Tuesday, July 31, 2007

When Ingmar met Woody

Bergman's death has been a godsend (couldn't resist that one) for Libération, forever eager to find ways to pad out their summertime editions. They lead with a full-page photo, as they did on the deaths of Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard and Lucie Aubrac, and they follow with seven pages of analysis and interviews, with French directors such as André Techiné and Olivier Assayas. Interesting is Liv Ullmann recounting the 1995 meeting between Woody Allen and his Swedish idol, the only one that ever took place. Neither men spoke a word, despite having been keen to meet, and they then profusely thanked Ullmann for arranging the meeting. Poor Michel Serrault, ten years Bergman's younger, who also died yesterday, a formidable comic actor, best known for his roles in Louis Malle's Milou en mai, Bertrand Blier's Buffet froid and Claude Sautet's Nelly & M. Arnaud, was relegated to page 22, though he did merit two pages of homages.

The Life of Another

Seanachie was an admirer of the winner of this year's Oscar for Best Foreign-language Film, the German Stasi thriller, The Lives of Others, and he is sad to hear of the death from cancer of its star Ulrich Mühe, at the age of 54. Mühe played the ruthless Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler whose exceptional change of heart spares one of his prey, and in real life was himself spied upon by the Stasi in East Germany, including, allegedly, his late wife, who died six months ago. The Independent has more on his death.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman to Meet His Maker

Ingmar Bergman has passed away, and while I bear the man no ill will, I find the fulsome regret being expressed by some folk I know a bit silly. Bergman, great director that he was, was renowned for being a much less great man, admitting as such himself in his autobiography Laterna Magica, which is a wonderfully Proustian account of his life and career tinged with equal amounts of pride and regret. It is unlikely that Bergman would have been too disconsolate at the demise of many of the people he encountered over his long life and his familiar biliousness and misanthropy would have led him to scoff at those that think the cinema has lost a great talent. It is true that Bergman, like Ousmane Sembène, who passed away two months back, was working until close to his death - the majestic swansong Saraband was made three years ago - but one can hardly expect a man of his 89 years to go on forever.

My knowledge of Bergman's films is patchy; though I have seen over half of them, it has been over a period of ten years and some remain foggier in my memory than others - I still find it hard to distinguish Winter Light and Through a Glass, Darkly, more than ten years after having first seen them. In many of his films there was a mea culpa struggling to get out - Wild Strawberries in particular is a barely-disguised intellectual version of A Christmas Carol - while Scenes from a Marriage, Faithless (which he scripted for his ex-wife and sometime muse Liv Ullmann) and Saraband are all efforts to expiate his serial philandering and general unpleasantness. Personally my favourite of his films is Persona, where Bibi Andersson's mute actress grapples with her nurse, played by Ullmann. The references to God are less explicit than in the earlier films (this was made in 1966) and the shocks - as in The Silence, made a few years earlier, both more psychic and cerebral.

Bergman is not too well-known for his humour though there was, in spite of the man's almost inveterate misanthropy, an unusual strain of humanity (if not quite humanism) in many of his films, such as the early To Joy and Summer with Monika (which was absurdly marketed as soft-porn in the 1950s US). As I said there are a number of gaps in my acquaintance with the films, even if I have seen all the major works; it is only Fanny and Alexander, his greatest success - it won four Oscars - that I am missing. Thankfully his films are available on very cheap double-DVDs here in France. So it might be a good time to get back to them. Whatever about the difficulties of the man it has to be acknowledged that he took a greater interest in Swedish cinema and theatre than might have been expected for a man of such stature. Until his last days he would watch every new Swedish release (among many other films) shipped out to his island home on Fårö in the Baltic Sea. One of the few younger directors that merited his praise was Lukas Moodysson, whose very un-Bergmanesque Fucking Åmål was hailed by the old master as the 'young master's first masterpiece'.

The Weekend's Football

A couple of heartening news stories from the world of football over the weekend; the bigger one was the triumph of Iraq in the final of the Asian Cup in Jakarta, winning the continental title for the first time ever with a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia, with a goal from Kurdish striker Younis Mahmoud. Iraq's players are preoccupied with greater troubles than most professional footballers, primarily the security of their friends and family. Though the win will bring welcome cheer to a people whose nightmare has got progressively worse over the past twenty years, the squad and their Brazilian manager João Vieria are keeping quite level-headed about the ultimate significance of the victory; Vieira said after the victory about the spate of suicide bombs that have accompanied the celebrations in Iraq: "Its very sad; we changed Iraq's history, and then these senseless killings happen. If we lose, people get killed. If we win, people still get killed." Simple but economical. It is unlikely that the Bush administration will be quite so brazen as to use the team's success as an electioneering stunt as they did when Iraq reached the Olympic semi-finals in Athens three years ago .

On a lighter note,Viktoria Berlin and Hanau 93 played out the, erm, delayed final of the 1894 German championship. Viktoria had been awarded the title by way of a walkover that year as the Hessian team were unable to fund the 250-mile-journey to Berlin to contest the final. The two teams, both amateur as they were back in the day, played out a two-legged final under the auspices of the Deutscher Fußball Bund, which Viktoria won 4-1 on aggregate, laying to rest any doubt about their right to the title won when Bismarck and Nietzsche were still strolling on German soil. Alles gute, then.

Back on Irish soil, Sligo's draw for their All-Ireland quarter-final was not the most favourable, pitting them against Cork at Croker next Saturday, the team that ended their All-Ireland campaign two years ago. But we're used to a good dose of fatalism down in Sligo. It won't do us any harm.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Liberation of the Bidet

The French left-wing daily Libération, which I refer to regularly here, has, in recent years tried to offset its falling sales by running a series of supplements over the summer months, often gimmicky and designed to catch the eye of casual readers. The 'Sex' supplement over the summer of two years ago was one, as was the compilation of 'faits divers', major murder stories - many of them recounted in explicit details - from Libé's pages over the past twenty years, which appeared a couple of weeks back. There has also been this summer a one-off 'opening-up' to journalists from the right-wing Figaro and L'Express, which had some regular readers spitting fire: one web forum commenter said, 'if I want to read Le Figaro, I'll buy it. A real opening-up would have been to invite left-wing journalists in'. Such an opinion is common among many of the French left, who see Libé, founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, as having sold out in recent years. Of course many on the right and many outsiders (including a leftist like myself) see it as almost predictably orthodox in matters of ideology. But French politics is peculiar at the best of times.

The most interesting supplement (or, to be completely accurate, feature) so far is running at the moment; it is a daily feature on the history and cultural symbolism of diverse objects, such as the TV remote control, the crucifix and, puzzlingly, today the butter - as opposed to cheese - wire. The most interesting though has been Tuesday's piece on the bidet, which, alas, I cannot find on the website. The jist of the article anyway was France's falling out of love with the bidet, which it invented and which was present in 95% of French homes during the 1970s. Now the frequency of bidets is much less common and the king of bidet users are the Italians - followed by the Spanish and Portuguese - all of whom would not dream of using the toilet for 'une grande commission', as the French would say, without following it by hopping onto the neighbouring bidet. Hence Italians tend to squeamish about using toilets outside their home. According to an interview with an Italian historian of hygiene and sanitation, it is considered bad form to use the bidet in a house you are visiting without first being permitted, in which case you will be provided with your own personal pile of towels. The same historian defends bidet use against charges of wasting water saying that it actually uses less than a shower does, which reminds me of P.J. O'Rourke sneer (aimed at the French) in Holidays in Hell, when he says that 'hygiene means cleaning all your body'.

The article also mentions the English's complete bafflement in the face of the bidet, while adding that English expats in the French provinces now scour antique shops looking for old specimens to furnish their bathrooms with. The bidet figured as the ultimate taboo in Carry On at Your Convenience, the one thing that Kenneth Williams' lavatory manufacturers Boggs & Co. would never deign to make, and it was this film that probably informed my own view of them as an object of derision while growing up. The only bidet I ever saw as a child was in the bathroom of our cousins in Kildare, progressive folk who went on European holidays, and I remember my sister telling me half-amused, half-scandalised, 'they have a bidet!' These days the presence of a bidet in French households can be troublesome to negotiate, not least because they are sometimes located for some insane reason in a bathroom separate to the toilet itself. At a house party I was at a couple of years back in an apartment thus ill-equipped many people mistook the bidet for something else. Not too endearing that, thankfully it appeared to be only for des petites commissions.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Les possibilités illimitées

I wrote last month of my chagrin regarding MK2's withdrawal from the fantastic Carte Le Pass scheme operated in collaboration with Gaumont and Pathé. I was worried about having to choose between MK2's new subscription offer and Le Pass, which continues to offer access to a number of independent cinemas in Paris, including two close to my home.

Now that MK2 have announced their new package, to be operational from September, I have no hesitation in choosing my camp. It will be with them, who have returned Pathé's shafting of them in taking their tenancy at Beaugrenelle by hopping into bed with the big boys of European multiplexes UGC, which will surely make Pathé regret their Machiavellian move, which probably seemed a good idea at the time. The new Carte Illimitée is valid at fifty cinemas in Paris, including all the UGC cinemas, all the MK2 outlets and all the independent cinemas, and more, that were covered by the Carte Le Pass. It also works for UGCs around France and in Belgium, Italy and Spain, should one happen to be travelling. All for €19.80 per month. There is, of course a downside to such an agglomoration though the French government stepped in (as French governments are oft wont to do) a few years back and instructed the big chains to open the scheme up to small, independent cinemas, who are reimbursed €4.90 for each ticket bought using the subscription cards.

MK2 also announced recently that they will be opening another multiplex in the 19th arrondissement - the north-east of Paris. Their last three multiplexes at Quai de la Seine, across the canal at Quay de la Loire, and beside the Bibliothèque Nationale, are the greatest of their kind I've ever seen anywhere. The new one should be great too. Now all one asks is that they open up their great new Video on Demand web service to Mac users; if you want to fight Internet piracy, give us the movies, I'll gladly pay!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Towards a Loud Rocking Playlist

I went off the drink for a few months last year, more to ultimately reacquaint myself with the pleasures of drinking than for any health reasons. Apart from losing six kilos in weight - the dessert per day I felt compelled to eat to compensate for the lost sugars seemed to have no effect - the most remarkable consequence was that I spent most of my time listening to quiet, acoustic guitar music. The soundtrack to my everyday life was provided by Nick Drake, Devendra Bahart, Sufjan Stevens, Vashti Bunyan, Planxty, early Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and others. I still listen to those but I have unconsciously reverted to loud-music mode; just as US soldiers prime themselves for 'battle' with blasts of Metallica and AC/DC I limber up for a night on the tiles with Death From Above 1979 (pictured) cranked up on my iPod. Here's a preliminary aggressive playlist; feel free to make any further suggestions:

  • 'Romantic Rights' - Death From Above 1979. A feral but perfectly danceable slab of metal disco. Best bit: when the sampled bleeps kick in in the second verse to the lines: 'South Carolina kid is heating things up/His wounds are bleeding and we're filling the cup.'
  • 'Konnichiba' - Shonen Knife. You could call it bubblegum pop if the main riff wasn't so fearsome. One of Kurt Cobain's favourite bands and underappreciated in their later-80s/early-90s heyday.
  • 'Pig' - Sparklehorse. The rest of the album 'Good Morning Spider' is more appropriate listening for the non-drinking Seanachie, and 'Pig' starts off as such, before getting very loud and hard. Best line: 'I want to be a tough-skinned bitch but I don't know how.'
  • 'Punch Me Harder' - Superchunk. I have to be honest: I haven't heard this song since I was 18 but I plan to track it down. The title says it all, from North Carolina, like the normally-placid Mark Linkous and Sparklehorse.
  • 'Baudelaire' - ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. From the album 'Source, Tags and Codes'. Loud, fast and aggressive. The Trail of Dead often sound a bit too much like a hard-rock Ben Folds Five for my liking but this track is the real deal.
  • 'Main Offender' - The Hives. You could have any Hives track on here, but the opening power chords on 'Main Offender' give it extra strength.
  • 'Fell in Love With a Girl' - The White Stripes. Again, Meg and Jack White could furnish an entire playlist of this sort on their own. This is merely the first and the fastest that springs to mind.
  • 'At 1am' - The Subways. Teeny-rockers The Subways aren't much cop but this early demo (that reappears as a hidden track on their debut album 'Young for Eternity') is a creditable stab at dirty garage.
  • 'Deathfall Priest' - The Jimmy Cake. Dublin arty types (and former denizens of Trinity College's JCR) are another band that more often play relaxed music. This cacophonous mix of accordions, brass, banjos and buzzsaw guitars is something different.
  • 'Annalisa' - Public Image Ltd. PiL's debut album is one of the great underrated records of all time and was influencing bands long before The Rapture and Franz Ferdinand had even heard of Gang of Four. Jah Wobble's thumping bass, Keith Levene's neighbour-from-hell guitar riff and John Lydon just wails. I'm sure there's melody in there somewhere.
  • 'Where Damage Isn't Already Done' - The Radio Dept. Swedish shoegazers get all rocky for once and everything is perfect. Rumbling bass, tin-pot drums, guitar lick the Valentines would be proud of.
  • 'Sucker' - Peaches. You could also choose 'Rock Show' from the mad Canadian's debut album but it sounds a bit prissy compared to this.
  • 'English Civil War' - The Clash. Many people don't like the Sandy Perlman-produced second album 'Give 'em Enough Rope' (it didn't even merit a mention in Julien Temple's Joe Strummer film) but a bit of distance from punk is helpful in recognising it for the impressive straight rock album that is. This cover of the old traditional ballad is damn good.
  • 'Gay Bar' - Electric Six. No seriously. It's all very inane but as hilarious as the best of the Farrelly brothers. Let's start a nuclear war...
  • 'Loose' - The Stooges. From 'Fun House'. I'm breaking the rules here as it has a bit too much of a bluesy swagger to be eligible. But I can't help smiling when I hear Iggy sings 'I'll stick it deep inside you/Because I'm loose'.
  • 'Melo do Vitiligo' - Bonde do Rolê. The Brazilians' Baile funk reworking of AC/DC's 'You Shook Me All Night Long' is not on the debut album 'Bonde do Rolê With Lasers' but is worth looking out for.
  • 'Everything's on TV - The Hellacopters. The side project of members of Swedish metal groups Entombed and Backyard Babies might be a bit mellow in comparison to their day-job and no less cheesy but sometimes you just crave a good polished, unselfconscious guitar riff. Innocence is bliss.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

An Extraordinary Joe

Despite having been a fan of The Clash since I was twelve I was wary of Julien Temple's documentary on the late Joe Strummer, mainly because rockumentaries are too often unilluminating elegies that rarely distance their human subjects from the icons that they became. The tendency of rock fans and 'critics' to take popular music a bit too seriously is also irritating. Things did not look too good when a friend of mine, who had seen it a couple of months ago and who is a Clash fan since the first album came out when he was sixteen, said that he hated Temple's film so much that not since Oliver Stone's The Doors did he await the demise of the hero with such relish.

Temple though is a capable director of music films, even if there have been a few duds along the way, such as Absolute Beginners. His two films on the Sex Pistols The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury are riotously enjoyable and the opening hour of the Strummer film is amusingly interspersed - in Michael Moore fashion - with footage from Lindsay Anderson's If..., the animated film version of Animal Farm and the 1950s BBC production of 1984, with Peter Cushing as Winston Smith. While Temple's editing is none-too-subtle the choice of Orwell is shrewd as The Clash were a band whose intelligent and quite often pragmatic parsing of political views was very much in the tradition of the independent Left to which Orwell belonged. The Clash were to the forefront of the struggle against the National Front, and as Roland Gift of Fine Young Cannibals points out in the film, they opened punk up to young black British people, with their appropriation of reggae, dub and soul, and later hip-hop, which they did before rap and hip-hop became mainstream. The Clash however also had a clear-sighted view of racial politics and as tracks such as 'White Riot', 'White Man in Hammersmith Palais' and 'Safe European Home' attest, they were never naive enough to believe that reality reflected their own admirable ideals.

Testimonies are offered by people that knew Strummer from an early age such as his relatives and his schoolmates, and by collaborators from the Clash years and the long difficult times that followed. There are also a number of celebrity fans on hand. Some of the interviewees are spot-on, such as Zander Schloss, Jim Jarmusch, Don Letts, Bobby Gillespie and Jesús Aría, a Spanish friend of Strummer's. Others are balefully inane, such as John Cusack, Johnny Depp and Bono, all of whom deliver their peroration with the flatulent gravitas of a South Bank Show interview. The tone is naturally respectful but the more difficult sides of Strummer's character, particularly his avowed Stalinist single-mindedness and his tendency to sleep with his friend's girlfriends, are also included. Where the film scores best is its treatment of the barren years in the late 80s and early 90s when Strummer was adrift and wandering in a creative wilderness. The fact that someone as previously successful as Strummer could have suffered from such a lack of confidence is salutary and makes his comeback when he made a number of fine albums with the Mescaleros in the years before his death all the more remarkable.

There are a number of potential interviewees surprisingly missing, especially Paul Simenon, who, with his successful painting career and return to music with The Good, the Bad and the Queen, could not be considered media-shy. Also absent are Alex Cox, with whom Strummer worked a lot in the years after The Clash, and the Pogues, who can be credited with kick-starting Strummer's drive when they hired him to stand in for the sacked Shane McGowan on tour in 1991.

There are many cynics, myself included, that have sneered at the fashionable lefty that the public-school-educated John Mellor became (I used to refer to him as 'Joe Slummer'), but the film refutes this and the ultimate stamp of magnanimous approval is provided by the hard-as-nails working-class Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols who says that there was no bullshit about Strummer. Instead we see a man who devoted absurd amounts of time to his fans, had a heartening appetite for seeking out new music from anywhere in the whole world, and who was sickened to hear that, during the first Gulf War, American bombs dropped on Baghdad were daubed with the slogan 'Rock the Casbah'. The fact that Strummer and Mick Jones reunited for the only time, not for a corporate tour that might have made them millions, but for a benefit for striking London firemen in 2002, says everything about a man who had his priorities right. This is one reverential rockumentary that is worth watching. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, July 19, 2007

What I've Just Discovered Completely By Accident

I use the Mac OS X Exposé function all the time (this is the one that allows you to zip easily between open application windows using the F9 and Tab keys) and it's not surprising that Microsoft ripped it off to give Windows Vista a patina of user-friendliness. Like many new Mac users though I had to be told by someone else about it a few months after I bought my computer a couple of years ago. What I wasn't told was that by pressing F11 (which I just did, by accident) it shrinks all open windows to a tiny square allowing you to access stuff on your desktop. Simple but really helpful. The joys of the little things in life...

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Suicides at Peugeot-Citroën

I stopped into Café Divan on rue de la Roquette this morning on the way to work, as I often do when I don't start too early. The only paper free was the local tabloid Le Parisien, which wasn't so bad as it is entertaining enough, an intellectual cut or two above its English-language counterparts and possessed of a charmingly innocent editorial voice. Many French people I know despise it but others find it a welcome change from the ideologically driven 'serious' press and an Australian friend of mine is of the opinion that reading it regularly will allow one to quickly understand Paris.

Today's issue had a number of interesting stories, such as Socialist Party veteran, and former Culture secretary calling for the position of Prime Minister to be abolished, weighing firmly in with the Présidentialiste tendencies of Nicolas Sarkozy. Newly-appointed Keeper of the Seals (or Minister for Justice, as other countries would have it), the French-Moroccan Rachida Dati, has also had to endure the story of her junkie brother's latest brush with the law, having been convicted at the Lyon assizes for drug-dealing.

The cover story was the most arresting however (as Le Parisien operates a subscription-only web service, I will refer to Libé for a link); the PSA Peugeot-Citroën factory plant in Mulhouse (in the east of France) yesterday experienced its fifth employee suicide since February, in addition to one at another of its plants. A retired plant-worker, since turned writer, told Le Parisien that the culture of internal competitiveness generated by management in the past twenty years has destroyed staff morale and generated a poisonous atmosphere among the workers. The implementation of a bonus system among the workers has been mainly blamed and has resulted in a breakdown in worker solidarity and an every-man-for-himself mentality. The pressure has also been too much for some.

There will be those free marketeers, particularly from English-speaking countries, that will smile cynically at this predicament of the French working-classes, seeing it as yet further proof of the laziness of the French worker, cosseted as it is in the 35-hour working week and a costly social-welfare safety net. But French productivity remains among the highest in the world (20% higher than the UK) , so questions as to the diligence and industriousness of French workers can be easily dismissed. When people are ending their own lives in such dramatic fashion there are serious questions to be asked. The French culture of working to live rather than living to work may have a certain role to play in stunting economic growth but it would be stupid to imagine that this has turned its workers into pampered softies unable for the pressures of the modern world.

These issues were addressed last year in the documentary on work-related illnesses Ils ne mouraient pas tous mas tous étaient frappé, which I have not seen, but now seems all the more urgent. Later on today Libé reported that a 48-year-old female employee of the nuclear energy group Areva defenestrated herself; there are more alarming stories included in both of those articles.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bubbling Over

Eytan Fox's Israeli film The Bubble is a curiosity in that it has enough basic flaws to be considered downright bad but side by side with all these faults exists a surprising level of sophistication and radicalism that not only save the film but make it recommended viewing. This bizarre dichotomy is, structurally at least, reminiscent of Israeli society where some very unsavoury reactionary elements coexist with admirably progressive ones.

Fox is one of the progressive Israelis, as are most of the characters in the film, though he is realistic enough to realise that such voices are rare and isolated in contemporary Israeli society. The title of the film refers to the bubble that the secular, cosmopolitan leftists of Tel Aviv live in; the characters are similar to young people in most Western cities, working in graphic design, fancy restaurants, drug-taking, relaxed about sex (particularly gay sex) and so on. The film's trigger occurs when record-store owner Noam returns from his six-month military service at a West Bank checkpoint, meeting a handsome young Palestinian named Ashraf, with whom he starts a gay relationship. Ashraf is quickly absorbed into Noam's circle, as he speaks Hebrew with an Israeli accent (he is played by the Israeli Arab actor Joe Sweid) and is passed off as a Jew.

So far, so Romeo and Juliet. Except of course that the dramatic tension is missing because Ashraf's identity is unknown to the Jews in Tel Aviv and his whereabouts and sexuality unknown to his family back home in Nablus. When Ashraf's cover is blown in the restaurant he's been waiting tables in, he flees back to the West Bank, where his future brother-in-law Gihad, a radicalised Hamas operative, has plans to marry him off to his cousin. Fox and co-screenwriter Gal Uchovsky engineer the plot movements rather clumsily and the film never really convinces in this respect. The young friends also organise a beach party ('Rave against the occupation', as they call it) which they advertise all over Tel Aviv but which manages to attract only about a hundred people.

It is rather in the characterisation and the shrewd political intelligence of the film that The Bubble succeeds. While the young Israelis are sympathetic towards the plight of the Palestinians they have little real understanding of it and are themselves hidebound by their own received wisdom. Fox similarly offers a clear-eyed but sympathetic understanding of Arab family life. The dénouement is something that will have audiences (particularly in the Middle East) arguing over for months to come; some will see it as naïve or even grotesque, others (like me) will view it as a touching and credible synthesis of the tragedy that confronts ordinary people in the whirlwind of political crises such as engulf Israel and Palestine. Fox's film, like its predecessors Yossi and Jaeger and the international hit Walk on Water is unmistakably humanist and conciliatory but it cuts no corners in its analyses of Israeli reaction to terrorism or Palestinian rationale for the same. Its humane portrayal of Arabs alone makes it worth seeing and the opening scene where a Palestinian woman goes into labour at a checkpoint is a tour-de-force.

I also saw Tom di Cillo's latest film Delirious, in which Steve Buscemi's deadbeat paparazzo sees his formerly homeless assistant Michael Pitt rise to fame and bed booty-shaking R&B diva Alison Lohmann. The film is supremely inane in both conception and execution; Buscemi is on auto-pilot, Pitt is his usual catatonic self and you yearn to have both him and a cheap gun within easy reach. A measure of how stupid and sloppily-made the film is is provided by the recurrent sight of the boys getting pissed on what are clearly bottles of non-alcoholic Beck's. And Elvis Costello is in it for some reason; he must owe someone money. A lot of money.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Not In Time for the Gypsies

I had planned to post on Emir Kusturica's opera production of his own film The Time of the Gypsies (in which he himself stars with his group The No-Smoking Orchestra), which finishes today at the Opéra Bastille and, having been sold out for the last week, was playing a Bastille Day matinée, which was free of charge. So I arrive two hours before the curtain, hopeful of grabbing a place; my naïvete was misplaced however as the queue had already begun to snake long out of sight up rue de Lyon. My guess was that there were already 1,000 people in line, which suggests that there would not be room for them all. I wasn't sure of the capacity of the theatre but I wasn't going to wait two hours to find out. By way of consolation, the film is running at Le Champo, so I think I'll give it another look this week.

Parity of Esteem

Another Twalfth has passed and as this charming Flickr photo album will attest, the sales of Irish tricolours along the Shankill show no signs of decreasing. Unfortunately I couldn't get hold of the 'money shot' with the Irish flag bearing the legend 'KAT' (Kill all Taigs), which can however be viewed here, courtesy of Slugger O'Toole. Slugger also reports that in Coleraine, a placard on one bonfire mocked the recent death of a 16-old Catholic schoolboy, and Loyalist paramilitaries threatened to kill his father after he removed it.

What I want to know is where is the chorus of condemnation from mainstream Unionism, those folks usually so fond of (rightly) calling on Republicans to condemn violence done in their name? Instead the main condemnation was of the DUP for bending its resolve and making a painful compromise with the Shinners. The Irish Times, meanwhile focussed more on the environmental threat posed by the bonfires (a genuine concern but not the priority in this context).

I have no quarrel with the Orange Order celebrating their day, provided there is no triumphalism and no intimidation of other people, as has been the case with the marches on the Garvaghy and Ormeau Roads in the past. When there is nobody that really cares, as with the marches in Rossnowlagh, the marches go off peacefully but, I suppose that would defeat the purpose for many Orangemen. For more than ten years there have been Twelfth celebrations at Áras an Uachtarán, which is a remarkably magnanimous gesture from its Northern Catholic incumbent.

Nobody is suggesting that Paisley and the Orange Order should start commemorating the Easter Rising but for some Ulster Unionists, a Republican acknowledgement of their traditions is not enough. Now, another 'Love Ulster' parade is planned for Dublin in August or September; the go-ahead has been given, which I say is fair enough. But what do the organisers want exactly? They state that they wish to highlight the Protestant victims of Republican violence, while being seemingly oblivious to the fact that the majority of people in the Republic were fully aware of those murders and abhorred them. There is a discomfiting (and most aberrant) use of the imperative in 'love' there. If you ask me, there is something vaguely vampiric about it. No doubt there will be a few teenage yobs on hand to hurl projectiles at the marchers (despite the exhortations of even Republican Sinn Féin) and they'll trot back over the border happy, confirmed in their bigoted preconceptions about the Republic. When will Ulster unionism grow up and cease cleaving to its persecution complex?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Another Fine Messi

I mentioned the Copa America last week and, like most other people in Europe I haven't been able to follow much of it on TV. I don't have access at home to any of the channels showing it and the time difference is a bit too punishing to go watch it in any of the bars where I might see it. Last night, two friends, one Argentinian, one Mexican, invited me to watch the semi-final between their two countries, which looked like it would be a great match, given the last two games between the two sides, in the Confederations Cup two years ago, and then in Leipzig in last year's World Cup round of 16. But, early work this morning deterred me and I have been hearing all day about yet another wonder goal by Lionel Messi. I managed to track it down on the copyright-infringing extravaganza that is YouTube. Sit back and enjoy.

Rainy Parade

Seanachie, it appears, has been banned from Eamonn Fitzgerald's Rainy Day blog, or so he thinks following the suppression of two innocuous comments he posted recently. One was on Martin Amis' puff piece on the departure of Tony Blair (I opined that Amis was a lot better when he was writing about darts, a subject more his measure than world politics) and the other on Live Earth (I pointed out that the Catholic church - who Eamonn rather likes - has a similar stance on consumerism to that of the German Greens, which he was sneering at). Both failed to get through moderation.

I have always found Rainy Day a curiosity, a well-written erudite blog with some great web discoveries, particularly in the field of music, which Eamonn knows quite a lot about. Its frankly barmy politics, with a vertical integration of neocon support for the failed war in Iraq, unqualified admiration for Pope Benedict XVI and flat earth global-warming scepticism have always puzzled me, as one would think that a man who likes Christopher Hitchens so much might be more heterodox in his political leanings. But the Left likes to line up its causes in a predictable way so there's no reason why a man of the Right can't either; Rainy Day is still an enjoyable read and will not be banished from my RSS feeds, despite the perceived unsuitability of Seanachie's occasional barracking.

Happy Birthday to Underachievement

Those people that regularly check out this blog will know that over the past month or so the frequency of the posts has dipped a little; working a lot more is one of the reasons for this but it has also been my intention to cut down on the blogging in favour of other writing. Posting here less often is a healthy sign in my opinion.

So my slimmed-down devotion resulted in me missing my own birthday yesterday, or the Underachievement birthday rather. Started two days after France's World Cup final defeat to Italy in order to fill a hole and, most importantly, to give me something to write at a time when the well was particularly dry, the blog has been a diversion from day one. At times it has threatened to become a distraction, especially when I started poring over blog tracker statistics, as most other bloggers will testify to. I don't plan to shut it down any time soon, though the posts are likely to remain as sporadic as they have been recently. If I do something silly like buy an iPhone, the increased mobility might result in a rise in posts but that would be a very sad life I'd be writing about.,

Monday, July 09, 2007

I'd Be Late for my Own Funeral...

I have waited literally my entire life for Sligo to win a Connacht Championship; when I first saw the world in October 1975, Barnes Murphy's men were the reigning champions, only the second title in their history, though the lustre of their replay win in the provincial final had been lost by their hammering at the hands of the mighty Kerry team of Eoin Liston, Jack O'Shea, Mikey Sheehy et al in the All-Ireland semi-final in the eighth month of my gestation.

There have been three provincial final defeats since, in 1981 and 1997 against Mayo and five years ago against Galway, when Sligo later defeated Tyrone and ran eventual All-Ireland champions Armagh to three points in a replay. The latter two finals were contested by men that were very much my own generation and I'd played underage football football and soccer against many of them. I was at the final defeat by Mayo ten years ago and followed the campaigns of five and six years ago on TV. This makes my failure to remember yesterday's final, which resulted in a 1-10 to 0-12 win over Galway, all the more embarrassing and unforgivable. It was a text message from my mother, who was at the game, that told me the good news. I wait every minute of my existence for the unthinkable to happen (and this year the prospect of a provincial final win was particularly unthinkable) and when it does, I am, as it were, at the bar, or in queue for the jacks, if you will.

Even worse, I have been unable to see the edited highlights on RTÉ's news streaming because of foreign broadcast rights. No sign of it yet either on YouTube. Apart from one Sligo person I know over here, there is no-one to celebrate it with either. How can one savour a moment in isolation? I suppose people did it easily enough in the pre-Setanta era but that's no consolation. I won't be missing the quarter-final clash, whenever it is, and whoever it's against.

Apple Lossless

A couple of months back I listed a number of items I have lost over the years, many of them things I have since managed well enough without, the loss of which having occasioned only a temporary frustration. The weekend just passed almost added my iPod to the list, as at the double birthday party of two friends in a bar near Porte de la Villette on Friday night, I returned to pick it up from where a friend was mixing only to find that it had disappeared. Being among friends I didn't suspect it stolen and the presence of a similar apparatus, with a similar cover suggested that it might have been taken by accident. It had in fact been mistakenly given by my friend to a friend of the owner of the other iPod in question. After about twelve hours' worrying and resignation to its loss, its whereabouts were located and I collected it off a personable Mexican filmmaker called Juan on Sunday evening.

There are few things I carry about that I worry about losing - my laptop is obviously one, whenever I have it out and about, as is my wallet, for equally obvious reasons; another is my notebook (or notebooks) and I generally have good luck with them when I do lose them, my mobile phone is another, more to avoid the hassle and expense of replacing it, and since I bought it last November, my iPod is another. These are the only things that I keep on my person whenever I go out, entrusting them to nobody, and when people lose phones and mp3-players that they have left in jackets or bags lying in corners of bars I don't have a huge amount of sympathy. Nor did I have much sympathy for myself after my rare lapse of vigilance the other night. Which makes me feel guilty that I should attach such importance to such a clearly unimportant thing. It is truly dispiriting to evaluate loss in terms of consumer goods, and the fact that it has come back to a stupidly piggish consumer (as I am wont to see myself) induces a sort of consumer's remorse at this level of effeteness that I have allowed myself to attain. I soon got over my angst by putting Icky Thump on the retrieved toy, as well as Richard Hawley's 'Cole Corner', which I have dallied far too long over getting hold of. Thanks once again, Tim.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Not Their Cup of Tea

The Copa America - or the South American Championships - is a competition that is largely overlooked in Europe, because of the remoteness of South America and also because of the large time difference. This is a shame as the standard of football is always excellent and there are often spectacular upsets such as a few years back when Honduras beat Brazil 2-0 on their way to the semi-finals.

This year's edition is taking place in Venezuela, the only country on the continent that has never reached a World Cup finals - the Venezuelans are more given to baseball. As has been the case for the past ten years, there are two guest teams, and this year those are Mexico and the US, who recently fought out the CONCACAF Gold Cup in Chicago (the corresponding tournament for the North and Central American and Caribbean confederation), which was won for the second time running by the US. Interestingly the Americans decided to leave their best players at home for what is, unarguably the more prestigious tournament, the Copa America. They were duly dumped out of the tournament after defeats by Argentina, Paraguay and Colombia. Mexico have treated the tournament with a lot more respect, defeating Brazil and Ecuador to reach the quarter-finals.

I can't help suspecting that the US decision to leave its best players at home was a politically-motivated one, to act as a snub against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. If this was the case, it was also a graceless piece of isolationism that managed to disrespect the whole of South American football too. And of course it plays into Chávez's hands too, who has been revelling in the failure of el imperio while seeing the Venezuelan minnows advance to the quarter-finals for the first time, winning their first game in the tournament in forty years. I don't have much time for Chávez, who is much too given to populist show-boating that is completely unnecessary given his level of popularity, and which most often fails to benefit Venezuela, but he is no more a dictator than George W. Bush is, having secured democratic mandates far more convincingly than Dubya. As for his recent refusal to renew a license to an opposition television station, I would think that many of his critics in North America and Europe would have acted in a similar fashion and much more swiftly to deal with a media source that openly fomented a military coup.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Saving Face

I shut down my MySpace about six months ago after a few months of non-activity that followed the initial enthusiasm. Realising that I didn't really care about when the new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album was coming out and annoyed at the amount of time the site crashed, I vowed never to waste my time on a social-networking site again.

Then there came Facebook; I signed up a couple of months back, just to look around, which means I'm probably one of the few that came to it rather than it come to them via a friend's invitation. It was only a month later when a friend of mine joined up that I got going in earnest. Facebook is capable of being a black hole for one's time every bit as much as MySpace though i have found that I waste far less time on it, because of the very sensible policy of limiting profile browsing to your own networks and friends, and, from what I can tell, there are no rock groups on there either, plaguing you with unwanted bulletins. Facebook also seems to be free from the spam that has come to be MySpace's stock-in-trade. The best time-saving feature of Facebook however is its integration with other web applications that I already use, such as Last.fm, del.icio.us, Digg and Blogger. Many American online news sources have already oriented their news stories to be shared on Facebook and one's web browser can be easily adapted to do the same.

One thing I have noticed about Facebook though is that most of the people I know that are on it are old friends, and many of them were never on MySpace. It has been remarked recently that there is a large class (and even race) divide between the two sites, which is not too surprising as Facebook originated on the Harvard campus and has been open to outsiders only since last September. Given the rapid rise in users, this imbalance is likely to level out however. All the same it was significant that the US military in Iraq recently banned the use of MySpace (which is predominantly used by soldiers) while allowing the use of Facebook (mainly used by officers).

For the moment Facebook is more geared towards grownups, though, like MySpace, it is very much what you make of it yourself. But there still remains the lingering sense of shame among many of its thirtysomething users: are we too old for it? Are these social-networking sites a sign of latent infantilisation? Perhaps but the future of social networking may well be for older people. As this article on the Beeb's website suggested a couple of months back, the people that might benefit best from social networking are middle-aged people recently divorced or even the elderly. The young, after all, do very little on Facebook and MySpace other than lark about with the friends they already know. For some older users, networks could be a vital escape from loneliness and alienation.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Farewell to Edward Yang

The Taiwanese director Edward Yang sadly passed away on Sunday, of cancer, at the age of 59. Yang had directed only seven films, most of which were not well known in the West, with the exception of his brilliant period youth movie A Brighter Summer's Day (the title comes from 'Love me Tender') and his last film Yi-Yi, for which he won the Best Director award at Cannes seven years ago.

I managed to see four of his films around the time Yi-Yi got released and the screening of A Brighter Summer's Day was one of my most bizarre cinema experiences ever. A packed house settled down to watch the three-hour film for the first of two weekend screenings on a Saturday afternoon in the IFC; we were a little confused to see the film start abruptly with a street fight, and the film continued with little or no reference points offered to distinguish one character from another. After about twenty minutes, when the opening credits rolled, it dawned on us: the reels had been mounted in the wrong order. The film stopped for five minutes and everybody was informed that they could get a refund or a ticket to the following day's screening. We all filed out of the cinema, though I was one of the last to be able to get out, when suddenly the film started rolling again. Knowing that films need to be run through the projector once they are loaded, I settled back into my seat to watch the rest of the film, as did a handful of other people. About an hour later, the subtitle track began to slip below the screen so I ran out to the box office to ask them to rectify it; the guy at the box office, who I knew well enough from regular visits, gave me a horrified look, and said, as if out of a disaster movie, 'Are there still people in there?'

Even jumbled up, the film was great, and though I would place Yang behind his compatriots Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, it is a bad thing that he will be making no more films.

Supporting Rolê

I've been neglecting the blog again, partly because of being overworked, partly because I've been writing other stuff and partly because I enjoy taking a break from it every so often. At the weekend I went to see Bonde do Rolê play a free gig at Parc André Citroën, which, given that it cost me absolutely nothing, was probably the most rewarding gig I've ever been at, not least because we got to have a very drunken natter with them afterwards. The music, by the by, was great too, as their debut album, 'Bonde do Rolê with Lasers' is.

I also saw a superb French documentary about American political opinion entitled Kings of the World, filmed in the month before the 2004 presidential elections. It is refreshingly lacking in lazy European preconceptions about Americans and it benefits from having an amazing cast of ordinary Joes and Joannas to interview, the pick of whom are a witty, Union-supporting cocktail waitress from Reno, Nevada; a boorish, cantankerous Bush-supporting beef rancher also from Nevada; a cross-dressing performance artist from Salt Lake City, and a multi-racial liberal family from San Francisco, whose dinner party even manages to sound interesting. Filmed on what I can only imagine was a shoestring, it is a gripping piece of incisive reportage that is a fitting successor to those great French studies of American society conducted by Tocqueville, Derrida, Baudrillard and Louis Malle.

Here's the video for Bonde do Rolê's 'Office Boy' for diversion: