Monday, April 30, 2007

"You can put a cat in the oven, but that don't make it a biscuit"

It is an odd and troubling reality that there exist no great films about football. Not one. Of course there are many great documentaries - from FIFA's old Stories of each World Cup, such as "Gol" (Spain 82) and "Hero" (Mexico 86) to "Zidane" and "Once In a Lifetime" - but I cannot think of even one great fiction film about the most popular sport on earth. And football is not just the most popular sport - it is the most popular leisure activity on earth, with the obvious exception of sex. More people watch, play, read about and listen to football than go to the cinema, watch any single television show or play any video game. And yet all of the portrayals of this most beautiful, complex (and yet simple) and exciting of games are, well, pretty rubbish.

There are a handful of quality films that deal with it tangentially, most of them foreign - "Offside", "The Cup", "Tickets" - and a few British films where it is a feature of the plot, but is not really central, such as "Gregorys Girl" and "Kes", plus a long line of films focused on football hooliganism. But there is nothing that does the sport justice, either purely as a game or for its societal and cultural importance. If you asked most people to name a film about football, I'm sure they would come up with "Escape To Victory". In the years since then, its portrayal in mainstream cinema has been limited to films which seem to target soccer moms and their offspring, like "Kicking & Screaming" and "Bend It Like Beckham". The "Goal" films, which will become a trilogy at some point in the next few years, are the only serious, big-budget attempt to portray what it is like to play Professional football at the highest level (apparently, its like being in a Gillette advert) and they are Roy of the Rovers-style fantasies full of last-minute screamers and every cliche imaginable. But watching them in a cinema for the European football fan was a bizarre experience - seeing the Beautiful Game fetishized, dramatised and reproduced prettily on a Big Screen, Ronaldinho, Henry and Beckham shot like Gods and slowed down as they do what they are actually most famous for doing, rather than seeing them posed and pouting in advertisements, felt somehow wrong. Yet I'm thoroughly accustomed to watching American films about their many lesser games - American Football, Basketball, Baseball, and even Hockey - which portray their stars the way the vastly more famous and popular football players rarely are.

But then football is notable by its absence in literature as well as cinema. It makes fleeting appearances here and there in many European and British novels and is referred to often, but I can't think of a single Major novel with football as its central preoccupation. Whereas Americans are unashamed of writing seriously about their sports. "The Natural", a novel about baseball by Bernard Malamud, is perhaps the most obvious example of this. Yet many decades earlier, Walt Whitman had written about Baseball and its importance to America. The main difference between the attitudes of the two cultures is that America has a less rigid dividing line between high and low culture. Many of the Great American writers wrote about sport, notably Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Ring Lardner and Jack Kerouac. Canadian Jack London wrote fight reports for Newspapers. This heritage of literature mixing with sportswriting has left a legacy which means American novelists are unafraid of tackling the subject in their work. There is also the idea of sport as a metaphor for America itself, which is an attractive one for writers. John Updike begins his "Rabbit" series with a game of basketball, and his hero Harry Angstrom is notably a former highschool basketball star. Richard Ford wrote an entire (great) novel with constant references to the subject while also dealing with life in late 20th Century America, and entitled it "The Sportswriter". Its sequel, the equally superb "Independence Day" features a trip to the National Baseball Museum as its central movement, communicating as it does so some of that games importance to the national psyche.

There are no British equivalents for these books (and as far as I know, no Spanish, German, French, Italian or South American equivalents, either). For much of the 20th century during which football established itself as the National Game of Britain and much of the rest of the world, it was also the game of the working classes. Writers didn't play football, they didn't watch football, and they weren't interested in football. They were from the middle classes, in the main, and so cricket was given a better representation in fiction (by P.G. Wodehouse and L.P. Hartley, for example) than football ever was. The great proletarian football novel is in fact a Rugby League novel - "This Sporting Life" by David Storey, which details the life of a Northern Professional Rugby League player. Its authenticity arises from the fact that Storey had been such a Rugby League Player. The closest anybody came to writing a similar book about football is in Eamon Dunphy's "Only a Game?", a warts and all memoir of a single season in the life of a journeyman pro in the declining years of his career at Millwall. Dunphy - a characteristically spiky Dubliner with some literary pretensions - talks about the actual ebb and flow of the games he plays in, but also discusses what it is like to hope a teammate is injured so that you can reclaim your place in the starting line-up, and details the politics of the training ground and the weary routine of the footballer in the 70s. This is the kind of thing a good novelist could have transformed into fictional gold, if only such a novelist had existed.

The 1990 World Cup and the launch of Sky Sports and the Premier League, with the associated decline in hooliganism at games, were the keys in transforming football into a middle class game in Britain. And so the changing profile of the game was reflected in the different kinds of books that were being written about it. "Fever Pitch" by Nick Hornby, a fans memoir, was inspired by "A Fans Notes" by Frederick Exley, a rivettingly intimate confessional which linked one mans ruined life and alcoholism to his obsessive devotion to the New York Giants. Hornby's book was more suburban, more domestic, but just as effective in its autobiographical tracing of the ups and downs in his life as told through a lifetime of supporting Arsenal. The massive success of Fever Pitch led to an avalanche of football books, which continues to this day with any player of note being awarded a tell-all, ghost-written "auto"biography, and specific games, tournaments, clubs teams and eras all receiving detailed, analytical treatment by writers. If you want to read a detailed, authorative history of German football in English, well you can. The story of exactly what happened to the England team at the 1970 World Cup? No problem. David Beckham's first season at Real Madrid? But of course.

Still there are no great football novels, however. The likelihood is that the author of the great football novel to come is only a young boy now, middle-class and living in Munich or Reading or Buenos Aires or Cairo, attracted equally to the worlds of books and that of football, unable to choose between the two. Eventually, his two interests will unite into a single one. Will there ever be a great football film? This is a more difficult question. The major problem lies in the visual representation of the game itself. The stock television camera angle for football - the camera fixed high in the stand at the halfway line - works so well because it is the right place to put the camera for the game. Football is broadly concerned with the exploitation of space. Players move into it, close it down, project the ball through it. Having the camera high up at halfway reveals this struggle for space as a 90 minute battle, relevant in every second of play. The footage will necessarily cut to close-ups, and pitchside shots, and angles from behind the goal in order to better detail the action. But all of this only works within the context of the stock shot from above at halfway. Cinema cannot really deal with this need. Any film that resorts to the stock shot risks looking like nothing so much as normal television coverage, and any film that does not abandons much of the meaning of the game, and with it a sense of suspense for anyone who understands how football actually works.

This is a lesser issue with Rugby League, and the film of "This Sporting Life", directed by Lindsay Anderson in 1963 is probably the best film of working class sport made in Britain. It focuses on the violence and the gritty, intimate exertion of the game at pitch level, while making most of its impact in its domestic scenes between Richard Harris' player and his landlady. "When Saturday Comes", starring Sean Bean as an up and coming Sheffield United striker, is probably the closest to this any film about football comes, and like the "Goal!" films, it is a Roy of the Rovers fantasy which makes little real attempt to honestly portray the game as it is.

Meanwhile, all of America's major sports have been treated relatively well - undoubtedly much better than football, at any rate - by cinema. Baseball comes off best, both in serious historical pieces such as "Cobb" and "Eight Men Out", character comedies and dramas like "Bull Durham", "For the Love of the Game" and "A League of their Own", or knockabout comedies like "Major League". American Football seems to best lend itself to scathing drama, (given its attritional, punishing nature) such as "Any Given Sunday", "North Dallas Forty" and "Friday Night Lights". Basketball, the most urban of games, is a feature of many urban movies, from "He Got Game" and "Finding Forrester" to "White Men Can't Jump". Its also featured in the odd historical story - "Hoosiers" and "Glory Road" spring immediately to mind. Even Ice Hockey has enjoyed a respectable movie career in the likes of "Slap Shot", "Youngblood" and "Mystery, Alaska". None of these games seems better suited to cinema than football, and the amount of films devoted to each may come down to the fact that they are so popular in America, giving them - in Hollywood's eyes at any rate - an inbuilt audience.

What football needs is somebody like Ron Shelton. Shelton played Professional Baseball for five seasons in the Minor Leagues before he switched his focus to the movie industry and writing. His first major credit was on Roger Spottiswoode's excellent Foreign correspondent drama, "Under Fire". Immediately, his talent for writing believable, human characters who drove his plots - rather than having their actions dictated to them by plot convenience - was evident, as was an excellent ear for a one-liner. His next film, "The Best Of Times", laid the blueprint for much of his movie career. Again directed by Spottiswoode, it focused on two ex-High School football heroes, played by Kurt Russell and Robin Williams, who tire of their average grown-up married lives, and become obsessed with replaying the final, losing, game from their High School days, and this time winning it. The film is a strange mix of comedy and drama, focusing, as much of Shelton's work would , on the complexities of masculinity and male friendship. It suggests how sports plays into these complexities without really investigating its role in any depth.

Shelton perfected this formula in his next film, his first as Writer-Director, "Bull Durham". A romantic comedy set around a season with a minor league Baseball team, territory he obviously knew very well, its a near-perfect blend of love story, sports film, and character comedy. Shelton's love of the game and its iconography is evident in every frame set around the diamond, in every conversation between Kevin Costner's jaded veteran and Tim Robbin's immature prodigy, and in all of Susan Sarandon's poetic solliliquays on the subject. The film has a unique atmosphere - sultry and humid, it captures the chemistry between the three main characters perfectly, each of them adroitly drawn and played. It may contain Costner's best ever performance. It was a big hit, allowing Shelton to make a not particularly commercial script into his next project. "Blaze" is the story of the relationship between an ageing Southen Governor, played by Paul Newman, and his young stripper girlfriend, Blaze Starr (Lolita Davidovich) and how the public response to this effects his plans for civil rights policies. Its not a bad film, with Newman characteristically good, but Shelton never seems as confident in his material as he was in "Bull Durham", and it never convinces you to care about the subject matter as you feel it must to succeed. So, in a career move he would repeat a few times over the next decades, Shelton made another comedy-drama next. He also returned to sports, making "White Men Can't Jump" about the world of basketball hustlers and writing the screenplay for "Blue Chips" about the politics and corruption of recruitment in college basketball. "White Men Can't Jump" is effortless in its depiction of its world of trash-talking and machismo, with Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes perfectly cast as its bickering leads. Its strength lies in the believability of its characters, the truth which leads the story to its bittersweet conclusion, driven by Harrelson's inability to change or even really compromise.

Though he had displayed no discernable individual visual style, Shelton had established a distinctive sensibility in his first three films through the quality of his writing and an ability to wring strong performances from actors. He was already associated with Sports movies when he made "Cobb", about the legendary baseball player Ty Cobb. Biopic as character assassination, "Cobb" is a finely crafted film, and Tommy Lee Jones is demonically charismatic in the title role, but it has limited interest for anyone without an interest in baseball history. It works as a character study, but like "Blaze" it suffers for the lack of the elements which made Shelton's other movies so impressive and memorable - the easy characterisation and the comedy arising from it. Like "Blaze", it was a commercial failure, and Shelton returned to the sports comedy, and Costner, for his next film. "Tin Cup" is a movie about golf, which doesn't make it sound particularly appealing. But its really about people, like all Shelton's films, and it uses golf as a sort of metaphor for character. Costner's laid-back slacker is talented but wreckless, and this trait has cost him a career on the Professional circuit, while his old rival Don Johnson has become a millionaire Golf star. They clash over Psychiatrist Rene Russo, and Costner is spurred on to take a shot at glory in his efforts to woo her. The films climax refuses cliche and instead remains true to its characters, making it more likeable and affecting, and Costner, always at his best playing a rogue, where the one-noted monotone and earnestness of his hero roles are absent, is fantastic, enjoying great chemistry with both Russo and Cheech Marin as his sidekick and caddie.

Shelton had one more sports movie in him before he abandoned the genre. "Play It to the Bone" is about boxing, sort of. Well, its about two boxers, but the actual ring action is restricted to the final 20 minutes of the film. The preceding hour and a half is taken up by the journey undertaken by the protagonists (Antonio Banderas and Woody Harrelson), two best friends and aging pugilists who have been summoned from L.A. to Vegas to fight on the undercard of a Mike Tyson bout. They must fight each other, with the winner guaranteed a title shot. Their driver on the trip is Banderas' girlfriend, Harrelson's ex (Lolita Davidovich) and along the way they squabble and bicker and flash-back to previous fights and events. Boxing is not like any other sport in that it has an extremely rich cinematic tradition. Each of these films is about boxing, each a classic in one way or another : "Body & Soul", "Raging Bull", "Somebody Up There Likes Me", "Fat City", "Ali", "Rocky", "Million Dollar Baby", "the Set-Up", "Girlfight". There are dozens of others. Boxing may be the most elemental sport, barely a sport at all, the spectacle that of two men hitting one another until one falls. It is made for cinema. Shelton had already been involved in one boxing film, when his script for "The Great White Hype" was filmed by Reginald Hudlin. Shelton hated the film and tried to have his name removed from it. So he may have felt he had some redemption to earn with "Play It to the Bone". But his gamble was to devote his movie to letting us get to know his characters so that when we come to that climactic fight we have a lot invested emotionally. But these characters don't live and breathe the way those in "Bull Durham" and "Tin Cup" do. Shelton obviously knows and understands baseball and golf. But his knowledge of boxing seems more cursory, and the film doesn't smack of authenticity the way the two Costner fims do. Crucially, its his least funny comedy, much of the humour forced and uncomfortable. The final fight is compelling, but then so are the majority of cinematic boxing matches. The drama is so obvious it needs no help.

Shelton moved on, directing David Ayer's script of a James Ellroy story about police corruption as "Dark Blue", then writing and directing a tinseltown satire-cum-cop thriller, "Hollywood Homicide". The first revealed his limitations as a director had not been eroded by all his experience, while the second suggested he had entirely lost his touch. He also had a hand, alongside three other credited writers, in the script for "Bad Boys 2", suggesting that law enforcement stories were his new obsession. But silence from him since then. Is it too much to hope that he will return with a hilarious and moving football movie? I think it is.

But at the time of writing, two films on the same subject await UK release. The Serbian director Emir Kusturica has directed a documentary on the life of Diego Maradona, arguably the greatest footballer ever. The film was made with Maradona's co-operation, but Kusturica, not a man to be bullied by anyone, had full creative control. The soundtrack is by Manu Chao, suggesting it will be a classy production. Italian director Marco Risi has also finished a biopic of Maradona, entitled "Maradona, La Mano Di Dio", which has already been released in his home country. Alongside the release of Vikash Doorashoo's "Substitute", an account of his mainly-idle days at the 2006 World Cup, it looks like being a great year for football documentarys. But fictional movies? The Maradona film and "Goal! 3" apart, there seems to be nothing at all on the horizon.
Which brings me back to the first line of this post: It is an odd and troubling reality that there exist no great films about football. And there will not be, for the foreseeable future.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Shuffle : Slow Life

I've been reluctant to write about music here before. Not because of any general "Dancing to architecture" principle, but because its difficult, and I think about music a lot less than I used to. I used to think about what I liked and how I liked it and why I liked it an awful lot. Now I just listen to it. I like much more music than ever before, my taste keeps broadening, I enjoy different aspects of differents genres and artists. So thinking about it all seems less important, somehow. But I listen to music all the time and its as important to me as cinema or literature or even football are, so I feel like I'm neglecting it, like I should devote some posts to it now and again. The problem being that I'm less obsessive about particular artists than I've ever been. Like I said in my last music post - months ago - my listening is song-based now. Albums, even artists to some extent, are a lot less crucial than they used to be. So, if I talk about music here, the likelihood is I'll focus on one song, and just talk that into the ground.

Damn I love the Super Furry Animals. The most interesting British group of their generation by far, they seem to be able to do anything. Consider that they emerged on a Creation label in the shadow of Oasis at the height of their BritPop fame and quietly went about releasing a series of devastating records, untroubled by commercial concerns, confident that Creation were making so much money off the Gallaghers that they could afford to just about do what they wanted, as long as they were sensible about it. Each one of those records is full of psychedelic rock songs, but each displays a definite progression from the last, their vision growing ever more ambitious, and their ability to articulate that vision becoming increasingly assured. They are equally at home in many registers - they do beautiful acoustic balladry ("Fire In My Heart"), epic rock songs ("Demons", "Ice Hockey Hair", a few dozen others) pop-soul ("Juxtaposed With U") and flirt with dance music on each album. "The Man Don't Give A Fuck", one of the best singles of the 1990s, starts as a creepy psychedelic folk song before violently transforming itself into a rocking dancefloor groove based around a Steely Dan sample via some lyrics about the corrupting ideological power of television. They've released an album sung entirely in their native Welsh language, their singer has released a couple of quality solo albums, they bought a second-hand tank, painted it blue and rode around in it at Glastonbury playing techno out of loudspeakers before selling it to Don Henley, and they've done gigs dressed as golden retrievers. Their songs are rarely concerned with romantic dilemmas or the vaguely empty uplift of their peers - Gruff Rhys is politically motivated, and he likes to question and comment on the culture of which he is a part, even if this commentary is often hilariously oblique and full of odd tangents. They've never been as successful as they deserve to be, but they have a loyal following, and their last two albums maintained the high standard set by their career-best, "Rings Around The World". Theres a new album due later this year, said to be stripped-down and more of a rock album than the last few.

In 2004, the Super Furries were one of the acts featured in Michael Winterbottom's undervalued and misunderstood "9 Songs". The film is split into narrative chapters interspersed between scenes shot live at various concerts (featuring other acts such as Michael Nyman, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Elbow). One of those concerts is a Super Furry Animals gig at the Brixton Academy, and the song they play is "Slow Life", the closing track off their 2003 album "Phantom Power". I'd bought that record the day it was released, but it went into the iTunes stew alongside everything else, and though I'd listened to "Slow Life", it had never really made any impression on me. Until watching that movie in a cinema, where it sounded epic and magnificent. Which it is.

The way it starts, with an actual intro, is part of its beauty: light, almost ballet Delibes strings stutter in and out, then a backbeat kicks over the top. Its replaced by a weirdly retro electro groove with synthesiser bleeps and distorted strings sliding overhead that goes on for about a minute, before a definitively SFA touch. A wailing harmonica comes out of the left channel, a rhythm guitar chugging away beneath it, before the whole band kicks in, vocal "oooohs" and Sean O'Hagans lovely gliding strings giving the song its form.
Then we're into the first verse, a single run-through of the chorus, "Rocks are slow life" repeated alongside a string refrain, and then the song breaks down. We're back to that electro soundscape of the intro, a new rhythmic component making this rendition seem tenser, the synthesiser sounds bleaker, then again the deliverance of the band, this time introduced by a twisting, melodic guitar line. Another simple verse, then we ride the chorus home, the string arrangements taking over as the band fades away. Finally its just strings, the last "oooohs" having ebbed away entirely. The lyrics contrast the frenetic, claustrophobic, scary nature of modern life with the eternal, patient existence of the world. "Rocks Are Slow Life" addresses the idea that even mountains have memories, the litany of recieved imagery in the verses contrasted with the repetition of that chorus. But its the beauty of those strings and the melody and the epic size of it all that makes it work. This isn't an mp3 blog, so no links. If you're interested in the song, you know where to look...


Monday, April 23, 2007

"I want you to be nice until it's time to not be nice."

Patrick Swayze was once not only a biggish star, but almost an action star. How the same man who was in "Dirty Dancing" could have aspired to Willis/Stallone/Schwarzenegger status baffles me. But then he is some sort of martial arts type expert, he sported a mullet easily comparable with anything Michael Douglas offered in the 1980s, and the ladies liked him, coz he was good at dancing and stuff. So the Suits knew that if they got him in a decent - by 80s standards, remember - action film, then blokes would come, just coz it was action, and their girlfriends wouldn't mind too much either.

Which led to films like "Next of Kin" wherein Swayze plays a hard-as-nails ex-hillbilly Chicago cop named Truman Gates looking for revenge for his brothers murder, while also trying to prevent his other, none-more-hillbilly brother, played by Liam Neeson, from taking the law into his own hands. Thats no classic, let me tell you. Though it may be better than "Steel Dawn", wherein Swayze plays a wandering warrior in a post-apocalyptic wildnerness who wanders into a shoddy "Mad Max 2" rip-off and has to fight his way out of it while wearing a little headband. The only other thing I can remember about it is that Arnold Vosloo and Brion James are in it, if you like that kind of thing. Its possibly one of the worst films I've ever seen.
Of course, the absolute Daddy of Swayze action films is "Point Break", which is too good for a post like this, but coming up a pretty distant second is the semi-semi-classic "Road House".

Directed by that poet of the crummy, c-string action movie, Rowdy Herrington (whose name sounds like it came from an action film, and who was also responsible for "Striking Distance", obviously Bruce Willis' greatest achievement by some way....I think he used to be a stuntman, which is probably one of the few professions open to you when you're called "Rowdy") Road House is basically a Steven Seagal movie without Steven Seagal. Seagal movies often take the form of extended episodes of the A-Team. People have a problem with some dastardly bully, generally in some remote backwood, Seagal happens upon them or is contacted to help, he arrives and throws people over his hip until the bad guys all give up. "Road House" follows this A-Team template, only its not quite as good as your average episode of the A-Team. But it does have its strange pleasures.

Patrick Swayze plays "Dalton" (just the one name - so hard he doesn't need another one) a good-looking bouncer. Yes, this is an action movie about that most noble, heroic and admired of professions: the bouncer. "Not tonight lads,regulars only" is some post-scrap one-liner. Dalton is no one-dimensional action man, though. Hes a two-dimensional action man. He has a degree in philosophy from NYU. His wisdom extends to such homilies as "Nobody ever wins a fight" spoken after he quite clearly has won a fight, and "Pain don't hurt", when much of the rest of the film is devoted to depictions of him causing pain to various characters and them plainly not enjoying the experience. He comes to a two-bit redneck town and starts working as a bouncer at the Double-Deuce, the kind of massive bar commonly seen in american movies which seems absolutely designed to host huge brawls. Only soon he discovers that the town is run/owned/controlled by sinister War veteran Ben Gazzara and his mob of (distinctly A-team bad guys) goons. Theres a fat one, a mean one, a dumb one etc etc. Theres also a Dangerous one, who may have the measure of Dalton, we feel, who we know will enjoy a private showdown with Dalton at some later point, perhaps near the end of the film. What an actor with the career of Ben Gazzara is doing here is never clear, but to his credit, Gazzara seems to enjoy the experience, his eyes always lit by some private amusement.

Dalton wows everyone with his weird little twinkle-toed "I'm a dancer,you know" walk, his martial arts moves, his fuzzy Martin Riggs hair and his sad bullshit zen philosophy and meditation. There are a couple of decent bouts of fisticuffs between Dalton and the goons. Dalton always wins. Dalton meets and falls for (the absolutely, ridiculously gorgeous goddess without, in this movie at any rate, a visible flaw) local doctor Kelly Lynch, who Gazzara once had a thing for. Kelly and Dalton have raunchy, Whitesnake-video sex in his barn-loft house to Otis Redding music. Thats a bit of a high point, actually. Anyway, eventually everything gets worse and serious and Dalton calls in his good buddy, the grizzled old bouncer "Wade", played with grizzled old charisma by Sam Elliot, an American natural treasure if ever there was one. Wade has a pronounced limp from some old fight, but hes still mean as a snake and knows all the old tricks. He and Dalton call each other "amigo" to evoke some old Tijuana-latin soul sort of vibe and dispel any repressed homosexual undercurrents. We discover that Dalton has a dark secret, accounting for his strange vulnerability. He killed a man once when the man came at him with a gun while Dalton was having (undoubtedly raunchy, Whitesnake-video style) sex with the mans wife. Dalton killed him in self-defence and has been carrying the guilt around ever since. He expresses his guilt in sequences where he attacks punch-bags with some vigour and sits looking achingly over the lake beside his barn.

Eventually it all explodes and Gazzara's men kill Wade - which nobody saw coming - and blow up the house of the crazy, harmless old coot who lives near Dalton. Dalton and the mean, martial-arts practicing Dangerous goon who may just be a match for him (hes so mean he tells Dalton that he fucked guys like him in prison, which in the Reaganite world of the 80s action film, translates as: not only is he mean, hes gay! He must die!) have a pretty cool knock-down dragout one-on-one by the lake. Its all very violent and people kick each other in the face a lot. Finally Dalton snaps and rips the goon's throat out with his fingers (a skill we should have been taught in school rather than learning about the likes of algebra - which will prove more useful in life, I ask you?) when the goon rather rashly tells him that he was in fact the one who killed Wade. Kelly Lynch rushes onto the scene with impeccable timing to find Dalton standing there looking tortured with the goon's adams apple in his hand and she runs away, understandably upset by this. He drags the corpse into the lake shouting at Ben Gazzara's Big House (which is handily located on the other side of the lake) in his existential despair.

The next day he goes over and kills the lot of them. Cars explode and all. There are plenty of examples of the most important staple of 80s action films: the huge orange fireball. Its the business. He probably goes off with Kelly Lynch at the end, the dog. But I can't remember. The next year he starred in "Ghost" and his reputation as the guy in quintessentially chicky-flicks was sealed. Even the mighty "Point Break" couldn't change his rep. And his career began to slide, with the occasional appearance in a quality film - "Donnie Darko", most notably - surrounded by lots of dross. He would be happy to be in anything as good as "Road House" these days, when he seems mostly regarded as a nostalgia-case, an almost kitsch reminder of "Dirty Dancing". Rowdy Herrington, meanwhile, somehow scrambled out of the action film ghetto. His last film was "Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius" a biopic of the golf legend with Jim Caviezel. Surely that can't have many orange fireballs, can it? Surely the stuntman in Rowdy secretly misses them. "Road House" itself has become a franchise, almost 20 years after the fact. A sequel, the straight to DVD "Road House 2: Last Call" came out last year, starring Jonathan Schaech and with Will Patton in the "what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here?" Gazarra part. Reportedly, its not a patch on the original. How could it be, in the absence of Swayze?


Friday, April 20, 2007


(Or: the Rise and Fall of Phil Joanou)

"Guys like that, when they wake up, they don't go back to sleep so easy. Not without help."

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Phil Joanou was one of Hollywood's hottest young directors. Get this for a fairytale career trajectory: Joanou and his friends made movies together on Super-8 growing up. It was just fun for most of them, but they were Californians and working in the industry was not quite the stretch it might be to some who lived further from Hollywood. Joanou, who was a massive Spielberg fan and whose direction had become increasingly stylish and technical even in those teenaged home movies, went on to attend South California's famous Film School. His student film, "The Last Chance Dance", won the Best Student Film award in 1984, and when Spielberg himself saw it, he promptly offered the then-25 year old graduate the opportunity to direct some episodes for his "Amazing Stories" TV show. Not many young directors get Steven Spielberg as a mentor in Hollywood. Those that do - like Robert Zemeckis and Joe Dante - generally get to do what they want for a few films before commercial imperatives catch up with them. Joanou would sidestep these considerations through odd career choices, but back in the early 80s, he was in the perfect position to mount what promised to be a spectacular directorial career.

Spielberg produced Joanou's first feature film, "Three O'Clock High". Its something of a minor cult classic, and one of that decades under-appreciated teen comedies. The story of Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemazsko) , a short, unathletic nerd, and his impending showdown with terrifying, hulking school bully Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson), which has been set for 3.00 in the parking lot, its an almost perfect study in black character comedy and steadily rising tension. Joanou's direction is flashy but never at the expense of the story or the characters, and the film is dark in the manner of the John Hughes films of the era - unafraid to acknowledge the fear and desperation of Jerry's situation or to mock the genre itself, it ends with a final Western-style confrontation, which is a hugely satisfying set-piece. Watching it now it has aged extremely well, in a way even the best of Hughes' work from the era struggles to match. The fantastic electronic score by Tangerine Dream and the continual cutting back to the steadily ticking hands of the clock, counting down the minutes until Jerry's reckoning with Buddy, genuinely make the film a tense experience despite the many laughs it offers. Its references to "High Noon" are quite witty, and it recalls that film in the adept way the narrative closes off each of Jerry's avenues of escape in turn. Even though it was not a great success, Joanou already seemed like a stylishly safe pair of hands with such an impressive, distinctive debut on his resume.

His technical accomplishment meant that he had attracted attention in the music video and advertising industries, and he was hired by U2, at that point the biggest band in the World, to direct their tour documentary, "Rattle & Hum". Its a pretty typical example of the genre, though a tolerance for U2 at their most pompous and pretentious is a necessity. Joanou shot most of it himself, in stark black and white which fit with the bands image at the time of the Joshua Tree, when they were seriously investing in that widescreen Americana look. His youth is evident in the way the band have obviously controlled the production, and as a result it has the sense of a big budget home movie, Bono and his buddies exploring American music with a young and enthusiastic cameraman along for the ride. His next film has proven to be his best, and it seemed to betray the influence of his involvement with U2, in that it was again a story of the Irish in America.

"State of Grace" came out in 1990, something of a banner year for mob stories in Cinema. "Goodfellas", "The Godfather Part III", Abel Ferrara's "King of New York" and another Irish-Mob movie, "Millers Crossing" were all released in 1990, and in the midst of those heavyweights, "State of Grace" got a little lost. But its a great little movie, surprisingly intense, dark and serious, and featuring three terrific performances from its leading men. it tells the story of Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) and his return to Hells Kitchen, the Irish neighbourhood of New York where he grew up running with teen hoods Jackie and Frankie Flannery (Gary Oldman and Ed Harris). Only now Noonan is an undercover cop, charged with bringing down the burgeoning empire built by Frankie, and Jackie is the neighbourhood psycho. Noonan soon rekindles his relationship with their sister, Kathleen (Robin Wright-Penn) and his loyalties are inevitably torn between duty and friendship. While that sounds like your stock undercover cop movie, its the gravity and intensity of the storytelling that makes "State of Grace" so memorable. Joanou has never put his visual sense to better use than he does here, with his camera conjuring up a vivid sense of Hells Kitchen in all its seedy glory, the gentrifying elements just beginning to crawl in alongside the taverns and the old tenements. The screenplay, by playwright Denis McIntyre, is resolutely serious and dour - it recalls the work of writer-director James Gray in its unremitting focus on the moral dilemma facing Noonan - and the story drifts inexorably towards a tragedy suggested from the first moments by Ennio Morricone's mournful, beautiful score. While Penn does his young-DeNiro thing and Ed Harris is as magnetic as ever, Oldman delivers what is possibly his best ever performance. If, in recent years, he has played one caricature too many, one shallow villain too many, revealed that manic grin one time too many, here he played a character who demanded such a performance. Jackie Flannery is a force of nature, prone to eruptions of ultra-violence, but loyal and sentimental and charming at the same time. Oldman makes him terrifying and hilarious and real, and he owes every psycho part he has gotten since to this performance. Joanou really gets to flex his directorial muscles in the films climax, an amazing slow motion gunfight in a bar while the St Patricks Day Parade passes by outside. Its a really self-conscious set-piece, the director calling attention to himself in the most obvious fashion possible, but it works brilliantly, somehow retaining the mood and style of the film while simultaneously exploding it.

But Joanou seemed fated never to have a hit. "State of Grace" was lost in that shuffle of mob movies, and he demonstrated his versatility, directing the first in an ongoing series of "7-Up" in emulation of Michael Apted's acclaimed UK series, for American television. He would return for the second chapter, "14-Up" in 1998. Before that, and maintaining the career heat he had gained from the critical reception afforded to his work so far, he made his most obviously commercial film: "Final Analysis". A derivative piece of Hitchcock pastiche starring Richard Gere, Kim Basinger and a young Uma Thurman in a tale of psychology, phallically symbolic lighthouses and mysterious blondes, "Final Analysis" is an erotic thriller with a generic title, and exactly the kind of film targeted for parody by noir-spoof "Fatal Instinct" a year later. Its allure to the Film Student in Joanou is obvious - full of Hitchcockian scenes and characters, it is a great vehicle for a director to display lots of ostentatious style. In doing so, Joanou comes across as nothing so much as a B-list Brian DePalma, yet this storyline is even more ridiculous than anything DePalma ever attempted. He moved on from the films commercial failure to direct an episode of the noir series "Fallen Angels" which starred Oldman, then directed the final episode of Bruce Wagner's LA apocalypse noir miniseries, "Wild Palms". He was dangerously close to becoming a hack, a stylist-for-hire, and he needed a hit badly to deliver on the promise of that early golden boy potential.

"Heaven's Prisoners" was not to be it. An adaptation of one of James Lee Burke's series of crime novels which follow ex-New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux (here played by a sweaty, convincingly alcoholic Alec Baldwin) in his post-police life of occasional P.I. work in the Louisiana Bayou, the film was written by Scott Frank (screenwriter of Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Minority Report). Frank is obviously quite adept at adapting difficult-to-film writers, writes good dialogue, wrote Joanou's episode of "Fallen Angels", and is also his brother-in-law. Burke's novels are strong on the atmosphere of New Orleans and the bayou, he creates great villains in the Elmore Leonard mould, and Robicheaux's constant struggle with his own demons - usually exorcised through bouts of ultra-violence - is always well-portrayed. Joanou's film gets all of this right, features a line-up of beautiful women as the various ladies in the heroes life (Kelly Lynch, Teri Hatcher, Mary Stuart Masterson), boasts a great soundtrack full of blues songs, some fine action scenes, and yet it doesn't work. It feels instead like one of those slightly camp 1960s noirs - it almost approaches the flip cool of Paul Newman's films as Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer ("Harper " and "the Drowning Pool"), where a subtle deconstruction of the genre is in operation. Such an approach doesn't work in Burke's universe of tortured heroics, and the tensions - between Baldwin's fevered intensity and Eric Roberts' over the top villainy, between Joanou's languid imagery of New Orleans and the narratives blunt pulpiness - make the film strangely flat and unsatisfying.

Again, Joanou took refuge in television, directing an extended episode of "3rd Rock From the Sun" and "14-Up" before coming to something of a career crossroads. Which is where the origin of the title of this post comes in. After receiving the same advice from two of his early mentors, Spielberg and Bono, to make something personal, Joanou wrote an autobiographical screenplay about a young director having something of an early midlife crisis, financed it independently, and directed it. The result,"Entropy" is his strangest film. Following Jake (Steven Dorff) through the troubled production of a major studio motion picture (an erotic thriller) and his life-changing love affair with a French model, Stella (Judith Godreche) onto a rebound marriage to a scottish pop singer, Pia (Kelly MacDonald), it can't really seem to decide what exactly it is. Its a film about filmaking, a love story, a comedy, a drama, slightly surreal, slightly realist. What it is, is extremely autobiographical. Joanou fell in love with a model, met a music executive backstage at a U2 concert and married her on the rebound, and experienced difficulties with his producers during production on "Final Analysis". He had, without his prior knowledge, the tapes of his Vegas Wedding played by U2 as their backdrop at a stadium concert. His brother-in-law is a successful screenwriter and he does have an editing suite in his basement. What "Entropy" also is, is a mess. Joanou still has his visual style - though even there he is severely hampered by his low budget - and resorts to many trick shots and gimmicks throughout the film, with frequent jump-cutting, split screen, blurred slo-mo, and sped-up shots. Dorff talks straight to the camera and even enters scenes when they freeze-frame to continue his narration. Jakes's cat speaks to him at one point, puffing on a cigarette as it does so, and U2 appear as themselves, Bono embarassingly recurring as a sort of Bogie-in-"Play It Again Sam" advising angel figure. What is made quickly evident is that Joanou is not a writer. "Entropy" doesn't flow the way it should, and his dialogue is at best functional, at worst wooden. Dorff's narration is too mannered and arch, too deliberate for the loose feel the films nouvelle vague-aping style establishes, and the two elements work against one another. It all feels self-indulgent and vaguely masturbatory, a sense given weight by the summing up, wherein Jake admits to having made a movie about Stella as a tribute, an exorcism and an attempt to relive it all, presumably echoing Joanou's feelings about his model.

Godreche, a fine - in every sense - French actress, invests the Stella passages with life and real emotion, and almost makes them work. Her grief at the conclusion is moving, and the unraveling of the films central relationship is convincing and painful. Dorff has less success with Jake, which made me wonder how difficult it must be to play the character of the man sitting behind the camera trained upon you in a movie. Joanou does not portray himself entirely flatteringly, and he comes across as at times arrogant and stupid and selfish. However, for all its many flaws, "Entropy" is an interesting failure, and not many directors with the previously commercial career enjoyed by Joanou would have dared to make it. It toured film festivals in America, but was not picked up by a distributor, and has yet to be released on dvd in that country. Joanou abandoned cinema after "Entropy", working in advertising and music videos for six years before returning to Hollywood in 2006 with the formulaic-seeming Rock vehicle "Gridiron Gang". That was a moderate hit, and Joanou seems to be back in the game, albeit without any of the expectation or heat he once enjoyed. What he really needs now, it seems, is a call from his old mentor Spielberg, with an offer to direct a big classy studio film again. Just so he can mess it up, or have it be ignored.

Because you can just feel it with Joanou - he'll never be the Big Director he once seemed certain to be. Hes made too many average movies, gotten too many black marks beside his name. His brand of visual style has been surpassed by at least one subsequent generation of young Turks. Instead, hes a hack with a few interesting films in his back catalogue and I'm sure a collection of fine anecdotes for his grandchildren. There are worse things to be. And his career could still have a few surprises left in store, if "Entropy" is any kind of guide. But hes an intriguing case study in how a promising directorial career can veer slowly off-course, one movie at a time, until its too late for anything to be done.


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Fist of Khonshu

I've always had a weird affection for second-rate Superheroes. Even third-rate, in many cases.
Well ok, not always: When I was a kid, Spiderman was easily my favourite character. I had Spiderman pyjamas, a pair of Spiderman slippers, several different Spiderman action figures (which were all crap, by the way, todays kids don't know how good they've got it), loads of Spiderman comics and annuals and loved Spiderman tv shows, both the animated ones and the lame live action one from the early 80s. One of my strongest childhood memories of cinema-going is to a film made up of two episodes of that Spiderman show, either "Spiderman : The Movie" or "Spiderman & the Dragons Challenge" - I saw both films at Dublin cinemas that no longer exist, and my Dad tells me that I was so excited he thought I might have a heart attack. I was serious about Spiderman as a seven year old.

Obviously I got a lot more into Batman, Daredevil, the Punisher and Wolverine as puberty grabbed hold. But I still loved Spidey best. Even today, the Spiderman films, which do about as good a job of honouring the original Lee/Ditko stories as I can imagine anything doing, they bring about a purely emotional reaction in me no other films ever do. They speak to the seven year old in me like nothing else. I have friends who feel the same about Star Wars and James Bond, but for me its Spiderman and nothing else really comes close. The first time I saw the trailer for Spiderman - the trailer! - I felt myself tearing up. To the trailer for a Superhero film. I watch those films and I know how much I would have loved them as a little kid, and even if they didn't work on all the other levels on which they operate, that would almost be enough for me.

Strange as it may seem, Spiderman's major rivals for my affections even then, as a kid, were small-timers in the Marvel Universe. Generally they were characters I knew relatively little about. I had seen them as guest-stars or seen adverts for their comics in other Marvel comics. One annual I had classified characters according to physical strength and posed them in casual line-ups, standing in little clusters. So the Hulk, Thing, Thor and Hercules were in the top group, as the mightiest. Wonder Man, Namor and Colossus may have been in the second. Spiderman may have been in the third rank, meaning he could pick up a car but not a building. But the characters I was most intrigued by were mainly in the next class - the humans who were lined up alongside Daredevil. They were mostly mysterious figures in masks and hoods, which only made them more appealing. The Black Panther, who at that time had no series of his own but appeared occasionally in the Avengers or Fantastic Four, for instance. He had a cool name, a great costume, a fantastic origin, and I loved him straightaway. Iron Fist. Did Martial arts, which was enough for me back then. Same went for Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu. White Tiger, basically a Latino Black Panther who wore a sort of necklace of power - he seemed cool. Brother Voodoo. Captain Britain, before his costume and powers changed completely. But the one who intrigued me most of all, the one who looked the most impressive and whose adventures I wanted to read right then, thank you very much, was somebody I knew absolutely nothing about : Moon Knight.

But those were the days before there were specialist comic shops. Well, there was one in Dublin, but it was a little cult place and I wouldn't discover it for almost another 8 years. Back then I had to rely on a series of newsagents for my american comics, and they seemed to sell mainly Spiderman, the Hulk, the Avengers, Fantastic Four etc. Occasionally I'd stumble across an issue of ROM or Ghost Rider or New Mutants, but never any DC stuff, and never any Moon Knight. The first Moon Knight comic I was actually able to buy was a back issue - his title having been cancelled - in the brand new branch of Forbidden Planet which opened in Dublin around 1990. It was a mediocre issue, but I was intrigued enough to want more. Soon after, the speculator boom in the comics market meant that a few smaller shops opened in Dublin selling back-issues and lots of cheap second-hand stuff. My friends and I used to spend most of our money on saturday afternoons rifling through long-boxes looking for Deathlok or Silver Surfer issues we needed. We didn't know many girls at the time, of course.
I got a lot of Moon Knight that way. The early issues, the issues written by Doug Moench, who created the character, and with art by Bill Sienkiewicz, who visually defined him, were obviously the best. I bought the issues of that original series in a haphazard fashion, one from early in the run, one from late, one from after Sienkiewicz had departed, etc. Sienkiewicz' art developed and evolved as the series went on - he was still very much a Neal Adams clone for the first dozen issues or so, and then his own style began to emerge, with a much heavier, messier ink line and far more abstract, experimental compositions. Everything seemed to get bolder as he became more confident, and he played around with the storytelling. His covers late in that run are unbelievable (and are down at the bottom of this entry), but the interiors contain some of my favourite comic art ever.

An explanation for the smoothness of the evolution in his work - and also for Moon Knight's unique feel, especially late in that run - was that Marvel had made it one of their first direct-only comics. Meaning that they no longer made it available through news-stands and supermarkets, which had been the driving force for comics retail for 40 years, and instead only sold it through specialist stores. Comic shops, which had really only arrived in numbers enough to sustain an industry by the 1980s, were beginning to effect the nature of that industry. Moon Knight benefitted from this specific market, with Marvel allowing its creative team to tackle subject matter denied to Spiderman or even the gritty Daredevil. Sienkiewicz responded well to this freedom, and after the breakthrough represented by issue 26, where a story called "Hit It" dealt with the legacy of child abuse, his work began to grow and change at such a rate that the title could not contain him for long.

The basic appeal of the character is that he's Batman in the Marvel Universe. He's a millionaire, he has no superpowers, he wears a cowl and throws little sharp shuriken-like weapons and swings through the city on ropes and flies about in a hi-tech aircraft. So far, so Batman. But hes not quite as formidable as Batman. He takes more than his fair share of beatings. His rogues gallery is frankly quite shoddy. His reasons for fighting crime are totally different - while Batman seeks vengeance on all criminals for his parents murder, Marc Spector feels guilty for the crimes he committed in his years as a mercenary and seeks his own redemption. His origin actually bears more of a resemblance to that of the Shadow, since Spector wandered dying into a temple in Egypt and fell at the base of a statue to the Lunar God, Khonshu. Miraculously healed, he vowed to honour Khonshu for saving him by fighting crime. He has been left more than a little disturbed by all that has happened in his life - he is a functional schizophrenic. He has four distinct personalities - Steven Grant, playboy millionaire, is his public face, living with blonde bombshell Marlene outside New York. Marc Spector is the ruthless mercenary he is seeking atonement for. Jake Lockley is a jocular cabdriver he becomes when he needs some information on the underworld. And then there is Moon Knight himself.
He also has a strange little coterie of supporting characters. Aside from Marlene, who exists mostly to be rescued, there is Frenchie, his Alfred-figure, another ex-Mercenary, pilot of his helicopter (shaped like a crescent moon, of course) and a Frenchman, complete with little pencil mustache and zee regulation sillee accent. There is also Crawley, a long-haired alcoholic bum and major source of street gossip for Lockley, who is generally drawn with flies buzzing around his head.
His rogues gallery is feeble, with his arch-enemy the rubbish Bushman, an african mercenary-tyrant with a skull painted upon his face.

He also has that costume, which has always seemed to me to be ineffably cool. A great, simple piece of superhero costume design, it deserves to be worn by a hero of greater stature. And the vulnerability of the character is appealing - his humanity and goofiness, the fact that Moon Knight stories never used to feel like Batman or Daredevil stories. They were unique.
This all changed after that original Moon Knight title was cancelled and the character was homeless for a while, wandering through guest roles in various series before he showed up, significantly altered, in a new series, entitled Moon Knight: Fist of Khonshu, in 1985. He wore golden power bracelets and an amulet, all taken from Khonshu, which gave him increased strength and speed. His costume was slightly altered, too, with the Crescent insignia on his chest replaced by an ankh. This title was deservedly short-lived and he turned up again in West Coast Avengers, having apparently moved to Los Angeles. He was given little attention there, confirming his second (or even third) rate status. When he was finally granted a new series, in the early 90s, it was called Marc Spector: Moon Knight, and it represented a shift back to the characters basics.
It showcased the old costume, the old supporting cast, was set back in New York, but was also determinedly mediocre. Written by Chuck Dixon and pencilled by Sal Velluto, it read much like a series of average Batman stories, missing everything distinctive that Moench had brought to the character. This creative team survived on the title for two years, before being replaced by the slightly edgier J.M.DeMatteis and Ron Garney with issue 26. DeMatteis immediately began a story explicitly designed to recapture the tone and appeal of those Moench-Sienkiewicz issues, spread over 6 issues, focusing on Stained Glass Scarlet, one of their "classic" villains, and featuring Sienkiewicz cover art. But the story felt a little forced, the plotting dragged out and not all that interesting, and Garney was at that point still searching uncomfortably for his own style, meaning that his art was average.

It would remain that way after the departure of DeMatteis and his replacement by Terry Kavanagh, whereupon the title and character utterly lost their way, weighed down by a series of crossovers, guest stars and uninspired storylines. This coincided with the period when Marvel felt the need to give all of their characters armour, and Moon Knight (like Daredevil) was not exempt, donning armoured shoulder pads, boots and gauntlets from issue 37. This would later be explained away by the fact that Moon Knight had contracted a demonic infection from the DemoGoblin during an earlier storyline and needed the armour to stop his body from falling apart. Oh yes. What gave the title a slight boost - commercially, at least - was the arrival of artist Stephen Platt with issue 55. Platt, though a terrible artist without any idea of the basics of proportion, perspective or
sequential storytelling, quickly became a fan favourite (this was the Image era, after all) and once he was working on Prophet for his mentor, the even more talentless Rob Liefeld, his early issues of Moon Knight began to sell for silly amounts. The series had ended at issue 60 with Moon Knight's self-sacrifice in a battle with Seth, yet another mediocre villain, and the character, after being resurrected by Moench in a mini-series, began a decade of homelessness, appearing in another Moench-penned miniseries and guest-starring in various titles.

He would not really be revived until 2006, when novelist Charlie Huston and artist David Finch launched a new Moon Knight series. It seems to have been a commercial success - Finch is a popular artist, for some reason - but it is a terrible comic. Huston's storytelling has obviously been planned with a collection in mind - indeed, the first volume, collecting the first storyline, is already available - and so everything is extended and dragged out, indulging Finch's weakness for big splashes and shoddy storytelling. The series has updated Moon Knight and explained his absence from the Marvel Universe, but it is self-consciously gritty, mistaking ultra-violence and miserablism for the adult sensibility it seems to aim for. Moon Knight kills Bushman by cutting off his face with a crescent dart. He is then haunted by the ghost of faceless Bushman - though he interprets it as Khonshu speaking to him - in a leaden attempt to take an interesting look at Moon Knight's eternally fagile mental state. Is it even good to have Moon Knight back, if hes back in such an awful book?

One benefit of his return was the publication of a collected volume of his earliest appearances, including the Moench-Sienkiewicz work on Moon Knight 1-10, in the Essential Moon Knight. Even in Black and white (perhaps especially in black and white) the work of young Sienkiewicz looks great and develops with shocking speed from clumsy Neal Adams knock-off to expert Neal Adams knock-off, with hints of the genius to come in the messiness of his line and the almost expressionist looseness of his inkwork in the last few stories. But generally speaking, genius has been in short supply in Moon Knight over the years. Perhaps second-rate characters get the treatment they deserve. Which is why covers like these are meant to be cherished :


Monday, April 02, 2007

On Football - No. 8: Paul McGrath

On 11 June, in the first game of the Italy 1990 World Cup Finals for either country, England played the Republic of Ireland in Cagliari. The game was terrible, like an English Second division match. The players all knew one another too well, their systems and styles cancelled each other out, and both teams were petrified of losing in what looked like being a very tight group. England took the lead with a Gary Lineker goal - the usual tap-in - before Kevin Sheedy equalised with a drive from the edge of the box. Both teams looked like they were content with a draw. The Italian press hated the match and described it as the worst they had seen so far at the finals, with the standard of football shamefully unimaginitive and primitive (Ireland would go on to play a worse game against Egypt a few days later). Both teams would qualify for the last 16, but neither played well in that group stage. Indeed, only two players really stood out at all from either team :Paul Gascoine for England and Paul McGrath for Ireland.

Paul McGrath is a legend in Ireland. As Footballers go, only Roy Keane really compares in terms of public affection. The Irish crowd chant of "Ooh-Ah Paul McGrath" (which Man Utd fans converted to Ooh-Ah Cantona) was best used when Nelson Mandela visited Dublin in the 1990s, only to be greeted with chants of "Ooh-Ah Paul McGrath's Da". The Irish chat show "The Late Late Show", the worlds longest running chat show, devoted one of its weekly programmes entirely to a review of McGrath's career, with appearances by most of the major figures in Irish football history. He has featured on an Irish stamp. I feel like even all these facts don't adequately convey just how worshipped he is. Given the meagre accomplishments in his club career, especially in comparison to other Ireland legends like Keane, Liam Brady, Johnny Giles or even Damien Duff, this may seem strange. But McGrath is probably the greatest defender ever to wear an Ireland shirt, and one of the handful of best players the country has ever had. The Irish football public knew class when it saw it, especially in the 1990s, when much of our football was effective but not especially classy. The way Paul McGrath played football was always classy.

Especially considering the way he lived his life. A functioning alcoholic for much of his career, in his autobiography he describes suicide attempts, black-outs, going AWOL while on Pre-season tours and playing many games drunk. He went missing a couple of times when he should have been playing for Ireland in impotant qualifiers, turning up in small hotels then fleeing from the media. All this only made him more popular in Ireland, where people love a flawed hero. McGrath is obviously a troubled man, and his vulnerability makes it easier to like him. Not only his evident self-destructive streak, but his chronic shyness and the way that he played the last decade of his career plagued with a succession of serious knee injuries only made him seem more heroic. As does his background - the child of an Irishwoman and Nigerian, he was given up for adoption as an infant and spent much of his childhood in a series of Dublin orphanages. Ireland was not remotely multi-cultural until this century, and it must have been difficult to grow up in the 1960s and 70s, mixed-race in working class Dublin. Football would have been a good escape, especially to somebody so naturally athletic and gifted. His first professional club were St Patricks Athletic, where he drew the attention of several English clubs and earned the nickname "The Black Pearl of Inchicore". Manchester United signed him in 1982, and he joined a side with a few Irish players already established, notably Frank Stapleton and Kevin Moran. This eased the shy McGrath's social acceptance, and he gradually eased himself into the first team of a talented United squad.

But it was a United squad destined never to win the biggest prizes. Many blame that fact on the incredible drinking culture at the club at the time. The team was the best in England on its day - routinely beating the dominant Liverpool team of the era - but inconsistent and often appallingly sloppy. Players like McGrath, Moran, Norman Whiteside, Brian Robson and Gordon McQueen would go on marathon midweek benders involving lock-ins and endless pub-crawling. Manager Ron Atkinson turned a blind eye, in the main. And there was some success - that United side won the FA Cup in 1983 and 1985. The Cup Final in 1985 was possibly McGrath's finest hour in a United shirt. Playing an Everton team that was probably the best in Europe at the time, winners of the League and the Cup Winners Cup, United went down to 10 men when McGrath's partner in central defence, Moran, was sent off for a lunging tackle on Peter Reid in the second half. McGrath later said that he partly blamed himself for that, since it was his poor pass that had presented Reid with the ball. He more than redeemed himself in the game, utterly dominating Everton's forward pairing of Andy Gray and Graham Sharp for the rest of the match. McGrath's principal gift was his great ability to read a game. On his good days he seemed to glide around the pitch, never rushed or stressed, always ahead of his opponents, nipping in to steal the ball off a toe, timing his leaps perfectly, always playing simple balls out of defence. He was strong and fast and agile, too, meaning that he could dominate any kind of centre-forward, from a nippy ball technician to a monstrous bruiser. That day he dominated two of them, always first to the ball, never caught out, ever alert and sharp.

Alex Ferguson was less forgiving of that United teams drinking culture, and he quickly broke it up, getting rid of Whiteside and selling McGrath to Aston Villa in 1989. He later said that McGrath was perhaps the most naturally gifted player he had ever managed, which is obviously the highest of praise. After a shaky start, Mcgrath went on to become Villa's bedrock player under first manager Graham Taylor, then Josef Venglos, until he was finally reunited with Atkinson. That Villa team came close to winning the League on a couple of occasions, finishing second behind United in 1993. McGrath was the Fan-favourite, nicknamed "God", and impressed his fellow professionals so much that he was voted Players Player of the Year in the same year. He would go on playing club football at the likes of Derby and Sheffield United until he was 37 years old and had undergone eight separate knee operations. From his first year at Villa he didn't train with the rest of the team because his fragile knees couldn't take the strain. Instead, he did an hour a week on an exercise bike. And yet his performance levels never really seemed to suffer. He got better with age and experience as his understanding of the game developed.

Part of his high standing in Ireland comes from having been a major player during the years of the National Teams greatest success. He played in the 1988 European Championships and the 1990 and 1994 World Cup finals. He excelled in each tournament, in fact. Coach Jack Charlton took his lead from previous manager Eoin Hand by playing McGrath in midfield at first. Ireland had a surfeit of quality centre backs during that era with Moran, David O'Leary, Mark Lawrenson and Mick McCarthy all in contention alongside McGrath. But McGrath had a combination of physical presence and ease upon the ball none of them could really match and so he found himself deployed as a holding player. He excelled there, too, neutralising the threat offered by Ruud Guillit in 1988. By 1994 he had established a new partnership at centre back with Phil Babb, while Roy Keane and Andy Townsend bossed midfield. In the first game of that tournament, Ireland faced Italy in Giants Stadium in New York. Italy, with players like Roberto Baggio, Beppe Signori, Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi in their squad, were one of the tournament favourites. The game at Giants Stadium was expected to be like a home match for the Italians, with the great Italian community of New Jersey coming out to support them. Instead the stadium was filled with Irish supporters and Ireland fought out a 1-0 victory.

McGrath, whose left arm was paralysed by a virus throughout the match, was as poised and indominatable as ever. In his book he describes the way a match builds up a rhythm of its own, the way a forward and defender can both feel it. In that match, he says, Baggio, probably the best player in the world at the time, knew McGrath had the better of him, and he kept his distance. In that tournament, Ireland peaked in that, their very first match. All that remained were mediocre performances in the sweltering heat of midday games in Orlando in high summer and a desultory exit to Holland. McGrath was ushered out of the squad by new manager Mick McCarthy a few years later, nearing his late 30s, his knees in worse condition than ever. By then Ireland had a new talisman in Roy Keane, the heir to McGrath's crown as the teams only indisputably World-Class player. Keane gave Irish fans that feeling of safety that McGrath had done. With one of them in the team, there was always a strange feeling of security,as if they wouldn't alow us to lose, as if we knew that they would improve the standards of their frequently average colleagues. Generally they did. And never moreso than McGrath against Italy that day in New York.

Its just a pity that his catalogue of injuries and alcoholism conspired to deny him a fitting historical status outside Ireland. In 1987 he played at Wembley in a Centenary Game for a Football League XI against a Rest of the World XI that was like something from Pro-Evo* and looked totally at home. He was reckoned by many to be man of the match and comfortably subdued that terrifying attacking line-up.

There aren't any videos of him playing on the internet - I suppose great tackles, defensive headers and interceptions aren't as popular as goals and stepovers - but this is an excerpt from an Irish documentary about the 1994 World cup that gives you an idea :

* Football League XI : 1-Peter Shilton, 2-Richard Gough,3-Kenny Sansom, 4-John McClelland, 5-Paul McGrath, 6-Liam Brady, 7-Bryan Robson, 8-Neil Webb, 9-Clive Allen, 10-Peter Beardsley, 11-Chris Waddle.
Subs: Steve Ogrizovic, Steve Clarke, Pat Nevin, Osvaldo Ardiles, Norman Whiteside, Alan Smith, Selector: Bobby Robson,

Rest of World XI : 1-Rinat Dasaev, U.S.S.R.; 2-Josimar, Brazil; 3-Celso, Portugal; 4-Julio Alberto, Spain; 5-Glenn Hysen, Sweden; 6-Salvatori Bagni, Italy; 7-Thomas Berthold, West Germany; 8-Gary Lineker, England; 9-Michel Platini, France; 10-Maradona, Argentina; 11-Paulo Futre, Portugal.
Subs: 18-Andoni Zubizarreta, Spain, 12-Lajos Detari, Hungary, 17-Dragan Stojkovic, Yugoslavia, 13-Igor Belanov, U.S.S.R., 15-Preben Elkjær Larsen, Denmark, 14-Lars Larsson, Sweden, 16-Alexandre Zavarov, U.S.S.R. Selector: Terry Venables, England.

The Football League XI won 3-0 with two goals by Robson and one by Whiteside.