Tuesday, January 29, 2008

No Logo

I love this advert, a nice little piece of urban visual poetry. The irony of making an advert which celebrates a lack of adverts by cutting together images of a city without adverts doesn't really deserve a mention, so I'll say no more about it.
The City is the Brazilian Megapolis of Sao Paolo (population: 11 Million). Last June the Mayor of Sao Paolo introduced new legislation which tightened up the laws on just what advertisements and billboards could go just where in the City. Then he implemented the laws and lots of the billboards came down, leaving skeletal frames and empty white canvases all over the city. Which the advert cuts together, quite beautifully, in my opinion. Here is a flicker page detailing the city in its de-billboarded state.

Making it work even better is the song choice, "Pure Imagination" written by Anthony Newley for "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and sung by Gene Wilder. Newley is a strange phantom presence in poular culture - he played the Artful Dodger in the David Lean version of "Oliver Twist", was married to Joan Collins, had a few top 10 hits as a singer, was more or less the prototype for the vocal style favoured by David Bowie and was responsible for writing a couple of the great songs of the last few decades of the 20th Century including "Feeling Good" and "Aint it Funny". This is a lovely song, especially when divorced from the context of the film, and it goes unexpectedly well with the visual imagery:


Friday, January 25, 2008

Shuffle : Can't You Hear Me Knocking?

I love guitars. The way they sound. Especially electric guitars.

The first music I felt a real sense of ownership with, the first music that felt like mine and mine alone, was, sadly and without any cool or cachet whatsoever, not even in an ironic retro way, Hard Rock. Soft Metal. Hair Metal. The official name in the metal magazines back then was "Glam Rock", but thats just ridiculous. Glam Rock is what T-Rex and Bowie and the Sweet played in the 70s. I didn't like that, not yet anyway. I liked Whitesnake. Motley Crue. Poison. White Lion, Great White, Skid Row, Warrant, other bands whose names I don't even want to type. The first gig I ever went to was Bon Jovi. The Point Depot, Dublin, 1989, I think. I was 14. At the end, when they played "Wanted Dead or Alive", there were clips of Clint Eastwood in "High Plains Drifter" on the giant screen behind them. I thought that was pretty cool.

Of the bands I liked back then, there are a few I still listen to fairly regularly : Guns n Roses, Aerosmith, Van Halen. They all transcend their own genre, I think. And the first two have a lot more in common with the Rolling Stones than they do with Winger or Love/Hate. Anyway, I think this is why I like guitars. I'm pre-set, to an extent, to prefer music that uses guitars, drums and bass. Even if its in a middle-of-the-road, no feedback, absence-of-galloping-riffs kind of way. Back then I developed a taste for the way electric guitars sound, and I've yet to lose it. It led me away from that music but through the likes of Cream and the Kinks and all the music of the 60s and 70s, and on to every other type of music I like today. It led me to the Rolling Stones.

"Can't You Hear Me Knocking", from the Stones' 1971 album "Sticky Fingers" is a classic guitar song. It starts off with an amazing intro. Just the riff, played by Keith Richards in as dirty a style as possible, with the kind of feel only he could reasonably impart. You hear it and you can imagine him doing one of those stupid bent-leg-and-elbow poses he does when hes playing. And its a great riff, funky and bluesy at once, yet given a sort of fuzzy slinkiness by Keef's playing. It also contains a brief silence between the first and second movement, a real glory for any riff. Then the rhythm section kicks in, Jagger goes "Yeah" off-mike, and its off in all its glory.

The first two minutes of the song are typical Stones from that (their greatest) era. Near-perfect blues rock by a stunningly tight band, strange, menacing Jagger lyrics ("Y'all got cocaine eyes/Yeah, you got speed freak jive now") spat out angrily, soulful backing vocals on the chorus. The best Stones songs feature great interplay between the lead and rhythm guitars and this is no different - Keef chopping away at that riff, Mick Taylor filling in his gaps with light, almost delicate little chords. A piano comes in at some point, what sounds like an electric organ too. You're waiting for it to rise to a crescendo, and it seems to be heading that way, when it all suddenly drops away around the 2:42 mark. The song virtually stops, leaving only percussion, then a sinuous guitar figure and the beginning of an extended, tension-filled saxophone solo. Again the song masses behind this and it seems to be rising to a spectacular ending of some sort. But it doesn't end. It drifts along for a few seconds, without any seeming direction, until Mick Taylor's crystalline lead guitar cuts in out of the left channel at 4:40. He seems to be tentatively playing with a melody until Jagger lets loose another "yeah", again off-mike, and then he lets himself go and starts constructing a beautifully tuneful, laid-back solo. The band follows his lead - its probably the closesnt the Stones ever got to Jazz - until he edges into a rising, repetitive melody, they all pick up on it and the song ends in a perfect cymbal-crash at 7:14.

I love that solo. The entire thing is just lovely, and contrasts with the great riff, an example of an utterly different kind of guitar-playing, showcased by Keef at the start of the song. Taylor, who had replaced Brian Jones as lead guitarist only a few months before, said : ""Can't You Hear Me Knocking" is one of my favorites. (The jam at the end) just happened by accident; that was never planned. Towards the end of the song I just felt like carrying on playing. Everybody was putting their instruments down, but the tape was still rolling and it sounded good, so everybody quickly picked up their instruments again and carried on playing. It just happened, and it was a one-take thing. A lot of people seem to really like that part."
Yeah Mick, I really like that part.

Its also immensely cinematic, which explains why it was used twice in films in the last decade. Brilliantly by Martin Scorsese in "Casino", where he edits an extended sequence to the song, but less well by Ted Demme in "Blow". It may, in the face of some incredibly heavyweight competition ("Gimme Shelter", "Moonlight Mile","Let It Loose", "Stray Cat Blues" etc) be my very favourite Stones song, and its from my favourite Stones album. Yeah, I love "Exile On Main Street" too, and its probably overall a better album, taken as a whole. But "Sticky Fingers" has the better songs, I think. There are fewer of them, but its highlights are absolutely amazing. "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" is perhaps the highest of those lights....


Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Come at the king, you best not miss."

I"ve been watching, at long last, Season 4 of The Wire for the last week or so. One episode a night, in a state of sheer bliss. I know I'm a little late to the party, since Season 5 is a few episodes into its run on HBO in the US, but I'll have to wait for that on DVD too, which is fine. All good things....

Anyway, obviously its the greatest television show ever made. Everybody knows this by now, surely? I think its also the greatest work of art, in any medium, of the last decade. That I've encountered, at any rate. So, apart from watching Season 4, I've been reading Rafael Alvarez's "The Wire: Truth Be Told", a companion to the show, which contains some nice insights from David Simon and others involved in the production. And today I bought the long-awaited (by me, at any rate) Soundtrack cd, "The Wire: ...and all the pieces matter..." which contains a stonking 35 tracks of Wire-related stuff.

Some of those tracks are dialogue snippets - "Omar comin, man!" - but there are also tracks by the Pogues, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Lafayette Gilchrist and Bossman. Anybody who watches the Wire will know that there is no score. All the music in the show - and there is a lot of it in the background, on radios, jukeboxes, boomboxes, television sets - is organic, is heard by the characters in the scene. Except for the song which plays over the montage at the end of the final episode of each Season, all five of which are included. Also here is the closing theme, which I've been trying to download for an age, "The Fall" by Blake Leyh.
And four versions of the show's Opening theme, "Way Down In the Hole", written by Tom Waits.

A tiny glimpse of the genius of The Wire is evident in the treatment of this song, and how the different versions from each Season reflects the tone and content of that Season. Season One is The Blind Boys of Alabama's version, a gritty gospel, establishing the shows identity and hinting at the thematic centrality of race. Season Two switches to Waits' original version, much older-sounding, muddier, and more baroque, echoing the switch of focus to the white working class of Baltimore's harbour area. Season Three sees a greater emphasis on the politicians responsible for the policies causing so much damage to the characters from the first two seasons while also returning the focus to the drug war on the corners of the city, so The Neville Brothers version (commissioned specially for the show) is a slick New Orleans funk, which could possibly reflect either side of the flip-sided story. And Season Four's tracing of the lives of four young boys from the corners is perfectly reflected by Domaje's version, a modern R&B take, and easily the most contemporary-sounding version used (Domaje being a teen R&B collective). Season Five's version (which is mysteriously absent from the cd) is performed by Steve Earle, and is a spare acoustic-country take on the song with electric edges. Season Five focuses on the media, and even without seeing it, I can understand the fit.

Then there is the song itself, a twisted little faux-blues gospel. As discussed in one of the three essays included in a nice little booklet that comes with the cd, David Simon refused the opportunity to use Randy Newman's lovely "Baltimore" (and the many cover versions of it) as the opening theme, and instead went for Waits' far more difficult song. How right he was, because its a strangely perfect choice, its mysterious allusions to angels, mighty swords, and its instantly paranoid first line somehow evocative of the show's dangerous streetscapes: "When you walk in the garden/You gotta watch your back."

My favourite version? I really can't decide. No, really. Oh, ok. Season One, I think. It just sets the mood so brilliantly, yo.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

On Football - No. 13 : European 1990s XI

I buy a lot of football magazines. What I don't buy, I tend to leaf through in shops and read for free. I was reading one I'd never seen before - some sort of Premiership 1990s special that went through that decade, Season by Season - in a shop the other day, and it posited a Premiership XI from the 1990s. This, you'll agree, is an irresistable idea. Best enjoyed in the company of some opinionated Football fans of differing views, but enjoyable and provocative even in the dry pages of a glossy nostalgia football magazine. It is a great team, too, and I find it hard to disagree with a single player:

GK: Schmeichel

Defence: Dixon Adams McGrath Pearce

Midfield: LeTissier Keane Gascoine Giggs

Forwards: Cantona Shearer

Alright, I might include Denis Irwin instead of Lee Dixon, if pushed, and always believed Paul Gascoine was a supremely overrated player, but it is hard to think of a top quality alternative to play in the creative position in Central Midfield from the 1990s. Glenn Hoddle is more of a player of the 1980s, Scholes of the 2000s, and the only other players I can think of who could play there are Zola and Gary McAllister. So Gascoine can stay too. Otherwise, its hard to imagine many teams breaching that defence because with Keane patrolling in front of Adams and McGrath, theres not a weak link in sight. The midfield, Keane's destructive capabilities aside, is full of creativity and genius, with goals coming from all four players. And that forward line would terrify Claudio Gentile - each player a terrific mix of brawn and skill, Cantona dropping into the hole, Shearer playing on the shoulder.

But I think I can just possibly come up with a better 1990s XI. In the 1990s, of course, Serie A was pre-eminent. Juventus and Milan were Europe's dominant clubs and South Americans, Scandinavians, Germans and Dutch players all went to Italy to play their football. Spain's Primera Liga was beginning the rise that woud see it become perhaps the continent's dominant league - neck and neck with Premier League - in the new Century. And France, Holland and Portugal still produced their fair share of decent teams. So my 1990s XI will be drawn from across Europe, excluding the Premiership. Whereas the Premiership team is an obvious 4-4-2, my team would play 4-1-2-1-2, with a holding midfielder, two wingers and a playmaker at the apex of a midfield diamond. Gotta have a playmaker. I think its quite a handy little team:

GOALKEEPER : Jose Luis Chilavert

This was probably the hardest position to fill, apart from Number 10. Peter Schmeichel was so obviously the World's greatest Goalkeeper during the 1990s that he overshadows all of his rivals. Oliver Kahn came close, but he really only rose to proper International prominance near the end of the decade. Walter Zenga is almost exactly the opposite, his career defined by his exploits in the 1980s and slipping from the spotlight in the 90s. The likes of Edwin Van der Sar, Fabian Barthez and Marcel Preudhomme were never quite excellent enough for such a spot. But Jose Luis Chilavert was. The 6"4 Paraguayan played only briefly in Europe during the decade - for Zaragoza from 1988-1991 (he came back to Strasbourg in 2000-2002) - but that creates enough of a loophole for me to exploit adroitly. Chilavert had a massive personality and he was agile and dominant in the air, while also an excellent shot-stopper. What he would add to this team that none of his contempories could is Goalscoring ability. In all, he scored 37 goals over the course of his career, 8 of them for Paraguay, most from free kicks and penalties. He once scored a hat trick for Velez Sarsfield. Here's a video of his goalscoring exploits, including one from his own half against River Plate. Not a save in sight, though, but you'll just have to trust me, he was a good Keeper:


The fact that he's the most-capped Brazilian player of all time (with 156 caps) says it all about the man Roma fans christened "Il Pendolino" (The Express Train) because of the way he shuttled up and down the wing from his area to the oppositions all game. Stupendously fit and pacy, he also possessed a beautiful first touch and silky dribbling ability, which enabled him to drive his side on down the right, from where he supported attacks and sent in some lovely crosses. His stamina and timing in the tackle made him an excellent defender, combative in the challenge and stubborn as a marker. But that relentless drive forwards is what makes him (hes still playing at 38) a special player, and the original of a certain type more common in the game now than in the last decade. He has become an adjective. Attacking fullbacks - from Danniel Alves to Alan Hutton - are now routinely referred to as Cafu-esque, the ultimate compliment for that position. This video shows just about all of his talents:

LEFT BACK: Paolo Maldini

After the first leg of last year's Champions League Semi-Final at Old Trafford between Manchester United and AC Milan, Sir Alex Ferguson commented appreciatively on Paolo Maldini that he had played the entire match without making a single tackle. Fergie was applauding Maldini's peerless reading of the game, his ability to see danger before it developed and snuff it out at source. This is the kind of vision the great defenders tend to gain with experience, and it may compensate for the losses they suffer in pace and agility as their careers wear on. Maldini was born with such vision. Perhaps its because hes from a football family, with his father, Cesare, also a respected Italian player and Coach. Perhaps football really is in some players blood. The richness of Maldini's blood is such that he has become Italys most-capped player, has played in Eight Champions League Finals, and was the first defender to win World Soccer's Player of the Year Award, in 1994. He began his career as a left back, then moved to Centre Half, and has switched back and forth ever since. In his prime he had every asset a defender needs - in addition to the aforementioned vision, he was strong and pacy, good in the air, hard in the tackle, and always assured on the ball. No winger would fancy playing against Maldini and no right back would fancy having to track his driving runs upfield, either. He is also a fantastic leader and inspirational Captain, and would weigh in with his share of goals, many of them belters, as this video demonstrates:

CENTRE BACK: Franco Baresi

If Maldini possessed that defensive vision, that ability to sense danger, then Baresi was the very personification of it. He never seemed flustered, never seemed hurried. He never even seemed to have to sprint, moving across the pitch in a light jog, timing his tackles with the judgement and grace of a pickpocket. He was nearing the end of his playing career as the decade began and his experience and knowledge were immense - he would play 532 games for Milan, winning six league titles and three European Cups. He played in two World Cups for Italy (that would have been 3 if he had not refused to play for Coach Enzo Bearzot in 1986). His playing style was that of a Beckenbauer-style Libero. He generally operated behind the defensive line, tidying up, directing operations and picking passes. He was an inspirational captain, and Milan hold him in such high regard that they retired the No 6 shirt when he gave it up, in 1994 at the age of 37. He still works there, as a Youth Team Coach, and you get the feeling that some day soon he'll return as First Team Coach.
One final quality I remember him possessing, in common with many great Italian defenders - he was quite dirty. But extremely clever about it. His fouling was always "professional", almost subtle, never needless.
He wasn't exactly renowned for his goalscoring but this video features quite a lot of that nevertheless, alongside some perfectly timed tackling and a few nice little fouls:

CENTRE BACK: Fernando Hierro

In contrast, Hierro had an incredible goalscoring record for a Centre-Half. 439 games for Real Madrid played, 102 goals scored. From Central defence. 89 Spanish caps, 29 goals scored. From Central Defence. He was fantastic in the air, was part of it, leaping prodigiously and powering the ball goalwards with that thick necked, broad-shouldered force his general physical grace seemed to belie. But he was a beautiful ball-player, too, with a tremendous range of passing, an ability to make space for himself in the thick of things and a lovely first touch. He took - and scored from - many of Real Madrid's free-kicks and penalties. He was so good creatively that Sam Allardice used him as a defensive midfielder, rather in the mode of a Quarter-Back, during his final season at Bolton Wanderers. Of course, he excelled in the position. As a defender, he would be the animal to Baresi's artist - doing the dirty work, winning the headers, covering the ground. But they are both leaders, and any forward line would be intimidated by them.
This goal is a great demonstration of his technical ability:


I wrote about Redondo before, in my very first football post on this blog. Having such a strong Defensive line behind him would liberate him to a great extent, and he could boss midfield all game, sending those beautifully angled little passes through to the toes of his playmaker, playing one-twos, going on little dribbles. But not much would get past him going the other way.
Time and again in this video we see him go by players with a little trick, a swerve. He was an Argentine player, after all. But who amongst the candidates for the leading defensive midfielders in World Football today displays a similar skill level when on the ball? Makelele? Mascherano? Toure? Nobody. Of his peers in this position, the only one I really considered was Matthias Sammer. But Redondo was a class act:

LEFT WING: Hristo Stoitchkov

He sometimes played up front, but he was originally (and best deployed as) a winger. On the wing, his explosive pace and high-speed dribbling propelled him past reeling full backs, and his distance shooting made him an unpredictable opponent. His goals were generally spectacular, like his tantrums, his arguments with opponents and officials, and his free kicks. He was a scowling, passionate force of nature. He won European Footballer of the Year in 1994 and was joint top scorer at the 1994 World Cup, when he led Bulgaria to the semi-finals. On his day, he was virtually unplayable:


When I first became properly aware of Luis Figo (this was back in the days before you could watch football from just about every conceivable European League if you subscribed to the right satellite channels, back when you had to wait until they were paired with British teams to see some European Giants in action. Unless they were Italian, in which case they were on Channel 4) I really hated him. He seemed to dive more than any other player I had ever watched. He was constantly tumbling, tripping, rolling, getting up with a look at the referee, a wagged finger at an opponent. It seemed gamesmanship. But it wasn't really. He did go to ground easily, but then he got kicked all the time. His style relied on dribbling skill, on his ability to make an oponent look stupid, and many retaliated for their humiliation by hacking at his legs. Figo went down to protect himself and because he had to go down. Another part of that hatred was fear - it was obvious what a great player he was, how constantly dangerous, and when he played against a team I liked, I feared his effect on the game. He's still playing, so I won't go into his huge list of honours, because he'll likely add to it this year.
He always combined a massive heart and workrate with his sublime skill, and never seemed to fear the often outrageous tackles he suffered. He wouldn't offer very much defensively to this team, but then why should he, when he could contribute skills like this:


The Number 10. There were so many high-quality playmakers and attacking midfielders, inside forwards and link forwards in European football in the 1990s that I found it really dificult to pick just one. As you'll see from my next choice. For example, any of these players could have easily played in this team: Hagi, Savicevic, Rui Costa, Del Piero, Laudrup, Rivaldo, Effenberg, Scifo, Ortega, Scholes...at the start of the decade Maradona was still playing in Europe, but his very best years were behind him. So, instead it must be Zizou, who was pretty much indisputably the greatest player in the world for a few years in the late 90s and into the early years of this century. Do I really have to write up his catalogue of attributes? That caress of a touch, the outrageous vision, his ability to glide into space...I once read a quote about Maradona that said that when he played near his potential, he made it seem as if the other 21 men on the pitch were playing one game while he was playing another one entirely. Zidane, at his best, approached similar heights. His teammates often resorted to just giving him the ball and hoping he would do somethiing extraordinary. And he did, many times. Like the great playmakers, he was particularly adept at finding space where there seemingly was none. He would recieve the ball with a marker in close attendance, often two, then his feet would move, a swirl, a flick, all in a blur, and he had a yard, somehow. Enough time to pick out and deliver a pass nobody else had seen or launch himself on a run, dragging defenders into areas they prefer not to go in.
He scored big goals, too, important goals. That volley in the Champions League final in Glasgow for Real Madrid. Two goals in the 98 World Cup final in Paris. He was a big game player. He could carve open any defence.
This video focuses more on the "performing seal" aspects of his play than the excellent passing and setting of a tempo he was master of, but it has some awesome moments:

FORWARD: Roberto Baggio

The player who came closest to stealing Zidane's Number 10 shirt was the little Italian schemer, the Divine Ponytail himself. He was probably the World's Greatest Player in the years between the decline of Maradona and the rise of Zizou, and he almost singlehandedly dragged Italy to the final of the 1994 World Cup. He was both European and World Player of the Year in 1993, won Serie A with both Juventus and Milan as well as the two minor European Cups with Juve. He generally played a little further forward than Zidane and scored more poacher's goals, but was equally adept at dropping into midfield and linking play, building attacks with his acute passing and elusive dribbling. His technique was matchless, his vision and spirit at a similar level. I remember the excitement of his emergence at Italia 90, his class and stature obvious even then - you can generally tell when a major new player has arrived. Baggio was certainly one.
He could play in a two man forward line, he and Zidane alternating position and confusing centre backs with their movement and interplay while the other frontman, more of a spearhead, would have to be able to take on defenders on his own or hold the ball up. Baggio, scoring some awesome goals:

FORWARD: Ronaldo

He was nicknamed "The Phenomenon". There is no hyperbole in that name. At his brief peak, before injuries, psychological and commercial pressures and his own gluttony began to affect him, Ronaldo was an amazing player, almost unstoppable. In his single Season at Barcelona, he scored 34 goals in 37 games. And if there exists the suspicion that he never quite reached his potential, then that is only a sign of just how enormous his potential was. He won two World Cups and three World Player of the Year awards. Not bad for a player playing below his potential.
He was a new kind of forward. He would get the ball, take it beyond defenders with his exceptional pace and close control, then bury it. He could shoot from long distance with incredible accuracy and power. He got tap-ins, headers. He dribbled around goalkeepers, placed first time balls in corners. He was a goalscorer, but so much more. Defences were terrified of that raw pace, the way he could spring beyond them as if they weren't there.
Running onto the kind of delivery that Baggio and Zidane could provide, he would score many goals.
This short video is purely of his Barca season, but is a reminder of how incredible he was in his youth, when he still bounded along, three or four defenders in a cloud around him. What a player:


Sunday, January 13, 2008

"See the child."

"The men as they rode turned black in the sun from the blood on their clothes and their faces and then paled slowly in the rising dust until they assumed once more the color of the land through which they passed".

I've written about Cormac McCarthy here before a couple of times, but since its finally "No Country for Old Men" week in the UK, and this article does a better job than I ever will of explaining what hes about and why you should care, please check it out. Then buy all his books. Thank you.

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"It's genuine 160-proof old Anglo-Saxon, baby."

"I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson was an important book for me.
I first read it when I was in my early teens and still in thrall - almost exclusively - to genre fiction. Back then I read a lot of horror - Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Dean R Koontz, Richard Laymon, Robert R McCammon, James Herbert...I also read bits and pieces of sci-fi and fantasy and some crime and thriller stuff like Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy. I hadn't really gotten to literary fiction yet. That was reserved for school. My Dad would borrow me books he thought I might like from the library, which he visited once or twice a week.
One day he came home with "I Am Legend". Great title, I immediately thought. Modern take on the vampire myth, the blurb said. It had a scary cover. It sounded great. Within a few pages, I realised that it was different from most of the books I'd read before. The writing felt different. It had a tone and atmosphere like nothing I'd known. And it felt as if the story was trying to say something without saying it outright. It was ambitious and serious about its material in a way nothing I'd encountered before had really been (Stephen King undoubtedly takes his work seriously but his main aim in the majority of his work - rightly so - is narrative drive. Not so Matheson in "I Am Legend"). The ending was unapologetically, almost gleefully bleak.
I loved it.
When I think about it now, it seems like a little turning point. It opened me up to a kind of book I wouldn't previously have even considered, it prepared me for more challenging material, in a way. To this day, some of my favourite fiction exists in the strange area where genre meets literature. Matheson had a lot to do with that.

I don't want to review the new adaptation of "I Am Legend" directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith. Almost a decade ago I read Mark Protosevich's screenplay adaptation online. It fudges the novel's ending horribly - Neville survives! - but that screenplay did as good a job as could be expected of turning Matheson's book - written in 1954 - into a contemporary action/horror film which would work for a modern audience. Back then, Ridley Scott was going to direct the film with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead. Sylvain Despretz had even done a lot of excellent design and storyboarding. But it never happened. The budget was collossal, Arnie's star was slowly falling, Scott hadn't had a hit in years, and it all fell through. Periodically new names were briefly attached. Matheson's concept is too beautiful in its archetypal simplicity and purity for Hollywood to stay away for long. After all, the novel had already been adapted twice, as "The Last Man On Earth" in 1964 and "Omega Man" in 1971, and has been incredibly influential in the entire post-apocalyptic strain of zombie horror, from "Night of the Living Dead" through "28 Days Later".

A film of that Protosevich script would seriously rock. But this "I Am Legend" is not just Protosevich's. Writer-Producer Akiva Goldsman (whose credits include, ahem: "Batman & Robin", "A Time to Kill", "a Beautiful Mind" and "The Da Vinci Code", horrible films all) has a co-credit for the screenplay, so we know exactly where to lay the blame for much of what is wrong with the film. Because for much of the first hour, "I Am Legend" is pretty good. Bleak enough, well-made, dependably carried by Smith, and with one particularly intense scary set-piece. Its also a great Dog movie, never a bad thing. It departs from the novel and Protosevich's version in a few fundamentals - Neville is no longer continually besieged, there is no hierarchy or society among the "Dark-Seekers", and Neville is determined to "cure" the creatures - but it leaves in some of Protosevich's better scenes, albeit in slightly different contexts and settings. An abandoned, devastated New York is a great setting, superbly realised. But then everything goes wrong. It stops being a Dog movie, never a good thing. Other characters show up. Will Smith quotes "Shrek". The CGI, previously poor but little-seen, becomes worse and even more prominent. The ending completely misses the point of the title and Matheson's work. Thanks for that, Akiva.

Nonetheless, the film has been a massive worldwide hit, which is some sort of testament to Will Smith's star power and the quality of Matheson's premise. Matheson gave great premise. Spielberg's "Duel" was adapted by Matheson from his own short story. The classic Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" was written by Matheson. He adapted "Kolchak: the Night Stalker" from the novel by Jeffrey Grant Rice, then wrote the second TV movie, creating the formula the entire series (and the later "The X-Files") was based upon. All of these stories have strong, simple story ideas as their foundation, the kind of stories that can be summarised in one sentence. A driver is stalked across the desert by a mysterious truck. A man, recently the victim of a nervous breakdown, is convinced he sees a goblin destroying the wing of the plane he is travelling on. An investigator hunts a Serial Killer with seemingly supernatural powers. But perhaps his greatest premise, "I Am Legend" apart, and ripe for a modern remake, is the one from his novel "The Shrinking Man", made into a great little film by Jack Arnold in 1957.

"The Incredible Shrinking Man" was adapted by Matheson, who stayed true to the beauty of his central notion in a way another screenwriter may not have managed. His hero, Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is affected by a combination of a radioactive cloud and pesticide (very Marvel Comics) and begins to shrink. The film follows his struggles with this condition, his changing relationships with his wife and daughter and society at large. Its final act is unforgettable, thrilling, and finally moving. Carey has gotten so tiny that he lives in his Daughter's Dollhouse. The family cat stalks him around the house and eventually attacks him, and he barely survives the assault. His wife assumes him dead, and, still shrinking, he is reduced to hiding in the house's basement, now an enormous "primeval plain". He needs food, not so easy to come by for a man only a couple of centimetres tall. The film climaxes with Carey's desperate struggle with the cellar's other occupant, a spider, which has become a horrific, terrifyingly giant foe as it too hunts him. The special effects are comparatively excellent, and the final battle between man and beast is brilliantly staged and shot.

Matheson's pacing is exemplary, and the voiceover does a credible job of illuminating Carey's condition and mental state before disappearing for the pure visual thrills of the action sequences. However it was Producer/Director Arnold who added the excellent closing solliloquay, which captures the flavour of the books conclusion and almost improves upon it, as Carey faces his future at a sub-atomic level with hope and a sort of curious excitement:

"I was continuing to shrink, to become... what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close - the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet - like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man's conception, not nature's. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!"

The closest Hollywood has gotten to remaking "The Incredible Shrinking Man" has been in the "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" series. But a serious remake, handled right by a major director, with the right star as Carey (Edward Norton, say) could be an absolutely fantastic film. It will never happen that way, of course. If it was remade, the action would be amped up, the internal monologue and despair toned down, the Spider would be an overdone, overly-overt piece of CGI, and Matheson's tone and aims would be lost entirely. There was even a rumour a few years ago that "The Incredible Shrinking Man" was set to be Eddie Murphy's next kid-friendly vehicle. Though it seems to have fallen apart, the horror of this idea is too great to contemplate, and certainly far worse than anything Matheson himself ever came up with...

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Stand inside an empty tuxedo with grapes in my mouth"

This was a year in which I actually listened to albums again. Oh, I still shuffled - I'll always shuffle, now - but I made a conscious effort to listen to new albums, give them all a chance if I could. And it paid off, most of the time. A few albums - like "Easy Tiger" by Ryan Adams and "The Neon Bible" by the Arcade Fire - were vaguely disappointing, but only in that they were good rather than great. In saying that, let me acknowledge that I downloaded what was by far my favourite song of the year and have no intention of buying its parent album. That would be "With Every Heartbeat" by Robyn, which sounded to me like a great Georgio Moroder tune for the modern era.

My albums of the year, in no particular order, and some words on some of them:

LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver.
All killer no filler, every song filled with those little production details and melodic ideas James Murphy does so well. Sounds better played loud than many modern records because its been properly produced. Murphy cares about that stuff, he loves it, and you can hear that in his records.The awesome, moving, funky and brilliantly tuneful "Someone Great" was probably my favourite song of the year apart from "With Every Heartbeat" by Robyn, which is just slightly more sublime and beautiful.

Elliott Smith - New Moon
Shocking that these are mainly outtakes, so high is the quality throughout. Hopefully there are more in the vaults. A live album featuring some of his sublime covers wouldn't hurt either.

Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
This sounds like the Doobie Brothers or The Guess Who or somebody who you might know a song by but wouldn't buy an album of. In a good way. A classic rock record with great songs, great playing, great production. I love Jeff Tweedy's songwriting and his sensibility. And I love that Wilco always include at least one song that culminates in a long guitar blowout of some sort, the way "Impossible Germany" does here.

Republic of Loose - Aaagh!
This was released last year in Ireland, but only came out here in October, and I only bought it in January (2007), despite having "Comeback Girl " in my top ten songs last year. Anyway, its fantastic. I've read them described as the Roling Stones produced by the Neptunes but that does them a disservice. They take a little rock, a little funk, a little soul, a little rap, a little electropop - and they mix it all together. Great basslines, great vocals, great lyrics, great tunes. They sound like they want to be a Sly & the Family Stone style collective, but they do it from a skewed angle. Yet it works. And "The Idiots" is a great love song.

Radiohead - In Rainbows
The best thing about this record and its attendant hullaballoo was that it made Radiohead seem important again. On the night of the day of release, myself and 3 of my friends were listening to it simultaneously, according to Last FM. Its also a lovely record, full of instances of beauty and the kind of dynamics that seemingly only this particular band can pull off in quite the way they do. And songs - it features a couple of outright, unapologetic ballads, no electronic distortion or atonal undertows present, and they are both lovely, stunning songs. It also rocks, on occasion.

The National - Boxer
This is one album that resisted my policy of giving albums a chance. The first time, it all sounded the same. That grey, turgid National sound. Adult Indie rock. Second time, maybe one song stood out. Third time, not much difference. So, I admit it, I was weak, I gave up. But shuffle was kind. Shuffle would drop the National in just as I was at my most vulnerable to exactly the type of song they specialise in - a quietly perfect piece of bruised, mysterious romanticism with a slice of poetry in the lyrics (like "You know I dreamed about you, for 29 years before I saw you" from "Slow Show") delivered in Matt Berninger's deepest register. So I returned to the album, and lo, it was the groweriest of growers, the ebola virus of growers, just as "Alligator", the band's previous album, had been. They're just that kind of band, The National. Quietly brilliant.

Super Furry Animals - Hey Venus!
Not so SFA, who have never done anything quietly. This year singer Gruff Rhys released a fantastic solo album and the band released this, their most stripped-down, low-key record in ages. Of course its still epic and eclectic and full of hooky wonders with titles like "Baby Ate My eightball" and "Let the Wolves Howl at the Moon".

Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog
This was the biggest surprise of the year for me, an album in which Sam Bean unveiled a hitherto unrevealed aspect to his talent, broadening his arrangements and bringing in elements of Afro-Pop (on the amazing "House By the Sea"), honky tonk and mariachi on various songs. And what songs! Great lyrics, beguiling melodies, perfect balance to the production and playing.

Explosions in the Sky - All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone
As good as their other records. Nuff said, if you know their other records.

Feist - The Reminder
I love that flutey, innocent voice, and she writes ideal songs for it. "1234" should have started to annoy me by now, but it hasn't.

The Good, The Bad & The Queen
"I wrote this song years ago late at night, somewhere off the Goldhawk Road...."

Queens of the Stone Age - Era Vulgaris
At first this seemed like the years most disappointing record. It sounded tinny, badly mixed, possibly due to compression, the songs less accessible, murkier than usual. But I came back to it and it started to sink in, and grow. Josh Homme writes great crunching songs, and he makes their guitars sound like no other band. And still, somehow, he manages to make it sound funky, without becoming the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

PJ Harvey - White Chalk
Shes a genius. Pianos replace guitars, and she seems refreshed by the change, recharged after the substandard "Uh Huh Her". The songs are haunting, her voice at the peak of its register seeming to glide into the sound from somewhere old and dark. Its not exactly a comfortable listen, but it is great.

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