Monday, December 22, 2008

Underachievement Films of the Year

Another year at the movies and another good one. Too often we hear jeremiads about the decline of cinema and the lack of good films out there (of course, such gripes are usually based on a diet of English-language cinema, which is far from being the world’s most interesting at the best of times). But this year, like last, showed that there are talented filmmakers from the whole world over forging visions that go beyond mere careerism or empty derivativeness. Another heartening thing is many of them are young and can expect to have long careers ahead of them.

Of course I have to admit that, living in Paris, I am more privileged than most when it comes to the choice of cinema on offer but with the internet the possibility of films accessing wider markets is considerable and the films I have listed all deserve to be seen by people any where in the world. My list, of a top ten listed in order, and a few dozen more listed in no particular order, is naturally a subjective one and in the top ten in particular there are a number of recurring themes and subjects, such as crime, war, urbanism, immigration and class politics. And many of the better films of the year seem to be pitched precariously between fiction and documentary reality, something I personally think gives cinema the frisson that no other art form can really provide. There are also films there for pure enjoyment, such as The Dark Knight, the best of the Batmans so far, the hilarious Tropic Thunder and Jean-Christophe Richet’s exhilarating two-film biopic of legendary French bank robber Jacques Mesrine.

The fact I live in Paris means that some of you will be surprised by some inclusions; there will be films that will have played elsewhere before this year and there will be many others that will have yet to come to a cinema near you. The basic rule for inclusion is a cinema release, no matter how small, in France in 2008 though I have bent the rule on one occasion, of which more later.

There were no new revelations of national cinemas though Brillante Mendoza’s two fine films Foster Child and Serbis seem to herald an emergence of Philippine cinema, while Eric Khoo once again put Singapore on the map with My Magic. France had an annus mirabilis, with a Palme d’Or win, two Oscars for La Môme (or La vie en rose as you might know it by), a domestic box-office record for the slight but likeable Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis and a range of fine films, of a variety unseen since the 1960s. Germany continues to make brilliant social dramas, as does Argentina, while Israel and Portugal are still producing strong films. Italy, that titan of post-war cinema, has been stuck in an impasse of mediocre, middle-brow films for a few decades now but there are promising signs. Two Cannes favourites, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah and the forthcoming Il Divo by Paolo Sorrentino have a vitality that has been missing from the Peninsula’s once great cinema for a long time. American cinema had a better than usual year too with a couple of decent films in for the Oscars, Oliver Stone’s biopic of Bush, his best film in over a decade, and James Gray’s stunning Two Lovers. While the rot in Hollywood is probably too deep set for it to ever become a consistent producer of great cinema again there should remain pockets of excellence.

As the financial crisis grips the world, one might be forgiven for thinking that a big casualty will be cinema, particularly films that don’t give a very great return on their investment. It’s hardly the world’s most pressing problem but a downturn in production at a time of such great inventiveness would be a shame. In any case there’s a backlog of plenty of good films if you find yourself having nothing left to watch. Enjoy whatever you choose off the list and apologies in advance for the lack of subtitles on some of the trailers and clips, and have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

1. La Graine et le mulet (Adbelketif Kechiche - France)
Released just before Christmas in France last year, Adbelketif Kechiche's La graine et le mulet was an important breakthrough for French and European cinema. Kechiche hasn't exactly come from nowhere - his previous film L'Esquive won best picture at the Césars three years ago - but the jolt felt by this marvellously ambitious and inventive feature was such that you had a sense of seeing cinema entirely anew.

Frank O'Connor once said in an essay on the short story that a good story was comparable to the effect of seeing a circus strongman bend a barbell; you don't see how it happens, you don't understand how it happens but you accept that it does. The effect of La graine et le mulet is similar. Kechiche started off as an actor in the films of André Techiné and he has inherited his mentor's astutely deft handling of ensembles and his clear-eyed humanism. The film tells the tale of Sliman, a Maghrebin sexagenarian living in Sète in the south of France, who after being laid off his job renovating boats in the town's harbour, decides to do one up himself and open a couscous restaurant on it. So far so banal, this hoary old tale is given extra pertinence for the fact that its protagonist is so firmly outside the French system that simple scenes such as visiting the bank and the local authorities are invested with unbearable tension and discomfort. Sliman is assisted by Rym the daughter of his common-law partner, a resourceful young woman, who works the system, herself half in the dark as to its labyrinthine intricacies.

There is also Sliman's family, from whom he is not estranged, despite having left his wife, and who each have their own marital problems, and Sliman suffers from high-blood pressure, which his fondness for chocking four sugars into his coffee doesn't help. Sliman's efforts to open the restaurant hinge on a gamble; he plans a one-off gourmet night, which he hopes will be a success and convince investors and bureaucrats of the soundness of his business capabilities.

Everything about the film ought to work against it; Kechiche uses non-professional actors and improvises heavily, he shoots long takes and lingers on small dramatic details. And the simplicity of the plot would be hard to get past most producers in this day and age. But Kechiche pulls it all off, mainly because he understands so well how cinema works, how much it is a fusion of the kinetics of human drama and the strange fabric of familiar everyday life. The film's magic is a fine balancing act between sociological observation of an immigrant community and dramatic exploration of a group that fleshes the characters out as the film develops.

The film's resounding success in France, where it did very well at the box office for a low-budget film without any stars, and also won Kechiche another brace of Césars, was even more remarkable. It also introduced Hafsia Herzi, a 22-year-old law student from Marseille, in the role of Rym. She herself won a César for best female newcomer and is likely to become a star, having stolen the show with a belly dance (which she put on 6 kilos to perform) that marks the film's dizzying climax. Internationally its success was not so great, hampered by a lack of big names and the awful title 'Couscous' but it will be a film that will last. Kechiche, along with Rabah Ameur-Zaïche and Karim Dridi, is part of a fine generation of French-Arab filmmakers who tell the stories of an oft-ignored and maligned community. But what marks these films out is their lucidity, their universalism and their clear lack of bitterness. If French society might be a long way from its Obama moment, its cinema is getting there.

Trailer for La graine et le mulet:

2.Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman – Israel)
Folman’s dazzlingly innovatively animated documentary was most people’s favourite to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and though the eventual winner, Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs, was a fine film, Waltz with Bashir was probably the best in competition. Folman builds on his own experiences of serving as a conscript in the Israeli Defence Force in the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Unlike some of his former comrades he cannot remember anything from the time so he interviews others, fellow soldiers, military commanders and journalists to piece the personal history together.

The film is a harrowing, yet matter-of-fact exploration of the war that veers from hallucinogenic phantasmagoria to moments of keen psychological observation. Folman’s blocking out of his memories is undoubtedly linked to the guilt of the Israelis guiding the Christian Phalangist militias to the refugee camp of Sabra and Chatila, where they massacred thousands of Palestinian civilians. The film closes with real footage of the slain bodies, which provides an uncomfortable jolt after the stylised animation of the previous hour and a half. As Israeli cinema continues through a period of unprecedented creativity, Folman’s film will serve as a great introduction to the country’s films. It also stands, along with the majestic documentary work of Avi Mograbi, as testimony to the troubled conscience of a country that is both infused with an extreme self-righteousness and so often is subject to a similar righteousness on the part of its critics.

Trailer for Waltz with Bashir:

3.Two Lovers (James Gray – USA)
After being underwhelmed by Gray’s first two features, Little Odessa and The Yards, despite signs of promise in both, I never expected much from the New York filmmaker. But last year’s cop family drama We Own the Night was one of the best films of the year and a refreshingly intelligent and unpretentious answer to Scorsese’s preposterously overrated The Departed. Gray is, you could say, the true heir to the great Scorsese of old that we have seen so little of over the past twenty years. All his films have been set in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn and are steeped in the atmosphere of the down-at-heel neighbourhood. Gray also reminds you of many of the finer forensic observers in the history of cinema, the Bergmans, the Rossellinis, the Ozus.

Two Lovers is a departure from the crime films of Gray’s previous work, being a simple yet psychologically sophisticated love story involving a young man with a troubled past. Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Leonard Kraditor, jilted for his medical history and who struggles to rehabilitate himself having moved back into his parents. His parents encourage him to start a relationship with Sandra, the daughter of another Jewish businessman, and she is all game. But the irrational call of love incites him to look elsewhere, towards Michelle, the glamorous blonde who has moved in upstairs. She finds him charming, indulges him but is ultimately uninterested. It’s a banal tale of unrequited infatuation that will be familiar to everyone, but Gray films it with the same tautness as he did his tales of hoodlums and hard-nosed cops. It is one of the most psychologically plausible love stories ever to have been put to film and Phoenix’s performance is such that you hope his current retirement from acting will be only temporary.

Trailer for Two Lovers:

4.Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone – Italy)
The young Italian writer Roberto Saviano was already in hiding before the release of this film version of his best-selling non-fiction book but the film’s success can hardly have helped his security situation. The film examines the Comorra, the Neapolitan mafia, and its tentacular reach into all sectors of Italian business and society. The film departs from the book by dispensing with the narrative voice, which was Saviano himself, who occupied a recklessly central role in his tale. What we are left with are six distinct tales told in a sober, dispassionate manner, similar to Alan Clarke’s Elephant or Gus Van Sant’s of the same name. Tim Parks has complained that the film lacks an oppositional force, a crusader that might represent resistance to the thuggery of the Naples mob. But this misses the point of the film, which is to resurrect the mob film from the relativistic morass and the dubious glamour it has been mired in for near on thirty years now. It is significant that the two young numskulls that try to muscle their way onto the turf of much more formidable men should be beholden to Brian de Palma’s Scarface. But Gomorrah has little truck with the mythologizing of that film – its gangsters are brutal thugs that bully their way around any situation, fascists in shellsuits.

The film is bleak in that it declines to offer a way out for anyone, the only characters that manage to opt out do so at the expense of their career. But it’s a timely film for its frankness in tackling the canker of organised crime from a left-wing point of view without making facile, shopworn observations about how it’s simply another extension of mainstream capitalism. The Comorra is deeply embedded in mainstream capital but the film makes no attempt to exonerate the organisation because of its unorthodox status.

Trailer for Gomorrah:

5.Night and Day (Hong Sang-Soo – South Korea/France)
I’ve been a fan of Hong’s unassuming intimiste dramas for a few years but Night and Day took me by surprise. Going to Paris to make a film has by now become almost an obligation for Asia’s top directors and Hong follows the lead of Tsai Ming-Liang, Nobuhiro Suwa and Hou Hsiao-Hsien with this tale of a Korean artist, Kim Sung-nam, who flees to France having been ratted out to the police by an American backpacker for sharing a joint. That starting point is representative of the film as a whole, which is a succession of brilliantly filmed episodes, most of which could themselves pass as self-contained stories. Kim loafs about Paris in the cocoon of its tiny Korean immigrant community, meets a former girlfriend by accident, has a falling-out with a North Korean over an unguarded comment about Kim Jong-Il, develops an ill-advised infatuation for a young, narcissistic art student and pines for his wife back home. The film’s tagline is ‘everything is as it seems’, which puts it fairly well. Not only a fine film in its own right but also one of the few that offers a foreign perspective on Paris without falling into clichéd and banal observations.

Trailer for Night and Day:

6.En construcción/Dans la ville de Sylvia (José Luis Guerín – Spain/France)
My own big discovery of the year, and I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of Guerín before now. I have to admit I’m cheating a bit by putting En construcción here as it was made in 2001, but as it was released simultaneously with the only slightly less brilliant Dans la ville de Sylvia, I feel entitled to bend the rules. The earlier film is half-documentary, half-film essay about the demolition of a building in the Barrio Chino, Barcelona’s old red-light district that was built in 1900 and is to meet its end in the dying months of the century. The film observes unobtrusively the inhabitants of the old quarter now being moved out as the area faces gentrification, the North African workers building the replacement apartment block and Guerín even had the boon of the workers discovering Roman remains during the excavation.
Dans la ville de Sylvia is an oblique film about a young man looking for a lost love while visiting Strasbourg. While very different from the earlier film, it does however share its warmth and its feeling for the lived urban environment. There are few directors that film people and buildings with equal care. There’s a fine essay by Guerín on En construcción here and it’s interesting to note that one of his early films, Innisfree was filmed in Ireland and is apparently a tribute to John Ford.

Trailer for Dans la ville de Sylvia:

7.The Free Will (Matthias Glasner – Germany)
The German cinema renaissance is one of the most inspiring things to have happened in recent years. The country has a chequered film history, with its glory Ufa days ending when the Nazi’s rise to power sent the talent fleeing to Hollywood. There then followed the golden age of the New German Cinema in the 1970s which faded out with the deaths of Fassbinder and Syberberg , the decline of Schlöndorff and the self-enforced irrelevance of Wim Wenders. Until a few years ago there had been little to get excited about in the film production of Europe’s biggest country but now the quality of output is such that almost every German release is worth seeing nowadays. The country produces intelligent box-office hits such as Goodbye Lenin!, Downfall, The Lives of Others and The Baader Meinhof Complex but also a slew of excellent low-key social dramas directed by men and women mostly under the age of 40.

Matthias Glasner’s The Free Will is the best of a number of good films from Germany this year. Jürgen Vogel (who also co-wrote the screenplay) plays a sex offender released from prison at the beginning of the film who moves into a halfway house with hopes of rehabilitating himself and settling back into society. Things, as you can imagine, don’t work out as his brutal urges resurface, overcoming even the possibility of a relationship with the young student he develops a normal relationship with. It’s a frank, disturbing film that is a rare dramatic portrait of an everyday monster.

Trailer for The Free Will:

8.Hunger (Steve McQueen - UK/Ireland)
When I first heard about Hunger, I couldn’t have been less interested. Did we really need another film about the hunger strikes? And, Steve McQueen’s reputation as a visual artist notwithstanding, I was worried that the result might be an over-aestheticization with most of the politics sucked out of it. So I’m glad I was proved wrong. Hunger is a fascinating, unflinching look at the strength of a principle and people’s determinations to stand by them. Previous H-Block films such as Some Mother’s Son and H3 were typically void of either a visual sense or ideas like many British or Irish films but McQueen dissects the historical incident with economy and aplomb. Michael Fassbender is great as Bobby Sands, with the 20-minute-long colloquy with Liam Cunningham that lies at the centre of the film a masterclass in dramatic writing. More remarkably, though McQueen’s sympathies are clearly with the hunger strikers, there is no facile endorsement of the IRA forthcoming. The Republicans are shown to be every bit as brutal as their captors and you don’t need to be a supporter of the men of violence to be affected by this film.

Trailer for Hunger:

9. Je veux voir (Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige – Lebanon/France)
The Lebanese video artist pairing of Hadjithomas and Joreige came to international attention a couple of years back with the Antonioni-esque Perfect Day, the tale of a narcoleptic young Lebanese haunted by the disappearance of his father who was kidnapped during the Civil War and now about to be declared officially dead. It was a film I should have liked but I found it stultifyingly languid and ironically, for a film about a narcoleptic, put me to sleep.

Perfect Day came out before the 2006 Israeli bombing, the results of which form the basis for their second oblique film. Catherine Deneuve, attending a film festival in Beirut, announces she wants to see the damage done to the country. Hadjithomas and Joreige go with her and film her. It’s a strange film, where Deneuve plays herself in what appears to be a documentary but of course is a scripted film. Ill at ease, she slowly develops a rapport with her driver Rabieh Mroue; they chat about the effect of decades of war on Lebanon and view the rubble in the Lebanese capital and the southern towns, shattered by the bombings. Very little happens in this short, 75-minute film, but few other films have managed to make a country come to life on screen so well with such modest means. Just sit back and watch.

Trailer for Je veux voir:

10.Entre les murs (Laurent Cantet – France)
France’s first Palme d’Or in 21 years, a fillip for the country’s film industry, which produced some great movies this year. Writer, film critic and schoolteacher François Bégaudeau’s semi-autobiographical 2006 novel forms the basis of the film. Cantet chose Bégaudeau himself to play the role of the teacher, an inspired move, while a gaggle of Parisian teenagers effectively play themselves as devilish brats who barrack their teacher at every opportunity. The film fizzes with ideas, particularly concerning the French language and the issue of immigrant integration. It is a warm yet unsentimental account of the struggles played out in the French classroom. Though it incorporates most of the episodes in the source novel there is a keen sense of spontaneity in the work-shopped scenes. And one of the most heart-warming sights of the year was seeing its teenage cast traipse en bloc from film festival to film festival.

Trailer for Entre les murs:

Other films worth a look (in no particular order)

Wonderful Town (Aditya Assarat – Thailand)
Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein – USA)
Le Silence de Lorna (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne – Belgium)
Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh – UK)
Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-Soo – South Korea)
Un conte de noël (Arnaud Desplechin – France)
Changeling (Clint Eastwood – USA)
Home (Ursula Meier – Switzerland/Belgium/France)
W. (Oliver Stone – USA)
La vie moderne (Raymond Depardon – France)
Christopher Columbus, the Enigma (Manoel de Oliveira – Portugal)
Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller – USA)
Jar City (Balthasar Kormákur – Iceland)
El Otro (Ariel Rotter – Argentina)
Frownland (Ronald Bronstein – USA)
Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke – Mexico)
Mesrine: L’Instinct de mort/Mesrine: Ennemi publique Nº1 (Jean-Christophe Richet – France/Canada)
Dernier maquis (Rabah Ameur Zaïmeche – France)
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan – USA)
The Tears of Mrs Wang (Liu Bingjian – China)
It’s a Free World… (Ken Loach – UK)
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson – USA)
La Influencía (Pedro Aguilar – Spain/Mexico)
Cloud Nine (Andreas Dreiser – Germany)
Counterparts (Jan Bonny – Germany)
No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen – USA)
Funny Games US (Michael Haneke – USA)
Yurmurta (Semih Kaplanoglu – Turkey/Greece)
Four Nights with Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski – Poland)
The Banishment (Andrei Zvygavintsev – Russia)
Leonera (Pablo Trapero – Argentina)
Body Rice (Hugo Vieira da Silva – Portugal/Germany)
Garage (Lenny Abrahamson – Ireland)
XXY (Lucía Puenzo –Argentina)
Agnus Dei (Lucía Cedrón – Argentina)
My Magic (Eric Khoo – Singapore)
Foster Child/Serbis (Brillante Mendoza – Philippines)
The Visitor (Tom MacCarthy – USA)
The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona – Spain)
The Pope’s Toilet (César Charlone and Enrique Fernández – Uruguay)
California Dreamin’ (Endless) (Cristian Nemescu – Romania)

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Two Lovers and its Antecedents

One of the better films I've seen of late is James Gray's Two Lovers, a beautiful love story, filmed like a thriller that I imagine will resonate more with male viewers than female. Which is not to say that women won't like it either, of course. What sets the film apart from so many others on a similar theme is its recognition of the cruelly pragmatic choices taken in the pursuit of love. The films that do the same can, in my own experience, be counted on one hand. I won't give too much away (because any plot summary will) but the focal scene in the film - through which the subjective pain of the Joaquin Phoenix character is fleshed out in such a moving way - belongs to Isabella Rossellini, Phoenix's onscreen mother. I only mention it because the scene itself carries an echo from cinema history, from a film conceived by her parents, both of whom made very difficult decisions for their time 'in the name of love'. That film is Voyage to Italy, which was itself a precursor of Ingrid Bergman's own divorce from Roberto Rossellini. The film in which Bergman and George Sanders' marriage frays visibly shows one of the most moving of cinematic break ups, and quite appropriately, it references Joyce's The Dead, that most devastating of literary texts on the lingering infidelity of past love (and the unhappy couple are themselves bestowed with the old Galway name). I'm pretty sure Gray knew what he was doing when he cast her...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Batman vs the Young Turks

The Turkish city of Batman is to sue Christopher Nolan, director of the last two Batman films, and, curiously not DC comics, for infringement of a registered trademark. There you are, now you've heard of the Turkish/Kurdish city of Batman...

Real life Batman faces super test

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Sartre and the Galway Dentist

I recently renewed my subscription to the London Review of Books having let it lapse, rather stupidly, for a couple of years. Most of the articles do end up on the website but reading the print edition is a lot more fun and a helluva lot less of a strain on the eye, considering the normal article length is 3000-5000 words.

In the latest edition, which annoyingly, I got almost a week after much of it was posted online, there is an interesting piece by Elif Batuman, a Stanford academic, which reviews Elisabeth Roudinesco's Philosophy in Turbulent Times, which has just been published in English. I'm not terribly equipped to assess Batuman's largely negative view of Roudinesco's book though I do agree with his view on the victim complex of Louis Althusser, following his murder of his wife, being familiar with much of Althusser's work, including his memoir The Future Lasts a Long Time. Even more disturbing than Althusser's crime, which was committed when he had slipped irrevocably into insanity was the way his friends closed ranks around him and even managed to recast him rather than his dead wife Hélène as the victim. If Irish readers of this blog find Aosdána members' unqualified support of Cathal Ó Searcaigh's recent shennanigans unseemly, well that was pretty tame stuff compared to the flurry of philosophes rushing to relativize their friend and colleague's crime.

But it is elsewhere in Batuman's article that my attention was snagged, in an amusing passage on Jean-Paul Sartre's visit to John Huston in Galway in 1959 to hammer out a screenplay on Freud. The project came to nothing because of a mounting animosity between the two men but Batuman's description of the visit merits quotation at length:

The Huston-Sartre collaboration fell apart in 1959, when Sartre
travelled to Huston’s home in Ireland to work on the script. The two
didn’t work well together. ‘There was no such thing as a conversation
with him,’ Huston later recalled. ‘He talked incessantly, and there was
no interrupting him. You’d wait for him to catch his breath, but he
wouldn’t.’ Meanwhile Sartre, in his letters to Simone de Beauvoir,
described Huston as ‘perfectly vacant, literally incapable of speaking
to those whom he has invited’. Evidently he didn’t realise that Huston
was waiting for him to catch his breath. The philosopher went on to
compare Huston’s ‘inner landscape’ to ‘heaps of ruins, abandoned
houses, plots of wasteland, swamps’: ‘He is empty,’ Sartre concluded,
‘except in his moments of infantile vanity, when he dons a red tuxedo,
or goes horseback riding (not very well).’ (Huston, of the infantile
red tuxedo, was equally bemused by Sartre’s wardrobe, its stark
invariance: ‘I never knew if he owned one grey suit or several
identical grey suits.’)

Who can fail to be entertained by this
picture of Sartre criticising somebody for being a bad rider? Or by the
anecdote about how he once had toothache and refused to go to Dublin,
as Huston suggested, to get it treated? Huston didn’t know any local
dentists, but Sartre found one, from whose surgery he emerged in a
matter of minutes, having had his tooth extracted. Huston – who,
despite his scepticism about America, had evidently not totally
renounced the ‘hygienism’ of his native country – wondered at Sartre’s
casual attitude to his teeth, but concluded that ‘a tooth more or less
made no difference in Sartre’s cosmos.’ Here you see the entire charm
of the existentialist way of life.

The A-list bitchiness is amusing enough, if to be hardly exceptional, but the vision of Sartre stumbling out of a West of Ireland dentist's surgery is one that needs to cherished for all eternity. It's the sketch that Monty Python never wrote.

LRB · Elif Batuman: On Complaining

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Renegade Soundwave

So the inaugural Obama post is here and it's a suitably soft one, drawn from a lull in this week's news cycle. The Chicago Tribune, which liked Obama enough to endorse a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in its history, reports the not-so-top-secret information that his Secret Service codename was 'Renegade'. All nice and macho and, dare I say it, 'maverick'? Not to mention reminiscent of one Richard Kimble, who, if my memory serves me right, was also a Chicagoan. Wife Michelle is 'Renaissance' (a reference to Harlem and black history I wonder). Daughter Malia is 'Radiance' while Sasha is 'Rosebud', which anyone who knows the sordid connotations of that word related to both Citizen Kane and William Randolph Hurst will find just a bit unseemly.

The fighting Irish veep Joe Biden is, or presumably was, known as 'Celtic'. Pronounced with a 'c' or a 'k' I wonder?

President-elect Obama a real Renegade | World news |

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Laziness and Being Late to the Party

So I got lazy. The postings didn't even tail off this time; the end was all a bit brutal. It wasn't even that I was far from a computer in that time, much less from the doleful labyrinth that is the world wide web. Nor was it really anything to do with a resolve to better manage my time; I am pleased to say that I am still as supremely disorganised as I was when I left off blogging for a second time, or started for the first time. It was common-or-garden laziness. There had been a number of times I thought about posting and then thought better (or worse). And there was never any time really that I thought that the world would miss my ramblings (or at least those few dozen souls that, according to Clicky, bore witness to my underachieving on a daily basis).

So quite a few major events passed by without the slightest whimper from this parish, namely the Lisbon Treaty and Ireland's vote on it (actually I had planned to do a lengthy post on it the day before but didn't have the time), the Beijing Olympics, Georgia and Russia's Caucasian tiff that ran parallel to the games and, of course, the US Presidential elections. As you can imagine I had an opinion on all of them but, being spectacularly late to the party, I'll keep my own counsel, except for whatever I might utter in passing. What I might otherwise have approached as news, I will henceforth tackle as history. Not blogging about the US election was probably a good thing, seeing as I got carried away - as did many others - with the Obama candidacy. I still retain a moderate amount of idealism regarding him that I'm prepared to let get tarnished just as I am the shiny new MacBook I have recently helped myself to. Anyway if I do manage to maintain any presence here the erstwhile Illinois senator will have his part to play.

So I'll make no promises, the blog is not a priority and will be at the mercy of other variables such as work, sickness, health, my general wellbeing, my glittering social life, the odd hangover and military service. The new computer is a lot lighter and more mobile than the last one so I thought that maybe I might be a more mobile blogger but its lightness is unbearable in the sense that I'm afraid I might forget I have it with me and leave it in a basement cinema, from where it will be unlikely to return as easily as any of the many Moleskine notebooks I have mislaid, or a tapas bar, which is where the far better organised and motivated folk at MI5, tend to forget theirs. I don't call this blog 'underachievement' for nothing.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Nightmares in the Cinema (and One Excellent Israeli Film)

A couple of months back on Irish Left Review I wrote a piece on good and bad left-wing cinema, noting how many films whose political views one might share tend to be atrocious and embarrassing to watch. There are however the good ones and many in recent times have been coming out of Israel, ironically enough, seeing as it's a country that so often incurs the righteous (and not so righteous) indignation of folk on the left. The last two weeks have seen two Israeli films released in Paris, Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz's Seven Days and Ari Folman's animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, which many felt should have come away from the Cannes film festival with at least a minor prize. I have yet to see Seven Days but I got the chance last week to see Folman's film, which is exactly the sort of politically engaged film that is worth watching - intelligent, probing, unwilling to point fingers and devoid of caricature or mechanical dialectics. The film is autobiographical, stemming from Folman's own inability to recall events from his days as an Israeli conscript during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, during which the Israeli military allowed Christian Phalangist militias to massacre Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Folman is initially moved to mount the project following an encounter with a stranger in a bar who was also involved in the invasion, who tells of a recurring nightmare where the 28 dogs he killed in advance of an attack on a Lebanese town gather below his apartment baying for his blood. The opening sequence is a tour-de-force and serves as a frighteningly convincing metaphor for the cycle of violence that Israel and its neighbours remain locked in.

Animation might appear to be an unusual choice of medium for a documentary but, given that Folman's film is largely subjective, it fits in with the tradition of comic-book reportage and autobiography pioneered by Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco and Marjane Satrapi. The interviews with eyewitnesses are real - and the details of each are carefully represented - yet animation also provides a clear advantage for historical reconstruction: it is much cheaper and often more convincing than live action cinema. The film has a ghostly, oneiric quality in which memories meld with one another, where an Israeli gunboat off the coast of Beirut becomes a luxury yacht where troops party to the sounds of OMD's 'Enola Gay' and the Israeli troops' visit to the deserted Beirut airport is more chilling than any amount of apocalyptic hypotheses.

There is one flaw with the film, something which it shares with most well-intentioned Israeli films: it has a blindspot for the Palestinians. It simply cannot represent them, they exist as an offscreen presence, unreachable as they are incomprehensible. This is not necessarily a reproach; Folman was after all a soldier fighting a war against them so his experience would necessarily have been limited. He closes the film with shocking live action archive footage of the dead of Sabra and Shatila, by way of amends one imagines, and also to provide a real-life mirror for the nebulously described nightmare of the previous ninety minutes. Some critics have compared the film to Apocalypse Now, and it is easy to see why but Waltz with Bashir has no truck with the self-indulgence and decadence of that film, and it ultimately assumes its own responsibility for the madness engendered by war. It's a brave, timely film and further proof of the brilliance of contemporary Israeli cinema.

The other end of the spectrum of excellence provided another film this week, from back home, by way of London and Belgium. It was Martin McDonagh's wearisomely glib feature debut In Bruges, where Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell are utterly unconvincing as hitmen holed up in the Flemish city. One wonders if McDonagh saw Gleeson's equally unconvicing portrayal of a hitman in I Went Down, but then again on the evidence of this film, the playwright-cum-cinéaste's judgement is probably not the sharpest. The film is a sub-Guy Ritchie caper with scarcely a funny gag, witless divagations on mortality and professional principles. Why filmmakers continue to make fanciful films about hired killers when few of them have ever knowingly met one is beyond me. McDonagh's film is juvenile tosh - you'd expect at the very least intelligence of a Tony Award-nominated dramatist. Harold Pinter did the whole thing with more wit and panache nearly fifty years ago with The Dumb Waiter and McDonagh would be well advised to leave cinema to those who have something to offer it.

Not that In Bruges was the worst film I saw this week; that award goes to M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening. I have found Shyamalan's films equally annoying and interesting in the past, but one thing I really hate about them is the way he bolsters them with dreamy pans and frightfully earnest music. The Happening is too risible for comment and I think I may be watching it again some time in the future as part of a so-bad-it's-good-themed party night. I promise whoever puts it on I'll be a little indulgent.

Here's the trailer for Waltz with Bashir:

Saturday, July 05, 2008

A Picture That Makes Me Feel a Whole Lot Better About Myself

I know he's had a bit of a long lay-off but this takes some beating; like Maradona is his post-footballing prime. And wearing black doesn't do much to cover it up...

Friday, July 04, 2008

No Match for Quebec

Red faces at Paris Match where the mother of all glossy magazines did a 35-page spread to celebrate yesterday's 400th anniversary of the foundation of Quebec City (the first francophone settlement in North America) while concentrating mostly on the province of Quebec and its current capital Montreal, both of which date from somewhat later. Folks in Quebec aren't too happy, decrying French insularity and ignorance and despite an editorial mea culpa surely this will be an example of incompetence that will dog the magazine for years to come.

Let it Fly

A matter of principle prevents me from going to see David Cronenberg's first opera production, an adaptation of his own film The Fly, by Howard Shore, writer of the film's original score and Cronenberg's usual collaborator. I have to say I am tempted, as I was by other Parisian opera productions by celebrated filmmakers in the past couple of years, such as Michael Haneke's Don Giovanni and Emir Kusturica's The Time of the Gypsies, and Cronenberg is one of the greatest directors of his generation and probably the greatest English-speaking director alive. Apart from a few years of muddled films in the 1990s, Cronenberg has been consistenly brilliant in his examination of contemporary man's grappling with all-consuming technology, sexual obsession and violence. His films eschew the self-aggrandizing bluster of others such as Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma, who never pass up an opportunity to remind audiences how revolutionary each new film supposedly is (and in the case of each of these, that is never the case). Cronenberg's modesty is reflected in his refusal to take himself too seriously and in his ability to treat of high art and popular culture with equal ease.

So why will I not go and see The Fly at Théâtre du Chatelet? It's not short on star-studded talent, as well as the score by Shore, there is a libretto by David Henry Hwang, whose play M. Butterfly provided the basis for Cronenberg's own 1994 film of the same name; the musical director is none other than Placido Domingo and the set design is by the great Dante Ferreti. My reason for staying away is that it's only Cronenberg that would get me into an opera house in the first place and I feel that going along would be imposture of the highest order. I know very little about opera, I can't say I understand it very well and I'm not even that curious in the broadest sense. I always get irritated when theatre folk tackle cinema because it seems to them to be an obvious step across because it involves human actors like their own métier. Unfortunately the vast majority of theatrical practitioners bring nothing of worth to film, grossly misunderstanding - and underestimating - the medium, being hidebound by their own art form, which, while it is a noble one, has little in common with a fluid and heavily mnemonic one as film is. Of course there have been some excellent filmmakers to have come from theatre, but for every Bergman, Welles or Fassbinder there are ten Anthony Minghellas, Kenneth Branaghs or Martin McDonaghs. I wish Cronenberg the best of luck in his new departure, and I hope that operagoers will be able to enjoy it without irritation (though the review of the show in today's Libération is not too complimentary) but this is a chapter in his career that I will respectfully sit out.

Monday, June 30, 2008

And finally...

Thankfully the quality and excitement of Euro 2008 didn't let up and the tournament produced worthy winners in Spain, even if it was a shame they weren't able to copper-fasten their clear superiority to Germany with a more emphatic scoreline. The Spanish laid their ghosts of past failures to rest to collect their first European title since 1964 (the front-page headline on Marca, the leading Spanish football paper, today is 'It's not a dream, it's reality - we are the champions!') Spain were the most consistent side in the tournament and played some great football with their only flaw being a lack of clinical edge at times. Their attitude was a refreshing reflection of the tournament as a whole; even in the dying seconds of the match, they went chasing a second goal when most teams would have taken the ball to the corner flag to count down time. There were also two touching tributes on the podium after the match, one was the t-shirt worn by Sergio Ramos in honour of his friend and former teammate Antonio Puerta, who died after collapsing during Seville's first game of last season. Reserve goalkeeper Andrés Palop also collected his medal wearing the shirt worn by Luis Arconada in the 1984 final, when Arconada's unfortunate error allowed Michel Platini's free kick to slip underneath his body for France's opening goal. Platini, who presented the Henri Delaunay Cup to Iker Casillas, had also invited Arconada to the final, a touching homage to a great goalkeeper who is too often remembered for two errors, the one against France and the one that allowed Gerry Armstrong to score in Valencia two years earlier in Northern Ireland's shock win.

Casillas is another fine keeper, whom I can admire in spite of my own antipathy towards Real Madrid. Sid Lowe on the Guardian podcast told a story of a young Casillas costing his father an enormous football pools win by forgetting to check in his coupon. With this win, the debt has probably been paid back. It's also easy to forget that that the star of Spanish football, Raúl, was absent from the squad, unpicked since the defeat in Belfast two years ago. The Spanish media have taken Luis Aragones' decision poorly but, given Raúl's previous track record of bottling it in vital games for Spain, more steel was surely needed for this tournament, and Aragones was probably right.

And so ends a great tournament; it has to be acknowledged that most of the great football was facilitated by terrible defending and there is no guarantee that it will be repeated in South Africa in two years' time. But with great international tournaments in both Europe and Africa this year, the future looks bright for international football. One thing I hope doesn't happen is UEFA's intended expansion of the tournament to accomodate 24 teams. We don't need a tournament that allows undeserving underperformers such as Ireland, Belgium and England an easier passage to the finals. The match of the tournament will remain Holland v Russia, as two teams who were exhilarating but ultimately not good enough, produced a dizzying show of attacking football. Hopefully both sides will be in South Africa in 2010. The prospect of returning to watch Premiership football now is a bit disheartening.

And here are some images from a joyous Madrid, captured by an Irishman abroad.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hats off to Russia

Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

This Euro 2008 tournament is so good that it was even a pleasure to watch my favourite team (and probably the most impressive until yesterday) Holland getting turfed out by a fantastic young Russian side. The result itself was not very surprising, much less than the rather feeble and tactically limited resistance put up by the Dutch. Andrei Arshavin took the Man of the Match award for the second match running, and after being suspended for the first two matches he has now emerged as a serious contender for the player of the tournament. He was involved in all three Russian goals (scoring the third) and his deep cross from a tight angle for Dmitri Torbinski to score the second was a work of footballing genius. He ran the game, possessing a wonderful first touch and an intelligence and doggedness that add up to the consummate professional.

For the first time ever Russia look a serious force on the international scene (I disregard the Soviet years becuase the great USSR teams were built largely on a bedrock of Ukrainian, Georgian and Belarussian talent, the Russians were often a minority in the selections). The credit for this has to go to Guus Hiddink who has worked once again the magic he has previously done with his native Holland, South Korea and Australia. The talent available in Russia has been poorly marshalled for most of the past twenty years but Hiddink was always going to be the man to whip them into shape. Though they will be without the suspended Torbinski and Yuri Zhirkov for the semi-final against either Italy or Spain, you have to fancy them to cause another upset, particularly their phenomenal fitness which allowed them to pulverise the Dutch in extra time last night (it must be remembered that the Russian players, all but one of whom play at home, are in mid-season). Barry Glendinning over at the Guardian's podcast predicted a Germany-Russia final, a canny verdict that looks like it could come true. With all respect to the other teams still in the tournament (all of whom have played some excellent football), the manner of Russia's play and their sporting attitude makes them the team I want to see win. Can this tournament get even better?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Well at Least He Has His Health...

The superlative and very funny French football magazine So Foot dubbed Group B of this European Championship (the one containing co-hosts Austria, Germany, Poland and Croatia) the 'anschluss group', a delightfully insensitive quip, but which has been proven to be pertinent in the light of events in the past week. While Croatia have been rock solid in defence so far, conceding only a late goal to Germany's Lukas Podolski, one of their countrymen, former Ustashe chief of police Milivoj Ašner let his guard slip by being out and about to enjoy the football in his town of domicile Klagenfurt, where Croatia played their games against Germany and Poland. Ašner, 95, who cunningly goes by the name of Georg Aschner in Austria, escaped extradition to his native land two years ago to be tried for war crimes, as the Austrian government claimed he was in too poor health to stand trial. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre has again called on the Austrians to extradite him and that renowned organ of Nazi-hunting, The Sun, has snapped a hale and hearty Ašner with his wife among revelling football fans. Croatia has been criticised for its team's links to far-right groups but the country is surely doing more to atone for a shameful chapter of its past than Austria is by protecting this criminal. I wonder does it have anything to do with Klagenfurt being the home and fief of that pin-up boy of the far-right, Jörg Haider? And I wonder what Mister Ašner's secret for a long and healthy life is?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ah No, Domenech...

France exited stage right last night in a pitiful display which saw them outplayed by the Italians in a soporific match (I was awoken from a first-half doze by Thierry Roland announcing the expulsion of Éric Abidal for the foul on Luca Toni that led to the first Italian goal). It has been sad to watch the collapse of the French team in this tournament, mainly because you know what talent there is there in the country's football set-up, probably more than in any other country in Europe. It was also sad to see one of my favourite footballers Lilian Thuram be humiliated by the Dutch on Friday night - however undeniably thrilling it was to watch the Dutch do their magic. When Thuram came out of retirement three years ago along with Claude Makelele and Zinedine Zidane to sort an ineffectual team out and qualify them for the 2006 World Cup, it was him that dashed Irish hopes at Lansdowne Road with a magisterial second-half display that cut off all the danger that Ireland had mustered in the first half of that match. He was equally imposing in France's march to the final the following summer but now it is clear that he is a year or two past his best and about five yards off most the strikers he would have easily snuffed off not so long ago.

Thuram, whether he decides to retire now or not, will have a career that extends far beyond football, and given the man's intelligence and political activism, I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes a glittering star on the French left, which sorely needs a man of his stature and conviction. When Abidal got sent off last night, Thuram stood up on the bench and prepared to strip to run on, rightly assuming that the most-capped player and captain until his dropping, would be the obvious replacement for a missing centre-half. French manager Raymond Domenech had other ideas however and in his wisdom, he sent on the underwhelming Lyon full-back Jean-Alain Boumsong instead, presumably the same wisdom that allowed him to select Boumsong ahead of players such as Gaël Clichy and Philippe Méxès in the first place.

Though the French players (the injured Franck Ribéry excepted) must bear their own responsibility for their spineless performance, they were hampered as ever by the cluelessness of the baffy charlatan in charge of them. Domenech's predilections for astrology have long been ridiculed by many (and even suspected for some of his team selections) but there is a deeply unpleasant side to the man that deserves more comment. Ireland saw it in the run-up to the game in Lansdowne three years ago when he dismissed Brian Kerr's side as a bunch of hoofers (say what you like about Kerr but his teams were never of the kick-and-rush variety) and his ungraciousness in two defeats against a plucky but limited Scottish team indicates his general lack of class. The Swiss media and people alike have deplored the arrogance and commitment to secrecy of Domenech's entourage since before this championship began, comparing them, unfavourably, and not to mention ominously, to Marco van Basten's Dutch squad. Many people are of the opinion that his sidelining of Méxès, consistently one of the best centre-halfs in Serie A in recent years, is due to petty animus. And then last night Domenech criticised the sending-off of Abidal, claiming that there was not a clear goalscoring chance denied. The man's cowardice and complete lack of responsibility was finally cemented when, questioned by his common-law partner Estelle Denis, on his future after the game, he proposed marriage to her. While being knocked out of the European Championship is not, in the wider scheme of things, a terribly serious occurrence, one might expect of Domenech at this point a greater degree of professionalism and seriousness than this. L'Équipe was moved to call it in an editorial, 'more than a managerial error, a lapse of taste.' Right they are, and Mlle. Denis' tolerance of this nonsense may prove to be the first of many such examples in her future life. The French Football Federation will surely elect to remove this craven, unprepossessing buffoon next month, following a tournament in which there were not enough of the old guard to rebel against his foolishness and play as they wished, as they did in Germany two years ago. He will not be missed in the world of football.

All of this is not to take away from Italy's performace, which showed a great deal of character and adventurousness. Even in the defeat by Holland they have been playing some good football in this tournament and I expect them to burst the Spanish bubble come the quarter-finals to set up a rematch with the Dutch in the semi-finals. But, then again, having seen, Guus Hiddink's Russia outplay Sweden tonight without even being impressive, the Dutch may find one being put over them by their former manager...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Iran v Israel (but not in the football)

My movie-going has been suffering because the football's been so good I'm afraid to miss any of it, but I have managed to live off my memories to pen an article over on Irish Left Review comparing Iranian and Israeli cinema (well, somebody had to do it). Having just seen Mario Gomez try to lob the Austrian keeper from three feet to provide surely the most comical miss in a major championship since the heyday of Stéphane Guivarc'h (he won a World Cup medal, you know), I'm going back to the football. Even the Teutons are providing high drama.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Isn't it Only Great?

I don't know what has got into the managers or teams at this Euro 2008 tournament but the abandon with which teams have been attacking (and counter-attacking) has ensured that it will be remembered as a classic, and we're not even out of the group stages yet. The Dutch have been the most glorious of the sides so far, but credit also to Spain, Portugal, Italy and Romania and Croatia after their shaky starts. Much as I would love to see Holland add to their 1988 title, I think they will come unstuck, as their dodgy defence gets found out against sides more clinical than France were the other night. Edwin van der Sar can only save them for so klong. The more likely winners are a side such as Croatia, who showed in their match against Germany a combination of flair and pragmatism, and mental toughness that will allow them to go all the way. Germany cannot be ruled out either despite the alarming way they imploded in Klagenfurt. I do feel, however that, Austria could give them a real fright in Vienna tomorrow night. A week ago I would have laughed at such a suggestion but the Austrians have been punching above their weight so far and they will be up for a chance to put one over the Germans, just as they did in Cordoba in 1978, when they knocked out the reigning World Champions 3-2. Austria's lack of edge in front of goal will ultimately be their undoing but they'll take the game to Germany at the very least. Tonight's game between Turkey and the Czech Republic could go to penalties, which would be a first in the group stages, and the same thing could also happen in Tuesday's potential decider between France and Italy. All very exciting.

A couple of fascinating stories from the glorious past of Austrian football (and prior to the 1938 Anschluss it was indeed glorious): the early death of Matthias Sindelaar, considered by many to be the greatest Austrian player ever, and the fate of the Jewish Viennese club Hakoah, who were disbanded on the coming to power of the Nazis and who are now being revived.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Johnny Chadda RIP

A bad week for Sligo Rovers (they were knocked out of the FAI Cup by old rivals Shamrock Rovers) turned into a sad week when Johnny Chadda, one of the pillars of the club for over fifty years, passed away. On my regular trips to the Showgrounds when I was a kid, Johnny would be everywhere, selling raffle-tickets, manning the turnstiles and marshalling the ground. One time he had noticed that a group of us had scaled the wall to get in free to a vital promotion decider against Kilkenny City and he chased us round the ground until the terraces filled up and he gave up. That anyone would devote his life so selflessly to as unfashionable (and for most of its history, unsuccessful) team as Rovers is remarkable enough. That Johnny Chadda was an immigrant from India in the bleak 1950s, and I imagine the only one in Sligo other than his wife, makes his work even more touchingly generous.

There are hundreds of thousands of people the world round that will identify with the work that goes into keeping sports clubs of little or no means alive, and the fact that Sligo Rovers still exist after eighty years is in large part due to Johnny Chadda and others who worked alongside him down the years. The club went from being almost wound up in the late 1980s to being run as a successful co-operative while enjoying some domestic success in the 1990s. There are few people that can claim to have been associated with a club for so much of its history and Johnny Chadda's devotion to Sligo Rovers, in a league that was about as unglamorous as football can get and for practically no renumeration, is proof that football is about a lot more than just Galacticos, Golden Generations and big-money franchises. May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

More Football

Classic Dunphy: after hearing Ronnie Whelan and Graeme Souness lay into Russia for the supine way in which they surrendered the game to Spain this evening, and then listening to Souness wonder why the Russians should always be like that, as they were 'in his playing days too', Dunphy threw in the observation that 'well, there is a melancholy streak in the Russian character, a bit like the Welsh really'. The generalisations were flying and Eamon couldn't resist a bit of one-upmanship. He was a bit mean to Souness too.

After my previous criticism of the flaccid nature of French television's football coverage I am reminded that M6's 100% Foot programme during this tournament is presented by Estelle Denis, partner of French manager Raymond Domenech. Though it's hardly an unethical conflict of interests, how in God's name are you supposed to mount an interesting, objective television show if it's presented by the French gaffer's missus? That nobody in France seems to think it strange underlines what a joke the football coverage is in this country.

Though the Swedes were not exactly a perfectly-functioning outfit it was nice to see the Greeks run out of ideas when delivered a sucker punch in the form of that bullet from Ibrahimovic, his first goal for Sweden in almost three years.

Grope of Death

My usual tournament team (in the absence of Ireland, of course) the Netherlands started their campaign last night in impressive style, dispatching the world champions Italy 3-0 in Berne. Their slick counter-attacking football and their constant willingness to push forward was a joy to watch, particularly as many of us had suspected that the pragmatism that Marco van Basten has instilled over the past couple of years might stifle the creativity. The four touches that led from a Giovanni van Bronckhorst clearance off the line to a deep cross by the Barça player himself to Dirk Kuyt to be finished spectacularly by Wesley Sneijder contributed to the best goal of the tournament so far. The Italians had reason to be aggrieved by the opener however; like many people I imagined Ruud van Nistelrooy to be clearly offside when he toepoked Sneijder's skewed shot home, and so did van Nistelrooy himself. However a look at the laws of the game tells us that the referee applied the offside rule correctly - if harshly -. Law 11.11 states that

If a defending player steps behind his own goal line in order to place
an opponent in an offside position, the referee shall allow play to
continue and caution the defender for deliberately leaving the field
of play without the referee’s permission when the ball is next out of

It is not an offence in itself for a player who is in an offside position to
step off the field of play to show the referee that he is not involved in
active play. However, if the referee considers that he has left the field
of play for tactical reasons and has gained an unfair advantage by re-
entering the field of play, the player shall be cautioned for unsporting
behaviour. The player needs to ask for the referee’s permission to re-
enter the field of play.

A more sympathetic referee might have decreed that Christian Panucci went down genuinely injured but then you never know with these Italians. All in all, the Dutch fully deserved their victory though their longer term prospects are not assured, especially as few teams that start so gloriously last the pace. They are also suspect at the back and may be found out by a team less out of sorts as the Italians were last night.

In the other match in the group of death Romania and France played out a stinker, though I was fortunate enough to see only the first half. Though Romania will be happier with the point, they were depressing to watch; I can understand their approach in trying to thwart the French but their level of skill and their initiative was sadly lacking the finesse of their attractive teams of the 1990s.

As for entertainment, I was tickled by an anecdote told by Barney Ronay on the very enjoyable Guardian Football Daily podcast, where he told us about Steve McClaren being mistaken for the former Republic of Ireland manager by an Austrian accreditation official. My gripe the other day about being deprived of Giles, Dunphy and Brady has been answered by the wonders of the World Wide Web, it being possible to watch the pre- and post-match analysis, if not the coverage itself. Yesterday's post-match natter wasn't vintage stuff but it'll get better.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Football So Far

Two days into the European Championship and though there hasn't been a game of absolutely excrutiating boredom (Austria v Croatia threatened to become that at times, mind), the tournament has yet to really catch fire. Both the hosts deserved better than the 1-0 defeats they suffered in their opening matches. Austria in particular will find it difficult to pull back the deficit. The pick of the games so far was tonight's between Germany and Poland. The Poles brought the game to Germany, playing some attractive attacking football but unfortunately they were lacking any real edge up front, where former Celtic reserve Maciej Zurawski struggled to carve out openings. The Germans, obviously having developed a strong understanding over the past couple of years, are playing a more expansive game than they did on their own turf in the World Cup of two years ago and on tonight's evidence they are worth their favourite's tag. Their defence (and Jens Lehman) look suspect and they may suffer against a side possessed of more incisiveness than the Poles. It looks unlikely they will be tested however until a potential semi-final against Portugal, and given the dreariness of Croatia's performance today, they shouldn't have to break a sweat to even reach the quarter-finals.

Once again I am restricted to watching the matches on French TV, whose coverage is appalling as ever. TF1's commentary is saved only by the presence of Arsène Wenger in the gantry, who is the only person who knows what he's talking about. Over on M6, Thierry Roland (the French John Motson) and Frank Leboeuf dispense inane patter, devoid of any insight or knowledge of any players not associated with either the French national team or Ligue 1, and littered with enthusiastic 'magnifiques', 'superbes' and 'belles actions' to describe the most workaday efforts by highly-paid professional footballers. The tone of deadening banality and politesse makes you feel like watching the damn thing with the sound turned down, listening to the radio, à la Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. On top of this there is nothing in the way of pre-match, half-time or post-match analysis and commentators for both channels make the most pathetic attempts at pronouncing the names of players e.g. Peter Cech is Peter Sèche, which presumably means he hails from 'La République Sèche'. It makes you pine for Motson, Clive Tyldsley and Andy Gray, never mind the unrivalled trio of Giles, Dunphy and Brady.

As preparation for the tournament I went to see Emir Kusturica's documentary on Diego Maradona, which proved irritating and enjoyable in equal measures. A few short months ago i walked out of Kusturica's infinitely tiresome comedy Promise Me This and I was a little suspicious about this. Actually, my suspicions were mostly confirmed, it being a massaging of El Píbe's ego while making Kusturica look good too (interspersed with the interviews with Diego and the stock footage of the man in his prime are outtakes from most of Kusturica's films). Diego spouts shite about politics, most of which involves taking potshots at the Yanks and the Brits and lauding Chávez and Castro, in a typically populist Latin American way. But his gleeful remark about feeling he'd pickpocketed an Englishman when he rose above Peter Shilton to score the infamous 'hand of God' goal is a refreshing alternative to the insufferable piety of the English who complain incessantly about it (as if they didn't win the World Cup due to a non-existent goal or Gary Lineker didn't dive to win a decisive penalty against a superior Cameroon team in the 1990 World Cup quarter-finals). Kusturica throws in a couple of interesting asides about residues of aristocratic dignity amongst the poor and the birth of the Tango, that I suspect he has filched from Borges or García Marquez, and he must surely be one of the few film directors that could go for a kick-around with Maradona and emerge with credit. The film is most remarkable though for its YouTube-esque montages of Maradona goals, which of course look all the better on the big screen.

The tournament starts in earnest tomorrow with two intriguing matches in the group of death. Romania v France and Holland v Italy. As ever I am supporting the Dutch though I think they may struggle to make it out of this group. France look the best equipped to give the Germans a run for the title but they can't afford to slip up early on. More later in the week.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Excluded Youth of France's Angelique Guardian

Dear me, the Guardian, like a dear but cantankerous old friend, continues to exasperate much as one loves it. It remains, along with the FT, the best of the English newspapers (my relative unfamiliarity with Scottish and Welsh papers prevents me from saying 'British') but it can also madden with its one-note, one-dimensional coverage of certain things, France in particular. The latest shoddy missive from Paris comes today from the paper's Paris correspondent Angelique Chrisafis in an interview with the young French novelist Faïza Guène, which rails with savage indignation against the Parisian literary scene's shunting out of a reportedly talented young novelist from an immigrant background - I say 'reportedly' because I haven't read Ms Guène's work, though I look forward to doing so.

What bothers me about the piece is not Guène's bitterness about her marginalisation in both literature and society - the former of which is believable and the latter the reality for many Africans and Arabs in France - nor her analysis of Sarkozy's appointing the ethnic minority trio of women Rachida Dati, Fadela Rama and Rama Yade as tokenism, which I agree with. No, what riles me is the plain stupidity of the piece, which, being the cover feature in the G2 section and of a good length, can hardly be explained away as a piece of serviceable hackwork conceived to beat a deadline. Chrisafis invokes injustice after injustice while all the time compounding those very injustices for an English-speaking audience; there is also her recourse to lazy journalese to propel her story forward, not to mention a dubiously close identification with the opinions of the interviewee.

First up, in the opening paragraph, Chrisafis treats of the publication of Guène's first novel Kiffe kiffe demain, which came out when she was only 19:

When the book came out in 2004, Guène was hailed as the "Françoise Sagan of the high-rises", the antidote to the navel-gazing French novel in crisis.

One doesn't have to wonder too hard where a lazy journalist found the epithet "Françoise Sagan of the high-rises" nor the standard-issue Anglo-Saxon anti-intellectual "navel-gazing French novel" though you do wonder how many of those Chrisafis has read. I imagine that, writing for the Grauniad from Paris she has at least a smattering of French. As for the French novel being 'in crisis', well it must be if word has trickled all the way down to the G2 section of the Guardian.

Then we are told:

One thing Guène notices as she tours the world, attends book fairs in Britain and lectures on the evolution of slang in the US, is that back in France, she tends to take up more space on the "society" rather than the "literary" pages of the papers.

Well where does she appear in the papers in the far more receptive English-speaking world? Certainly not in the literary Review section on Saturday, where the interview would most likely have been conducted by somebody with literary expertise. Indeed a previous interview with Guène in the Guardian was covered in, guess what, the Society pages. There is no assessment of either Guène's work or its reception in France; surely Chrisafis has at least read her books and surely she could have phoned around for someone to say something, positive or negative, about them? Instead Chrisafis blindly accepts Guène's grievances and endorses them by implying that she is on the writer's side:

But in France, despite her huge readership, the élite still see fiction set in the suburbs as something exotic and alien. Society is so polarised that the world Guène writes about is not something the establishment has ever seen close up; they are not streets they might ever have walked down, even by accident. She is still asked with wide-eyed fascination about the forbidden lands. "I feel ridiculous explaining things like people there love each other too, that they decide to have babies out of love and not just to claim benefits."

Again, I am not gainsaying Guène's experience, but is Angelique Chrisafis herself spending that much more time than the French literary élite seeing how the other half live in the Paris banlieues?

Of course, the real, implicit theme of the article is finally laid bare in the next paragraph:

She says every time she lands in London she finds herself marvelling at women going about their lives in headscarves, without the state deciding where they can or can't wear them. She meets people in London from the estates of "93", Seine-Saint-Denis, hoping to find a job without their race, name or postcode putting a brake on them. She thinks nothing has improved on French estates since the riots. "If that hasn't changed things, what will? Apart from civil war or revolution?"

If only those Frenchies were like us English! A typically fatuous example of the smugness of many British and American commentators on the social problems of France (and yes, I know that the French media can often be as infuriating when analysing the US and the UK). France and Britain both have their problems with the integration and marginalisation of immigrant communities and I don't deny that Britain is largely better in this respect but to claim that Britain is a world of unlimited opportunity for immigrants is downright silly.

Chrisafis, continuing in her amateur-litterateur vein, notes approvingly that immigrant fiction in Britain is long established and accepted, citing Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali as examples. But literary marginalisation is alive and well in Britain, one need only return to the horrors experienced by the London literary establishment when the great James Kelman won the Booker Prize in 1994 for How Late it Was, How Late. Kelman is a writer whose one-page short story 'Acid' alone outweighs the entire careers of literary blowhards such as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and John Banville but this didn't prevent bluenose cretins such as Julia Neuberger and Simon Jenkins calling his work 'a disgrace' and 'the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk' respectively. He is also considerably chippy, understandable given the savage reception of his work, but sometimes exaggeratedly so as this interview with Theo Tait illustrates. It's also quite possible that Faïza Guène's bitterness at her literary exclusion is an over-reaction and maybe her work is not actually that good. I don't know but the fact that the literary establishment is not falling over itself for the novels of a 22-year-old does not necessarily mean she is being wilfully excluded.

To be sure, the French resistance to linguistic innovation such as Verlan is as absurd as it is exquisitely vulgar and François Bégaudeau's novel Entre les murs, which I wrote on last week, makes much of this absurdity. But I would like to see the issue treated with more intelligence and more expertise than Angelique Chrisafis is capable of bringing to it; not knowing anything about literature or film has in the past not been a barrier to the Guardian's Paris correspondent writing, as the French say, n'importe quoi on the subjects. It is sad to see that, once again, even left-wing Europhile British newspapers only seem to interested in reinforcing lazy preconceptions about France. Compare this approach with this excellent review of Elfriede Jelinek's novel Greed in the London Review of Books; Jelinek is another writer who has been ill treated by the literary establishment in both Austria and Germany and Nicholas Spice's piece is a brilliant, learned defence of her life and work. I plan to read Faïza Guène's novels soon and I sincerely hope that the Guardian will afford her work more respect than the French literarati has, or it itself has on this occasion.
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