Monday, July 31, 2006

Evil Comedians

Somebody tried to convince me the other night that, in the autumn of his life, Bob Monkhouse, filled with self-loathing despite his hugely successful career as a demonic light entertainer, persuaded some film director to cast him as the villain, because, and I quote from hearsay: "that's the man I am". The film was apparently atrocious but Monkhouse was credible enough as the baddie. Intriguing, but I have not been able to track it down.

Brendan Grace, the comédien de référence of 1980's Ireland, was also a suitably well-cast baddie when he played the villainous Father Fintan Stack in a memorable episode of Father Ted, and I always felt it a shame that he never got the opportunity to broaden his scope into the movies. Brendan, as well as being a Fianna Fáil lickspittle all his career, also claims that Frank Sinatra was a big fan of his, and to have met him a few times. So he knew plenty of unsavoury people to shape his Method.

Bolivia 3 Vatican 2

Bolivian president Evo Morales, got his nose broken during an indoor football game at the weekend, after being fouled by an over-zealous goalkeeper as the game, poised at 2-2, drew to a keenly-fought close. Earlier in the week, Evo himself managed to put the nose of a much bigger opponent, the local Catholic Church franchise, out of joint. President Morales has stated that the Big Boys will have to accept a widening of the school religion curriculum to embrace native religions. The Church has muttered about Morales' "discourse of hate, rancour and unforgiveness" having the potential to start wars but the President's plans for reform are mild enough, and hardly qualify even as kulturkampf.

I cannot say I support the teaching of religion in schools, be it one of the Abrahamic Big-Three or a hippy-dippy marginalised Andean creed but putting an overwhelmingly powerful institution in its place in a properly democratic society is no harm, something that should be exercised everywhere on a regular basis. And that applies to institutions and organisations a good deal more secular and worldly than the Catholic Church.

Mad Mel, the Road Warrior

God's favourite filmmaker Mel Gibson was unusually contrite yesterday after a lapse in his struggle with the demon drink. A famous alcoholic, with more than one or two similarities to the current tenant of the White House, Mel ('not short for Melvin', as news sources outside Longford and Athlone have long strained to point out) was driving at 87mph in a 45mph zone in Malibu, California and was arrested, and failed a breath test, a three-quarters-full bottle of tequila found on the passenger seat beside him.

Mel then proceeded to shower his captors with anti-semitic invective, including the familiar allegation that "the Jews have started all the wars in the world"; he also asked one of the officers on duty if he was Jewish. We will come back to the Gibson family's anti-semitic heritage in a moment. But the Holy One's outburst was baffling given the low number of Jews in police forces anywhere in the world (except Israel, of course); you would be more likely to find a Jew in the NBA than in the LAPD. But of course, Malibu is not, strictly speaking LA, and I wonder if Mel was roughed up by the same local police chief as the Dude in The Big Lebowski?

One might reasonably assume that Mel's anti-semitic remarks, his first of the kind to be made public, can be put down to in vino veritas. Mel has since apologised for what he calls his 'despicable' remarks and has put it down to his 'horrific relapse'. It's a familiar excuse from an alcoholic; they are of course altered people when they are off revelling but their more colourful pronouncements are usually drawn from some well-stocked yet well-repressed pile, and mean more to them than they claim after the fact. Mel's father Hutton Gibson, an exceptionally repugnant old Catholic bigot, is on the record as being a holocaust-denier (I imagine he does not holiday in Germany too much then).

Now, as those Old Testament Jews would have it, let not the sins of the father be visited upon the son. But with his film The Passion of the Christ a couple of years back, Mel seemed to be dusting off the old Roman accusation of Deicide for a new generation. The Passion, to be fair was no more anti-semitic than its source texts, the Four Gospels (though this does not make it lightweight in this repect). It was, however, a lugubrious, dull, pedantic, quasi-pornographic work, that rammed home the message that Christ died on the cross for our sins, and had the poor old human side of him dragged through the mill along the way. It looks like the other partners in the Blessed Trinity stepped well back from the action on that particular Friday 2000 years ago. The Jews in the film don't get a very good press, and for the most part they look similar to the portrayal of their co-religionists in propaganda films made for a certain 20th-century European power. At the time Mel attempted to complicate the auteur theory by claiming that the Holy Spirit directed the film through him - a little like how the Lord talks through Bush, but being an Evangelical Protestant, Dubya cannot have the same privilege of access as devout Catholic Mel. Judging by the finished item, the Holy Spirit might have some trouble getting funding for its next project, unlike Mel, who enjoyed extraordinary success worldwide with the film, particularly in Poland, where many of the Catholic faithful have a taste for the retro pleasures of Jew-baiting.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

This Will Get You Sacked

I've been using the open-source Firefox browser since soon after its appearance in late 2003. In those days I was still labouring away with the PC albatross around my neck so Firefox was an indispensable replacement for the porous, universally decrypted defences of Internet Explorer.

Though Firefox, in recent versions, has had some issues, such as slowness and a tendency to freeze, not to mention one or two security problems, the latest update has steadied things again. There are other good browsers available free of charge, such as Opera and Safari for Mac, but there is nothing as comprehensive, nor as visually attractive as Firefox. Anyone who persists with Internet Explorer, particularly PC users, is asking for trouble. 83% of computer users still do.

The plug-ins are the big bonus on Firefox, particularly its search options that integrate various search engines (and reference sites such as Wikipedia and IMDB) in the toolbar, and another favourite is the control bar for iTunes. Possibly the greatest and simplest innovation is now available as a plug-in, something that surprisingly took so long to be thought of. It is called Stumble-Upon, a plug-in with its own toolbar, which allows you to summon random web pages, according to criteria you enter when you configure your account. All it does is introduce you to page after page of sometimes obscure, sometimes famous, sometimes amazing, sometimes dull stuff. And it gives you the option too of rating the pages, thereby banishing them forever if they are not to your liking. It's great fun, and of course, a terrible distraction. You'll never work again. As for cache history, cookies and other things, there is a concern there but I assume that the good Open Source people at MozillaDev are not doing anything remiss with one's information.

Motherless Child To A Motherless Child

I mentioned a week or so ago on this blog that I tried to go see Tsotsi, the South African Oscar-winning film but was side-tracked by technical problems of a cycling nature. Yesterday I finally got to see the film, and as far as Best Films in a Foreign Language go, it's not all that bad. Usually films that win in this category play off a winning formula that involves the initially difficult relationship between a single adult male and a cute child, text-book examples are Kolya, Cinema Paradiso, Life is Beautiful. Not all the films of this sort have been that bad, Bille August's Pelle the Conqueror and Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt By The Sun hold up to this day to an extent that one forgets that they won the damn award in the first place. And I do still retain a certain regard for the mad Chaplinesque genius of Benigni in Life is Beautiful, though the ending was too saccharine for my taste.

Tsotsi, directed by South African stalwart Gavin Hood, adapted by himself from an English-language novel by renowned playwright Athol Fugard, varies slightly this trend in winners of the award by reducing the ages of the two principles drastically. It is rather a relationship between a teenage hood and a six-month old baby. The film is set in Soweto, and, unlike U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha, the other South African award-winning film released here this year, is not primarily Xhosa-language, but Tsotsitaal (thug-speak) a township patois composed of words from Zulu, English, Tswana, Sotho and other native languages. The shadow of AIDS, which would have been absent from the original novel, published in 1980, hangs over the film. We see on a number of occasions billboards reminding people that AIDS concerns "us all" and the hero of the title Tsotsi has lost his mother from some disease, and he is young enough for it to have been the current big killer in Africa. Tsotsi, then is a motherless child, rather than sometimes feeling like one. Having fled his abusive father, he grows up in the townships where he makes a reputation for himself as a particularly bloodthirsty thug, appalling even members of his own gang when he gratuitously knifes a commuter on the Underground. When he goes off for some time on his own, he carjacks a wealthy black suburban woman and shoots her when she resists. It is only upon abandoning the car that he realises he has inadvertently abducted her baby son.

Tsotsi's hard man image recedes momentarily and he takes the child with him, being so caring as to force a neighbouring new mother to breast-feed the baby at gunpoint. Meanwhile a hunt is on for the kidnapper, and he complicates things by returning to the scene of the crime, and robbing the baby's father of cash so as to pay the compliant breast feeder. This is where the film's problems lie; structurally things are far too episodic, and every incident is inserted into the action in order to serve the plot and move it forward. It is too crude, and having three key scenes orchestrated at the same house, moving the hero there in each instance is far too artificial.

Other than this the film is a fair stab at portraying the Johannesberg underworld, the gangsters, led by the Kwaito (South African dancehall) star Zola, are all scarily credible. Tsotsi, played by Presley Chweneyagae, is a lost soul from the moment we first see him, his eyes expressing an infinite sadness, his age uncertain, anything from 14 to 30. That said it is not terribly convincing that he makes such a sudden change from heartless killer to guardian of a lost child (whom he gives his own real name, David). The recurring flash-backs to his mother's deathbed give the film a false air, as does the cheap atmospheric music that takes over from the vibrant Kwaito in the last half hour. A film that starts off with much promise fades out into sentimentalism, beating a well-trodden path. No wonder the ultra-conservative Academy members loved it so.

The Next Last Broadcast

I have only recently discovered, and having tried numerous other music resources of a similar type, such as Pandora and, I will say that this is the best so far. Easy to install and use, it plays you streams according to the criteria that you have entered at log-in. Unlike Pandora, which feeds off a central database and often throws the worst types of approximations of your taste at you, is peer-supported, so you can rely upon the past choices and gradings of like-minded people to guide you serindipitously towards nuggets that you might otherwise never hear of. And even stuff that you have known well for many years sounds different when bracketed by unknown bands from North Dakota. Be careful to refine your search criteria though; I picked 'folk' and folk only and the first two tracks thrown at me were Ben Harper and Alanis Morrisette. Computers are only 0's and 1's after all.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

What I Learned This Week

1. That, in one of the five attempts on Hitler's life by members of the Nazi Party, on a flight from Smolensk to Berlin in March 1943, a bomb was secreted in a bottle of Cointreau, but failed to detonate. Clearly shabby bomb-making from an organisation that prided itself on its logistical rationalism and wherewithal. Hitler, as is well known, was not a big drinker but is it possible that he liked to sup the sturdy orange-flavoured liqueur as a night-cap or digestif? I assume that the standard 700ml bottle was used, but if they were foolhardy enough to use the 500ml, then I can see already where they began to go wrong.

2. That Dusty Springfield's real name was the unglittery Mary O'Brien. Well, why didn't you say so Mary? And the name on Jon Bon Jovi's birth cert is John Francis Bongiovi Jr., which is even better than his already fab nomme de guerre. All thanks to this fantastic resource. Prepare to be amazed!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Turnip for the Books as Derry Mash Swedes

Congratulations to Derry City (the team we love to hate so well, as they are known in Sligo), on beating twice-former-UEFA-cup-winners IFK Gothenburg in the first qualifying round of this year's tournament. A 1-o win in each leg gave the Candystripes the victory. Following Cork City's victories over the past two seasons against Malmö and Djurgården, the National League can now claim superiority to the much better-funded, much better-supported and better-publicised Allsvenskan. There is no excuse of rustiness from the Swedes either: just like the Irish, they play summer football.

Drogheda United also progressed in the UEFA Cup, beating Helsinki side HJK after extra time at Dalymount. Both Derry and Drogheda should fancy their chances of reaching the first round proper as they now face Gretna (last year's surprise Scottish Cup finalists) and Start of Norway respectively. Cork faced sterner opposition in the Champions' League in Red Star Belgrade (6-0 aggregate winners over the mighty Sligo Rovers in the 1977 tournament), and went down unluckily to a first-half own-goal. Sligo, enjoying a good season so far - six wins out of the last seven - are in with a shout for a European spot next year, and surely will be hoping for Swedish opposition, maybe Hammarby (Stockholm is beautiful at this time of year), GAIS, Gothenburg's other team or even better, Henrik Larsson's Helsingborg. We've got league leaders Shelbourne - seven wins in their last seven - to take care of tonight.

Åston Villa

Sven Göran Eriksson, recently departed coach of the English national football formation (the word "team" would be a dignity too far) is being mooted for the job of Aston Villa manager, as he predicted all those months ago in his down-time with the News of the World's fake sheikh. It all depends on whether Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner (what a wonderful name, how old is he, 15?) buys the club. Presumably he won't as soon as he googles the words "aston" and "villa" and finds out their true pedigree. Martin O'Neill has also been mentioned as possible successor to David O'Leary, which in the cold light of day, might seem a far more sensible appointment, but Sven should at least fit in, seeing as the England team have long been the Aston Villa of international football.

I had a bad dream last night: Ireland were comprehensively beaten 3-0 by South Korea in the last 16 of the World Cup. What World Cup I do not know, but I seem to recall in my dream that Giles and Dunphy - though not Brady - had predicted such an outcome.

Musical Interlude

Seanachie is not the world's biggest Radiohead fan; I can acknowledge their songwriting abilities and have even been 'moved' by some of their past output but overall I find their brand of home-counties misery wearisome and frighteningly dull. I don't know why but I think the Yanks do all this thing a lot better, Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith and so on. But I have to say that 'Creep' is an excellent track that has aged well, and here it appears in an acoustic version, which though unremarkable enough, is accompanied by a beguiling animated video that is completely at odds with the song itself (one has the suspicion that it is meant to project something more in the way of humour - the full address of the site is ), and the crisp line of the drawing is a nice counterpoint to the mounting self-pity of Thom and co.

I have been listening a lot lately to 'Return to Cookie Mountain', new album by the brilliant-but-awfully-monikered Brooklyn group TV On The Radio, and like pretty much anybody that has listened to any of their music, I don't know what to do with it. It's like buying on impulse a piece of furniture that you are convinced will suit any room in the house, only to find on hauling it back home that it really has no place, but is indispensable all the same. TVOTR do music, probably best described as music to listen to sitting down; you certainly can't dance to it, and it is too slow and too laid-back to qualify as rock. It is never going to get much day-time radio airplay and is unlikely to feature as even background music in a bar, however hip the joint might be. The closest thing the album gets to a loose groove is on the excellent single "Dirty Whirl" but for the most part it chugs along at its own nonchalant pace. The band seem like those sort of earnest, strangely-dressed young men you sometimes see standing in the corner of a hipster nightclub, observing all around them with mild condescension, refusing to dance the whole night but then get up to shake out in a slow, pretentious and embarrassingly gauche fashion to The Upsetters.

Which, admittedly, is a bit unfair to the group. David Bowie appears on the track 'Province', singing just behind lead singer Tunde Adebimpe. Bowie is a big fan and given the swarm of synthesizers on this track the band are probably as big fans of post-Let's Dance Bowie as they are of Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane. Hell, they might even think Tin Machine are hugely underrated. But under all the layers and sonic textures on 'Province' there is a conventional enough song, not unlike hundreds of others with the added bonus of a star guest. Unique as TV On The Radio's music is (not to mention great) I imagine that they will find it being pilfered over the years to come for many underwhelming cover versions, Paul Anka might even get his hands on it. 'There is hardly a method you know," as sometime singer Kip Malone warbles on one song. The melodic and structural core of most of the songs can be deceptive, and it may be testimony after all to TVOTR that they sound like nobody but themselves. Some hacks have called them the American answer to Radiohead, which will sound like a perplexingly inept comparison to anyone that knows either band.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Remember Howard Dean?

Now, a little sortie from the former Democratic presidential hopeful (though to be honest, it was always hopeless) and current Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean. He has accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of being an anti-Semite for condemning the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, while failing to condemn the actions of Hizbollah. Dean is right about the moral fudging here and al-Maliki's intentions may not be pristine, but it is particularly pathetic to use the anti-Semitic accusation against somebody for merely exercising reticence. It's the usual smear employed by some of Israel's more enthusiastic US supporters - many of them, like Dean, gentiles - for anyone that dares criticise Israel.

Will Dean imagine that President Bush and his cabinet are anti-Arab racists for prosecuting the war in Iraq? Or that the EU heads of state are racist for their failure to intervene in Darfur and before that, Congo? Both of these are moot points but Dean would not dare exploit them to make political capital from a cheap slur, like he did earlier on today.

And what would the Doctor make of the great Israeli refusenik and film-maker Avi Mograbi, whose documentary For Just One of My Two Eyes was one of the best films of last year, and who last week wrote this riposte to his fellow leftist David Grossman's endorsement of Israel's attack:

"I do not think it legitimate to bombard civilian populations in this way. I do not think it legitimate to destroy the infrastructure of a whole country just to pressurise a population to expel Hizbollah. I do not think that this is a legimitate way of striking at "public opinion". I wonder if Grossman, or any other Israeli in favour of peace, would support the measures of mass bombardment of Israel's civilian population and infrastructure to force the country to vacate the Occupied Territories. I see things as this: terror can lead only to terror. It is by ceasing to terrorise that we can hope to no longer be terrorised."

No doubt the good Doctor would have recourse to another slur that he and his ilk use to describe Jews that do not tow the line: "self-hating Jew."

And to think that the Republicans are accusing Dean of moving the Democrats to the far-left.

Pax Lebanona

The bombing of Lebanon enters its third week and the peace talks in Rome have failed, while Tsahal, the Israeli Defence Force, has suffered its worst day of losses so far, with 14 soldiers killed in clashes with Hizbollah. Hizbollah are providing stiffer resistance than expected, being armed with sophisticated 220mm rocket launchers, and yesterday they showered northern Israel with 100 rockets. The fact that these undoubtedly came from Syria only underlines the Israelis' resolve and reason to prosecute the war to its end, whatever that may be.

I am not going to go into the rights and wrongs of the conflict (this balanced and well-documented Wikipedia article can provide background - though be wary, as ever on Wikipedia, of the complete accuracy of entries); suffice to say however that Israel's reaction has been excessive, a comparison of the body counts on either side demonstrates this. It might also be useful to remember that the British government, during the IRA 'spectaculars' throughout the 1970s and 1980s never deemed it necessary to bomb either Dublin or Belfast as retribution; nor did Felipe Gonzalez's hardly admirable Spanish government do the same to the Basque Country (particularly that part of it that lies outside Spanish borders and where many separatists took refuge) during ETA's even bloodier bombing campaign. Like Israel's over-reaction during the Intifada, the bombing of Lebanon will only intensify resentment of the country in the region. We Europeans are often a bit too self-righteous when it comes to criticizing Israel - we would probably be just as resolute in the face of suicide bombings and rocket attacks - but we have known, in our own circumstances, when to temper our responses to suit the outrage. There are, no doubt, greater geo-political considerations at play, many of which are emanating from Washington, but there is no guarantee that these considerations will ultimately be good for Israel.

For a ground-level view of what is going on in Beirut, check out the blog of Lebanese artist and musician Mazen Kerbaj, blackly humorous and packed with the prolific Kerbaj's illustrations and cartoons. My favourites are the gnomic "Sleeping and Waking Up" and "Freedom Flag", hilarious. There is also this link to a recording Kerbaj made of himself playing his trumpet on his balcony to the sounds of bombs exploding in the surrounding neighbourhoods. It's more eerie than catchy and unlikely to end up on your iPod.

For a greater range of blogs on the crisis, from Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese nationals, go to The Truth Laid Bear's syndication, a link for which I am indebted to Limerick man Eamonn Fitzgerald's always entertaining, if crazily right-wing, Rainy Day blog. Hello again, Eamonn.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Question Time

Following yesterday's post on the anti-war protestors being freed, the US Embassy in Dublin has said that it is seriously concerned and will be discussing the matter with the Irish goverment. A fair reaction really, considering one of their planes was attacked and taking into account the guarantees of the Dublin client regime. The Bush administration will however be wondering how the Dublin Circuit Court could not be stuffed with a load of their cronies (though there was at least one, Justice Donagh McDonagh, there). Bertie and Mata Harney will have to explain how their assurances on the law to the White House have been proven to be misguided. Tough questions for them to come from head office in Washington.

Menschen und Übermensch

Lucy, a film by the German director Henner Winckler (no relation to Henry, aka the Fonz) is a film of the sort familiar to regular viewers of contemporary European cinema. It's not particularly bad; the acting is good (from a largely teen cast), the direction is assured and the film's overall argument is intelligent and hearfelt. The Lucy of the title is a baby, born to Maggy, a teenage mother played by the excellent 19-year-old Kim Schnitzer, herself the daughter of a youthful mother (Feo Aladag, the actress that plays her is a mere 33). Maggy has left the equally young father of the child and shacks up with a barman and cyberspace barrow-boy, who has so much the face of a ne'er-do-well that it's probably a registered trade-mark. There is little of consequence in the plot, other than the use of the baby of the title as a potential plot catalyst, like the Chekovian gun on the wall in the first act that perforce must go off in the third. One awaits continually disaster to befall the young mother, given her fecklessness and her entrusting the baby rather foolishly with disinterested teenage boys. But this film is not Ken Loach's Ladybird, Ladybird, not unthankfully, and the action continues boiling slowly beyond the film's end. The main fault I can find with the film though is the overall good taste and the good intentions. There is too little conflict to raise the interest at any time. One can credit Winckler for using a cast of real teenagers (as opposed to twenty-something actors) well; underdeveloped both physically and socially, they fumble around the screen sheepishly, desperately trying to fill the adult roles allotted to them. Winckler also does not feel the need, unlike a career perv such as Larry Clark, to get them to simulate fellatio to demonstrate that teenagers do that sort of thing, you know. But ultimately the film is too indulgent of everybody in the film; there are too many nice guys and girls. Winckler should tap the depths of at least one blackguard in his next film.

Now to Superman. The caped crusader was the first ever brand I fell for. At the age of three, I fell asleep at a screening of Richard Donner's 1977 film version, but enough was imprinted on my mind to ruin my parents financially for the next five or six years and also for me to harbour some unrealistic career hopes. All the other big brands, the Holy Cross, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, even Marlboro (despite some astute and prominent product placement in Superman II) never got me but Superman was a brand I identified with for some time, before cruelly dumping it at the age of eight for Manchester United, which, believe me, in 1984 was an act of masochism, one that came disturbingly natural to a child so young.

I watched the first three Superman films over and over again, my favourite still being Dick Lester's second one, with Terence Stamp and Susannah York as gloriously devilish baddies. The special effects look a bit ropey these days but so will, very soon, the CGI many of today's films. I was a bit disturbed, but ultimately intrigued, by the darker side of Superman III, where Superman, laden down with a kryptonite depression and lack of self-esteem following a bungled rescue, turns against, well, the world. Richard Pryor, plays Gus a computer genius, a basically good sort roped into working for the baddie played by Robert Vaughan (a man I never had any respect for following this film and his character's cowardly showing in The Magnificent Seven). I passed on Superman IV, made in 1987, and an entry for Superman into the nuclear age, because MU was by now the brand leader. Not even topless photographs of its co-star Mariel Hemingway in The News of the World could get me interested, though this same tabloid article did introduce me for the first time to her grandfather Ernest.

Superman Returns begins with the return of Superman to his mid-west home-from-home, having gone back to his home planet Krypton five years previously and having stayed away despite there being nothing left there. It transpires that he may also have been fleeing alimony payments. There is a touch of the Victorian novel about this opening but it is soon diffused when Clark Kent resumes his job at the Daily Planet, doing nothing really it seems, and Superman/Clark fits back seamlessly enough into a world of plasma screens, the Internet (strangely underused in the film), mobile phones (Clark has given up on finding a phone booth to change in, presumably they are all demobilised), child food allergies and dreadlocked bicycle courriers (surely an emblem of the age if there ever were one).

Superman's first sortie is to save his dear old Lois Lane from a crashing plane where she has been covering the launch of a new space shuttle, the launch-pad being the roof of the plane (given NASA's poor track record on safety, I imagine they will be watching this very closely). Poor Lois has not managed to buckle her safety belt and while everyone else is fitting their oxygen masks on their faces, she is being hurtled about the cabin with such violence that one wonders if Lars von Trier had stepped in at the last minute to direct the film. When Superman restores equilibrium however, she momentarily regains composure, seeming unusually comfortable even, before swooning. And so begins a strange tale of fully-clothed sado-masochism that can be enjoyed by all the family. It is really the only remotely interesting thing about the film.

Lois is compromised on two fronts, having started a relationship with the nephew of the legendary Planet editor Perry White (sagely made to look like Ben Bradlee), and she has also won the Pulitzer Prize for an article 'Why the World Doesn't Need Superman' (oh, you tryin' too hard baby). She reluctantly takes on the Superman lead once again, while shrewdly seeing that a number of strange black-out and eruptions are the real story, caused by the return of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor, played by Kevin Spacey, the only person, along with his moll Parker Posey, to bring the camp quotient anywhere near the level of the old films. It's nice to see Posey in a film again, little has been seen of her since Hal Hartley was forced to down-size some years ago.

The real action starts when Lois does a Veronica Guerin and brings her young son on a seemingly dicey assignment. It all gets messy as Luthor reacts rather badly to finding an investigative journalist on his premises. He then talks her through his plan to submerge most of North America (but not California, it appears) by creating a rival contintent, that will make him his fortune in real estate. The continent though is generated from the crystals of kryptonite stolen from the meteors that broke off Superman's home planet and the topography is like a huge Giant's Causeway. Great for Caspar David Friedrich but I couldn't see much beach-front property going up there. Anyway, Superman survives a callous kryptonite stabbing by his nemesis and saves the day eventually, even stranding Luthor on a tiny desert island for good measure.

Superman Returns is possibly one of the most visually unattractive big-budget films ever to have been made; the mise-en-scène is strafed with badly focussed shots, cheaply unconvincing CGI effects (the scene where Superman stops a bullet with his eye is supremely idiotic and unimpressive). The director Bryan Singer, whose flashy but exhilarating The Usual Suspects is now but a distant memory, continually employs the same battery of annoying gimmicks, foregrounding grosso modo objects rattling on a table to indicate the onset of a tremor, tsunami, explosion etc. The director of photography uses so much low-contrast light at times that the film has the look of an old porn film.

Of course people will say that a comic book adaptation is primarily for kids; which is questionable considering how many people will go see this out of nostalgia for the comics they bought as a child (and sometimes still buy). I would sooner watch animated kids' films like the Incredibles or Shrek, which at least acknowlege that not only are kids not stupid, but that their accompanying elders might need a little bit to keep the interest up. In this film it seems that only grown-up idiots are being targeted.

That said, I cannot say that I disliked Superman Returns more than last year's overweeningly pious and pretentious Batman Begins. Of course, objectively speaking, Christopher Nolan's film is far more accomplished, better directed, scripted and acted. But the conception of Batman as a muscular liberal capitalist in that film, tough on terrorism but soft on third-world sweatshops, was a bit too much for me to take. I can imagine the constitutional carve-up of two years ago: the neo-cons saying "we'll take the legislature, the judiciary and the executive and you guys can have Batman". Of course we know what the Democrats went for. Superman doesn't even mention the American way in this one. Globalisation, I suppose.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Irish Anti-war Protestors Acquitted by Court

A piece of good news from back home and a bloody nose for the coalition government and its craven brown-nosing of the Bush administration. Five anti-war protestors have been found not guilty of criminal damage of a US military plane at Shannon Airport over three years ago. I have not yet been able to find out the jury's exact findings but one presumes that the fact that the current Irish government has openly broken Irish law by allowing US planes to refuel on the way to their illegal war in Iraq and by allowing uniformed foreign military personnel to set foot on Irish soil - in a civilian airport too, it must be added, would have been considered.

I remember one of the protestors, Deirdre Clancy, from my student marching days. She was a Socialist Worker back then but I'm not sure if the Swimmies or the anti-war movement orchestrated this. I suspect it might have been the even more outlandish Catholic Worker's Party. The defence last November managed to have a previous judge in the case withdraw, having reminded him that he has in the past been a house guest of George W. Bush, and attended his inauguration in 2000, and was invited once again in 2004. The judge, Donagh McDonagh had failed to recuse himself at the start of the trial.

Now that the courts finally seem to be on the side of the law in this affair, is there any chance of our government following suit?

Horse Gets Jockey's Goat

One of Seanachie's trans-continental phalanx of researchers has just sent a text, alerting me to this strange story in today's Guardian. It's quite possible that head-butting an animal - of any sort - is one of society's last taboos and one wonders if Mr O'Neill will face vilification for losing his head (while finding the horse's). I imagine that there will be one or two Carla Lane-types that will step up to tell O'Neill that, to paraphrase the anti-smoking busybody that once accused Homer Simpson of puffing illegally, "you, sir, are worse than Hitler." Of course if he wanted to really intimidate the beast he could leave a human head in its stall for it to wake up to tomorrow morning...

Marjane Satrapi, since Persepolis

There is no particular reason to mention Marjane Satrapi at this moment in time: there is no new book out, I have not read anything new by her in over a year and many people reading this will already be familiar with her work. But there are snippets of news concerning the woman who has become probably the world's most famous Iranian artist, mainly through her superlative graphic novel Persepolis, originally published in French from 2000 to 2003, and which has since done the rounds of most the world's major languages. Next language up is Arabic, for an edition that had been due to be published by a Lebanese publisher in September. Whether the house in question has managed to weather the Israeli Defence Force's 'restructuring' of Lebanon is unknown, but the appearance of this fine work in Arabic would be truly ground-breaking, even if an edition in Satrapi's native language Farsi remains, sadly, a long way off. In addition to this there is the animated film version of the book, due to be released next year, to be co-directed by Satrapi with Vincent Paronnaud, with the voices of Chiara Mastroianni as Marjane and Mastroianni's real-life mother Catherine Deneuve as mother Satrapi.

For those that have not yet encountered Persepolis or any other Satrapi work, it is an autobiographical survey of life under the Islamic Revolution as a ten-year-old girl, and her later exile in Vienna attending a Catholic lycée and facing European prejudice and ignorance about her homeland. The book, aside from its narrative mastery, is distinguished by its heavily-inked visual style, which resembles wood-block prints and which casts its characters in semi-abstract physiognomies that Satrapi claims were the result of her being forbidden to draw realistic life studies in art college by the absurd strictures of the Islamic regime. It is a style that is also characteristic of L'Association, the Paris artists' co-operative that publishes Satrapi and which has also cultivated similarly distinctive styles in other artists such as Guy de Lisle, David B, and the already-established Swiss comic artist Johann Sfar.

Satrapi is technically a princess, being directly descended from the pre-Shah Persian kings, though her family, being Communist, have long abrogated that privilege. She now lives in Paris, on Place de Vosges, a mere ten minute walk from where I sit typing away now. Since Persepolis, she has won the Album of the Year award at Angoulême (the graphic novel equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival) twice, for Broderies (translated into English last year as Embroideries) and her last work Poulet aux prunes (as yet unavailable in English), a disarmingly simple tale of a musician uncle that died of a broken heart in the 1950s, that nonetheless moves in a new direction both structurally and thematically. It is one of the great ironies of the modern age that a country with as rich and great a civilisation as Iran should have to be explained to Westerners by comic books. Marjane Satrapi's books, even if they ever appear in Farsi, are unlikely to bring down the Ayatollahs but they should convince doubting people in Europe and North America of the folly of imposing another war on an innocent people in order to implement 'regime change'.

In MySpace No-one Can Hear You Scream

There was a power-cut in L.A. (or 'outage' as they say over there, I can't decide which word I prefer) two days ago and the database for MySpace was affected, causing the site to be down for some time in the wee small hours local time, which of course meant that it, erm, went down at a more decent hour on the European landmass and its surrounding archipelagos. Middle-management types all over the continent therefore presumably noticed a sudden, mystifying rise in work-rate among their minions at that time. Or maybe an even more mystifying manifestation of panic and fear, the sort you see in disaster movies or on Sven-Göran Eriksson's countenance come the quarter-finals of a major tournament.

Anyway, the site was soon back up again, though the information on my page, and that of quite a few of my 'friends' had mostly vanished, or reverted to default settings, thereby perpetrating the lie that we are all Pacific Island bodybuilders that don't want kids. Being a relatively restrained MySpace user (only 54 friends at the moment, and, needless to say, I have been neglecting nearly all of them) I managed not to lose any sleep on it, and upon getting out of bed this morning, all the vital information was back on screen. Maybe it was all a bad dream...

One of my friends is one Rupert Murdoch, who is known to some as the 'Dirty Digger' and to others as the new Big Kahuna of the MySpace; imagine my horror when I discovered that Rupert on MySpace is actually an impostor, one of those anti-globalisation guerrilla-counter-marketing culture-jammers. Do they have no shame? And this other Rupert claims that his namesake is taking MySpace down the tubes, folowing the disappearance (and subsequent reinstatement) of a MySpace page satirising the gormless Republican Senator Ted Stevens' worryingly shaky grasp of Internet technology (he is the Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and a key decision-maker on 'net neutrality', whatever that is). We have been warned.

Monday, July 24, 2006

One Night Flingue

Lucas Belvaux (best known for his trilogy of three years ago, released in English as Trilogy:One, Two, Three etc.) is back with a film set in his native Belgium, entitled La Raison du plus faible (it translates, ungainily, as 'The Reason (or reasoning) of the Weakest'). It's a thriller set in the depressed industrial city of Liège. Two laid-off steel workers plot to steal the safe of their old workplace which is filled with the proceeds from the new owners' asset-stripping. To help them they engage an ex-con, Marc (played by Belvaux himself), recently out of prison, having served time for armed robbery and still reporting to the cops every day, but he soon withdraws as he knows he's dealing with a bunch of amateurs. He ends up getting replaced in the scheme by the mild-mannered unemployed college graduate Patrick, for whom Marc initially got involved so that he could afford to buy his wife a new moped. If this does not sound silly enough, well even worse is the speed with which the three bunglers adopt a criminal élan. It all ends predictably badly, with the lads reverting to type in the last ten minutes like a plucky non-league team caving in in the ninetieth minute of a cup-tie. And then the focus switches, inexplicably to Belvaux's character, and we see him as a romantic criminal hero, of the type you would get in a Popular Front-era film by the likes of Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné or Julien Duvivier. Which is all very well, but it's a change of gear a bit too late in the film, and like the rest of the film, not terribly convincing.

Belvaux does however conjure up some fantastic images of the industrial decay of southern Belgium, particularly in the scenes set in the disused steelworks and the haunting shots of the high-rises where one of the gang lives. The fact that Marc works in the local Jupiler bottling-plant (Jupiler being the biggest-selling beer in Belgium), one of the few staples of the manufacturing base that has not been out-sourced, provides a poignant metaphor for the prospects of the local working class. Like nearby Seraing, which features in all the films by the Dardenne brothers, Liège does not look like a place you would want to live. This film, however, isn't up to the standard of the Dardennes.

I also saw Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo, which somehow won him the Best Director award at Berlin this year. Politically it is laudable, if predictable, though it does indulge the Tipton Three a bit by not questioning the nature of the 'help' they had planned to give in Afghanistan. From a dramatic point of view it is slapdash and not always convincing. The film straddles fiction and documentary uncomfortably and I found that too many of the scenes involving US soldiers jarred. I worked on a documentary on the Iraq war, and all US soldiers, even the likeable ones, were meaner and tougher than the actors deployed on this. That said, if it convinces anybody of the blight on the planet that is Camp X-Ray (and Camp Delta) it will have done its work. Anyone doubting that Guantanamo violates the Geneva Conventions might want to read this brief summary.

Erratum (or addendum?)

Further to yesterday's post about Damien Duff, it now appears that Chelsea halved the asking price to five million pounds (still haven't found that pound sign). Why did Cork City not pick him up? They're still in the Champions' League and it's not as if he's cup-tied...

Banana Republicca

Spare a thought for poor old Bob Geldof. A man of unparallelled magnanimity (that most recently saw him give free concerts at the Fan Fests at the World Cup), he is unfortunately treated harshly when the concern is something so mundane as his music. Only 45 people turned up for a gig in Milan on Friday, at a 12,000-capacity venue. There have been a number of theories put forward as to why so few people turned up, but my favourite is the claim that Internet gossip erroneously said that it was already sold out. Well, of course, that does happen... Everyone knows the Italian people's love for bad Irish rock: The Cranberries and The Corrs are hugely popular there and Bono and The Edge are probably responsible for 90% of sales of wrap-around shades and bandanas respectively on the peninsula. So it is a bit bewildering that a high-profile friend of McFisted can attract an even smaller crowd than Monaghan United. And it appears he alienated those 45 lost souls by cancelling the gig...

Wear and Tear

Nipping in between two closely-parked cars on Saturday to steal a march on a crowd of languid Parisians blocking rue du Roi de Sicile, I snagged the sleeve of my shirt off the rear-windscreen wiper of an SUV. The damage is irreparable and the shirt will soon tear more and be unwearable. And so, while hardly the heaviest thing troubling my mind these days, a little tear assumes more importance than it need. Gilbert Adair, when reviewing Jean Baudrillard's La Guerre de golfe n'a pas eu lieu (in which Baudrillard famously claimed that the (first) Gulf War did not take place because it was a media event), backed up the Frenchman's argument by claiming that the red wine he spilt on his white cardigan, while reading the book, caused an inordinate amount of worry to him, compared to the reality of the war.

While Adair and Baudrillard were more aiming at westerners' willingness and capacity for lining their priorities up in a questionable fashion, I am more put out by the shirt being no longer wearable. Because it was a nice shirt, you see, and I already have too many threadbare garments (though thankfully not always in noticeable positions). I think I can date the decline in quality of the fabric to the time I discovered H&M. Their trousers are really sub-standard and I will soon be going back to more traditional, better quality outlets for my breeches. When you subtract all the advertising campaigns, the intended Kate Moss endorsements etc., you realise that the Swedish haberdashers are little more than a global version of Dunnes Stores. Better value beats them all, as they used to tell us in the bleak 80s.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Fine Tooning

I'm a big fan of Damien Duff, even if his proneness to injury and José Mourinho's shackling of his wide ability has rendered him over the past two years only half the man he really is. He has now left the Evil Empire of Stamford Bridge, to move, not to Tottenham, where he might have formed an intriguing Hibernian troika with Robbie Keane and Andy Reid, but to Newcastle, for 10 million pound sterling (how come there's no pound sign on my Mac, either by keyboard or short-cut? I can do yen, dollar and euro though), almost half of what Chelsea paid Blackburn for him this time three years ago.

With all due respect to Newcastle, they should be considered, as a friend and correspondent commented elsewhere on this blog yesterday, perennial losers. And, from the purely selfish point of view of an Ireland football fan, I wonder, just as a snooty parent might fear for their son's academic performance while surrounded by corner boys and nyucks (a word you never hear again once you leave school), if it is good for us if the man is playing for England's best-supported underachievers. It is true that Steven Carr and Shay Given have both been there a while but, in Given's case at least, he does have the benefit of getting a lot of practice. But there may be a glimmer of hope: Duff chose the Toon because, as well as being guaranteed first-team football (they'd play him in two positions at once were it humanly possible) he has been told that he can play wide on the left, his favourite position. Let's see...

A Light Shandy

I managed to ameliorate my habit of missing the starting times of movies yesterday, and to break this duck I chose Michael Winterbottom's A Cock and Bull Story, his adaptation of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a book I count as one of my favourites, though to be honest I have not read it since I was eighteen (rather like one of the characters in the film). My own memories of it might be coloured by the fact that I was introduced to it and "taught" it by one of the world's foremost Sterne experts, and later his biographer, Ian Campbell Ross, though I do remember laughing a lot and marvelling at its proto-post-modernist (lack of) structure and dissection of time, narrative and its eponymous hero, who gets very little of his life into the five-hundred or so pages.

Before I slip into critical theory jargon, it might be helpful to summarise the book and its author. Sterne was an Anglo-Irish clergyman, born in 1713 and raised in Clonmel, whisked off to an English boarding school at the age of 11, never to return to the South Riding of Tipperary, and he settled into a Church of England post in Yorkshire, a life that formed the background for Shandy, which was published in serial form from 1759 onwards. He wrote but one other novel, A Sentimental Journey, published shortly before his death in 1768. Tristram Shandy concerns the life - narrated in the first person - of its hero, a Yorkshire gentleman, told from the moment of his conception, and it is subject to numerous diversions and asides that prevent his life-story from ever being told; there is far more of Tristram's parents and his Uncle Toby (gravely wounded in the lumber region at the Battle of Namur in 1695, a battle he re-enacts obsessively in his back garden) than there is of the chief protagonist, and, as far as I remember, after five hundred pages, he is only about eight at the close of the novel. As can be gathered from all that the chief matter of the novel is the difficulty of fitting all of life in, the impossibility of editing; it is a bit like those people (we all know one or two) who are incapable of saying in less than five hundred words what can easily be related in fifteen, only more interesting and funnier. It is viewed today as a forerunner to the post-modern novel, but though it does have a light-hearted theoretical underpinning, Shandy is more the product of an age where the novel was not yet respectable, never mind formulated enough for it qualify as an anti-novel, or some such thing. Like Sterne's contemporary Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, this novel probably would have failed to find a publisher at most times in the 200 years following its publication. As it stood, in 1759 it would have been viewed as little more than the eccentric ramblings of an obscure country clergyman, quintessentially English, as the cliché goes.

The novel, like many other structurally tricky ones, has always been described as unfilmable, but there really is no such thing as an unfilmable novel: anything can be adapted for the screen, it is just a question of whether it can be done well. Winterbottom and his regular screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce choose the most sensible option, framing it as a film-within-a-film, the shooting of an adaption of the novel. In this sense it is like the adaption of The French Lieutenant's Woman, scripted by Harold Pinter for Karel Reisz, but Winterbottom's film is a lot less dull and even less gimmicky. The book's structure is quickly dispensed with, Steve Coogan (playing himself, as he so often did in his TV stand-up in the 1990s) mutters a few inanities about the book's status as an avatar of post-modernism, and it is clear he has not read it, and we only see twenty minutes at most of the film adaptation of the book itself. In this sense it is more like other films about films, such as Altman's The Player or Truffaut's Day For Night. The film is more about events, characters and actors vying for space in the finished narrative; the script is rewritten and the narrative juggled and reshuffled in ways that will be familiar to anybody that has ever worked on a film, as new characters are written in and new actors hired (such as Gillian Anderson, who jets in to play the Widow Wadman, only to be dismayed as the smallness of her role at the end of the film).

The film's main theme though, above all this, is Coogan, or at least the persona at one remove that he has cultivated over the last ten years. Just as John Cleese will forever be Basil Fawlty, so will Steve Coogan forever be Alan Partridge. In fact it is striking how bad all his other comedy throughout the nineties was compared to Partridge (did anyone, other than cider-addled students, really find Paul and Pauline Calf funny? And as for the Portuguese cabaret star, Tony Ferrino...) In recent years however Coogan has carved out a decent acting career for himself, without fully shaking off the shadow of his Norwich-based alter ego (it's a running joke in this film too). At times he has livened up poor films, such as Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes and, more recently, Sophia Coppola's dreadful Marie Antoinette, where, among the young American actors all at sea in ancien régime taffeta, Coogan was a wry, slightly bemused presence. In this film, Coogan plays on his usual theme of casting himself as an oversensitive, vain, vaguely stupid and untrustworthy character. He is appalled (and terrified) at the prospect of his co-star (or supporting actor, as he calls him) Rob Brydon getting a bigger role than him, which given that Brydon plays Uncle Toby, and Coogan Shandy father and son, is quite feasible. The script then gets rewritten to give Brydon a bigger part and the film rambles off to focus, so to speak, on Coogan's failed romantic shennanigans with his Fassbinder-obsessed assistant Naomie Harris, his nightmares of his literally shrinking stature in the film world and his attempts to deflect a tabloid from dishing the dirt on his one-night fling with a lapdancer. Not all terribly flattering but it is a role that Coogan has long played and played quite well too.

The narrative planes meld with one another, to a point where the actors, in the final scene where they watch the rough cut, are playing themselves playing themselves playing the characters in the novel. A few jokes are thrown in that extend the film's realm beyond the film itself: Coogan is interviewed sycophantically by ex-Factory Records supremo Anthony H. Wilson, whom he played so superbly in Winterbottom's 24-Hour Party People, for what we are told are to be the DVD bonuses, and Coogan and Brydon continue their sparring through the final credits and beyond (it's well worth staying in the cinema for them). While some of the gags are obvious and not all that funny, the overall lightness of touch makes for an entertaining film. Winterbottom is a director who works at a Stakhanovite rate, turning out about two films a year (I still have not seen his previous film The Road to Guantanamo), and while they are not always good, there is a pleasing sense of open-endedness about them that rescues them from self-indulgence and will probably ensure that they date well. I would be interested in finding out what the eminent film critic David Thomson, himself a one-time Sterne biographer, thinks of this film. A long post, I know, but it's hard to fit all of life in.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

An Almost Unknown Swede

I have just discovered this enigmatic singer-songwriter, who yields very little information about himself on his site, but he is Swedish, writes quite a lot in French as well as English for some reason, and the site is worth checking out for the single 'Where The Tea Trees Are', a lovely little slice of lo-fi melancholy, with tinny drums that sound like they came out of a Lucky Bag, and a sax that wanders into the frame a minute from the end. The video too is a low-fi gem. Can anyone in Dún Laoighaire do better than that? I'm sure they can, but that's beside the point...

Vikings at Sea

Dublin City FC, hardly the biggest draw in the decidedly unstarry firmament that is the Irish National League, folded this week "sensationally" according to one news source, leaving Irish football "in shock", according to another. It's nice to see that hyperbole in sports journalism can apply equally well to the small fry. Well, it did happen overnight and nobody, save the fools that were running the club, saw it coming. The team were having a so-so season, hardly disastrous, lying ninth in the Premier League with 15 points from 17 games. Apparently the Revenue Commissioners were taking a stronger interest than usual in the way things were being run and the Whitehall club wilted under the most cursory of scrutiny.

It is always sad to see a sporting club of any type go to the wall and also to see people out of work, but I feel less sorrow for Dublin City than I might in other cases. Because Dublin City were nothing more than a brand (and not a very good one), grafted onto the company Little Roc Ltd. (trading as Dublin City FC). They were formed in 2000, and assembled from the asset-stripped Home Farm, a team with a proud amateur heritage in Irish football, and straight away the new club hubristically identified themselves with Dublin in their name, despite being the capital's sixth team. And they were known (though only to themselves) as the Vikings, an irritating nickname concocted by some focus group no doubt, and thrust upon everyone, the way a really sad David Brent-type character might give himself a moniker and insist upon everyone calling him by it. Most clubs have been nicknamed by some terrace wag but I doubt there were too many of those at Dublin City games, or fans of any sort. Shelbourne have kindly said that they will admit Dublin City season-ticket holders to their games for the rest of the season, which is a bit like your auntie taking you away on holidays to cheer you up after been dumped by your girlfriend. All results involving DCFC this season have been expunged (not often one gets to use that word); my own team Sligo Rovers (or the "Bit o'Red" as conceived by the terrace wag all those years ago) have already taken four points off them this season, so I am not too happy. The FAI warns that other clubs might follow the Vikings into liquidation. Irish soccer, off the field at least, is rarely dull.

Poor organisation

It is now Saturday, the sixth day of the week, and I have still not managed to accomplish the very simple act of going to the cinema. I always leave it too late in the day and then I have to go to work - if I don't get to the movies by four o'clock then it is foutu, as the French say. I was on the way to watch Tsotsi, the Oscar-winning South African film on Wednesday but I passed a sports shop and, needing a clamp for my bicycle saddle, I gambled on the queue not being too long inside. Bad gamble. I might go watch it today. Some people would question the need to go to the movies in this weather, but there really is no accounting for tastes.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Perils of Blogging

My friend Eva brought to my attention this week a blog called La Petite Anglaise, which gets about 3,000 hits a day and concerns the life of an expat 30-something Englishwoman working as a PA in a large public relations company (or at least I think that is what it is). Anyway things are, as they say, all going down right now. The lady in question, known only by her first name Catherine has been sacked for gross misconduct, closely allied to her blog. Now, apparently Catherine has scarcely mentioned anything pertaining to her job in her blog but her employers have cited "breakdown of trust". And, though I will inevitably sound as if I am standing up for the Man here, I can see their point on that. Not exactly fair dismissal but I can understand how people would get nervous knowing that one of their workers or colleagues has a large audience to play to. The blog itself is a bit like Bridget Jones though I can't say I've really read it in great detail. Check it out here.

A Story I Heard Last Night

While out last night I was tapped on the shoulder by a man who had been told by one of his friends that I was a Donegal-man. Not quite, but close enough, my mother's from there. This fellow anyway was born in Letterkenny but grew up near Crossmaglen (non-Irish people might need to be told that that is in south Armagh). Despite this he spoke with a bizarre Geordie accent, and he told me he had never lived in Newcastle either. A carpenter by trade, he has been living in various places around France for about six or seven years.

He told me that he was "locked up" for eight months for an infraction that occurred on the terrace of a café last summer in Vaucluse (close to Avignon and Orange and where Chateauneuf-du-Pape comes from). Sitting on the terrace with a black Rasta friend, they were asked to leave because his friend refused to put his shirt back on. The owner lifted the beers that they had not yet touched and, when the Armagh-man remonstrated with him, the owner punched him. At this point, Armagh's two dogs, that were sitting nearby joined in (I can't remember the exact breeds but one was a Rottweiler) and started mangling both men as they tussled on the ground. Then the bar's regular clientele, the local skinheads (Vaucluse is Front National heartland) got started; Armagh didn't know that it was a skinhead bar and wouldn't have set foot there in the first place had he known. The police arrived and shot the dogs on the spot before arresting Armagh and the bar owner.

A month or two later he was sentenced and spent his time inside in a coastal prison near Cannes (I could find out the name of it easily enough by Googling but, you know). He didn't say much about inside but he said it wasn't pleasant. Though the fellow did not have a malicious air about him he certainly looked tough. But there was a look in his eye that suggested prison had changed him; he also spoke excitedly, letting things off his chest hastily, and he even slipped into French every couple of minutes without noticing. He was like the Ancient Mariner at the wedding, lost in his own monologue.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A token presence...

...because of over-indulgence last night. I have done well just to get a couple of job applications sent out (what would I do without cut and paste?) The only thing that can save me now is lots of water, freshly squeezed orange juice, and more water. And sex probably. But I'll spare you the details...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Hot Hot Heat (nó teas te te)

My wee sister has informed me that the Evening Herald says that today will be the hottest day in Ireland for 100 years (well certainly, listening to Ray d'Arcy yesterday I heard the heat bring out whingeing among the Irish the likes of which has not been heard since the end of the Land Wars). Whatever it is, the Heggald has it. Except that the BBC says that highest temperatures in Dublin today will be a mere 28 degrees. Well, they would, wouldn't they?

I'm sure I've been on the emerald isle before when it was above 30 on the thermometer but that may be nostalgia at play. Anyway here in Paris, it is expected to reach 37 and we're not complaining, pale Connacht-men laden down with a full beard included. The heat is unusually tolerable this year thanks to the low humidity (37% compared to 59% in Dublin). Still can't wait to get away though. Enjoy the sun while it lasts. You'll save a fortune on sunbeds folks, no need to turn up at family weddings with orange faces...

Switching Wings With Alacrity

It was June 1990, and Ireland were playing Italy (they seem to be popping up everywhere on this blog, those Italians) in Rome's Olympic Stadium in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. The Irish had ground out four dull draws, scoring two goals in the process, to get that far (or at least that's how craven revisionists like myself see it now; at the age of 14, mind, I was a good deal less sniffy). Jimmy Magee, the grand old man of absolutely useless sporting trivia, had just won a sternly-fought stand-off with the RTÉ authorities and that young pup George Hamilton, to take his rightful place commentating on the biggest game in Irish football history. And thus, mid-way through the first half, Jimmy's buttery tones, straight outta the Cooley Peninsula, were heard to describe Roberto Donadoni (this week named as successor to Marcello Lippi as manager of la squadra) as 'switching wings with alacrity.' We still do not know to this day if it was Donadoni's deftness of touch and his grace that prompted one viewer to write to Arthur Murphy's Mailbag to complain that there was no Alacritti mentioned on the team-sheet he had in front of him. It may, of course have been plain old common-or-garden ignorance.

Because, you see there was not an awful lot of alacrity on display in the Irish team of the day, though not for want of the stuff; it was, after all a team that included Paul McGrath, Ray Houghton, Ronnie Whelan, John Sheridan and others among its number. Big Jack had however managed to sublimate (no, no, no, repressed) it in much the same way as the Irish used to put their sexual urges in some dark corner of their noggin in the hope that they might die of malnutriton rather than embarrass the family (my generation of Irish people are more likely to douse their sexual urges in pints of Carlsberg and Bacardi Breezers in order to render them more predictable, same thing in the heel of the hunt.)

And so, let us salute alacrity, that capacity for deftness and briskness that livens up the dullest of proceedings. I am thinking of things like Didier Zokora's double back-heel roll for Ivory Coast against Holland in the World Cup, something that had no effect whatsoever on the game, but looked seriously cool all the same. But there are numerous non-footballing examples: virtuoso guitar such as that practised by Rodrigo y Gabriela; flair bar-tending; burley young country lads tossing bales of hay up on to a trailer (the sort of fellas that usually build a house for one of their brothers in their spare time every other summer); the suburban kids that come into Paris every day and do their break-dancing on Ile St-Louis, wowing American tourists that most likely have never seen the thing before. Personally speaking, the best claim to this sort of deftness I can make is an ability to chop both fruit and vegetables at high speed while leaving my fingers largely unblemished. Oh, and I can carry about eighteen pint glasses (straight sleeves, stacked) in one hand. Guess what I've been doing all my life.

It's hard to tell the dancer from the dance.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Middle of the (rail)road

Ah, the great Italian match-fixing scandal has suddenly got interesting. Legendarily middle-brow film and theatre director - and great admirer of Margaret Thatcher - Franco Zeffirelli has incited fellow fans of Fiorentina to "cut Italy in two" as a protest against their forced relegation to Serie B. And so 300 fans have occupied Santa Maria Novella station in Florence and are sitting on the tracks, refusing to allow any trains to pass.

Il Zeff may have a point about the truly guilty going unpunished in this affair but it is a bit rich seeing a supporter of the 'legitimate' political right being perfectly happy to advocate direct action whenever it suits him. Where was Zeffirelli in Genoa at the time of the WTO protests when Italian police, ahem, overreacted, shooting dead one protestor? And is Franco going to be putting his own tush on the line with the Florentine rabble, or is he too busy creating another petit-bourgeois masterpiece to be marvelled at by English teachers the whole world round?

This will make you feel better

After the horrors that occasioned that last post, here's some solace, a band from Sao Paolo (I'm not telling you what country that's in, look it up in the encyclopaedia, if necessary). Already rather big in North America, where they blend in well with the Electroclash scene, they are a pleasing mix of light beats, wailing theremins, come-hither vocals and, in that track "Let's Make Love..." a text-book bassline. My Lussophone (look it up) experts tell me that the first word of their name is pronounced 'Canshay'. Not shure about 'sher' or 'Shexy' though.

Harrowing Dispatches from Back Home

Living in France, one has the benefit of being shielded from many of the more appalling aspects of Anglophone popular culture, even if one has to occasionally suffer the Gallic equivalents: Patrick Bruel, Alain Souchon (who is bewilderingly viewed by many French intellectuals as being a local Dylan or Randy Newman).

This morning however, while carelessly listening to Ray d'Arcy's show on TodayFM, I heard a song that apparently knocked the peerless 'Crazy' by Gnarls Barkley off the number one spot last month. It sounds like a really bad cross between The Spinners (the Liverpool version, not the Detroit one) and Fairport Convention (not that FC were bad, but you know what I mean). The lyrics are spectacularly clueless:

Oh I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair
In '77 and '69 revolution was in the air
I was born too late into a world that doesn't care
Oh I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair

When the head of state didn't play guitar
Not everybody drove a car
When music really mattered and when radio was king
When accountants didn't have control
And the media couldn't buy your soul
And computers were still scary and we didn't know everything

Punk rocker? Flowers in the hair? Where did this muppet grow up? Was she raised by Jehovah's Witnesses shielded from all major sub-cultural trends of the past forty years? What in God's name is the connection between 1977 and 1969? Iggy fucking Pop? The last slice of pseudo-leftfield nonsense this bad was the God-awful 'What's Up?' by the unlamented 4 Non-Blondes, back in 1993. Remember that line: "I pray every day...for revolution"? It's enough to turn you into a neo-con, though this is probably the sort of shite that the neo-cons thought was edgy while they were still spouting Marx, Trotsky and Marcuse to anyone that would listen on campus.

I can feel the withering yet well-meaning looks from the folks back home who have had to put up with this all through the World Cup. But I think I need to lie down for a while, before the media try to buy my soul. This is by a Scots woman named Sandi Thom. Sandi, stop this now. Think of the children, please.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Retro Irish behaviour

Two young Irishmen have been arrested following their theft of a fishing trawler in Holyhead to sail back to Dublin after they missed their ferry. Classic Paddy behaviour of old, which should ensure a brief revival in all the old jokes. The owner of the trawler was unhappy at the lack of action taken by the police, considering the damage done to his boat by these amadáns. "I couldn't believe it. The police are giving a green light for people from Ireland to simply grab the nearest boat and try to sail home if they miss the ferry." Now you all know what to do if you miss the boat lads.

Party Out of Bounds

Tommy Sheridan, former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party (though I do seem to recall they do without leaders as such) has been in the news, having dismissed his legal team in the libel case he has brought against the dear old News of the World, who claimed that he engaged in wild drunken orgies (which included cocaine and champagne - well, if one is to be decadent, one should go the whole hog) and attended swingers' clubs too.

Tommy is an old Militant Labour Trot, a veteran of the poll tax protests, having done time for his opposition to that most hated of Thatcher's policy measures. Unlike most other Trots however he is a rather canny politician, having been a member of the Scottish Parliament since its establishment in 1999, and his party has managed to secure a respectable representation in Scottish political life. Far from being a radical loony lefty, he operates much like any conventional politician, catering to the mundane needs of often extremely disadvantaged constituents.

In 2000, along with his fellow party-member Alan McCombs, he published a book called Imagine, a thoughtful, sober and well-written blueprint for a social-democratic society, that enshrined the primacy of elections and mentioned not once the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is unlikely to become an underground classic nor ever be influential, though the reviews - often from commentators well to the right of Sheridan - were generally positive. I lent my copy to a Kilkenny anarchist about five years ago and never got it back, property being theft and all that. If you're reading Garret, I hope you passed it on to somebody needful of it.

Though I am a person of unremarkable dissoluteness (most people that know me will be relieved to hear that, though a tiny minority will be, I'm sure, mildly disappointed) I cannot say that I would be terribly put out voting for or entrusting the country with somebody who engages in group sex and entrusts his own wife with others of his kind. But there are people that would think otherwise and Tommy might wonder whether his political career will survive this case even should he win. Tommy has always elicited some derision because of his fondness for sunbeds, but being Glaswegian, this is really no more unusual than a Geordie with a fondness for going without a coat on a winter's Saturday night out. If the man enjoys the good life, well I don't really care.

There is also in the evidence being given by the defence something of an error of scale; the plaintiff is alleged to have been spotted in a bed with one other man and three women and this, apparently constitutes an 'orgy'. I would have thought that this would merely be group sex; surely an orgy requires at least a dozen or so participants?

Fair play anyway to Tommy for sacking his counsel for the way they ganged up on a witness giving evidence against him. This, after all is the man that took his oath of allegience to Ms Elizabeth Windsor with a clenched fist (see picture above). Best of luck with your own representation...

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Serie B-special

I'm not a fan of Italian football and I was supporting France in the World Cup final last Sunday but I cannot say that I begrudge the Italians their victory this year. Though they were outplayed by the French in the second half of the final and in extra time last week, in the tournament overall they were probably the most impressive side, along with Argentina (and possibly the ageing French too - I am still unimpressed with Germany's one-dimensional game that was made look good by a sturm und drang pace and lifted by the benefit of being hosts). Cannavaro, Gattuso, Buffon and Zambrotta were all superb, and you have to admire the way that ten of their players got on the scoresheet. Even the inevitable presence of charmless thugs such as Daniele de Rossi and Marco Materazzi does not take the lustre off the azzurri's perfect defending and sharp counter-attacking.

Now, however calcio has come back down to earth with the sentences handed out by Italian Federation prosecutor Stefano Palazzi. 29-time-scudetto-winners Juventus have been demoted to Serie B and handed a 30-point penalty, as have Lazio and Fiorentina, the latter having already been nearly rendered defunct by a similar penalty six years ago. Only Milan survived the drop, though they will start next season with a fifteen-point penalty and have been banned from the Champions' League. I am curious as to why Milan avoided relegation (they too were relegated before in similar circumstances, in 1980). One is tempted to say that it is because they are owned by Silvio Berlusconi but Palazzi was the magistrate that was the scourge of the Caiman throughout the 1990s, without ever managing to put him away. There was an article on the affair in last week's London Review of Books, which illuminated some of the case but the reality is that Italian football politics are painfully similar to Northern Irish ('real') politics: cut away from the main action and everything is terribly tedious.

Things I learned this week

1. That the 'K' in Knopf (as in the celebrated New York publishing house Alfred A. Knopf) is pronounced. Thanks to Laura Linney in The Squid and the Whale for that one. It has helped avoid a future embarrassing moment with a member of the Manhattan literati. But I wonder are there other pitfalls waiting out there? As an Irish person, I know how many Irish names are mispronounced by foreign Anglophones (Cahill as 'kay-hill', Mahoney as 'ma-HO-nee', O'Shaughnessy as O'SHAW-nessy, Gallagher with that second 'G' erroneously pronounced). There is an appendix in Debrett's, the snob's bible, that gives a guide to pronouncing all the arcane, obscure aristocratic names that litter British high society. Maybe there could be one made for the riff-raff of the world.

2. (Again, thanks to The Squid and the Whale - this time the French subtitles.) That the French for 'philistine' is 'béotien', attributive of the Boeotians, rather dull and backward provincials in ancient Greece, and citizens, perhaps now more cultured, of modern Greece. I always wondered why my use of the word "philistine", inflected to sound French, always flummoxed French people I spoke to. According to my Petit Larousse, 'philistin' (or 'philistine' for feminine nouns) does exist in French but is considered 'literary' and 'rare'. So there you go... Are there any other uncultured peoples throughout the ages that have become synonymous with Fianna Fáil councillors, readers of The Sun and New Labour Prime Ministers?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Requiem for a Thug

It is six days since France lost the World Cup but the loss, and Italy's win, has been overshadowed by the Zidane-Materazzi incident. Zidane went on Canal+ on Wednesday night and explained what set him off, and apologised for his actions, while saying that he did not regret them. Since then the man has been mercilessly pilloried in mainly the world's anglophone media for not maintaining his sang froid. A letter in yesterday's Herald Tribune from a New Yorker declared that if Zidane played in the NBA, he would have to headbutt somebody ten times in every game, a toe-curlingly smug remark from an armchair observer that misses the point that Zizou himself probably felt the felt the need to headbutt an opponent ten times in every game he ever played too. Zidane has been sent off fourteen times in his career, including the game against Villareal that featured in the excellent film Zidane: A Portrait of the Twenty-First Century by the video artists Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parrano, where Zidane provides an extraordinary close to the action by getting dismissed at the end of a mass brawl. The man's career seemed to be made for the grand narrative and that is why I am more forgiving of him that many of the fools that are calling the great man a thug and a poor example to his younger fans.

Like the writer to the IHT mentioned above, a Canadian I know (and an England supporter and apologist for Wayne Rooney's stamp on Ricardo Carvalho) claimed that mother insults are par for the course in the National Hockey League and nobody loses their cool for that. As well they might be. People however are missing the racist tinge to Materazzi's taunt; though Zidane did not repeat what the Italian said to him, he did confirm, when asked by Le Monde, if the allegations published by The Sun - "Everyone knows you're the son of a terrorist whore" - were true . Again I have heard hair-splitters say that this is a vague insult and that, to target somebody on account of their religion cannot be racist because "Islam is not a race" (I also heard this argument repeated many times last January during the Danish Mohammed cartoons affair and it is one of the most bone-headed, reductive rationales I have ever encountered). To call somebody a terrorist because of a vague racial association is racist and cannot be considered in any other fashion (West Ham fans were reprimanded last year by the FA for chanting 'suicide bomber' at Tottenham's Egyptian striker Mido), and it hardly matters that Zidane is not actually Arab, but Kabyle. Which then begs the question, how often is racism tolerated in the NBA, the NHL, in Premiership grounds? Should Zidane have taken it as 'all part of the game' as those apologists for monkey-chanting in Spain and Italy say it is? The former England and Liverpool winger John Barnes, who was subjected to vicious racial abuse by fans throughout the 1980s, said once that "being asked does racial abuse affect you is like being bitten by a shark and being then asked if it hurts." There will be people that snap in those circumstances, and Zidane is only the most high-profile, most celebrated case. My only regret is that he did not headbutt Materazzi properly and deprive him of a few front teeth and bring Italy down to ten men with him. Materazzi may yet be punished, after giving his deposition to FIFA in Zurich yesterday. Stripping him of his winner's medal and a two-year-ban to finish his career whould be a good way to go. In the meantime here's an example of what a terribly nice chap he is.

Of course, it may have been the mother-and-sister insult primarily that set Zizou off, and then we are back to the question of whether you allow yourself to get provoked by such a thing. I would argue that in some countries where such insults are bandied about so indiscriminately as to have almost lost their effect, people are less convinced as to their offensiveness. For a North African Kabyle to take it from an Italian might demand more patience. Nobody is saying that Zidane was not foolish, nor is anybody invoking a suspension of the law: he got rightly sent off and it probably cost France the World Cup. FIFA can even take the Golden Ball away from him if they like; he won't be too upset and he hardly deserved to win it anyway. But I can understand why he did what he did.

The French comedian Jamel Debbouze this week eloquently defended Zidane , quoting Camus' declaration that he loved his mother more than justice, and he suggested that Zidane's mother meant more to him than the World Cup. It does not detract from the foolishness of Zidane's deed but I do think that Camus (the former goalkeeper, of course) would have appreciated his fellow Franco-Algerian's gratuitous act. A letter to Libération compared Zidane to another great existential hero, Billy Budd, from Herman Melville's eponymous novella, who is punished for the rash killing of his sadistic superior officer.

In order to see what sort of people are coming out against Zidane in France, have a look at this piece from Libé; the Front National's newspaper had the headline "CIAO VOYOU" ('voyou' meaning 'thug'). Moi, je suis avec le voyou.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Two Passengers

I happened to see two films of the same title yesterday, by pure coincidence. The first one was a Franco-Québécois-Japanese production from which I have three degrees or so of separation. A friend of mine edited a short film directed by one of the associate producers on this one. The short, which will remain unnamed, was awful, but this was a lot better. The tale is of a dodgy Japanese businessman, who is apparently robbed of money he owes a mob syndicate by a dodgy Québécois businessman. His teenage daughter then persuades her part-time mobster, part-time rent boy boyfriend to go to Canada and get it all back, thereby saving her father's skin. The plot is the least interesting part of the whole thing and even the twist in the final five minutes of the film is a bit pointless. But the film succeeds in its immaculate framing, particularly of long shots, and the editing is superb, chugging along at a nice slow pace, yielding its secrets only every so often. Not bad for a film with a shooting budget of 95,000 euros.

The second is Michelangelo Antonioni's much better known 1975 film, starring Jack Nicholson as a disillusioned reporter, who swaps identity with a casual acquaintance who dies on a trip to an unnamed Saharan country (most likely Niger or Chad), thereby faking his own death in the process. It turns out that the other chap was a shady arms dealer and it is up to Jack to seize the day and ride his luck and travel all around Europe in an existential haze, or it seems, just for the heck of it, while his widow gets suspicious and tracks him down to Almeria. I saw it first about six or seven years ago on video and I was surprised, upon watching it again how funny it is, which is not usually the most striking quality of an Antonioni film. There is an unusually dizzying sense of release and abandon in the way that Nicholson runs away from everything (one great scene has the Maria Schneider character asking him what he is running from and he tells her to turn around in the car and look at the road behind) and I imagine that the film's trans-European trajectory would have had an even greater romance in the days before cheap flights. The famous penultimate shot, a five-minute zoom-and-pan that appears to pass through the grills of a window is not, on second viewing quite as virtuostic as I originally thought - if you look closely you can see the joins - but it is an amazing shot in terms of composition and the way it draws the action to a close, reprising the grammatical elements of so many earlier shots in the film. One I would like to see again.

And if that weren't bad enough, there have been three other films named The Passenger released in the past year.