to stall the slide in her career by suing her more-tasteful near-namesake pornstar Mary Carey for an intentional confusion of personalities. As Mary Carey's lawyers say, does Mariah seriously think people will be confused? Mariah might take solace from the news that uber-hip Brazilians CSS are fans of hers (lead singer LoveFoxx wore a Mariah T-shirt at their recent gig in Paris). But she should know that her first name is actually pronounced 'Mar-ee-a'.

Big House on the Prairie

The recently-deceased Robert Altman signed off with his adaptation of Garrison Keillor's long-running radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, which is a fitting tribute to the great (though sometimes mediocre) old cinéaste. In a pleasant reversal of Hollywood reality, the film tells the distressing end of a real-life radio show that continues to run unimpeded, where the antiquated formula of recording in front of a life-studio audience every Saturday night is threatened by the buy-out of the station by a Christian-fundamentalist-run Texan conglomerate. The film details the last night, overseen by a hamming security guard played by a patently superfluous Kevin Kline, where the regular performers, Keillor, playing his eminently admirable self, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin and others, combine to bring the house down in classic Hollywood fashion.

Things neither ever get too clichéd nor get too serious thanks to Altman's touch, which is particularly noticeable in the early backstage scenes, which remind one of his high points of the early seventies such as McCabe & Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye. From thereon the film entertains in fits and spurts; occasionally the action wanes but by and large the film is likeable enough to recommend viewing. Keillor is better known in Europe for his incredibly funny novels and it is a delightful novelty to see him playing himself onscreen (as do many of the show's technicians). There are also wonderful turns from Streep, as one of Keillor's fictional spurned loves (Streep has made an effortless transition to comedy in recent years that only confirms how much her acting genius was for so long hidden beneath leading roles in middle-brow studio features), and John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson as the ribald cowboy duo, who have a show-stopping number entitled "Bad Jokes, I Love 'em All". There is nothing remarkable about the film, and it is minor Altman at best, but given the way his career went in his last ten years that is good enough. Keillor, for his part has fun dispatching the God-fearing Texan by way of the angel Asphodel; he has, since before the election of Dubya in 2000, been a standard-bearer for progressive Americans (many of them, as the film shows, Country & Western devotees). The US is not as easily dismissable as many simple-minded Europeans think. May Bob Altman rest in peace and may God preserve Garrison Keillor.

Friday, December 08, 2006

What I Learned This Week

Watching the evening news on TF1 last night, something I rarely do, I saw a piece on the internationally unrecognised state to Transnitria (officially known as the Pridnistrovie Moldovan Republic), a sliver of landlocked province between Moldova and Ukraine, and which was in Soviet times a part of the Moldovan SSR until the war between its ethnically Romanian neighbour in the early 1990s. Much of the former Soviet Union is obscure to Westerners, even those very un-Russian parts of the Russian Federation, something which has allowed the fuelling of some hysterical stories about Russia in the Western media recently (I loathe Vladimir Putin as much as anyone else but it is unlikely that he ordered the killing of either Anna Politskovkaya or Aleksandr Litvinenko - he is, sadly, hugely popular at home and neither of those dissidents had any influence that could have threatened him at all, organised criminals are more likely the culprits). And so a nation like Transnistria can escape the radar of even a person like myself who would consider himself geographically aware.

It does not look like a terribly nice place to live, being an effective Russian-funded kleptocracy, with a Russian president named Igor Smirnov, and, according to the TF1 report it is a safe haven for organised crime, particularly for trafficking of women. An undercover segment in the bulletin bore this out. And the sickle and hammer is ever-present, just as it was in Soviet days, just like in Belarus, that other nostalgic state. I can't say that I am going to shout from the rooftops demanding Transnistria's independence, and I am more likely to agree with the Moldovan MP interviewed on the bulletin in calling the state a front for illegal activities. Though independence would hardly make this any worse.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Hail, Hail, Rain or Sno

It didn't take long for Celtic to take the sheen off their Champion's League last-16 qualification. In a match that was academic, and which they might have thus taken as one they might throw caution to the wind and attack to win in, they were humiliated 3-1 by the ever-so-modest FC Copenhagen. It is a significant reversal because once again Celtic have failed to overturn their abysmal away record in the Champions League and they advance with a negative goal difference, their home record paling in comparison with the maulings they have suffered away from home. We approach the second round with a fresh reacquaintance with reality. For every three goals we score at home, we can be guaranteed we will concede as many elsewhere.

This War's About Gas Reserves, Not Oil

My people that look out for this sort of thing have alerted me to this story in which a scare was reported aboard an American Airlines flight and caused it to be diverted to Nashville with nary a bearded Arab wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with cursive script in sight. As An tUasail de Gallaí put it, this means the terrorists have won. Life's a gas. No, really it is.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Infants of Prague to be Protected from Santa

Meanwhile the Czechs have started a campaign to rid their land of Santa, or at least the Coca-Cola-coloured jolly fat man version that has been popularised in the West. Seanachie is, shall we say, bemused.

Nuclear Arsenal

A first posting on the Russian spy polonium affair; apparently traces of the exceedingly expensive radioactive agent have been found at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. The same stuff that killed Aleksandr Litvinenko may have been deposited during Arsenal's Champions' League tie at home to CSKA Moscow on the 1st of November. The biggest enigma is that I found this out from a Swedish daily, and my sifting of the facts is dependent on my very rudimentary Swedish.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Those That Can't, Teach

I had been warned by a number of people that have worked as English teachers in the past that my level of English will be affected by daily exposure to people that mangle it despite their best efforts and intentions. I cannot say that that has happened just yet but neither can I say that I find the process too rewarding. Rather I find it painful listening to some of the awful constructions put on the language by some of my poor students. I have empathy with them but it is undeniable that I do ultimately resent having to listen to some of the excruciatingly bad English. Most of the worst is spoken by some of the brighter, more confident students, who both over-estimate their own ability at speaking the language and under-estimate the difficulty, the Protean nature, of the meanings and figurativeness of English.

This sounds churlish, I suppose; you might point out that my efforts in another language might provokes similar pain in another. That is true but my French is better than the English of probably 90% of my students (which is no surprise as I have far greater opportunity of speaking a second language than they have), and neither have I ever taken a French class, other than at school. I learned it on my own and my mangling of the language took place in a free-range environment, in shops, in bars, on the street, on public transport, in bed even. No poor teacher ever had to suffer on my account.

My first couple of months of teaching has taught me one thing, that most education and training is irredeemably compromised and necessarily shoddy. And doomed to failure. We do what we can but as Bernard Shaw infamously said of teachers, 'those that can't, teach'. There is a greater justice in that slur than is widely imagined. Most teachers, even with the greatest will and talent in the world are incapable of teaching most people. Only little slivers of knowledge will permeate the average student's conscience. We mustn't grumble all the same.

Nothing To Write About

It's my customary Tuesday-Wednesday blimp; two horribly long days where I am incapable of honouring any social commitments and which cause me to make painfully long Metro journeys to businesses west of Paris. And I have absolutely nothing to write about. The football tonight was largely inconsequential and dull. I wanted to do something about, the website devoted to deceased MySpace members, but, for some reason the site is down at the moment. There is also the story about thirty-odd death-row inmates from Texas having MySpace pages, which are maintained by their relatives (the inmates have no right to Internet access), one of whom is convicted copkiller Randy Halprin, but his page, though it can be viewed here, has apparently been deleted. Conflicting reports claim that MySpace has done the bidding of the State of Texas, though MySpace denies this. In the absence of anything to write about, I will do the dishes and put the rubbish out.

Pats On The Back For Derry

The last football game at that crumbling kip Lansdowne Road (sorry but not being a member of the sheepskin-coat brigade, I could never get too sentimental about the ground) was the FAI Cup final between Derry City and St. Patrick's Athletic, which was by all accounts a thriller, and which the Candystripes came from behind three times to win 4-3 after extra time. Similar in many ways to the FA Cup final earlier this year. Congrats to Derry on their minor double and hopefully they can overshadow the dull Dubs of Shelbourne once again next year.

Libero como uno uccellino

Sunday night at the movies: a film by the very un-Italian-named actor Kim Rossi Stuart (his name is explained by his having an English father). Libero is the story of a ten-year-old boy, who is torn by the marital turmoil of his parents, an intemperate steadicam-operator played by Stuart, and his mother, a philandering gold-digger who loves her children more than the man who sired them, yet who commits herself disastrously to a rekindling of the marriage having returned to the homestead.

Libero is a modest, likeable film that manages to be both tasteful and touching and it is remarkable mainly for the performance of its charming young star Alessandro Morace as Tomasso, the reluctant swimming champion, who is much more interested in taking up football - 'an idiot's game' as his father calls it. The title (which in the original is Anche libero va bene - 'I think Libero would be good') is taken from Italian football's most famous positional creation, and which the father suggests to his son when he finally assents to his change of sport.

The film reminds me of another low-key realistic drama from this year, the German Lucy, which was released earlier this year, and while it shares the limitations of that film, it also shares the dignified bittersweetness and pain of ordinary daily situations such as the son, upon coming home with the family, noticing before everyone else that the lights in the apartment are switched off, thereby indicating that the mother has once again flown the coop. There is also the touching sub-plot of the mute class-mate and the cute girl who befriends Tomasso and whom he quickly falls for. Even the best Italian films these days are compromised affairs and pale shadows of the long-forgotten glory days of Fellini, Risi, Antonioni, Pasolini, Rossellini et al but those folks are the sort whose influence could cripple anyone. There is something inevitable about the dramatic unshowiness of Libero but I cannot say that it is any the worse for that.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A Sad Weekend

A weekend's worth of absence. A weekend where an acquaintance from Stolly's met his end, tragically in London, falling out of a window, or so the reports have gone. I didn't know Marc terribly well though I had a lot of time for him (I recognise that many people didn't, and some for good reason, but he was one of those spirits that was maddeningly uncontrollable when he was drunk). A smart, witty and engaging guy, decked out in boating jacket and scarf at all times, like a parody of himself, he was always a laugh. The grim irony is that the last time I saw him, back in March or April, over a smoke, we talked of the previous time we had seen one another, which was at the memorial service for another Stolly's regular, nine months before. Both of these guys I knew little but I know people that have been stricken twice in the space of eighteen months by the loss of an old friend.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Merrion Squares

I'm a recipient of the FAI's daily RSS feeds (until recently the only feeds to be had at Merrion Square were for the blazers in business class on flights to matches behind the Iron Curtain) so I suppose I was asking for this. But I was nonetheless amused by this dispatch from the Boyos in Green: groundbreaking meetings at El Paso II between the two-associations-formerly-at-handbags-with-one-another. Only the deluded, glazed minds of people involved in the vicariously pleasurable world of sport administration could find this worthy of news. Until 80 Merrion Square is stormed and its inhabitants exiled to the minority sport that is rugby, Irish football is doomed.

Dutch Courage

Holland is a country famous for its tolerance, albeit a tolerance with the marked flavour of the word's original meaning, as in 'tolerating a bad smell', or some such unpleasant thing. Dutch tolerance is more a logical corollary of the country's Calvinist heritage, even as the number of churchgoers has fallen since the 1960s; unwholesome things such as drugs, pornography and prostitution are allowed to exist more as phenomena for the righteous to avoid than as something to obtain as a worldly right. The world still needs Sodom and Gomorrah, even as most of the West is being liberalised to the point of banality. The fact that few Dutch people partake of the drugs that are freely available in their country, while the coffee shops are full of gormless, gauche foreigners getting baked on weed far stronger than anything they have ever smoked before, is no doubt a badge of pride for the frugal, clean-living locals.

A strange clash of different types of tolerance occurred five years ago with the emergence of Pim Fortuyn's vaguely racist, xenophobic political party. Fortuyn fought against Islamic immigration because he said that immigrant values were eroding traditional Dutch tolerance. It has been a similar complaint among right-wing liberals all over Europe in the past few years, and has often been used as a vehicle for a rather desperate, intellectually-tinged form of racism. Fortuyn was assassinated in enigmatic circumstances by an animal-rights activist before he could ever face the electorate but his party's policies have since passed into the political mainstream.

Whether the Dutch find the Platform of Brotherly Love, Freedom and Diversity (PNVD) less in collision with their values than Muslim immigrants is a moot point. The PNVD, which currently has but three members, is what might be broadly described as a 'paedophile-rights' party and its manifesto, published here on Harpers' website, calls for a phasing-out of the age of consent, an official ban on marriage, the right to be naked in public and for pornography to be broadcast during the day. It is unlikely to catch on, but I suspect it might meet with a good deal more of that grudging 'tolerance' than those non-Christian immigrant groups have been encountering of late, in a country where it has been made illegal to wear a burka in public. Wearing a burka by choice is without a doubt a severe sign of mental illness and I do not find banning it too offensive but one would think the Dutch could find it in their heart to 'tolerate' the 100 or so women in their midst that do so, if only to consolidate their position among the elect.

Henke Joins MU

Former Celtic hero Henrik Larsson has just signed on loan with ManYoo in a surprise deal that will bring him to Old Trafford from the 1st of January until the 12th of March, in other words, for the duration of the Swedish close-season. News that hits me as that of the marriage of an old flame might; yes, of course Henke is free to do as he likes, and, yes, it has long been over between him and us but still it pains us that he will not be exclusively associated with the Bhoys. Thank God we have already got our ManYoo problem out of the way before he had the chance to inflict traumatic damage on us. He must be finding those Swedish winters a bit tough already...

Unfaithful Departed

There are few filmmakers running on such vapid fumes of past glories as the once-great Martin Scorsese. Not since 1990, and GoodFellas has the diminutive New Yorker made a film that can remotely be called great. Since then he has veered from the perplexingly pointless (The Age of Innocence and The Aviator) to the downright execrable (Dalai Lama love-in Kundun and Gangs of New York); the two decent films he has made in that time were made with the help of previous collaborators and were both thinly-veiled retreads of their earlier projects - Nicolas Pileggi, who wrote GoodFellas returned in 1995 to help with Casino and Paul Schrader, who unlike Scorsese, still makes good films himself, popped up in 1999 to pen Bringing out the Dead, which bore more than a passing resemblance to Taxi Driver. Some of Scorsese's cheerleaders claim that he is a consummate artist, continually revisiting his oeuvre and mining it for motifs, ideas and concepts that enrich the project in hand and his work as a whole. It is typical postmodern chasing of one's own tail, and does not account of the fact that Scorsese, for all his flashy camerawork and narrative brio, is a relatively conservative artist, even at the best of times. And recent years, for him, have not been the best of times. Of course his films are now suddenly shoo-ins for Oscar nominations, but this is only a measure of how he has declined and how the previous edginess of his films has softened like a finely champfered corner on a Victorian staircase.

Yet I still go to Scorsese films, if never really expecting much. This years' effort, The Departed is a remake of a good Hong Kong thriller of a few years back, Andrew Lau's Infernal Affairs. Scorsese relocates the tale to Boston, an apt setting for the tale of venality at cross-purposes, in which the local police and the chief ganglord have infiltrated one another. The cop's man inside is Billy Costigan, played by Leonardo di Caprio, starring third time in a row for Marty, while gangster Jack Nicholson's plant is Colin Sullivan, played by Matt Damon.

It is an unusual film in that it vastly improves about halfway through after an initial hour that looks like it might have been directed by Guy Ritchie, so hyperactively annoying is the camerawork - all pans, zooms and close-ups - and there is so much scenery-chewing, particularly among the cops such as Mark Wahlberg's Dignam, and Alec Baldwin's Ellerby that one fears an imminent outbreak of mass onscreen indigestion. Baldwin, whose middle-aged spread has allowed him to effortlessly fill out the high-rent B-movie actor part that he was always destined for is especially laughable and he and Wahlberg both relish spouting the ridiculously macho dialogue that has no doubt been worked over for months by an over-caffeinated screenwriter. The pretentiousness in extremis that is personified by the studio-pic-with-notions is present here in spades: it is a world where hoodlums and ten-year-old urchins alike can quote Joyce and even local boy Nathaniel Hawthorne gets a reference in a supremely irrelevant citation by di Caprio. On top of all this the film is a structural mess for the first half, in sharp contrast to the tightness of Lau's shorter film.

But Scorsese, like a top-flight football side caught napping by weaker opposition, makes a spirited fightback in the second half. When he dispenses with all the flashy trappings and the more intricate, and more superfluous parts of the plot and concentrates on a conventional cops-and-robbers film, it becomes a good deal more watchable. And even gripping, which is laudable enough from my point of view as I already knew roughly how the plot was going to unfold. There is not an awful lot different in this respect from Infernal Affairs, though there is an extra twist at the end that closes off the possibility of a sequel, of which there are now two to the original.

It looks unlikely that Scorsese will ever again hit the heights of his earlier films; in fact so much of his career has now been spent turning out mediocre films one suspects that he may all along have been a mediocre director in disguise, bouyed by a run of a several masterpieces that just happened to be made by him. It may well be that The Color of Money is more representative of him than Raging Bull or The King of Comedy. He has announced that he is leaving Hollywood for his next film, but where he intends to go I do not know as even the independent sector in the US these days is a studio subsidiary. And I think that Hollywood is not really responsible for his decline - if anything it has been exceptionally supportive of him. But Scorsese is still a competent journeyman and he pulls this one out of the fire, after it was shaping up to be possibly his worst yet. The worst thing about this film though, and what lingers most annoyingly long after is the soundtrack. It is simply terrible; not the music itself, which is mostly good, the Stones, Van covering 'Comfortably Numb', Nas, and The Human Beinz's old Northern Soul classic 'Nobody But Me' among others. But Scorsese has been here before; the jukebox is the same for all his films, or at least those set in the late twentieth century. Once again the repetition, the obvious choice of music for a flashback, for a rapidly-summarised rise to fame. Marty doesn't need to slam it home, we know you've made documentaries with Dylan, The Band and one to come with The Stones. Vary the music a bit, even if it means letting Howard Shore do all the soundtrack.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

'I am Racist, but...'

Further to the killing of a Paris Saint-Germain racist hooligan by a plainclothes police officer last Thursday evening - killed while trying to attack a Jewish supporter of Hapoel Tel-Aviv, who just happened to be Parisian and a supporter of PSG on most other nights of the year - an 'ultra' on a supporters' site claims that a man hunted down by a group of hooligans might expect to be 'beaten, but certainly not lynched'. Even this lot have a threshold of acceptability. It reminds me of those frat boys featured in the Borat movie who are suing Sacha Baron Cohen for defamation of character. Their avowed racism and misogyny, so thoughtfully displayed for the putative public of Kazakhstan, of course, could not have defamed those same characters all on their own then.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the best excuse ever for the Irish taking one step further away from their so-called Celtic cousins, the Bretons; beloved of 17% of the French electorate at the last count - last week, and whose name was evoked by the PSG thugs at the moment of attack, is himself threatening to sue the public prosecutor for our old friend 'defamation of character'. Said the actress to the Bishop. Of course the only witnesses to this evocation are the Jew and black cop that were under attack and a bystanding journalist from the news-weekly L'Express. Unreliable, all-told. Another far-right hooligan site says that that the slain lout was the 'perfect target, white and poor, no-one will ever lobby for you'. It may be said that 'white trash' as opposed to 'black trash' does not arouse much liberal sympathy (and the use of the second epithet there only emphasises how offensive the much more common first is) but the best way to get this sympathy is not really to run after defenceless individuals in packs after a football match.

Libération on Saturday published a facsimile of a police memo issued before the game, which proved to be remarkably accurate in its prediction of an incident. Probably nothing unusual in this but one imagines that the clueless thugs, indulged as ever by PSG and their overlords at Canal Plus, have been all too easily infiltrated. A look at Scorsese's The Departed, finally released here today, might reveal all.

Elton, More Than Just a John

Elton John, a man whom I have always admired more than his music (though I do have a soft spot for both 'I'm Still Standing' and 'Saturday Night's All Right For Fighting' - it's the man in me, as Bob Dylan once said), has let loose for the second time in three weeks on the issue of gay rights. He recently told the Observer Music Monthly that he reckoned organised religion should be banned, something that Elton followed through with an unsurprisingly flimsy rationale. I did however have sympathy with his point of view as he has clearly lost patience with the perennial, and hypocritical homophobia of the various Christian churches, who embellish their 'concern' with as innocuous a development as gay marriage with insulting rhetoric such as wanting to preserve the 'traditional character of marriage.' Compassion is in, or outside the US Bible belt at least, and though the unwashed sons of Sodom may be abominable in the eyes of the Lord, then they may be granted a bit of old-school Christian TLC in order to save their souls (and presumably their sphincters as well). Not to mention the incidental concern about further alienating a population that increasingly couldn't give a flying fuck (rear or front entry) about someone's sexual orientation. The Christian churches, like man, cannot live on bread alone, but they still need the bread.

Anyway, Elton has let fly at Aussie Deputy Dirty Digger John Howard for his opposition to gay marriage, a measure that has already been passed by the Australian Capital Territory. Howard, like his Christian brethren, claims that he is not homophobic, but wishes to maintain the 'unique character' of marriage. To do that in Australia, he might also want to deny the civic sacraments to Jews, Muslims, non-white Australians and non-supporters of his own party. That'd make it pretty 'unique' in my opinion. Elton is the most screaming of the queens and musically best suited to guest spots at Tribute-to-George Michael gigs but I like it when he throws off his previous caution and rants at the hypocritical bigots of the world. That bitch has balls. As Gift Grub's Ronan Keating incarnation says: 'fair play to Elton, he leaves no stone unhinged'. Respect, like.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Much Adu About

Fabio Cannavaro wins the European Footballer of the Year award, or the Ballon d'Or as it is officially known, an unusually unflashy choice but logical enough given his majesty in leading Italy to their fourth World Cup last summer. American teenage prodigy Freddie Adu, who had trials at Old Trafford last week, is being warned off going to Manchester by some remarkably sensible American and European coaches, who warn that his talent will get swamped in the Premiership, or more likely the reserve leagues-formerly-known-as-the-Football-Combination where the 17-year-old is more likely to end up. Nike, who have a vested interest in both Adu and ManU, are no doubt, fretting at the youngster accepting the sage advice of going to play for either Ajax or PSV Eindhoven. Quite why The Guardian had to employ a stringer based in Belo Horizonte (Brazil, and birthplace of Pelé, for those that don't know) to file this story, is anyone's question.

Goodbye Mr Chips

There have been grumbles from some over my absence from this blog over the last week; the truth is I have rarely had the time to sit down and do anything, and when the time was there the motivation had escaped me completely. My disillusion with my new job has arrived, not unsurprisingly, a couple of months after I have begun. I am overworked and because of this the quality of the classes I give has diminished. It does not help either that too many of the students I have this week are much too weak for comfort. And some of them are not that smart either, in the sense that they are making mistakes that should be easily diagnosable to them given that the mistakes hold for French too. It sounds crass and mean-spirited of me to talk about my students in this way though I have been exemplary thus far in holding my cool. I can understand how daunting it can be for mild-mannered middle-aged professionals to take a week off work to take twenty hours of one-on-one classes, only to make piddling progress in those five days. But even when the will is there it is difficult to move anyone beyond faux-elementary level when their understanding of the Present Continuous is so ropey and their inability to use their commonsense to decipher the simplest of crossword puzzles is so stark.

That many of my students have few English speakers they come into contact with regularly other than me compounds things further. A friend of mine suggested that bringing them out for a drink might help; an insane suggestion - why should I suffer further pain in my spare time when it is impossible enough when I am on the payroll and nominally motivated? One class whose invitations I have accepted on one or two occasions has now produced individual invitations to events I have not the slightest interest in honouring and which I even feel resentful at being forced to make a decision on. That is surely my problem: I am far too selfish to be a teacher, I really care only for myself and the only students of mine that really benefit from my teaching are the stronger ones. If classes drag and my resolution wavers then the poor weaker students are damned, inadvertently.

I spend far too much of my midweek either on the Metro or preparing to travel somewhere. I have even lost interest in playing my Saturday morning football, being far more attracted by a second morning lie-in. And nothing gets done, the laundry basket remains full, the flat is not hoovered, bank appointments are let slip, I continue wearing the same industrially-worn loafers to work because I have no time to waste trying on newer models. It's not all doom and gloom though, I can assure you.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

John Boorman's Disaffection

According to the London Independent, John Boorman is about to release a film, which purports to examine the 'underbelly of the Celtic Tiger'. Entitled The Tiger's Tale, the film tells the story of a rapacious property developer, played by Brendan Gleeson, whom, it seems, Boorman cannot make a film without these days, this being their fourth collaboration in a row. Though Boorman's last two films have been ropey enough, he has enough calibre to produce a good film out of this and it may well be worth a look. I am a little dismayed however by a commentary on the film that he provides in the press package; Boorman laments the disjuncture between different realities, "the conviviality of the pub, and binge-drinking. The welcoming smile to the stranger, and the rabid xenophobia. The affection for children, and their sexual abuse. Poets and scholars, and the highest illiteracy rate in Europe. The new prosperity, and the vulgar flaunting of wealth. Longer life expectancy, and young men taking their lives. National neutrality, and the raging gun and drug wars. Stunning landscapes, and the plague of ugly bungalows." Much of which I agree with, though are the 'raging gun and drug wars' really representative of Irish society? Drug use perhaps, but Ireland still has a far lower crime rate than most other Western countries. And as for "the highest illiteracy rate in Europe", could Boorman please share his evidence with us? I am not about to doubt that the illiteracy rate in Ireland, as in most other countries, is a lot higher than official figures claim, but to say that we are at the top of illiteracy tables without furnishing us with proof is ridiculous. 'Rabid xenophobia'? Yes, there is xenophobia in Ireland, but it is hardly as widespread as the adjective 'rabid' might lead us to believe and for the moment at least there is no far-right party tilting at power as is the case in many other European countries.

I live outside of Ireland by choice, it is too expensive - and what you get for the expense is usually of pitifully poor quality - and there is a lack of civic-mindedness and interest in anything other than personal gain among many people. As bad as France might be at times, they still believe in the public commonweal; I asked my students the other day if they thought that taxes in France (much higher than in Ireland, by the way) were too high and they unanimously replied, no, that things had to paid for in some way. Can you imagine Irish people thinking that way? But statements like Boorman's, selective, sweeping ones designed to promote a film are not an appropriate assessment of the country either. The Irish can be ignorant, obstinate, indolent, overly deferential, philistine and crapulous, often to an alarming degree, and the survival of successive Fianna Fail governments is testament to this. But I do not think that they are any different from most other countries in this way. I look forward to seeing Boorman's film though. But did Johnny really think that Ireland was a country where poets and scholars took prominence? His old friend John Hurt left Ireland a couple of years back having lived there for many years citing his disillusion because 'when I first came, in pubs people talked about art and literature, now all they talk about is property prices'. I can understand Hurt's disaffection (even allowing for the fact that fluctuations in property prices would be unlikely to affect a successful actor) but, believe me, art and literature were not major topics of conversation in Ireland in the 1980s. Nor have they ever been before or since.

The Only Good Nazi...

Paris Saint-Germain, one of the world's least loveable clubs, is at the centre of attention over here, less for their exploits on the field - they were humiliated 4-2 at home to Hapoel Tel-Aviv on Thursday in the UEFA Cup - than for the violence of some of their racist fans. One of the notorious Boulogne Boys was apprehended by a plainclothes police officer trying to lynch a Hapoel supporter (French Jewish incidentally) and was shot dead by the officer, who, irony of ironies, was black. There are plenty of ready-made moral tales to be drawn from the incident, given the racial make-up of the personages, and for the first time in living memory the French left are on the side of the police, but what the episode demonstrates best is the horrific indulgence of fascist elements by the PSG executive. I was at the UEFA Cup game against Derry City in September and it was marred by constant Nazi salutes coming from the Boulogne end. It would be quite easy to eliminate this, as has been done in England, Holland and elsewhere, but PSG choose to do nothing, while claiming, risibly, that they are the most pro-active club in France in the area of fighting racism. PSG's solution is to cordon the Boulogne end off from everybody else, man the section with fellow die-hard racists and pocket the cash.

Though I have a loathing for PSG that cannot be matched by any other team on earth, they have many good fans, white, black and even Arab (though most Parisians of Arab descent support Marseille). The club do not deserve these supporters, who go to games week-in week-out and put up with the same poisonous racism all the time. One big difference between France and Britain is that black people are far more visible in stadia in France. And this is the treatment they receive for their loyalty. As an expat in Paris who loves the city, I would love also to support a local team in the top flight, but PSG, in their tolerance of racist fans, their absurdly favoured status in the French media, and their overall mediocrity, are not it, and never will be. If PSG do nothing about the racist element that sully their name even more, the best thing would be to wind this prefabricated club (established only in 1970) up and start anew with something else that Parisian football people can be proud of.

Meanwhile, a club not too different from PSG, Rangers, played out a 2-2 draw in Auxerre on Thursday night and some of their charming fans sought out a known Celtic bar in Paris to stand around hassling people. A friend of mine had the displeasure of serving them all afternoon, and having put up with their sectarian abuse for long enough, she told them that her mother was a Scottish Presbyterian (which is true). The answer she got was "well we won't trash your bar then". The Billy Boys pass through town.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Long Goodbye

Farewell to Robert Altman, who has just died, aged 81. Altman had not made much of note for the last ten years of his life, only Cookie's Fortune and Gosford Park came near the highs of his early stuff from the 70s to the early 90s but one can live forever on the good films: M*A*S*H, Short Cuts, The Player, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and my own favourite, his Raymond Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye, starring Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe, and a thrilling updating up of the famous gumshoe, that was detested by most Chandler fans, who obviously had not read the books that closely. If you don't see his acknowledged masterpiece Nashville there, that is because I have still not seen it, as it has been unavailable on video or DVD in Europe for years, and perhaps may never have been released. There are Region 1 copies out there and perhaps now is the time to give it a go.

Hail Hail!

Celebrations at Parkhead last night where Celtic qualified for the second round of the Champions' League for the first time by surprising Manchester United 1-0, thereby leaving Man U needing a draw in their final game against Benfica in two weeks time to qualify. A stunning free kick by Shunsuke Nakamura - identical to the one he scored at Old Trafford back in September - gave the Bhoys the win, though a save by Artur Boruc from an admittedly awful Louis Saha penalty was also crucial. The English media are incredulous at the win by the champions of an inferior league, conveniently overlooking the fact that sides of much less calibre than Celtic, such as Southend United and FC Copenhagen, have already toppled United this season. Various news reports claim that United 'outplayed' Celtic, which is arrant nonsense, even if the difference in class was evident. United, for all their fine passing, created next to nothing in the way of chances; it was like watching Brazil crossed with Ireland. The chances they did get in the first half when they were more dominant came by mostly because of bad defensive errors by the hosts. Though United have happily shown themselves to be a serious threat to Chelsea domestically this season their European form is once again poor and another early exit is not unthinkable. Celtic's ambitions should be realistic enough - they are unlikely to go too far - but surely roughly half of the teams in the last 16 would be within their grasp over two legs. They did after all defeat Man U 'on aggregate' and even their disastrous performance in Lisbon would have been good enough to see them through to penalties. Best of all, the money from qualification will come in handy to bolster the squad for next season.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Busyness and Exhaustion

A combination of busyness and exhaustion has prevented me from adding to this blog in the last couple of days and will unfortunately prevent me from elaborating on Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel, which I was surprisingly impressed with, given my indifference to his previous films. Similarly the gig of the year, CSS at the Point Ephemère will be mentioned only in passing. A shame as it was the best rock show I have seen in a long time and these charming young ladies and gentleman deserve reams of words to be penned about them, not least for their willingness to entertain and allow many of their fans, including Seanachie to join them on stage. Great fun in a great venue, along the lovely, placid Canal St-Martin. More on this later hopefully.

There was also Borat, which I found disappointing, compared to the hilarious majesty of the original TV show. There is a boorishness to the film that makes you pine for the faux innocence of the TV series. And the Kazakhstan sequences shot in the village of Glod in Romania leave a bad taste in the mouth, the locals being ridiculed in an unpleasant way that is as ungraceful as the frat boys that Borat encounters later in the film. The villagers are suing Baron Cohen and I can't say I blame them as the film could very easily have been made without resorting to this cheap, nasty belittling of genuinely poor people. The film hits high notes in the scene where Borat is appalled to discover that 'those men that stuck the rod up my anus are 'homosexual'. Hilarious. And the scene where he tries to kidnap Pamela Anderson is priceless too. But this Borat is a good deal coarser than the original one and a lot less witty, and most of the gags fail to come off, their targets being pitifully easy. Stick to the Channel 4 DVD.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

I'll Ségond That

The French Socialist Party has seen sense and elected Ségolène Royale to contest the Presidential election next year, the only realistic option to prevent Nicolas Sarkozy's march on the Elysée Palace. I am not going to sing the praises of Ségo - in any other circumstances I would probably be anything but enthusiastic about her - but she is a formidable politician and possessed of sufficient charisma to make a President that the French will be proud of and unite behind. Her candidature provoked some shocking sexism within the Socialist Party, such as Mitterand lackey Jack Lang muttering "who's going to mind the children?" but Royale has the support even of young suburban immigrants. That might be because, like me, they want anyone but Sarkozy, but I think they also appreciate her struggle against the ingrained consensus of the French establishment. Of course, Ségo, bourgeoise and ENA graduate, is fully as part of the establishment as any of her political opponents but she also represents genuine change. And she will probably usher in the much-needed economic shock treatment without alienating everybody. This is one of the first genuine causes for optimism in France in quite some time.

Ferenc Puskas RIP

Almost exactly a year after the death of one footballing legend, George Best, another, Ferenc Puskas has met his end, admittedly at an advanced age of 79, and following a long illness. Puskas is one of those players that people of my generation know exclusively by reputation, though that was probably the case in his playing days too, when media coverage of football was confined to Pathé newsreel items. He became a mythical figure however due to a convergence of phenomena: the fantastic run of the Magical Magyars where they lost only one match in six years (unfortunately it was the 1954 World Cup final); the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956, after which Puskas and many of his teammates fled West; and of course the rise of Real Madrid as the premier European club, Puskas, Alfredo di Stefano and Paco Gento being the troika that won them the first five Champions' Cups. When I was growing up it was common to see Puskas togged out for veterans' matches, a touching demonstration of the obvious love he had for the game. Though I have no particular vested interest in Hungarian football I find the current parlous state of the game and the national team there sad considering the rich history they have.

Entitled To It

Alas, Shelbourne, probably the least charismatic Irish football club, following the demise of the prefabricated Dublin City earlier this year, have won the National League for the third time in four years, foiling Derry City's attempt to cap their superb season with a much-deserved league title. Derry can still take the FAI Cup and they should have little trouble overcoming St. Pat's in the final. Sligo Rovers managed to stem their disastrous finish to the season with a draw away to Bray, finishing fifth.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Why Is Irish Rock So Bad?

If Underachievement were a glossy magazine struggling to revive flagging sales and attract those elusive advertisers, the above would be the model headline it would use. But we are under no such burden here and we may undertake a frank examination of why Ireland, touted as one of the coolest nations that has ever been known to man - Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters included - can routinely produce such awful music. I have many friends who are Irish musicians so I have shied from pointing this out before but I feel that now the time has come to say that the Irish, north and south, east and west are no bleddy good at that rock yoke, a good fifty years after it was invented. It is a bit worrying when the showband days, and the names of Dickie Rock, the Swarbriggs, The Indians, Brendan Boyer and others, have not receded into insignificance, as they would have by now in a country possessed of a stronger popular culture. But the aforementioned are still there, their ghosts still half-corporeal and worthy of a Brian Carthy-narrated mention in any history of the sorry tale of Irish music.

There will be those that point out the good stuff along the way, and it is true, it does exist - or has existed - My Bloody Valentine, The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers (for the early part of their career), Lizzy, Fatima Mansions and its various offshoots, The Chalets, The Jimmy Cake, A House, The Whipping Boy, early Therapy?, even a bit of Toasted Heretic and those Corkonian jokers The Sultans of Ping and The Frank and Walters. Even Power of Dreams were all right circa August 1990. But a country should be judged upon its continuous output over a long period, and a comparison with English-speaking countries of similar size is instructive. We could say Jamaica, but considering that it invented two whole genres of pop music (and several sub-genres) and that it fed off a close cousin of the music that shaped jazz, blues and rock, we might discount on grounds of general fairness. We're not really in that league. So let us move on to Scotland, a country of similar surface area and population (if we count the six counties, which Seanachie never hesitates to do).

Our Celtic cousins have produced a few shockers over the years, such as Runrig, the dismayingly popular Travis, Texas and Big Country - their answers to The Cranberries and U2 respectively and the only cases where they have matched our mediocrity squarely with some of their own - but overall the Scots have been far more impressive in the field of popular music than the more cheerful Paddies. One need only run through a comparative list to illustrate this: they had The Bay City Rollers, we had Boyzone (and Westlife); they have Teenage Fanclub, we have The Thrills; they had Deacon Blue, we still have The Corrs; they have Primal Scream, we have The 4 of Us; they have Boards of Canada, we have Republic of Loose; they have John Martyn, we have Damien Rice; they have Franz Ferdinand, we have Director; they had The Melvins and The Vaselines, we had Cactus World News and An Emotional Fish; they had Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and Aztec Camera, we had The Stunning and The Fat Lady Sings; they have Mull Historical Society, we have Mundy; they had The Proclaimers, we had The Commitments; they had The Average White Band, we had to make do with Samantha Mumba. It's a depressing roll-call and though we did match them once or twice with The Jimmy Cake for their Mogwai and My Bloody Valentine for their Jesus and Mary Chain (sorry, Jocks, but we won that one) we have been shown up for clueless amateur dabblers in the rock'n'roll world.

So what is the reason? Lack of musicality? Well hardly any more than the Scots with their history of struggling under the yoke of dour Taliban-like Calvinism, which would make the rosaries-on-your-ovaries approach of the Irish Catholic Church seem a breeze in comparison. And when you consider that many of the most exhilarating Irish bands of the past thirty years such as The Dubliners, Horslips, The Pogues and Planxty were groups with a grounding in traditional Irish music, perhaps the real problem is a wilful neglect of an existing musical heritage which can feed into more modern forms. A Guardian interview with supreme idiot Bono, about fifteen years ago, had the developing world's favourite ageing rocker say: 'I'm really into the Irish thing, but not really the 'tin whistle' Irish thing', all appropriately vague for a man with a pre-cooked addled mind. Welsh bands such as Super Furry Animals and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci have not been afraid to brandish their cultural heritage to aid their music and the big success stories of international rock of the past couple of years, Canada and Sweden, are both cases where a distinctive national identity forms a music in the face of increasing globalised homogenisation. The Irish's greatest gift is, of course, believing their own bullshit and until we realise that we are not really cut out for pop music, like other less gifted nations, such as Spain, Italy and Turkey, we should just keep it country, as Pascal Mooney used to say. Meanwhile, here is Langerland's sensible analysis of things.