Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"Antonioni -name like a game"

"I can watch the world through Michelangelo Antonioni's eyes forever. He is the greatest stylist of the modern era." - David Thomson

I don't want this blog to turn into "101 Great Dead Directors" but when one of the Giants goes, I feel I have to mark his passing somehow. And Michaelangelo Antonioni was certainly one of the Giants. When I was writing about Bergman yesterday and I came to a short list of his peers in the World Cinema pantheon, I considered adding a bunch of other directors: Godard, Truffaut, Visconti, Tarkovsky and of course Antonioni. But I'd already mentioned Fellini and I didn't want to have two Italians, and Fellini's work is far more accessible and has been absorbed by mainstream popular culture in a way Antonioni's work will always resist.

Antonioni, in contrast, seems to be the definitive "difficult" European director of cliche. His films are studies in nothingness, long, slow, beautifully composed elegies to the emptiness of modern life. On first viewing they can seem maddeningly vague and pretentious. But upon any further inspection, they are full of tiny telling details, of crucial nuance in frame composition and performance that suggest the deeper themes he was working towards. Of course I love him most for his style. He made absolute use of the potential of the cinema screen. Each shot in his films seems perfectly chosen, each cut to devastating effect. He used long shots and slow camera crawls to force the viewer to engage with the thematic concerns of his work, to work out just what he is lingering so long upon in that particular shot, and why? When he first shot in colour, on "Il Deserto Rosso" (1964), he utilised his palette so well it was almost as if nobody had ever shot in colour before. He used colour just as he used every other element in the frame - as a signifier. Of meaning, of emotional state, of character. He directed architecture better than any director ever has. Every building in an Antonioni film has a narrative or thematic meaning, every wall and background is chosen for what it says about a character or a moment. And his films all possess a strange, beautiful dreamlike mood which comes from the juxtaposition of his style and his thematic preoccupations. Has any director ever been at once so modernist and yet made films which are so sensual, so intent on being beautiful? I love the way so much of his work focuses on figures in landscapes, disconnected and alienated from the world in which they live, work, move and love. I love how he always composes these passages, how he uses the soundtrack - wires in the wind, leaves in a breeze, the distant clamour of a city, a car backfiring - and how, if you're attuned to it, it has a pulverising cumulative effect.

Like Bergman, he enjoyed a "high period" when each of a run of films seemed touched with genius. For the decade between "L'Aventurra" in 1960 until "Zabriskie Point" in 1970, he produced a series of awesomely original, almost perfect films unlike anything else in cinema. After "The Passenger" (1973) he worked infrequently, until his recent films, made with the aid of collaborators like Wim Wenders, which have seemed somewhat self-parodic in the absence of that perfectly judged sensibility so obvious in the classic work. Any newcomers to Antonioni should really start with "Blow Up" (1966) and "The Passenger", perhaps his two most audience-friendly films, both in English, both shaded by genre without compromising any on his genius. And a genius he clearly was. For evidence, just observe the long tracking shot in the final scene of "The Passenger". Or any of the studies of Monica Vitti's face, blank with the ennui of her existence, in his early work.
He was a director who helped shape and define the artform, and in many ways he remains unsurpassed.


"I see what I see, and I know what I know, but nobody believes me."

I was going to write a little piece about Death playing a game of chess with Ingmar Bergman, but then it occurred to me that similar pieces are probably appearing on blogs all across the Net right about now, so instead I'd just allude to it in the first sentence of a brief obit. And since I acknowledged the death of Robert Altman in one of my first posts, I couldn't let Bergman's passing - announced today - go unmentioned.

A piece I just read about Bergman asked the question: how many people under 35 have actually seen any Bergman films? When "World Cinema" as a genre, and ultimately a marketing hook, first came to prominence in Western culture in the 1950s, Bergman was quickly established as one of the modern Masters. Alongside the likes of Fellini, Ray and Kurosawa, he came to define what International cinema could be for the Western filmgoer. His work is so distinctive that many people without any firsthand exerience of it could undoubtedly offer a cogent summary or parody, if only as a reference to "The Seventh Seal" (1957), his most famous film. That would be due to the trickle-down effect of his work, Woody Allen's homages and parodies and the visual appeal and impact of the image of Death playing a game which has turned up in television comedy and Bill & Ted. But Bergman's work in general possesses a very European chilliness, an intellectual rigour and seriousness of purpose which has become unfashionable in recent years. So the films are perhaps not viewed as often as they should be.

I'm pretty cine-literate. I have a decent grounding in International cinema, I studied film, I've seen more films than anybody else I know. But I've only seen six of Bergman's films. Which, at this moment, and considering the size of his body of work, doesn't seem enough for me to speak with any authority about him. But each of those six films is superb, and it is obvious that Bergman was an auteur in the truest sense, imbuing each of his films with his personal concerns and obsessions, writing and shooting them in his unique style and voice, fashioning a formidable ouevre for himself as he did so.

Of the six, the two I liked most are "Scenes From a Marriage" (1973) and "Wild Strawberries" (1957). But in all of them I loved Bergman's respect for the medium, the sense that he saw its power and possibility as an artform. He could have written novels or plays - which is how he started out - but he chose Cinema, because he knew that it was perhaps the greatest of our artforms. He made films as personal as any novel or play, and yet none of his films are inaccessible or over-intellectual, as their reputation may suggest. What surprised me most the first time I saw a Bergman film was just how cinematic it was. Something about his reputation or something I had read had given me the impression that his work would be stagey or static somehow. But his films are generally quite beautiful and always full of a joy in the medium itself, which is the key quality which defeats the accusations of "depressing" generally levelled at his work. I also found the films much funnier than I expected. Thats not to say that any of them is remotely comedic, just that they are filled with humanity, and there is a dark strain of humour in Bergman's voice, I think. In the BBC's obituary piece tonight, the one clip they really showed was when Death chooses to begin with a black chesspiece in "The Seventh Seal" and the Knight comments upon this. Death's response seems darkly funny: "Appropriate, don't you think?" And there is a cold eroticism in every Bergman film I've seen, as suggested by his appreciation for beautiful women. Richard Corliss offers a proper appreciation of why Bergman mattered here.

So, will his death alter his reputation and lead more young people to his films? "The Seventh Seal" is playing in London at the moment, and while before today I had thought that I wouldn't mind seeing it on a big screen, I was in no rush. Now it seems much more urgent, somehow. That chess match is waiting for all of us, in the end...


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Shuffle: Salvador Sanchez

I love me some Mark Kozelek.

There are songwriters you know are great. Bob Dylan, say. I know he writes great songs, fantastic, witty, erudite lyrics, full of meaning, playful, obscure, surreal, political, heartfelt. And melodies, in timeless structures, both simple and complex, rooted in an American folk tradition, referencing rock and country and the blues. I get that. I have maybe 10 Dylan albums, possibly more. All the ones you're supposed to have if you believe what Mojo tells you. I like most of it, even love perhaps a half dozen songs. I use the word "love" to mean I've lived with a song, let it in, listened to it intently, repeatedly, heard it so many times I'm almost sick of it, felt it connect with me in a way I'm barely able to articulate. There are a few Dylan songs I feel that way about. "4th time Around" definitely. "If You See Her, Say Hello". "One More Cup Of Coffee", "Sarah", the live version of "One too Many Mornings". Songs that resonated with me from the start, that I knew were meant for me. But I've never loved Dylan. Because he doesn't get me in the gut the way some songwriters do. I respect his stuff, admire his talent - even genius - and I like lots of his songs, but I don't feel it the way I do about some other, supposedly "lesser" songwriters. Beck is another example. I like Beck a lot. But most of his stuff I've admired and enjoyed but not really felt. Its clever, nicely done, but lacking in any emotional kick for me. Except for a handful of songs, and "Sea Change", the one album where he seems to actually mean what hes singing, to feel it himself. I love that album, but I doubt he'll ever make another like it.

It may all be a question of sensibility. Some artists see the world in a way that is familiar to you or resonates with you, and whatever they have to say about the world will thence be more palatable to you, because they're effectively speaking your language. In that way, I can understand what Dylan is saying, but it doesn't feel like its in my native tongue, so its effect may be reduced. Whereas I get Elvis Costello in an immediate, gut-reaction way. Or Fred Neil. Paul Simon, even. Al Green, Elliott Smith, Paul Westerberg, Michael Head, David Crosby, Judee Sill, Marvin Gaye, dozens of others. Mark Kozelek.

Over the last few years, Kozelek's songs are the ones that make the most sense to me, that hit me heaviest emotionally. Oh, they are beautifully composed pieces, generally with beautiful, sad melodies and mysterious, elliptical lyrics. But its not that simple an equation, how we respond to music. It may be all mathematics, but the effect of a series of notes lined up together one after another and a bit of poetry thrown over the top can defy all logical enquiry.

Kozelek was the singer-songwriter in the San Franciso group the Red House Painters, which is where much of his most celebrated work was done. At that time he specialised in slow, beautiful ballads of love, loss and addiction. His musical and lyrical territory was bleak and hopeless, and the band's sound vacillated between long, mournful acoustic numbers and great heavy dissonant soundscapes. Red House Painters released 5 albums between 1992 and 1996, split up, and released another posthumous album in 2001. They were an amazing band, and Kozelek possesses a formidably focused and distinctive talent, both as a singer, where his deep, sometimes keening voice is put to great use by his incredible songs, and as a writer. Honest and frequently harrowing, his songs are also often exhilaratingly beautiful. I'd unreservedly recommend any of their records or the 1999 "Retrospective" Best of album.

After the split, Kozelek did some acting - he plays the bassist in Stillwater in Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous". Crowe is a big Kozelek fan and his songs feature on the soundtracks for "Vanilla Sky" and "Elizabethtown". He also began touring and recording under his own name, beginning with the "Rock 'N' Roll Singer" EP in 2000. It included a couple of covers of Bon Scott-era AC/DC songs, reimagined and recontextualised until they became almost unrecognisable in Kozelek's hands. He made them sound like timeless acoustic blues standards (which in a way I suppose they are), often shimmering, mournful, sad and funny. He followed the EP with an album of AC/DC songs: "Whats Next to the Moon" was released in 2001, and it maintained the high standard of the EP's treatment of the material.

In 2003 he once again assembled a band around him, naming them "Sun Kil Moon" in homage to the Korean boxer Moon Sung-Kil, and releasing the "Ghosts of the Great Highway" album. Which brings us to "Salvador Sanchez". Sun Kil Moon sound quite different to Red House Painters. The sound is lighter and folkier, the playing more delicate and expansive, the moments of beauty more prevalent and more obvious, sometimes coming in Mexican touches - a little Mariachi guitar here, a spanish strum there - in various songs. Many songs have strings gliding beneath the guitars. Lyrically, Kozelek's focus seems to shifted also - the songs all circle around the themes of memory and loss, the significance of cultural minutae, and people taken from us, many dead before their time. Kozelek repeatedly refers to a series of boxers who died young. There are mentions for Duk Koo Kim (the 2002 film "Champion" is about him), another Korean, killed in an 1982 fight, Pancho Villa, a Filipino flyweight who died tragically in 1925, Benny Paret, a Cuban who was killed in a 1962 fight with Emile Griffith, and Sonny Liston.

Salvador Sanchez was a young Mexican bantam and featherweight boxer who became WBC Featherweight Champion in February 1982 but could only enjoy his status for seven months. He died in a car accident in his new Porsche in August 82 at the age of 23. He had been famed for his warrior qualities, his ability to outfight better boxers. Kozelek's lyric calls him "sweet warrior, pure magic matador" before going on to link him with Paret and Villa. The chorus asks "Where have they gone, bound by leather, all alone, all bound together". But with Kozelek, often you can barely decipher the lyrics, as he slurs words together or buries them beneath guitar distortion. He's always loved a Crazy Horse-style guitar workout. The Red House Painters album "Songs For a Blue Guitar" features a cover of Wings' "Silly Love Songs". In Paul McCartney's hands, this was a bouncy, empty, mindlessly happy three minute pop song. Kozelek adds a five minute guitar solo - reminiscent of Neil Young's awesome "Cortez the Killer" - to the very start of the song, effectively making the listener wait for the recognisable McCartney work - then stretches the rest out to just over eleven minutes. "Salvador Sanchez" features a sunburst guitar sound, bright and crunchy and groaning away through a strangely optimistic, lovely riff which runs through almost the entire song. Its this almost mythic guitar sound, and the something almost ancient it evokes in all its magnificent, creaking, rattling, roaring glory, which raises this little piece of poetry about a few brave, dead young men to another level, absolutely bringing the lyric alive. The repeated boxing references (Kozelek returns to Salvador Sanchez in the song "Pancho Villa", which is the same lyric and melody, only played acoustically and oh so sadly) echo and reflect the other songs on the album, where they sit beside songs of love lost (Carry Me Ohio) and hymns to nature (Gentle Moon) in a sort of suite which is perhaps Kozelek's greatest work.

Since then, Sun Kil Moon have released "Tiny Cities" in 2005, another album entirely of covers, this time of Modest Mouse songs. Again he redefines and personalises the songs, stretching them out, altering some melodies, underlining some lyrics. And good as it is and beautiful as many of the renditions are, they cannot match Kozelek's own compositions. He's due another album of originals this or next year, and I can't wait.

As for Salvador Sanchez, many rate him one of the greatest boxers of all time. Heres a short tribute, with some footage of his unrelenting yet elegant toe-to-toe style (and a guitar sound which Kozelek almost seems to consciously echo on the album):


Friday, July 20, 2007

"Thats the last time you put a blade in me, y'hear?"

Wes Anderson releases a new film, "The Darjeeling Limited", this Autumn, and before I've even seen the trailer, I know exactly what it'll be like. Partly because he possesses perhaps the most distinctive tone of any current American filmaker, his interests were apparent after two films, and I can't imagine him ever doing anything different. But the synopsis and the poster just make me feel even more certain. This is a good thing, if you're a fan of his work and the strange little world he's created in each film, which I am.

"Rushmore" remains his best film, for me, finely balancing the deadpan absurdism of his comedy with a weighty emotional impact that neither "The Royal Tenenbaums" or "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" can match, despite their many pleasures. Indeed, I worry about his development as a director based on that last film. It was beautifully directed, of course, with Anderson's deliberate framing and lovely use of colour evident in every shot. It used actors as well as he always does, giving even the smallest characters quirks and interesting elements. Bill Murray obviously likes working with Anderson because Anderson understands how Murray's persona is best put to use, and nobody else has ever gotten work from Owen Wilson as well as Anderson has. But it was another step deep into Anderson's insular world of quirky characters and pulpy plot devices given comedic twists, of accumulated detail instead of depth. The new film is co-written by Roman Coppola and Jason Schwarzman, and it will be interesting to see just how much they effect the Anderson worldview.

I've written before about Film Directors working in advertising, and Anderson has also taken some corporate cash in exchange for lending his talent to a brand name. But of course he did it his way. Indeed, perhaps his best work besides "Rushmore" is a commercial he made for American Express in 2006. It manages to play like a long reference to Truffaut's "Day for Night" while being as stuffed with detail and infused with Anderson's sensibility as any of his films do. Plus, its all one long shot:

Contrast that with M Night Shyamalan's cringe-inducing advert, part of the same campaign. Shyamalan is a talented director with a great visual sense and a style unlike that of any of his peers: his films are full of examples of great suspense filmaking. Those comparisons to a young Spielberg after "The Sixth Sense" may have gone to his head, but they were made with good reason. He uses long takes, few ostentatious camera movements, and like Anderson, he is extremely good with actors. But as a writer he has sabotaged his own directorial career, first with "The Village", where he stuck to his own formula when it may have made for a better film if he had not done so. Then with "Lady In the Water", a grand folly if ever there was one, worsened by the debacle of the book written about Shyamalan during its production ("the Man Who Heard Voices" by Michael Bamberger, which portrays the director as a bit of a diva). "Lady In the Water" is full of moments where Shyamalan's skill as a director is obvious, despite its terrifyingly simple-minded, egotistical script. This advert resembles it in a couple of ways. Shyamalan proves he can't act, even when he is playing himself and has no dialogue, and his hokey potrayal of the magic of the everyday - "the dream" he is searching for - works very rarely, and not in the context of a 1 minute tv spot:

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

On Football - No. 11 : Argentina 2007

During the 2006 World Cup, at the place where I work, some of us were allowed to take days off to watch certain games. So the real football fans got to watch England's games from home, or the pub. Which is as it should be. Obviously, Ireland didn't qualify, so instead, I took a day off to watch Argentina - Serbia. Argentina's other group games were at night and I could watch them after work, but the Serbia game was in the afternoon. So I got up late, watched the preceding game, then settled down to watch Argentina destroy (an admittedly weakened) Serbia. It was the most exhilarating game of that World Cup for a fan of beautiful football. Argentina pressed the Serbians high up the pitch, were characteristically sharp and miserly in defence, and played the ball around in a series of short, beautiful passing moves. Riquelme - probably my favourite player in World football for the old-fashioned grace and sublime loveliness of his style - ran the game, supplemented by the constant movement of the likes of Saviola, Crespo and Rodriguez around him. Mascherano and Cambiasso patrolled midfield, snapping at the Serbians, retaining the ball impressively, shielding the Argentine backline. They scored the goal of the tournament, and one of the best goals ever scored at a World CUp. In the second-half, with the game won, Argentina brought on two young players, both of whom scored: Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi. They won 6-0. I watched the whole match in that state you sometimes reach when you realise a film is truly great or when you really love a record: it made me happy, and the awareness of this happiness meant that I felt lucky to be experiencing it. So much modern football is defensive and pragmatic, the pressure of money and demands for success mercilessly squeezing all the artistry and creativity from a game which thrives upon those qualities that it was almost a relief to witness a team devoted to playing football - and excuse this cliche - the way it should be played.

Well, Argentina may have been the best team at that World Cup, but they didn't win it. Their coach suffered a failure of nerve, and they went out on penalties to a typically fit and well organised but inferior German side in the Quarter-finals. But the promise of that team, and the fact that so many of its key members were so young, meant that their time would surely come again. They will probably be among the favourites for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. But, as I write this, they are slated to play their arch-rivals Brazil in the final of the 2007 Copa America in Venezuala in approximately 25 hours. Argentina owe Brazil for a few recent results: in the final of the last Copa America, in Peru in 2005, twice Argentina led, only for an Adriano goal in the last minute of injury time to rescue Brazil, who went on to win the game on penalties. In the final of the 2005 Confederations Cup, Brazil delivered a 4-1 tonking, and there was a similar result in last years friendly at the Emirates Stadium in London where Brazil ran out 3-0 winners.

Brazil are feted throughout the World for the quality of their football, and based upon the calibre of the players the country has produced in the last decade, that seems reasonable enough. Probably the players currently reckoned to be the two best in the World are Brazilian, after all: Kaka and Ronaldinho. Add to those names this lot: Robinho, Daniel Alves, Ronaldo, Juninho, Adriano, Ze Roberto, Cicinho, Fred and Diego. But in practice, Brazil rarely play the "Joga Bonito" dreamt up by Nike's marketing department in competitive games. Instead they favour a far more pragmatic, hard-nosed approach with strong holding players protecting their defence, relying on their flair players to produce some magic from nowhere to win them matches. Those players - Robinho, Anderson and Diego so far in this Copa America tourament - can become isolated, without a supporting midfield player linking play for them, and this puts them under intolerable pressure, as the failure of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Adriano to sparkle at the last World Cup demonstrated. That the Brazilian coach, Dunga, was a holding midfield player himself, and won a World Cup in a team more respected than loved in Brazil probably hasn't helped him with the reception his team has received at home during this tournament. They have underwhelmed, scraping through most of their games - a 6 goal thumping of a Chilean side reeling from scandal aside - and were fortunate to beat an aggressive, well-organised Uruguay in the semi-final. What makes Brazil look worse is the form of their biggest South American rivals. Because at the moment Argentina look like the best side in international football, and they are playing with the sort of flair traditionally expected of the Brazilians.

They may lose in Sunday's final - Brazil have a way of getting results when it counts, Argentina a way of choking at the very worst moments, and if the Albiceleste have a weakness it may be a lack of pace in defence, just the sort of thing Robinho will be looking to exploit - but what will be remembered will be some of the football they have played. Coach Coco Basile has stayed true to the Argentinian values of football, favouring a fluid attacking line-up playing with a traditional number 10 in the form of Riquelme, who has probably been the player of the tournament. Observe this perfect pass to Lionel Messi against Peru, taking 3 defenders out of the game with a single stroke of the boot:

Riquelme has also scored 5 goals, including this finish with his weaker left foot:

And this free-kick, which he passes around the wall and inside the far post, Zico-style:

But aside from his goals and assists, Riquelme is a force for positive football when hes on the pitch. He always keeps the ball moving, he rarely - if ever - surrenders possession, he always looks for space, and he encourages his teammates to do the same. The fact that his teammates need very little encouragement is testament to their class and skill. Also to the fact that each of Argentina's front three - Riquelme, Messi and Tevez - can play as a Number 10. Their interplay has been breathtaking, each displaying vision and individual skill when required. None more than Lionel Messi, finally being given his chance in the National team after being restricted to the bench for most of the World Cup. His dribbling ability, acceleration and touch are all superb, but he has the boundless courage and confidence of youth, never ever afraid to take on an entire massed defence with the ball at his feet. He has also scored what was probably the goal of the tournament:

In the first two games of the tournament, Basile went with a traditional "Little & Large" front two of Messi and Hernan Crespo, leaving Carlos Tevez on the bench. Crespo is a centre forward of the highest class, a predator whose movement, aerial ability and eye for goal are comparable with anybody playing in his position in football today. He showed his value to his country with his goals in each of his first two games. His injury - taking a penalty kick - in the second match eventually allowed for the introduction of Tevez, and the Argentine frontline was suddenly an entirely different beast. Tevez shares Messi's dribbling skill, but is more powerful, better at holding the ball up, more direct, and more useful at pressuring defenders when he is hunting possession. The combination of Messi and Tevez running onto passes from Riquelme is a terrifying one for a defender and leads to goals like this one:

A couple of other players have been recalled to the squad and allowed the attacking line to work its magic. Juan Sebastian Veron has played in deep midfield alongside the more defensive-minded Esteban Cambiasso, and his presence is one of the key factors in Riquelme's freedom of expression. Veron takes the ball off the defense and from Javier Mascherano and drills precise long passes across the pitch or feeds Riquelme, allowing the playmaker to remain in the part of the pitch where he can do the most damage. Veron is also capable of shooting powerfully from distance, as this effort against the USA demonstrates:

However, hes never been the most solid midfielder from a defensive point of view. The return of Javier Zanetti at right-back has meant that he has never yet had to be. Zanetti works the entire right side of the pitch, racing forward to support attacks and yet somehow always positionally sound in the defensive third, allowing Veron to play his way without ever becoming a liability. Also vital in allowing the creative midfielders to work their magic has been Javier Mascherano in the holding role, the key No. 5. With the decline in Claude Makelele's game, Mascherano has rapidly developed into probably the best player in this position in the world, as his superb marshalling of Kaka during the Champions League final suggested. His anticipation and reading of the game are startlingly astute, meaning that he always seems to be in the right area of the pitch to snuff out an attack as it begins. Combine this with great stamina, thunderous tackling and the ability to keep his passes simple yet intelligent, and you have the perfect holding midfielder. Hes also begun to score goals, notching up two so far in this tournament, the first of them a beautiful finish:

Argentina's strength in depth means that there are quality alternatives to all of these players on the bench. Pablo Aimar is a great playmaker, more similar to Messi than Riquelme in his movement and touch, but with enough quality to have guided Valencia to a Spanish title a few years ago. He would be the Star player in almost any other International team, yet is reduced to guest-starring for Argentina. A role he can play to perfection :

Fernando Gago offers a more creative alternative to Mascherano, Milito and Palacio are quality strikers in the target man and pacy runner mode respectively and Lucho Gonzalez can play in more or less any position in midfield with equal effectiveness. If the team has a weakness, it is in defense. Argentina have yet to be properly tested defensively in this tournament, and Brazil would be expected to offer that test tomorrow night. Gabriel Heinze is committed and strong in the tackle, but vulnerable against pace, as is the ageing, if still commanding, Roberto Ayala. Gabriel Milito has had a poor tournament, seemingly prone to slips in concentration, something he will need to address before he finds himself facing Robinho & co.

Despite this, Argentina should really beat whatever side Brazil put out tomorrow to win the tournament. What all of the clips and words above don't really transmit is the impression of Argentina's play. The way the team moves the ball around, husbanding it jealously across the pitch in little triangles, the corners of which continually circle and wheel around one another. The absolute perfection of touch and technique. The little dribbles and back-heels and stepovers, performed with casual fluency by all of the players. The way passes are perfectly weighted, rolling with immaculate timing into the stride of a player in motion. The killer instinct in front of goal. The hunger for the ball, the constant support for the player in possession. The way they contemptuously shrug off teams who attempt to foul and bully them out of their rhythm. The tireless pressing of the other team when they have the ball. The way the scorers frequently race screaming to the bench so that the entire squad can celebrate together.
Its all been beautiful and exhilarating to watch. The only other team I've written about in such glowing terms are Brazil in 1982, and while it may be premature to rate this team alongside that one, they play with a comparable love for the beauty of the game, with a joy and a freedom missing in too much modern football. That team is remembered fondly despite never having won anything significant, and whatever the result in the final, I have a feeling this Argentina side will be similarly regarded by posterity. Joga Bonito, indeed.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"I should've strangled you in your crib."

Much as I love and appreciate online bookstores and the glorious bargains they contain - £0.01 for just about any book, never mind an undisputed literary classic on Amazon cannot be argued with - theres just something about the experience of browsing in an actual secondhand bookshop that no website can ever hope to reproduce. Its there in the smell, that musty odour of old, slowly decaying books, finger-smudged paper and creased cover pages, shelves and shelves and piles and piles of them, the infinite possibilty and promise of it. The array of spines facing you on the walls, a series of sharp changes in colour and typeface, some pristine, many cracked and pitted through use. The nosy, snobbish, frequently overly friendly staff. London has a good selection of secondhand places, from the many Oxfam shops scattered throughout the city to the stalls under the bridge outside the NFT to the line of old shops on Charing Cross Road. Probably the one I frequent most regularly is the Notting Hill Book & comic exchange. Its not too far from work, but the key is in the name. They sell comics too, both singles, generally at a cutprice rate, and graphic novels and trade paperbacks, and they offer exchange. I used to keep any magazines I bought, but I only do that nowadays with an elite number of titles. The rest I either recycle or exchange at Notting Hill.

Browsing in any secondhand place can lead you in odd directions, give rise to strange, exciting discoveries. Mostly I buy books I've previously heard of. I'll have read a review or read something else of the authors - much of the time I buy books I actually always intended to buy, only held back and hoped that I'd find them cheap and secondhand. Its always extremely satisfying when I do. Notting Hill is good for pre-release proofs and review copies, paperback versions of the hardback releases that have been sent to critics, and I've bought my fair share of those. But part of shopping for books the old-fashioned way is that you actually have to judge a book by its cover. If you haven't heard of a book or its author, then these are all that you have as a guide. Which can be exciting and lead you to writers, books, even genres you never would have found otherwise.

About 18 months ago I found a book called "Jim" in Notting Hill. It was in the Cult section, which is usually where they keep Beat novels alongside Philip K. Dick and Elmore Leonard Westerns, 60s Spy novels and all the other stuff that doesn't really fit anywhere else. What caught my eye was that it was written by James Toback. Toback is an American movie Director and screenwriter, and I know his film work pretty well. Well enough to be interested by the fact - previously unknown to me - that he had ever written a book of any kind. Never mind one that was "The Author's Self-centred Memoir on the Great Jim Brown", as the subtitle has it. I knew Jim Brown, of course. He had gone from being one of the greatest American football players of all time to an actor in the late 60s, appearing in films like "The Dirty Dozen", "Any Given Sunday" and Toback's own "Fingers". The book was an ex-library copy from Mahattan Public Library in Kansas. It had that library look, like it had been modified to last longer, its dust jacket laminated and sellotaped to the hardcover flaps. But it was in good condition, the author and subject intrigued me, and it was £2. So I bought it. It went onto my sagging bookshelves alongside all the other books I've bought and keep buying but haven't gotten around to reading yet and the many that I have. Last week I came across a reference to Toback somewhere and it reminded me of "Jim", so I pulled it out and read it.

Its a strange mixture of essay and memoir. Toback had been an English Literature Lecturer and was working as a journalist at the time, assigned by Esquire to write a piece on Brown, and his writing is excellent, engaging and readable and equally capable of amusing anecdotes or pretentious theorising. At their first interview, he instantly becomes friends with Brown and, in the midst of a messy breakup with his first wife, goes to L.A., where he lives as Brown's houseguest for months. Its hard to appreciate from this perspective - Europe in the first decade of the 21st Century - just how big a star Brown was at that time. American Football was the most popular sport in the USA and Brown was perhaps its greatest, most famous player. So famous he was able to give the game up and start acting, with no little success. All this, and, as an extremely successful black man at a crucial time in American politics, he became a necessarily political figure. Toback explains all this lightly, entertainingly, never becoming too academic as he describes Brown's popularity and importance and his own feelings about becoming friends with such an icon. All the while he is observing, watching how Brown conducts himself in public and private, playing basketball and tennis with him, accompanying him to clubs and discos, going to his parties, sharing girls with him, meeting his friends, becoming involved in his charity work and schemes for black empowerment, arguing and advising. He is always testing himself and his ideas about race in America. He sees Brown as the epitome of the scary Black Man White America is terrified of, the handsome, intelligent Alpha Male, possibly the countrys greatest athlete, its supreme male specimen, here to steal all the white women. He wonders about his own attitude to race and masculinity - spurred by the memory of his first ever encounter with two young black boys as a child on the Upper East Side of New York - and how it has influenced his competitive personality. Jim Brown, with his kindness and charisma, disables many of his worries, puts his mind at ease through the simplicity of their relationship. By the end of the book, Toback no longer worries about his own attitude to race, but he does worry about that of America. Along the way, he has demonstrated some good storytelling skills. His description of a couple of tennis matches he plays against Brown, where they measure their positions against one another, as friends, tennis players and, most importantly, as men are funny and gripping and insightful all at the same time. This flair for storytelling would soon attract attention from Hollywood.

Toback is an interesting guy, and in fact his life is probably a lot more interesting than most of his work, which is a problem for any artist. In cinema, he peaked far too early. His first completed project was the screenplay for Karel Reisz' "The Gambler" (1974), which he and Reisz reportedly worked on for two years, honing and tightening the story until it was the spare, sleekly focused film Reisz shot. James Caan stars as Axel Feed, a literature professor with a gambling addiction that leaves him owing money to everyone he knows and fearing punishment from the mob unless he can find $45,000 in a short period. Even then, he cannot stop gambling. The film is a study in compulsive behaviour and it never lets up, allowing us to see how Axel's mind works, how his life is informed by his love of risk, and how nothing else excites him or makes him feel alive to the same extent. But Toback and Reisz never even pretend to tell us why he is this way, and the absence of such reductive psychology, together with the story's insistence that Axel will not, cannot change, are its major strengths. Caan is as good as he has ever been, Reisz shows that he is a sensitive director who didn't do enough work, and Toback's script is gripping, with well-drawn characters and some juicy, realistic dialogue. The story is obviously semi-autobiographical, with its English Lit. Professor as hero and its narrative obsession with gambling. The bio on "Jim" says that "He is now at work on a novel which involves a Harvard undergraduate's attempt to fix the Harvard-Yale basketball game." This storyline plays a vital role in the climax of "The Gambler", and Toback would return to it years later. He was on-set throughout filming, watching Reisz work, gaining an education in the physical realities of a movie shoot.

He put this education to good use when he came to make his first film as director, "Fingers" in 1978. Starring Harvey Keitel as Jimmy Fingers, a classically trained pianist who has abandoned his instrument to work as a debt collector for his mobster father, the story follows him through a few days of his life, in which the slightly disturbed Jimmy has the chance to escape his life and re-enter the life of a musician, when he is offered an audition. Except his father's world has quite a grip on Jimmy, and he finds it hard to decide which side of himself to choose. "Fingers" is filled with a strange verve, its protagonist's inability to relax, his mania, jerky nervous energy and lack of impulse-control seeming to control the narrative. Its as if his blood flows through the movies veins. Shot by Michael Chapman, its visually seductive, capturing the starkly bleak energy of New York in the 70s in a manner that many films of the era only hint at. Keitel is amazing, giving perhaps the best performance of an immense career, letting his Id loose in a way he only approaches in "Bad Lieutenant" (1992). But this character is better written than his role in that film. As in "The Gambler", this protagonist is obviously based in some way on Toback himself, and his compulsive nature leads him into some uncomfortable situations, including an encounter with Jim Brown, portraying just the sort of sexually threatening uber-masculine black male Toback had written of in "Jim". "Fingers" is also full of frank sex and violence, and its ending is very much in the minor key and unapologetically bleak : the final image of Keitel is unforgettable. It has been given some publicity in recent years by the success of Jacques Audiard's superb, perhaps superior remake, "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" (2005).

Toback has done some interesting work since, but hes never really matched "Fingers". His next film, "Love & Money" (1982) is a strange, only fitfully successful black comedy concerning a South American dictator, and "Exposed" (1983) an ambitious DePalma-esque odyssey through the world of New York fashion. Both films are chiefly memorable as vehicles for Nastassja Kinski, made by a director obviously enamoured of her (they have this in common with Paul Schrader's bizarre, beautiful "Cat People" (1982) and Jean-Jacques Beineix's "the Moon in the Gutter" (1983) - Kinski was the arthouse muse of choice for a number of directors in the 1980s). Toback's most obviously commercial film is also one of his most personal: "The Pick-Up Artist" (1987) stars Brat Packers Robert Downey Jr and Molly Ringwald, and is basically a teen comedy. But its a teen comedy through a prism - Downey Jr is the titular artist, Ringwald the mobster's daughter he falls for. Their romance starts off sweetly but becomes messy and darker as the plotting gains complexity, and the film almost sabotages itself in its later acts, when the comedy all but dries up. But its main problem is that both stars feel too young - it was originally written for a middle-aged - and more Toback-like - Leading Man, and Toback refashioned it for the younger Downey Jr, but the role is an uncomfortable fit for the actor. But it is full of little references to "Fingers", not least in the form of Keitel basically playing an older, damaged version of Jimmy, and is interesting for Toback's take on his own lothario nature. He next directed "The Big Bang" (1989), a documentary featuring Toback interviewing various people - some famous, most not - and questioning them about lifes great issues and meanings. His status in Hollywood was boosted by the success of his screenplay for "Bugsy" (1991), restating his ability as a writer. It would still be 6 years before he next directed a film, and that film, "Two Girls and a Guy" (1997) reunited him with Downey Jr, playing a spin on his pick-up artist in a stagey comedic drama about a romantic triangle. It features some great dialogue and strong performances, but feels somewhat like reduced Toback, again dealing with sex and a compulsive protagonist, but having to compromise much of what makes him so distinctive to do so, lacking the energy and verve of his earliest work.

He returned to old themes and ideas for his next two films. "Black & White" (1999) is an examination of racial tension and cultural influence, observing the interaction between the world of Upper class New York and college kids with hip-hop and featuring a distracting number of non-actors, from Mike Tyson and the Wu-Tang Clan to Claudia Schiffer, alongside the likes of Ben Stiller, Brooke Shields and Downey Jr. Its a cluttered mess of a film, stuffed with great moments and interesting ideas, but also tedious and confused and dramatically slack. One of its storylines is similar to the plot of "Harvard Man" (2001), which revisited the story suggested in the bio for "Jim", following a young Harvard basketball player (Adrian Grenier) who is persuaded to throw a game by his girlfriend, the daughter of a mobster (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Toback maintained a hip aura in Hollywood due to his personal reputation - he is a legendary Hollywood ladies man - his contacts and friends in the business, and the strength of some of his work. Leonardo DiCaprio was attached to "Harvard Man" for years, but when he dropped out, leaving it without a big star to carry it, it failed commercially. But it is probably Toback's strongest recent film, as driven and intuitive as "the Gambler" and "Fingers" in its own way. It features a brilliant acid-trip scene. Toback himself had travelled to Switzerland in 1965 to get some LSD direct from the Sanders Laboratory, inspired by Aldous Huxley and the Tibetan book of the Dead to see it as the best way to cure his pot habit. He took a mammoth dose, perhaps the largest recorded to that time (100,000 micrograms - an average hit is between 200 to 1000 micrograms) and endured an eight day trip which was ecstatic for the first nine hours or so, but ended with him suicidal, destroyed and having to receive an antidote from a specialist. The film attempts to replicate this experience with the use of heavily distorted visuals, a really effective soundtrack filled with repeating overlapping dialogue, and a shaking, wobbling camera. It is, like many of Toback's films, a male melodrama, a genre which does not often find favour with modern audiences, especially when combined with the sexual frankness and highbrow ambition always evident throughout Toback's career. But when his work is on target, it feels unique and even a little visionary.

When it is not, as in his last film "When Will I Be Loved" (2004), it seems pretentious and exploitative. Neve Campbell plays Vera, a modern femme fatale, who explores her sexuality in a series of encounters whilst simultaneously exploiting the men out to exploit her own apparent naivete. Campbell gives a brave performance, but the film is too thin to give meaning to its series of lecherous shots of her in the shower, in a lesbian liaison or having rough sex with her hustler boyfriend. It was shot in only 12 days for a $2 Million budget, and as such, it looks commendably slick. The production was also the source for most of the material in "The Outsider" (2006), Nicholas Jarecki's documentary study of Toback. Actors, friends and critics discuss his life, personality and work, and Neve Campbell seems a little bewildered by his way of working, confessing that she doesn't know exactly what shes meant to do in her next scene. Toback himself comes across as what he is - a great, larger-than-life character. Predictably, he seems as if he could have stepped out of one of his own films, which brings us back to the element of autobiography in "The Gambler" and the way he turned a study of Jim Brown into a memoir about confronting some of his own issues. He has always been more interesting than his films, but at least he has let his life inform his art - often too much, it seems - and left behind an interesting, if flawed body of work as a result.


Sunday, July 08, 2007

Screengrab - "T'aint no guns allowed at t'dinner table!"

"Matewan" is a masterpiece. John Sayles' best film, and one of the greatest and most overlooked films of the 1980s, it tells the story of a Miners Strike in West Virginia in 1920 which eventually ends in horrible violence.
Sayles is a fascinating director. A true independent, with a maverick streak, he writes, directs and edits each of his own films, writes novels and short stories, acts in other films as well as working as an uncredited script doctor on bigger movies for the studios, notably "Apollo 13". He was in the middle of a rich seam of creativity in the late 80s, when he made "Matewan". His next film, "Eight Men Out"(1988) was set in the same historical period as "Matewan", but in the utterly different world of East Coast Baseball. The two films do have some thematic similarities, with their stories of groups of comrades facing coercion, moral courage and the damage wrought by politics.

Sayles has always been a great writer. Each of his films, from his first, "Return of the Seacausus Seven" (1980), is beautifully written, with wise, truthful, rounded characters, nice, frequently witty dialogue and unforced, organic plotting. His visual style has been more of an issue with critics. He can be slightly pedestrian visually, though his storytelling is always clear and his editing is natural and smooth. His solution to his visual limitations seems to have been to hire the best Directors of Photography he possibly could.
"Matewan" had a budget of just $4 Million, which is a tiny amount for such an ambitious film which is so dependent on a convincing, detailed period recreation for its authenticity. Sayles wisely recruited the great Haskell Wexler as his cinematographer, and as a result, "Matewan" is hauntingly beautiful, full of muted, dusky lighting and striking compositions.

Its plot details the arrival in the town of Matewan of a young, idealistic union Organiser, written by Sayles and played by Chris Cooper as an almost mythic figure. His attempts to unite the striking miners and the immigrant scabs brought in by the Mining company result in an escalation of hostilities by the company's thuggish strike-breakers. Alongside Cooper, there are appearances by actors who would become Sayles' semi-regulars like David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell. There is also a striking performance from Will Oldham as a young miner-cum-preacher. When I first encountered Oldham in his guise as a musician, some years after I had seen the film, I was shocked to discover that the man responsible for this music was the actor from "Matewan". He's as startling a screen presence as he is a songwriter, and indeed all of the films performances are strong. Sayles has always been a fine director of actors. But perhaps his most obvious gift is a talent for Altmanesque multi-character narratives, such as "City of Hope" (1991), "Lone Star" (1996) and "Sunshine State" (2002). "Matewan" flirts with this sub-genre, following the effects of the strike and Cooper's arrival upon many of the people involved. Sayles' work generally has a significant political component also, and "Matewan" is perhaps his most explicitly political film, with its portrayal of a labour dispute as a Manichean struggle between good and evil, informed by the cynicism the distance of 60 years of labour struggle in America has provided him.

That struggle finally erupts in the film's climax, inspired by the historical "Massacre of Matewan", when the Union thugs and the miners battle in the town. Sayles' screenwriting for the studios has tended to take in more genre material than his own directorial career (he made his name as writer on films like "Piranha" (1978), "Alligator" (1980) and "The Howling" (1981)), but "Matewan"s finale seems to suggest a classic Western scenario, with the two sides meeting on a railway line before an apocalyptic gunfight begins. The shooting of this sequence itself evokes Sam Peckinpah or Walter Hill, with heads exploding like ripe fruit and the air ringing with the reports of fired weaponry. Its a fantastic, ferocious climax, unlike anything else in Sayles' career, and all the more powerful and surprising for that. It also shows him - in collaboration with Wexler - as a visually exciting director, in perhaps the only straight set-piece he has ever attempted in his career. But he shows us the consequences of such violence - characters lie dead and bleeding. Others weep over the bodies of their loved ones, and Sayles' camera takes it all in, just as it had the carnage beforehand. Its a great ending to a great film in what remains an interesting, unique career.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007


I have a lot to thank Marvel UK for. Throughout the 1980s, the company did a sterling job of republishing a large amount of the classic American Marvel comics of the preceding two decades in the form of hardback UK annuals, which could fit two or three issues of regular US floppy comics, plus pin-ups and features, between two covers. Thats the way I first read of Gwen Stacy's death, and gazed open-mouthed at Neal Adams X-Men. Its also where I first encountered the Silver Surfer, in a reprint of a two part Fantastic Four story with art by John Buscema. I read old Hulk stories with art by Herb Trimpe, the Fantastic Four by Lee and Kirby, Spiderman drawn by John Romita Sr., Captain Marvel by Gil Kane. And an amazing Captain America annual with this cover, written and drawn by a guy I'd never heard of by the name of Jim Steranko:

Steranko instantly appealed to me. His art was a little like Kirby's (which, I would discover, made perfect sense - he started out "finishing" Kirby's work on Nick Fury) , but altough I loved the stories, as a kid I never liked Kirby's artwork. It was too ugly and crude for me back then, and I was too immature to appreciate its invention, energy and the strength of its storytelling. Steranko was obviously influenced by Kirby. He had the energy and the inventiveness, but his linework was far slicker and his storytelling much more sophisticated. There was a cinematic quality to that Captain America annual I recognised but was unable to articulate at the time. It was there in the way Steranko used cutaway shots and his brilliant use of splash pages, and there in the lighting of many panels, which referred directly to Film Noir, in a way no other comics I had encountered had done before. Steranko was also a brilliant designer, and his pages felt self-conscious in their layouts, his covers self-conscious in their resemblance to Movie posters.

When I revisited Steranko's work years later, all that was great about it just leapt out at me. How ahead of his time he must have seemed in the 1960s! He introduced Graphic Design techniques to comics, alongside large doses of op art, pop art and surrealism. All of the work he did for Marvel as Writer-artist has a unique tone: a sort of jazz era sci-fi hipness, full of references to psychedelia, James Bond, Shakespeare, Hammer horror, Lovecraft and film noir. His pages work as pages, not just as series of panels. But the thing that had excited me so much as a little boy was still evident: he wrote and drew great, rip-roaring pulp stories, full of wit, action and beauty.

In a sense, he was almost too talented and too visionary for the comics Industry to contain. Unable to maintain a monthly schedule on any comic series, he gradually moved beyond it entirely, into publishing, and paperback cover art. In time he would work as a conceptual artist and designer in Hollywood, and he designed the look of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the character of Indiana Jones. He still does the odd piece of comics work, enough to remind his fans how great he was. His influence has long been absorbed into the medium to such an extent its almost impossible to detect it, but there have been a few obvious nods to him in popular culture outside comics - Brad Bird has admitted that Steranko was the chief influence upon the look of "The Incredibles", which manages to do his legacy proud.

A few covers, pages, panels and book-covers: