Friday, September 14, 2007

Great Scot!

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

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

Keeping us in Czech

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

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

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Yous and Whose Army?

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

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

After You...Non, Pleeze After You

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Bratislava Pack

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

Not Gone on the Rugby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Recent Films

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

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

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

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