Saturday, June 30, 2007

Persepolis: Sometimes Things Are Black and White

I have written quite a bit on this blog about Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, both the four-volume comic book that has been a huge international success, chalking up over one-and-a-half-million sales, and the animated film version which she has herself directed, together with fellow comics artists Vincent Paronnaud. The film has just been released and I was pleased to see that it is more than a simple slavish adaptation of the book.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Persepolis is the autobiographical tale of Satrapi growing up at the time of the Iranian revolution, in a communist family that also had royal heritage. As for many liberal, left-wing Iranians, the Satrapis saw their initial joy at the overthrow of the Shah quickly evaporate with the rise to power of the Mullahs, who foisted a viciously demented totalitarianism culled from the Dark Ages on a country that already had one foot in the modern age. Satrapi's uncle, an activist with Tudeh, the Iranian Communist Party, who had already been imprisoned and tortured under the Shah saw his complaisance at the coming to power of the Islamists rewarded with first imprisonment and then execution.

There then follows the Iran-Iraq war, waged by two squalidly despotic regimes, in which one million people needlessly perished. The war is refracted through tales of Marjane's childhood friends coming from back from the front forever altered and the deaths of neighbours in Iraqi airstrikes. When the feisty teenage Marjane begins to question her teachers' indoctrination too loudly, her parents send her off to the French Lycée in Vienna for her own safety, a wise move considering how the Islamists had few qualms about executing dissident schoolchildren, taking the trouble to rape them so as to circumvent the Koranic prohibition on subjecting virgins to capital punishment.

In Vienna, in the 1980s she encounters Europeans with dismayingly one-dimensional views of her country and following a number of fallings-out with people she ends up sleeping rough and almost dying, something which her own parents never found out until the publication of volume three of he comic. She returns to Iran to brave a country where ordinary people are forever at the mercy of the dour, viciously puritanical Moral Police. After a failed marriage she decides to move to France, where she still lives, her international success having made a return to Tehran impossible while the current regime remains in power.

Part of the success of Satrapi's work is the simple, almost child-like line of her two-tone drawings, which feature clunky, cartoonish people, which she herself claims is a result of being forced to draw life studies in art school in Tehran of models absurdly draped in full-length chadors (something which is alluded to in one scene in the film). The film elaborates on this style, introducing more shade for the sequences depicting the revolution and the subsequent war. The model Satrapi and Paronnaud followed was German expression, which is suitable on a poltical as well as aesthetic level, considering how many of the UFA filmmakers had to flee on the Nazis' assumption of power. They also based the family sequences on Italian neo-realism, which carry a recognisable stamp of Rosselini, de Sica and early Visconti, and offer an equally brilliant condensing of the political climate of the time. Both Satrapi's parents (voiced by Simon Abkarian and Catherine Deneuve) are admirable characters but the real scene-stealer is the outspoken, opium-smoking grandmother with the voice of veteran French actress Danielle Daressieu.

Marjane herself is played by Deneuve's real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni, and she is the same ballsy, likeable and occasionally infuriating woman and girl that appears in the comic. The film is often funny, rarely passing up an opportunity to ridicule the lethal God-fearing nonsense of the Mullahs but many of the scenes are also devastating, from the very beginning, when the adult Marjane puts on her chador at Orly airport (instantly attracting derision from a French bystander) in order to board a flight home. Satrapi never allows us to lose sight of the tragedy of the revolution that was betrayed and crushed by a crowd of fundamentalist madmen, yet there is also a complete lack of the sentimentalism that often mars such accounts of exile. Persepolis the film, like the comic that preceeded it, is a moving, indispensable portrait of a country with a formidable civilisation that has lived a nightmarish existence for the past fifty years, and it is a fitting companion piece to the courageous work of Jafar Panahi, among others, in offering a view of Iran that will challenge the preconceptions of many in the West.

It looks like being huge too, if the queues that prevented me from seeing it on its opening day are anything to go by. It is due to released later in the year in an English-language version (it is produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall - Spielberg's regular producers) and should be guaranteed large audiences. Not to be missed.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Reasons to be Cheerful Part 3

Good news, on two fronts. One is the election of Ireland's first black mayor, in Portlaoise. Rotimi Adebari, a Nigerian native who arrived in Ireland seven years ago is set to don the town's chain of office for the next year. You'd need to be very naïve to believe that this development is emblematic of total racial harmony in the country but it is likely to go some way to furthering it.

Another, more trivial piece of news is the launch of BBC's iPlayer, which will allow web users to catch up on BBC programmes from the previous seven days that they have missed, including free downloads that can be viewed for thirty days before they get wiped. Mac users will have to wait until autumn to use it but I'm not going to grumble too much about that. Hopefully there will be no restriction on people outside of Britain streaming or downloading. Hopefully this will be the end of waiting months or even years to catch up on the likes of The Office, Extras and The Thick of It.

Wi-fi Wi-fi Everywhere and a Drop to Drink

Paris, from next month, will be the first 'digital city' in Europe with the establishment by the municipality of wi-fi access points at 262 locations across the city, divided evenly between municipal buildings such as public libraries and parks and gardens (with the exception of the Tuileries and the Luxembourg gardens, which do not come under the city's auspices). The points are accessible during opening hours, though Parvis de Hôtel de Ville (in front of the City Hall) and the Champs de Mars (in front of the Eiffel Tower) will have 24-hour access for those foolhardy enough to carry their laptops about in the early hours of the morning.

The initiative will cost €2.9 million to implement, with an annual running cost of €540,000, which media-savvy Mayor Bertrand Delanoë will no doubt fund quite easily from advertising. Paris is already endowed with a large number of bars and cafés offering excellent free wi-fi access for the price of a coffee. From now on it will be possible to be online almost ad infinitum. Which is a bit bothersome for me, considering how much time I tend to waste on the Internet; when I need to get some writing done I usually decamp to a public place where the temptation of clicking on my web browser is not a potential distraction. Now there may be few such places left. Still, wi-fi users in Dublin will be envious at this indulging of Parisian surfers, especially considering the extortionate rates charged almost everywhere for wi-fi there. If it's any consolation, the Dublinesque weather that Paris has been subjected to recently - with rain every day for the past three weeks - will ensure that I won't be sitting on a park bench blogging too soon.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Blair to Join the Only True and Holy Apostolic Church

Tony Blair wants to become a Catholic, so say the reports from his meeting with the Pope in the Vatican where Ben Sez gave him a ticking-off about not just a certain illegal war prosecuted by the Pretty Straight Guy but also abortion and stem-cell research (offering Tony a commendably swift yet fell condensation of the perils of being a Catholic - the rest of us have had to face them from day one, but I suppose this willingness to be chastised is one of those weird Public School things). Blair, by waiting until he steps down to convert, saves his former bosses the Windsors the embarrassment of having a Taig in Downing Street, lest one of the younger Royals be tempted to marry a papist contrary to the curiously undemocratic Act of Settlement, 1701, which would scupper their chances of ascending to the throne.

Libération, meanwhile, celebrates (!) Blair's departure today with a British-themed 'Made in UK' edition (yes, the French media's employment of English is as lazy and as misguided as the English media's is of the language of Molière). Features include an explanation of the Granita pact and wholesale cutting-and-pasting from Schott's Miscellany. «Jolly good show!» comme diraient les anglophiles français.

Old Lang's Sign

French Socialist Party elephant and former Culture Minister Jack Lang applauds Nicolas Sarkozy's 'excellent' display at last weekend's Brussels summit, negotiating a happy enough settlement for the having-cake-and-eating-it-too-dammit French. 'The Socialist Party couldn't have done better themselves', opines Jack in a post Ségo-François-split mood.

A Shot in the Dark

I posted a couple of weeks back on Barbet Schroeder's film portrait of dodgy French lawyer Jacques Vergès, the defender of Klaus Barbie, Slobodan Miloševic, Carlos the Jackal and other colourful characters. Now it appears that one of his protègés, Karim Achoui, a lawyer with close links to a number of known members of the Parisian and French underworld was shot in a botched murder attempt outside his home on boulevard Raspail on Sunday. Achoui obviously does not choose his clients as wisely as Maître Vergès.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Catching Up

A busy few days kept me from here. A brief resumé of the activities: Fête de la Musique was spent in the 11th, hopping between a reggae soundsystem with suburban posses engaging in fearsome rhyme-offs and a brass band set-up around the corner which veered from Afro-Beat to Yiddish folk to Balkan gypsy. Then the Beckett exhibition at the Pompidou, which brought together an impressive collection of multi-media installation with pertinence to Beckett's work and also a display of Beckett's manuscripts, on loan from Reading University Library. These were the highlight, as were a number of Beckett's personal correspondence, which fleshes out the allegedly unplaceable nature of the man's work.

Made in Jamaica, a documentary on Jamaican music by the French director Jérôme Laperrossaz, which was sporadically interesting but overall a missed opportunity. The film focusses on mainly contemporary dancehall and the gun culture that accompanies it; links to the past of reggae are provided by way of Third World, Toots and Gregory Isaacs but the fascinating evolution of Jamaican music, which heavily influenced everything from punk to house, from hiphop to drum 'n' bass, is ignored, and Laperrossaz gives the impression that music on the island began with Bob Marley.

Much better, and surprisingly so, is Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, which is gruesome, inane, funny and as irritating as a film by Tarantino can be expected to be. Kurt Russell is great and the final half-hour makes it all worthwhile. Hardly a return to form after the mess that was Kill Bill but much less annoying. More later.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

10 Great Films and Where I First Saw Them

Not an all-time top 10, just a random list

Woman of the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964) One winter morning on video in an old flat in Ranelagh, some time in the late 1990s. Since seen it twice on the big screen.

Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977) In a video shop I used to work in in Ballymote at the age of 16. My then boss recommended it while also warning me not to go around saying that I loved it as nobody would believe me.

Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996) At a preview screening on a Saturday morning in the Screen at d'Olier St. I've seen it five times since.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) At Christmas when I was about 16; I knew who Graham Greene was, not really who Orson Welles was.

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) In a damp basement flat on Rathgar Road on a Friday night in the mid-90s. I didn't get it, and never understood it until I saw the 70mm restoration a few years later in the IFC (or IFI, as they call it these days). I left the cinema in a cold sweat, which is ironic, as I later learned that its title in French is just that: Sueurs froides.

The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953) In the Grand Action cinema on rue des Écoles, Paris in September 2000.

Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) Surprisingly late, in 2002 or 2003 at the Action Christine cinema on rue Christine, Paris.

Sweet Degeneration (Cheng Sheng-Lin, 1997) At an afternoon screening at the Dublin Film Festival in 1999.

Vive l'Amour (Tsai Ming-Liang, 1994) At the Cinéma des Cinéastes, Studio d'Ursulines, beside the Luxembourg Gardens, July 2002.

L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1959) (Pictured above) On video in an apartment in Rathmines, sometime in the late 90s.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Camino Royale

The Argentine filmmaker Carlos Sorín has made a name for himself internationally in the past few years with a number of charming and funny road movies set in the Argentine provinces. Historias Minimas, the tale of a philandering travelling salesman and an elderly man who wanders off in search of his missing dog was a beguiling cross between Mike Leigh and Aki Käurismäki, while the follow-up Bombón: El Perro which featured an unemployed provincial who enters a mastiff he inherits from a passerby in a dog show, was a lovely tale of self-fulfillment which, like many of Sorín's films used non-professional actors.

Sorín's latest, El Camino de San Diego is the tale of an illiterate Guáraní Indian from Northern Argentina who is determined to deliver a tree root that he is convinced bears the likeness of his idol Diego Maradona to the man himself who has been moved into intensive care in 2004. The peasant Táti, who is played by a real-life lumberjack Ignacio Benitez (in fact, his entire family star in the film as themselves), is such a dim yet likeable fellow willing to plunge his already heavily-indebted family into financial trouble merely for a whim, that the first half an hour is almost excruciating to watch as one hopes that he will be ultimately be dissuaded from a mad project that will only end in heartbreaking humiliation. Yet Táti goes ahead with his pilgrimage, with money that his long-suffering wife has borrowed, and sets off on a long journey that brings him in contact with seasonal labourers, prostitutes, a larger-than-life Brazilian trucker who compares Maradona unfavourably with Pelé, and finally a blind man selling lottery tickets. Each episode is masterfully rendered, especially Táti's efforts to find a film for a superannuated camera, and though it is a bit surprising that there are so few people willing to exploit such an innocent abroad, this may be Sorín's point: that the parlous situation of Maradona's health engendered an unusual sense of kindness and solidarity in ordinary Argentinians, who had long suffered under military dictatorship, neo-liberal politics and then the economic collapse of December 2000. The most remarkable thing is that, the closer he gets to Buenos Aires, the kinder strangers are to Táti.

But El Camino, no matter how movingly uplifting it is, is no sentimental feelgood film. If anything it is hard as nails underneath the cheery exterior. The prostitute befriended by Táti and the trucker and who decides to move to the capital on a whim as ill-advised as Táti's, exits the film abruptly close to the end when she finds out that her friend she expected to live with has moved home without leaving a follow-on address. Her life is going to be undoubtedly worse and Táti, despite fulfilling his dream of getting close to his hero, has a future beyond the film that is uncertain in itself, given an extra frisson by the faux-documentary interviews with his fellow villagers talking about him in the past tense. The Benitez family, happily, did well out of the film, finishing the construction of their modest home with their salaries, but Sorín's stunning achievement is to transcend the cheering thrust of the narrative (while also sidestepping the argument of how mass culture unduly engages the masses) and embed it with a cautionary undercurrent. If not a feelgood film, it is certainly a feelbetter one, and one that is likely to be among the best this year.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Mauvaise Passe

Distressing news received this weekend, as I found out that MK2, that greatest of all cinema chains, has pulled out of its Carte Le Pass subscription, that it has offered for the past five years in conjunction with Gaumont and Pathé. The Carte Le Pass allows unlimited access to up to fifty cinemas in Paris for €19.99 per month, which is a damn good deal when you consider that ticket prices are usually €9 per screening. MK2 have fallen out with their partners due to their impending eviction from the Beaugrenelle shopping centre, to be replaced by a Pathé multiplex. The card is still valid at MK2 cinemas until November, at which point going to the cinema is going to become much more expensive for me, as Gaumount and Pathé have both a less interesting roster of films and are located the opposite side of the city. It will still be valid for two of my local cinemas in Bastille but if MK2 choose to launch an initiative of their own, I will be forced to choose between two.

Back in the Office

I took the weekend off from the blog, something I like doing from time to time. A good couple of days for Sligo's sporting fortunes with Sligo Rovers knocking their biggest and most bitter rivals Shamrock Rovers out of the FAI Cup 3-2, a result that suggests that this might be a lucky year for the Bit o'Red. The Sligo Gaelic football team also won, advancing to the Connacht final with a two-point win over Roscommon, just as they did this time ten years ago. A first Connacht title since 1975 (which would make it the first in my lifetime) is not entirely beyond them, even though the value of a provincial title these days is not really what it was in the past.

The French parliamentary elections passed, and they were less of a disaster for the Left than was widely feared. Indeed they did well enough, winning half the Parisian constituencies and some of Sarkozy's more high-profile candidates failed in their attempts to get elected, such as Arno Klarsfeld, Sylvie Noachovitch and convicted crook and recently-appointed Environment minister Alain Juppé. The Left managed to resist the expected UMP landslide and will hold around 210 seats in the Assemblée Nationale; much less than the UMP's 325 but still enough to put up a redoubtable presence and to build for the next elections. Ségolène Royale has had a Lady MacBeth moment, taking her destiny into her own hands by separating, after thirty years of common law partnership, with Socialist Party chairman François Hollande. We haven't heard the last of Ségo.

Real Madrid won the Spanish League for the first time since 2002, pipping Barça; the rules are the same for everyone but surely goal difference is a better way of separating two sides level on points after a full season than the head-to-head record? Had the rules been the same as in most other European championships, Barça would have be champions for the third year in a row. Former Real cruncher Thomas Gravesen has, meanwhile, pledged to battle on with Celtic for another year. He probably doesn't mind battling for his place now.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Sleepless in Sarcelles

Now, a strange news story from the French parliamentary elections about Sylvie Noachovitch, resident lawyer of TF1's consumer-affairs programme Sans aucun doute, who is also a UMP candidate in Sarcelles in Val d'Oise standing against former Finance Minister, the Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The French satirical magazine Le Canard Enchainé (the model for Private Eye and, like its progeny a publication that tends to run news stories that most the mainstream media will not touch with a barge-pole) reported that Noachovitch, at a recent meeting of the Jury for the Prix du Monte Cristo, rebuffed quips about her rival's womanising reputation with the terrifically witty: 'my husband needn't worry, there are only Blacks and Arabs in my constituency. The thought of sleeping with them repulses me'.

Mme. Noachovitch has cried foul, denying she ever said such things (something countered by other members of the Jury) though I don't think she need worry either. Such dodgy thinking on race relations tends not to spoil the public perception of the UMP, these days; indeed it is often seen as 'simply saying what most people think'. In a strange, and alarming twist, Mme. Noachovitch called the newsroom of free paper 20 Minutes earlier on today claiming that she had been the victim of an 'attempted strangulation', only an hour before. Not shy there of a bit of publicity.

Sell-Out Crowd

I have always feared that I might be starting a rightward drift that will result in my being a fearsome neocon in my later middle-age, using specious arguments of notional liberty à la Christopher Hitchens and various members of New Labour to justify starting wars of civilisations. I think I'm doing all right though but my pragmatism vis-à-vis the Greens' jumping into bed with the Soldiers of Destiny suggests that maybe I am beginning to shed my youthful idealism.

Many have attacked the Greens for their entering government without securing what they wanted on key issues, such as the planned M3 through Tara and the Shannon stopovers. The following letter in today's Irish Times:

Madam, - Rarely has an aphorism - in this case "power corrupts" - been so vividly evinced as on the Irish political stage this week. It appears that the leaders of the Green Party have capitulated on both the substance and spirit of their manifesto, agreeing (among other things) to run a motorway through Tara's archaeological complex.

The Green Party is now an abject creature, shivering at the heel of Fianna Fáil. - Yours, etc,

J. DONNELLY, Balbriggan, Co Dublin.

The failure of the Greens to get concessions on the above issues is both depressing and worrying but what world are these critics of the Greens living in? The Greens had the option to stay out of government, where they would have remained a noble oppositional voice that, for all their campaigning and haranguing, would be able to do little to influence the environmental policy of the next government. Now, they have crossed over to the ruling side, using what leverage they might reasonably expect with six TDs, and there are fools claiming that they have already been corrupted by power. The objective of any Green party worth its name is to advance an environmental agenda; given the nature of Irish politics, the only feasible way of them doing this in the next five years is by being part of government. Of course they may suffer from such an engagement with Fianna Fáil - as the old adage goes, when you wrestle with a pig, both parties get covered in muck, and the pig likes it. However, compromise is the sad reality of politics, especially for a marginal party such as the Greens. Five more years of Fianna Fáil is depressing but having a smaller, more principled party there is better than what was there in the last coaliton. In addition, Ireland now has its first genuinely ecologically-minded Minister for the Environment. Some good might come of this. Fair play to the Greens for willing to put their self-righteousness on the line. Let's hope that they subject Bertie's shennanigans to more scrutiny than the PDs did.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

They've Got My Number

The new phone book arrived on my doorstep today; perhaps because of falling home phone use, the Parisian White Pages is only offered on a by-arrondissement basis now, with only the Yellow Pages covering all of Paris. I don't use my landline too much, except for international phone calls, as they are free to other landlines in most other countries I would be calling, but I checked to see if I had been added as I wasn't sure if I requested to be ex-directory when I got my phone installed. I was there but it wasn't my home number but my mobile; how it ended up there I am not sure but I am worried that I might now be subject to spam cold-calling, especially as my number is not listed with a symbol that denotes telemarketers are unwelcome. I have a year of this to put up with now. Why was I not informed of this in advance?

In His Defence...

Jacques Vergès is one of those people whose reputation in French would be known as 'sulfureuse' (the literal English translation gives only an incomplete indication of this adjective's resonance). Vergès, now aged a very healthy-looking 82, has made his name defending the indefensible in the courts of law, such as Klaus Barbie, Carlos the Jackal (albeit only briefly), Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy, Slobodan Milošović, countless African despots in suits brought against Amnesty International and he also offered to defend both Tariq Aziz and Saddam Hussein following their capture. A former Free French guerrilla, Vergès was a Communist Party member and anti-colonial agitator (he is Reunionese and half-Vietnamese on his mother's side) before he came to prominence defending the glamorous Algerian guerrillas Djamila Bouhired and Zohra Drif, whose bombing of two Algiers cafés in 1956 featured in Gillo Pontecorvo's film The Battle of Algiers. Both were sentenced to death and later had their sentences commuted to life in prison and were released on Algeria's independence in 1962. Vergès later married Bouhired, but could not live in the shadow of a woman who seen as a national hero by most Algerians and disappeared for eight years from 1970 to 1978. Many people close to him believe that he spent those years in Cambodia with Pol Pot (with whom he was friendly) but former Khmer Rouge president Khieu Samphan disputes this.

Vergès is the subject of a new documentary L'Avocat de la Terreur by Barbet Schroeder, most famous in the English-speaking world for his Hollywood films Barfly, Reversal of Fortune and Single White Female. Schroder also directed the excellent General Idi Amin Dada in 1974, which was made with the co-operation of Amin himself and which was also featured in Kevin MacDonald's recent film The Last King of Scotland. I was expecting the film on Vergès to be equally gripping but it fails in a number of ways, not least because it is so uncinematic, having little to distinguish it from the intelligent but modest historical and political documentaries that can be seen on French TV every night after 12. Equally, the failure to cast any real light on Vergès' missing years (in spite of extensive interviews with the loquacious advocate) hampers the film.

After his return, Vergès turned to defending members of the Baader Meinhof group and also Palestinian militants. When Carlos the Jackal began to terrorise Paris and other European cities, on the command of the Iranian Islamist regime, but also for purely selfish financial motives, Vergès moved on to defending Carlos' wife Magdalena Kopp. According to Stasi files released in 1994 and compiled when Carlos was living in East Berlin in the early 80s, Vergès was party to the transport of explosives for which Kopp was arrested and convicted in 1982, though he has never been charged with this. Vergès insists that his defending undesirable people to be something he does merely out of professional duty, claiming at one point onscreen that he would 'even defend Bush' if he was asked to. However Vergès' connections with many dubious characters, such as Carlos and Swiss Nazi banker François Genoud, bankroller of Islamist terror groups and the defence of Klaus Barbie, suggests that perversely skewed convictions have been an equally strong motive.

Vergès, a charismatic man, who has an imperturbable composure talking on film about his life and convictions, is the epitome of the engaged, well-off 20th-century Leftist who has little concern for any of the blood shed by the causes which he espouses. The defence of Barbie rested on selective prosecution being mounted by the French state; Vergès claimed that far greater crimes were committed by French colonial regimes abroad. An arguable point (in Barbie's personal case) though a particularly repugnant use of moral relativism to try and exonerate a man who was clearly a murderer.

Shroeder's film, though enthralling in parts, is a disappointment in both its incompleteness and the fact that it fails to penetrate the opacity of Vergès' motivations and character. It is also a depressing film to watch, where perpetrators of genocide, mass murderers, Nazis, Islamic terrorists and psychopaths like Carlos are paraded in an essentially neutral light, remnants of the confused but vicious Leftist-Marxist pragmatism of the late Twentieth Century. A nightmare we're still trying to wake up from.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Did They Give You Gay?

And now, over to the Pentagon, where an unfortunately-shelved proposal to spray enemy combatants with some sort of strong aphrodisiac that would cause them to be overcome with lust for one another, has been revealed. Those R&D sessions at US Military headquarters must be a blast; was this an example of the Clinton administration's interpretation of torture? I can add no more, let the plain unvarnished truth of this news story speak for itself.


The Greens are to enter government and are already attracting the brickbats from those that believe it is treason of the highest sort. I can't say I agree though as a party with such a small chunk of the vote are going to have to value pragmatism above anything else. At least they will be there to keep an eye on Fianna Fáil, but should things go wrong it will be the smaller party that will be the fall guys. Without wishing to be disobliging to the Greens, I would sooner it be them than Labour, who would not survive a Fianna Fáil coalition.

The Greens will be maximising their leverage to pursue their own policies, none of which I have any problem with, but as this Reuters report says my prediction about the Green's 'hopeful' position on US military stopovers in Shannon looks like it might be correct:

Party members refused to be drawn on the state of talks over specific policies such as a manifesto pledge that U.S. troops en-route to Iraq should no longer be allowed to use airports in traditionally neutral Ireland. "We have about 4.7 percent of the vote and we have to be realistic and realise we can only get a certain amount," said Gormley. "But it has to be sellable to the party members. I think they are wise enough to know if the deal is good enough."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Might is Right

One of my regular haunts takes the Financial Times on Saturdays, which is a bit unusual as it is a bar with a mainly French-speaking clientele. I had always scorned the FT on the grounds that I imagined it to be a capitalist rag but over the past few years I have come to realise it is the best newspaper in the UK along with the Guardian. In fact at times it is even better than the Grauniad because there is less predictability in both its editorial line and in most of the copy published. As well as carrying that superlative football writer Simon Kuper (a neighbour of mine and with whom I played Saturday morning football until laziness and apathy sunk their claws in), it also has excellent film and arts coverage, not to mention their coverage of current affairs. The week before last there was a brilliant lengthy article by their Jerusalem bureau chief Harvey Morris on the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War and the Saturday Arts & Weekend supplement this week had this lovely piece by Harry Eyres on the decline of the use of the word 'might' in British official discourse, and the unsuitability of 'may' to fill the gap as many people intend it to. The site needs registration but it is worth taking the 15-day free option to have a look around.

Ousmane Sembène 1923-2007

After the death last week of New Wave actor Jean-Claude Brialy, cinema lost another major talent with the death, at the grand old age of 84, of the great Senegalese filmmaker and novelist Ousmane Sembène. Sembène, a long-time leftist dissident and champion of both African liberation and the poor in newly-independent Senegal, was equally scathing of the former French colonial powers and the local elites that succeeded them. He was most famous for his 1960 novel Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (God's Bits of Wood), which dramatized a real-life strike on the Dakar-Niger railway line in 1947 and 1948, and also for his 1975 political satire Xala (The Curse), which features the famous scene of a government minister using bottles of Evian to wash his car. Like most Senegalese he had an ambivalent attitude towards France, resentful of its colonialist interference in West Africa but also generous towards French culture and any interest that the West showed in both his own cinema and that of Africa in general. His last film Moolaadé, from 2004, which was an attack on female circumcision, was a fitting close to the career of this great, magnanimous radical.

Good Cheer for President Sarkozy

A month and a half ago, earnest editorials from well-meaning fools all round Europe saluted the 'tremendous display of democracy' displayed by the French people, when 85% of them turned out to either vote for anyone but Nicolas Sarkozy or to endorse his Front National Lite social policies. Seanachie wasn't fooled at the time and he now wonders where those same editorialists will be when it comes to writing about the 60% turnout for yesterday's first round of the parliamentary elections, the lowest since 1960? The left were probably wearied after the first round and many of the young people that mobilised in the hope of avoiding a Sarko presidency have no doubt retreated back into apathy. Sarkozy's UMP looks likely to assume a crushing majority of the Assemblée Nationale, making the next five years even bleaker than they seemed five weeks ago.

Sarkozy, who was not involved in the elections, as all cabinet members are separate from the Assembly, was caught on Belgian TV, arriving late for a G8 press conference after enjoying some refreshment with dear old Vladimir Putin. Defenders of the teetotal Sarko insist that he was not drunk but I have seen enough cases of inebriation in my years tending bar to know. Just as well Vlad didn't offer him some of his famed 'soup'.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Malaysian Malaise

Tsai Ming-Liang is a director whose profile has fallen slightly in world cinema in recent years, as the commercial popularity of one fellow Taiwanese, Edward Yang, and the critical canonisation of another, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, has outstripped his films, which are slow, difficult, often inscrutable and less respectful of the still stringent social mores of Taiwanese society.

Tsai first came to prominence with Rebels of a Neon God and Vive l'Amour, which were big festival hits in the early 90s. Both films were cool, artfully mounted portrayals of urban alienation in modern Taiwan, in the second film the locus being the female real estate broker, played by Kuei-Mei Lang, whose tearful breakdown on a park bench in the final scene is one of the most moving scene I have ever seen in the cinema. Like his Korean contemporary Hong Sang-Soo, Tsai explores the interzone of menial and temporary work that prevails across much of the Tiger economies of the Pacific Rim. Boredom is the dominant atmosphere but Tsai in all his films manages to wheedle out little snatches of drama amidst all the static ennui and his formal compositions - mostly long takes with a perpetually immobile camera- are a joy to watch for those with a lengthy attention span.

In recent years his films have becoming increasingly outré - even if his basic technique remains the same. The Hole, which was about a hole that mysteriously appears in the floor of a Taipei apartment, occasioning a rapprochement between two previously mutually unknown people, was laced with the songs of 50s Mandarin diva Grace Chang. Goodbye Dragon Inn weaves a story around the final screening at an old Taipei movie palace; What Time is it There? exported the ennui - and quite a bit of anxiety - to Paris, and The Wayward Cloud was a thoroughly bizarre, and overlong pornographic musical, centred on the watermelons that Taiwanese people have been advised to consume instead of water during a heatwave.

For his new film I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, Tsai returns to the country of his birth, Malaysia. The film follows a mute Chinese (played by Tsai's usual leading man, the imperiously deadpan Lee Kang-Sheng) around the streets of a Malaysian city - I'm guessing it's Kuala Lumpur but it is never made clear. After getting beaten up by a number of local hustlers in the opening scene he is taken under the wing of a kindly Bangladeshi who seems to have an affection for him, but which is never consummated. The young man then has brief liaisons with both a mother and daughter - the owners of a small greasy-spoon - who are caring for a comatose son, who is also played by Lee. As ever in a Tsai film there is little dialogue and the character motivations are vague, even malleable. The compositions are pristine and the tone is sad, though it is a sadness that is always undercut with an exquisite sense of visual irony - the non-professional Lee has perfected his shtick so well by now that he is becoming an autodidact master of deadpan to rival Buster Keaton. There is an unusually optimistic final scene, which itself signals a departure of sorts for Tsai. Not surprisingly the Malaysian authorities found much to object to in the film, and banned it before Tsai made cuts to their liking. For a foreigner the film is a fascinating glimpse of this unknown but important Asian country, a place where cutlery takes precedence over chopsticks - except among the Chinese minority - where the Roman alphabet is used everywhere and where devout Muslim women wear headscarves while otherwise being liberated enough to walk down the street wearing a T-shirt and jeans.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Danes No Walkover

Northern Ireland's hopes of qualifying for the European Championship finals have been dealt a serious blow following UEFA's decision to hand Sweden a 3-0 win over Denmark for the match that was abandoned in Copenhagen last Saturday because of an attack on the referee on a drunken Danish fan. Denmark will also be forced to play their remaining four home games at least 250 miles from Copenhagen, effectively necessitating trips out of the country. Spain will therefore treat their away assignment against the Danes in October with somewhat less trepidation as the Danes are now effectively out of the tournament.

It is difficult to argue with the decision to punish Denmark and the Danes said beforehand that they would not do so themselves but there should be some evenhandedness as third parties are effected by such decisions. Sweden now have a three-goal advantage that they did not earn; would it not make more sense to award Sweden the points without any goals awarded and leave a 3-0 defeat in place for Denmark, as fitting punishment? A similar thing happened in the French league a couple of weeks ago where a match between Nantes and Toulouse was abandoned at 0-0 by the referee because of a pitch invasion by Nantes supporters. Toulouse were given the points, which ultimately allowed them to sneak the last Champion's League spot ahead of Rennes. Though the rules stated clearly that victory goes to the non-offending side, the referee in this case did not wait until 45 minutes after the incident to abandon the game (as the rules also state). Neither did Herbert Fandel, the referee in Copenhagen, though to be fair to him, he might have reasonably felt shaken after the attack. I wonder how that muppet of a fan feels now, and does he have any friends left after it?

Friday, June 08, 2007

What Sign Are You Again?

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me if I had been at the same screening of David Fincher's Zodiac at the MK2 Bastille, as he heard somebody in the auditorium laugh mockingly in a voice that was similar to mine. It wasn't, though his suspicions were credible enough as I have been known to scoff out loud, in Edna Krebopple fashion, when I am subjected to awful films, and I also hate Fincher's films. To be fair, it is only Seven that has managed to raise near-genocidal indignation in me, as The Game was not quite as offensively bad as it might otherwise have been as it was patently a straight-to-video clanger dressed up with a star cast. Fight Club was, for its first hour at least fun but its spiralling descent into nonsense via a moronic twist robbed it of any right to be considered a cult classic. That it is considered a cult classic by many is due to the fact that those many are of a certain generation that are persuaded the field of 'philosophy' is mainly concerned with being a byword for manifestos for dotcom companies and many other flimsy 'multi-media' enterprises. If one attempts to pin the label 'intelligent' to Fincher's cinema, one need only look at Seven to be disabused of this notion. One of the most inane, manipulative and self-serving pieces of art cinema ever served up, not to mention one of the most pretentious. The film's monotone narrative, which unceasingly shows the world to be even more miserable than queuing for food in post-Enduring Freedom Iraq, is wearyingly one-dimensional and the film closes on a twist as facile as the one in Fight Club was redundant. Morgan Freeman's closing line 'Ernest Hemingway said that the world is a great place and worth saving - I believe with the latter sentiment' is so improbably lofty that it provoked vomiting far more than all the gore that preceded it.

So, why then did I go see Zodiac, especially as this same friend of mine said that it was indeed inane? After all, I passed over Fincher's last film Panic Room. It was mainly due to the positive reviews of the film in both the Anglophone and Francophone press - and believe me, when both of these agree, there is something in the air. The surprising thing is that the film is not bad - in fact it's quite good. The story of the Zodiac killer that terrorised Northern California for a couple of years in the early 1970s, the film is based on a book by former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith - played here by a wide-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal - the film is an unflashy but thrilling re-enactment of the era and the impact of the Zodiac killer's rampage. One might as well say it straight off: the reason the film is so watchable is that Fincher's direction is self-effacing. There is none of the conceptual showboating of the earlier films, nor any of the technical fripperies that look even more pathetic following the rise and fall of Guy Ritchie. Fincher steps back and directs the film for the most part with a subtlety that I never suspected him capable of.

It opens with the first recorded killing, which was of a woman known to the killer, after a drive-in in late 1979. The scene is shot in chilling slow-motion, to the strains of Donovan's 'Hurdy-Gurdy Man', which adds an extra disturbing frisson to the action. There is no retro hipness being mined here. The next murder, a daylight stabbing, is likewise terrifying. The Zodiac killer sends the Bay Area newspapers cryptic messages advertising his killers and challenges them to catch him. The interest in the story eventually fades, and is only kept alive by the dilligence of Graysmith, who arrives late on the scene and uncovers much of the vital evidence while enduring some hairy brushes with the potential killer along the way.

There are limitations to the film - its excellence is more formal than substantial, some of the McGuffins confuse rather than mislead and it is saddled with only circumstantial evidence, as the police investigation itself was - but overall it is that rare thing these days - an intelligent, well-made big-budget Hollywood feature. It is also helped by having an amazing cast - Gyllenhaal is suitably green as Graysmith, while Robert Downey Junior, Mark Ruffalo, Brian Cox, Philip Baker Hall and Chloë Sevigny bring a scrupulous professionalism to their respective roles. And the film is, throughout, scary. I didn't laugh out loud once. Job well done, Mr Fincher.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

That Was #500

The last post was the 500th I have made on this blog since I started last July. At just under eleven months that is not a bad average considering I only started the blog to regain a bit of momentum that had been lost in my writing elsewhere. The very first post, written two days after the World Cup Final, offered little in the way of direction and ambition, and though the blog has gained some speed in that time it is still very much a hotch-potch, an indulgent, ad hoc amalgam of things I would otherwise have been mumbling incomprehensively to anyone that might be forced to listen (those that know me will aver that my accent is rather strong, except maybe those from Sligo, who will argue the very opposite).

The blog, enjoyable as it is, has become an albatross of sorts around my neck however, a distraction from doing other activities, the same ones whose abeyence occasioned it to be started in the first place. For this reason the posts may well become less frequent over the next few months, which is something I regret as I enjoy writing it, and, to be totally honest, I could probably have posted 2,000 times had work commitments, the odd hangover and the more productivity-stifling reaches of Web 2.0 not stymied me. I have really had that many ideas, which is no bad thing. I have to admit, of course, that keeping them from the world was no bad thing either.

With regards to blogging and the Internet I remain a sceptical enthusiast. Much has been written in the past couple of days about Andrew Keen's attack on the extension of the publishing franchise afforded by the Net; while I feel that Keen's gripes - to judge at least from the quotes in the adjoined article - owe more to sour grapes over a loss of prestige of the official intelligensia, it's hard not to agree that much of the Internet is depressing to wade through. Don't get me wrong: I read about 100 blogs daily and I would probably search for many more I had more time to satisfy this bulimic habit. Those that I read are all excellent and the fact that their RSS feeds end up on my newsreader every day is the only worthwhile praise there is.

I have to say though that blogging, for all its liberatory qualities and enjoyability is still inferior to print. Perhaps not print newspapers, the vast majority of which, worldwide, are of dubious trustworthiness and wretched quality, but to books, yes, I'm afraid it is. Blogging has legions of fine qualities and there are great writers on the web that, thanks to the medium, get audiences that might otherwise be denied them. Some have progressed to writing a book, from Salam Pax to Twenty Major, but writing a book is a different kettle of fish altogether. It demands stamina, quality, balls, self-belief, discipline, a mastery of the most mundane technical matters and, after publication, a willingness to turn yourself into a consummate bore in order to get anyone to read it. That does not make it a greater art - it doesn't even make it an art in itself at all - but the challenge is a lot bigger. Blogging is great, and I would hope to continue this one for a couple of years to come but the challenge of writing something more substantial is much greater.

Lest I appear to be too serious here, I would like to thank all that read this blog (even those that expect to find pictures of Lawrie Sanchez or Artur Boruc in the nip or torrent files of glamour models peeing on one another) for doing so, and I have resolved to reply to all comments from now on (being from the west of Ireland, manners don't come naturally to me). Here's to another 500, as lazy hacks in the old media would say.

Football and the Bard

Armenia gained a surprise 1-0 win over Poland last night thanks to a second-half free-kick by Hamlet Mkhitaryan (pictured). It has been a mixed week for footballing heros and villains of Shakespearean proportions, following the forced resignation of FIFA President-elect Jim McBeth over accusations of racism and Titus Bramble being shown the door at Newcastle. Thierry Henry is, of course, still injured, and Gus Caesar and former Ipswich Town favourite Romeo Zondervan, long retired. Are there any other footballers that bear the names of characters from Shakespeare plays? Of course there was a Craig Shakespeare that used to play for Walsall back in the 1980s. No relation, though.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Losing the Rag

The neighbourhood I live in is dull, though likeable enough; the main advantage of living here is that it is close to most parts of Paris that I ever have need to travel to. It is in walking distance (and even shorter cycling distance) of my work, where most of my friends live and where I spend most my time socialising. But other than that there is very little to recommend the area; apart from one or two cafés and cheap pizzerias the whole place closes down at 8pm. During the day it is choked with traffic and, consequently, incessantly hooting horns; the blockages are mainly caused by vans with Spanish, Dutch, Romanian and Polish numberplates loading stock from the dozens of clothing wholesalers that line the rues du Chemin Vert, Popincourt, Sedaine and the boulevards that cross them, Voltaire, and avenue Parmentier. As well as the traffic problems that are caused by this, the area has an anaemic air to it, deprived of even a superficial sense of community that might be felt further north on Oberkampf or further east near the Place d'Aligre.

The demographic adjustment of the area, which has seen a number of small businesses being forced out because of rising rents and the greater profitability of leasing premises to clothing wholesalers, has been causing concern for a number of years and the veteran Socialist mayor of the 11th arrondissement, Georges Sarre has launched a campaign to challenge the 'mono-activity' that the area had been subjected to. The International Herald Tribune has a story on it today that manages to be both questionably partial for a news report and perfidious in its attempt to ascribe the objections of the locals to a childish stubborness in failing to open their neighbourhood up to the 'reality of globalisation'. The following three paragraphs are an example of this:

The brewing battle in this small patch of Paris is a fishbowl version of France's reluctance to accept both the pain and the promise of an increasingly competitive international economy, which the newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy, says the country must face up to.

"Nobody can escape globalization," he said in a speech during his successful campaign. "The world is moving very fast, and we have not been able to move at the same rate."

France has a complicated relationship with the idea of a free market, let alone with its worldwide version. In a poll published in April 2006, only 36 percent of French people interviewed agreed that free enterprise was the best system for the world's future.

That was the lowest score in the 20-country survey conducted by GlobeScan, a Toronto-based research firm, and the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes in Washington. China topped the list with 74 percent.

The story is syndicated from Bloomberg Media so one must surrender immediately the hope of normal acceptable journalistic standards being complied to there; the Herald Tribune's scandalously biased reportage in the run-up to and aftermath of the French presidential elections similarly makes one despair of the Parisians getting a fair hearing on this. Even the title of the story tries to make hay with the implication that racism or xenophobia might be responsible for Sarre's campaign, as the clothing wholesalers are mostly, though not exclusively, Chinese. Having lived here for over a year I have seen no evidence of hostility towards Chinese people in the area (two Chinese-owned shops lease space in my building).

The issue is not, of course though, an influx of small Chinese businessman but a homogeneous model of commercial activity that impedes the maintenance of a genuine local economy that would benefit from diverse merchants, as many other parts of Paris do. The fact that the rag shops attract a heavy volume of traffic into the area without providing a service for people that live nearby (being wholesalers there is no possibility of individuals buying there) is matter enough for concern. Sarre's argument that such a commercial activity would be better located in suburban business parks is a perfectly reasonably one. There have been no similar campaigns launched against Chinese businessmen running computer retail and repair stores in the 12th arrondissment, restaurants in the 11th or tabacs throughout Paris, because, unlike the Popincourt-Sedaine wholesale shops, those activities provide valuable services for local people (local people that come from all over the world, I might point out).

The familiar free-market objection to local people attempting to shape commercial activity is predictable but no less fatuous for that. I don't blame the Chinese businessmen for moving into property that they can afford that has a city-centre location close to other businesses that they know; most would do so in their position. But just as the free market must not be held irreproachable when the environment or public health is threatened, so it should not be allowed to turn a previously vibrant part of a major city into an urban backwater. People who proclaim the primacy of the market and its capacity to sort things out on its own - when the opposite is quite clearly the case in many countries - are in effect no different from those determinist historians of the far right and left that underpinned totalitarianism in the last century.

Besides, free marketeers are perfectly apt to adjust urban landscapes and habitations to suit themselves; Paris bears the scars of this, particularly during the Haussmanian rebuilding in the 19th century. So does, more recently, New York, since Rudy Giuliani's notorious clean-up, and it is now, ironically, presided over by the owner of the partisan media group whence the adjoined story originated. There are many New Yorkers, native and adopted, that believe that the soul has gone out the place since. I'll leave it to a full reproduction of the lyrics to 'New York I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down' from LCD Soundsystem's wonderful new album 'Sound of Silver' to put it better than I ever could. I will post on James Murphy's latest brilliant creation later; in the meantime read, enjoy and listen to the record whenever you get the chance.

New York, I Love You
But you're bringing me down

New York, I Love You
But you're bringing me down

Like a rat in a cage
Pulling minimum wage

New York, I Love You
But you're bringing me down

New York, you're safer
And you're wasting my time

Our records all show
You are filthy but fine

But they shuttered your stores
When you opened the doors
To the cops who were bored
Once they'd run out of crime

New York, you're perfect
Don't please don't change a thing

Your mild billionaire mayor's
Now convinced he's a king

So the boring collect
I mean all disrespect

In the neighborhood bars
I'd once dreamt I would drink

New York, I Love You
But you're freaking me out

There's a ton of the twist
But we're fresh out of shout

Like a death in the hall
That you hear through your wall

New York, I Love You
But you're freaking me out

New York, I Love You
But you're bringing me down

New York, I Love You
But you're bringing me down

Like a death of the heart
Jesus, where do I start?

But you're still the one pool
Where I'd happily drown

And oh.. Take me off your mailing list
For kids that think it still exists
Yes, for those who think it still exists

Maybe I'm wrong
And maybe you're right
Maybe I'm wrong
And maybe you're right

Maybe you're right
Maybe I'm wrong
And just maybe you're right

And Oh..
Maybe mother told you true
And they're always be something there for you
And you'll never be alone

But maybe she's wrong
And maybe I'm right
And just maybe she's wrong

Maybe she's wrong
And maybe I'm right
And if so, is there?

More Logo

Further to the last post, the Guardian reports that the poor logo, when animated has triggered a seizure in a young man suffering from epilepsy. It all sounds, at best, unfortunate; at worst, strangely occult.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Logo Area

I could write something about the jailing of Scooter Libby, the potential stand-off between Russia and the US over missile shields, but why not have a look at the newly-unveiled logo for the London 2012 Olympics? It has provoked a mostly negative reaction, some people comparing it to a fragmented swastika, while others have pointed out the similarity of the logo for Chris Tarrant's old TV show 'Tiswas' (which, bizarrely makes an anagram of 'swastika' if one adds an 'a' and a 'k'). While many of the objections to it are predictably middlebrow and unimaginative (check out the 'alternatives' proffered by the BBC's web article for examples of truly awful logos) it's hard not to see the logo as both sloppily conceived and tacky. The font used for the word 'London' is weak and the word itself badly positioned and is dayglo pink an advisable colour to use to publicise an event that is still five years away?

Keep On Running

I had thought for a long time that Dexys Midnight Runners had released more albums than they actually have, but, though the band is still going in some form almost thirty years after their formation, only three studio albums have seen the day, the last being 1985's 'Don't Stand Me Down' which was a commercial flop in sharp contrast to the enormous succcess of their previous effort 'Too-Rye-Ay', which was buoyed by the single 'Come On Eileen', which has since become bigger than the band themselves.

The critics also panned 'Don't Stand Me Down' and it is the one Dexys album that I am unfamiliar with, though there are some that believe it is an overlooked masterpiece. By the time it was released however the band were in disarray with much of the original brass section leaving, front-man Kevin Rowland falling out with all and sundry and succumbing to drug problems. The band has lumbered on since, mostly as a de facto solo project for Rowland, without releasing anything and the nadir of Rowland's career came when he was bottled off the stage at the Reading Festival in 1999. For the past ten years a new album has been promised and has never surfaced but there have been some tracks recorded, which can be found on the band's official MySpace page.

Unlike many of their contemporaries, such as Joy Division and Gang of Four, Dexys have not enjoyed any revival of fame through the devotion of a younger generation. If anythng their influence has been the very opposite of 'seminal'. It is true that they were never short of plaudits around the time of the first two albums, 'Searching for the Young Soul Rebels' and 'Too-Rye-Ay', it is strange that those two records, which are as flawless as a band's first two efforts can get, should be so neglected these days. Rowland's errant behaviour over the past twenty years hasn't helped and neither has the fact that 'Come On Eileen', which was the biggest-selling single in the UK in 1982 and also went to number one in the States, has become so ubiquitous as to practically exemplify an entire era, leaving the band behind in its wake. Some people are even unsure whether its a good song such has been its popularity (it is, by the way).

Rowland is one of those first-generation Irish kids who made a big impact in British rock music, such as John Lydon, the Gallagher brothers, Teenage Fanclub, Bobby Gillespie, Elvis Costello and The Smiths (it's interesting how the Irish diaspora in the US has been much less prolific in rock). He even went further than many of them in his mining his ancestry for influences - the song 'Burn It Down' on 'Young Soul Rebels' includes probably the longest rollcall of Irish writers ever in a pop song - and he introduced folk influences to add extra nuances to the band's frantic but polished soul for the second album. Because of all the fiddles and banjos on 'Too-Rye-Ay', the band has often been lumped with the raggle-taggle wave that followed with bands such as The Waterboys and The Levellers. It is however irreducibly a soul record, and even 'Eileen', from the opening reference to Johnny Ray and the brass that takes over from the strings in the second half, is a soul tune in the tradition of the obscure American tunes that gained popularity at the Wigan Casino and the Twisted Wheel in Manchester.

Dexys sprung from the Northern Soul scene, taking their name from Dexedrine, the brand of speed that allowed young mods to dance at the all-nighters, and their first album features a superb cover of one of the classics of the genre, Chuck Wood's 'Seven Days Too Long'. But they had a broader interest in soul too and their second biggest hit was a cover of Van Morrison's 'Jackie Wilson Said', where Van's Belfast whine was replaced and beefed up by Rowland's distinctive Black Country falsetto. Another hit was their tribute to Geno Washington but there are other great nuggets on both albums, some of them with evocative titles such as the plaintive brass-and-moog instrumental 'The Teams That Meet in Caffs' and the infectiously dancey 'Thankfully, Not Living in Yorkshire, It Doesn't Apply.' For a long time I thought that the first, lesser-known album was the better one, but I now think that the band actually improved for the second effort, producing a richer, more ambitious sound, and all ten tracks are superb. There are risks taken, the album's best track 'Plan B' has a slow, piano-vocal lead-in that lasts almost two minutes and Dexys are probably the only soul band ever to cover a Thomas Moore melody ('Believe Me, If All These Endearing Young Charms'). Soul turned into a much slicker, more polite affair in the years that followed, and some of the earlier kineticism is only being regained now with the return of Sharon Jones, Bettye LaVette and the success of Amy Winehouse. The two new Dexys tracks on the MySpace page are creditable, if hardly remarkable, but the album which is due to finally come out this year, should be worth a listen at least. Gang of Four, ESG and The Stooges have all released comeback albums that stand beside their back catalogue. Maybe Kevin Rowland can do the same.

California Dreamin'

Cinemagoers in Paris are, by some stretch, the most privileged in the world. With some three hundred films, spread among new and repertory stuff, the city possesses a cinema culture that few other cities can match. It's the main reason I first made my way here, in my mid twenties, when I was considerably more impassioned about cinema than I am now (some people might find that hard to believe but I watched way more movies back then). One great privilege we get is the opportunity to watch, the week after the Cannes film festival, the films selected in both the Un Certain regard sidebar and the Director's Fortnight. Work commitments have prevented me from seeing as many films as I would like, such as Lenny Abrahamson's Garage, which is screening tomorrow evening, and Roy Andersson's You, the Living. But I did manage to get to see the eagerly anticipated California Dreamin', the other Romanian success story of the festival, winning the 'non-competitive' Un Certain regard prize.

The film is the first and only feature directed by the late Cristian Nemescu, who died in a car crash at the age of 27 in Bucharest last year. The film has been preserved as it was at the time of his death, which unsurprisingly means it is structurally uneven and a bit too long. I will probably be accused of being cynical in thinking that the award was given mainly as a sympathy award to recognise posthumously a talent that may have blossomed into one of Europe's greatest filmmakers. To be completely frank, it is hard to believe that it was the best film on show in the sidebar, though this is not to say it is not an impressive debut feature.

The film treats of the visit of a platoon of US marines stranded in a small Romanian village en route to Kosovo in 1999; they are unable to move on due to a corrupt station master, who also appears to have the entire village under his thumb, refusing to allow them to pass without the appropriate customs papers, even though the Romanian government has give the green light. The marines end up staying for five days and the younger soldiers fraternise with the local women, are feted by the shambolic but genial mayor (played by the wonderful comic actor Ion Sapduru, who was brilliant as the alcoholic academic in 12:08 East of Bucharest) while their captain, Jones, played by a gracefully ageing Armand Assante drives himself almost insane trying to force a way out of the impasse.

There are nods to both Robert Altman and Emir Kusturica in Nemescu's broad picaresque canvas, and if the film is occasionally unconvincing in some of the situations (particularly the final fifteen minutes), his ambition is matched by his ability to render memorable characters, over whom the shadow of history looms. The obstructionist stationmaster Doiaru, played by Razvan Vasilescu is a man embittered by both the deportation of his capitalist parents by the Soviets after the second world war and what he sees as the betrayal of his country by the Americans in the carve-up of Europe that followed. A film where the American military are portrayed in such a sympathetic - even strangely gentle - light could only come from post-Communist Eastern Europe though it is a bit surprising that Doiaru should be the only dissenting voice. I don't know what the sentiments of ordinary Romanians would have been during the NATO bombardments of Yugoslavia but I can imagine that there would have been some sympathy at least felt for their neighbours, if not for its government.

As I said above there are a number of structural problems with the film but the intention of the producers to leave it as Nemescu had until then fashioned it is a respectful one. Though the film is no masterpiece, it is hugely enjoyable and certain sequences - such as the opening scenes of a World War II Allied bombardment - are virtuosic enough to suggest that Nemescu might in time have become a great filmmaker. His tragic death robbed a country with an impressively renascent national cinema of another great talent.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Dodgy Geyser from Iceland

While out drinking into the wee small hours on rue de Lappe last night I and the person I was with were approached by a young man who was a bit chattier than we we thought necessary. However, rather than rudely dismiss the fellow we humoured him for a bit in the hope that he would soon go away. When he asked me where I was from, I decided to replace one letter in the usual adjective and said that I was 'islandais'. Saying you're Irish to a French person usually attracts the most banal platitudes and clichéd compliments (we're such great fun and yes, they hate the English too) but being Icelandic changes the terrain completely. The language is obscure (the young gentleman even asked me if I could speak English), the country is obscure and the only thing anybody knows about it is Björk, whom, I assured the young fellow, is a credit to the country, beloved of all Icelanders. The conversation was mercifully short and the chap looked elsewhere for chat. I think I'll be Icelandic again soon.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Are Those Real Kidneys?

It appears that the Dutch reality TV show where a terminally-ill patient was going to donate her kidney to one of three candidates was a spoof, with actors involved all round. Those crazy Dutch...

Uncle Psalm

Michael Dwyer, 'film critic' of The Irish Times usually has a problem with the Cannes Film Festival every year, mainly to do with the awards bestowed on films in foreign languages directed by people with unpronouncable names, starring actors that sometimes aren't really actors at all. In the past the scorn he has poured on films such as Lars Von Trier's The Idiots and the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta has been so contrary to my own impressions of those same films that by now I take his dislike of a film as a recommendation. This year, Dwyer was relatively happy (he even liked the unstarry Romanian Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) but there were a couple of films that he grumbled over, such as Raphael Nadjari's Tehilim, which I instantly resolved to see, when it got released here on Wednesday.

Nadjari is a French director who, strangely has never made a feature in France; he decamped to New York to make his first three, and in the past three years he has made two, Avanim and now Tehilim in Israel. Both films are impassive examinations of the tension between faith and secularism in contemporary Israel; both open in a Talmudic school, Avanim in Tel Aviv and Tehilim in Jerusalem. In Tehilim (the title of which means 'Psalms' in Hebrew) the devout father of a young family inexplicably goes missing after a minor car crash. The family attempts to come to terms with his disappearance, which leads to a falling-out between the secular-minded mother and her young sons, who are a good deal more observant under the guidance of their grandfather and uncle. Little happens in the film, and students of orthodox plotting will find the dénouement to be underwhelming, but Nadjari is always interested more in character than in entertainment and aided by superb performances by all the cast, he produces a quiet, unfussy drama that was never going to win much at Cannes but is more than persuasive in its own right. It is not as impressive as Avanim, which treated of the embittered reaction of a young woman born into a religious family after her secret lover is killed in a suicide attack, but should be seen by a wide (-ish) audience.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Brice Hortefeux's Plans for France

Brice Hortefeux, the first occupant of Nicolas Sarkozy's spanking-new Ministry for Immigration, National Identity and Co-Development has revealed his targets for 2007. He states that he hopes to remove 25,000 clandestins - or undocumented immigrants - by the end of the year; M. le Ministre spices his discourse by saying that the expulsions may be voluntary, though, failing that, force will be used.

At the risk of sounding alarmist this sounds remarkably like what the Front National has been touting in their electoral manifestos over the past two decades. And perhaps this is only the start.

M. Hortefeux continues: 'We have four objectives to attain: to control the flow of migration, to favour integration, promote French national identity and to encourage co-development'. I have a sneaky feeling that 'encouraging co-development' means telling countries of origin of the immigrants to stop letting them out. As for 'promoting French national identity', does the French state not do that in quite a formidable and effective way every day? To wish to put an emphasis on this sounds as bizarre as the government promoting the eating of lunch. But there are ulterior motives, which make this unpleasant enterprise an increasingly dubious mirror-image of the 'Office of American Absorption'that features in Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. Expect the CRS in nursery-school playgrounds near you soon, on the outlook for easy pickings to meet Hortefeux's quota.

Spread the Turd

I have noticed that the legendary dogshit of the pavements of Paris has made a comeback of late; walking through the city has become as perilous as it was said to be before the city embarked on a clean-up drive ten years ago or so. There are turds almost everywhere again, in both the more and less salubrious parts of town, much of the shit smeared all over the pavement by someone that either could not remember Paris as it was or had allowed years of clean streets to make him complacent.

So who is to blame? Is this negligence part of an anti-Sarkozy protest on the part of Parisian dog-owners? Or is it an anti-Delanoë protest, ahead of the legislative elections and next year's municipals? Delanoë has led a strong, heavily-advertised municipal tidiness campaign over the past few years that specified particular fines for dog turds left lying around.

The best quote of the election campaign meanwhile has come from a Socialist Party campaigner in Paris, who said: 'Sarkozy said that he would only choose the best people for his cabinet; you'll notice he didn't select a single UMP deputy from Paris.' Deliciously bitchy. Things might be desperate for the PS but the wit is still there. They might even 'win' Paris.