Monday, December 31, 2007

Underachievement Films of the Year

About nine months into the year, after enthusing yet again about a great film I had seen, a friend of mine accused me of being suspiciously different in my outlook on the quality of contemporary cinema, an outlook, which, I have to say is often pitched somewhere between bleak and mournful. She even joked that I was an impostor for the real Seanachie. I took this comment on board and myself wondered if I had lowered my criticial standards over the past year. Thankfully a number of true stinkers such as Woody Allen's latest film Cassandra's Dream, Tom diCillo's utterly inane Delirious and Todd Field's Little Children were on hand to provide a timely benchmark for awful cinema.

Looking back over the year now, I might even say that 2007 was an exceptional, even vintage, year for cinema. Or it certainly was if you were lucky enough to live in Paris. Nobody has it better for movies than Parisian cinemagoers, and many of the better films I saw this year are likely to have only the briefest and most limited of releases in other countries, if, that is, they get released at all. Some will not get releases in the English-speaking world until 2008, such as Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days and Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park while conversely there were others I didn't get to see as they have not arrived in France yet. This is one explanation for the absence of The Darjeeling Limited, No Country for Old Men and Lenny Abrahamson's Garage from the list below.

What was most remarkable about the films of the past year was the consistent spread of fine cinema being produced by a number of countries that have been showing much promise over the past few years. Argentina has had a thriving industry since, paradoxically, the collapse of its economy, producing some great popular cinema as well as more austere auteur films. Israel continues to turn out a remarkable sequence of films, that provide a fascinating portrait of a society by turns paranoid, aggressive and anguished. Though most Israeli filmmakers are firmly liberal, their films are nonetheless pitted with troublesome lacunae about their relationship with the Palestinians, which gives the exhilarating impression of a national cinema that is reactive to everyday political and social stimuli. It is ironic that the cinema it most closely resembles in this respect is Iran's of five to ten years ago, which unfortunately, has diminished in prolificness and daring since the rise to power of Mohammed Ahmedinejad. German cinema had another great year, producing one the greatest foreign-film Oscar winners in living memory The Lives of Others, and a slew of fine dramas from a golden generation of young directors, all of them in their late twenties and early thirties. That the biggest country in Europe currently has such strong talent after years of mediocre output is good for cinema everywhere.

The greatest sensation of the past two years though has been Romania, having garnered three top awards at Cannes, and after last year's Underachievement film of the year The Death of Mr Lazarescu there were further delights in Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest and 4 Years, 3 Months & 2 Days and California Dreamin', the posthumous comedy by Cristian Nemescu. Though few of the films have been commercial successes back in Romania, the confluence of talent is, once again, significant and many of the films share the same brilliant character actors such as Ion Sapdaru and Teo Corban, both of whom are are worth the price of the ticket alone. Incidentally, Ioan Fiscuteanu, the actor who played the ailing Mr Lazarescu, passed away a few weeks ago from cancer (thanks to Tia for that information), as did, indeed, Ulrich Mühe, the star of The Lives of Others.

English-language cinema, which had been largely unremarkable of late, made a comeback this year with even directors I have previously found intolerable, such as David Fincher and Paul Haggis, offering films that were not so bad at all. The music biopic, which had been suffering badly following the turgidly similar Ray and I Walk the Line, received vital injections of life from Anton Corbijn's portrayal of Ian Curtis Control and Todd Haynes' ingenious Bob Dylan fresco I'm Not There. David Cronenberg made yet another strong case for his being the greatest filmmaker of his generation with the grisly and jarring Eastern Promises, which featured the Russian Mafia, as did James Gray's We Own the Night, a much less pretentious and far superior variation on Scorsese's The Departed. Old reliables David Lynch and Gus Van Sant also produced fine films. Shane Meadows excelled even himself with This is England and Kevin McDonald's The Last King of Scotland was a rare and welcome examination of Africa that was devoid of either sentimentalism or sublimated paternalistic racism. Add to these a number of excellent documentaries from all round the world and memorable films from mainstays of Asian cinema such as Jia Zhang-Ke, Tsai Ming-Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and it was a year of superb films, many of which I will be watching a second time soon.

10. Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud (France/USA)

Satrapi's autobiographical comic book was a worldwide bestseller and her adaptation, co-directed with fellow bande dessinateur Vincent Paronnaud, elaborates on the book's distinctive visual style and its nightmare vision of a country's revolution being hijacked by religious fanatics. By turns hilarious and horrific, it is one of the greatest comic book adaptations ever and the best French film of the past year.

View Persepolis trailer

9. Still Life - Jia Zhang-Ke (China)

Now that Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have given themselves over to the impasse of heritage cinema and martial arts movies, Jia is now the foremost Chinese director, tackling contemporary subjects and risking the wrath of the Communist Party with each new film. Still Life follows a woman searching for her long-lost husband in a city that is in the course of being dismantled by its inhabitants before being engulfed by water to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. Hauntingly beautiful, it makes excellent use of sound and a bleached-out visual aesthetic that reinforces the ghostly nature of the passing of history and the way it affects ordinary people. A good companion piece is Manufactured Landscapes, Jennifer Baichwal's documentary on Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose work covers the same ground.

View Still Life trailer

8. pingpong - Mathias Luthardt (Germany)

Developed from Luthardt's film-school graduation piece, pingpong is one of the many great domestic dramas produced by a brilliant young generation of German directors. A classic cuckoo-in-the-nest tale, in the vein of Pasolini's Theorem and Polanski's Knife in the Water, it tells the tale of a feckless teen who bunks up with his rich cousins for the duration of the summer holidays, and who quickly becomes obsessed with his aunt-in-law. A chilly, brilliantly-shot and brilliantly-edited tale of unwelcome intimacy and spite.

Watch pingpong trailer

7. This is England - Shane Meadows (UK)

Seanachie has long been a fan of the Nottingham autodidact filmmaker Shane Meadows and this year Meadows produced his finest film yet, the semi-autobiographical tale of a bullied 12-year-old boy who falls in with a band of racist skinheads in 1982 Scarborough. The opening credit sequence is an amusing montage of 80s nostalgia but thereafter film is hard-headed and bleak, with superb improvised performances by a cast of Meadows regulars and particularly the dogged young newcomer Thomas Thurgoode. A devastatingly simple portrait of how racism takes hold of ordinary people.

View This is England trailer

6.We Feed the World - Erwin Wagenhofer (Austria)/Our Daily Bread - Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Austria)

These two Austrian documentaries on the food industry were independently produced and are markedly different in style and approach but both provide mesmerising insights into the methods and industrial-scale rationalisations that contribute to the production of cheap food for mainly Western consumers. Wagenhofer's film is the more polemical, while Geyrhalter takes a more silently impassive look at the production process. Both however are wonderfully rich documents that give a touching prominence to the repetitions and the ardour of manual labour.

View We Feed the World trailer
View Our Daily Bread trailer

5. Eastern Promises - David Cronenberg (UK/Canada)

Cronenberg went off the boil a bit in the 1990s (though without ever really descending into irrelevance in the way that his contemporaries Scorsese, de Palma and Coppola did), and his resurgence over the past few years has been one of the most gratifying things in contemporary cinema. Eastern Promises is, like his previous two films Spider and A History of Violence, a hyper-realist jaunt through a range of subjects such as guilt, violence, broken trust and the audience's capacity to be outraged or shocked by the most unexpected things in a film. Shot and styled like a piece of banal direct-to-video fodder, the film is deceptively simple, masking an ingenious network of provocations that question our attitudes to the very film itself. And, best of all, it is damn scary.

View Eastern Promises trailer

4. Control - Anton Corbijn (UK)

Photographer to the stars Corbijn's first feature is a moving portrait of one of his earlier collaborators Ian Curtis. While many complained of the film not focussing enough on Joy Division and their music, Control excelled for this very reason, fleshing Curtis out (thanks to Sam Riley's fine performance) and putting his epilepsy and his legendary demise in a human context. As you would expect from such an accomplished photographer, it looks great and it's also unexpectedly funny.

View Control trailer

3. Silent Light - Carlos Reygadas (Mexico/France)

Reygadas' first two films, Japón and Batalla en el ciélo were arresting and often shamelessly provocative examinations of the mundane existential struggles of ordinary people in testing situations. For this story of infidelity and forgiveness among German-speaking Mennonite farmers in Chiahuahua, Reygadas once again uses non-professional actors though the tone and the methods are more restrained than in the previous two films. Lovingly rendered landscapes and a punctilious attention to sound detail make the two-and-a-half-hour film one of the most enthralling of the year. While many people will hate it, Reygadas has no problem with that; he has stated in interviews that he has no interest in entertaining his audience. Demanding his films might be but the pay-off rewards the attentiveness.

View Silent Light trailer

2. Climates - Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey)

Following on his hugely impressive second feature Uzak, which was a prizewinner at Cannes four years ago, Turkish director Ceylan cast himself and his wife (along with his own parents) in this melancholy domestic drama charting the break-up of a relationship between a sullen architectural lecturer and his younger girlfriend. Like Uzak, Climates is beautifully paced and each frame is rich with the tautness of minor human dramas. What makes it all the more striking is the unsympathetic nature of Ceylan's own character, the greatest directorial self-abasement since Fassbinder in Fox and his Friends.

View Climates trailer

1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days - Cristian Mungiu (Romania)

My film of the year last year was Cristi Puiu astounding social drama The Death of Mr Lazarescu in which a dying alcoholic is shunted from one Bucharest hospital to another. The consolidation of Romanian cinema as one of the world's most impressive came this year with the awarding of the Palme d'Or at Cannes to Cristian Mungiu's drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days which tells the harrowing account of an illegal abortion in the final years of the Ceausescu regime. The film is a finely-calibrated slice of life, shimmering with the squalid discomfort of the Communist-era gloom, brilliantly acted and difficult to sit through. If the clutch of Romanian films that have their way west in recent years is any indicator, the country is, despite its many social and political problems, a formidable repository of stories that will produce many more in years to come.

View 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days trailer

Seanachie also liked:

Naissance des pieuvres - Céline Sciamma (France)

Armin - Ognjen Svilicic (Bosnia & Herzegovina)

Joe Strummer: the Future is Written - Julien Temple (UK/Ireland)

The Bubble - Eytan Fox (Israel)

Kings of the World - Valérie Mitteaux, Anna Pitoun, Rémi Rozié France)

Deathproof - Quentin Tarantino (USA)

El Camino de San Diego - Carlos Sorín (Argentina)

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone - Tsai Ming-Liang (Malaysia/Taiwan)

Zodiac - David Fincher (USA)

12:08 East of Bucharest - Corneliu Porumboiu (Romania)

Tehilim - Raphaël Nadjari (Israel/USA/France)

Paranoid Park - Gus Van Sant (USA/France)

INLAND EMPIRE - David Lynch (USA/France)

Le Scaphandre et le papillon - Julian Schnabel (France/USA)

Très bien, merci - Emmanuel Cuau (France)

Jesus Camp - Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady (USA)

El Custodio - Rodrigo Moreno (Argentina)

Letters from Iwo-Jima - Clint Eastwood (USA/Japan)

The Boss of it All - Lars Von Trier (Denmark)

Notes on a Scandal - Richard Eyre (UK)

The Last King of Scotland - Kevin McDonald (UK/USA)

The Lives of Others - Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (Germany)

Into Great Silence - Philip Gröning (Germany)

August Days - Marc Recha (Spain/Catalonia)

I'm Not There - Todd Haynes (USA)

Nue proprieté - Joachim Lafosse (Belgium)

The Edge of Heaven - Fatih Akin (Germany/Turkey)

Les chansons d'amour - Christophe Honoré (France)

Hounds - Ann-Kristin Reyels (Germany)

The Band's Visit - Eran Kolirin (Israel/Egypt)

American Gangster - Ridley Scott (USA)

We Own the Night - James Gray (USA)

Manufactured Landscapes - Jennifer Baichwal (Canada)

The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford - Andrew Dominik (USA)

The Forest of Mongari - Naomi Kawase (Japan)

The Old Garden - Im Sang-soo (South Korea)

Le Leon - Santiago Otheguy (Argentina)

Jellyfish - Etgar Keret, Shira Geffen (Israel)

Retour en Normandie - Nicolas Philibert (France)

Secret Sunshine - Lee Chang-dong (South Korea)

Syndromes & a Century - Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand)

Si le vent soulève les sables - Marion Hänsel (Belgium/France)

We, the Living - Roy Andersson (Sweden)

Notes on a Scandal - Richard Eyre (UK)

and the stinkers:

Little Children - Todd Field (USA)

Cassandra's Dream - Woody Allen (USA)

Youth Without Youth - Francis Ford Coppola (USA/Romania)

99F - Jan Kounen (France)

Breaking and Entering - Anthony Minghella (UK/USA)

A Very British Gangster - Dónal MacIntyre (UK/Ireland)

Delirious - Tom diCillo (USA)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Brief Return for Christmas

Since putting this blog on hold a few months ago, I've had the odd urge to start things up again and, strange to say, I've actually missed blogging. That said I don't regret putting it aside, for the simple reason that it had become that most troublesome of things, a distraction and an obligation, and sad to say, the micro-blogging possibilities afforded by Facebook have proven to be a much easier and quicker way of drawing people's attention to the recherché and bizarre elements of Web 2.0 . The traffic to the site has not abated, though I imagine those that used to read it regularly no longer bother, and Underachievement's ability to fulfil the most arcane of Google searches should assure it of a healthy rate of transient readership for some time to come.

This return is but a brief one, to wish all a Happy Christmas and also to review the year, in a rather half-arsed way. There will be one or two more posts over the Christmas and then it will be back to normality for the New Year, though that's not to say that I won't be returning again at some point later on when the mood takes me. Have a Merry Christmas all, and thank you for reading over the past eighteen months.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Bye for Now

It has been almost a month since my last post and the long-planned slowing-down of this blog has appeared to have been realised. Many people have probably given up on it by now and one or two readers have made queries in person about it so apologies to all for not having signed off in a more graceful way before now. As I had said before the blog, originally started to give me something to write about, has since become a distraction, as has the Internet itself. So, taking advantage of a fortuitous boredom with the WorldWideWeb I have decided to put Underachievement to one side for some time. This is not to say that this is the end of the blog - I will certainly be posting before the end of the year - but such posts will be sporadic. Those smart readers that subscribe to RSS feeds will know when there is life here again.

Such disillusion is not uncommon among bloggers - Sinéad Gleeson, for example put here excellent blog on hold for almost a year - and I may be returning permanently to the fold in the future. But for the moment blogging is not a priority, whereas other writing is, and I will be trying to capitalise on the freedom from posting to do that. The signs were surely there when most of the posts over the past couple of months have been about football and film, the two subjects I find easiest to write about. So, I guess my heart was no longer in it.

Not that I have been lacking in things to enthuse about, such as Anton Corbijn's magnificent Ian Curtis biopic Control, the brilliant novels of the Portuguese writer António Lobo Antunes, whom I have only recently discovered, and a trip I took to Lisbon last week, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which allowed me to watch two excellent matches: Shaktiar Donetsk's 1-0 defeat of Benfica at the Estadio da Luz and Bayern Munich's slick 2-0 victory over a gallant Belenenses side in the UEFA Cup. Of course, while watching the Benfica-Shaktiar game, I missed the dramatic incidents in the other game in that group, where Celtic gained a thrilling 2-1 victory over Milan, only for the result to be put in doubt by Robert McHendry's idiotic antics after Scott McDonald's winning goal. My thoughts were however more on a more famous Celtic win over a Milanese club, that of the 25th of May 1967 when Jock Stein's bhoys beat Inter to take the Champions' Cup. I visited the Estadio Nacional Jamor (pictured) a beautiful, if by now impractical arena a few miles west of Lisbon, where the match took place. It has hardly changed since the day it hosted its biggest ever match (the only time it's ever used these days is for the Portuguese Cup final every year). Here's a snippet of the famous match, where Celtic's champagne football deservedly conquered the sterile negativity of Helenio Herrara's team. Like most football videos posted on YouTube it is marred by an awful soundtrack but it can still bring a tear to your eyes. Best of luck everyone, I'll be back again sometime.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Great Scot!

Ireland have three games left in the tournament and, rather than taking the opportunity to 'experiment' and thereby risk a further catastrophic fourth-place finish, we should approach all of them with the intention of winning. There is a useful precedent for this; two years ago, a post-Bertie Vogts Scotland team suddenly started performing in qualifying matches that were increasingly academic. In their final three matches they got a 1-1 draw at home to Italy and impressively defeated both Norway and Slovenia away, after having failed so badly at home to each team. The new-found spirit carried itself through to the current qualifying campaign, which the Scots started ominously with professional wins at home to the Faroe Islands and away to Lithuania. Nothing hugely impressive but, given the calamitous nature of the national team under Vogts, remarkable enough. When they defeated France at home last October people began to take notice and even subsequent defeats away to Ukraine and Italy had not completely dulled the Scottish challenge.

The level of professionalism in the Scottish set-up is an example to every single team in the entire world - armed with a group of players that make Ireland's pick look like Argentina, the team has ensured victory in all the easy games that no longer exist in international football. Shipping defeats away from home against the world champions and Ukraine is to be expected but the Scots still know how to brilliantly frustrate a team of the calibre of France as they did last night. Even if James McFadden's amazingly speculative long-range shot hadn't gone in last night, a scoreless draw would have been an exploit to match the French deadlocking of Italy in Milan on Saturday. Scotland were superb in every department and, just as the French played better than in their defeat at Hampden last year, so did the Scots. Their defensive holding was brilliant (and when it wasn't, Craig Gordon was) and they played themselves out of trouble elegantly. Walter Smith's rejuvenation of the national set-up survived his own shameful betrayal of both the team and his country, and Alex McLeish (a man already venerated by his former Celtic Park opposites Martin O'Neill and Gordon Strachan) has tightened the ship with remarkable poise. The Scots are ten years out of a major tournament now, and major tournaments need fans as fantastic as (most of) the Scots are. By the looks of it, the team wouldn't be out of place either. Here's hoping they make it.

Keeping us in Czech

Slow off the mark I know but various circumstances prevented me from posting on Ireland's exit from the Euro 2008 qualifiers until now (OK, they still have a mathematical chance of getting through, but I tend not to put my faith in maths at such moments). We lost 1-0 last night, a result that has provoked anew sideline judgements on the merits of Irish soccer (believe me, the shambles in the rugby - supposedly Ireland's 'new sport' - was far more significant). To be totally honest, the team played well. We gave away a bad goal in a poor opening twenty minutes and were thwarted on a number of occasions after as we tried valiantly to redress the balance. Kevin Doyle hit the post, and, at the risk of being mean, it was a poor finish - the ball was always going away from the goal and it was no surprise that it deflected the wrong side of Paul McShane. I still think that Doyle was surprised to be called onside (which he definitely was) and he instinctively fluffed his shot. His Reading teammate Steven Hunt was superb when he came on for John O'Shea in the first half and his jinking runs silenced the fairweather home support that had been booing him because of that collision with Peter Čech last year. When he got sent off, it was harsh (which both managers agreed on) and after last night's game I think it might comfortably be said that Greek official Kyros Vassaras is a fool whose future absence from international football would benefit everybody. His comic display in the Ireland v Israel game two years ago (in which he sent off Andy Reid in mysterious circumstances) was matched in Prague. And I'm not being a sore loser about that - there were many dodgy decisions that went against the Czechs too. Not to mention his Graham Poll-esque double-booking of Marek Janukoski, which UEFA have since whitewashed but which the rest of us remain sceptical about.

Ultimately a decent performance was not enough and the lost ground that the Irish had already conceded in Nicosia, at Lansdowne against the Czechs and in Bratislava the other night, will now determine out exit from the competition. I still think that Staunton is not a capable manager but I have to acknowledge that he has instilled a sense of self-belief in the team, which allowed them to attack in both games this week. The team is limited enough but they would surely grace a major tournament better than a mediocre Czech team that is a pallid shadow of the side that played the most exhilarating football at Euro 2004. But then again, we lost and they didn't. Once again for an Irish side, the loyal fan is looking two years forward, in the hope of a qualification for the South African World Cup. My own frustration at the failure cult that seems to prevail in Irish football and which has been endorsed by 'battlers' such as Niall Quinn, who has lectured fans from his Guardian column against expecting 'miracles' is sharpened because we get so close so often and fail miserably. There is no reason why we should not be competing every two years in a major tournament. Our squad might be limited but with good organisation that extends beyond the majesty of Richard Dunne's defending, a regular spot in major finals would be well within our reach. Keano was right: until the will exists in Irish football to punish failure, we're not going to do much.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Yous and Whose Army?

The most visible sports fans around Paris at the moment have little to do with the rugby; the Tartan Army are in town, for the European Championship qualifier at the Parc des Princes tomorrow night. Always a pleasure to encounter, I'm hoping they have better fortune than their last visit to Paris five years back when they were thumped 5-0 at the Stade de France. I had a drink outside Stolly's earlier with a bunch of lads from Musselburgh, the home town of John White, the midfield star of Tottenham's double-winning season of 1961-62, who was killed by lightning while golfing two years later, though to be honest, only the gentlemen of a certain age knew of White. The guys were a mix of Hearts and Hibs fans and one of the things that is most remarkable about the Scottish fans is the relative absence of both Celtic and Rangers fans among them, which considering the sectarianism of certain fans of those clubs carry about with them is no bad thing.

Despite having the prospect of a ticket for the game being waved in my direction I have patriotically (or is that quixotically?) decided to instead watch Ireland's make-or-break clash with the Czechs in Prague. We would all like to have gone into this game without the burden of having to win but, in spite of Ireland's pitiful away record, I think the Czechs are vulnerable. They are missing the suspended Jan Koller and have not been the same fluid unit since the retirement of Pavel Nedved and Karl Poborskẏ (in fact in last year's World Cup horror show against Ghana, it was Nedved and Peter Čech that seemed to be only Czech players in the land of the living). Of course a midfield with Tomáš Rosickẏ is not to be sniffed at and even in the event of a repeat performance of their match in San Marino on Saturday - where they reportedly rivalled even Ireland's muckery - Stan's boys will surely be on hand to help them back into the game. I'm getting alarmed in advance.

After You...Non, Pleeze After You

From Instructions for British Servicemen in France 1944, a great little book issued to every Tommy before the Normandy landings and now reissued by the Bodleian library:

'The French are more polite than most of us. Be sure to address people as 'Monsieur', 'Madame' or 'Mademoiselle.''
From a brochure issued by the Paris Chamber of Commerce to businesses anticipating increased foreign trade during the Rugby World Cup:

'The Anglo-Saxons, as well as being largely amiable, are also notable for their politeness.'

Curiously the 'Anglo-Saxons' comprise the Scots, Irish and Welsh but not the Americans or Canadians, who are afforded their own rubric. I wonder have manners changed that drastically in the past sixty years?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Bratislava Pack

Meanwhile, over in rainy Bratislava, the proles of the Irish Republic prepare to face a team of Slovakian proles. A defeat is out of the question for Stan's men (to be totally honest, so is a draw) and it is refreshing to hear captain Robbie Keane affirm that the team are aiming for six points from tonight's game and from Wednesday's against the Czechs in Prague, an unusual degree of ambition for an Irish team away from home. Whether they are up to it is another thing however.

Not Gone on the Rugby

I have but a passing interest in the Rugby World Cup; any matches I will see will be - like the second half of yesterday's opener between France and Argentina - purely by chance. The main reason for my apathy is because I don't have any rooting in the sport and also because I have no affinity with Irish rugby or the Irish rugby team. This is due to reasons of class and region; too often the Ross O'Carroll-Kelly side of Irish rugby is all I can see (and please don't mention the working-class rugby heartland of Limerick, this is merely the exception that proves the rule). There will of course be people that will accuse me of pettiness, small-mindedness and having a chip on the shoulder, all of which I am perfectly ready to admit to and none of which cause me sleepless nights. But I have numerous friends who have an almost violent dislike of football - which doesn't cause me any heartache - and I don't have any plans to send Irish rugby followers to the sporting Gulag whenever it arrives. This year I even intend to avoid spiteful reflexes such as the one that made me chuckle when Ireland were knocked out of the 1999 World Cup by Argentina. But even if I did the same again, there would be nothing wrong with that; real sports supporting thrives on spite, schadenfreude and ill will. Living in France is also frustrating for an Irishman indifferent to rugby as the average Frenchman's conception of Ireland involves nothing more than Guinness, imagined anglophobia and rugby mainly because Ireland's number four sport is the only one that we play les bleus in on a regular basis. Some French people have even expressed surprise that Ireland have a football team, finding it strange that the world's most popular sport might also have a foothold in Ireland. I have thus taken to passing myself off as an Icelander to avoid inane, patronising chit-chat with strangers I have no desire to talk to.

It is also perplexing to watch the International Rugby Board's attempts to dress rugby up as a world sport when it is nothing of the sort; to put it simply, having twenty teams in the finals is a farce. There is no justification for having the amateurs of Portugal face the All Blacks. For there to be sport there has to be a semblance of competition; while there might be one or two flailing teams at every football World Cup, none of these are San Marino, the Faroe Islands or American Samoa. The IRB, of course wants to popularise the sport in previously untapped territories, but there is more chance of Sébastien Chabal fitting into my Levis than kids in Portugal, Georgia or Sweden suddenly throwing aside footballs or hockey sticks to play rugby. But the IRB's padding-out of the tournament probably has more to do with vanity and hubris of the sort that has prompted them to impose disgraceful conditions on photographers covering the tournament, limiting each photographer to fifty shots per game, with the IRB retaining all rights. Even FIFA wouldn't have the brazen cheek to do this. Most of the world's major photo agencies have decided to boycott coverage of the tournament and the IRB have since been forced into a climbdown.

What amuses (and irks) me the most about rugby folk though is the way their class prejudices are instantly crystallised when comparing rugby to football. While I don't begrudge people thinking their sport superior to others (and I don't think that football is necessarily superior to rugby, merely of broader interest) why must every rugby person I meet feel the need to stress the virtuousness of rugby players vis-à-vis footballers? Of course footballers earn obscene amounts of money (though often only at the very top) and there have been many involved in disgraceful behaviour, but these are the stories that attract tabloid interest. For every Lee Hughes, Craig Bellamy, Joey Barton, Lee Bowyer et al there are dozens of ordinary footballers (making comfortable livings) who live decent lives away from a media glare uninterested in such ordinariness. Rugby players are similarly absent from that media glare because, as Germaine Greer observed in a piece on spit-roasting a couple of years back, they have less money. There have been a number of ugly incidents involving rugby players, such as the murder by former French international Marc Cécillion of his wife at a party as well as others enumerated here, but these prove nothing other than the fact that rugby players, like footballers, are sometimes prone to bad behaviour and the odd enormity, which being middle-class is no barrier against happening.

Rugby players are also supposed to be more intelligent than footballers, a generalisation which is questionable unless one is the sort of person that confounds formal (often private) education with intelligence. There are many rugby players that are indeed bright and articulate, and there are also footballers past and present such as Jorge Valdano, Lilian Thuram, Billy Bingham, Oleguer Presas, Dominique Rocheteau, Liam Brady, Javier Zanetti, Michel Platini and Martin O'Neill. I would wager that the majority of players of both sports are not the most intellectually-inclined, something that wouldn't be too surprising as they are not employed to be so. Rugby players are not, by necessity more intelligent, their accents are merely more middle-class.

French rugby folk (who, I have to admit, I find generally more likeable than their anglophone counterparts) also have an annoying tendency to equate the French rugby team with 'true' Frenchness in a way that veers dangerously close to Le Pen's xenophobic creed of français de terroir. I have heard countless times about how the French rugby team is closer to the hearts of French people than the football team is, which as well as being unquantifiable is also suspect, as there are wide tracts of the country where rugby doesn't exist at all. But I suppose there are some French people that view French football, traditionally the pastime of immigrants - initially Spanish, Italian and Eastern European and later African and North African - as not 'truly French'. Interestingly, the Vichy régime banned Rugby League in France and forced football to revert to amateurism as a means of promoting the more nationally pure code of Rugby Union. It is unfair to tag all French rugby - which has traditionally had a rural, left-wing base - in this way but there nonetheless exists a blind spot regarding the so-called mythical place of rugby in French society. I also wonder whether the French XV, should they crash out at the opening stage, which is now a real possibility, will be derided in the same way as the football team were when they were knocked out in Korea five years ago? I remember French people turning on their erstwhile heroes, calling them overpaid, lazy and ungrateful. What moral shortcomings will the rugby team display if they fail?

French business magazine Challenges has on its cover this week French manager - and soon to be Minister for Sport in Nicolas Sarkozy's government Bernard Laporte, with the headline "Rugby Spirit - XV Values for Business". Aside from the fact that it's hard to imagine footballing proles such as Arsène Wenger or Guy Roux used on such a cover, one is reminded that Laporte has been implicated in a campaign of public intimidation of Socialist councillors in his fief of Arcachon who had the temerity to oppose planning permission for a number of his business interests. Sound values for business perhaps but not the ones that business would be too keen to trumpet about either. Nice to see that rugby managers can be every bit as dodgy as those famed duckers and divers Alex Ferguson and Terry Venables.

So there's my bit on the skewed value systems of rugby and football and the double-standards inherent in most rugby folks assessments of the personnel of each sport. Nobody likes a moaner so this will be the last post on the rugby for the duration of the 'world' cup. I hope that those planning to enjoy the rugby do so but please desist in the future from silly value judgements about the relative virtues of rugby players and footballers. Both, despite the efforts of some in their respective sports to elevate them to godlike status, are all too human. Sometimes depressingly so...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

Abortion lends itself well to drama, almost too well in fact. A subject that arouses strong emotions on both sides of the polemic is ripe for overwrought dramatisation. Too often the result is disappointing, more the stuff of a TV movie than cinema. Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is a more sober-minded approach to the topic, and, at the risk of making a grotesquely disproportionate analogy, it is more powerful than your average abortion film just as Primo Levi's writings on Auschwitz, composed in the cold light of his own experiences are more jarring than many a commercialised emotional Holocaust book or movie that has appeared since.

Mungiu, born in 1968, is one of that generation of Romanians known as the decretei - the children of the decree - the decree being that of Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1966, forbidding abortion and enjoining on all Romanian women to reproduce as a patriotic gesture. The dictator's words 'the fetus is the property of the entire society; anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity' dwarf even the worst attempts of Western moralists to exert control over women's bodies. Ceauşescu's abortion ban was part of a drive to increase the populaton of the country by 50% by the end of the century and though it didn't quite succeed, it did produce a generation of sufficiently rebellious youngsters that, like Mungiu, were approaching adulthood in 1989 and toppled the regime that caused them to 'be too many'. Such is the theory put forward by Steven Leavitt in Freakonomics, a not-entirely-persuasive one, but one which does have a good deal of logic to it. Mungiu, in an interview with Libération last week, stated that the moral debate over abortion that exists in the West was never applicable in Romania. People arranged clandestine abortions simply out of necessity and, as he says, partly out of defiance to the regime. It is this relatively simpler context that gives his film more air to breath and greater room for dramatic manoeuvre. It also helps that Mungiu, one of the new wave of hugely impressive Romanian directors, is a masterly technician who also knows how to manage actors perfectly.

The film takes place in a provincial city in Romania in 1987, and it charts the efforts of a young student Gabita to terminate her pregnancy, with the almost-single-handed help of her immensely resourceful friend Ottilia. A dodgy, yet consummately professional, illegal abortionist - superbly played by Vlad Ivanov - is engaged but Gabita's panicked modification of the truth causes problems that have disastrous effects. The film is beautifully shot, alternating between long virtuoso handheld sequences that remind one of the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta and even longer one-take static scenes that forensically observe both the abortion process and the girls' efforts to avoid detection. The lighting is despairingly gloopy, all grey and green tones, and it seemed even bleaker on second viewing, which makes further demands on the viewer. But the performances of all the cast, particularly the afore-mentioned Ivanov and Anamaria Marinca as Otilia, line the film with a surprising amount of humanity that leavens the task somewhat. Mungiu also leaves many things hanging in the film - for instance we are never told why Gabita has left it so late to have an abortion, and it is never exactly clear what the exchange that leads to the central tragic sacrifice articulates - and this once again gives the film a wider resonance than the average issue-of-the-week movie. There are of course many nuances that will only be familiar, I imagine, to Romanian audiences, many of which are delivered by the older generation at a birthday dinner for Otilia's boyfriend's mother. This scene is brilliantly shot in claustrophobic close-up and is the stuff of great drama; it is not even without some biting humour, such as a doctor and probably Party member (played by the ubiquitous Ion Sapdaru) who lashes out at the spoiled, ungrateful young.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is the fourth Cannes prizewinner to come out of Romania in the past three years and though the films have not been commercial successes back home (this one has yet to be released there in fact) their international profile has ensured that the directors Mungiu, Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu and Catalin Mitulescu, and others to come, will be able to continue making films. Quite why there is this sudden proliferation of great films from the country is unclear though there is really no reason why a country like Romania with a strong and celebrated artistic heritage and a pained history to accompany it should be short of the raw material to make great films. Some might argue that Mungiu's film is not as great as Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu but it looks likely, in my eyes at least, to emulate it as film of the year.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Recent Films

There is something uncomfortable, as a thirtysomething male, about going to see a film about the sexual awakening of pubescent girls, but there are times when the subject matter is handled in a way to rid oneself of any feeling of loucheness, such as Lukas Moodysson's Fucking Åmal, Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, and now, Naissance des pieuvres, the debut film by the 28-year-old filmmaker Céline Sciamma. The film treats of the infatuation of one shy teenage girl with her much more confident and sexually-precocious friend, who is the star of the local synchronised-swimming team, and also the pained efforts of another friend to sleep with a boy who appears to be toying with her affections. The subject-matter is banal enough but the treatment of it and the impressive formal compositions make Sciamma a filmmaker to look out for. Hopefully she will tackle bigger stories as she progresses as one of the biggest flaws of French cinema these days is its lack of ambition. Naissance des pieuvres (the title literally translates as 'Birth of the octopuses' but its meaning is more figurative, 'pieuvre' being also the French expression for being 'clingy') is a good film but limited by its scope, which is perfectly acceptable for a first-time director. What is particularly interesting about the film is the cinematic update it provides for the Parisian suburb of Cergy-Pontoise, a new town built in the the 1970s and which featured in Éric Rohmer's L'ami de mon amie, back in 1987.

From Bosnia comes a beautiful gem of a film called Armin, which tells the tale of a provincial Bosnian teenager who travels to Zagreb with his father to audition for a German film about the Bosnian war. He is initially told that he is too old for the part but his father persists in badgering the filmmakers into giving him a go for another role. The film is a heartbreaking observation of both parental pride and the familiar adolescent embarrassment at one's progenitors. Overall the film is remarkable for its choice of a low-key visual register and for the strength of the acting; best of all is the father, played by Emir Hadzihafisbegovic, who is a Slavic cross between Homer Simpson and Saul Bellow's Herzog, his solicitousness both pathetic and moving. The final ten minutes provides a surprisingly defiant stance against the cinema of humanitarian exploitation. Armin is a modest film but a fine one that deserves an audience.

I also saw two films by established French film directors with patchy track records. La fille coupée en deux, the latest film by Claude Chabrol has a great title but, apart from a sprightly sense of irony, failed to interest me too much in its tale of a tug-of-love over weathergirl Ludivine Sagnier between celebrated novelist François Berléand and indsustrial heir . Benoît Magimel. As ever Chabrol's examination of the French bourgeoisie is grimly funny but the story is much too banal to set it apart from the bulk of his less interesting work. Much worse was Boarding Gate, the third film in English by former Cahiers du cinéma hack Olivier Assayas. Assayas has turned out a number of interesting films over the past twenty years even if he does have an annoying tendency to emotional shorthand and a recently-acquired taste for irritatingly-kinetic editing. His better films are all in French however, and his latest is his third in a row in English, after Demonlover and Clean, and it forms, with them, a trilogy of supreme silliness, in which Assayas grossly misjudges international social phenomena such as porn, people-trafficking, rock music and, now, the domain of shady business deals. Michael Madsen is an international financier who has recently split up with Asia Argento (a woman who specialises in bad films these days), who has 'femme fatale' all but tattooed in block capitals across her forehead. The film proceeds at a snail's pace despite Assayas' sophomore peppering of the script with risqué drug and sex references and he also seems unaware of one of the elementary rules of story-telling: don't use dialogue to explicate what both characters already know. After two lengthy scenes of Madsen and Argento filling in backstory in a clunky way for the audience I got up from my seat and left. French critics - most of whom are friends of Assayas see his latest films as masterpieces - while English-language critics (who have a greater understanding of the language of those films) think otherwise. This ought to be sufficient encouragement to him to confine his future film activity to French.

Another director who turns out mostly turkeys these days is Wim Wenders. Over the last ten years or so the horrors bearing his imprint have included such dunderheaded films as Until the End of the World, The End of Violence and The Million-Dollar Hotel, the last of which prompted me to apply my 'Bono-as-cultural-virus-theory' to Wenders, as his association with God's Man on Earth has had a similarly baleful effect to the experiences of Salman Rushdie and Louis Lebrocquy. There was a time however when Wenders was making only good films; that time was the 1970s and the early 1980s. Seven of those films have been rereleased in Paris recently and I chose to watch once again what is probably his greatest ever film, the 1975 road movie Kings of the Road. Its English title is less evocative than the German one Im Lauf der Zeit, which is 'As Time Goes By', taken straight out of Casablanca. Nothing happens in the film, as it follows an itinerant projector-repairman, played by Rudiger Vögler around the border between West and East Germany, along with the straggler he picks up, a recently-divorced Hanns Zischler. The film is beautifully shot in black and white by Robby Muller and its observations are disarmingly candid, we see the actors piss, masturbate and, at one time, Vögler takes a graphically-real shit. It is a sober and moving meditation on loneliness and longing, which probably meant that it was not the best film to watch while experiencing a lonesome hangover harvested over four days' partying. But it was, once again a pleasure to watch, and the information given in the opening sequence that the film was filmed in July and August 1975 had an extra resonance - just when Sligo were winning what was to be their last Connacht title for 32 years and shortly before I was born. Go watch this film and everything Wenders did until Wings of Desire.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Are You en Seine?

Seanachie's most recent absence can be explained by his presence at Rock en Seine, Paris' 'premium rock festival', as David Brent might describe it. It's been going four years now and has finally branched out into a three-day project. And though not the world's most prestigious rock festival, it has its definite advantages. Located in the St-Cloud national park, it is right beside a major city (hence, along with Budapest's Sziget, probably the only such festival) and, if you don't fancy camping, you can take Metros 9 or 10 all the way home. Apart from the luxury of being able to sleep in one's own bed, an extra attraction for the Parisian resident is the wonderful atmosphere engendered by the festival, which fits almost seamlessly into the publicly-spirited enterprises of the Cinéma en pleine air at La Villette and the live Jazz performances at Parc de Vincennes. For someone who grew up going to Irish rock festivals that always seemed hostage to chancers and scumbags, the camaraderie of Rock en Seine is a novelty. An added bonus is the proliferation of bars so no queuing for half an hour to buy a maximum of two beers, as is the case in Ireland, and neither are there cops wasting taxpayers' money checking on what people are smoking. Needless to say, there are no resultant public order problems. To top things off, after six weeks of miserable rain, the sun mercifully shone.

The festival is organised by the regional government of Île de France, the region that encircles the capital, and they put up about 20% of the €3.5 million budget. According to a report in yesterday's Libération, for the fifth year, the festival has once again made an undisclosed loss, in spite of attracting a record 65,000 people. UMP member of parliament Yves Jégo tried to score political points against the Socialist President of Île de France by claiming that the ticket prices were prohibitively expensive. Even UMP Minister for Culture Christine Albanel (who attended Les Rita Mitsouko's set on Saturday) dismissed Jégo's newly-found compassion for the little man, noting that the prices (ranging from €42 for one day to €99 for three days) are reasonable when compared with one-off concerts in Paris. I remember paying £60 back in 1992 for a two-day ticket at Féile; with inflation accounted for, Rock en Seine presents very good value for money.

The biggest draw on the first night was The Arcade Fire, whom I missed on their pre-world-fame appearance two years ago. Though the band have little discernible stage charisma they nonetheless provided an impressive set, with thirteen members on stage, a great light show, and they also brought along a hurdy-gurdy. It's always good to see a hurdy-gurdy. More explosive and arguably more entertaining were The Hives, who are, as my friend Nick noted, like four milkmen fronted by Mick Jagger. When they first came on the scene six years ago, I thought that they would never last, that their admittedly amusing concept masked musical shortcomings but their subsequent albums have been surprisingly fresh and only the hardest-bitten of cynics could have failed to smile at their hilarious set at Rock en Seine. Because of work I missed MIA, The Shins and Dinosaur Jr, the latter two of whom were reportedly great while I heard mixed views about MIA.

The highlight of the weekend went unnoticed by most on Saturday as it took place on the smallest of the festival's three stages. It was 22-year-old Scot Calvin Harris, who has been remixing Kylie Minogue, CSS and Groove Armada and who now has his own LCD-esque six-piece group that provided the weekend's hardest-working bassist and most of the best dancing. As with James Murphy's combo the lyrics are sharp and funny, particularly in the recent single 'Acceptable in the Eighties'. CSS played also and were a big improvement on the last time I saw them - at the Elysée Montmartre in April, when they seemed jaded and going through the motions. This time they provided the perfect festival atmosphere with their girly rock trappings - balloons onstage, streamers and party poppers and bubble kits distributed to the audience. Their forty-minute set was much too brief even if they did surprise us by going out in an impressive hail of feedback.

Speaking of feedback, later in the evening saw the return of the Jesus and Mary Chain. The band are blessed with the greatest moniker in rock history - a name that fascinated me as a nine-year-old with its outrageous blasphemy - and their sound towers over even their own music. The Mary Chain sound is as much a fabric as anything else, and though their music became repetitive after 'Automatic', their third, 1989 album, there was enough material to fill an excellent set. Jim Reid still looks like a sadistic Liam Brady - you wonder how he ever managed to bed Hope Sandoval - and their music still sounds like the Beach Boys reflected in a Glasgow puddle - perfect in other words. Cold War Kids had the thankless task of replacing Amy Winehouse and did tolerably well, while Israeli techno-popstars Terry Poison and French legends Les Rita Mitsouko provided good cheer at the other end of the festival site. Quite why California dirge rockers Tool were called upon to headline Saturday night is beyond me but their light show at least was worth looking at for about fifteen minutes.

Sunday had less of interest for Seanachie and the first band he bothered watching was Kings of Leon, who, despite not being natural showmen, provided a tight set of tunes that showcased well their masterly musical and lyrical virtuosity. My favourite line of the weekend is that one from 'Milk': 'She'll loan you her toothbrush/She'll bartend your party', which is so good that it's really too dangerous to use around most of the women I know. Just Jack also provide a fine line in wordsmithery, though their production is sometimes a little too polished. Live, however, they were unexpectedly sunny and got a large crowd dancing with something that was in short supply all weekend: real basslines. Due to my relative proximity to the main stage I suffered Faithless' utterly inane public-school techno for a couple of hours and then moved closer to catch a glimpse of Björk.

I think it's fair to say that Björk is the anti-Bono; someone who is just so faultlessly cool and admirable it is impossible to take offence at her sometimes quite difficult music. Which is why it pains me so much to admit that I just don't really like the music. Why, I don't know, as, by the looks of those gathered around me, many others do, and my own tastes can sometimes stretch to the realm of the recondite. Like the last time I saw her - back at Féile 94 - I resolved to enjoy the show at least and it didn't disappoint. Backed by an all-female brass orchestra heavily caparisoned with runic banners - which are surely the result of spending far too much time around Matthew Barney - and with programming by former LFO maestro Mark Bell, the wee Icelander toyed with the crowd for a first half of sombre numbers before upping the tempo. Though the audience seemed to be appreciative, there was no indulging them, which is a measure of how confident and challenging an artist Björk is. Shame I could only tap my feet and nod, really.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Pûrement Coincidental

I wrote last October about a bizarre and grotesque case of infanticide involving a French mother living in Korea and wondered at the time how soon it would be before a writer or filmmaker used the story in a narrative form. Well, now it has happened and it is none other than François Mitterand's daughter Mazarine Pingeot, who has decided to incorporate it into her sixth novel. The mother in question Véronique Courjault has claimed that her case is being exploited, while Mme. Pingeot is covering herself, saying that there is no direct connection to events in real life. Well she would, wouldn't she?

Revenge for the Viking Raids

Friendly internationals, especially those at the very beginning of the season are notoriously unreliable indicators of form, but it was good to see that Ireland were determined not to start this season as they did the last (a 4-0 home defeat to the Netherlands a year ago); they even went the extra mile and won 4-0 away from home, something they haven't managed since they watched Roy Keane take Cyprus apart in March 2001. Denmark were the opposition, a team Ireland hasn't lost to since Eoin Hand's last match in charge in October 1985 and Robbie Keane and young Shane Long weighed in with two goals apiece. Pleasing stuff even if I'm not fully convinced that Ireland have what it takes to win in both Bratislava and Prague next month (and two wins are what are needed), but we have, at least being served up a comforting illusion that will make the first game, at least, worth a look.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Distasteful Experience of Being Exposed to an mp3some

An Irish friend of mine returned from a trip to New York late last year disgusted with a sight he saw in a fashionable bar in Williamsburg: a DJ working exclusively off mp3s on their laptop. Now in Paris it seems that every second 'DJ' is packing nothing heavier than a MacBook when they go out mixing; it took many years for mixing with CDs to get even remotely respectable - and even now it is usually accepted only as a bit of back-up for a well-stocked bag of vinyl - but mixing with equipment that scarcely justifies any of the traditional demands of DJing is alarmingly widespread.

In the Bottle Shop the other night this development reached its nadir when not one but three people turned up with a MacBook each to 'collaborate'. So, gathered around the mixing decks - which may have begun their inexorable slide towards ultimate redundancy, were three youngsters with computers, pretending that they were Richie Hawtin. Of course the music was much the same as played by any other DJ in the Bottle Shop - meaning it was a decent enough selection, if hardly too imaginative - but most of the other DJs do have the quirky habit of bringing old-fashioned black discs with a wee hole in the middle.

I know that I will be accused of being snobbish here but I don't think it is too much to ask that folks with what they take to be a fantastic collection of audio files to confine their broadcasting of them to their homesteads. I listen to mostly mp3s these days (though I still buy CDs), mainly because the cramped quarters of Parisian apartments have discouraged me from bringing my not-exactly-immense collection of vinyl over from Dublin, but I wouldn't dream of turning up to a bar with my laptop to offer to 'spin some tunes'. Not least because I could do it with a few carefully-chosen playlists stocked on my iPod, which has twice the hard-drive space as my old G4. But if a DJ flicks through their iPod to pick the music people will not be too impressed. Some people imagine though that plonking their computer down on a bar table makes them look like Orbital or Paul Oakenfold, while all the time 'programming' tracks by The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand. When one realises that one or more DJs are getting paid to play songs using equipment and applications that are already used by the bar to play music at other times of the day, well, that's just cheating. You may as well just sit in the corner, with your Nano hooked up to the PA and shuffle away.

The cheating is more acute still when the effort of putting together a vinyl collection is considered. Most DJing occupies, in my opinion, a place a few rungs below real creative activities but there is still a venerable craft exercised by many DJs as well a strong sense of curiosity and adventure. Good DJs travel hundreds of miles to get hold of that track that they could never find on vinyl (though they might already own it on CD or mp3), they reinvest huge amounts of their DJing pay into their collection, they haul back-breakingly heavy bags from bar to bar to club and they are forever on the look out for new or obscure tracks that might set them apart from their peers. And the best DJs never take themselves too serious. They are part of a music culture that owning 12,000 music files on a hard drive will never qualify you to enter. Now it appears that they might be on the way out because some geek with a shiny iBook wants to play the same tunes they hear on MTV2 in a vain effort to get laid. I'm quite serene about the effect of the file-sharing phenomenon - the music industry had had it coming to them for years, and it has allowed bands to reach new markets that they would never before have had access to - but this is one consequence that is certainly deleterious. A real involvement in music is much further than a click away.

'Tis a Pity She's a Whore, Zizou'

This blog started last year with a few words on the Zidane-Materazzi incident and Seanachie was firmly on the side of Zidane - even if he could see the obvious logic behind Materazzi's unlovely act. Now the Inter thug has disclosed his exact words of July 11th last year to the world and they are, in translation, at least, curiously Shakespearean. 'I prefer the whore that is your sister', is what he confided to TV Sorrisi e Canzoni magazine. It may simply be a quirk of the English language but it is a difficult phrase to translate without sounding quaintly archaic - it might also be rendered as 'I prefer the whore that your sister is' - or Irish; perhaps what Marco meant was 'I prefer your sister, whore that she is'. In any case, the words seem worthy of a Tybalt of fair Verona or one of the Italian villains of John Webster or John Ford's Jacobean Revenge tragedies. 'Tis a pity she's a whore, Zizou'. Perhaps Zidane should simply have swallowed his pride, bit his thumb at the dastard and reserved punishment by bastinado until after his retirement.

How to Identify the Research Potential of Innovative Work in the Field of Cutting and Pasting

I've been overworked, out of time, fagged out, in the wrong place at the wrong time, too busy, lazy, fit only for Facebook, reading about the Holocaust etc. So apologies in advance for cutting and pasting from a great letter in today's Irish Times - an organ I tend to reserve an inordinate amount of scorn for:


Madam, - Your report of the launch of the Adult Literacy Awards quotes Inez Baily, director of the National Adult Literacy Agency, as saying: "The awards were designed to encourage organisations to identify the research potential of their innovative work and recognise, share and learn from the work being done by others in the field" (The Irish Times, August 14th).

Madam, this is gobbledegook on stilts. Such vernacular vandalism, spouted by an organisation such as NALA which is charged with helping the 1 million Irish adults who are functionally illiterate, is mind-boggling.

Furthermore, in 2005 NALA launched its Plain English Mark. This is awarded to organisations which are committed to clear communication. Is it not time that NALA and its director employed the same standard of English that it demands from other organisations? - Yours, etc,

MICHAEL O'DONNELL, Old Youghal Road, Cork.

Michael O'Donnell of Old Youghal Road in Cork, you're on the button there. Literacy - especially in a country with rates of functional literacy far behind many developing countries - is far too important a thing to be left to the sub-literate to administer. I promise to be more pro-active tomorrow. I'm only working one job for the next few days, you know.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

...Names Don't Bother Me

Football is notable, apart from the fact that it the most-widely played team sport in the world, for the relative sobriety of its club names, no more so than in the home of the sport. English football is replete with a plethora of Uniteds, Cities, Towns, Rovers and Wanderers. There are a few more adventurous monikers, such as Arsenal (repeated in many countries around the world, most notably in Argentina), Tottenham Hotspur (feeding off the Boy's Own popularity of Harry Hotspur in the late Victorian era), Nottingham Forest and, of course, those midweek specialists Sheffield Wednesday, whose name is echoed in the Welsh part-timers Abergavenny Thursdays. But in the main the names are standard, as a result of which football fans are not too fond of the more colourful American-style team names, which were foisted on Rugby League about ten years ago. The advantage of ordinary team names is that a nickname can then be appended to the team. With the American naming tendency, the Boston Red Sox remain the Red Sox, the Green Bay Packers the Packers and so on; it seems, to European ears, one-dimensional.

Irish football is similarly bereft of colourful names, with the exception of Bohemians south of the border - a name that is more evocative in its official title 'The Bohemian Football Club' and Distillery in the north. In Scotland though, the names are more creative, akin to rugby clubs in their originality, which always made the Scottish results on Final Score a greater pleasure to listen to, almost like the Shipping Forecast in its lilting recitation of lengthy names. Some are well-known, such as Heart of Midlothian, named for the eponymous prison in Walter Scott's novel; others less so, such as Queen of the South, one of the few teams to have taken their name directly from the Bible. The musicality of real placenames such as Stenhousemuir (with their equally lyrical Ochilview Park home - beside the McCowan's toffee factory) and Cowdenbeath complete the medley.

The origins of most football clubs lie in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and many of the most popular names reflect the nationalisms of the day, such as Borussia, Hansa and Hertha in Germany; Español (recently Catalanized to Espanyol) and Real Sociedad in Spain; Maccabi in Israel, Hajduk in the Balkans, Thistle in Scotland and Albion in England and, strangely, Scotland too. Irish football is lacking nationalist names, probably because the GAA was more concerned with using them. Also popular, and not surprisingly given the public school origins of the game, were references to antiquity in names such as Corinthians, Ajax, Atalanta (of Bergamo in Italy), Sparta and Hellas (as in Hellas Verona). There are also teams around the world that retain names in English due to their English founders or a simple anglophilia such as Milan (never referred to in Italy as 'AC'), Athletic Bilbao (as opposed to 'Atletico'), the Racing clubs of Paris, Strasbourg, Lens and elsewhere in France, Sporting Club de Portugal (better known as Sporting Lisbon), River Plate and Newell's Old Boys in Argentina, though not, as I pointed out yesterday, Red Star Belgrade.

Most continental clubs are similarly restrained in their nomenclature, Scandinavian clubs, in particular, being almost exclusively named after places. There are exceptions though, such as two Swiss clubs with English-language names, such as Young Boys of Bern and Grasshoppers Zurich. The former was a simple riposte to the more common fashion of calling alumnus teams 'Old Boys' but its name does provoke mirth in the English-speaking world these days. A couple of days ago, the URL BSC YOUNG BOYS - OFFIZIELLE INTERNETSEITE appeared in my del.ic.ious subscriptions and I was momentarily disturbed by the prospect that I had been directed to a site that was not only unsavoury but also possibly illegal. But I soon realised that these Young Boys are a much more wholesome lot, though it must be pointed out that they do play at the Wankdorf Stadium. Grasshoppers, for their part, apparently owe their name to their early players' 'energetic goal celebrations', which evokes the image of old black-and-white newsreel footage. The vigour of youth is also celebrated in teams such as Juventus, the Jeunesse teams from Auxerre to Yaoundé and the recently-formed Wexford Youths, rescuing that fine word from its long-standing connection with juvenile courts.

Eastern bloc teams were often named after their connection with a particular state body, such as the Lokomotiv teams, from Leipzig to Plovdiv to Moscow; Dynamo teams, who were usually associated with the Secret Police; Honvéd Budapest, who were named after the Hungarian Army; Shaktior Donetsk is named after the local mine ('Shaktior' is Russian and Ukrainian for 'mine') and both they and Zenit St. Petersburg were at one time in the past named 'Stalinets'. Probably the best name from the former Soviet Union is Torpedo Moscow, the team of the Soviet armaments industry, funnily enough. Though the team's name has rarely stricken fear into the hearts of opposition since the glory post-war years the name is a suitably formidable one for a Stalin-era football club.

Dutch football provides us with one of the world's greatest football team names, Go Ahead Eagles of Deventer, a case of someone using the English language to invoke powers that were well beyond it. A similar name is provided in the name of the Breton club En Avant Guingamp ('En Avant' meaning 'ahead' or 'in front'), who spent a couple of years recently in the French top flight. French football team names are usually a lot more elaborate in their official denomination than in the names that end up in the newspapers and often they are referred to by almost unrecognizable acronyms, such as ESTAC for Troyes, LOSC for Lille, MUC72 for Le Mans.

But one must venture outside of Europe for the best club names; South Africa veers close to the American formula whilst still being distinctive, giving us Kaizer Chiefs (the Britpop band uses an 's'), Orlando Pirates, Platinum Stars and best of all, Mamelodi Sundowns. One of the greatest clubs in African history is Hearts of Oak of Accra, the Hearts that Valentin Romanov has yet to get his mitts on, but Ghanaian football has even more impressive club names such as Ebusua Dwarfs and King Faisal Babes. In Cambodia there is a team called Hello United, while Bolivia boasts some great names such as Blooming, Destroyers and The Strongest, who started off as 'The Strong' before graduating to the superlative, and they are considered formidable opposition every year in the Copa Libertadores.

Trinidad & Tobago's Joe Public FC is also an inspired name and their chairman is the dodgy, populist FIFA vice-president Jack Warner. Jamaica's Violet Kickers is also a good one, an echo of the Ruhr Valley legends of yore Kickers Offenbach. There are some teams that have great names by dint of their mundane professional connections such as Botswana Meat Commission FC or FC Impôts (i.e. 'Taxes FC') of Cameroon while others such as the Sierra Leone trio of Real Republicans, Golf Leopards and Mighty Blackpool have a deeper resonance. Though Big Bullets of Malawi is a fair attempt at a great club name, the overall crown must go to the Swazi club named Eleven Men in Flight. Pure poetry.

Of course, some team names have been missed out upon because their names were in languages unknown to me. Feel free to point any out that I might not have mentioned, be they famous or otherwise.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

I Had an Uncle Who Once Played for Red Star Belgrade

Reading in the Guardian today about Rangers' 1-0 win over Crvena Zvezda Belgrade in the Champions' League qualifying round I noticed yet another erroneous referral to the Serbian club being 'formerly known as Red Star Belgrade'. There's no 'formerly known' about it; they are still known as Red Star in English - as the official club site testifies - it is just that for some reason they are being referred to these days by UEFA and by English-language media by their Serbian name. The club was always known as Crvena Zvezda, as anyone that paid close attention to the Yugoslav lineups in the Panini World Cup sticker albums back in the 80s will know. If some in Britain or Ireland (the 'formerly-known as Red Star' line was used in the Irish media when they played Cork City in last year's competition) imagine that a Yugoslav club founded by communists in the last days of the second world war would choose an English moniker, only to change it to the Serbian sixty years later, then the English-speaking world has an even more Ptolemaic sense of its own position as centre of the universe than I previously thought. Funny that: they speak Serbian in Serbia. Will the Guardian's reporter be referring to Spartak Moscow - Celtic's European opposition tonight - as 'formerly known as Sparta Moscow'? Tomorrow on Underachievement: a piece on exotic club names from around the world. In the meantime, a bit of trivia: what song does the title of this post come from?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Ireland in the World Cup Semis

Further to Sunday's post, the Irish ladies team today defeated France 1-0 to reach the World University Games semi-final. This is heroism on an unprecedented scale in Irish sport. Well done ladies, and best of luck against Russia in the semi-final. Here's hoping they believe in themselves and go on to win it rather than be satisfied with just making the last four.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Textbook Brown-nosing by Dónal MacIntyre

Dónal MacIntyre first came to prominence a few years back with his 'MacIntyre Undercover' series in which he entrapped a number of dodgy characters - Nigerian scammers, football hooligans, slobbering statutary rapists at the Élite model agency - with his undercover camera and came away with the shocking truth that everyone already knew. Like the more serious investigative reporter Sacha Baron Cohen, MacIntyre has been forced, by his now greater renown to confront dodgy characters in the flesh. His cinema debut A Very British Gangster does so, with the Manchester Mr Big, Dominic Noonan, and it is difficult to tell who is having more fun onscreen: Noonan having his ego massaged by big screen stardom or MacIntyre who gets to hang out with some very tough guys.

David Thomson once said that the problem with Martin Scorsese was that he was a sickly kid that worshipped hard men; MacIntyre is another sickly kid and his veneration for Noonan verges on the fetishistic. You might forgive him the exposure he gives Noonan and his band of thugs if it were at least done with any panache or in any genuine spirit of inquiry. But this is Dónal MacIntyre, and working for Channel 5 to boot; MacIntyre is like a cross between Alan Partridge and Roger Cook, with the emphasis more on the former. In fact you expect Noonan to explode at some point just like in that episode of 'Knowing Me, Knowing You' where Partridge's gangster guest responds to Alan's innuendo with a vicious 'do you want to get involved? Because I'll get you involved!' But Noonan is generally calm and it is not as if MacIntyre probes him too harshly. There's one unintentionally amusing scene where Dónal lectures Noonan in an avuncular manner, asking him 'do you not think there has been enough killing?' MacIntyre's breathless voiceover is both inane and irritating - he tells us that the people in Noonan's north-west Manchester fief go to him rather than the police to sort out their social problems, and you wonder who he imagines he is enlightening with this information. He also points out that Noonan is, surprisingly, a practising Catholic, despite his penchant for murder and thuggery. Perhaps Dónal MacIntyre could be introduced to the Godfather films and countless other mob movies for evidence of similar anomalies. Neither does MacIntyre find Noonan's combination of a gay sexual orientation and Catholicism strange but I suppose that would entail too many ideas in the head at one time for the spectacularly moronic director.

Giving thugs like Noonan and his ilk publicity like this is, of course dubious, though that is not to say that one couldn't make a good film with the material. There are some good moments in the film provided by the young goons that follow Noonan around and who readily dispense their homespun amorality (one teenager says that he he knows nothing better than the rush you get from relieving people of their property), but MacIntyre's shambolic sense of observation squanders most of the opportunities. And of course, there is also MacIntyre's morally questionable tactic of putting himself centre-stage, which he does at one point when Noonan is briefly arrested, making phone calls and ostentatiously convening with the gang with all the gusto of a bunch of lads on a stag weekend arguing over what restaurant to eat in. MacIntyre is also gifted with plenty of incident, Noonan's older brother Desmond - arguably a bigger thug - is stabbed to death during filming and Noonan himself goes down for unlawful possession of firearms. And still the film is dull and still MacIntyre grates like a sandpaper foreskin.

But the film has had its admirers; in France the reviews have been inexplicably positive and it won the top prize at the Cognac Festival des Policiers (for crime films) but then the French have a hankering for voyeuristic studies of distant milieux - they love Scorsese, even his more risible recent films. Many French critics were not so enthusiastic about Jacques Audiard's De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté, in which Romain Duris played a viciously racist and xenophobic enforcer. Les Inrockuptiples called it a 'stinking' film that sought to propagate beauf chic, which is admissible only if one admits also that the films of Scorsese, Coppola and Brian de Palma, which the French love, are equally irresponsible. As for Dónal MacIntyre, hanging out with the rough diamond chavs of the Manchester underworld hasn't cost him all refinement; according to Wikipedia, he has named his recently-born daughter Tiger Willow. This man is priceless, as they say in Dublin.

Football - His and Hers

My current heavy workload has kept me from here, but I have been keeping an eye on the football, with the Scottish and French leagues kicking off last week, and the Premiership yesterday. Sunderland got off to a good start back in the top flight with Michael Chopra's last-minute goal giving them the points against Spurs; Celtic got things going after an alarming run of pre-season results with a 4-1 win over Falkirk, which will settle them somewhat before Wednesday's trip to Moscow. Sligo Rovers moved back up to fourth place in the Eircom League with a 3-0 win over Bray Wanderers, which saw three players and two members of Bray's coaching staff sent off. The most impressive performance of the past week though has been that of the Irish Women's University team, who have reached the quarter-finals of the World University Games in Thailand, after an astounding win over Germany. Considering that Germany is one of the world's strongest nations in women's football and that many of their student team play in the Women's Bundesliga, this is a shock on a par with the USA's famous win over England in the 1950 World Cup. The ladies play France in the quarter-finals tomorrow and Seanachie wishes them the best of luck.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Lee Hazlewood

Lee Hazlewood is the latest legend to go, having died of kidney cancer at the age of 78. Though I doubt his ailment was too bearable in his final years, the man lived the fullest of lives and kept recording until recently enough. May he rest in peace.

On a Good Footing

I sang the praises last year of the French football magazine So Foot, which is the greatest of its sort I have ever encountered (there may be better elsewhere in the world but there is certainly nothing to rival it in either English or French), and, for want of anything else to write about, I'll give it another plug. Even the close-season issue out at the moment is packed with fascinating stuff, such as a lengthy article on gypsies in football - the most famous of whom, the Austrian Zipflo Weinrich, whose promising career was ended by injury in the late 80s, is now an acclaimed jazz violinist in the Django Reinhardt mould and is to collaborate with George Benson on his next album. There are also interviews with French left-wing rap group La Rumeur and Congolese rapper Youssoupha, who claims that he is a huge Marseille fan because of his adulation for Chris Waddle when he was a kid. 'I even cut my sister's Barbie doll's hair like his,' he confides.

A nostalgic piece recounts the heady days of Bastia's UEFA Cup final appearance in 1977; the excellent football photography of Stuart Clarke gets a ten-page feature and two pieces demonstrate the magazine's twin qualities of intellectual inquiry (an article on the French league, entitled 'Jacobinism, the ill of French football') and hip, hedonistic swagger: an interview with former Argentinian national goalkeeper Germán Burgos. Burgos dismisses his recently-acquired goalkeeper-training badge as teaching him little more than 'how to talk properly to kids' and first aid of the sort that he hopes never to have to use: 'giving mouth-to-mouth to children, not really my thing.' He also says that he will encourage his son to become a centre-forward and not a keeper because 'goalkeepers only get to shag the fattest and ugliest birds'. When asked what he misses most about his playing days, he says it is fans taunting him with 'your mother's a whore.' Classic. All for only €2.90. If only they ditched that awful franglais name.

Start of Cycle

I am usually late getting into most things, and I have been meaning to try out the Velib, which was set in train a few weeks ago but I wasn't, erm, libre in order to do so. As it turned out, being a bit late for a trek over to the 6th arrondissement to watch the Sligo-Cork All-Ireland quarter-final on Saturday (with, alas, disappointing results) I was forced to take one for a less leisurely spin than I had intended. Leisure has been the priority of most people that have been taking the bikes so far, and it has been obvious that many of them are not used to riding a bike through the city. But, it being summer, the Parisian traffic is not too heavy and the real litmus test will arrive in September when people will start using the bikes as an alternative to the Metro to get to and from work.

The bikes are not terribly attractive, being built with durability in mind and though they do seem at first to be excessively safety-conscious, you can pick up a fair speed on them. The only problem is parking; as with a four-wheeled vehicle, spaces are at a premium, or at least they were at St-Germain-des-Prés when I arrived over there. At €29 per year for a subscription, with the first half-hour's travel each day free, the deal is not too bad for those that plan to use it regularly, though one would imagine that the city's more enthusiastic cyclists will be unwilling to trade their own steeds in for the Velib, and I plan to repair my own bike once the weather starts getting a bit more constant. The Velib bikes do, of course, have the attractive potential of serving as late-night crosstown transport when taxis are thin on the ground, but a restaurateur I know was recently informed by the police superintendent of the 4th arrondissement that the Velibs are going to be targeted for spot checks in case drunken revellers decide to cycle home, which can result in two points on one's driver's license, as happened to a Frenchman I know earlier this year.

Nicolas Machiavellian

It's been a while since I posted on Nicolas Sarkozy, and a couple of weeks since the intercession of his wife Cécilia seemingly occasioned the release of the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor in Libya (something I posted on last December), though at the time German sources claimed that negotiations by EU delegates were already well underway and that Sarkozy's instrumentation of his practically-estranged wife was nothing other than a publicity stunt. Following the bluster with which Sarkozy's debut showing at June's EU summit in Brussels was reported in the French media and his stuffing of his cabinet with a number of centre-left fall guys - the most prominent of which is new foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner - it appears that Sarkozy's greatest borrowing from Anglo-Saxon political economy would be the fine art of spin. Many of the more naïve French supporters of Sarkozy claimed before the election that the wee man would make France an international force to be reckoned with once again. He is certainly managing to put that idea about.

Except, of course, that now it has been established that Sarkozy's intervention was a pretext for arranging the sale of a nuclear reactor and other deals with the Libyans. After initially strenuous denials, Sarko's government has stopped trying to counter the accusations first floated in Le Canard enchaîné, a publication that rarely gets such things wrong. The Germans are fast losing patience with the French, after an early rapprochement with the Elysée Palace, and my election-day assessment of Sarkozy and his lack of substantial difference from the fetid political culture of Gaullism is proving to be prescient, even if I say so myself.

Sarkozy, while holidaying in New England, had a confrontation today with a couple of American photographers, grabbing the camera off one of them; his critics here in France are rubbing their hands with glee at this latest dispatch, but I have a certain degree of sympathy for him in this instance. Meanwhile, French rapper Doc Gynéco, a high-profile supporter of Sarkozy, was bottled offstage this weekend at a music festival in Switzerland of all places by a dozen or so bolshy leftists. Interestingly, Sarkozy affirmed upon the release of the Bulgarian nurses that they 'were French', which is a more gracious conferral of honorary citizenship than that offered to tens of thousands of non-nationals that actually reside in France. Though I despise Sarkozy, I readily admit he is a formidable politician. What I can't understand is how he has managed his first couple of months in such a shambolic fashion. The Socialist Party might not even have to reorganise at all if Sarkozy's faux pas continue.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Lead Astray

Mattel, most famous for Barbie and, back in the day, He-Man, have recalled over one million toys made by a contract producer in China, because the toys - ranging over 83 different products - have been coated in lead paint. It reminds me of the title of one of the educational films that we might remember Troy McClure from: Lead Paint: Delicious but Deadly.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Underachievement's Annual Sumo Wrestling Post

The Guardian's always-entertaining Fiver mailshot is the source for today's scandalous news. Mongolia's sumo-wrestling pride and joy Asashoryu Akinori (apparently considered one of the greatest wrestlers in the long history of Sumo) has been banned from the next two grand tournaments after being caught playing football back home in Ulaan Baator, despite telling the sumo authorities he was injured. The chat forums (including this thread started in Dublin) are hopping and here is the newsflash from Japan just in case you don't believe us: