Monday, November 27, 2006

"Good morning, you fascists."

American cinema in the 1970s produced such an array of stone-cold, undeniable classics that it is breathtaking.
Let us consider that the cinematic decade began - aesthetically, at least - with Bonnie & Clyde in 1967 and ended with The Right Stuff in 1983. In between there are such films as the Godfather 1 & 2, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Jaws, American graffiti, Carrie, Annie Hall, Chinatown, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, the Warriors, Deliverance, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now, Halloween, Badlands, Shampoo, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Saturday Night Fever, the Exorcist, Star Wars, All the Presidents Men and Manhattan. That is the most cursory of lists, and I could easily double or triple it with less celebrated films from those years of more or less equal value.
But I still retain the capacity to be amazed when I see a film from that era I have not encountered before and it just reassures me that I'm right - American cinema in the 1970s seemed to have some sort of Midas touch.

Electra Glide In Blue is one such film. Directed by James William Guercio in 1973 it played at Cannes only to be greeted with boos and cries of "Fascist!". Guercio never made another film and Electra Glide was a commercial failure. The film is the story of "Big" John Wintergreen, brilliantly played by Robert Blake. An unusually short Motorcycle Cop in the Arizona desert, Wintergreen dreams of a promotion to the Homicide unit, of wearing a suit and a Stetson and of smoking a cigar as he stomps around crime scenes. A possible murder on his beat gives Wintergreen his chance.

Entirely shot in that most iconic of American landscapes, Monument Valley, Electra Glide is explicitly intended to play as a modern Western and it shares many of that genres thematic preoccupations. The role of the lawman in American society is given an examination, and in the early 1970s that was a more topical subject than at possibly any time in the preceding decades. The Vietnam War dragged on, disaffected veterans returned and presented the country with a unique social problem - the film reflects this by making Wintergreen a veteran and having him pull over a truck driver who is also dealing with his role in the conflict - as did the still-thriving counterculture, campus riots and underground terrorist movement.

Wintergreen's mentor on the homicide squad, Detective Harve Poole (played by Mitch Ryan, better known as General McAllister from Lethal Weapon) directly comments on this when he talks about a deliberate campaign of police genocide in operation across the US. Indeed, at an early parade-ground revue, Wintergreen's sergeant bellows the following at a line of Motorcycle Cops : "TEN-HUT! Good morning, you fascists. You pigs. You bigots. You PINKOS. You FAGS! You BASTARDS. Fuzz. This indoctrination of vocal harassment was compiled by our own Juvenile Division in preparation for the concert this weekend." The difficult position of the police force in America in the early 70s is also made clear by a scene where Wintergreen and Poole visit a commune. Wintergreen - always playing good Cop, mainly because he is one - is unsuccessful in a search for information. So Poole resorts to brutality, and gets results.

These elements make the accusations of fascism understandable. As does the fact that the most obvious "villains" in the film are long-haired hippies. Electra Glide In Blue even appears to set itself up as the anti-Easy Rider. Wintergreen practices his shooting on a range by blasting away at a poster of Denis Hopper and Peter Fonda. The ending of the film is a sort of reversal of the ending of Easy Rider, and just as much of a kick in the gut for the audience. But Electra Glide is a more complex film than those Cannes detractors understood. It condemns the police just as evenly as it does the counter-culture, and seems to scorn the entirety of US society, in fact. Poole turns out to be a semi-corrupt blowhard, far less a man than the meeker Wintergreen (this is made clear in a long scene which seems almost to have come from a different film, wherein Jolene, a barmaid both men have been seeing, informs each of the others existence and rages against Poole for his impotence while bemoaning her sad and lonely life - the film is just as interested in the value of masculinity as any Western). The ultimate villain of the film emerges as Wintergreen's partner, the Zipper.

The most memorable aspects of Electra Glide In Blue are purely cinematic, however. It is one of the best-looking films of the 1970s. Almost every shot is elegantly composed by the legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall. Any film using Monument Valley is partly a tribute to John Ford, and the long tracking shots down empty highways here pay homage to the old master as well as any film ever has. The line of the horizon bisects almost every shot, the sky shimmering blue, the desert below a succession of oranges, browns and yellows. Wintergreen is often shot against that landscape, riding his motorcycle - the Electra Glide - in a specifically Fordian reference. There is a motorcycle chase that features some slow-motion stuntwork - bikes exploding into flames, men flipping through windows - which is brilliantly put together. As is the opening montage, a superbly gripping sequence of a man preparing to commit suicide. Guercio was primarily a musician when he made the film - he worked with 70s behemoths like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears - and he composed the score, a weird but unforgettable blend of electronic and symphonic rock. The way the second scene of the film is cut perfectly to that score and depicts Wintergreen donning his leather bike gear seems acutely, self-consciously arty. There is something fascist in the uniform itself, a fact that George Lucas acknowledged with his use of a similar look for the black-clad robot guards in THX 1138:

The music is an overture of sorts and it rises to a euphoric crescendo for our first glimpse of Wintergreen fully dressed and walking out into daylight, a lawman in the modern world. Each shot is so carefully composed, lit and cut that the importance of the scene is underlined. Again, it recalls the iconography of the Western, for we see - in lingering, warm close-up -Wintergreen slide his revolver into a hip holster and button that holster shut, a gesture familiar from a hundred Westerns.

But there is something indefinable about the best films of the 1970s, and Electra Glide shares that ambiguity. Complex and conflicted, it has a tonal unevenness and refusal to limit itself to genre that makes it fascinating. It is a police thriller, but also a Western, character study and social drama, an art film, an action film and it has its moments of offbeat comedy. It also has the cold heart that so many films from that decade seem to possess - like Medium Cool or the Parallax View, for instance, it has a shattering climax, brutal and pitiless in its conclusions.
Having seen it, the fact that a talent such as Guercio never made another film seems something of a minor tragedy. Though hes still alive, and contributes an introduction and commentary to the R1 dvd of the film, so maybe its not too late...

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"Lets hug it out, bitch."

The HBO symbol is something of a mark of quality before a television show. If the last decade or so truly has been a Golden age for American TV drama, as some commentators have claimed, then HBO has been the chief driving force behind such a high standard, forcing the American networks to raise their own games to compete with the consistent brilliance of much of HBOs output.

The Wire is probably the greatest television drama ever made. Deadwood and The Sopranos aren't that far off it. Band of Brothers is an amazing journey through the soldiers experience of WW2, as epic and brilliant as just about any War film I can think of. Six Feet Under, particularly in its incredible first two seasons, redefined and deconstructed the soap opera in a uniquely penetrating and hilarious fashion. Rome, too complex and deliberately paced for many, is a vivid and fascinating recreation of the Roman Empire as debauched political playground. Sex & the City became a phenomenon because it was so well written, cast and designed. Curb Your Enthusiasm shows that Americans can do the comedy of discomfort just as well as the British, if not better. Even the least celebrated of HBO's big shows - Carnivale, Big Love and Oz - are all obviously quality offerings, each exceptional in its own way. The ultimate tribute to HBO is that the classiest and most intelligent of it rivals shows - The West Wing, say, or Arrested Development - feel like HBO shows.

Of all HBOs shows, Entourage - alongside Sex & the City - is seemingly the most shallow, the most superficial. HBO originally even seemed to pitch the show as a slightly younger, male version of Sex & the City. It is, after all, about four young men, their friendship and their lives in Los Angeles. Only, one of these young men is an up-and-coming Hollywood actor and the other three are his manager, fixer and elder brother. While following each of their dalliances with a series of nubile beach babes and starlets, the show also reflects upon the nature of the film and fame businesses and consistently satirises LA culture. But, like Sex & the City did for the publishing, fashion and art worlds of New York City, Entourage is clever enough to leaven its satire of the Film Industry with a sort of visual worship - LA always looks amazing in Entourage. It is shot to make the lifestyle of the boys seem as attractive as possible, and so they live in a world of impossible women in bikinis, constant blue skies, Masaratis and massive plasma screen TV's, of art deco mansions, flashbulb-strobed Hollywood premieres and beach-house parties.

Its comedy is also very much based and grounded in character. The five principles - the fifth being Jeremy Piven as super-agent Ari Gold - are attractive, amusing characters and the viewer only grows more attached to them as the seasons progress. Entourage, while not the funniest show on television at the moment, certainly makes me laugh the most, partly out of the level of affection I feel for its characters. The depth of the friendship between the four young men from Queens, fish out of water in LA and loving it, gives the soapier plotlines a little weight. While it can be labelled one-note and slightly solipsistic in its determined focus on the narrow world of Hollywood, the bond between these characters is really the soul of the show, and all of the actors are good enough to make it believable, affecting and funny.

Another vital part of the humour for the movie-fan are the Hollywood injokes and the constant guest stars, most of whom play themselves. Mark Wahlberg is an executive producer and the show is inspired to some extent by his life and career, and in the first episode the fictional crew pass Wahlberg and his own posse as they move through the grounds of a studio. Many of the stars satirise themselves - from Gary Busey pretensiously describing the inspiration for his art at a gallery to James Woods throwing a temper tantrum - while others show up, as do many of the women in the series, as eye-candy. But Entourage is classy even in this department. When it does eye-candy it goes for the hottest available : the likes of Jessica Alba and Scarlett Johansson. In the second season James Cameron plays himself as he prepares to direct Vince - our principle pretty boy moviestar - in an adaptation of Aquaman, co-starring Mandy Moore, who plays herself even as she and Vince flirt with the possibility of a serious relationship. For anybody who knows the character of Aquaman, the material about his status, costume and powers are pure fanboy gold. Perhaps the biggest injoke is the presence of Kevin Dillon, brother of Matt, as Vince's older brother Drama, a has-been TV actor.

But the true glory of Entourage is Jeremy Piven. He gets the majority of the best lines and the best catchphrase - the title of this entry. His craven, utterly cynical, conniving and Machiavellian behaviour is always contrasted with his relatively stable home-life with a strong wife and two children. Even when sex with his wife is interrupted by a business call which he answers while kneeling up in bed sporting a viagra erection through his boxers.

Its basically a boys show, is its main drawback, if that is even a drawback. It mainly concerns four young men living the fantasy lives of millions of other young men as they pursue beautiful women in Hollywood, drive expensive cars, go to exclusive clubs, wear designer clothes, play golf and computer games and socialise with movie stars. Pure wish-fulfillment, in other words. But within that remit, its funny, clever and beautifully acted and crafted. Everything from the locations to the choice of background music feels just right and fun. Yeah, its fun, not a charge that can be levelled at too many HBO shows.

Entourage further cemented its standing with me with its choice of guest stars in Season 3. None other than Domenick Lombardozzi, Herc from The Wire, appears as an old schoolfriend from Queens who Vince employs as a minder in the first flush of post-Aquaman success. It all ends semi-disastrously, as many things do in the Entourage world. Of course hes brilliant. Of course its funny.

But really, its the regularity of offhand exchanges like this one that make me love Entourage so much. Eric is Vince's best friend and manager, the most intelligent and reflective of the foursome, while Turtle is the gofer, the fixer, called a "fat horny little turd" by Vince's female publicist. He is not above using his proximity to Vince in order to lure women, in fact its his chief method of meeting them.
Eric : Would you ever get laid if it wasn't for Vince, thats the question.
Turtle : Do I give a fuck, thats the answer.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On Football - No. 2 : Michael Laudrup

The World Cup in Mexico in 1986 was the first one I was really old enough to appreciate. I have memories of Spain in 1982 - I watched at least one of Northern Ireland's matches and the Brazil-Italy game, probably the best game I'll ever see though I wasn't to know it then. But I was seven in 1982, and though I liked football, it wasn't quite a passion in the way it became in subsequent years. By 1986 I was hooked. 1986 was the first time I bought a Panini sticker album - we filled it, my brother and I - and the first time I read about foreign teams before the tournament. I knew who Ruminegge was. I knew Platini and Boniek and Zico. I had some idea of which teams were expected to do well in the competition. There were a few players from my club involved - Bryan Robson and Norman Whiteside - and I wanted them to do well. 1986 is probably also the year my love of Argentinean football began, with Maradona's incredible genius.

I knew Denmark before the tournament. They had been in Ireland's qualification group and had beaten us - handily - 3-0 in Copenhagen and 4-1 in Dublin. They had an exciting attack-minded team, fluid and full of movement and with goals coming from all across their midfield and forward line. They were fresh from appearing in the semi-finals of the 1984 European Championship, where they went out on penalties to Spain. Their fans were fantastic and not unlike Ireland's would be some years later - loud and colourful and seemingly just happy to be there. They called their team "Danish Dynamite". Their forward pairing was the most explosive element of that team. The experienced Preben Elkjaer led the line aggressively, winning high balls and chasing down defenders. Supplying the guile and vision was young Michael Laudrup.

Denmark had been drawn in their first World Cup in the "Group of Death". Every tournament has one - a group with no obviously weak team. This time the other three teams were Germany, Uruguay and Scotland. Denmark could expect to come maybe third out of that group, behind the ever-impressive Germans and Enzo Francescoli's Uruguay.

But Denmark won the group, at a stroll. They beat all of the other teams, including a 6-1 thrashing of Uruguay featuring this goal by a then 22-year old Laudrup :

That match was on past my bedtime, probably. During that summer I would get up and watch highlights of football matches played at 1am the previous day. Thats was how I saw that goal and became aware of Laudrup. That was also how I became aware of Denmarks departure from the tournament, beaten again by Spain, 5-1. But that Laudrup goal against Uruguay made a big impression on me. I loved dribblers back then. It seemed to me to be the way football should be played. Get the ball, beat a man with a feint, beat another with a jink, do it again. So obviously, Maradona was a god to me. But that World Cup introduced me to some other great playmakers from less fashionable countries than Argentina - Laudrup from Denmark and Enzo Scifo from Belguim.

Laudrup could dribble brilliantly, of course, his ability to flick the ball from one foot to the other with equal dexterity baffling a succession of defenders, but his game was based more on his ability to pick out an outstanding pass. His first European exposure came when Juventus signed him from Brondby in 1983 and immediately loaned him out to Lazio. He had been bought probably as a replacement for Michel Platini, but Platini was in the peak form of his career, and eventually Laudrup was brought back from his loan period - after two years - to play alongside the Frenchman in place of Boniek. Juventus have a reputation for playing powerful, efficient football and Italian pragmatism usually only accommodates one playmaker, but the Platini-Laudrup combination won Serie A in 1986. When Platini did retire in 1987, Laudrup was unable to dominate games the way his illustrious predecessor had done and Juventus had a couple of years without the success the club was accustomed to.

When Johann Cruijff took over as Coach of Barcelona he set about building his so-called "Dream Team". Only three foreign players could play at any one time alongside homegrown players such as Pep Guardiola and Goikoetxea. Cruijff placed the temperamental Bulgarian striker Hristo Stoichkov up front, with the cultured Ronald Koeman in defence. In between he needed a player who recalled his own playing style, somebody to pull the strings and make things happen. Laudrup was such a player. The Dream Team lived up to its nickname, winning La Liga four times consecutively between 1991-1994 and winning Barcelona's first European Cup at Wembley against Sampdoria in 1992. To bolster an already strong team Cruijff bought Romario, and he and Laudrup struck up an immediate partnership, Laudrup supplying the ammunition for the Brazilian's unfaltering finishes. Romario called Laudrup the best player he ever played with, and with characteristic modesty, said that he was the 5th best player of all-time, behind Pele, Maradona, Romario himself and Zinedine Zidane. This pass is something of a Laudrup trademark, since perfected by Ronaldinho - the player looks one way and moves the ball the other :

However, the presence of three such high-profile foreigners in Barcelona's ranks meant that the three had to be rotated. Laudrup was left out of the starting line-up against AC Milan in the European Cup final in 1994, Barcelona lost 0-4, and Laudrup left, moving controversially to Real Madrid. In his first season Madrid won La Liga, ending Barca's period of dominance. Laudrup would only stay for one more season but impressed Real's fans and players so much that he was voted the 12th best player ever to play for the club by Marca in 2002. Raul called him the best player he has ever played with, above the likes of Zidane, Figo, Redondo and Ronaldo. When he left Madrid he floated for a while, playing in Japan and for Ajax before retiring.

If he had been born in South America or in one of Europe's traditional football powers, then Laudrup would be held in higher regard than he is. He was the classic Number 10, exceptionally technically gifted, a great passer, dribbler and capable of fabulous long-range shooting. Platini once praised him as one of the most talented players in the history of the game, lamenting only his lack of selfishness which meant that he scored too few goals. But there is something intrinsically Scandinavian in Laudrup's love of an assist, his appreciation of his team-mates, and ability to find them with some seemingly impossible balls.

He did not help himself in terms of how posterity views him : In 1992 he was involved in a dispute with the Danish coach, Richard Moller Nielsen, over the teams tactics, and quit during qualification. When Denmark were summoned at the last minute to replace a disqualified Yugoslavia at the European Championships in Sweden, his younger brother, Brian, also a gifted playmaker, took Michael's position as Denmark won the tournament, shocking Holland and Germany to do so. When he returned to the Danish squad, they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup and were eliminated early from Euro 1996. In France in 1998, Laudrup enjoyed a last hurrah on the international stage, playing as Captain alongside his brother as Denmark reached the quarter-finals where they were eliminated narrowly, 3-2, by finalists Brazil.

The game before that, where Denmark had routed a fancied Nigeria side, featured two typical examples of Laudrup's vision and unselfishness in the passes for the first and third of Denmark's goals, and is a good clip to finish with :


"Its okay with me..."

Robert Altman died yesterday. He was 81. He made a lot of films. I've got him in my profile as one of the directors I'm a fan of, but he had such a long and full career and worked to such a relatively late age that its hard to feel sad about his death, hard to feel anything other than grateful for all the great work he left behind, in fact.

He could legitimately have been called one of the Greatest living American Directors, and his career had both its High period in the 1970s and a late renaissance in the 1990s which he stretched into this century.
This list of films - his best, I think - can be compared to the ouevre of any director from any country or period in Cinema History in terms of quality :

MASH (1970)
McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)
The Long Goodbye (1973)
Thieves Like Us (1974)
California Split (1974)
Nashville (1975)
3 Women (1977)
Short Cuts (1993)

His style was so singular and unique that it can be difficult to trace his influence in any of todays filmmakers. Only Paul Thomas Anderson is obviously an Altman disciple. But any film where multiple characters interact and connect in intertwining storylines - from Crash to Grand Canyon to Code Unknown to Love Actually - tells its story in Altman's long shadow. Nobody has ever done that kind of film as well as he did it in Nashville, perhaps his masterpiece, and Short Cuts.

He also appreciated and used actors uncommonly well. Elliott Gould's strange, off-kilter charm was never quite as well used, with such canny understanding of the quick wit and sharp mind it masked, as in The Long Goodbye or California Split. Warren Beatty gives probably his most open, vulnerable performance in McCabe & Mrs Miller. His marshalling of massive ensembles is unsurpassed, and still evident in one of his last films, Gosford Park.

Indeed, the strength of his body of work is obvious when another list, of the notable omissions from the first, is assembled. Consider these :

Brewster McCloud (1970)
Buffalo Bill & The Indians (1976)
A Wedding (1978)
Vincent & Theo (1990)
The Player (1992)
Gosford Park (2001)

Altman made many more films, some of them terrible (Quintet, Pret-A-Porter), some of them compromised by studio interference (The Gingerbread Man), some of them fine films by any other standards (Streamers, Dr T & the Women). But Altman had incredibly high standards, and not much could live up to the work he had done in the 70s. Even at its worst, however, his work was always interesting, always ambitious and generally extremely finely crafted. Has any other contemporary Director been so persistent in his questioning of the nature of America and American culture as Altman? Whether it was through his revisionist approach to classic American genres - the western in McCabe & Mrs Miller, the noir in The Long Goodbye, the musical in Popeye - or his head-on assault on politics and its impact on US society in Nashville and Tanner 88, Altman was alway motivated to ask questions of both his audiences and his own proccupations.

The first Altman film I saw was Popeye. I saw it in a cinema when I was 6, I think. And, loving the cartoon and loving musicals, I loved it too. When I discovered years later that it was the work of the same man who had made MASH, I was astounded. It was a terrible flop, probably the greatest of Altman's career, and it threw that career off-course for most of the 1980s. Its critical reputation remains decidely poor. But its an interesting film, very close in spirit to old Popeye newspaper cartoons rather than the modern animated versions. Shelley Duvall was born to play the part of Olive Oyl, Robin Williams is ridiculous but somehow right as an actual flesh and blood Popeye, and the songs were written by none other than Harry Nilsson. One of the more overlooked elements of Altman's work is the level of technical proficiency evinced by all his films. The expertise required to make some of his more explicit trademarks - reams of overlapping dialogue, sometimes from several different conversations, and extremely lengthy but unforced long takes - work is somewhat hidden by the authentic, verite tone created by these same techniques. His camera seems almost to wander into some scenes at random, then wander out again. But Altman's films were always beautifully shot. This is most apparent in his period films. McCabe & Mrs Miller is unforgettably atmospheric, Vilmos Zsigmond's photography capturing the haunting setting of the Frontier town in Winter, the gas-light glow of the interiors and the crunching harshness of the snow-covered forest outside (Michael Winterbottom's "The Claim" is one long tribute to McCabe & Mrs Miller - specifically its visual tone - by way of Thomas Hardy). Popeye, without benefitting from many of Altman's other trademarks, is his most aggressively art-directed and visually ostentatious film. For an Altman fan, its a strange little treat, unique in his filmography.

In 2002, Paul Thomas Anderson acknowledged the film and paid a small tribute to Altman by including one of those Nilsson songs in Punch-Drunk Love, which resembles 1970s Altman in its independence of spirit and experimental tone.

That song, He Needs Me, as sung by Shelley Duvall :

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

On Football - No. 1 : Fernando Redondo

Two posts so far, both about cinema. "Cinema" sounds very precious, but "film" is even worse, and "movies" is far too AICN. Maybe I should use the term "pictures". Its got an elegant, old-fashioned cool I like. You go to theatres to watch pictures, you don't watch them on Ipods or PSPs.

Anyway, cinema will be the main thing I write about, because its probably what I know and love the most. But I also know and love books ("literature"?) and comics ("Graphic literature"?) and television and music. So, I'll be trying to tackle each of those, too. I'm a terrible know-all, really.

Football, though. Which I spend a ridiculous amount of time talking about, thinking about, reading about and watching, and even occasionally playing, is something I've never written about. Until now.

I was going to start with somebody more obvious, more celebrated. I was going to start with Redondo's compatriot, the greatest player I ever saw play the game, Diego Maradona. But Fernando Redondo is more interesting for his relative obscurity.

Most of the players I have a fondness for - the ones I loved most as a boy, the ones I enjoy watching most now - are attackers. Its is no coincidence that many of the greats of the history of the game were natural Number 10s. Maradona, Pele, Platini, Cruyff, Zidane, Puskas and Baggio all played in the space between midfield and forward line, shaping attacks with clever angled passes, explosive dribbling and intuitive misdirection. The player in that position can, if possessing sufficient skill and tactical acumen, utterly control a game. He is the conduit through which each of his teams attacks must pass. When it goes well, he gets all the praise and all of the glamour.

But the modern game, where players are fitter and faster and stronger, has made it more difficult for these conjurors to practice their art. There is less time on a football pitch now than at any time before, less space. Speed of thought must be even quicker, ball control more acute. The modern midfielder is a powerful athlete, capable of covering miles at high speed in every game, and a jack of all trades - he must be a good tackler, a perceptive reader of the game, capable of passing long and short, able to dribble if the need arises and apt to break into the box to score a goal. Players like Steven Gerrard and Michael Ballack typify this new breed, while the traditional Number 10 slowly dies out except for the odd abberative child genius - Wayne Rooney qualifies, as does Yoann Gourcuff at AC Milan. Only in Maradona-worshipping Argentina is there a concerted effort to promote the playmaker in the classic mould as a workable part of a modern squad. Accordingly, Argentina have produced an astounding number of high-quality Number 10s in the last two decades, most of them cursed to live with "Next Maradona" status from their youth-team debuts for their country. A list of such names would include Ariel Ortega, Juan Roman Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Andreas D'Alessandro, Javier Saviola and the two main rivals for the title of the newest new Maradona, Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi.

Less-heralded than the Number 10, but just as important to the way Argentinean teams play their football, and also threatened by the modern midfielders need to be a great all-rounder, is the Number 5. In the Argentine tradition, the Number 5 shirt goes to a central midfielder rather than a defender. The last great Argentine Number 5 was Fernando Redondo. Redondo was a defensive midfielder, but not quite in the vein of a Makelele or a Keane. Instead, he was a deep-lying playmaker. He broke up opposition attacks with sharp tackling and set in motion attacks of his own with crisp, short passing. He didn't race forward and break into the box. He didn't score many goals. He didn't cover every blade of grass for 90 minutes. But he could control a game like no other central midfielder I have ever seen. He played with his head up, always reading the movement of the players around him, always aware of where his next pass was going. The Argentine football character is founded just as much on steely, often brutal aggression as it is on sublime skill, and Redondo was as combative as a ball-winning Midfielder must be. His tackling was hard and he was a big man - a formidable physical presence in the centre of the pitch, around which his team revolved. His technique was extraordinary and he was a flashier Number 5 than his most recent heir in the position, Javier Mascherano - he showed a control and understanding of a football comparable with most of the Number 10s listed above. Playing right at the fulcrum of a team - in the heart of midfield - requires a different personality than that needed to operate in the "hole" behind the forward line. Quiet players such as Zidane and Riquelme can thrive further up the pitch. But in the heart of the battle, the congested central area of the field, squeezed and stretched between two sets of defenders and attackers, the central midfielder must display a big personality, the will to dominate his own team as well as the opposition. Redondo needed to be able to destroy and create in an instant, to orchestrate and bully his team-mates and to see the bigger tactical picture at all times. All of which he did, beautifully.

But he under-achieved, given his tremendous talent. He spent his first years as a professional in Buenos Aires with Argentinos Juniors, then spent four years at Tenerife before moving to Real Madrid. Finally playing for a Big club, he won La Liga twice, and the Champions League twice. He was probably Madrid's most important player in their 1999-2000 Champions League campaign, dominating Roy Keane at Old Trafford in the quarter finals in a manner seldom seen. His backheel to set up Raul is just a moment of genius :

After that triumph, Madrid, amazingly, sold Redondo to AC Milan. Madrid's Ultras literally rioted at the news.
His two seasons at Milan were blighted by injury, and he rarely played. He refused to accept wages from the club, believing that, as he was giving them nothing, then they should give him nothing. These injury problems were what led to his premature retirement in 2003. The mixture of stubbornness and an uncommon sense of personal principles suggested by his stance over wages is perhaps what ruined his International Career. He reportedly refused a call-up to the 1990 squad because he disagreed with the teams defensive tactics. And he would not play for the team when Daniel Passarella was coach because he refused to play anywhere other than central midfield, altough the Argentine press speculated it was because Passarella demanded that all his players cut their long hair, and the ever-stubborn Redondo refused.

He only played 29 times for Argentina and appeared at only one World Cup, in America in 1994, where he was probably his teams most consistent player. That squad had the potential to win a tournament lacking a truly great team. It had the strong spine needed to win a World Cup, with Ruggeri playing in his third World Cup at the centre of defence, Redondo running things in front of him, a seemingly rejuvenated Maradona prompting the forwards, who were the legendary Gabriel Batistuta and Claudio Caniggia. But Argentina, after a great start, were sent reeling by Maradona's expulsion on a doping charge, and were knocked out in the game of the tournament, 3-2, by Romania. This lack of World Cup exposure is most likely the reason that Redondo's recognition factor is not commensurate with his talent or stature within the game.

In Argentina, his importance is acknowledged. The emergence of a startlingly talented young defensive midfielder in the classic Argentine mould at Boca Juniors over the last 2 years has seen the youngster accorded the Number 5 equivalent of the dreaded "New Maradona" title. Fernando Gago has been dubbed the New Redondo. Hes also been linked with a move to Real Madrid, as if he doesn't have enough to live up to...


You're the man now, dog

"Losers always whine about “their best.” Winners go home with the Prom Queen." ~ Sean Connery

Obviously, Sean Connery always went home with the Prom Queen.
I saw Casino Royale tonight, and boy-who-was-raised-on-Bond that I am, I loved it. Daniel Craig, as the first Generation X Bond, was as good as anybody could have been. I left it eager to see further Craig-as-Bond adventures, to see Craig in a wetsuit, Craig in a ski-chase, Craig do the whole formulaic Bond in Villains Base bit, etc etc. It succeeds on its own terms in a way that no other Blockbuster this year really has (I say this under the assumption that Miami Vice and Children Of Men are far more than Blockbusters) in that I left it wholly satisfied. It had gripped, entertained and -almost - moved me for its entire running time, something no Bond film really has since, oh, On Her Majestys Secret Service, maybe? Craig succeeded in one way that no other Bond has, for me. He made me forget about Connery.

But not really. Because many of the things I admired about Craig's performance were things that reminded me of Connery's Bond. His toughness, coldness, sense of true danger. All this, really, is a way of saying : I love Sean Connery.

When he played Bond in the 60s, he was probably the coolest man on Earth. Still young, but old enough to have some wisdom and experience of how the world worked, impossibly handsome, obviously intelligent, and playing and defining the premier Screen Action hero of the Century - and he made it all seem effortless. That sense that Bond does everything well and with grace - that comes more from Connery than from the character in Fleming's novels. Connery's Bond seems to enjoy his adventures when he can, but hes also full of darkness - he kills ruthlessly and without any hesitation or pity. He treats women like they mean nothing to him, and seems amused by the fact that he can. He's also the only Bond - until Craig - who is absolutely convincing in his action scenes. Connery - raised in a rough, working-class part of Edinburgh and a former bodybuilder - is big and athletic enough to believably win many of the fistfights he engages in. Little wonder that the two most memorable fights in the entire series are both in Connery Bonds : versus Robert Shaw in a tight Train Compartment in "From Russia With Love" and versus Peter Maivia (Grandfather of Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) in "You Only Live Twice".

He pulls off some ridiculous outfits in his Bond run, too. A one-piece sky-blue toweling bathing suit with a straw boater and sandals? Connery makes it look good. Thats how cool the man was. But then, one of the major components of his screen presence is his virility. Pauline Kael commented on his "confidence in himself as a man", and this is transmitted by the way he handles himself on screen, the way he sizes up women and seems to dwarf men. He possessed a regal quality even back then, which has made him the obvious actor for some roles as Kings - in "First Knight", "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and even "Time Bandits". That virility seems to play its way into the plots and situations of his Bond films. In "Goldfinger", the titular villain tortures him by threatening his virility via a laser-beam. Bond eventually defeats Goldfinger mainly by seducing and presumably turning the (probably) lesbian Pussy Galore.

Connery has done some great work in the decades since he abandoned Bondage, though his career has always suffered from his peculiar choices. This is a man who turned down both "The Lord of the Rings" and "the Matrix" but accepted "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen". And "The Avengers". And the aforementioned "First Knight". There is a certain logic to that last one. He has enjoyed great success in the period Adventure genre in the past. In the 70s, he made 3 such films in a row, all classics in their different ways, all featuring fine Connery performances. In "The Wind and the Lion", ( John Milius, 1975) he plays a Berber Chieftain with a strong Scottish accent. In the fantastic "The Man Who Would Be King", (John Huston, 1975) he plays a British soldier taken for a God by a tribe in Kafiristan. In "Robin & Marian", (Richard Lester, 1976) he plays an aging, weary Robin Hood, returned to a very different Sherwood Forest from years of campaigning in the Crusades. With a strong Scottish accent. The film climaxes with a Connery-Robert Shaw rematch, only this time they are two men in late middle-age, beating at each other with swords, all the dynamism and sleek brutality of their earlier fight entirely absent. Each of these films uses his regal, iconic stature in one way or another. He also possesses a sort of timeless quality - where so many moden actors are quintessentially contemporary presences who seem out-of-place in period garb, their very faces seeming somehow anachronistic, Connery's effortless masculinity is suited to all eras. He is convincing as the one thing many of modern cinemas leading men struggle with - he can play a Man.

Since then, Connery has been most profitably utilised as a supporting actor, generally in a mentor role to a younger actor. "The Untouchables" is the best example of this, but its worked well in "Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade", "Highlander", "Finding Forrester", "Rising Sun" and "the Presidio" too. I haven't even mentioned his great work for Sidney Lumet in "The Hill" (1965) and "The Offence" (1972) - either of which could be argued to be his best performance - or the way he twisted his Bond persona into even darker shades for Hitchcock in "Marnie"(1964). Or the achievement that is his work in John Boorman's absolutely batshit "Zardoz" (1974), where he somehow gets away with a pancho villa mustache, a ponytail, knee-high boots and a red nappy.

But its not just the work with Connery. Its stuff like this :

When filming "Another Time, Another Place" in LA in the late 1950s, a pre-Bond, pre-stardom Connery was rumoured to be having an affair with his older co-star, Lana Turner. Turner was living with gangster Johnny Stompanato - you know the one, Russell Crowe squeezes his balls at a bar in "LA Confidential", and in real life he was eventually stabbed to death by Turner's daughter, who claimed she was protecting her mother- who turned up onset with a gun to confront Connery. An argument ensued and then Connery took the gun away from Stompanato and decked him. Took the gun away from him. Then decked him. Can you imagine Johnny Depp doing that? Jude Law? Brad Pitt? No, me either.

A story ran on Popbitch a few years back. This guy reported getting blotto with his mates in the clubhouse of a posh golf club after a morning round. At some point in the afternoon, Connery passed through the bar on his way out to play. One of the guys mates decided to ask Connery the big question :"Sean, whats the best sex you've ever had?" To which Connery told him to "Fuck off!"
But on his way back through the clubhouse some hours later, Connery came over, tapped the guy on the shoulder and said "Petula Clark. 1963. Up the arse." And walked off.

Connery is a Celtic fan. And a good footballer in his day, apparently. He turned down trials, firstly with East Fife and then with Man Utd. Because he didn't need it. He wanted to be an actor instead. And hes been a superstar for nearly 50 years as a result. But he could have won the European Cup! The fool. Winners go home with the Prom queen, indeed.

The only actor with anything like the cool factor of Connery is Steve McQueen. Maybe Clint Eastwood on a good day. But Connery is a better actor than either, with a broader range. McQueen and Connery were always linked for me, somehow. A similar natural charisma, a similar confident masculinity, perhaps. Theres a Gomez song off their first album called 78 Stone Wobble, which ends with the best moment of their entire misbegotten careers. With a sample of a man speaking in Spanish, and finally repeating, in a loop, just the two names : "Sean Connery, or Steve McQueen. Sean Connery, or Steve McQueen. Sean Connery, or Steve McQueen". Daniel Craig should ever be so lucky.

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