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.

The Best Place to Hide A Fascist Is...

The most highly self-regarded paper in the known world, the Irish Times, has just updated its site and from now on its 'Breaking News' section will be free to surfers. Its 'Breaking Wind' section (i.e. the rest of the paper) however still costs €79 per year. One of its first free stories is this peach concerning Tanaiste and Fianna Fail's favourite fall guy Michael McDowell abusing parliamentary privilege to brand his previous election conqueror John Gormley, of the Greens, a 'fascist.' Which plays very well to McDowell's usual idiot businessman constituency in Dublins 4 and 6. Given McDowell's fondness for the iron hand and his proposition of motions such as the racist Citizenship Amendment Act of 2004, the Ranelagh rottweiler might be best advised to keep ciúin until the next election, when even those people that have supported him in the past might feel that he has gone a little bit too far this time. Methinks Herr McDowell is scarcely suited to the exacting ambience of a modern democratic society and that the people of Dublin South-East should endeavour to correct their mistake of four years ago and consign him, like his dear forgotten grandfather Eoin McNeill (whose historical error Mickey Mack has harboured a grudge for similar to that of a villain from a Marvel comic book) to the dustbin of history. Slan, a Mhichíl.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Miami Vice

A humorous piece of news from the Guardian here: Cuban 'dissidents' based in Miami in receipt of US government aid squandered $65 million of the stuff on, among other things Playstations, GameBoys, leather jackets, cashmere jumpers and luxury chocolates. "Acción Democratica Cubana" hefe Juan Carlos Acosta defended the last shipment, with a wonderfully Antoinettian touch: “These people are going hungry. They never get any chocolate there". The good philanthropists in Washington are undoubtedly bewildered by such rapine but surely they knew all along that their Men in Havana (and Miami) were nothing other than corrupt, lazy, crapulous bigots with only the vaguest commitment to democratisation of Cuba. There are genuine Cuban dissidents worthy of support, on both left and right, but they are not to be found among the decrepit fascists in Miami.

Marino Waltz

5-0 to Ireland against San Marino, a result just on the threshold of respectability in a game that was inflated by the Pravda-like FAI as 'an emotional farewell' to Lansdowne. A goal apiece by Andy Reid and a first by Kevin Doyle, together with a hat-trick by local fairweather forward Robbie Keane, ensured Ireland move into positive goal difference for the first time since their Euro 2008 qualifying campaign started. A surprise 1-1 draw between Cyprus and Germany has provided a glimmer of hope for the beleagured Boys in Green, one that will no doubt soon be snuffed out by Steve Staunton's shambolic outfit.

That's Me!!!!

My friend Eric, in town from Chicago on his twice-yearly visit recently, knowing of our shared regard for Geoff Dyer, gave me a copy of Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage, his unorthodox 'study' of D.H. Lawrence. It is one of the few works by Dyer that I had not read and I breezed through it, being entertained and enthralled, as ever, by the account of Dyer's inability to accomplish his planned 'sober academic study' of the filthy modernist and his subsequent penning of a book far better than the one originally intended probably would have been.

What struck me yet again however is Dyer's similarity to myself. There is nothing particularly hubristic nor fanciful about this; there are probably tens of thousands of dormant writers the world over that have noticed the same thing. I have remarked to myself before of my shared (with Dyer) disdain for academia and my distaste at the concept of a professional writer turning out industrial amounts of prose from their monastic cells in the blissful peace of dull suburbia, which Dyer also holds with. I also have an interest in photography (though piddling in comparison with Dyer, who is one of the world's finest writers on the subject) yet, like Dyer, I do not own a camera nor do I really know how to take photographs. Dyer has on the other hand has no interest in theatre and takes solace from such a lacuna in his cultural life. So do I: the last play I saw was in the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1997 and I can't say I've missed the experience too much. And we share many favourite writers: Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, John Berger, Fernando Pessoa, Borges, Proust...

In Out of Sheer Rage however it was even smaller details that shook me. In the mid-nineties Dyer lived just down the street from where I now live, on the corner of rue Popincourt and rue de la Roquette (his description of it in the book is so exact that I was able to locate it instantly while cycling by the other night) and, like I have in the past, he felt the urge to put down some roots to put an end to the international listlessness that had been dogging him for almost a decade. His way of doing this was to subscribe to Canal Plus, as a way of committing himself to staying a bit longer. I too have had the same thought, a foolish one because of the outrageously expensive €30 per month charge which even being the best that French TV has to offer does not justify. When Dyer finally moves to Oxford - or Dullford, as he calls it - and buys a house, the first thing he does is buy a cork notice board to pin bills, postcards and other paper ephemera to. It was his particular conception of accepting domestication. Well, not that particular, as it was the very thing that I did when I moved into my current flat seven months ago.

To top it all off, Dyer admits to uttering profanities under his breath to innocent bystanders who happen to slow down his daily progress in supermarket queues, on crowded streets and on the Metro. Guess who does the same thing... Like the narrator of Poe's short story 'William Wilson' I feel I have found my double, one who might be even more me than I am. It might be said that I should not compare myself too conceitedly with Dyer as he has about ten books published in his favour against my none. But it did take the Loafer's Laureate as long to get started.

Down The Tubes

Kettle/pot similarity department: US technology website TechCrunch has been issued a legal warning by YouTube's solicitors (or lawyers as the Septics call them) because it has allegedly violated its terms of use by creating a software tool that allows users to download videos from the site. As the posting (replete with said letter) on TechCrunch points out, the 'irony of YouTube accusing others of copyright infringement is delicious'. I am a proud user of one of TechCrunch's rivals PodTube to download clips that are otherwise impossible to find, such as Roy Andersson's brilliant Swedish commercials and I sleep well at night despite all this. Now that YouTube is owned by the 'don't be evil' fellowship that is Google, they may have moved over quite swiftly to the side of the Man. Copyright theft is the way of the future. May all those media executives end their days in Sally Army dorms for their past crimes.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Queer Times in South Africa

Good news from South Africa where the nation has become the first in Africa, and among the first in the world, to legalise gay marriage. Despite the strong opposition of church and conservative leaders, parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of the law. It is hardly an understatement that to say that this is probably the greatest step forward for gay rights in history.

A Short One

A long day at the offices so no real posting today, though, in the spirit of lazy endeavour, I will direct you to this human interest story about a human interest story from yesterday's Slate. I imagine that buses still plunge though.

God-Given Far Right

Black French comedian Dieudonné, who might best be described as 'hardly philo-semite' for some of the comments he has made about Jewish people over the past couple of years, was a guest at the Front National's annual festival at the weekend, being hailed by the grotesque old turnip Jean-Marie Le Pen as a "Frenchman like any other", which is a new enough departure for the ex-paratrooper and student yob. But, according to the piece in Libération, Anthony Attal, the leader of the local Jewish Defence League, a far-right kosher bovver-boy outfit very similar in its scaled-down way to the FN, was also present. A new openness for the Front National, desperate to shed even their core 'values' in order to pare votes away from the mainstream left and right? Perhaps, or it may be Dieudonné's familiar publicity-seeking provocation at play. In any case some of the rank-and-file were not too happy to have him among them: one is quoted by Libé as saying 'frankly, we don't need this nigger'. Evidently not.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Rayner Shine

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago Pauleta's alleged slurring of female referee's assistant Nellie Lagrange's reputation; now one of Mme Lagrange's English counterparts, Amy Rayner, has suffered a similarly craven attack from Luton manager Mike Newell, who claims, with bracing old-school gusto that "women shouldn't be here" and that their presence officiating is only due to political correctness. Well might the same thing have been said about Jackie Robinson, Clyde Best, Viv Anderson and other black sportsmen in the past.

Newell, to his mitigated credit, initially admitted to being sexist, and has since apologised. He is still likely however to lose his job, which seems a bit harsh for something that only makes him look an idiot. There is course no reason to say that women cannot make officials as good as if not better than men but given the inevitability of the hostility they face, one wonders do they suffer from some beastly form of masochism. That said, best of luck to Amy Rayner and all her female colleagues.

Poop Scoop

Woody Allen's move away from his beloved New York for his last film Match Point, the first of a two-movie deal with BBC Films, was a great surprise, a venture into Chabrol territory for the fiercely moral tale of an arriviste murderer. I sat in a cinema at Bastille as the closing credits rolled surprised that there had not really been one laugh worth talking about in the film. Not that I was bothered, and of course Woody has made unfunny films before, such as September, Interiors, Alice and Another Woman. It was however the quality of the film that most surprised me, particularly given the awfulness of so many of his films over the past fifteen years, so bad that I have seen very few of the films he was turned out at his usually fearsome rate in the past four years. Now he is back, swiftly as ever, with Scoop, a black comedy (and no relation to the one of the same name by Evelyn Waugh), again set in the English haute bourgeoisie and again starring Scarlett Johansson as an American interloper.

Unfortunately Scoop fails to reach any of the heights attained by its predecessor. In fact, if anything, it represents a drearily familiar resettling into the groove of mediocrity that Allen has occupied for so long. Johansson is a young American student journalist who, visiting London, is told by the ghost of a recently deceased Fleet St hack that a notorious serial killer is the scion of one of England's oldest and most illustrious families. As this happens while she is being 'dematerialised' on stage by Allen's vaudeville illusionist, she inveigles him into assisting her in getting closer to the young toff, played by Hugh Jackman, and closer to her big story. So far so Manhattan Murder Mystery but the resemblance to that film is merely cosmetic and it has none of its humour or wit. The film riffs tiresomely on jokes about the British that only the most provincial Americans will find remotely funny or original, while Allen's magician is given lines so dull and cheesy that one wonders if the once-great director is wilfully parodying himself. Jackman gives a decent turn as the possibly murderous blueblood but Johansson, whose supposed acting abilities have always eluded me, is embarrassingly bad in a manically screwball role. Her comic timing is woefully inept and she never convinces as the single-minded, ambitious young newshound she is supposed to be. I almost feel like pining for the petulant sulking she indulges in that successive directors mistake for mystery and depth. There is little in Scoop to recommend a viewing and one wonders if the ageing Allen will ever make a great film again.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Peace in a Pod

Yesterday I bought an iPod, after a three-day ordeal that will be more familiar to buyers of a first home. My mistake was to buy it on what Brits and Paddies would call 'the HP' from Fnac, which entailed running off home jointly and severally for a piece of official ID and bank details and then submitting to an in-depth evisceration of my personal and financial life. Fair enough, but I was even willing to pay off the first €200 in cash, but, no, they would not let me. But still, paying the whole thing over five months is not the worst thing in the world, even at 3% interest (the funny thing about France is that the concept of interest only really exists when you are repaying a loan; you'll be waiting a long time if you expect your bank to pay you interest on your savings account).

After finally getting the turbulent piece of hardware in my hands, I admitted to myself that, like all the millions of other iPod owners worldwide, I really do not need one. I could plead unusually long Metro journeys across Paris for work but I have managed well enough till now without one and these journeys still constitute a minority of travelling time for me in a week. But in the modern consumer world, desire is much stronger than need, and though I managed for so long without really wanting an iPod in the past two months I have felt an insatiable desire for one. Completely irrational, of course. To the extent that when I showed some friends of mine my new machine, they replied with 'another one?' or 'I thought you had one'. Probably because I look like the sort of guy that just has an iPod, almost like I should have been born with a wee Nano tucked under my infant oxter, or safely concealed in the swaddling clothes. By the same token, people always assume that I am a smoker, because I look like one. Casual acquaintances are forever congratulating me on giving up, which is the most gratifying piece of flattery I have yet to receive, but which is also cruelly deprived of the tens of Euros per month savings I might have made had I a habit to kick in the first place.

I went for the biggest possible iPod, real estate in effect, because I figured that you are as well to go the whole hog if you are going to spend money on a toy of dubious function. The 4Gb Nano trades at €200, the 30Gb model at €300 and the whopping, hitherto-unknown 80Gb at €400. It's clearer and brighter at the top so of course I go for the 80. I have since been struggling with a pair of dodgy headphones from my last, sadly-underused Discman, which, however poor they are, are still a better choice than the official Apple earpieces, which, as a New York Times review once remarked, come in 'only one colour: "mug me-white"'.

My biggest anxiety following my purchase was not the usual buyer's remorse, which I suffer from as much as the next man (considering I don't start paying for it until the 5th of December and that I have a little money to spare from working two jobs in the past month, money is not, for the time being, an object), but guilt at having finally capitulated to consumer desire. I am not an early adopter by any means; in fact so late an adopter am I that I have yet to get myself a driver's licence, but, all of a sudden I felt like purchasing something completely unnecessary and which will, most likely, bring me minimal pleasure. But I am still proud of, and happy with my shiny new black iPod that plays me an enormously wide array of music that I would normally not give the time of day to if I encountered it all in the form of space-consuming CDs or vinyl. It feels like the decay of growing up has begun to set in; that I have given up the ghost and finally admitted that I am becoming one of Nietzsche's Hollow Men. When effete Western civilisation is eventually overrun by whatever vital and barbarous horde that will elect to do so, I will be caught square in the onslaught, but at least I'll have twenty Bob Dylan albums at my fingertips (or thumbtips) as I expire.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Scunthorpe Problem

A casual conversation with a colleague yesterday about the meaning of 'Thorpe' in many English place-names sent me scattering off to WikiPedia, where I discovered it means 'village'. While on the page entry for Scunthorpe, I discovered that the town's name has been blocked by many spam filters and firewalls because of its incorporation of the word CUNT (not too shy here at Underachievement HQ to utter such vulgarities). And so on a number of internet forums where the name of the Lincolnshire town needed to be used, it was mentioned as 'S***thorpe'. IT folk call it the 'Scunthorpe problem'. I'd be interested to see any statistics for this constituency. A venn diagram might be instructive.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Minnows Go Shrimping

Congratulations to Southend United, currently bottom of the Championship, who recorded probably their greatest victory even last night, beating holders Manchester United 1-0 in the fourth round of the Carling Cup, spoiling Alex Ferguson's celebrations of being 20 years in the job. And neither was it a below-strength side the likes of which United often field in this competition. Well done, the Shrimpers.

Hanging Too Good?

And another thing that I have resisted commenting on thus far is the death sentence handed out to former Baghdad strongman Saddam Hussein. Though I am, like most civilised people, against the institutional murder of even the worst of humankind, I cannot say that I am going to lose too much sleep for Saddam. Raymond Field, auxiliary bishop of Dublin, and chairman of the Catholic Bishops' Justice Commission, a body that sounds like something out of The Godfather Part III, has chipped in with his two cents worth, saying that the decision is likely to further polarise the various communities in Iraq. Is that possible? It was fairly obvious from the start that the trial was going to be a glorified kangaroo court, lacking the mandate of a majority of people in Iraq, but that is how the Americans and the British wanted it. Summary justice with a slim patina of democratic and judicial process is probably the best that can be expected from the mess that these two promoters of democracy have instigated in Iraq. Still, I'll shed no tears for Saddam; there are many liberals that claim that one's opposition to the death penalty ought to be total, extending even to cases involving monsters such as Saddam, Pinochet, Pol Pot and others. Irresponsible it might sound, but I would be quite willing to miss that meeting and let the mob have their way.

Two American Elections

For someone that covers politics quite a bit on this blog I have commented little on the US midterm elections, mainly because there are tens of thousands of other blogs doing just that, many of them far better than I could. I will however rejoice briefly, with many of my American friends, in the Democrats' wrestling control of the House of Representatives back from the Republicans after twelve years in minority. They need two closely-run Senate races in Montana and Virginia, both Republican-held seats, to take the upper house.

Pundits are calling it a referendum on the Bush administration and the Iraq war, both partly true, but given that Clinton suffered a similar whipping in the 1994 midterms and went on to be easily re-elected two years later, we should not get too excited just yet. And even if the Senate falls to the Democrats that will still leave only one branch of government in their hands. And we still also await the growing of both a spine and a pair of testicles that might allow them to develop into a genuinely progressive party. Remember, only one Senator on either side of the house voted against the invasion of Iraq.

Meanwhile, further south, Daniel Ortega, a name that will be familiar to those that watched Latin American politics closely in the 1980's has returned to power after sixteen years in opposition. The former Sandinista leader has toned down his revolutionary rhetoric, going so far as to dress himself up as a devout Catholic in order to get elected, and, with 38% of the vote, he has avoided the necessity of a second round. The Yanks are unhappy with this, having sent their erstwhile Nicaraguan 'expert' Oliver North to Managua to strongly advise the locals from exercising their democratic will in the wrong way, just as they did in the 1990 elections, but this time with less success. Ortega remains pally with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez though he is unlikely to be too much of a firebrand, if the way he has prostrated himself before the Catholic Church is anything to go by. Nicaragua outlawed abortion by a unanimous parliamentary vote two weeks ago, no doubt the first step in a descent back into the dark old days.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I Wouldn't Be Rude To Them People

I hadn't planned to post today but the ongoing comedy that it the Conservative Party has provided some priceless matter. Tory councillor and former parliamentary candidate for Swansea East Ellinor Bland, beautifully named, has been suspended by the newly-publicity conscious party for allegedly sending a racist poem from her e-mail account, though she does have the good sense to blame her husband, who is also a Tory councillor. As is often the case with ditties popular with both racists and members of the Conservative Party, the poem is not really funny, not even in a sense of being in poor taste. Ms Bland has defended herself from the poem, which frets over the lot of the 'white man' - a species which, when last I looked, was doing relatively well for himself on a global level - by saying "I didn't write it ... We do have friends of all kinds - we actually have German in-laws. And we have friends who are Asian. I wouldn't be rude to them." Priceless, indeed. German in-laws? My word...

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Big One

The Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize has been won for the first time by an American writing in French. Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes, a 900-page doorstopper narrating in first person the tale of an unrepentant SS officer, has already been the literary sensation of the rentrée, selling a phenomenal 200,000 copies, despite being rejected by most of the big Parisian publishing houses before Gallimard picked it up. Though Littell, who grew up in France, is perfectly bilingual, his feat at writing the novel in a second language is remarkable and the reviews have also noted the strange disjuncture of a French novel written in a style that is so different to the floridly circumlocutious French norm. I have yet to read it and it is unlikely I will tackle it before Christmas but it looks interesting.

Walking Out On The Movies

I leave the cinema before the end of films on quite a regular basis. There are some that frown on such a habit but too often the annoyance at having wasted two hours or so of your life on utter rubbish is too sharp. Those dissenters claim that it is impossible to judge a film properly on such a truncated viewing but the contrary is true: most films, particularly mainstream fare are so formulaic as to betray their ineptitude within the first fifteen minutes. When you realise that you are more interested in reading the book that is sitting in your pocket, it is usually time to throw your coat on and make for the exit, under the gaze of the entire audience who usually either disapprove of your dismissiveness or secretly admire your nerve or ability to leave, because they are with other people. There have been times though when my impatience with a bad film has been perfectly in tandem with that of my companion, Mike Nichols' adaptation of Patrick Marber's Closer and Thomas Vinterberg's embarrassingly bad Dear Wendy being two such films.

Movies should be difficult, so I feel a bit of admiration for even those folks that leave films I quite like, such as the work of Bruno Dumont and Lars von Trier. Indeed von Trier has said that 'cinema should be like a stone in your shoe', a maxim that has informed his cinema over the past ten years. When I saw Gus Van Sant's superb Gerry, featuring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck silently struggling through Death Valley, about half of the audience walked out, including a previous director of the Dublin Film Festival. Recent films I have lost patience with, and which I can in no way call good, include the excruciatingly bad Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, which I stuck with until near the end because the Folsom Prison scenes in the opening credit sequence had a verve that was missing from the rest of the film and I was hoping that their return later in the film would be worth the wait. There was also Jean-Marc Vallée's Quebecois hit C.R.A.Z.Y., which many loved but was a bit flashy and derivative of commercial clips for my tastes. Julie Taymor's Frida I stayed watching for almost its entire length despite its wretchedness because I couldn't wait to see Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky, having been told he was hilariously bad. To my disappointment he was merely mediocre and I left about fifteen minutes from the end.

I walked out of a film yesterday that was in no way terrible and which I quite enjoyed in parts. It was Chantal Akerman's Là-bas (which translates as 'There'). The Belgian-born Akerman is notorious for her difficult cinema that strains the patience of even the most hardcore cinéphiles. Here she moves into documentary filmmaking, not for the first time, and her subject matter is the neighbours of her apartment in Tel-Aviv, whom she films clandestinely through the blinds of her windows on digital video, while she talks in the background on the phone, makes coffee, types on her computer, or recites entries from her diary written while Tel-Aviv is undergoing a wave of suicide bombings. The takes are all long and static, all the more long-seeming for the lack of consciousness of their subjects that they are being filmed. Boredom and the extreme mundane is the film's matter and it captures the paranoia and anguish of being housebound because of the unpredictability of the bomb attacks. But the film is boring nonetheless, which is OK, as time is something that is not quantifiable for Akerman, being merely a medium through which the recorded reality of her film is channelled; if there be longueurs, so be it. And thus after fifty minutes, I felt I had sat through enough, though being interested enough to delay my departure for a couple of minutes to listen to the director recount a letter written to her by her mother. I feel tempted to say that the film would be better suited to an installation environment though Akerman herself might contest that too. It may well be intended for consumption in a theatre, forcing its audience to watch, to bear witness, to wait. I waited long enough though it was still better than Walk the Line.

Sunshine Boy Turns Dark

Pedro Pauleta, the Portuguese captain and centre-forward of Paris Saint-Germain, a man lethal from two yards and particularly lethal against defences as ropey as those in France's Ligue 1, but not so much against better sides, was sent off last week for a kick on a Rennes player in a 1-0 win. Pauleta, who is known by the grandiose nickname 'The Eagle of the Azores' in French footballing circles, was not only booked twice in the space of sixty seconds, thereby occasioning his expulsion, but also allegedly called lineswoman Nellie Lagrange, the only female official in French proffessional football 'une pouffiasse', an insult that can be broadly translated as 'slut'.

Pauleta pleads innocence, claiming that, in seven years living in France, he has neither ever used this insult nor does he even know what it means. If his post-match interviews are anything to go by, Pauleta speaks quite good French and being exposed to the dressing room atmosphere at the Parc des Princes, it is unlikely that an epithet such as 'pouffiasse' might have slipped by him completely.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Lightness In The Dusk

There are few film directors that master such a consistency of tone as Aki Kaurismäki. The Finn has, over a career of twenty years produced a string of films, at once hyper-stylised and grimily realist that assume effortlessly the same register every time, be they deadpan comedies such as the Leningrad Cowboys movies, the London-set I Hired a Contract Killer or his masterpiece, the 1996 film Drifting Clouds, one of the most moving films I have ever seen. The perfection of Drifting Clouds was detailed in its beautiful final shot and the presence, in the form of a childhood photograph, of Kaurismäki's longtime leading man and close friend Matti Pelonpää, recently deceased, as the dead child of the couple in the film.

Kaurismäki returns with Lights in the Dusk (or, much better, in French, Les Lumières du faubourg - the suburban lights), a film about a hapless night-watchman with plans to start up his own business and his entrapment by a femme fatale in the pay of a criminal gang, who are plotting the heist of a jewellery store on his watch. Kaurismäki has famously declared his preference for ugly actors because they are dramatically more interesting, though his collaborators here, Janne Hyytiäinen, as Köstinen, the taciturn and endlessly optimistic security guard and Maria Järvenhelmi as Mirja, the woman by whom he is ensnared, are like Brad and Angelina compared to the actors he normally uses.

Kaurismäki does not worry too much about scrupulous accuracy in his portrayal of day-to-day life; his characters smoke an improbably huge amount everywhere, work and at the cinema included, but he is more faithful to the emotions of people, particularly those on the receiving end of harsh blows in life. For all the mannerisms of the actors the situations ring true, and the humanistic concerns of the little man and his looking-out for others, even in the face of crushing setbacks is as prevalent as ever. As the title indicates there is a clear homage to the Chaplin of City Lights being paid here (and the French title is all the better with this in mind) and Kaurismäki provides a recurring shot of traffic flowing in and out of a bland suburban artery of Helsinki, an image that is both haunting and evocative of lives passing in stolid passivity, like the lives of his characters. For a film that is unremittingly bleak in its subject matter, Lights in the Dusk, possesses a gentle touch that belies the roughness of life for its protagonists. Life might be ugly for Kaurismäki's characters but their dignity is 100% intact.

Kaurismäki is a particularly admirable man himself, having progressed to filmmaking via a number of unglamorous jobs such as postman and, like Köstinen in the film, dishwasher. He has enjoyed a fair degree of commercial success both in Finland and abroad though when he had the opportunity to adapt Juhani Aho's Juha, one of the key texts of Finnish literature, he did so by filming it as a silent black-and-white film. It may have been seen by few people but it was memorable for those of us that saw it. A measure of the man's grace can be gained from his reaction a few years back to the refusal of a visa by US immigration to the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami - possibly the greatest filmmaker alive - by himself refusing to attend the New York Film Festival, where his last film The Man Without a Past was been shown. His reasoning? "Well, if they don't want an Iranian, they'll hardly miss a Finn." Fantastically down-to-earth. The Finns are proud of Kaurismäki and well they might be.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Capitalists: Friends of the People

Tyrone man Phelim McAleer, a former Financial Times journalist, has produced a Michael Moore'-type documentary attacking environmentalists for their impeding development and their patronising attitude towards the peasants they are seeking to protect. It sounds interesting and there may be a few good points to make, but I am not terribly convinced by the sound of pro-business pundits in the film insisting that environmentalists are the 'enemies of the poor'. Standard neo-con nonsense that, the sort that raises capitalism to the level of public service. And Mr McAleer's film was partly-financed by Gabriel Resources, a mining multinational unduly harassed by the ecos in the film. Something is amiss already.

Bechtel Leaves Town

Bechtel, the US construction firm has pulled out of Iraq following the end of its contracts there. The company cites a worsening security situation. Fifty-two of their employees have been killed since they began operations in 2003. There were many when the war began who speculated on the influence the company might have had on the decision to go to war, as vice-president Dick Cheney is a former director. They have obviously decided now that money is not everything.

I Believe The Children Are Our Future

Bertie Ahern, in advance of the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis today, has stated that he wants a referendum "to put the rights of children at the centre of the Constitution". A laudable intention, especially considering how our state has neglected and facilitated the abuse of ten thousands of children over the decades. But will it actually protect children at all? How many abused children are going to brandish their copy of Bunreacht na hÉireann, threatening legal redress in the courts and justice for what they have suffered? My crippling cynicism leads me to see this as one of Bertie's many gormless attempts at good PR - something which is largely unnecessary as the Plain People of Ireland appear unwilling to ever believe the worst of him anyway - rather than a sensible, even symbolic, move to guarantee protection for the nation's children. And there is also something to be said for not loading the Constitution down with clauses and amendments that are much better dealt with by legislation. We all know what mess the 8th amendment of 1983 has caused.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Princely Some

A piece of bizarre news, though possibly not as bizarre as the fact that I had to find out about it, quite incongruously, from the legendarily serious Parisian daily Le Monde. Prince, or the Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince is following Elvis, Andy Williams, Sammy Davis Jr, Elton John and Ireland's own Brendan Bowyer into residency in Vegas. From next Monday, the short Minnesotan, now one year shy of his 50th birthday, will be playing twice a week at Vegas' Club 3121, tickets costing $125 a pop. Prince, who has been releasing albums at a ferocious rate over the past ten years - albums that, it must be pointed out have been ignored by at equally a ferocious rate by almost everybody - has lived the most public reclusive existence ever, outdoing his old rival Wacko Jacko by simply hiding himself in public. Will this all continue in the starry lights of Vegas?

Signs of Flagging

I commented a couple of weeks back on the controversy engendered by the omission of black soldiers from the Battle for Iwo-Jima in Clint Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers. Now I have seen the film and, while it is admirable in a number of ways, it is a disappointment, being far too scrupulously fair and tasteful to muster much interest either as a study of conflict or of its purported theme of misplaced heroism.

Taking its cue from the celebrated photograph by Joe Rosenthal, who died in August, entitled 'Raising the Flag on Iwo-Jima' the film follows the fortunes of the marines supposedly captured in the photograph, and who were subsequently coralled into a war-bonds fund-raising campaign by a nation desperate to scrape funds together to finish the war off. The fact that the Rosenthal photograph was purely fortuitous and followed by only a few minutes a previous 'genuine' raising of the flag meant that a number of the personnel involved in both were conflated, and one, Private René Gagnon, played by Jesse Bradford, was included erroneously. It was also unclear to the general public that the photograph was taken only five days into a forty-day battle for the island and that a number of the men in the both photographs were dead by the time it had become embedded in the popular consciousness as a talismanic icon.

The surviving soldiers are a medic, played by Ryan Phillippe; Private Gagnon; an NCO played by TV stalwart John Benjamin Hickey; and Pima Indian Ira Hayes, who suffered the most and who was immortalised in the ballad by Peter La Farge, which was later covered by both Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Hayes is most disgusted by the blasé attitude that people on the home front have to the supposed heroism of the marines in the field, and he struggles, as do all the others, with survival guilt, a point that is laboured throughout by Eastwood and his screenwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr. The soldiers, in their various PR appearances try to emphasise that the real heroes are those that are lying in their graves on the 'island of sulphur' in the Pacific, but the US public are having none of it, their absorption of the military victory being voracious enough to dispense with the knowledge of the horrors face by the servicemen themselves.

And so Flags of our Fathers might be seen as an attempt to redress this injustice, and it does operate in a similarly solemn and reverential way to producer Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, though to be fair it is less keen than that film on producing a Boy's Own tale of simple heroism. The film is honest enough and admirable in its portrayal of the travails and fears of the soldiers and also in the poignant sketch it gives of Hayes, a tragic figure destroyed by his own inarticulacy, trauma, alcohol and the racism of society back home. The problem though lies in both Eastwood's direction and the script with which he works.

Eastwood has never been a flashy director and even his worst films, such as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the absurdly overrated Oscar-winner Million-Dollar Baby have the virtue at least of being free of pretentiousness and an absurd sense of purpose. His is a light touch, honed over long years on the more practical, hands-on end of the movie business working with the likes of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. Here however he struggles with a multiple narrative and what is, in whatever minor a way, an ensemble cast. None of the strands, other than Hayes', are interesting stories, and while it may be said that the point is that the protagonists were very ordinary people, a smidgin of the mystical needs to be added to sustain dramatic interest in anything. Similarly the non-linear narrative, which probably looks dazzling to anyone who has never read a modern novel, is more a distraction than an aid. Allied to the fact that few of the actors are what might be called recognisable names or faces, the dramatic effect of the battle scenes is lost in confusion - confusion as to who everybody is. Every time the narrative switches back from the home front to the battle, the effect is one of disorientation rather than illumination.

The script by Broyles and Haggis - who was responsible for the cliché-ridden scenario for Million-Dollar Baby and who directed the unremittingly vulgar and self-important Oscar-winner Crash - tackles the subject of the misperception of heroism with all the aplomb of Mike Tyson attempting Swan Lake. No opportunity is spurned to tell the viewer how the wrong people are being honoured and a leaden voiceover in the final scene sermonises about how 'our' idea of heroism is merely a construct and often a soothing one. A fair enough point but one made with far greater elegance, without such explicit narrative sign-posting by Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero, Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, and even the demise of Robert Vaughan's cowardly character in The Magnificent Seven. And the early efforts to theorise about the power of an icon sound like a freshman class paper in History of Photography 101.

There is much that is likeable in Flags of our Fathers but as well as the faults delineated above the film is fatally sluggish. It chases its tail forever coming to few dramatic conclusions and when the final credits roll after more than two hours, it feels like the film has barely begun. The lasting impression of one of solemn devotion, a worthy one but also a predictable one. Clint is planning another film to counterpoint this one, Letters from Iwo-Jima, which will tell the story from the Japanese perspective, again, a laudable ambition but one which I think he will be ill-equipped to realise. The one surprise of this film was the presence of Kiwi actress Melanie Lynskey as Gagnon's annoying fiancée. Lynskey had disappeared from sight since first coming to attention as a seventeen-year-old murderer in Peter Jackson's superlative Heavenly Creatures, opposite another young actress by the name of Kate Winslet.

What I Learned This Week

That the long iron beak on those train engines I used to see in Westerns as a young fellow is known as a 'cowcatcher' though as Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day points out, the use of the word was scorned by railroadmen in the 1830s and 1840s, who preferred the word 'pilot'. Spin is no recent invention, I suppose.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Kerryman Joke

John Kerry has apologised for remarks he made to an audience of college students on Monday. The Senator and former Presidential candidate said: "you know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't you get stuck in Iraq." An off-hand remark and mildly offensive to some US military personnel, but spectacularly ill-advised for somebody who knows first-hand how the weasels in the GOP and their media henchmen attacked his own admirable war record, and largely succeeded.

Telling a bunch of college students that they are better off than US military - or 'ordinary Joes' as the hogwash of US populist discourse likes to call them - is manna from heaven to Karl Rove. It is he and not the Pentagon that will make hay out of this gaffe. Yet I have little sympathy for Kerry, especially as he used the speech to lambast the White House's decision to go to war, a decision that Kerry himself supported in a Senate vote back in January 2003. It sounds like opportunism to me and Senator Kerry had best not bring out the WMD bogeyman. Only the truly venal and crazed of mind bought that one. Those of us that hoped Kerry would succeed in preventing Dubya from seizing a second term did so with fingers crossed, and we would do the same again.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Wily Old Fox

Now a nerdy post, regarding the recently launched Firefox 2.0 web browser, which is the greatest thing of its kind ever made. Some techies say that Mozilla's other browser Camino is better but it has yet to develop the extensions that have been made available for Firefox; on my browser here I have FoxyTunes, which operates as a controller and monitor for iTunes, and also supports web searches for the artist currently playing, I also have weather forecasts in the toolbar, an extension that converts page content from imperial to metric and vice versa, and all those different search engines in the search window, including IMDb, YouTube, WikiPedia, Bit Torrent, eBay and Flickr. Then there is Google Notebook, which is excellent for cutting and pasting content read online and storing it for later, Grease Monkey, which allows you to install scripts that tweak everything from MySpace to And DownloadThemAll, which allows simultaneous downloading of several files, thereby saving much time. Why would anyone bother with Internet Explorer with all these extras, and more, available on Firefox?

For those that find Firefox is sometimes a bit slow, and this is a problem that I occasionally have, this link will tell you how to configure the browser and speed things up, among other improvements things. It only takes five minutes to do and makes the thing even better. And I have Firefox in Irish too, no language is too obscure. And for those that need a good mail client, Mozilla's Thunderbird, free to download is worth getting. It's open source, free and non-profit. All the more reason to spurn Microsoft.

Tes Oignons

I have long been a fan of The Onion, which more often than not lives up to its banner claim to be 'America's finest news source'. The quality of the writing has never flagged in the ten years since it was established in Madison, Wisconsin ten years ago, which is something phenomenonal considering how even good satire can date and wane so easily. A recent addition to the Onion roster is their audio news section, one-minute bulletins presented by the plausibly-named Doyle Redland. Though this is as masterfully produced as the 'print edition' there is something less convincing about it, probably because it is so hard to take American radio news seriously when it is straight. I found this too with Brass Eye, which I watched again on DVD over the last week. Chris Morris' show is incredibly funny but its bullet-point style, slavishly mimetic, and parodic, of flatulent current-affairs programmes, wearies, mainly because it is so reliant upon its original subject matter for life and vigour. I found it desperately hard to watch more than episode in one sitting. The Onion radio news produces humorous news items that really do not develop beyond the initial hilarity of the headline and the standfirst. Still, 'Parents Blame Rise In Obesity On Eating-Based Video Game' is pretty damn funny, as is 'Morgan Spurlock's Experiment To Try Heroin For 30 Days Enters 200th Day'.


Another online cultural magazine that I used to read regularly was Slate, which is owned by Microsoft. Not as smart as Salon, nor as well laid out, it does however have some good writing in it, like this piece on the hypocrisy of well-known do-gooder Bono for moving U2's music-publishing business to the Netherlands, particularly rich when you consider how well Bono and his fellow 'artists' in U2 have done out of Irish tax-breaks. Perhaps the Freedom of Dublin bestowed on him some years ago might now be withdrawn for this uncivic act.

On the same note, there is this fine comment piece from the Observer by Nick Cohen, which pillories Bono's hypocrisy and also the pettiness of the recent court case he took against former stylist Lola Cashman over a stetson, something which has lost the man a lot of goodwill in Ireland.

Gus Van Starts

Last night's film was Mala Noche, the rarely-seen directorial debut of Gus Van Sant, a sometimes interesting director, who drifts from art films to generic Hollywood product - and often from excellence to absolute shite - with disconcerting ease. The film, shot in monochrome, and filmed in Van Sant's adopted home of Portland, Oregon in 1985 concerns a gay convenience store clerk and his attempts to hustle the Mexican immigrants that frequent his store.

Like the early efforts of Van Sant's contemporaries - Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles and Spike Lee - the film does admirably well on a poverty of means. The French media have been salivating over it since its release but it is really notable only for the glimpse it gives of a budding talent. There is too much there to indicate juvenilia - poor photography, flat mise en scène, stilted acting, over-earnest and over-written dialogue and voiceover. Van Sant's later successes are echoed however in the film's more likeable aspects: the endeavour, the enthusiasm and a general sense of intelligence and conviction that pervades the narrative. I can't say I will ever watch it again, unlike his recent masterpieces Elephant and Gerry, but Mala Noche is a worthy enough effort.

I also saw, at the weekend, Bamako, a Malian film directed by the Mauritanian-born filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, a curiosity that imagines a process pursued in the Malian courts against the IMF for its rapacity in demanding debt repayments from Africa and other developing countries. The central trial, in which the familiar charges against the IMF and other world bodies are levelled, is laced with more mundane stories, including a young Senegalese mother who appears to be homesick for Dakar and a young man who is learning Hebrew for some reason that is never made clear. Like the recent Dans Paris, I watched this while very tired on a Saturday afternoon and some of the plot points remain obscure, its entire point even. But the film has such a pleasant pace and the French spoken by the Malians so soft and so clear that watching it and allowing myself to doze off now and again without feeling any guilt was a balm in itself. I still don't really get what it was about but it was a nice experience watching it.

Masking The Truth

All Saints' Day in Paris, or as it is known here, Toussaint. The weather has already turned crisp and cold, in contrast to this time last year when I was still unable to wear my flash new winter coat in mid-November. I went out last night on my bike, making the mistake not to wear a scarf, and it was a bit uncomfortable.

I don't really hold much with Hallowe'en, mainly because it is a phoney holiday. I can understand how people get a laugh out of dressing up for it but too often there is too much expectation in the thing; making an extra effort to have a good time on Hallowe'en is like replicating the movement of cycling while standing up. There's no real need and it's not any better than the real thing.

I had a surreal experience last night where four women wearing hideous masks - sort of a cross between Walter Matthau and Richard Nixon - arrived into the bar I was drinking in and said hello to me, by name. My discomfort at talking to such hideous-looking folks, even though they were only masks and I knew that the people behind them were known to me, was barely concealed. And when they pulled off the masks, among their number was an ex of mine, which somehow made the experience even worse, though we are on cordial terms. But I was still a bit repelled, which must underline what an awfully superficial sort I am.

Born in the USB

Ghastily ersatz Indie boys Keane are said to be releasing their next single on USB key, albeit in a limited edition of 1500, which, given how little singles sell these days may be too many. They are not the first to do it, that accolade belongs to those chirpy Canadians The Barenaked Ladies, but one wonders if it is any more than a gimmick. Considering the current discrepancy in quality between CDs or vinyl and digital formats such as mp3 or AAC files, it may well happen however that sales in the new formats increase without a concomitant change in quality. Is this a slippery slope? Of course, the gobshites in the music industry will blame it all on illegal downloading anyway.