Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Two Years Back in Paris

Today I celebrated two years back in Paris; though I have not made as much progress in certain areas as I would have liked in that time I can't say I regret coming back here. Today I visited an Irish dentist recommended to me by an American friend - I lost a filling last week - and I discovered that the man was born in the very same village I grew up in. What are the chances? That's not the real reason I feel at home here, but being only an hour away from Ireland sometimes helps.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Où est le Centre de Georges Pompidou?

The Pomipidou Centre, or Beaubourg as it is known to Parisians, celebrates its thirtieth birthday tomorrow. Conceived by and named after the late second President of the Fifth Republic, who died from cancer while in office, the centre was reviled by many of the same people that flock to it these days, i.e. the French left, who couldn't stomach a man of the right, albeit an impressively cultured one, putting his stamp on the cultural landscape of the city. Libération was one of the august organs of the left that slammed it in 1977 though their article on it in Saturday's paper was a great deal kinder. The building is now the third most-visited monument in France, after the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, and the Museum is the second most-visited modern art museum in the world, with only Tate Modern ahead of it.

I first arrived in Paris shortly after its refurbishment for the Millenium and I spent hours in there visiting both the National Museum of Modern Art, which is its biggest attraction, and the Public Reference Library, which is one of the most impressive of its kind I have ever seen. It is however a victim of its own success as the queues, particularly during winter are fearsomely long, and though I pass by the Centre about ten times a week, I don't go in much these days, preferring to use the MK2 Beaubourg cinema next door, though the Pompidou's own cinema is superb and great value for money. Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano's structure, with its services famously on the exterior, has been slammed as a 'gas factory', which is, to my mind, rather a compliment. It took inspiration from the seminal sixties architectural comic-book-cum-pamphlet Archigram, and stands as that publication's most realised scion. Piano still has an atelier across the street on rue de Beaubourg, and though the surrounding area is disappointingly tacky, sandwiched as it is between the wholesale glumness of Les Halles and the commercialised Old World charm of the Marais, the building itself is still an amiable - and still audacious, behemoth. And the views from the top aren't bad either.

School of Hard Knocks

Thanks, once again to Dublin Opinion for this one, regarding the dashing of Ulick McEvaddy's hopes of turning Knock Airport into Mayo's very own Airstrip One. Ulick, you may recall, claimed a couple of weeks back that he was open to allowing US military flights refuel at the airport, while at the same time remaining reticent about his own lucrative impending contracts with the US Navy. According to a news report from the Mayo News, Mr Liam Scollan, CEO of the airport has stated that military flights will not be considered under any circumstances; indeed Mr Scollan said, in greater detail that 'we would not see serving military flights which do not have the support of the UN as consistent with the policy and aims of Ireland West Airport. We would have ethical problems and we wanted to make an unequivocal statement to people to say that we do not ever intend to handle those flights.' An admirable outbreak of backbone among Irish administration, something which has not been seen for some years now.

Knock will however be handling transatlantic flights soon enough, and Deppity John Perry from across the border in County Sligo, is claiming that he is responsible for this development, having bent the air of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg during the visit of the Big Cheese (and big supporter of the Iraq war) to Seanachie's homestead of Ballymote, County Sligo last summer. Well, he would, wouldn't he?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting in Sweden

Sweden, according to a piece in today's Libération, has just lifted its ban on professional boxing, which had been in force since 1969. A 'Comeback Gala' of eleven fights marked the return of the sport in Gothenberg on Saturday night. Boxing has long been a bête noir of middle-class lefties (but rarely of working-class ones) and Sweden has had it in for it for a long time: I remember, when visiting Stockholm's Olympic Stadium, venue for the 1912 games, reading that the boxing tournament was not held that year due to its illegality in the kingdom. Which obviously means that there was an interregnum of legality between then and 1969.

Pro boxing didn't go underground in Sweden, it merely moved across the Gulf of Bothnia to the Swedish-speaking Finnish island of Åland and it attracted a big following on satellite TV, numbering among its supporters former Prime Minister Göran Persson. Now only Norway, Iceland, Cuba and North Korea remain as countries where pro-boxing is forbidden (though of course the Cubans and the Koreans have little problem with the sport per se). Sweden is not going bananas in its tolerance of the sport though, the fights on Saturday night's card were all limited to four rounds of three minutes.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

You Either Have It or You Don't

I have begun to worry if I am a completely hard-hearted person for finding Nicolas Philibert's celebrated and universally loved documentary Être et avoir to be dull and, at times, annoying. The account of a village elementary school run by a single schoolmaster nearing retirement, a Mr Georges Lopez, the film was a huge hit on its release five years ago and was praised for the precision of its observations and the beauty of its filming. Having eventually seen it I can agree that Philibert has a good documentary eye and that his exteriors, at least, are impressive but my big problem with it starts from the very first interior, all garishly lit, to look like a fiction film effectively. Perhaps Philibert had one eye on the box office at the time.

In addition to this the film seems to be a romanticised view of school and childhood that has always been very popular in French cinema, fuelling such films as the two versions of Les Choristes, Louis Malle's Au Revoir les enfants, the better films of Claude Miller, such as La Meilleure facon de marcher and La Classe de neige, and which has also influenced the maddening popularity of that woman-child pipsqueak Amélie Poulain. Philibert, in the DVD notes, claims that he wanted to avoid nostalgia in the film, but if he thought he managed that, well maybe he needs a bit more distance from it. Overall the biggest problem I had with it was the fact that it was just a bit too dull. And I generally lap documentaries of this sort up. And M. Lopez then took the filmmakers to court after the film's success claiming a share in the profits because his teaching methods were supposedly part of the conception. The court dismissed his case, rightly judging that he was having a laugh.

Frêche Out of Socialists

Georges Frêche, President of the Languedoc-Roussillon region and former Mayor of Montpellier has been expelled by the French Socialist Party, because of comments he made late last year complaining about the number of black players in the French football team, similar to 'reservations' expressed by one Jean-Marie Le Pen during last year's World Cup finals. Strange that the expulsion should happen now, considering that Frêche was this week convicted of racism, having called a group of Harkis (i.e. Algerian Arabs that fought on the French side during the Algerian war) 'sub-human'. Frêche, himself complains that the expulsion was timed to coincide with Ségolène Royal's trip to the French Caribbean, where votes in this year's Presidential elections are to be won in Martinique, Guadaloupe and French Guyana. Frêche claims to be a 'good friend' of Royal, who, like him was elected a regional President in 2004 (in her case, of Poitou-Charentes), and he is a bit miffed at being hung out to dry now. Frêche also claims that he has been misinterpreted, just as he was in the Harki case. Should have kept your mouth shut then, Georges.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Platini Takes On The G-Force

Michel Platini, the greatest European footballer of the 1980s and one of the most likeable people in football administration (there is not much competition, admittedly) has succeeded in his quest to be elected President of UEFA, beating off the incumbent of seventeen years Lennart Johansson. One can forgive Platini his friendship with number one fool Sepp Blatter as he plans to restructure the Champions' League by making it more what it was before the bullies of the G14 muscled in, a genuine competition of Champions. More teams from the lesser nations will have a chance to compete and though this may not mean more exciting football at first after a few years it is likely that a greater spread of revenues will allow teams from countries such as the Norway, the Czech Republic, Scotland and elsewhere compete on a more level playing field with the big boys. The G14 is one of the more distasteful developments in World football in recent years, allowing a carve-up of spoils among mostly underachieving giants of yesteryear and some clubs that barely warrant a place in there at all, such as Paris Saint-Germain, who will possibly be plying their trade in the wintry provinces of France's Ligue 2 next year. To see some of these franchises stymied in their attempts to dominate and expect a God-given right to participation in Europe's most lucrative sports tournament would be a joy to see as well as being good for the game. Best of luck to Platini in his efforts to stop them.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Suffer Little Children

It's not often I post on a film I walk out of but the particular violence with which I raised myself out of my seat and left Little Children warrants mention. The director is Todd Field, a man who I have followed ever since he starred, over ten years ago, in Walking and Talking by Nicole Holofcener, one of the best US indy movies of the last twenty years, and, needless to say, one of the most underrated too. It was a charming, witty, unpretentious, low-key gem and though Field was one of the lesser lights of the cast, which also included Catherine Keener, Anne Heche, Liev Schrieber and Kevin Corrigan, he was given the best line of the film. Having had enough of hours of Shawn Colvin on a road trip, he moans to the women in the car: 'How much longer do we have to listen to this vagina music?' All the funnier for having been written by a woman.

Holofcener went on to direct quite a lot of Sex and the City while Field has himself become a director, starting off on a high with In the Bedroom, which was nominated for five Oscars five years ago. I have yet to see that but I can't say I really want to having seen enough of his latest effort, an arch 'serious comedy' about a paedophile lurking in suburban Connecticut. Kate Winslet is a young mother who starts an affair with a househusband whom she meets at the local playground. The Madame Bovary connotations are hammered home by the mention of said book at one of the local housewives' Book Club. And then there is the ever-so-ironic voiceover that sounds like it is filched from a novel by one of those tiresome young over-verbose Yank novelists such as David Foster Wallace or Dave Eggers. Film that sounds like literature is usually dubious enough; film that sounds like bad literature should be put down at birth. The local toughs have also started forming a vigilante group that is viewed with distaste by all the goodies in the film - Winslet and her lover (played by Patrick Wilson) and, of course, Field himself. The paedophile might be bad enough but those getting too het up about him are as bad; thus lies the moral of a film made by facile lefty thirtysomethings slagging off facile square thirtysomethings. One would have thought that Field would have studied American Beauty closely and resolved not to make a crock of shit like it. But I suppose some people's ambitions lie elsewhere.

In any case it is not below Field to cast the paedophile as the stock weirdo of modern legend, an ugly, balding, loner ogre to match those in traditional fairytales. First, while on an exclusion order from children's recreation areas he takes a dip in a crowded pool of kids in full view of their parents. When my disbelief got weary from being suspended for too long by this it gave up a couple of scenes later when the perv's Norman Bates-like relationship with his mother is revealed. That was as far as it got. When you are having your intelligence being insulted by utter shite as this it is time to go. Not surprisingly this film was in the running for Oscars, and Winslet picked up a nomination for her role as the frumped-up housewife. There is a good reason why I don't go to many Hollywood films anymore: even the ones aimed at adults, the so-called 'quality' pictures are infantile. And they still find the time to be pretentious, God bless them.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Foyled Again

Nordie Taigs have been put in their place by the High Court in Belfast, which ruled that Derry City Council does not have the right to change the city's name from the colonial-era 'Londonderry' to its rightful name, by which it is known to practically everybody in Northern Ireland, on both sides of the religious divide. As the name was granted (or shall we say, decreed) by royal charter in 1662, it can only be changed again by legislation or by royal prerogative. So, now they know up in Derry. Not theirs to give away, that name.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Black Book Back

Like most people that scribble things down, my notebook is one of the few things that I cannot stand losing, yet it happens to me far too often. Yet I usually get it back when it does. My current Moleskine has led as charmed an existence as the hero of a Jerry Bruckheimer production, having been lost three times in the past three months, and each time finding its way back to me, twice courtesy of strangers who work in cinemas and once courtesy of my sister, who found it on the floor of the Bernard Shaw on Dublin's South Richmond Street after a night's drinking just before Christmas. The latest person to return it to me was somebody who found it in the Gaumont Opéra cinema a few weeks back, lost after a screening of Paul Verhoeven's Black Book (ironic, given that the black book of the film's title looks very like a Moleskine). French people are particularly good for returning items of little monetary value but of real personal worth such as notebooks - much more so, I regret to say, than Irish people, who are, in my experience, more likely to toss it into the bin on finding it. I owe the person who returned it to me today a wee present by way of appreciation and I should also be a bit more careful when leaving the cinema in future.


How offensive is it not having your name remembered? It happened to me a couple of months ago when a casual acquaintance shouted 'Dave' across an empty room at me and got disgruntled when I didn't answer her. I wasn't terribly offended - in fact I was a bit relieved as the lady in question is a bit of hard work at the best of times - but I am often sensitive enough about getting other people's names wrong. Having worked as a teacher for the last few months, thus necessitating recalling the names of about seventy different people every week, I have made a few mistakes along the way, occasionally because of genuine absent-mindedness, occasionally because of a bizarre mental block regarding certain individuals. And then there are certain people whose appearances morph into those of their classmates, at least from their teacher's point of view. Of course it is ridiculous, especially considering that these very people barely know one another and they probably have little in common so to hear their teacher confounding them is as perplexing as it might be hurtful.

One class I had before Christmas included three French guys, all in their late twenties or early thirties, named Francois, Fabrice and Patrick, whose names, despite teaching them for six weeks, I could never place without recourse to a careful study of the attendance sheet and the respective types of pen and ink that they had used to sign it. In another class I more than once mixed up two middle-aged women, which caused them annoyance, and no end of embarrassment to myself. The other day I had my worst experience yet, worst because I had not forgotten the names of the students but I had nonetheless momentarily mistaken one for the other. And it looked worse still (or at least to my over-sensitive mind) because the two girls happened to be both black (and both sitting opposite each other in front of me); one was from Haiti and the other from the Central African Republic and both are, not surprisingly, noticeably different in both personality and appearance, but I still called the wrong name. True it is the only time I have mixed the two ladies up but I felt rather small at the time. Being stripped of your individuality is no doubt a difficult thing to take, and though the mistake seemed to be taken in good spirit by both - and by everyone else in the class - it still made me feel stupid. And there is the guilty idea that forgetting somebody's name reveals a blind spot that one would rather not have.

Logan's (Burger) Bun

I'd like to think I'm cutting-edge but I have to doff my cap off to the lads and ladies at Blogorrah for this astounding analysis of Johnny Logan's McDonald's ad (or is that McDonalds' Johnny Logan ad?) It's strange that it took Ashbourne's greatest export after Hunky-Dory's so long to pass through the Golden Arches. Would have loved to have got to this first but I'm an exile from my ex-isle. I'm still quite good at what I do, if you know what I mean.

What You Saying About My Mother?

Is Trevor Brennan this year's Zinédine Zidane? Ulster claim that the insults directed at him couldn't possibly have been sectarian. Of course not, though it is curious they are so sure given that not even Spanish football club presidents have ever claimed to be able to speak for every single one of their fans. The Nordies claim they were only slagging off Brennan's Irish pub in Toulouse, which given the general standard of those places in France, probably is a kip.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sybille's Right

A few albums that featured in other people's lists of 2006 but only made it in their entirety to the Underachieving iPod this month: the first is Spank Rock's 'YoYoYoYoYoYo' (someone should write an AppleScript to easily reproduce all those 'yo's'), the Philly/Baltimore hip-hop group that I knew a little of last year from their scurrilous anti-homage 'Rick Rubin' and their fantastic remix of 'Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above' by CSS, which I have nattered about quite a lot here. In a year that was strangely quiet for US hip-hop, the album is set apart by its rough style and aggression, which has receded in vogue Stateside recently. The sound is dirty and the references a bit unexpected but it's a good one for dancing. Needs a few more listens though for that breakthrough.

As is the case with Grizzly Bear's 'Yellow House'. The latest bunch of weirdos based in Brooklyn to release an album last year, their production is a bit too lo-fi and wilfully obscure to grab you but there are a couple of songs that are particularly memorable: 'On a Neck, On a Spit' and 'Knife', which coincidentally is about to be covered by CSS, for a double-A-side, the flip of which will be Grizzly Bear's cover of CSS' own 'Alala'.

Best of all of is an album recorded in 1973, and which upon its belated release last year received little attention outside of France and Germany. The record is 'Colour Green' by the then-young German singer-songwriter Sybille Baier, who at the time of the recording was known only for a small role in Wim Wenders' wonderful Alice in the Cities. She has since lived in Florida and the release was prompted by an interest in the shelved masters by her son. Like Vashti Bunyan, who also emerged from obscurity in the past couple of years, Baier is a singer from another time, her beautifully wistful melodies picked on a bare acoustic guitar sounding bizarre when heard for the first time on digital playback. The most obvious comparisons are Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen before he started cluttering the studio with unnecessary instruments, but it is the note-perfect, unwavering whispers of Baier that make you grateful that this album eventually saw the light of day. Hopefully, she'll follow Bunyan's example and record a second one thirty years on, and like Bunyan's 'Lookaftering' it'll probably sound like the second was recorded six months after the first.

Goodbye Cruel Word

Upon hearing about a friend from Dublin, who has been cast off rather heartlessly by a friend of his, a highly-rated young Irish novelist who dedicated his second novel to the now-spurned friend, I got thinking about the capacity of writers for cruelty. People have long feared an acquaintance who could humiliate them in print, and Oliver St. John Gogarty will forever be better remembered as the inspiration for Buck Mulligan than for his own literary work after his unhappy cohabiting with the young James Joyce, though Gogarty was far from the only one lampooned by Joyce. It is often journos that inspire the most fear, such as Burt Lancaster's diabolical gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker in The Sweet Smell of Success but getting done in by a celebrated novelist, whose work is likely to last is probably the most traumatising. Clare Bloom was horrified to see herself reincarnated as an ageing alcoholic harpy by her former husband Philip Roth in I Married a Communist.

Peter Carey's former wife has suffered similar treatment in his last novel Theft: A Love Story. A friend of mine met Carey at a reading about ten years ago and he remarked at the time on what a lovely chap he was, exactly the sort that would get torn apart mercilessly were he to be a character in one of his own novels. It appears he might be a different sort altogether in print. There is a degree of sadism necessary to create fiction, a willingness to inflict the gravest injustices on one's own characters and often people you know yourself. And it is not uncommon for the bitchiest of writers to be people who are as demure and mild-mannered as can be in everyday life. Beckett, though not one that anyone recalls as being a social wimp, was someone that got annoyed with what he perceived to be fools around him and he attributed his return to France on the 1st of September 1939 to the parochialism of the Dublin literary set in the Palace Bar on that very day, ignoring the events on the continent; he said that he would 'prefer to be in France at war than Ireland at peace'. But Sam had already a bit of previous with those very same local poets, having rather cruelly using former psychiatric patient Austin Clarke as the base for his poet Austin Ticklepenny 'turning out his pentameter per pint' in Murphy. I was at college with Clarke's granddaughter and we always kept our copies of Murphy out of her sight. I don't know if she has ever read it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Climates, Clandestini and Revolutions

There are few film directors that would cast themselves as a rapist in a film, much less resist making the character an out-and-out villain. The Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, in his latest film Climates, has done just that and what is most disturbing about his character's rape of a female friend is the fact that the woman calls him again and seems to be on good terms with him. Distasteful and morally dubious as this is, it is nonetheless credible, as viewed within the film's narrative. Ceylan's character, a lecturer in architecture, is an untrustworthy, supercilious sort, who lies to his estranged wife in a vain attempt to win her back, only to change his mind again. But, every villain has their reasons, as Jean Renoir once said, and even this unpleasant man's quotidian life, so impressively delineated, is compulsively watchable. The penultimate scene where he lies to his wife and reduces her to tears is both uncomfortable and familiar to anyone who has gone through a painful break-up. There is also a dream-sequence where the younger wife, Bahar - played by the director's real-life wife Ebru - imagines she is being buried in sand by her husband. It is one of the few I have ever seen in a film that is in any way persuasive.

After his previous film, Uzak, which was an arthouse hit a couple of years ago, Ceylan proves himself to be one of cinema's finest chroniclers of human emotions. In Uzak, a depressive Istanbul photographer puts up his country cousin and the relation between them quickly becomes strained. There is a similar air of pessimism in Climates, though one shot through with a beautiful visual texture - Ceylan is also an accomplished photographer - and the performances, though quiet and intimiste, are far from the catatonically mannered ones so familiar from countless arthouse releases. Marital difficulties make up a significant sub-genre of cinema, with classics such as Rossellini's Voyage to Italy, Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage and Antonioni's La Notte and Red Desert. The Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa, who is also a fine observer of strained relationships disappointed last year with Un Couple parfait, his first French film, which was a bit too talky for my liking. Until his next film, Climates is a more than adequate surrogate, one that confirms Ceylan as one of Europe's most redoubtable filmmakers.

There were two other decent European films I saw last week. One, Italian, entitled Saimir, directed by Francesco Munzi, about an Albanian expat teenager, who lives with his people-trafficking father and who weathers a number of cruel blows before taking things, rather foolishly into his own hands, and extracting a certain justice. It is a tough film that reminds one of the Dardenne brothers' work, La Promesse, though it has a more stately style and it lacks the Dardenne's Hardyesque eye for a crucial event that sets in train an irrevocable, tragic sequence of events. A bit jilted in parts, it is nonetheless an assured film.

The other film is 12:08, East of Bucharest, a political comedy about a local TV station's attempts to mount a televised inquest on the fifteenth anniversary of Ceaucescu's fall into whether the local town actually witnessed a revolution, meaning, did people actually protest before 12:08 on the 22nd of December 1989, at which time the dictator abdicated and dissent became safe once again? The film is a bit lopsided as the second half devotes a bit too much time to the programme itself and the central conceit of erroneously-claimed heroism is a bit jaded, having been used to claim allegiance to everything from the French resistance to participation in the Easter Rising. But there is some sharply mordant humour in the film, particularly in the depictions of the pompous textile-manufacturer-turned-TV-station-owner and the haplessly indebted alcoholic academic, who claims to have been at the fore of the local revolution all those years before. The film won the Caméra d'Or last year for its young director Corneliu Porumboiu, just thirty-one years of age, and he uses his experience as a camera operator on such a local television station for much of the humour. And there is a subtle lyricism in his direction also, such as the two montages of the streetlights turning first off and then on that bookend the film, and which also serve as a metaphor for the hesitant revolution of the town's history. Though, like the superior The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the film does not make one terribly keen to visit Romania, it is further evidence of a remarkable cinematic renaissance in the beleagured country. Porumboiu is a director to watch out for in the future.

Far-Right to Life

A surprising news article in today's Libération, which reports the attendance of 15,000 people at a pro-life march in Paris yesterday. Though France is generally considered to be well advanced in terms of family-planning and organised religion holds little sway in determining public policy, there is nonetheless a strange anomaly in its attitudes towards contraception. For instance, contraception itself was only legalised in 1972, a mere nine years before Ireland, which is surprising considering the cultural gulf between the two countries in matters of sex and family-planning. France also holds, along with Ireland and Sweden (in all, three countries that could not be more unlike one another) the highest birth-rate in Europe. What is not so surprising is the news that many of the marchers were members and supporters of the far-right, both the Front National and Phillippe de Villiers' Mouvement pour la France. De Villiers, however claims that he is not in favour of repealing the Veil law, which legalised abortion, but that he supported rather 'real family-oriented policies that permit women to keep their children.' Not all that different from the stance of a good many pro-choice activists either.

Party to Information?

Absent for the weekend due to a surfeit of activity caused by people being in town. I went to a curious party on Saturday night, which was held in an outhouse on the grounds of L'hôpital St-Louis, Paris' largest hospital. Why the hospital authorities decided to allow two hundred drunken revellers to occupy a building on the grounds is unclear, especially as there was neither a bouncer nor any admission fee. Not that there was any trouble though. Most strange was the decor of the room where the party was held; a long room that had the air of a parish hall, it was decorated on all sides with murals of pornographic cartoons, depicting various orgies and obscene images. The party itself was a much more restrained affair but the decor does limit the potential use of the building for other activities. Who organised the soirée was also unknown to me and, as there was no cover charge and everyone was free to bring their own drink, and most did, the financial motives of the organisers are equally puzzling. Not that I am complaining, the music was top-notch and the place was full of beautiful women. But I have a sneaky feeling that if I try to seek out this event again that it will have disappeared, venue and all, as if it were only a dream to begin with.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Pinter Plain Daft

Harold Pinter, Nobel-prize winner, celebrated playwright, wretched poet and would-be 'scourge of Tony Blair' (that he cannot be because one thing Pinter is quite bad at is political oratory and rhetorical debate, despite the basic soundness of his cause) was yesterday awarded France's top honour the Légion d'Honneur, an award of such dizzying prestige that it got pinned to Bruce Willis' chest a few years back. As somebody that admires Pinter's plays and who sympathises with the essence of his political views I wish he would keep his mouth shut on Iraq as his comments are embarrassingly stupid, inefficacious and serve only to discredit the anti-war left with their intemperance and inane, personal attacks. Pleading that he doesn't care anymore and he's on the way out isn't a very good excuse.

English Chavs in Racism Shock

I can't watch Big Brother from here, though, to be honest I haven't watched an episode of the show since Nasty Nick Bateman got bumped off it back in the first series. Since then it appears the nastiness has become more in vogue if the reported treatment of Shilpa Shetty is anything to go by. What is it actually like there? I get only reports from British media sources that divulge little of the magnitude of the story; there have been good pieces in The Guardian by Hari Kunzru and occasional fruitbat Germaine Greer. Kunzru's piece is particularly interesting as it notes the slightly pompous disposition of the Bollywood actress, which ruffled the feathers of the chavs a bit too much. As horrendous as the racism is, I can't find it terribly shocking either. Did anyone seriously think that English lumpenproleterians, with zero awareness, never mind knowledge, of Johnny Foreigner, would act any different when put in a room with an Asian actress, who, unlike them, can actually be called genuinely famous, known to hundreds of millions of people? Trying to exonerate one of the other tenants, who, it was suspected had called her a 'Paki', by claiming that he only called her a 'cunt' is one of the greatest pieces of mendacity yet proffered by Channel 4. And there is some stiff competition for that.

Being detached from it all I suddenly feel the yen for British TV, if not quite Big Brother itself. The farrago and its ins and outs remind me of those questions that people in English-speaking countries asked expats living in Paris at the time of the banlieue riots; the riots were far bigger news abroad, where images of burning cars fifteen miles from Paris translated as the city itself being on fire. Is Big Brother all that big over there?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Just in...

Those living in Anglophonia will sneer at this (but hey, I'm not British, I live in France and I've never set foot in England [the last is true by the way]) but I have only just discovered Armando Iannucci's fantastic political satire The Thick of It. A Yes, Minister for the Blair years, it is cutting and depressingly credible in a way that Rory Bremner, God Bless him, could only dream about. A cross between Alan Partridge (where Iannucci cut his teeth) and The Office, the series strips away the shrouds of government with impunity, and gives the greatest explication of the Blair/Campbell axis of evil yet proffered. Unfortunately the lead actor Chris Langham, who won a BAFTA for his part, has since been convicted on charges of child pornography, thereby hindering the recording of a third series (the first two were only three episodes each). Great as Langham was the series should survive well enough without him, considering how dispensable his character was for the entire two series. Peter Capaldi's demonic Campbellesque spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker could carry a whole decade of programmes on his own.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Pseudo Cream

I have a couple of annoying pimples on the forehead and I am despairing as, for some reason, I am convinced that only Sudocrem can do the job of ridding them by morning. It must have something to do with an over-application of the stuff to treat nappy rash when I was a wee nipper. You can't get the stuff in France though. Always read the label.

Ulick My Arse and I'll...

The splendidly-named Ulick McEvaddy, director of Knock Airport, has declared himself willing to apply suitable salivary lubrication to the posterior of the Pentagon by allowing US planes to refuel (and presumably transit prisoners to torture centres elsewhere) at the airport. 'Whatever would benefit the people of Mayo' says McEvaddy, a good friend of Mary Harney. Somehow I doubt the people of Mayo will be polled on whatever decision is taken, and Knock may well be accommodating the latest 'surge' announced by President Bush that has even hardcore loony rightwingers such as Francis Fukuyama are railing against.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Fur and Further Afield

A few years back I had the misfortune to be stood up in New York by an awful Californian woman; I didn't know at the time quite how beastly she was though I should really have heeded the warning signs given off by the fact that she shared a birthday with Adolf Hitler. Thankfully there were a couple of friends of mine in the city at the time and they arranged alternative accommodation for me for the duration of my stay. The lodgings in question were with two women, one Canadian and one Japanese, who were subletting an apartment from a renowned Japanese artist in the Westbeth building in the West Village, just a stone's throw from the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas had his last twenty double whiskeys before keeling over dead. The Westbeth building houses an artists' colony, and among its past tenants have been Gil Evans, Merce Cunningham (his dance studio is still located on the ground floor) and, most famously Diane Arbus. This sparked an interest for me in Arbus' photography, and, as well as being one of the most significant American photographers of the past fifty years, she was also a fine writer on the subject. And so I was slightly intrigued by the prospect of Steven Shainberg's unconventional biopic of her entitled Fur: An Imaginary Biography of Diane Arbus. Despite the fact that biopics of artists are usually laughably clichéd and badly-made affairs, and also despite the fact that the lives of few photographers are in any way interesting. The photographer, is by his or her métier, part technician, part bureaucrat, and their work is given to drama and action about as much as that of an architect or an engineer is.

As the subtitle indicates, the film is not your run-of-the-mill biography and Shainberg, whose first film was the modest but diverting Secretary, makes little concession to biographical accuracy, most of the characters, including Arbus' own family, being completely fictionalised. The main invention is a character Lionel Sweeney, who moves in upstairs from the Arbus family and who is afflicted with a chronic hirsuteness, and with whom the as-yet-fledgling photographer Diane becomes first fascinated and then falls in love. He in turn introduces her to a whole cast of 'freaks', whom she was later to use as the subject of much of her work. There is a clear debt to Cocteau's La Belle et la bête here but Fur is strangely a lot duller than the magical love affair between Jean Marais and Josette Day. Indeed the opening title caption gives the game away immediately, telling us that the 'imaginary' retelling of her story serves to illuminate a few steps on Arbus' 'extraordinary journey'. So it is a clichéd, conservative biopic after all. There seems to be little way of assessing Arbus' work without viewing it in terms of a hackneyed epiphanic teleology; she feels such and such an empathy for freaks because of a subconscious experience that she has only partially felt. Artists, it seems in the movies, have those sort of things quite a lot, just as certain characters played by Christopher Walken and John Travolta do.

It is hard to tell if Fur is bad only in parts, completely bad or a decent enough film, which it might be if one can discount completely the significance of Arbus' presence, which one can well do, her character and her art being nothing more than peripheral in the film. Certainly there are some sequences that are both touching and entrancing, and Robert Downey Junior, whose jaded insouciance has saved many a worse film than Fur, is great as the slowly-expiring beast Sweeney. Nicole Kidman plays Arbus much as she has played every other type of emancipation-seeking housewife in recent years, in films such as The Hours, The Stepford Wives and Birth, sympathetically enough but without any real recourse to genuine emotional depth. Still, it is not her fault that so many directors that should know better choose to typecast her in such restrictive roles. And restrictive, and reductive, is the view the film takes of Arbus' art, which was more than a simple freakshow. The film is bookended by Arbus' visit to the nudist colony that was to provide her first show of prominence; the implication is that it was only by an imaginative orientation towards freaks that she could finally start on the project. A notion that is as depressingly familiar as it is simplistic.

There is no doubt however that The Fountain, the new film by Darren Aronofsky, who made the pretentious and overrated Pi and the very good Requiem for a Dream, is a very bad film, so bad in fact that I could not take my eyes off it. Hugh Jackman plays a loving viviesectionist who endeavours to find a cure for brain tumours in time to save her wife, played by Rachael Weisz, who is about to cop it any minute from one. You really can't make this stuff up, but someone evidently did. His wife manages to overcome the script's wilful casting of her as a wistful bimbo to pen a study of sorts on the Tree of Life (the same referred to in the Book of Genesis) which was guarded in a old Mayan kingdom and sought after by a Spanish queen eager for eternal life and thereby save Spain from the Grand Inquisitor. If you find that scenario of medieval Spain a bit fanciful, well let's just imagine it as Star Wars with auto da Ď. When Jackman and Weisz both pop up as a conquistador and the queen respectively the effect is rather like Blackadder, and that is in no way a compliment. The eternal life theme is further mined when Jackman decides to devote his experiments to eradicating death altogether; it is 'a disease like any other'. Weisz for her part wears Wynona Ryder-style cropped hair as if to emphasise her impending mortality. The whole film resists simple synopsis however, it is so bad. Aronofsky, a director not naturally given to subtlety, clunks along with a script of his making and the celestial, sepia-toned photography recalls Guinness ads from the mid-nineties. Clint Mansell, ex of Pop Will Eat Itself, is once again providing the music, all overblown, plangent strings. I liked him better when he was singing about being touched by the hand of Cicciolina.

Friday, January 12, 2007

What I Learned Today III

That far from being a minority activity, driving on the left is the convention in no less than seventy-four countries. The best-known, of course, are the UK, Ireland, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, but there is also the entire Indian sub-continent, all other former British colonies and, strangely enough, former Dutch colonies, including Indonesia and Surinam. A full list is available here, along with an interesting potted history of why certain countries drive on the left. The idea Alan Partridge once had of a TV show called 'Around the World on the Left' now appears feasible.

The End Beckhams

Looks like I was wrong on that Beckham-going-to-Celtic post. Just as well I was otherwise detained when I intended writing the one hailing our new capture of Anthony Stokes...

End of Production for Carlo Ponti

I shall say nothing about the new iPhone, which almost everyone I know is yabbering on about, for what reason I cannot fathom, nor the news that traces of cocaine were found on 100% of 45 Irish banknotes (did anyone think of testing them for traces of beer or urine?) Instead I will salute the great Carlo Ponti, the Italian film producer, one of the best ever, and who was better known to most as the husband of Sofia Loren. While emabarking on my quest to watch every film ever made in my early twenties I noticed the name of Ponti pop up in the titles of a lot of disparate films by excellent directors and I have since retained a great deal of respect for him. Like the great Franco-Polish producer Anatole Dauman, who died almost ten years ago, he had an eye for talent and also for making money out of unusually challenging films. His roster included di Sica, Antonioni, Fellini, Godard, Melville, Lean and more; a full list is available on the IMDb. One wonders about the longevity of Italian film producers, Ponti lived till 94, while Dino de Laurentiis and Alberto Grimaldi are still going, and still working. Something in the water, or is it the lifestyle?

What I Learned Today II

That Oklahoma, an inland state, has more shoreline than any other American state, more even than Alaska, California or Florida. All this because of an immense amount of public works creating reservoirs carried out under Roosevelt's WPA programme. Read more here.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


At the risk of descending too far into an irrational obsession with the over-moneyed kip of an island he was born on, Seanachie tips his hat off to the good readers of Blogorrah for naming Sligo the shitest town in Ireland. There will be many in the town to take deep umbrage at this accolade but I find it refreshing that Sligo is finally getting recognised for something. Seeing as the Sligo card is usually only played by myself when challenged with talking to French people I couldn't be arsed humouring(once they hear a town that is not Dublin or Cork, their tap of patronising clichés about the hard-drinking, rugby-playing, English-hating [their words, not mine] Irish runs suddenly dry), a bit of a profile is no harm at all. I agree wholeheartedly with the assessement of the Sligo penchant for the rocker look, but, in fairness Sligo has always been a rocker town, the local Teds rioted at a screening of Rock Around the Clock in the Savoy in 1955, after all. If you want Mod culchie-chic, you'd be better off going to provincial hotspots such as Carlow or Castlebar.

Anyway the local chaws pride themselves on Sligo being a bit of rough, and yes, it is damn ugly, and it has got only uglier in the past ten years, with the advent of the new retail park, that has integrated Sligo into the United Kingdom better than 800 years of Imperialism ever managed, and also the appearance of Lidl and those shocking developments on Rockwood Parade (pictured). The snootier locals will point to the Niland Gallery extension by McCullough Mulvin and the gothic courthouse as evidence of grandeur but Sligo has always been an ugly little town surrounded by beautiful countryside. And it's all the better for that; Sligo townies are spiteful people with high cheekbones and low foreheads, and they tend to be a bit quick to have a go at innocent bystanders, but squeezed in in between those ugly, ramshackle Victorian buildings are some of the best pubs in Ireland and a surprising tolerance for 'aayrt', as the locals call anything that doesn't involve football or drinking. Now, Seanachie is set apart from all this by his Ballymote origins; as any Sligo person, townie or buff (that's a culchie within a culchie, if you must know) will tell you, there's a sight of a difference. So I have been spared that awful nasal accent and instead been given a pleasing lilt that unfortunately attracts all manner of idiots from Cork who think I'm from somewhere along de banks. Marya. And I believe Dundalk's not all as bad as it's cracked down to be. Have Blogorrah readers been to Athlone or Tullamore? Or Dún Laoighaire, for that matter? I bet not.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

What I Learned Today

That Shaggy of Scooby Doo fame actually had a full name in the cartoon: he was christened Norville Rogers, which seems terribly appropriate as names go. Scooby Doo creator Iwao Takamoto died yesterday at the age of 81; we didn't get to you for the death of Saddam or James Brown but we delivered on the demise of Mr Takamoto (and we would have got away with it too if it wasn't for you pesky, meddling kids). Another one of Takamoto's canine creations was Dick Dastardly's resentful sidekick Muttley and apparently the name of Scooby Doo came from the forgotten last verse of Sinatra's 'Strangers in the Night'. Well, I didn't have a Scooby...

First Two Films of the Year

A short post on two not-unpleasing films I saw in the past few days. First there was Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Loft, the latest in a line of maddeningly oblique and opaque psychological thrillers by the Japanese director, who is no relation to his much better-known namesake. The tale of a female writer suffering from, yes, you've guessed it, writer's block, who holes up in the country, only to discover that the man next door is hoarding an 800-year old mummy, who was preserved in the same mud that the writer appears to be puking up every day. A film that can yield either no interpretation or dozens, depending on your disposition. Half the audience walked out (in my opinion not always a bad sign). If nothing else, I was interested to the end and the photography, low-lit, ethereal and misty like that of the great Kazuo Miyagawa, is stunning.

Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland suffers from the same problem as many other filmic tales of the history of American popular culture such as Quiz Show, The Aviator, and Gods and Monsters: it is really hard to care about the injustice that lies at the heart of it all, the distance in years being by now too great. But the film is enjoyable nonetheless with Ben Affleck worryingly convincing as the washed-up Saturday-morning-serial actor (and former Superman) George Reeves, and Adrien Brody as the gumshoe who tries to unravel the facts behind his suspicious suicide. The film plays on every hoary cliché known to viewers of films from Hollywood's golden era, down to the smug straightening of his suit by a beefy doorman as he is caught in the flash of a surreptitious lens, but I found myself strangely forgiving of this, even of Brody's character who is much too James Dean for a World War II veteran in 1959. But Allen Coulter's direction is assured and the film is entertaining enough to forget that it was based on a true story in the first place.

Where's Wally?

Rangers have definitively cemented their reputation as the most-hated club in Scotland with their poaching of Scotland manager Walter Smith to take over from poor old Paul Le Guen, who resigned last week when the Huns realised that Barry Ferguson had nowhere else to turn to to earn his absurdly inflated wages. Le Guen's brief tenure at Ibrox was a disaster, with the exception of the UEFA Cup win away to Livorno, but the Breton is a decent manager. It was he that built the force that Lyon have now become, though it is a lot easier to win championships when you have good players at your disposal, which was not the case in Glasgow. Rangers are, no doubt offering Smith a pay deal far in excess of what the SFA could though there is something distasteful at bailing out on your country at such a crucial time in a qualifying campaign. The Jocks are welcome to talk to Steve Staunton, if they want to replace them.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Underachievement Films of the Year

A bit late on this one; it was one of those posts that I had intended doing over the Christmas but I was stymied by the parlous state of Irish telecommunications and the parsimony of wi-fi suppliers in Dublin. But here it is late, and the lateness was a boon of some sort as I managed to see Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, his best film in years and a worthy entry in the top 1o. The year overall was not bad, though much of the better stuff I saw was from Europe and Asia. Big disappointments came in the shape of Terrence Malick's The New World, which was a brooding, navel-gazing piece of fluff and Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which, despite winning the Palme d'Or and doing great box-office in Ireland and France, was too much a dull retread of Land and Freedom for my tastes. Martin Scorsese, according to the critics, steamrolled back to form with The Departed; more discerning viewers have found it to be preposterously overrated but, no doubt a shoo-in for the Oscars. I have yet to see some of the year's more interesting films, such as Richard Linklater's brace of A Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation, Christopher Nolan's The Prestige and Alphonso Cuaron's Children of Men. I look forward to seeing them soon. And there's Pan's Labyrinth too, though given my previous dislike of Guillermo del Toro's work I don't expect to be too bowled over. But then again, I thought the same of del Toro's compatriot Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu until I was pleasantly surprised by his brilliantly-mounted Babel. There were bad films along the way, quite a few (though I managed to avoid most of the more obviously bad ones), hang your heads in shame Lord of War, Transamerica, Walk the Line and, above all, Marie Antoinette, the year's biggest royal mess, in itself the greatest argument furnished in favour of the French revolution these past few years.

Anyway here goes, starting at 10.

10. Video for 'Here It Goes Again' (OK Go/Trish Sie)

It might seem a bit unorthodox to have a film that is just over three minutes long, and which has never been near a cinema in here but the by now celebrated choreographed video, shot in one take of the band strutting their stuff on eight treadmills is pure cinematic genius, throwaway and painstakingly crafted at the same time. It is also possessed of more wit and visual panache than the vast majority of theatrical releases anywhere in the world last year. It's even hard to begrudge the band the exposure they have generated for their so-so Indie rock. Charming stuff.

9. Oxhide (Jiayin Liu)

I don't expect that many people will rush out to watch this, a two-hour docudrama shot on low-resolution DV, entirely in a tanner's workshop in Beijing, in long static takes, using the director's family (including herself) as cast. It looks gloopy green and the camera never moves once but it is completely entrancing. The director Liu is only 25 and she did practically everything on this film in an astounding piece of DIY filmmaking; as ever with prodigies of the sort, it has an incredible maturity and the performances she draws out of her cranky family's quotidian life are marvellous. Despite the best efforts of the Chinese government to marshall cinematic output there is still good stuff being made and the freshness of the work never lets up.

8. Capote (Bennett Miller)

Biopics out of Hollywood are usually godawful, full of pious platitudes about journeys through harrowing adversity and the horrors overcome by people with the right can-do spirit. Bennett Miller's portrayal of Truman Capote's descent into terminal depression while writing In Cold Blood is a marvel however, beautifully shot and edited, perfectly scripted and a fine performance, just on the right side of mannered, by one of the finest American actors alive, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who deservedly picked up an Oscar for this. Mercifully a literary film that is neither vulgarly inane nor tweedy.

7. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (Douglas Gordon & Philippe Parrano)

The prospect of a documentary filmed in real-time on one of the greatest footballers ever by two video artists renowned for their endurance-testing installations was not instantly appealing and, when I saw this in Paris just before the World Cup, half the audience walked out, probably a mix of arty types and football fans expecting something different. But Gordon and Parrano's film of Zidane playing for Real Madrid in a 2-1 win over Villareal in April 2005 is riveting stuff for the insight it gives both into the work of a modern footballer and the movements of the human anatomy. Sixteen cameras were trained on Zidane for the duration of the game, and the result is intriguing and boring in turns but one of the few great art/film crossovers. Zidane's surprisingly gnomic pronouncements about the game are interlaced with a soundtrack by Mogwai, and there is even drama, prophetic of the great man's eventual exit from the game: he gets sent off in the last minute after a mass brawl.

6. Black Book (Paul Verhoeven)

After years of making brash thrillers in Hollywood that were always too clever for their own good and built of ambitions far exceeding their execution, Verhoeven returned to his native Holland where he made some of his greatest films in the seventies and early eighties. Black Book is a virtuoso old-fashioned thriller, set during the Nazi occupation of Holland and based on a true story, about a young Jewish woman named Rachael Stein who joins the Resistance in The Hague and goes undercover to seduce the local SS Captain. The film is a masterpiece of detail - cosmetic, historical and political - and it has a splendid twist about half and hour from the end that nobody will see coming. Best of all though, it is a refreshingly unsentimental and clear-headed drama about both the Holocaust and the local Resistance to Nazism.

5. Close to Home (Vardit Bilu & Dalia Hagar)

Two Israeli girls doing their national service patrolling West Jerusalem, hassling Arabs at random, and doing their utmost to shirk their duties, all the while maintaining a breezy indifference to the war on their doorstep. A cool examination of the demeaning nature of Israeli checkpoints that also manages to be funny and touchingly human. The latest in a line of great Israeli films.

4. Guernsey (Nanouk Leopold)

Another Dutch film, this time about a young mother who witnesses the suicide of a colleague while working as an engineer in Egypt and then tells nobody about it, allowing her marriage and her relationship with her widowed father and her desperately embittered sister unravel almost as an existential experiment. Leopold touches all the right buttons in the Antonioni fashion but her film has a bracing individuality and an almost-Protestant rigidity of economy in its editing and mise en scène. There is not a shot wasted and as well as featuring a great, haunting performance as the wife by Maria Kraakman, it has a cast of some of the finest buildings seen on film in many a year.

3. To Get to Heaven First You Have to Die (Jamshed Usmonov)

The world is not overrun with films from Tajikistan but Jamshed Usmonov has managed to carve out an international reputation with his understated, grimly comic cinema. Here he follows up the acclaimed The Angel on the Right with the tale of a teenage husband unable to consummate his marriage but, who, it appears is not any the less horny for all that. He takes a trip to the capital Dushanbe, tries his hand at following the city women around, with little success only to fall in with a small-time hood, who inveigles him into a dodgy heist. The film is one gripping episode after another, all imbued with a wonderful dramatic ambiguity, bestowed as much by the passivity of the actors as by Usmonov's clockwork-precise direction. And, like all the films in this list, brilliantly paced.

2. Requiem (Hans-Christian Schmid)

Hans-Christian Schmid's harrowing account of the exorcism of a young German woman in the 1970s is both a masterful piece of kinetic cinema and an angry, if even-handed examination of faith and madness. The young woman, played by the amazing Sandra Hüller, is doomed from the start, as her epilepsy cuts her off from society and hampers her studies and her efforts to live an ordinary life. Her obsession with Catherine of Siena does not help, leading her to believe her illness is a messianic affliction thrust upon her by God. A perfect counterpart to Breaking the Waves and arguably more moving, Requiem is proof of the current rude health of German cinema.

1. The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Christu Puiu)

I don't know what has suddenly got into Romanian cinema but all of a sudden it is a hot ticket internationally, after years of obscurity. This year there was Catalin Mitulescu's How I Celebrated the End of the World about the fall of Ceaucescu, and there is the forthcoming 12:08 East 0f Bucharest by Corneliu Porumboiu, winner of the Caméra d'Or at Cannes last year. The previous year at Cannes Christu Puiu took the Un Certain Regard sidebar award for this brilliant comic drama about an ailing sexagenarian alcoholic's passage from one Bucharest hospital to another one autumn night. The self-confessed hypochondriac Puiu used his experiences in the city's hospitals to create this drama in which the splendidly-named Dante Lazarescu undergoes a nightmarish journey, entirely beyond his control as he lies semi-conscious on a stretcher, aided only by a sympathetic brow-beaten female paramedic. The state of the Romanian health service is abysmal and Lazarescu is successively misdiagnosed, rediagnosed and at one point turned away by a megalomaniacal doctor intent on punishing him for his drinking. Mr Lazarescu is redolent of the 'little man' in many a Central European novel and even while prostrate for much of the film he is a beguiling presence. The final, protracted scene where his dead body is washed and dressed is almost unbearably moving. Puiu intends this to be the first of a sequence of six films, inspired by Éric Rohmer's Moral Tales; somebody ought to keep the chequebook open indefinitely for him if this stunning film is anything to go by.

Seanachie also liked:

  • Odete (João Pedro Rodrigues)
  • Flandres (Bruno Dumont)
  • Indigènes (Rachid Bouchareb)
  • Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako)
  • Munich (Steven Spielberg)
  • Dans Paris (Christophe Honoré)
  • The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)
  • A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom)
  • A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)
  • Sangre (Amat Escalante)
  • L'Ivresse du pouvoir (Claude Chabrol)
  • Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)
  • Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell)
  • Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismäki)
  • Shanghai Dreams (Xiaoshuai Wang)
  • Babel (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu)
  • Pavee Lackeen (Perry Ogden)
  • Offside (Jafar Panahi)
  • Lucy (Henning Winckler)
  • La Pressentiment (Jean-Pierre Darroussin)
  • Libero (Kim Rossi-Stuart)
  • Volver (Pedro Almodóvar)
  • Pork and Milk (Valérie Mréjen)
  • Taxidermy (György Palfi)
  • Good Night and Good Luck (George Clooney)
  • How I Celebrated the End of the World (Catalin Mitulescu)

Sunday, January 07, 2007


Another thing that I fondly remember from Dublin, The Globe on South Great George's Street, changed hands on New Year's Day, having been sold by its founders Jay Bourke and Eoin Foyle to the Thomas Read group. I expect that Thomas Read will see sense and maintain it as before, in the same fashion as it has Hogan's - just up the street and which opened its doors in its present incarnation at roughly the same time in the early 90s as The Globe did. Many a fine afternoon have I whiled away reading and scribbling, drinking unspeakably bad coffee in the oaky gloom of The Globe; it's where I honed my underachieving, if you will. It has played host to a fine cast of characters: bar and restaurant folk, bicycle couriers, students with notions, hairdressers, artists, graphic designers, off-duty DJs and the usual crew of Dublin spoofers. Many are panicking at the prospect of having to pay in to Rí-Ra for the first time in years (for that is what The Globe turns into after regular closing time); about half of the customers in the place every night got in for free they came so often over the years. I'm sure though that it will have much the same type of clientèle next time I wander in.

The Civic Offices and their Uncivic Reception

The picture to the left was taken from the balcony of my dear old flat in Temple Bar that I vacated two years ago to move back to Paris; it is one of the few things I miss about living in Dublin, not least because it is about three times the size of my current domicile - which is very homely, all the same. Thankfully, as two friends of mine, including my former flatmate, still live there I get to crash whenever I land in town. The view, bathed in the fifteen minutes of daylight afforded by the gods to Dublin's old town in midwinter, features in the foreground the former penthouse of muppet comedian Brendan O'Carroll (Brendan is not, historically, an auspicious name for quality Irish stand-up comedy), and if you strain your eyes it looks a bit like the Wall of Death in the only Irish film of the 1980s, Eat the Peach (OK, there was Taffin as well). Beyond that is the familiar steeple of Christchurch and one of the Civic Offices' much-maligned bunkers, designed by Sam Stephenson and the subject of the greatest conservation drive in modern Irish history. The Wood Quay demonstrations in 1978 failed to prevent the construction of the two stubs (they really are like the truncated stubs of frighteningly gigantic towers) but they did manage to stop the projected third and fourth being put up, as it was claimed that the view of Christchurch from the quays would have been obstructed. Contrary to common opinion, I think that this was a decent settlement, for I have grown to love Stephenson's bunkers over the years, to the extent that seeing the tip of one of them from my living room every morning became a minor pleasure.

There are few in Ireland that agree with me (though I know one or two architects that do) because of the legacy of the Wood Quay protests (which were not entirely unreasonable) and the popular (or populist) prejudice against brutalist architecture (the term comes from béton brut - untreated or rough concrete - and not from 'brutal'). Alain de Botton's recent TV series and book The Architecture of Happiness feeds from this prejudice in typically slipshod, philistine fashion. The main architectural argument put forward at the time opposing the construction was that as well as being a blight on the cityscape, the bunkers would deface Christchurch by their proximity to it, an argument that greatly overestimates the architectural value of Christchurch, and which is ignorant of the horrendous eyesore that the cathedral was until its wholesale renovation in the late nineteenth century. St. Patrick's Cathedral is an architectural wonder; its neighbour at the top of Patrick Street is a minor ecclesiastical construction that happens to be big and very old.

I remember seeing on an Irish-language TV programme in the late eighties, Deko, the lead singer of Dublin punk legends Paranoid Visions, point at the Civic Offices and asking 'Cad é an monstrosity sin?' My Gaeltacht-born mother pointed at Deko's dayglo green coiffe and asked the very same question. Though I fully agreed with Deko's assessment at the time, I now find it amusing that an iconoclast that penned the classic 'F.O.A.D.' (Fuck off and die) about U2 should have been so conservative in his architectural taste. Stephenson's unloved blocks, as well as being wonderfully simple and possessed of a stern majesty similar to other blockhouses such as Soufflot's Pantheon or Louis Kahn's Capital Building in Dhaka, are also stylish, far more stylish than most Irish architecture of the past thirty years. If you don't believe me look at the drably unimaginative corporate and residential developments that scar Irish cities and towns these days. One might even say that the bunkers are the finest piece of Irish architecture of their time (though Michael Scott's Carroll's Cigarette Factory in Dundalk is also impressive) and they also bear an extra dignity earned through their years of ignominy. They were also years ahead of their time; their minimalist grey cubeness is now in vogue, in the form of buildings such as McCullough Mulvin's Ussher Library at Trinity College, albeit in a compromised, more user-friendly manner. The ever-so-tasteful newer Civic Offices building on Wood Quay, designed by Scott Tallon Walker in the mid-90s has its admirers but I have always found it an unnecessary apology, like that doled out by publicity-conscious celebrities after sex or drugs scandals. If ever a building has worn a scarlet letter it has been the original Civic Offices and it is unlikely to start picking up admirers soon but given the minimal stimulus architectural aesthetics have for most Irish people, I don't think this is that worrying.

Not that I had any great love for Stephenson himself, who passed away in November. His Central Bank building on Dame St is banal, kitsch and ugly in a way that the Civic Offices are not and his relationship with Charlie Haughey always seemed like a mutual massaging of deluded egos. He also popped up in recent years in the capacity as President of the James Joyce Museum boasting of having never read Ulysses, the latest to follow the current Irish fashion for kicking Joyce, promulgated by hacks such as Roddy Doyle. For a long time the Irish loved to praise Joyce wildly without ever having read him; now they condemn him as wildly overrated still without reading him. Books, who needs them? His architectural career was effectively ended by the Civic Offices farrago; afterwards he stuck to small commissions, though, to be honest, most architectural careers, even the most illustrious ones, have a very short public life. But the Civic Offices will outlast most of what has been built in Ireland since we started losing our way architecturally some time in the late 1960s.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

All Sept

After about two years back in France, and almost seven after I came here for the first time, I have begun to cross my 7's, in the French fashion, something that I have long resisted, mainly because my 7's never look like they could be mistaken for 1's, despite the protests of many French people. I have always been irritated by French bank clerks crossing my 7's on lodgement dockets, as if they were making them presentable for French processing. When one looks at the absurd way many French people write 1's - often leaving hanging a stroke from the top of the figure so long that the 1 looks like a ski-jump - the possibility of getting the two figures getting confounded is even greater still. In Philip Roth's The Human Stain, Coleman Silk's persecutor, and would-be suitor, the French academic Delphine Roux, gives herself away by the crossed 7's à la francaise in her anonymous letter. The main reason I have started doing it is because many of my students, having difficulty comprehending anything that is not Gallic, cannot conceive of a 7 being sept without that bar running through it. But I may also be going native, finally.

Brought to Book

News here on the imminent RTÉ documentary on the Nazi past of educational publisher Albert Folens, whose books all Irish children of my age - and many other ages - will remember from their schooldays. Folens, who fled his native Belgium after the war fought with the Waffen SS (like the much younger Günther Grass) and later worked for the Gestapo as a translator. Folens never hid his past but he may have minimised the extent of his activities, and possibly, crimes.

Folens' schoolbooks, I seem to remember, were stuffier and more old-fashioned than those of C.J. Fallon's, their main competitor (I always found it strange how the names of the two companies were so similar), though I did like Folens' logo, a fly enclosed in a hexagon, which had a vaguely sinister air to it, now rendered all the more sinister by the news of his past. While home over the Christmas I found an old copy of the Folens history book From Grattan to Lemass, which was the book we used in fourth class (for non-Irish readers, that would be aged 10). The book dates from the 1970s, long before there were graphic designers lurking in the corner of every bar in Dublin, and in terms of layout and design it is a mess, all cheap reproductions of old woodcuts with gaudy plates of magenta or yellow bizarrely superimposed on them, the only gesture to colour photographs made. The content of the book however, even at this remove, is mild enough, considering the usual whines of revisionist historians about how a complaisant educational system fostered indulgence of IRA violence. Compared to the nonsense that French governments have tried to force down the throats of the nation's children, Folens' books - his Republican sympathies notwithstanding - were responsible enough.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Ryanair and French Law

Reported briefly in the Anglophone press over the past couple of days is the news that Ryanair and EasyJet are contesting a French government decree that forces them to obey French employment law for their staff that are based in France (16 pilots and 32 cabin crew in Marseilles). The BBC and RTÉ reports were tellingly vague, giving the impression that the French government are being unfairly - and as Ryanair claim, illegally - protectionist in applying this decree. For those that can read French however there is a more balanced and more nuanced piece on it in today's Libération, which explains the French goverment's stand and affirms, as the European Union has, that they are not flagrantly in breach of European law. The irony is that Air France has said that it may not look into applying the much laxer Irish labour laws for the employees of its subsidiary CityJet, based at Dublin airport.

Becks to Paradise?

A fellow Ballymote-man and regular reader of this blog informed me over Christmas that, as rumours a few months back had it, David Beckham will sign for Celtic during the transfer window later this month. An bare investment for the Bhoys, intended to sell millions of replica shirts in China, and which comes relatively cheap, Becks apparently having agreed to a £35,000 per week salary in exchange for exclusive control over image rights while at the club. While nobody can deny that even an under-performing Beckham will strengthen the current squad, it is not as if we really need him either. Most of his magic has been effected the past couple of years from dead-ball situations (so often that he puts his foot on a rolling ball in play in order to facilitate a strike) and with Shunsuke McNamara's current form, the Hoops will hardly be encouraging Becks to step up and take the free kicks. As for the fans, I cannot imagine them giving Beckham an overwhelmingly warm welcome, especially given the transparently mercenary nature of the possible transfer. Back in September Gordon Strachan laughed off media suggestions that Celtic were to make a move for Beckham, saying that it was news to him. Maybe it was and that Brian Quinn is telling him what to do on this one. Should the transfer go through it would be funny to see Posh hob-knobbing in the stands with Thomas Gravesen's pornstar girlfriend Kira Eggers. Posh is desperate to get her career going again, maybe a change of direction is all she needs...

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Lift of Irish Laughter

This Christmas, for the second year running I had trouble with the lift that brings passengers from the Luas terminal at Connolly Station to the station itself one storey up. The classically bad design begins with the positioning of the door at the back of the lift, which, when you are carrying suitcases, rucksacks and carrier bags full of Christmas shopping is not terribly helpful. When I stepped in I noticed a couple with a baby carriage and I duly kept the doors open for them. We then stood waiting for the doors to close, which never happened, despite repeated attempts to press the appropriate button. The couple soon tired of waiting and stepped out of the lift, as did I. As soon as I turned away to take the stairs up, the doors shut behind me and the lift began its ascent to the upper level. There was a sadistic air to the shutting of the doors and the subsequent smooth kicking-in of the lift’s machinery. Still it was not near as bad as what happened at the same place and at the same time last year, when I gallantly reopened the doors just as they were folding to let two elderly ladies in. The doors’ recoil knocked over one of the ladies’ enormous rolling suitcase, which domino-like then sent the frail old dear to the floor. I was horrified and commenced apologising profusely, only to be told by the outraged septuagenarians to ‘go on up, yourself’. It was something to make Larry David blush. I was only trying to be nice.

Two Weeks Off

An enforced absence over the Christmas period, my Internet access hampered by the near impossibility to get free wi-fi in Dublin (and any wi-fi there is is prehistorically slow and temperamental). A stupid technical error on my part prevented me from being able to use dial-up on my laptop so a large number of posts, that might otherwise have been effected, such as a review of the years' films, have had to be either shelved or deferred. Some of them should appear in some form over the next week.

And so I missed the demises of James Brown, self-effacing Turkmen dictator Saparmurad Niyazov (who, with regard to the prevalence of his image everywhere in the country, on everything from vodka bottles to statues, said 'it embarrasses me seeing my image everywhere but that's what the people want') and, of course Saddam Hussein. The latter I will shed no tears for but it is interesting reading a statement by US Lieutenant-General William Caldwell, who insists that the US had no part in his execution. Well, he would, wouldn't he? Sounds like the words of an earlier occupying functionary in the region, Pontius Pilate. Not that I would dare to impute Christ-like status to Saddam. But the good people of Chile might be rueing the fact that they did not succeed in extraditing their own homegrown, and recently departed, despot Augusto Pinochet, to the new democratic Iraq, where the justice, and execution thereof has proven to be refreshingly summary and swift.

Slovenia, meanwhile, became the thirteenth country to adopt the Euro as its currency; when I was there last August, prices everywhere were already being displayed everywhere in both Tolars and Euros, a piece of organisation and economic transparency to shame bigger, more illustrious countries further to the west. Slovenia is cast-iron proof that countries with a communist past need not be free-market whores for global capital or economic basketcases riven by corruption and the shoring-up of the same vested interests as prevailed under the hammer and sickle. Two other former communist countries, Bulgaria and Romania, have joined the EU and the huge influx of migrant workers predicted by the British right-wing media has failed to materialise, mainly because the Romanians and Bulgarians are more attracted by the culture and lifestyle of southern European countries. Like the fat, sweaty homophobe that is convinced that every gay man he comes into contact with wants his botty, this rejection, for the Daily Mail et al must be devastating.

And, last but not least, Irish yesterday became the 23rd official language of the EU, albeit on a second-tier level, comparable to Catalan (a minority langauge that numbers more native speakers than either Danish, Norwegian or Finnish) or Basque. After the brouahaha of a couple of years back of Gaeilgeoirí campaigning for the elevation of Irish to official-language status, the news has been largely unreported in Ireland. I have to say I have a pragmatic stance on this issue: there is no need for Irish to be an official language and its being one is not going to do anything for the promotion for the language, which I fully support. It is typical of the Irish's fondness for pride in symbols without investing any real effort in turning those talisman into a thing of tangible cultural worth. Irish should remain a compulsory language at school (anything that makes a nation of spoilt brats miserable can only be a good thing in my book) but it should benefit from a more practical pedagogical agenda with its cultural importance emphasised. Some of the newer Gaelscoileanna are doing their best in this respect but they are still stymied by Department of Education guidelines (a body so ill-equipped to instruct in the teaching of the Irish language that its Irish name is the grammatically incorrect An Roinn Oideachais rather than Roinn an Oideachais). I could suggest that Dorothy Parker's quip that 'you can lead a horse to culture but you can't make it think' might be particularly pertinent to modern Ireland, but that might be a bit mean.

A Happy New Year to all.