Friday, March 30, 2007

Screengrab - "Its my manor!"

I watched the end of The Long Good Friday on tv the other night. I've seen it before - on video and in a cinema when the BFI rereleased it in the late 90s. Its a fine film, well directed and with a good solid screenplay, even if it is stylistically a little dated. It is effectively an elevated TV movie, with writer Barrie Keefe and director John MacKenzie both British television veterans, and it feels like one for the most part, MacKenzies odd flashes of ostenstatious technique apart. But even its dated quality works in its favour, somehow. It seems to capture a specific time and place in a way that only film can, with its fashion styles and haircuts and the weird synthesised jazz-rock on the soundtrack. Nothing dates a film like a wailing saxophone. Its incredibly prescient, too, in its handling of the issue of London's Docklands development, and even in its use of the IRA as a gangland force as much as a Political Group. But the true and obvious glory of the film is Bob Hoskins' performance.

Hoskins has a unique presence, and few directors seem to understand how best to use him. In American films he tends to be used to play larger-than-life figures, perhaps because he is a type Americans are not accustomed to. He has played Mario (as in Super), Mussolini, Noriega, J. Edgar Hoover, Sancho Panza, Smee in Hook and effortlessly acted opposite a world of cartoon characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In truth, there is something larger than life about him, a huge energy and vigour in such a small man, and a sometimes frightening intensity in his eyes. He is better understood and better used in British cinema. Neil Jordan tapped the vulnerability and tenderness beneath the bulldog surface in Mona Lisa, and Shane Meadows exposed the proximity to madness in those terrible rages we have seen in many performances in Twentyfourseven. But The Long Good Friday, and the role of Harold Shand, fit him better than any other. The way he is constricted by the suits he wears, his absence of a neck making his head sit upon those squat shoulders reveals as much about Harold as anything he says. Indeed, much of Hoskins' best work in the film is entirely silent, the story told only by his changing expressions, his perfect body language. The way his nostrils flare when he angers and how often he has to fight his own temper, the way his bottom teeth jut out when he is stressed, his barely suppressed fury, are all evident just by watching Hoskins charge through the film. When his rage does erupt, in the scene where he attacks his right-hand man, Parky, with a bottle, it is terrifying and yet saddening too.

But he also has some great dialogue to wrap those London vowel sounds around, especially his famous farewell speech to his prospective American partners, which ends with the following lines: "The Mafia? I shit 'em." Helen Mirren provides him with the perfect foil, just as powerful and passionate as he, but doing a better job of hiding it. They have real chemistry, too, and its almost understandable why a woman as classy, poised and sexy as Mirren is with such a lowlife bit of rough as Hoskins in their scenes together. That depth of feeling gives The Long Good Friday more emotional power than most of the English Gangster films that have sought to ape it.

The films best moment, though, is its final scene, where Harold, believing that he has defeated his IRA tormenters, is picked up by what he thinks is his car outside the Savoy Hotel after that confrontation with the Mafia. Once in the car, he realises that he has been abducted by the IRA. A young Pierce Brosnan grins at him from behind a gun in the passenger seat. The last minute or so of the film is nothing but an unchanging shot of Hoskins' face as he realises what is happening to him. Hoskins says nothing, the camera doesn't move or cut away. The streetlights and glow of traffic in the rear window behind his head flicks and drags by, and Harold processes what is about to happen. Hoskins is amazing in this scene, allowing incomprehension, then understanding, then the familiar look of rage to pass across his face in a few seconds. The nostrils flare, the lower teeth jut out, his eyes glare. Then it falls away, and Harold accepts his fate. He looks calm, almost amused for a second. A flicker of fear perhaps, trepidation. The soundtrack, after an initial surge of sax and drums, has quietened to a sort of pulse as we watch Harold in his last moments. It would be impossible to look away, and the camera seems as gripped by Hoskins as any audience must be. You almost don't want the shot to end. Its a bravura moment of film-making, risky and courageous, and it means that you leave The Long Good Friday on a sort of high, exhilarated by the power of the medium itself, and especially by the power of great acting.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

"A spectacle of fearsome acts."

When William Goldman repeatedly used the phrase "Nobody knows anything" about Hollywood in his memoir "Adventures In the Screen Trade" he was mainly referring to the way the entire industry really had no idea what would and would not work at the Box Office. The way a studio could spend tens of millions on a movie, hire the best writer, the most talented director, the most popular stars, and even, very occasionally, make a good film, and still end up with a flop. Studio executives are paid huge sums of money because they are supposed to understand exactly what will work, and which elements will combine to make a film a hit. But of course, they do not. Nobody does, in fact. Nobody knows anything.

The phrase refers to more than one cinematic intangible, however : take the x-factor, for example. The x-factor is that elusive quality some performers have which makes them a star. Its almost impossible to define or quantify, but it exists, and you can generally sense its presence or absence in an actor or actress. Hollywood is always looking for fresh movie star meat, with old certainties crumbling, old idols losing their attraction, and the fickleness of the public making itself plain. So newer, younger actors are promoted, risks are taken, young men and women given parts that in years past would have gone only to Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts. You can't tell if somebody has the x-factor, has "It", until you see them in that big role, carrying a film alone.

Gerard Butler is the actor who got me started thinking about this. A studio took a chance on him recently - not for the first time - and put him front and centre in 300, in the can't-fail role of King Leonidas, where he gets to be buff and macho and heroic and shout most of the films memorable lines. 300 has been a massive commercial success, but that has little to do with Butler. The film would have worked just as well with most any other piece of handsome beefcake in the Leonidas role. Butler is good-looking but bland, competent but never inspiring. He plays macho and serious but never burns into the screen the way real Movie Stars do, which is fitting, since the real star of 300 is director Zack Snyder and his visuals. Indeed, Vincent Regan in the major supporting role of Leonidas' Captain is far more charismatic and magnetic than Butler ever is. But Butler will get some of the credit and his career will take off, at least temporarily, on the back of his performance. He's been around the block several times already, working mainly as Second Male lead to other, slightly more famous actors, like Christian Bale/Matthew McConnaughey in Reign of Fire and Paul Walker in Timeline. He was promoted somewhat to love interest for Angelina Jolie in the second Tomb Raider film, and finally given a lead in a big Hollywood film by Joel Schumacher for Phantom of the Opera. None of these films made any money, but Butler has also made a couple of sword & sandal epics - he played Attila the Hun in a tv movie in 2001, and Beowulf in Beowulf & Grendel last year - which must have stood him in good stead when he went for 300. American actors have difficulties with this particular genre, and with the uncomplicated, old-fashioned masculinity it demands from a leading man, and so the likes of Russell Crowe and Eric Bana have impressed in big sword-wielding parts over the last few years, while the likes of Brad Pitt have struggled. Butler can handle rugged masculinity, he just can't combine it with charisma and personality the way Crowe, for instance, can. He is destined to play second banana to Russell Crowe and even Brad Pitt. He just doesn't have "It".

But when Hollywood thinks somebody does have "It", or even may possibly develop "It" at some point in the future, then the industry will try over and over again to make that person the Movie Star it needs them to be. Butler is one good example, Colin Farrell another. Pretty, always in the press, seemingly talented, Farrell seemed born for Movie Stardom after his role in Tigerland. He showed up in Minority Report and more than held his own against Tom Cruise, established Hollywood royalty. It was hard to tell who was the Star in their scenes together, so agressive and rivetting was Farrell. So he was given a chance - the lead role in a big movie. Phone Booth did ok, didn't make billions, didn't quite flop. Try again. The Recruit did ok, didn't make billions, didn't flop. Farrell was the best thing in Daredevil, but then he had the best role. Try again. SWAT did ok, didn't make billions, didn't flop. He needed his breakout hit, the movie that confirmed him as the big new star in town. Alexander was meant to be it. But it didn't do ok. It flopped horrendously, and though Farrell has continued to work with some of America's best directors since then (Michael Mann, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick) his profile has never really been the same. Miami Vice flopped, but if its marketing and reception confirmed that Farrell is now a Movie Star, it also suggested that hes not at the level it was assumed he would reach, and he probably never will be. Hes more Val Kilmer than Tom Cruise. He just doesn't quite have "It". Yet, at any rate.

Every year throws up a series of young actors and actresses that Hollywood hopes will become household names. Some want to devote themselves to their art, to be serious actors, and they turn away from the commercial spotlight (say Ryan Gosling, for example). Some embrace it and make trash, destroying their careers early (Freddie Prinze Jr?). Some just keep plugging away, working solidly, making good films and bad, doing supporting parts and leads, building their profiles and careers, hoping to make it the highest level someday. Who was the last star to reach the highest plain of stardom, where the face of that star on a poster is almost enough to sell the film worldwide? Russell Crowe perhaps, or George Clooney? Will Ferrell? Are any of those actors comparable to the Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks of ten years ago? Or even to Julia Roberts at her commercial peak?

It seems that the nature of Movie stardom itself is changing. Franchises now sell movies more than stars do. Johnny Depp, while incontestably a massive movie star and major selling point of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, is not the chief selling point. That is the films themselves, the spectacle and size of it all. Depp is not half as attractive a proposition in other roles - The Libertine or Secret Window, for instance. The Spiderman films do not depend on Tobey Maguire or Kirsten Dunst, and they will most likely both be replaced for the fourth film. Will that harm the commercial prospects of that film? Maybe minutely, but even that is doubtful. Christian Bale is a fine actor, but no movie star, and Batman Begins was not a hit because of him. Star Wars, the Lord of the RIngs, Harry Potter - none of these really rely on their stars to sell the films to audiences. It helps when an actor is well-cast and likeable - Daniel Craig in Casino Royale or Matt Damon in the Bourne films come to mind - but the audience is there for the experience, the thrill, the ride. This is less true of non-Blockbuster films, where the presence of a paticular star can carry more commercial weight, but the absence of any stars from arthouse hits of recent years such as Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine did not seem to harm the reception given to either of those films.

The questions of what makes a Movie Star and what exactly is this X-Factor are interesting ones. Take any truly big Movie Star of the last 20 years, and its hard to see that they have much in common. Kevin Costner, for all that he has a pretty abysmal profile today, was one of the biggest stars in the world in the late 80s and early 90s. Hes not that great an actor, not that great-looking, not that intuitive in his choice of scripts. So how and why did he get to be such a big star? Because he had "It". Its there in No Way Out and Silverado, and its become obvious by Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. He just possesses a certain quality onscreen, a watchability that is hard to understand. Costner played Robin Hood as if he were from Kansas - with a mullet, a pot-belly and a double-chin - and yet the film was a massive hit. Costner made a three hour Western about the Sioux and their harsh treatment at the hands of white settlers at a time when Westerns were utterly unfashionable. And yet the film was a massive hit and won several Oscars. Costner took a rejected 20 year-old script, written for Steve McQueen, cast a pop singer opposite himself in the lead, and turned it into a phenomenon.

Tom Hanks is less good-looking than Costner, even if he is a better actor. But he transformed his profile - from likeable star of knockabout comedies to serious American everyman actor. He did this by making the odd romantic comedy - exploiting his likeable, unthreatening quality - and then embarking on a series of prestige projects, issue films and dramas such as Philadelphia, Apollo 13 and Forrest Gump. Cast Away was marketed with a poster which was simply a massive closeup of Hanks' bearded, stressed face. No more information was needed then. This is a Tom Hanks movie, that poster said, and you need to see it. Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford have generally benefitted from similar poster treatment. This kind of Star-led marketing recalls the 1980s when the Mammoth Action stars of the era went by their surnames alone on the posters that bore their pictures. Frequently the name "Schwarzenegger" or "Stallone" was bigger than the title of the film. Neither of those gentlemen has much in the way of dramatic range, but they can both hold a screen, they both have - or had - "It."

All of the legendary screen icons of the Golden Age did. John Wayne, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and a few dozen others are remembered today because of it. Perhaps its as simple as having a strong, attractive screen persona. All of the actors I've listed above do. Is it any surprise that Tom Cruise's star has begun to dwindle somewhat since hes started to really stretch himself and appear in films where he doesn't play to the character strengths that made him a star in the first place? In his youth Cruise played a series of strutting, grinning, cocky braggarts, who were invariably shocked somewhat out of that cockiness. Audiences responded to this character, and Cruise was excellent in his portrayal of it. Perhaps the definitive Cruise performance is in Jerry Maguire, the apex of this particular theme in his career. Since then hes done much more interesting work and his films make less and less money. Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, Vanilla Sky, Collateral and even the Last Samurai are too far removed from the Cruise of old to hold the same appeal. He makes the Mission Impossible films as a kind of sop to his earlier career, as if to pacify his old fans. Then he goes and makes the darkest, rawest most violent Spielberg blockbuster imaginable. Its like hes engaged in a struggle with his own x-Factor, testing its limits, trying to figure out exactly how and why it works. Meanwhile his star slowly descends and he gets older and older, his core audience getting younger and younger. Sooner or later somebody new and pretty will come along and fill the gap the old Tom Cruise has left while Cruise himself is off trying to fill the gap left by Paul Newman.

The appeal or persona of most of the major stars of the last few decades can be summed up in a soundbite. Its simple and easy to define, which may be the root of the x-factor they possess. Harrison Ford - a formidable everyman, capable of action or humour; Jim Carrey - cartoon character with some hidden vulnerability; Sandra Bullock - screwball clown in the body of a Prom Queen; Bruce WIllis - cocky wisecracking man of the people; Mel Gibson - hyper-intense hunk with a self-destructive streak, Meg Ryan - girl next door, etc. They establish a persona relatively early on and are fixed in the public consciousness. Whether they like it or not, that is how they will be remembered, just the way most people instantly picture Bogart in a fedora and trench-coat, biting off hard-boiled dialogue. Their x-Factor is their immortality.

"Actors" complicate this whole area interestingly. The likes of Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Daniel Day-Lewis and Anthony Hopkins all obviously have "It". They're all magnetic performers, they can all carry films effortlessly. But they only briefly play the Hollywood star game, turning it on in the right roles at the right times when it suits them. Daniel Day Lewis looked like the only real star in Gangs of New York, playing opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, and making both of them look like novices. But he has no real persona, he's the best example of that old critical cliche, the chameleon. He makes relatively few films, too, and may never establish such a persona. Which leaves only the excellence of most of his work, which probably suits him fine. Pacino, DeNiro and Hopkins have all been around enough to have long ago established themselves securely enough that they can do what they wish. Pacino and DeNiro have both made too many Iconoclastic Crime films to ever be remembered in popular consciousness as anything but Gangsters, and Hopkins will probably have a quotation about fava beans and chianti as his epitaph, but the solidity of their images means that all three are greeted with relative affection in just about any role. Ironically, the pursuit of their art as actors has made all three more important and visible as movie stars. Pacino's presence as villain in the forthcoming Oceans 13 seems to make it more attractive a proposition, as if he has given it his blessing. Audiences know he will probably be hammy and scenery-chewing, and audiences like him that way. DeNiro turns up in movies nowadays as "Robert DeNiro", rarely delivering an actual, convincing performance as a human being, but running through his range of leers and squints, like an old rock band on tour playing its greatest hits. But it doesn't matter. This is what he is paid for. Hopkins' next film, Fracture, looks like the perfect example of all this - in the trailer he plays a sort of Lecter-lite, all playful intellect and barely-repressed malevolence, his face passive, his syllables plump and perfect. That is what made him a star, and though he still wanders away from it to do some acting occasionally, he knows enough to stick to type.

But sticking to type can damage an actor. Burt Reynolds was perhaps the biggest male Movie star in the world for a few years in the late 70s and early 80s. But he knew what he liked, and what he thought his audience liked. So he made lots of good ole boy action comedys, full of car chases and stuntmen and with Burt playing the same character in virtually all of them. He would stretch himself very infrequently, in films like Semi-Tough and The End, but even then he stuck pretty close to his established persona. His popularity ebbed away and by the late-80s he was making TV movies. Gerard Butler be warned. But then thats exactly the problem with Butler, I think. I've seen him in a few things by now, and he never really leaves any impression. For much of 300 he wears a helmet which makes him barely distinguishable from 299 other actors, and his preformance doesn't suffer any in terms of impact. What does he offer that a thousand other young actors do not? At least Burt Reynolds played a cocky hillbilly with a tache better than anybody else. But then again, what do I know? I don't know anything. Nobody knows anything.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007


He was my favourite comic artist for a long time. But he doesn't work much in the field anymore, so its easy to forget about him. I always liked his actual sequential storytelling stuff the best, especially when he was really finding himself and bursting through the form as he went. His later Moon Knight, New Mutants and Elektra: Assassin were like nothing else anyone was doing in comics in the 80s. Real love-it-or-hate-it stuff, and the only painted comics I can really stomach. For me, hes a genius, pure and simple. Here are some of his covers and a poster for a Hughes Bros documentary about pimps:


Sunday, March 18, 2007

"I don't know, y'know?"

The difficulty of dialogue. Normal everyday speech, the type most of us speak, the type we hear from the majority of our friends and colleagues, is rife with pauses, non-sequiters, endless repetitions and dangling sentences. We struggle to articulate even the simplest of concepts in conversation, we trail off, stutter, mis-pronounce words and lose our trains of thought. But mostly we utter little verbal tics, on constant rotation : "I mean", "Its like", "You know", "the thing is", "yeah?". Somebody I know says "Yeah" repeatedly when anybody talks to her. "Yeahyeahyeahyeah, aw yeah, yeah, yeah, yeahyeahyeah". Its a signifier, it shows she listening, taking everything in, comprehending it all. But it also indicates her desire to reply, its her way of reserving the next spot in the conversation for herself. When you're finished, its my turn, shes saying.

All of this, of course, is a problem for a dramatist. I discussed David Mamet's hyper-realistic dialogue in a post a few months ago, and Mamet uses repetition in his own unique way. But it doesn't really have all that much to do with the way people actually talk. The way we communicate in bars and offices and living rooms. Nor does the dialogue in your average British tv soap opera. "Coronation Street" or "Eastenders" may get the dialect right, and the characters generally sound passable, but they speak more concisely and engagingly than most real people do. They are far too to the point, without the endless rambling, avoidance and subtleties of real conversation. Is real speech, the actual realtime banality of a normal conversation, which mixes pleasantries with smalltalk and some exchange of information, is this too boring to be reproduced in art? Major dramatists adopt some aspect of it and amplify - Mamet with his rhythmic schemes and repetition, Pinter with his legendary silences - but the actual casual flow of a real conversation is devilishly tricky to reproduce.

In 1999, Peter Mehlman, a former executive producer and co-writer on Seinfeld, created a new sitcom for ABC. Its title at least sought to reflect the inanities of everyday speech. It was called "Its Like , You Know.." and it was obviously intended to cater to fans of "Seinfeld" and/or "Friends", focusing as it did on a group of friends in Los Angeles, most of them at least tangentally involved with the movie business. It did not remotely fulfil the promise of that title, however, its characters being a parade of sharp-tongued wits, ever ready with a quip or one-liner, rarely troubled by inarticulacy. It was full of vaguely familiar actors, from the awesome Chris Eigeman (star of Whit Stillman's films) as the transposed New Yorker to Evan Handler (who has been in nearly every contemporary show I can think of, from "Sex & the City" to "Lost", "the West Wing" and "CSI") and Jennifer Grey. The show is probably most memorable for its use of Grey, who played and mocked herself with constant references to the recent nose-job which had made her unrecognisable as the girl from "Dirty Dancing", shots at ex-boyfriends and a running joke about her need for recognition. Obituaries seeking to account for the failure of "Its Like, You Know.." - it lasted barely two full seasons and is unavailable on DVD - generally blame the awfulness of that title, which massively misrepresented the show, but more crucially, wasn't the kind of thing that made anybody actually want to watch it.

But then the two era-defining sitcoms it sought to emulate were both of the hyper-articulate, perfectly timed one-liner vintage. "Friends" and "Seinfeld", while vastly different shows in philosophy and tone, both rely to a great extent on the wit of their ridiculously witty characters for much of their humour. Recent British comedy, where the "mockumentary" form has become so prevalent, is necessarily more realist in its approach to dialogue. Indeed, the work of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant makes use of the pause and the guileless repetition as well as any tv comedy ever has. But, the American version of "The Office" aside, this has not been copied across the Atlantic. "Curb Your Enthusiasm", which is basically the bastard child of "Seinfeld", is largely improvised, accounting for the authentic edge the dialogue generally possesses. American televison drama is full of brilliantly, expertly written material, meaning that little of it makes any effort to replicate real speech. From the extended jargon-filled verbal riffs of "The West Wing" and "E.R." through the baroque, archaic beauty of "Deadwood"'s saloon encounters to the different forms of street poetry evident in "The Wire" and "The Sopranos", the protagonists of the big American televison dramas are all articulate and blessed with distinctive, fascinating verbal patterns. I have no problem with this - it is more rewarding to listen to clever, funny, interesting dialogue than mumblings and pauses. Most of the time.

If there is a place where those mumblings and pauses are apt, its in the Slacker film. Films about Generation X, Generation Y, or whatever the generations between the Baby-Boomers and anybody born in the 1990s are called. "Friends" was about people who should have been Generation X-ers, but a major network sitcom is not the place to deal with stoners, an overload of pop-culture references, and the undermotivated, over-educated children of Reagan's America, and so they became more classic archetypal characters, which is probably one of the factors which have made the show such a worldwide, almost universal success.
Shows that are actually chiefly about young people - like "The O.C." and "One Tree Hill" - generally follow the path beaten out by "Dawsons Creek", where Creator-writer Kevin Williamson made his teenage characters endlessly talkative, articulate, analytical and self-aware, while also including lots of pop-culture references and one-liners. This isn't how any teenagers talk, its how they, informed by just such shows, would like to talk. An earlier show, "My So-Called Life", was more realistic in its depiction of multiple communication breakdowns between parents and children, husbands and wives and boyfriends and girlfriends. One of its main characters, Jordan Catalano, played by Jared Leto, is one of the most convincing teens I have ever seen on a television show - mostly silent and by turns, eternally searching for the right words or not wishing to say anything at all, hiding behind his long hair, his body language awkward and frustrated. But "My So-Called Life", while critically acclaimed, was a cult hit at best, and only the similarly short-lived "Freaks & Geeks" took up its mantle.

A few years ago, Richard Linklater made a sitcom pilot for HBO. Entitled "$5.15/Hr.", it centred on a group of minimum wage workers at a chain restaurant. HBO didn't pick up the show, and Linklater has used some of the material he had developed in his new film, "Fast Food Nation", but the prospect of such a maverick and individual voice in charge of a television sitcom is an intriguing one. Not only would Linklater have given his show a definite political viewpoint, it would have looked and sounded like nothing else on television at the moment (not least because shows about minimum wage workers are thin on the ground these days). Linklater, as much as any writer or director of his generation, has consistently strived to write "realistic" dialogue. His films are almost all dialogue-led, and his characters are generally extremely articulate, but there is an authenticity to the awkwardness and reticience of the exchanges throughout his "Sunrise/Sunset" films, for instance, which feels bracingly real. "Dazed & Confused" is full of teen conversations as banal and rambling as any I have ever seen in cinema. Yet Linklater's work maintains its power to entertain - the solipsistic, self-indulgent conversations of his characters are bright and engaging. Two of his films - "Slacker" and "Waking Life" - are composed of nothing but characters talking, either to one another or at the camera. His success with this mode is evinced by the immediate impact of "Slacker", and the fact that "Waking Life" is basically an animated sequel-cum-remake. Linklater understands the power of talk, of real conversation, and its relevance to our lives.

He isn't the most visually-minded of directors, his camera generally purely observational and rarely an obvious stylistic device, which places an increased burden on the characterisation and ideas within his films. His dialogue shoulders much of this weight, and proves well-suited to the strain. But then this has been an aesthetic point of pride among one line of American indie filmakers for decades. The work of John Cassavetes, the spiritual father of the American Indie scene, was never all that visually distinguished, altough the passage of time has given the harsh grainy look of most of his films a striking period feel, which has proven strangely influential. Instead he concentrated on his actors, allowing them to mostly improvise their dialogue from within a scripted framework. But his films are impassioned, full of energy and conflict, whereas the slacker spirit that took root in the late 80s and early 90s means that the modern Indie film is a far lazier, sleepier beast. Linklater's work is for the most part relaxed in its pacing and his characters are never rushed by the narrative. "Slacker", particularly, floats and circles in its own structure and at its leisure, and other Indie directors like David Gordon Green and Jim Jarmusch are similarly content to allow their stories to unfold at their own pace.

Andrew Bujalski has already been compared to all of the aforementioned filmakers, just two features into his career. His work is also littered with realistic conversations, characters "umm"ing and "err"ing while oceans of awkward silence open all around them. I saw both of his films at a double bill screening recently, which offered a great opportunity to judge his development as a director over a very short period. His first film, "Funny Ha Ha", follows Marnie, a recent university graduate, as she drifts through her mid-twenties, moving from job to job, running into old friends and seeking a boyfriend. There is no conventional plot as such, just a series of encounters, at parties, in offices and in the street. Bujalski shot the film on ultra-grainy 16mm and all of his collaborators were friends from College. Hence the sound is pretty bad, the film never looks any better than adequate and the editing is rough. But the film has a quiet power in its authenticity, and the atmosphere and cast are undeniably charming. Their hesitancy and the unpolished nature of the acting makes it all feel vastly more "real" than any hollywood film set in a similar mileau could ever manage. Part of this authenticity is in the dialogue. Bujalski's characters go off on boring tangents, they endure tense silences with fixed grins, they interrupt each other and misinterpret signals. They pause, they stutter, they repeat themselves. They sound like real people. In "Funny Ha Ha", Marnie is rejected and teased by men, and she rejects a co-worker, the excrutiating Mitchell (played by Bujalski himself) who just won't take no for an answer. Many of these scenes are painful to watch, but Bujalski has a good feel for the comedy in such pain without ever seeming too cruel to his characters. Marnie recalls a Rohmer heroine is some ways, with her endless searching and her nagging unhappiness. The film finally traces her to a quiet epiphany when she realises the true nature of her big crush in a low-key final scene which reveals the strength of Bujalski's writing and direction. It ends suddenly, on an off-beat, recalling the end of Linklater's "Before Sunset" (though Bujalski's film was made before that).

His second film, "Mutual Appreciation" is a massive leap forward. Again, he shoots on 16mm, but this time the film is in black and white, and along with the reference to Cassavetes and Jarmusch this represents, he seems to take more care with camera placement and movement, making some scenes almost beautiful. The film follows Alan, the singer in a recently disbanded Boston band, and his move to New York, where he tries to set up a new band while dodging a relationship with a pretty Radio DJ and dealing with the mutual attraction he feels for his best friends girlfriend. It feels far more confident and polished than "Funny Ha Ha" without losing the edge and realism of the earlier film.

The frankness of its treatment of adult relationships is one of the best aspects of Bujalski's work. His characters acknowledge their awkwardness, apologise for it and fumble in their attempted analysis of it. All the while they remain likeable, frequently funny in their humanity and vulnerability. They avoid conflict and so there is much evasion, shrugging and a continual stream of uncomfortable moments. Like Marnie in "Funny Ha Ha", Alan wanders from party to party, situation to situation, without ever really finding anything. He seems oddly unfocused as a character at all times except when we see him playing his songs live onstage, when he appears sure of himself and energetic. He is at his funniest when playfully dodging the teasing jokes of three girls at a late party he stumbles into, where he ends up wearing a wig and a dress. This episode leads nowhere and has no relevance to the plot, yet it tells us much about Alan, and testifies to Bujalski's fascination with character at the expense of story.

Alongside all of the other directors I've already mentioned, Bujalski's work has been frequently compared to that of Woody Allen. There is undoubtedly some Allen in the neurotic protagonists, but the jokes are subtler - which seems a euphemism for less funny - and Bujalski's focus on a different generation gives his films a uniquely different tenor to Allen's. Instead of the world of the Upper East Side and its intellectual classes, Bujalski's people hang in the limbo between university and real life, living in shabby apartments, working in low-paying, unchallenging jobs and searching for meaning without even realising it. This intense attention paid to the details of the existence of aimless educated youth actually reminded me, strangely, of Jean Eustache's 1973 masterpiece, "La Mamain et La Putain" (the Mother and the Whore). That is a film that glories in the endless talk of its characters, shot in a stark black and white, with a strange comedy of manners lurking in the first of its three and a half hours. Bujalski, who studied film at Harvard, is surely aware of all of these filmakers, and so his work, while suggesting the films of many others, remain stubbornly, thrillingly individual. His rambling stories focus on the smallest moments and play the big moments as if they too are small, giving everything a medium-range flatness that evokes not so much any other film and more the feeling of real existence.

The world depicted in Bujalski's work reminds me of one artist more than any of the others I have mentioned. Peter Bagge. Bagge's "Hate!" was a comic following the misadventures of Buddy Bradley, an everyman New Jersey slacker who drifted through his twenties and into and out of a series of relationships, jobs and friendships, all the while displaying a painfully convincing selfishness, laziness and self-absorbtion. Bagge's work is entirely different to Bujalski's, far more energetic and heavily-plotted, its humour meaner and broader. But the characters and the setting are strangely similar, and Buddy's frequent melancholy and lack of direction could be found in either of Bujalski's films. Bagge ceased publishing "Hate!" in 2000, and instead it now comes out yearly, as the Hate! Annual, a collection of short stories and strips about a variety of characters from the old series. Much of his recent work - from satirical takes on Spiderman and The Hulk for Marvel, to Sweatshop for DC and his own Apocalypse Nerd series - is of a high quality, but all of it pales when viewed alongside "Hate!", where he seemed to understand and appreciate the dramatic and comedic possibilities of the middle class alternative scene he surveyed, in much the same way Bujalski understands the environment he depicts.

Mutual Appreciation (anti)climaxes with a scene when Alan and his best friends girlfriend, Ellie, admit their attraction to one another. Rather than play this scene out for cheap drama, it is always awkward and tense, the two characters unsure and admitting it to one another. The scene ends ambiguously, with the audience left ignorant as to how they resolved their situation. The true value of Bujalski's sensibility is made apparent when his films are compared to their closest Hollywood equivalents. Zach Braff's "Garden State" dealt with characters in a similar stage in life, as did Cameron Crowe's "Elizabethtown". Yet they both feel like the hyper-slick, overly-dramatic and contrived statements they are. They both have their virtues, but fealty to real life is not one of them. In contrast to "Mutual Attraction" or "Funny Ha Ha", the romantic moments in both the other films are scored with evocative pop music, and blown up and dramatised until their significance is unavoidable. Bujalski feels incapable of such grandstanding. It wouldn't suit the tone of his films or the world he is portraying. Instead he remains true to his own small vision of the world and to the painstaking capture of it in his own work. He is due to write and direct a third independent film this summer, and if he continues to develop at the rate suggested by his first two films, then he could blossom into the most interesting, distinctively focused American Indie director since the emergence of Lodge Kerrigan or David Gordon Green. And he writes and directs the most realistic dialogue scenes in contemporary English-language cinema. Y'know?


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

On Football - No. 7: Juan Sebastian Veron

If you've read any of my other football posts, it'll be evident that I have a thing about playmakers. Number 10s. But then what fan of beautiful football doesn't? But there are other kinds of playmakers. Number 10s generally play in the "hole" position between midfield and attack in order to give the opposition the biggest problems. In the hole, neither the opposition's defence or midfield is sure whether they should be marking him. In the modern game, the best playmakers are either man-marked or the responsibility of a holding midfielder. But there is another sort of playmaker, one who plays further back up the pitch, in a more conventional central midfield position, and dictates passing from there. The midfield general, I suppose, though thats a phrase you don't hear so much anymore. Its almost a quarterback role, really, best-suited to players who can deliver high quality long passes to forwards in a split second. Perhaps the most successful example in the modern European game is Andreas Pirlo at AC Milan. Pirlo plays in a position normally associated with defensive midfielders, yet his tackling and covering abilities are limited at best. His passing, on the other hand, his ability to deliver a perfectly weighted through-ball to a sprinting Kaka or Gilardino on the edge of the opponents box from the half-way line, is exceptional. His ability to dictate play through his slide-rule passing is such that one of his nicknames in Italy is "metronomo". But, until last year there was another player in Serie A with a greater range of passing than Pirlo, a more sublime touch, more acute vision. That player was Juan Sebastian Veron.

Like Juan Roman Riquelme, Veron is a controversial figure in Argentine football. Like Riquelme, he was made the scapegoat for the failure of a talented Argentina squad to win a World Cup. But hes a very different player. Elegant and athletic, he covers ground effortlessly. Indeed, football seems almost too easy for Veron, which is perhaps why he has had image problems with fans. He never seems to be trying too hard, trusting instead in his athleticism and his brilliant technique. The fact that he is traditionally paired with a more obviously load-bearing or water-carrying player - Diego Simeone being the supreme example - only makes Veron look lazier and less commited by comparison. But his technique is his greatest strength. While he played for Manchester United, he and David Beckham played out an amazing warm-up routine before every game. They would take up positions on opposite touchlines and stroke the ball across the pitch in long sweeping arcs to one another, neither ever having to move even a step to receive the others pass. It served as a way for each to find his range. Once Veron's range was found, he was capable of punishing any opposition with a series of searching passes between defenders. Observe this volleyed pass, first time, to a breaking Beckham (whose finish isn't bad, either) :

Veron's father, Juan Ramon Veron, was a striker for Argentina and Estudiantes, nicknamed La Bruja, the Witch, which is where Seba's nickname La Brujita (little witch) comes from. He was renowned for his fine technique, another thing his son obviously inherited from him. Veron Jr began his career at his father's old club, Estudiantes, before moving on to Boca Juniors, where he played alongside the likes of Maradona, Claudio Caniggia and Kily Gonzalez. He only played 17 games for Boca in 1996 before he was brought to Europe, another in a long line of young Argentinians poached by big Italian and Spanish clubs. He spent 2 seasons with Sven Goran Eriksson's Sampdoria in Italy, breaking into the Argentina team and playing in the 1998 World Cup, where his deliberate style and ability to dictate the pace and direction of play from a deep position was perfectly suited to coach Daniel Passarella's cautious, defensive style. After the World Cup, Eriksson again bought Veron, this time spending £15million to bring him to Parma. That Parma team - with Lilian Thuram at the back and Hernan Crespo scoring plenty of goals from Veron's assists - won the Italian Cup in 1999. But Eriksson had already left for Lazio, and he soon lured Veron and Crespo to the same club, paying £18.1 million for the former and £35 million for the latter in the obvious hope of buying the Italian title. It worked, with Veron the fulcrum of a Lazio side that was to win the Serie A title, the Italian Cup and the Super-Cup in 2000. Veron was at that time being mentioned as one of the greatest players in the World, and alongside his miraculous passing ability, he was scoring some impressive goals :

But controversy was already following him. There had been talk about the vailidity of his European passport in Italy for some time, and in 2001 a scandal erupted. Veron, feeling that Lazio were not offering him the proper support, moved to Man Utd in July for £28.1 million, a British record fee. His escalating value and the talk of his ability increased expectations at the club, which had won the Premiership in each of the preceding three seasons. Veron slotted into what had been, at its peak, arguably the best midfield in Europe, with Ryan Giggs on the left wing, David Beckham the right, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes in the middle and Nicky Butt as a utility player. Veron was expected to play in the centre with Keane, but the two proved curiously incompatable. Keane was no mere water-carrier in the Simeone mould, but a box-to-box player, who tackled, harried, organised everyone around him and established his own rhythm of simple, short passes and directed and bullied his team all over the pitch. Whereas Keane and Scholes had played together for years and had developed an understanding, Veron and Keane never really got the chance to. Keane's game seemed to cancel out Veron's, making him strangely peripheral in many games, his obvious gifts blunted. Veron also seemed disturbed by the pace and intensity of the Premiership, where he was never given the time he had taken for granted in Italy. After some early promise his performances in England became inconsistent, and his spirit and attitude were questioned. In his first season with United, Arsenal won the League, United exited the Champions League to Bayer Leverkusen, and his status as a great player was brought into doubt.

His salvation seemed to lie in that summers world Cup in Japan and Korea, where Argentina were pre-tournament favourites alongside holders France. This was an Argentina side where Veron was the chief creative force, coach Marcelo Bielsa favouring a European-style pressing game which had seen his squad take the qualifiers in South America by storm. But following the countries recent Economic meltdown, there was a lot of pressure on the players to lift the nation. That job was made more difficult by the group they had been drawn in - this tournaments "Group of Death" alongside England, Sweden and Nigeria. Argentina were to discover that the fast pace that had worked so well in South America was less effective against European teams used to playing at such a pace. They beat Nigeria 1-0 in their first game, but failed to really gel, with Veron quiet and not as dominant as he had been in the qualifiers. He had arrived for the tournament having picked up an injury and struggled for fitness throughout, which was evident in the next game, a 1-0 defeat to England. Though Argentina controlled the majority of the possession, Veron was outplayed by a combination of his United colleagues, Scholes and Butt, with the latter particularly effective at closing down and hassling the Argentine. He was substituted midway through the second half and replaced by Pablo Aimar, a playmaker more in the classic Argentine mould, who, with his quick feet and clever link-up play, offered a much more acute threat in his time on the pitch than Veron had done. Devastated by that defeat to such old rivals, Argentina could only scrape a 1-1 draw with Sweden, and were eliminated from the competition. Many at home blamed Veron.

This was evident when he played in the teams first competitive home match since the World Cup, a South American qualifier against local rivals Chile in Buenos Aires in 2003. The crime of playing so poorly in 2002 was compounded by Veron making his living in England - as banners around the stadium reminded him - and he was booed onto the pitch and throughout the game by his own fans. Soon after, injured yet again, Veron lost his place in the squad. When Jose Pekarman replaced Bielsa as Coach, he made his preference for Riquelme as playmaker plain, and Veron was frozen out. He did not help his case any by feuding with Argentine captain Juan Pablo Sorin, however. The injury that cost him his place in the squad was also to lead to his departure from United. He played better in his second season in England, enjoying a run in the team alongside Phil Neville at the heart of midfield due to injuries to both Keane and Butt. Their twin showing against Arsenal - a gritty 2-0 win when Veron tackled, chased, closed down, and looked as if he had adjusted to the Premiership with ease - was a big turning point in the struggle for the title that season. He had always played better in the Champions League, and this season was no different, as he made and scored goals in the Group stages. However, his injury ruled him out at a crucial late stage in the season when United began a trademark run of victories to come from behind and overtake a flagging Arsenal. This was mostly achieved by the classic Giggs-Keane-Scholes-Beckham midfield, and in th echampions League, Veron returned to fitness too late to help the team overcome Real Madrid at Old Trafford, where they lost on aggregate. He celebrated winning a Premiership medal, but Alex Ferguson had seen that his team played just as well without Veron, and he was sold, against his wishes, to Chelsea for £15 million in the summer.

Chelsea had just been bought by Roman Abramovich and Manager Claudio Rainieri went on something of a spending spree, buying Damian Duff, Joe Cole, Hernan Crespo and Claude Makelele in addition to Veron that summer. Veron started well, scoring a goal in the first day victory over Liverpool, but he missed much of the rest of the season through injury, again returning to be brought on (and played catastrophically out of position, on the wing) in Chelsea's Champions League Semi-final defeat to Monaco. Chelsea fans, suspicious of having signed a player who had seemed to fail so conspicuously in Manchester and preferring Lampard, Cole and Makelele in midfield, already regarded him as a flop, after a single season. Rainieri was sacked and replaced by Jose Mourinho, who loaned Veron to Inter Milan for the next two seasons. Playing again at a pace he liked and in a more sympathetic, latin environment, Veron began to show his qualities once more, helping Inter to Italian Cup victories in 2005 and 2006.

This is a story with something of a happy ending. In 2006, Veron returned to Argentina, to the club of his boyhood and his father, Estudiantes. Now coached by his old friend and midfield minder Diego Simeone, Estudiantes had not won an Argentine championship in 23 years. With a month left in the Argentine Apertura, it looked like they would have to wait. But Boca Juniors kept on dropping points and Estudiantes, with Veron's experience and vision well-served by a young team full of hunger and potential, kept on picking them up. Eventually it came down to a play-off. Boca went 1-0 ahead in the first half, but Estudiantes, encapsulating their season in a single match, emerged victors at 2-1, and won their first championship in 23 years. A few weeks later, Veron was called up to the Argentina squad for the first time in 4 years. New Coach Alfio Basile was ardent in his desire to be an actual working coach for Argentina and not just a selector, and so he called up a squad of domestic-based Argentine players for a training camp. Veron obviously benefitted from this and with Basile declaring his intention to select more of these players in the future, there is a chance that he may play in this summers Copa America in Venezuala. Perhaps his comeback - and redemption, in the eyes of Argentina fans - is still to play itself out. In terms of his career, his major error was in underestimating just how difficult it would be for him in England - he trusted in his talent, and then discovered that it was a talent requiring specific conditions in which to flourish. Those years of failure at what should have been his peak hang over his career, but he is a player with Champions Medals from Italy, England and Argentina on his mantel, not a bad haul by any standards.

Heres a good compilation of what hes capable of, with as many great asists as goals :


Thursday, March 01, 2007

"It is all one long day"

You know the feeling. Like when you're into a band. Before they get big, before pop culture and the zeitgeist catch on to them. When it feels like they're just yours, and you know that that time can't last and as such, its even more precious. Or even sometimes you don't see it coming, you can't imagine the mainstream will ever want them, they're too good for the mainstream. But the mainstream, the zeitgeist...its a hungry beast, and its belly can never be filled. It comes for all the good stuff, eventually. That song, the one only you seemed to know, the one you love - it shows up in a trailer for some romantic comedy. It gets covered by somebody crap. An album is reissued. Reissued with previously unreleased songs, b-sides, some demos you didn't have before. Reviewed and raved over in all the papers, the music magazines. Here comes the zeitgeist, its big mouth open.

I hate that. I've had bands, of course. Back when I was younger and into slightly fashionable music, I suppose. I saw The Strokes on their first UK tour, in Dublin, when they had only released one single. But they already had a massive buzz around them and every hipster in the city was at that gig. A few months later, the album came out and they were huge. Mercury Rev prior to Deserters Songs. Wilco before Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Elliott Smith. None of those acts are exactly U2, I know, but they all became a lot more successful at a certain point long after I had gotten to them, and its relative. I knew guys in school who were massive Nirvana fans from Bleach onwards, way before Nevermind came out. Imagine how they felt when that band, "their" band, the band that at one point almost nobody they talked to would have heard of, when that band became the biggest band in the world? I know it used to annoy me, stimulating some elitist nerve I carry around inside. It never feels the same afterwards, when the world has discovered something you love in an intensely private and personal way. The internet has changed so many things about the way we think about and consume music, and this is one of them. Nothing is obscure anymore. If you're interested in a band, they're out there, just a few keytaps away. Elitism is irrelevant. The internet doesn't care.

Instead, nowadays it happens to me mainly with writers. I'll give you an example: Richard Yates. I first heard of Richard Yates on the dedication to Richard Ford's collection of novellas, "Women With Men" in 1997. Ford, one of my favourite writers, thanks Yates. If it was good enough for Ford, it was good enough for me, and so I set off in search of Yates. Back then I didn't have a computer, I hadn't really used the net much, and so Amazon wasn't an option. So I had to go to regular bookshops in a fruitless quest. No Yates anywhere. I asked in Waterstones and there were no Yates books in print in Britain or Ireland. There was one available on import from America, but it would take around a month to arrive. I ordered it and a week or so later found a copy of Yates' "Young Hearts Crying" in a Dublin secondhand bookshop. That, perhaps Yates' worst novel, was the first thing I ever read by him. And it blew me away. I call it his worst novel, but it is only by comparison to the high standard of the rest of his work that it seems lesser. The simplicity of the writing, his fine storytelling, his observational skills and understanding of people, the sense of pessimism and loss in every page seemed incredibly fresh and vital to me. I had a new writer to love and read, always an exciting moment for a reader.

The book I had ordered from Waterstones turned out to be "Revolutionary Road", probably Yates' best and most famous work. Its also one of the bleakest novels I've ever read, but don't let that put you off. It was nominated for the National Book Award in 1962 alongside Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" and Walker Percy's amazing "The Moviegoer", in what constitutes an incredibly strong field of lasting quality. It follows the decline of the marriage of Frank and April Wheeler in the sterile suburbia of 1950s America with an acuity of vision not many writers can match. It is beautifully written in Yates' plain, understated prose, but the characterisation and deftly drawn relationships make it as gripping as any thriller. The bleakness of Yates' sensibility was obvious from reading just two of his books, but seemed essential to the quality of his work, somehow. He saw how the world was, and he recorded it precisely. I loved it, of course. It seemed impossible that a writer as brilliant as Yates evidently was could be so little-known. Why was he not acknowledged as one of the greats of 20th Century American literature? How had such an artist slipped through the net? Well, the net was slowly closing around Yates, though I didn't know it yet.

Back then, I was temporarily stymied in my quest for more Yates by the unavailability of anymore Yates. Once I gained Internet access I dicovered that some of his other books, though long out-of-print, were available secondhand online. I bought The Good School this way. I also found an article about him, written by Stewart O'Nan, another more-neglected-than-he-deserves American novelist, which was a good combination of brief biography and literary criticism. It descibed Yates as a "writers' writer". I liked that. Then his work started to dribble out in new editions. "Revolutionary Road" was first, with an introduction by Ford. It received brilliant reviews in the UK press. I felt the sting of that. Then a Collected volume of his Complete Short Stories. Which I bought, glad it was available to me but a little resentful, too. Over the last 5 years, all of Yates' novels have been reissued in the UK and the back covers are just lists of blurbs by various writers and critics lining up to praise him. I've bought the ones I needed, always thinking, somewhere deep down, that he was still mine, that I wouldn't let them take him away from me. Even when Blake Bailey's biography "A Tragic Honesty: the Life and Work of Richard Yates" came out in 2004, confirming that Yates was now something of a brand, as all successful writers are, I held onto this thought.

I know it doesn't make sense. Most of my favourite writers are universally acclaimed, massively successful, canonical authors. John Updike and F Scott Fitzgerald are not obscure in any way, and I love them both as much as if not more than I love Yates. I should be happy that Yates' genius is at last being recognised. And I think I am, on one level. But there it is anyway, the nagging resentment of it all, deep down in my gut.

What prompted all this was Richard Ford (yes, him again) and his introduction to a James Salter short story in last weekend's Guardian Review. Salter is another "writers' writer", and I've always maintained some obscure mental association between him and Yates. I found him by picking up a copy of "A Sport And a Pastime" one day in that same Dublin Waterstones from which I had ordered "Revolutionary Road". It was a very different experience, but similarly intense. Salter's writing is extraorinary - sentence by sentence he dazzles the reader with a tautly expressive poetry of feeling and description. Every word is perfectly weighted, every sentence precisely tooled in its effect, the cumulative experience strangely luminous and moving, yet also terse and sparse. Reading him, I wanted to write like him, a feeling only a few select authors bring about in me. He was easier to get into than Yates had been, mainly because he was still alive and still writing. After "A Sport And a Pastime" I moved on through the rest of his work, beginning with "The Hunters", his superb novel of fighter pilots in the Korean War. Then his autobiography, "Burning The Days" was released in 1997, and it told me that he had been a fighter pilot during that War, and also that he was a screenwriter and poet. But it told me all this in beautiful dreamlike little fragments, impressions of moments and moods, the Salter way. I've read all of his books since then except "the Arm of the Flesh" (which was available online from between £40 and £150 last time I checked), but he was so dissatisfied withit that he rewrote it as "Cassada" and so I feel alright about it eluding me.

He is an absolutely beautiful writer. "Light Years", his tale of the slow death of a marriage, is a miraculously lovely book, one of my favourites, and has just been reissued, alongside "The Hunters", as a Penguin Modern Classic. But Salter's best writing, generally, is all about flying. His vivid descriptions of soaring in the blue above the earth transform a subject from one in which I have little or no interest into a primal pursuit and source of fascination.
Though always critically acclaimed, Salter has never enjoyed as much success as even Yates did in his lifetime. No National Book Award nomination for him. Only one of his books has ever exceeded 10,000 sales on its first publication, that being "Solo Faces" in 1979. Its increased commerciality may be the result of the facts of its comissioning : Salter was hired by Robert Redford to write a screenplay about rock-climbing. When Redford disliked the result, Salter reworked it into a novel.
Unsurprisingly, that novel bears some similarity to Salter's work on the screenplay for "Downhill Racer", Michael Ritchie's 1969 character study of an Olympic Skier starring...Robert Redford. It features one of Redford's best performances, mainly because his character is far from sympathetic. Instead he is complex, selfish, unknowable, somehow only himself when skiing, and this suits the callowness of Redford's bland beauty and the easy charisma of his screen presence. But "Solo Faces" was written almost a decade later, and by then Redford was a much bigger star. He didn't play ambiguous characters anymore, and Salter probably can't bring himself to write anything else. Redford's loss was the reading publics gain.

Salter is still writing and still publishing. Last year, a new volume of short stories, "Last Night" and a collection of his travel writing, "There and Then" were both released. The feeling remains that, like Yates, his true worth and status in American literature will only be revealed after his death. Ford's acknowledgement in the Guardian probably won't change that, much as it makes me paranoid. And anyway, there are still writers the Zeitgesit hasn't spotted yet, maybe even a few it never will. Writers like Walter Tevis, author of the novels "The Hustler" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth", both of which became classic films, and of one of the greatest sci-fi novels I've ever read, "Mockingbird". Each of these books is heartbreaking in its own way, each written in Tevis' simple, defiantly unliterary prose, each profoundly readable in a way so many far more successful writers are not. Or like Jim Harrison, best-known as the writer of novellas upon which "Legends of the Fall" and "Revenge" were based, but done a disservice by both films, neither of which comes close to capturing the muscular epic feel of his best work, and how full it is of truth and painful humanity. It is instructive to note how often cinematic adaptations of novels are the driving force in bringing an author to the attention of the literary mainstream, and shows how powerful Hollywood really is in popular culture. If a book is turned into a film, even if the film is terrible, more people will become aware of the book, and some of them will want to read it.

Some other writers I love dance around the edge of the mainstream, best known for the books they have had turned into movies. James Jones was one of America's most popular literary novelists in the 1950s and early 60s. But hes one of those middlebrow writers, alongside the likes of John O'Hara and Irwin Shaw, who have faded, no longer fashionable, not as immediately distinctive as flashier peers like Pynchon and Bellow. He is now remembered chiefly because of the film versions of the first two volumes of his second world War trilogy, "From Here To Eternity" and "The Thin Red Line". The latter is one of the greatest novels of men in combat ever written, easily the equal of "The Naked and the Dead" or "All Quiet On the Western Front", though nowhere near as celebrated. Denis Johnson is one of the most versatile and talented American writers working today, turning his hand to novels, plays, poetry and journalism at various points in his career. His incredible series of sketches, vignettes and short stories about the life of a junkie and his friends, "Jesus Son", was turned into a movie by Alison Maclean in 1999. None of his other work, though just as worthy, has ever received anywhere near as much attention. Daniel Woodrell, whose writing has matured from backwoods noir to a sort of blue collar dirty realism without ever losing its baroque edge and unique sense of humour, is best-known for the film of his riveting Civil war novel, "Woe to Live On." Only Ang Lee renamed it, blandly, as "Ride With The Devil", when he adapted it in 1999. His adaptation, while interesting, doesn't capture the guttural squalor and violence of the novel, its messy intimacy. You get the feeling that Ang Lee would find it almost distasteful. Woodrell must curse his luck that Lee's film of his book was a massive flop, while his version of another Western-themed book, "Brokeback Mountain", became something of a phenomenon. But it makes me sort of happy, of course. His books get reviewed in the broadsheets books pages, but nobody I know reads him.

Then there are writers I feel confident will never really break through into the mainstream. They're just too perverse, or too unlucky. Geoff Dyer won't settle down and allow the public or the literary media to pigeonhole him. He writes novels, brilliantly (see "Paris, Trance" or "The Colour of Memory" for evidence), but then he writes books on photography ("The Ongoing Moment"), quasi-travel books ("Yoga For People Who Can't be Bothered to do It"), a book on his inability to write a book about D.H. Lawrence ("Out of Sheer Rage"), a book on John Berger ("Ways of Seeing") and a collection of his reviews and journalism ("Anglo-English Attitudes"). He'll never follow the sensible, one-novel-every-year-or-two years career path, meaning he'll probably never really gain mainstream success. George Pelecanos, an American crime novelist, is constantly being lauded as the next big thing, the Crime Writer's Crime Writer, a writer on the Wire, the best commentator on life in America's inner-cites writing today, and yet he has never actually really made it up to that top rank of Crime novelists. In terms of talent, he may well be the best working today, in company with James Ellroy. He is certainly better than the likes of Walter Moseley, latter-day Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly, but his sales are a fraction of theirs. There are a couple of adaptations of his books in the works, though, which may change everything. But I don't know. For Pelecanos, it just doesn't look like it'll ever happen.

But then I'm sure fans of Jim Thompson thought like this at one point. Back before so many of his books had been turned into films, when they felt like only they understood him, like he was theirs. Before he became a brand, almost a cliche. I'm sure fans of Philip K Dick felt like this, too, at one time. And then the Zeitgeist came looking for food, and the mainstream came calling...