Monday, January 22, 2007

Wanted : For Being a Dick

Even if he had never made a film, Mike Judge's contribution to pop culture would be worthy of serious respect. This is the man who created Beavis & Butthead, after all. Beavis & Butthead are funny, and I loved them back when I basically still was one of them, when I was close enough to the world of pimpled adolescents watching rock videos on MTV with their friends and giggling together that the truth of it only made it even funnier. If that wasn't enough, Judge then went on to co-create King of the Hill, perhaps the most underrated of animated shows in the aftermath of the Simpsons. King of the Hill isn't as flashy or even as funny as many of its peers. Instead its an almost old-fashioned sitcom, its strengths rooted in a depth of characterisation and a coherent, consistent worldview which allows its gentle humour to unfold. There is always an unfashionable Texan conservatism in Judge's work, a respect for blue collar America and loathing of new, Corporate America, and King of the Hill is perhaps the purest example of this. It has managed to last 11 full seasons without ever attracting the hype or cult of a South Park or a Family Guy.

Then there is Judge's work in cinema. Office Space, the film he wrote, produced and directed in 1999, was a spinoff from a series of shorts he had made about the character of Milton, frustrated and driven almost insane by the grind of office-work. The film was a large expansion on this idea. Judge made it more universal by making his hero a sort of everyman, his boredom and frustration at the Dilbert-like cubicle-culture of his workplace understandable to anyone who has ever punched a clock in one. As hero Peter Gibbons, played by Ron Livingstone, says : "Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements." Office Space captures the inertia of working in an office alongside the petty irritations - difficulties with photocopiers, static shocks off door handles, squabbles over staplers, having to work overtime, memos, patronising bosses. It also deftly captures several distinct comic characters, from Milton himself, more or less a gibbering anti-social wreck, to Peter's frustrated, frightened friends Samir and Michael Bolton. Office Space, however, was mispromoted by Fox, its American studio, and was a box-office disappointment. It only really found its audience on dvd, and is one of Foxs biggest selling dvds ever, having developed a sizeable cult audience, drawn by the films eminently quotable screenplay and its gently satirical take on life in a business park in modern America.

Judge's latest film, Idiocracy, was also produced by Fox. This time, instead of mispromoting the film, they buried it. Again, there were problems with promotion, the studio arguing with Judge over the trailers and the entire advertising concept. Then, after preview screenings had resulted in some low ratings from focus groups and Judge had reshot some scenes to appease Fox, they sat on the film for two years. Nobody saw it and its release was endlessly postponed. Finally, they released it in just over a hundred American cinemas in Setember last year. Now its been released on dvd in the States - a UK cinema release looks unlikely at this point - and hopefully it will begin to find an audience as Office Space did, because Idiocracy deserves it just as much.

It tells the story of Joe Bowers(Luke Wilson), a private in the US Army, selected by his superiors for his utter ordinariness to be placed in suspended animation for a year. Only of course the experiment goes wrong, Joe is forgotten and he awakens 500 years later in America in 2505. A voiceover (recalling the omniscient pomposity of voiceovers in 1950s sci-fi and also War of the Worlds) has sketched out the essence of the conceit for us in a prologue : smart people aren't procreating enough, whereas dumb people can't stop. Hence by 2505, the stupid have inherited the earth. America is a mess, with literal mountains of trash everywhere, machines that don't work and moronic citizens who speak a bizarre mix of hillbilly, Valley Girl and inner-city slang in place of English. A soft-drink company sponsors the presidency and people are obsessed by sex and violence. Starbucks offers handjobs with lattes, there is a tv channel called the Masturbation Network and a hit show called "Ow, My Balls!" which depicts its hero getting kicked, punched and landing repeatedly on his crotch. The President himself is an ex-wrestler and porn star who cannot understand why his country's crops have stopped growing - they are being sprayed with a soft-drink rather than water - and who keeps order in his "House of Reprasentin" with a sub-machine gun. Advertisements spout slogans like "If you don't smoke Tarrlytons - fuck you!" and "Fuck off, I'm eating." In this world, Joe is the smartest man alive, and he sets off on an odyssey to find a time machine in order to get home.

Idiocracy is in no way a subtle film. Judge takes aim at his targets - corporate greed and stupidity, modern cultural fads and fashions, Americas increasing obsessions with sex and violence and consumerism - with a bazooka. Nor is the film as funny as you feel it could be. As in Office Space, many of the ideas are better than the execution, but also like Office Space, the best and funniest moments are almost all incidental, hovering in the background in a series of brilliant sight-gags or flying by in tossed off pieces of dialogue. Judge has always done stupidity well - see Beavis & Butthead for proof - but here it is centre stage and he gets great mileage from such concepts as a 2505 tour of the past where Charlie Chaplin was fascist dictator of the Nazis and dinosaurs fought in WWII wrapped in sweaters bearing swastikas and U.N. (or Un, as the film has it) insignias. Joe is a figure of fun to these morons of the future, who mock his "faggy" voice and at first believe him retarded. He goes to a film called "Ass" which is an hour and a half of footage of an ass, which farts occasionally. The voiceover informs us that Ass won 8 Oscars that year, including best screenplay.

The question remains : exactly why would Fox treat the film so badly? The internet was abuzz with conspiracy theories when it was finally released in those few American cinemas. And Fox itself does not escape Judge's satirical eye. There is a Fox News segment in the film, presented by a hulking, topless man and a conspicuously huge-breasted woman and delivered in the aggressive tabloid language of the Wrestling ring. But the films attack is generally non-specific, Judge seeming to abhor all corporations rather than any one in particular. Last year was the year in which Borat was such a success in American cinemas, and that would suggest that there may have been an audience for Idiocracy, too, though the films are utterly different in everything but the savagery of their mockery. Hopefully this second disappointment in his dealings with the studio system will not discourage Judge too much. Cinema needs his talent and unique sensibility just as much as tv and animation does.


Monday, January 15, 2007

"Nobody's doin nothin to nobody. Its all just happenin, see?"

Freamon: A life, Jimmy, you know what that is? It's the shit that happens while you're waiting for moments that never come.

The Wire has basically ruined all other tv for me. Oh, I watch and enjoy lots of other shows. Some of those shows I even love - Deadwood, say. I look forward to new episodes and Seasons of plenty of shows, from ER to Lost. But secretly, as I watch all of them, every single one, from Rome to the Gilmore Girls, I wish it was The Wire. Simply put, nothing else compares.
Most of the time, thats perfectly alright. It will make it even sweeter when I finally get my hands on the Season 4 boxset, and I take what pleasure I can from all these other shows I patronise with my sniffy viewing.

But a show like Showtime's Brotherhood makes itself so much harder to enjoy because it never lets me forget about The Wire. This is because it wants to be The Wire so badly. It actually plays like an inferior-to-both cross between The Wire and The Sopranos. In this at least, it can't really be faulted for ambition.

Showtime, like HBO and FX, is an American cable channel. Like HBO, it originally started out mainly showing films and sports events, before gradually beginning to produce and screen original television movies and finally television shows. But whereas HBO quickly had a couple of worldwide crossover hits in Sex & the City and The Sopranos, establishing its reputation for producing classy, quality comedy and drama, Showtime is still searching for that key show that will cement its standing. As it is, it is perceived as a HBO-wannabe, and its most popular series are a ragtag mix of pulp and high-pedigree comedy and drama that have not yet broken through in the way the major HBO shows have done. Even FX, a far more recent addition to the world of American subscription tv, has enjoyed considerable success and acclaim with the likes of The Shield, Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck. I doubt that anyone reading this (in the UK or Ireland) could name a single Showtime series, and this lack of a strong identity is precisely the channels problem, even in the US. Probably its most popular shows are The L-Word, Queer As Folk, Stargate SG-1, Sleeper Cell and Weeds.

Brotherhood is Showtime's big tilt at HBO-style acclaim. Set and filmed in Providence, Rhode Island, (where Family Guy is also set) and the story of the Irish-American Caffee clan, Brotherhood focuses most particularly on the two sons of the family, Michael and Tommy. Michael is a gangster with a hair-trigger temper and a sentimental side. As the series begins he is returning to Providence having disappeared seven years before "two steps ahead of a hit" as a local cop puts it. More or less his first act upon his return is to violently reclaim some of his criminal enterprises. And Michael, well played by Jason Isaacs, is serious about his violence. Tommy, on the other hand, is a rising local politician with a young family, bags of ambition and a conscientious desire to do well for his constituents. This is the terrain worked by Brotherhood - the contrasts and similarities between the oft-interconnected worlds of crime and politics. It also wants to deal with the death of the old working class and the changes working through American cities in the early years of the 21st century. If that sounds familiar to anyone whos ever watched The Wire, well there is the problem with Brotherhood. Does television have enough space for two shows to deal with such an area, especially when the first of them does it so well? Brotherhood also chooses to paint a portrait of a minor, historical city on the Eastern seaboard, one plagued by poverty and crime, just like The Wire.

The comparisons aren't fair on Showtime's series. The Wire is a genuine work of art, a piece of social commentary and political filmaking just as much as it is a funny, gripping and moving crime drama. It has the best ensemble cast on television today, is written by a crack team (including heavyweight crime novelists like George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price) who give it the depth and epic scope of a great novel, and it has an array of complex and believable characters unlike anything else I've ever seen on television. Brotherhood really doesn't stand a chance in any comparision. To make matters worse, it also recalls The Sopranos, possibly the most critically acclaimed show in television history and one with a collection of pieces on its artistic and cultural importance published by the New York Times. Like The Sopranos, Brotherhood seeks to illuminate the inner life of a man and a family involved in violent organised crime, to demonstrate the mundane reality beneath the gaudy headlines. But whereas The Sopranos is confident and almost regally classy in its treatment of grubby subject-matter, Brotherhood never really rises above the level of pulp whenever it deals with the streetlife of Michael and his peers. There is a fanboy relish in the weekly scenes of violence, most of which involve Michael doing something horrendously excessive to somebody who has crossed him. In the first episode, he visits an old business which has been taken over by a smalltime mobster. Earlier, Michael has witnessed this mobster return to his badly-parked car and become involved in a dispute with a yuppie couple which ended with the mobster clubbing the man to the ground with a baseball bat and threatening to have the woman gang-raped before ripping her earring out. Which obviously inspires Michael, for he later drags the mobster into a carpark, repeatedly smashes his face into a car bonnet and then cuts off his ear. Which he sends to the yuppie girl with a pair of diamond earrings.

In later episodes he beats people with pool cues and his fists. He also shoots a few people while working multiple angles to improve his standing in Providence's criminal network. But he is always reminiscent of a James Cagney-esque figure from the Warner Brothers mob dramas of the 1940s - he is a blue collar criminal, without the ostentatious lifestyle enjoyed by Tony Soprano, for instance. He has some sort of twisted moral code, is fiercely loyal and protective where his family is concerned, and seems oddly emotionally vulnerable. He is offended and almost hurt by the changes he sees in his hometown, the death of a way of life he understands and its replacement by one he cannot. As played by Isaacs, who brings all of his experience of playing villains to bear on the violent and intimidatory scenes but is also skilled enough to reveal his character's depths, Michael is the best thing in Brotherhood. His brother Tommy (played by Jason Clarke) faces different issues. His struggles are mainly political and internecine - he makes deals and calculates odds incessantly, while at home, and unbeknownst to him, his wife Eileen (Annabeth Gish) cheats on him and grapples with alcoholism and drug addiction. Tommy is ambitious and eager to make some money from his position if he can, but he is conflicted by also wanting to serve the Irish-American area of Providence, the Hill, as best he can. The way the lives and worlds of the two brothers interact and entwine is the shows major subject. Michael is revealed to be just as much of a politician as his brother, Tommy as ruthless and calculating a gangster, in his way, as Michael.

But Brotherhood is not as angry as The Wire in its portrayal of a modern American city or as incisive and cutting in its depiction of a crippled, corrupt local government. Its essential trashiness - somehow underlined by the relentless seriousness and grimness of the plotting and characterisation - prevents it from ever seeming authentic in the way The Wire is. One Baltimore drug-dealer, when interviewed by a paper about the authenticity of David Simon's HBO show, claimed that the only detail it really got wrong was that it never showed the way the streets were deserted on Sunday nights while everyone stayed in to watch The Wire. Brotherhood seems too calculated in its characterisation and situations for any such authenticity to be possible. The very premise - though inspired by the real-life Bulger brothers from Boston - is too pulpy, and the moments of real human drama, many of them involving the brother's somewhat loathsome Mother, Rose, are outweighed by stock genre situations involving cops and mobsters. The writing is fine but never as memorable as that of The Wire or The Sopranos, both of which usually feature a few quotable lines in any given episode.

But the show does offer a vivid portrayal of its little corner of the world - the vanishing America of first generation Irish Immigrants. It is familiar from films like State of Grace and The Departed, a musty, decaying world of dark, half-empty bars, men with tricolour tattoos, alcoholism and unemployment, all overhung with the heavy odour of the corrupt Catholic church and its fading influence. Brotherhood positively bathes in this world, until you can almost smell those bars and the clapboard houses of the Hill. It is a classily put-together show, which helps in this evocation and building of such a distinctive environment. With directors like Phillip Noyce and Nick Gomez aboard, it is generally cinematic and visually stylish. The final episode of the first season seems to offer a deliberate echo of the Godfather, as it occurs entirely during the course of a Wedding with almost every surviving character we have encountered in attendance. It is all extremely skillfully marshalled, as people cheat, lie, confess and threaten in turn and most of the dangling plotlines are tied up. There is a shock, cliffhanger ending guaranteed to lure audiences back for Season 2.

But I'm not sure how much I care what happens to these characters, or whether I will actually return. Which is bad for Showtime, I suppose, in its effort to 'become' HBO. But then again, who needs another HBO, when the real one is still making stuff I have yet to see...The Wire Season 4 can't be that far away, can it?


Saturday, January 06, 2007

"Ain't nobody here but two people in green"

Scott : What they gotcha teachin' here, young sergeant?
Black: Edged weapons, sir. Knife fighting.
Scott: Don't you teach 'em knife fighting. Teach 'em to kill. That way, they meet some sonofabitch who studied knife fighting, they send his soul to hell.

David Mamet - "Spartan" (2004)

David Mamet's dialogue is utterly unique. Hes probably the most influential American playwright of the late 20th Century, so his hard-boiled stylised verbal ping-pong has been much-imitated, but nobody ever really makes their characters talk the way Mamet's do. Maybe its the risk he takes. The speech in his work bears little relation, in many instances, to normal everyday speech. It combines a hyper-articulate down-home folksiness (or street slang - either way, some recognisably, uniquely American idiom) with a rhythmic scheme which becomes obvious within seconds of the beginning of an exchange. Some conversations become so repetetive and rhythmic that they begin to sound almost abstract. Yet its very super-realism, the way it focuses on a few aspects of normal speech and exaggerates them, is what makes it often beautiful, generally funny and invariably dramatically effective. The three lines quoted above read like something that has been written. Indeed, in the film, it sounds like dialogue, like something that has been written. But Mamet's world is so confident and precise, his rhythm so persuasive, that soon the dialogue loses that artificiality. In Mamet-land, this is how people talk, and your ear adjusts quickly. Onstage, where so much artificiality is so obvious, you adjust more or less instantly. Cinema, a medium where stylisation is generally located on the visual side, requires a little longer. In television, naturalism is king, the intimacy of the medium demanding a certain brand of apparent realism as a prerequisite to popular success.
Yet Mamet is working successfully in television at the moment, having created and producing one of America's top television dramas. He even writes and directs the occasional episode. How can such a thing be possible?

Mamet obviously enjoyed working on Spartan. As a director, he has admitted that his total absence of any appreciable visual sense is a major drawback. But his films have remained consistently high-quality due to their terrific scripts, good casting, and Mamet's clever choice of collaborators. But I've always found his work as a writer-for-hire, hackwork if you will, on various genre films to be his most satiisfying direct contribution to cinema. On The Untouchables, Mamet's script handled by a director with a truly distinctive visual style led to a brilliantly entertaining genre film. Consider that The Untouchables was a summer blockbuster in 1987 and it starts to seem like one of the classiest and most adult summer blockbusters ever made - could it or anything like it possibly be released this coming summer against the might of the likes of Pirates 3, Spiderman 3, Transformers and the new Harry Potter?
Mamet also wrote the script for the underrated The Edge, which is at its heart a very theatrical two-hander which just happens to be shot in some amazing locations and features a series of set-pieces involving a grizzly bear. Mamet's lack of interest in those set-pieces was reflected in his screenplay. He left the details of the action of the encounters with the bear to the stunt co-ordinators and director Lee Tamahori. His scripts merely read : The Bear attacks. I wonder if he wrote something similar about the carchases and gun battles in Ronin, which he penned under a pseudonym (sample Mametian dialogue : Spence: You ever kill anybody? Sam: Hurt a guy's feelings once..). His focus has always been on the characters and the moral issues they face. On Spartan, his sensibility and cinematic technique seemed to meet nicely - there are set-pieces, and they are imaginitively staged even if the direction is never stunning or singular - and his creativity seemed to have been stirred by this new world of elite soldiers and espionage. No doubt, Mamet saw that when living in an America at war, stories of war and warriors were the easiest way for a dramatist to comment through their art. But in writing and directing the film, Mamet needed some expert technical advice, and he chose to work with Eric L Haney, a founding member of Delta Force, America's secret ultra-elite counter-terrorism unit. Haney was also the author of a book called "Inside Delta Force" and after hearing his stories onset and reading his book, Mamet had the idea of basing a television show upon it.

He has worked in televison before. In 1987 he wrote an episode of Hill Street Blues, and it was while directing an episode of The Shield in 2004 that he approached Shawn Ryan, creator and producer of that show, to help him pitch his new idea to the networks. The Unit is the result.
At first glance it appears a premise almost cynically designed to appeal to both male and female viewers. Each episode focuses on a single mission undertaken by the titular Unit, generally in some far-flung political hotspot (the first season included episodes set in Serbia, Afghanistan, Brazil, Beirut and Panama, amongst many others) while also tracing the lives of the men's wives back on base in the U.S.

This means that every episode has plenty of action and suspense but also a healthy dose of soap-operatics. The two major story arcs in the first season followed the affair between the wife of the Unit's Number two with its commanding Officer, and the introduction of a new member to the team, together with his young wife's introduction to the base and the different type of team represented by the Unit wives. The twin storylines are always skillfully edited together, the stories often reflecting nicely upon each other. The major theme of the show is the human cost of combat, and the premise allows for the exploration of that on two fronts, in family life and on the battlefield itself. The operators in the Unit (and in Delta force, upon which the team is clearly based) are unique in that instead of spending extended tours abroad, in the field, they commute to their battlefields. Most episodes end with the men's arrival home to their wives, the women unaware - in everything but the vaguest sense - of the moral issues and physical danger their husbands have recently exposed themselves to. They come home, like office-workers, to domestic arguments and money troubles. The wives struggle to cope with the worry they naturally live with, with their own careers and relationships, and with keeping it all from their husbands. One of their maxims is "a distracted soldier is a dead soldier".

Production values are impressive for a television show, and the devices, sets and locations used to represent various countries around the world are more imaginitive and convincing than those which the similarly globe-trotting Alias usually resorted to (you know the type - stock establishing shot of Barcelona, then we're in some Los Angeles villa, perhaps shot with a yellowish filter). The action scenes and mission scenarios, while unavoidably recalling a thousand video games, are consistently gripping. Mamet has always had a fascination with the details of men at work, and here their work requires that they be among the elite hundred or so soldiers on earth. Their expertise and professionalism - and the fact that they are all essentially highly trained killing machines - is well-rendered in short and often brutal action scenes which emphasise how deadly these men are, and just how good at their jobs. They all preserve a veneer of emotional neutrality in the field, and the contrast between this and their domestic lives is a fascinating one. Their missions generally involve some tactical feint, trick or sleight-of-hand, again a recurrent Mamet storytelling obsession. Every situation is based in real-world politics, whether it involves assassination in Afghanistan or Mexican drug-trafficking. The characterisation is also mostly realistic, each character conflicted and complex, and never cartoonish.

The cast is uniformly fine, and the shows method of telling a standalone story in each episode while a longer and deeper story-arc unfolds beneath the surface gives each character a chance in the spotlight over the course of the first season. Of course Dennis Haysbert is the star and his natural authority and gravitas is put to good use in his role as Jonas "Snake Doctor" Blaine, leader of the team. The other real standout is Regina Taylor as his formidable, almost regal wife, Molly. As Jonas says, "I fear no man. One woman." Also outstanding is Robert Patrick, well-cast as Colonel Ryan, those stark features brought to bear time and again as he barks orders and fights with his conscience over his affair with the wife of a subordinate.

Mamet wrote two and directed two of the first Season's 12 episodes. His episodes are probably the classiest and best-written, but his involvement is always obvious and the series sets a remarkably high standard in terms of quality. The Season finale, which ends with a great action scene and a sort of low-key cliffhanger, even features one character quoting from Mamet's best-known work, the Pulitzer-prize winning play (and later, movie) Glengarry Glen Ross. "Coffees for closers" one of the team says to another, apropros of nothing.
Its a great little moment for Mamet fans in what is a great, gripping little show. I'm looking forward to Season 2 already.
Heres another quote from Spartan, just because I love when Mamet plays tough guy badass in his dialogue. but really apropros of nothing, except maybe its a nice bookend :

Grace: Nice knife.
Scott: Yeah. Got it off an East German fella.
Grace: He give it to ya for a gift?
Scott: No. As I recall, he was... rather reluctant to part with it.

Labels: ,

Friday, January 05, 2007

On Football - No. 5: Brazil 1982

This started out being about Zico, probably the most talented individual of the Brazilian team from the 1982 World Cup in Spain. But I kept wandering away from him and his long and glittering career just to talk about that team, the wonder of its performances in that World Cup, and how it shaped the way I see football, the World Cup itself and all Brazilian teams, indeed, all teams, since.

The best team doesn't always win in football, especially in World Cups. This is a cliche which is usually backed up by a few references : Hungary in 1954, Holland in 1974, and Brazil in 1982 (we might add Argentina in 2006 to that list, but thats another post). Italy beat Brazil in 1982 in one of the best matches ever played. With Brazil out of the way, the Italians went on to win the tournament. But ask a football fan about that World Cup, and probably their first and favourite memory will be of the Brazil team.

First of all, it had a list of players of a stupidly high standard : besides Zico, there were Socrates, Falcao, Eder, Junior, Cerezzo, Oscar, Leandro and Serginho. If the majority of Brazilian internationals have an almost flawless technical ability, then this team set a standard none has since matched. They were all capable of changing a game with a piece of trickery, a cannonball from outside the box, a cunning, disguised pass, a sly dummy. Coach Tele Santana believed fervently that football was entertainment, and drilled his teams to play exciting, attacking football. This team was the epitome of that philosophy - built only to attack, to play forwards relentlessly. One of its greatest offensive weapons was Junior, the classic model of the bucaneering full back.

This team won every match in its South American Qualification schedule, never an easy task. Then, on a European tour in 1981, they beat England, France and Germany, each on home ground. In their final warm up match before the tournament, they beat Ireland 7-0 in Brazil. If ever there was a footballing equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters, here it was. They didn't really do simple goals, either. This is Eder's winner from Brazil's first game in the World Cup proper, a 2-1 victory over the USSR. Observe the passing and movement in the build-up, Falcao's sublime little dummy on the final pass, and the fact that Eder doesn't just hit it,he flicks the ball up into the air just so he can volley it, same-footed( and past an utterly static Dasaev, at that time the best golakeeper on earth), into the top corner :

Eder was the team's left-winger, sometime taker of free-kicks (he sent one around the wall against Scotland at what looked like a right angle) when Zico didn't fancy it, and he was nicknamed "The Cannon" for the incredible power of his shooting. Brazilians have the coolest, most fantasy football names, too, and his full name is perfect for a South American footballer : Eder Aleixo de Assis. It seems incredible to say that for a player of such flair and skill, he wasn't even anywhere near being the star of the team.

But then he had competition. Zico ( real name : Arthur Antunes Coimbra, nickname : Galinho, or the Little Rooster, and no I don't have a clue why, it must be a Brazilian thing) was arguably the greatest player in the world in the era between Crujiff and Maradona, an attacking midfielder with an eye for spectacular goals, fantastic dribbling ability and a great range of passing. His free-kicks were all about elegance where Eder's were about power. Zico stroked the ball unerringly into the top corner, as if the wall wasn't there, as if the goalkeeper never had a chance. Go to Youtube and do a search, there are some unbelievable Zico compilations on there. This goal from 82 isn't even one of his best :

Then there was the team's captain, Socrates, cult hero whose face adorns t-shirts you can buy at Spitalfields and in Urban Outfitters. His full name is too big for brackets : Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira. I'm not making this up. He was a qualified medical Doctor, held a doctorate in philosophy and smoked and drank heavily. While also being Captain of the best football team on earth and one of the best midfielders in the world. On the pitch, he tottered about like some Sunday morning park footballer, but his reading of the game was unerring, and his touch was always graceful, his decsion-making seldom wrong. He was particularly famed for his regular back-heels, which were always casual and yet always precise. He also cropped up occasionally with a crucial goal :

Then there was Falcao (relatively uninterestingly named plain old Paulo Roberto Falcao), Zico's partner in midfield, an elegant playmaker, driving force behind the Serie A winning Roma team of the mid-80s, and owner of that most crucial of 1980s footballing hairstyles, mullets excepted : the Ginger Afro. Thats him, on the right, the other chap is Zico :

Like everyone on that team, Falcao sometimes liked to blast one into the top corner from 30 yards. This one, for instance, from the afore-mentioned classic against Italy :

Junior, the teams left-back (full name : Leovegildo Lins da Gama Júnior, nickname : the Helmet, nope, don't ask me, mate) didn't seem to understand what a defenders job actually was. He spent most of his time skinning his opposing full-back and arrowing towards goal. Here he scores against Argentina :

That collection of talent somewhat overshadowed Serginho, the centre-forward, who was almost a British-style player, aggressive and powerful, used to niggling opposing defences into errors. If this team had any flaws offensively, then they were in the forward line. Serginho's game wasn't really suited to the pure football played by Santana's side. Indeed, he was only playing because of an injury to the first choice striker, Careca, a more cultured player. But the others had enough firepower to outgun any opponents, or so it seemed in the early rounds of the competition, when they dismissed the USSR 2-1, beat Scotland 4-1, and New Zealand 4-0. If those results made them appear flat-track bullies, well, then they beat an Argentina side featuring a young Diego Maradona (who was sent off for striking out in frustration) 3-1.

On July 5th 1982 they faced Italy at the Sarria Stadium in Barcelona. The World Cup was a very different competition back then, with two group stages before the knock-out stuff began at the semi final stage. Against Italy, Brazil only needed a draw. If they got that they would face a Poland side denied Boniek, its leading player, in the semi-finals. Italy were still struggling for form, having drawn their three group games against Poland, Peru and Cameroon. They only qualified for the second group stage on goal difference. Once there they had beaten Argentina, mainly because their hard-as-nails defender Claudio Gentile had kicked Maradona all over the pitch, recording a World Cup record for fouls on a single player. The rest of his teammates had taken his example and Argentina were bullied out of their rhythm and the competition. Italy were not talking to their national press. Star striker Paolo Rossi, just returned to the game after a long ban for his involvement in a match-fixing scandal, was misfiring, yet to score or even play well. It seemed like a formality that Brazil would win.

But what made this Brazilian team such a joy to watch was their commitment to constant attacking football. Here it would prove their undoing. Italy, as always, could defend as strongly as anyone in World football. They played on the counter-attack, and within 5 minutes they were 1-0 ahead, Rossi finally coming good with an easy header. Brazil equalised through Socrates before Rossi scored again, a shot from the edge of the box exposing the weakness of the Brazil keeper, Valdir Peres.
Again, Brazil came back,and I remember watching the second half of the match, with Brazil dominating, threading the ball around the pitch, shooting every few minutes, then the Italians retaliating with their own lightning-quick breaks. It was football of a quality I had never seen before, football like something from a modern computer game. These men in yellow shirts played a different game to the players I regularly saw in the English league. Even their kit seemed more galamourous and beautiful than the usual red and white and blue and white combinations I knew so well. It has been claimed that part of the spell that the World Cup-winning Brazilian team of 1970 cast upon the World's population was down to the fact that 1970 was the first televised World Cup and the Brazilian kit - golden shirts and a gleaming, metallic blue for the shorts - looked so glorious in full colour under the Mexican sun on television screens across the planet. As a young boy I fully understood that in some instinctive way - football kits were important totems, the colours and combinations seemed to have some power and meaning I felt but would never have been able to articulate. Brazil had the best team and the best kit. Against Italy (whose Italian nickname, the Azurri, even comes from the colour of their shirts), their football finally paid off as Falcao equalised in the 68th minute. Its that goal from up above, and you can see how important it was from his mental celebratory sprint across the pitch.

But Rossi wasn't to be denied. If Italy had done enough to qualify they would have retreated, protected their own goal. Not Brazil. They kept attacking, looking for more goals. In the 74th minute, Italy forced a corner and Rossi scored after a scramble on the edge of the area. Brazil attacked frantically for the remaining 15 minutes - and had a series of glorious chances - but Rossi's hat-trick had finished them off, and the game ended 3-2 to Italy. Brazil were out and Santana resigned.

The spine of that team returned for the 1986 World Cup, but Zico, Junior, Falcao and Socrates were all 32 and over, and they never played to the same high standard. They were eliminated (in another classic, and on penalties) by Platini's France in the Quarter-finals. It would be 1994 before Brazil would again win the World Cup, and they did so playing a relatively dour, defensive brand of football. The legendary status of the 1982 team, despite its lack of success, remains undimmed.

The 2006 Brazilian side, blessed with its purportedly dazzling attacking line-up including Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Kaka, Robinho, Adriano and Juninho, was compared to the 1982 team in the run-up to a World Cup they were favourites to win. But they never gelled, they never even really entertained, and as a team, they don't even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. Brazil 1982 seem to me to be the best team I ever saw, playing football the way its supposed to be played. Still, I suppose the 2006 team had a couple of decent players. This chap, for instance. Zico himself would be proud of a goal like this :