Thursday, June 28, 2007

Screengrab - Revenge

"You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive. The man didn't know himself and the bird was tentative when he reached the ground and made a croaking sideward approach, askance and looking off down the chaparral in the arroyo as if expecting company from the coyotes. Carrion was shared not by the sharer's design but by a pattern set before anyone knew there were patterns. The vulture had just eaten a rattler run over by a truck outside of Nacozari de Garcia, a little town well off the tourist run about a hundred miles from Nogales. The coyotes would follow the vulture's descent out of curiosity whether or not they were hungry from the night's hunt. As the morning thermals developed more vultures would arrive until the man's dying would have an audience."
- Jim Harrison, "Revenge", 1979

Jim Harrison is one of those writers no movie can ever get right. His books can seem almost silly, such is their gonzo macho poetic fatalism, his interest in landscape, nature, food, sex and violence. He writes about men, men alone in America, on the road, searching for themselves, or for love, or for revenge. He writes about families and history. And he can really write. He is a poet and that talent is evident in his prose, in his facility with language, his knack of capturing a moment in a few lovely phrases, of painting a character indelibly in a few precise, sharp strokes. His best work feels timeless and somehow archetypal in its purity and in the epic, simple stories he likes to tell. Those stories would seem to be perfect material for cinema.

Harrison's most famous work is "Legends of the Fall" a collection of three novellas, published together in 1979. The titular novella, a compressed and poetic tale of one families tragedies over half a century, was turned into a fuzzy, awful movie starring Brad Pitt by Ed Zwick in 1994. It does no justice to the book whatsoever, replacing the mythic, ancient tone of Harrison's storytelling with sentimentality and cliche. David Lean had wanted to make a film from the novella, and it is the type of story that needs his comfort and skill with that level of Epic narrative. The opening novella in the collection - "Revenge" - was written with Harrison's friend Jack Nicholson in mind for the lead role. John Huston wanted to direct it, once Harrison had completed a screenplay, but the content proved worrying for a series of studios and filmakers over the next decade, and it was finally attempted in 1990 by Tony Scott.

Scott was riding high in Hollywood at the time off the back of two massive hits in "Top Gun" and "Beverly Hills Cop II", his leading man, Kevin Costner, was one of the biggest movie stars on earth, and his leading lady was Madeline Stowe, perhaps the greatest beauty of her generation of American actresses. Yet "Revenge" was a critical and commercial failure. Scott had faced constant battles with his producer during production, and he insisted for years that the version released in cinemas was not the film he had wanted to make. The recently released "Unrated Directors Cut" is much closer to his original vision.

He's an odd, problematic director, Tony Scott. Undoubtedly gifted with a great eye, seemingly a natural storyteller, he is also comfortable with actors, and has gotten decent work out of some real heavyweights over his two and a half decades in the film business. But hes also a faddist, his visual style is terribly mannered and cliche, and his films never seem to be about anything at all. They're mostly entertaining (I'll exclude "The Fan" (1996) from this category) and slick products, but Scott is basically a high-class hack. Which isn't such a bad thing to be when it produces movies like "True Romance" (1993), "Crimson Tide" (1995) and even his attempt at a Vertigo tribute, last year's "Deja Vu". But it means that he is generally at the mercy of his screenplay. His visual sense, always so bold and obvious, can seem cheap and gimmicky when applied to the wrong material. Give him a witty, well-paced screenplay, and he'll give you a nasty little entertainment like "The Last Boy Scout"(1991). Give him a shallow, derivative star vehicle, and he'll supply "Days of Thunder"(1990).

His first film, "The Hunger" (1983) suggested that he would be a very different director indeed. Arty, obscure and narratively sluggish, its only really indicative of the course his later career would take in its very deliberate visual sheen. But its commercial failure meant that Scott didn't direct another film for 3 years, before Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer gave him the chance to direct "Top Gun" in 1986( he reportedly had to win a swimming race with Simpson to secure the job). With that film and "Beverly Hills Cop II" a year later, Scott was instrumental in establishing the look that would come to be associated with the Simpson-Bruckheimer brand. Derived from MTV, television advertising and Miami Vice, it relied heavily on colour filters, light diffused through billowing curtains and glamourous, visceral action sequences using slick, fast editing. "Revenge" , which was originally released in 1990, was meant to be Scott's return to the darker, more personal filmaking of "The Hunger".

It tells the story of Cochran, a US Fighter Pilot, who travels to visit his old friend Tibey in Mexico after he is discharged from the Air Force. Tibey is some sort of ultra-wealthy Godfather-figure, with links to the mob and politics, but he is very fond of Cochran, who treats him with a healthy disrespect and affection. Cochran inevitably falls in love with Tibey's new, young, lonely wife, Miryea, and they begin an affair. When Tibey finds out, he and his men leave Cochran beaten in the desert to die, and dump Miryea in a brothel. The films second half details Cochran's recovery and hunt for revenge. In the original, cinematic version, Cochran's journey was something of a picaresque odyssey through a part of Mexico,meeting and interacting with various characters. Scott has cut much of this for the new version, streamlining the central thrust of the narrative. He has restored some footage to the sex scenes, making them much more explicit and erotic. But the films flaws remain frustratingly the same, and they originate in Harrison's novella. The story is almost too simple, too archetypal. Where Harrison can rely upon his own talent as a writer to elevate his pulp story to another level, its asking a great deal of a dirctor to do the same.

Scott does his best - his landscape shooting is lovely, and the films action scenes are terrifically brutal - but it all still feels shallow and secondhand. The cast are all fine - Costner and Stowe have some chemistry, Quinn always seems to be enjoying himself - but without the interior life so vividly rendered by Harrison's prose, they seem empty ciphers, moving about at the bidding of the story. Harrison himself cowrote the script, and the dialogue, never an obvious strength or weakness, is serviceable.
Its not a bad film, and the starkness of the premise which is indicated in that first paragrah, which is the opening paragraph of the novella, combined with Scotts ever-baroque visual flourishes mean that its always interesting. But it should have been made by John Huston, you feel. He was a director comfortable in any number of genres and with almost every type of story, and he may have been able to steer a course between romantic drama and revenge thriller which Scott has trouble finding. Scott has typecast himself as an action or thriller director at this stage, and its hard to see him ever doing any other kind of film. Costner, who had originally wanted to make "Revenge" his directorial debut, is also slightly miscast, a little too straight-backed and moral for Cochran. Jack Nicholson, in his 70s pomp, would have been infinitely more believable, in the love story sequences at any rate, where you feel he would have sized up Miryea and communicated his intentions instantly.

One of the films most interesting aspects is its treatment of Mexico. Scott has long loved the country and the people, which is obvious in "Man On Fire" (2004), his attempt to apply the style and energy of "Amores Perros" to a genre film, and a love letter to Mexico City. He also attempted to make a biopic about Pancho Villa during the 90s, and "Revenge" was shot in various locations around the country, making each look beautiful and atmospheric in its own way. It plays with the concept, familiar from many Westerns and crime stories, of Mexico as the last remaining frontier for Americans. South of the border, the law sticks less easily, life is cheap, the women are beautiful and the men quick to violence. "Man on Fire" offers a similar view of the country. Its the Wild Bunch idea : a gringo goes South, things go bad, and the locals have to die. But Scott's affection is skin deep. As with so many things, he wants to photograph Mexico, to make it look beautiful, but he really has nothing to say about it beyond retreading old Mexico cliches. Harrison, meanwhile, seems to love Mexico, and his novella bleeds the colour of the place, brings its people noisily to life, and makes sense of its recurrent usage this way in American popular culture by doing it right. Its just unfortunate that no movie can ever seem to get Harrison himself right, "Revenge" included.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

On Football - No. 10: Marco van Basten

Marco van Basten is one of the greatest players Holland has ever produced. He may even be the second greatest, after Johan Crujiff. Consider the quality of footballers who have come from such a small country over the last 40 years, and van Basten's own stature as a player becomes apparent: Johan Neeskens, Ruud Guillet, Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman, Johhny Rep, Wim Kieft, Denis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Arnold Muhren, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Patrick Kluivert, the deBoer brothers and Arie Haan. Marco van Basten was better than any of them. He was the best goalscorer of his generation, not just in terms of his actual goalscoring record - altough with 276 goals scored in 338 games, that is undeniably impressive -but also in terms of his skill level. I could end this post with just this clip, because it makes my argument perfectly:

That goal was scored in the Final of Euro 88, and it was the goal of the tournament. To strike the ball so perfectly - it arcs right over the keepers head and into the side netting at great pace - from that angle, when it has come from over the shoulder, with a defender bearing down on him, and in such a big game, shows van Basten's class and confidence. But then, he's Dutch, brought to Ajax Amsterdam and their famous football academy from his home in Utrecht in 1981 at the age of 17. Ajax train their youth teams the Dutch way. This means that while they train every day, working on technique and fitness and skill, they are also educated in tactics and the more scientific areas of football. "Total football", the Dutch school of thought from the 1970s, survives today in an updated form - players are brought up able to play in every position, giving them an insight into how that position needs to be played and how it can best be utilised. The result has been a few generations of players who understand what is happening on the pitch, are capable of analyzing why it is happening, and are unafraid of sharing their opinion about it. This has led to the many Dutch squad implosions and walkouts and arguments over the years which have played their part in the fact that Holland has never won the World Cup. Van Basten himself has stated that the most common words in a Dutch dressing room, uttered by every player after a word from the coach, are "Yes, but..."

While it may generate divisions, the Dutch means of developing players also fosters confidence in those players. The Dutch have never been afraid of expressing themselves on the pitch. Indeed, of all the Northern European nations, they undoubtedly play with the most elan and conspicuous skill - it has been part of the football culture of the Netherlands since the 1960s, and all of Holland's great teams and achievements have been based around it, from Crujiff's Ajax and International teams in the 70s to the 88 team of Guillet-Koeman-Rijkaard and van Basten to Louis van Gaal's Ajax in 1995. In the European game, perhaps only Portugal and France have consistently played with a comparably attacking, entertaining style. But the Dutch have done it their way, basing their football rigorously on their own principals and deliberately allowing that to influence the way the game is played all over the country. Players like van Basten are the result. As a striker, he could do it all. He was big and blessed with superb upper body strength, meaning that he could hold the ball up as well as any forward of his generation. He was tall, had a great sense of timing and positioning, and possessed a good leap, meaning that he scored lots of headers:

This outrageous finish, against Real Madrid, is a display of amazing control and power for a header. He manages to put it right in the top corner too:

But unlike many physical target men, he had sublime skill, too, allied with a great agility that was possibly the legacy of his childhood love of gymnastics. He uses both for this goal, somehow managing to clip the post with the shot, leaving the goalkeeper utterly motionless:

He could dribble too, was good with both feet, linked the play skillfully and creatively, and his ability to glide onto through balls was probably his greatest strength. That and the aforementioned confidence, which meant that he was a Big Game player, scoring goals in Finals and key games throughout his successful career. He scored in the European Cup final and the European Championship Final. But then he scored in so many of his games and so many of those goals were classic centre forward play, but he always seemed capable of picking his spot, and crucially, he always made it look so easy, and so simple :

All of those clips demonstrate his supreme elegance - he did everything stylishly. His range of talents and awareness suggested that he might have matured into a playmaker as he aged, but his career was cut short by a recurring injury at the age of 28. Still, his achievements are legion, and awesome. Beginning at Ajax, where he made his debut as a substitute for the legendary Crujiff in 1982, in a moment heavy with symbolism. Of course, he scored. He went on to score 28 goals in 26 matches in the 1983-84 season. Crujiff introduced him to the then-coach of Inter Milan as "the new Crujiff", which is incredibly strong praise from a man who never underestimated his own gifts. In 1986, van Basten won the Golden Boot as Europe's top scorer with 36 goals, a tally which attracted the attention of AC Milan. He moved there in 1987, having scored 128 goals in 143 games for Ajax to help win two Dutch Championships, two Dutch Cups and one Cup Winners Cup.

More trophies would follow at Milan, where he was the tip of the awesome spine of what is one of the indisputably great teams in the last 3 decades of European football. Behind him, Van Basten had the incomparable Franco Baresi at centre back and Ruud Guillit in midfield, alongside the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Roberto Donadoni, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini. Milan won the Italian title in his first season, but van Basten missed all but eleven games, troubled by the ankle injury that would ultimately end his career. He was included in the Dutch squad for Euro 88 but was not in the first team.
In that tournament, Holland found themselves in the "Group of Death" alongside England, the USSR and Ireland. Holland lost their first game, 1-0 in a tight struggle against a difficult Soviet team. Van Basten made his impact in the second game for the Dutch, when they faced England, both teams needing a win after losing their first game. He scored a hat-trick and more or less utterly humiliated Tony Adams in the process as the Dutch ran out 3-1 winners. He also made himself undroppable, and justified his continued selection with a late winner against hosts and favourites West Germany in the semi-finals, then that amazing goal in the final.

He maintained this form when the season resumed and he returned to Milan, fit and playing regularly. He scored 19 goals that season, won European footballer of the year, and scored twice in the European Cup Final against Steau Bucharest. The next season he again won European footballer of the year and Milan successfully defended the European Cup, defeating Benfica in the final. His years at Milan are a list of honours and incredible acheivements: in all, he won European Footballer of the year three times, World Player of the year once, was Top scorer in Serie A three times, won two European Cups, 3 Italian titles, two intercontinental cups, two European supercups and three Italian Supercups. In addition he was a crucial part of the Milan team which set a long-standing record for consecutive appearances without defeat (58 games in total) during the 1992-93 season. His goal-scoring record in this era is more impressive for the fact that it was maintained during the richest years of domestic Italian football, when teh worlds great players flocked to Italy and defences were legendarily tight in the best Italian fashion. Few defences were too tight for van Basten, and the Italians nicknamed him "Marco Golo". He was so important to the team that when he fell out with Coach Arrigo Saachi, Milan Owner Berlusconi sacked the coach rather than sell the player. The fact that he quarrelled with a coach as venerable and cerebral as Saachi illustrates that Dutch capacity for opinionated comment, and van Basten's self-assuredness. However, his ankle injury recurred and he underwent a series of operations, none of which was enough to save his career. He returned for the end of the domestic season and played in the European Cup FInal, which Milan lost to Marseille. It would be his last game for the club, and indeed his last game as a Professional Footballer. Recently he has enjoyed some success as Coach of Holland, where his confidence and intelligence seem to have been put to good use, but he is best remembered for the stylish and lethal quality of his striking, particularly in his years at Milan:


Friday, June 08, 2007

"Read Norman Mailer, or get a new tailor.."

"Tough guys don't dance. You had better believe it."

Some writers are interesting purely because of their work. Some writers are interesting because of their lives. And some writers are interesting for both reasons. Norman Mailer is just interesting. He's in his 80s now, still writing big, ambitious novels about the largest themes and figures (Hitler, Jesus), still offering witty, erudite commentary on American politics and culture, still giving entertaining, fascinating interviews. He's been a novelist, playwright, political activist, journalist, screenwriter and director. He played a big part in the creation of a new literary genre. He fought in the Second World War. He's been around many of the great figures of the last century and survived to write about all of it. And hes written a few great books along the way.

"Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing."

His work as a writer has spanned a half a century, and its too complex and contradictory and important for me to attempt to discuss in any depth here. Suffice to say, he established his reputation and his talent with his debut, "The Naked and the Dead", published in 1948, when he was only 25. Its a fictionalised account of a battle on an island during the Pacific Campaign, narrated by a half dozen of the men involved, tracing their lives back in America and their responses to combat and the military. Its an incredibly ambitious book, epic in its scope, brutal and obscene, full of the grit and passion of real life and real people, and the kind of novel it seems insane for a 25 year old to have attempted. But then Mailer had always wanted to write, and had even viewed the War as the opportunity he needed to gather material for his attempt at the "Great American Novel", which became something of a personal lifelong holy grail. "The Naked and the Dead" isn't quite that, but its full of great passages, memorable characters, and stylish writing. It is perhaps the greatest novel of combat in the Pacific Theatre in WWII (alongside James Jones' "The Thin Red Line" and John Hepworth's "The Long Green Shore"). It made Mailer instantly famous in a way no writer could ever hope to be today. His next two novels were commercial and critical disappointments, but both "Barbary Shore" (1951) and "The Deer Park"(1955) have collected admirers over the decades since. "The Deer Park", a novel inspired by Mailer's experiences as a Hollywood screenwriter, seems particularly modern in its focus upon West Coast ennui and debauchery. In both books Mailer experimented with style, always honing and refining his sentences, some of his writing breathtakingly beautiful, some of it horribly turgid. This was the price of his grandstanding ambition, and it was to remain the case throughout his career.

"America is a hurricane, and the only people who do not hear the sound are those fortunate if incredibly stupid and smug White Protestants who live in the center, in the serene eye of the big wind."

Throughout much of the 1950s he became far more interested in journalism and politics than fiction and much of his energy was poured into essay-writing on a variety of subjects. His next major work of fiction was "An American Dream" (1965), written for Esquire in serialized form in an attempt to replicate the experience of reading (or writing like) Charles Dickens. By now, everything Mailer did was controversial, and this novel was criticised for its treatment of women - the protagonist murders his wife - and reviews were generally lukewarm. It is written with a feverish sort of poetry unlike anything Mailer had attempted before, and he would not return to straight fiction of any real ambition until "Ancient Evenings"(1983), his mammoth treatment of ancient Egypt and its reincarnation culture. Since then hes taken on the CIA in "Harlot's Ghost"(1991), Jesus Christ in "The Gospel According to the Son" (1997) and Hitler in "The Castle in the Forest"(2007). These are all problematic books for different reasons, but Mailer remains a gifted stylist with something of the visionary about him, stubbornly forging onwards in pursuit of the stories only he can tell, and there is always some reward to be had from reading his work.

"If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist."

In the 1950s and 60s this need to tell stories - specifically the story of Modern America, its cultural and political life, and how it could be improved - led Mailer to journalism. He wrote a series of counter-cultural essays, the most famous of which is probably "the White Negro"(1957). He co-founded and named The Village Voice in New York in 1955, then set about the co-creation and definition of a new literary genre: the non-fiction novel. Truman Capote had already published "In Cold Blood" (1965) when Mailer emerged with "Armies of the Night", his account of the October 1967 March upon the Pentagon, and the two books taken together did seem to suggest the creation of a new type of literary work. Mailer splits his narrative between fictionalized and historical accounts of the events, casting himself as the protagonist, ensuring the controversy of the book. It was a sensation, winning the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Mailer returned to the genre when he wrote perhaps the ultimate non-fiction novel, and again won a Pulitzer, for "The Executioners Song"(1979) about murderer Gary Gilmore and his execution. For that book, he did no research, paying somebody else to do it while he created his massive tome from the resulting notes. Capote, amongst others, was vicious in his criticism of this, but Mailer inhabits his tale fully and it is never less than convincing and often stunning.

"I'm hostile to men, I'm hostile to women, I'm hostile to cats, to poor cockroaches, I'm afraid of horses."

Mailer was always controversial, ever since the public debate over the "obscenity" of "The Naked and the Dead" (wherein swearwords are rendered - at the publsher's behest - as "Fug" and "Fugging"). The way he lived his life only increased that controversy. He had a massive appetite: for women, for alcohol, for fame, for confrontation. His macho reputation meant that throughout his career he repeatedly found himself in debates with Feminists, with critics, and with fellow writers. Mailer would fight with anyone. His obsession with boxing meant that he liked to make those fights physical, where possible (it also led to one of his greatest books, "The Fight"(1975) about the Rumble in the Jungle). He once head-butted Gore Vidal, and on another occasion bounced a glass tumbler off his head at a party. In 1960, drunk at another party, he stabbed his second wife Adele in the breast with a penknife, and was arrested. He ran for Mayor of New York in 1969, only to sabotage his own campaign after attacking his staff and labelling them "pigs". He had been sacked by the Village Voice because he was too bullying, too aggressive. In 1980 he became involved in a campaign to secure parole for Jack Abbott, who had been imprisoned for murder. The two exchanged letters while Abbott was in prison and Mailer arranged for these to be published as "The Belly of the Beast". Abbott got the parole he sought and six weeks after his release, he stabbed a restaurant employee in the chest after a petty argument. The man died, Abbott went on the run, was eventually caught and imprisoned, and Mailer and the group of literary critics who had also supported Abbott, were castigated in the press.

"The natural role of twentieth-century man is anxiety".

There were so many other squabbles and brawls it becomes meaningless to list them. But his fight with actor Rip Torn was caught on camera. Mailer directed a series of experimental films in the late 60s, seemingly motivated by his exploration of drugs and the counter-culture, where he sought to mix fact and fiction, as he had done in his writing, to create a new kind of cinematic realism. In "Maidstone", Mailer himself portrayed a writer running for President. In his original storyline, the writer is assassinated at the films conclusion by Torn's character. But Mailer changed his mind during production, clearly infuriating Torn, who attacks him with a hammer, while rambling about killing "Kingsley, not Mailer" in the film below:

Norman Mailer Fights Rip Torn

Though the fight is almost upsettingly realistic, the camera captures everything without any interference from the crew, suggesting that there was an element of planning involved, though the blood on both Torn and Mailer is real. Indeed, Torn had to have his ear, which Mailer had bitten into and almost severed, re-attached at a hospital. Mailer later stated that he believed that Torn was acting in the best interest of the film itself, seeing the assassination ending as the only narratively viable conclusion. Torn, in the last few seconds of the clip, tells Mailer that he "pulled" his shots with the hammer, and he had in fact struck Mailer with the flat side, not the head. But the screams of Mailer's children off-camera seems to suggest that not everybody onset knew that the fight was coming. The shoot had been chaotic and violent throughout, with other brawls and intimidation onset, an environment Mailer seemed to relish and indeed worked to create.

"In America all too few blows are struck into flesh. We kill the spirit here, we are experts at that. We use psychic bullets and kill each other cell by cell."

He directed one more film in the 1980s, "Tough Guys Don't Dance"(1987), a strange adaptation of his own pulp novel. But since then hes settled into his old age, squabbling less, blogging for the Huffington Post, and seeming good-natured and philosophical in the interviews he gives to promote his books. He appears to look back on his own extraordinary life with the right mixture of affection, bafflement and mild regret. And when he appears in cinema now, its generally as Norman Mailer, great raconteur and grand old man of American letters. He guest-starred, bizarrely, in an episode of "The Gilmore Girls" and played Harry Houdini for Matthew Barney in "Cremaster", but his most notable appearance in recent times may be the portions of an interview with him used in "When We Were Kings"(1996). Unsurprisingly, the two best tellers of that tale are the writers, Mailer and George Plimpton. Mailer seems happy and amused to be talking about boxing, one of his great loves, and Muhammad Ali, one of his great heroes. He understands the sport well enough to be used as the major elucidator of the tactical battle in the ring, and, of course, hes a fantastic storyteller. He features heavily in this clip:

"Ultimately a hero is a man who would argue with the gods, and so awakens devils to contest his vision. The more a man can achieve, the more he may be certain that the devil will inhabit a part of his creation."