Before tonight's absorbing Champions League Semi-Final match (Man Utd 1- 0 Barcelona, Hurrah!) on ITV, the final ad break was taken up entirely by one single commercial. An awesome commercial. If you like football, you'll probably like the advert - its thrilling, brilliantly shot and even quite funny, especially in the appearance of Marco Materazzi.
I instantly wondered who had directed it. Somebody young and hip, at the cutting edge of cinema, perhaps? Well, no actually, it was Guy Ritchie. I hate his films, but that is based mostly on his inability to write a single believable line of dialogue or create an interesting, convincing character. Visually, he has always been assured behind a camera. His films are all slickly put together with a control and feel for the surface of things - for colour and visual tone and atmosphere - which seems perfectly suited to advertising.
For this advert, he seems to have tapped into a style which has been conspicuous in Pop culture over the last year or so - the first person POV. "Cloverfield" and "[Rec]" have both used this device with a degree of success in the context of horror stories over the last few months, and "The Diving Bell & the Butterfly" used it to heartwrenchingly emotional effect. But what Ritchie's advert (entitled "Take It to the Next Level") is really reminiscent of, especially in its non-football scenes and its vomiting shot, is the briefly infamous video for the Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up". It also recalls, to an extent, the Michael Mann Gridiron advert I posted here last year, in its relentless motion and the procession of superstars it parades fleetingly before our eyes. The song is "Don't Speak" by the Eagles of Death Metal. It becomes instantly the best thing Ritchie's ever done:
The generally splendid new Raconteurs album "Consolers of the Lonely" includes one song I don't really like. Its a cover of Terry Reid's "Rich Kid Blues". Now, the original is a great song by a man with one of the best white soul voices of the 1960s. So to say I don't like the cover is a little imprecise. I just don't see the point of it, so slavish is it in its aping of the original. It's virtually a bar band cover and I expect far more than that from Jack White. When the White Stripes cover something they transform it, they make it sound like a White Stripes song. It seems inconceivable that Dolly Parton can have had anything to do with "Jolene" after White has had his way with it. It sounds like a White Stripes original.
Maybe the problem here, then, is that the Raconteurs have a less distinctive sound than the White Stripes. Maybe their blending of various 60s and 70s styles is just a touch more anonymous. But I don't think so. I think White just loves the Reid song, and he wanted to do it and Reid justice, and so he did it the way that Reid had done it. Which is the problem. I like a cover version to be a rereading of a song, a different approach, different flesh on the same skeleton.
The Raconteurs perform a number of covers live - Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy", Bowie's "It Ain't Easy", Sonny Bono's "Bang Bang" and "Teenage Kicks" by the Undertones. These are all classics of one vintage or another, and the band does each of them justice (you can find most of them on Youtube, of course), generally by playing them all really loud and really hard. Perhaps their strangest cover, though, is "Floating", a song by Jape.
Unless you're into Irish Indie music or a rabid Raconteurs fan, you probably haven't heard of Jape. He's a Dublin singer-songwriter who used to play with David Kitt and performs a similar brand of electro-folk pop. He's released a couple of records in Ireland on Indie labels. Kitt covered one of his songs a few years ago. "Floating" (from the "The Monkeys in the Zoo Have more Fun than Me" album) is obviously the best thing he's ever done, with its circling melody, its simple yet acute lyric and its almost epic synthesized build towards its conclusion. How the Raconteurs ever ended up performing it live I'm not sure. I read somewhere that Brendan Benson heard it, loved it, and incorporated it into their shows. It seems a great example of the power of the Internet as a medium for music, as the Internet (and more specifically, MySpace) is the most likely way an American Power-Pop star would come into contact with a song by an obscure Irish songwriter.
Anyway, the Raconteurs thoroughly Americanise the song, making it bigger and heavier and louder, chiefly by adding guitars, fuzz and feedback aplenty. White often turns the introductory riff into an extended solo before returning to the melody, and adds a later, longer solo. The backbeat is toughened up from the weedy, willowy original. Nevertheless, the version is remarkably faithful to the original, in spirit at least, with Benson sticking to the lyric and the melody. Its an improvement, in a way, on the Jape version, and it should have been the cover they included on the new record instead of "Rich Kid Blues". But it wasn't, and unless they lazily do a covers album at some point, we'll probably never hear an official version. Which would be a great shame.
I will write further about "Mad Men" when the season finishes on the Beeb in a month or two. Suffice to say, its incredibly good, complex, witty, beautiful and moving, and quite possibly my favourite American television show since "The Wire", which is the highest praise I can imagine. If you haven't watched it, shame on you, and go order the DVD Box set right now to redeem yourself.
What I can talk about is its stunning opening credit sequence, which sets the tone for all that follows, and is a quality piece of work in its own right. It consists of a series of animated tableaux depicting a man in a suit and tie arrive at a spartan office, which then melts away around him, to send him plunging through a city skyline formed by skyscrapers, their facades containing the images of typical adverts from the 1950s. Thats it. Yet this sequence, less than a minute long, manages to distill the thematic essence of the show while also suggesting the look and design adopted in each episode.
The man is a silhouette, generic, his clothing and hair and briefcase and the ubiquitous cigarette suggesting just every one of the men at the centre of the first Season, but also hinting at a certain ambivalence in the creators attitude to the dominant masculinity of mainstream (what was still Eisenhower's) America in 1960. These men are interchangeable, anonymous, strange precursors of the Japanese "salarymen" of the last few decades, which they resemble in many ways, a thought that would horrify any one of them. The office is bare, bottles inevitably standing upon its desk, a fan turning in a corner, all angles and lines - venetian blinds, "modern" 50s furniture. The pictures we see slide down the wall appear to be adverts of some kind, in three primary, somehow male (by their absence of feminine warmth, perhaps) colours - black , white and red. The man stands still, powerless, as the room melts away, and even before this his movement has been slow, tired, a heavy step into the room and then a weary stoop to lay down the weight of his case.
His fall amidst the skyscrapers is lovely, an establishing shot to identify where he is then a beautiful long shot of his slow drop alongside a building covered in an image of a woman's long, shapely legs. Many of the images surrounding his fall are of female beauty - we see a collage of eyes and busts and hair, shoulders and varnished fingernails, red lips shaped in wholesome but nonetheless provocative smiles, eyebrows, and most especially; legs. Women's legs and a particular appreciation of them seems quite an archaic image - in the 1950s, where there were vastly different standards of public morality, legs were about as racy as sexual imagery in advertising in the USA got. There are also images of the American nuclear family. Smiling men and women with cute children. A slogan above an enormous glass of whisky reads: "Enjoy the best America has to offer". The man is shot side-on, as if he is plunging backwards into the glass, into the whisky. Another slogan reads: "Its the gift that never fails" above what appear to be two hands, male and female, both wearing wedding rings.
These images all appear to represent what these men fear, what they perceive as threats to their status as masters of the universe. Women and the power of feminine sexuality, family life and alcoholism are all explored in detail in the series itself, as is the American dream and its dark side, perhaps the shows main concern. One of the questions "Mad Men" asks echoes that billboard - what if this is the best America has to offer? What then?
Also notable is the fact that these are images created mainly for men, by men. The characters in "Mad Men", it becomes clear, played a big part in the creation of the modern world, quantifying it, branding it, selling it, smoothing down its edges. And yet these credits - where the man, a figure of stark, simple black and white, is surrounded during his fall by warm, feminine skin-tones and robust colours - seem to suggest that they feel as ambivalent about the world they have made as anybody else does.
That the sequence ends with a slow crawl back away from the silhouetted man, sitting calmly, still and with a cigarette in hand as a beat kicks in and changes the tone of the theme music is perhaps its most revealing aspect. It suggests that everything we have seen in the preceding 25 seconds or so - the office melting away and the entire fall through the advertisements -is happening inside this man, mentally, emotionally, all of the time. And yet he keeps a lid on it. The beat is solid, disciplined, unlike the erratic strings which preceded it. This attempt to control these raging fears, this insecurity, is normal, this sequence says. Which is what the show ultimately says about its main character, Don Draper. Only the credits say it, beautifully, in 36 seconds.
Stylistically, the sequence is pure Saul Bass. I went to a Bass exhibition at the Design Museum in London a few years ago, and the invention and purity of his work as a designer - both of credit sequences and movie posters - was inspiring and decades ahead of its time. The image of the man falling seems a lift from - or homage to - his poster for "Vertigo" (1958), with perhaps a nod in the direction of his work on the credits for "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959), both of which are topical within the universe of "Mad Men".
This Bass influence may be a fortuitous accident, because creator Matthew Weiner's original concept was, in his words, "An idea about a guy getting up in the morning. A faceless man going to work and jumping out of office window. I imagined we'd do it live action, and freeze frame with his jacket flapping, when he's from twelve feet from the ground, and it would say Mad Men." But executives at the AMC network didn't like that idea, and so the animation was developed. The music is by RJD2, "A Beautiful Mine", and its Herrmann-esque strings also feel sympathetic to the period, while containing an entirely fitting jittery melancholia.
Screengrab - "I no longer have thoughts, only memories"
When I was younger, I wanted to know exactly what a given work of art was about. I craved that certainty. It was as if I viewed art as a puzzle to be solved, as if when I had read a novel or watched a film, I could tick it off, having digested and understood it exactly, completely. I'm not quite sure when this need left me, but leave me it did. Nowadays I prefer art that defies easy interpretation, I love ambiguity and the kind of complexity and openness that encourages multiple readings. Great art should contain the scope for almost unlimited subjective judgements, I think (this is obviously distinct from the kind of work that confuses emptiness for ambiguity). My favourite film from last year, "Zodiac" is layered with possible meanings and ripe for several different angles of critical deconstruction, a quality that is one of its greatest strengths. There are directors incapable of anything other than this level of thematic transparence, Michaelangelo Antonioni prime amongst them.
"La Notte" (1961) is the second film in the trilogy beginning with "L'Aventurra" (1960) and ending with "L'Eclisse" (1962). It follows a married couple, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) over the course of a day and a night in Milan as they cross the city, visiting friends and attending parties, and finally as they face their crumbling marriage. It has just been released on DVD in a beautiful transfer by Eureka's Masters of Cinema imprint (which is now truly revealing itself to be the closest thing in Europe to an equivalent to the Criterion Collection), which gave me my first ever chance to watch it. It is clearly a masterpiece, intent upon Antonioni's interest in the effect of modern society on the way we live and communicate with one another. As with each of his films, its themes and nuances will be better revealed and interrogated after several viewings, I suspect. What is evident after a first viewing is Antonioni's peerless style.
The beautiful monochrome photography (by Gianni di Venanzo, a frequent Fellini collaborator) captures these bored, alienated people in Antonioni's beautifully composed frames - dwarved by Milan's modern architecture (in one shot Moreau is barely visible walking in the lower left corner of the frame, the impassive, cold facade of a skyscraper dominating the rest of the screen) and isolated in the gardens of a party at a villa. An early sequence follows Moreau as she leaves the party thrown for her husband's book launch and strolls through Milan, moving from the crowded concrete and stone of the city centre and moving outwards into the run-down industrial suburbs. Antonioni always seems to know exactly where to place the camera and when to time a cut as she passes various characters - two men laughing hysterically, a baby crying in an abandoned lot, a group of youths gathered to watch a fight - and her impassive response to all of it asks us how we are to respond, what kind of meaning we are to divine from the kind of things we see daily in a modern city. In a sense, the sequence plays almost as the epitome of the worst in modern European art cinema. It is full of easy symbolism and a vague sense of ennui. But it is simultaneously layered with several possible thematic and narrative meanings. Moreau is fleeing her husband's recent betrayal and their problems. She is searching for some meaning, having just visited a terminally ill friend. Her reactions to her walk are as complex and unknowable as the responses of any real human being, whose life is full, at any instant, of several tiny secret realities, both mental and emotional, whose thoughts must be impossibly complex and fleeting. Much of the film is devoted to watching Moreau as she watches others, her implacable features always beautiful, never easily read.
This can be frustrating to the viewer accustomed to the easy emotional readings of much modern cinema - especially American cinema. Yet, if one surrenders to the particular rhythms and demands in Antonioni, then the rewards are great. Most obviously, there is that supreme cinematic style. Antonioni's use of the medium itself is what has made his work age so well - some of his shots feel incredibly modern, his subtle camera movements often sublime in their perfection. He also takes risks in his more daring compositions - a shot of Moreau in tight close-up, weeping beside the looming wall of a modern hospital building while Mastroianni comes into the frame in the background. Or the shot at the top of this post, when Mastroianni is lured into the hospital room of a nymphomaniac. Antonioni films her against a bare white wall, an almost abstract, theatrical setting pointing out her position within the film as both "real" character and symbol. Mastroianni walks across the frame, his black suit contrasted dazzlingly with that white, before she slides down his body in an embrace.
This shot reminded me of a similar shot by Vincente Minnelli in "Some Came Running" (1958). During the film's climax, set at a small town carnival, Minnelli stages a chase scene against a lurid, again almost abstract red background, his characters silhouetted figures against the visual violence of the colour. Its a breathtaking moment, and one that only a truly great stylist could conceive of or pull off. That description definitely applies to Minnelli, and to Antonioni too.
And so we come to that thorniest, most awkward of questions: what exactly defines a great football player? Is it purely down to skill, to the ability to manipulate the ball, to make it do your bidding? Is it some physical gift - the stamina to run back and forth, tackling and passing, for two hours, the pace to outsprint athletes faster than most people will ever dream of being after a flying ball, the strength to barge giants off their feet, the spring to leap and hang in the air? Is it some combination of all these gifts? Or is it defined purely by success? Great players win things. They drive their teams to win matches, to win trophies, cups, leagues. A truly great player enforces his will on a team, on a game, on a season. He wins things. Doesn't he?
There has always been some question over the status of Francesco Totti. It is taken for granted that he is a good player. Outrageously skillful, with vision and cunning, it would be foolish to deny his natural talent. But in Italy - and most especially in Rome - he is regarded as just about the equal of any player on earth, as one of the best in the World, a true modern great. The rest of Europe is not quite so sure. There are a few reasons for this. Totti has never really performed effectively enough on the biggest stages for some. He has been to a couple of World Cups, to European Championships, without ever making too great an impression, some say. Others would query his temperament. He is prone to lashing out if things aren't going his way, and also likely to drop out of games if his team is up against it. He is neither the perfect playmaker, ala Zidane, nor an outright goalscoring centre-forward. Teams have to play around him, critics would suggest. He can't adapt.
Well, to all this I say: Totti is a great player, worthy of comparison to the greats of the modern game. Loyalty to his home town club has served to make his talent seem smaller than it is - he has often been held back by the restrictions of the team at A.S. Roma. When playing alongside colleagues of the right calibre, Totti has delivered the goods, scoring and creating goals and crucially, winning trophies. Roma won Serie A under Fabio Capello, when Totti was given Batistuta and Emerson as team-mates, and he could express himself, safe in the knowledge that some of his own side were on a similar wavelength. Under Spaletti, Roma are a force in Europe, Italian Cup Winners, and Totti has won the Golden Boot as Europe's top goalscorer. The question of what he might have accomplished had he moved to Madrid or Milan is an intriguing one, but irrelevant to the issue of his quality as a player. He has proven that already, in Rome.
Perhaps part of the issue is that his gifts are quite so extravagant. He can do everything well - he dribbles at pace with disguise, the ability to drop the shoulder always an instant away. He is two footed, and his passing and shooting with each foot is frequently extraordinary. He excels at the rapid interplay around the opposition box, quick passes with the out-step, backheels and drag-backs. And he is a fantastic finisher, often scoring the most spectacular, unlikely goals:
He is particularly adept at what Italians call the "cucchiaio" - the chip. This is a compilation formed entirely of clips of Totti sending perfectly dinked balls over the despairing grasps of goalkeepers from all areas around the penalty box. He often takes penalties the same way, and it is as if he feels no pressure, taking a penalty in the 2000 Semi-final shootout with Holland in Amsterdam before a Dutch crowd just that way. And scoring.
But what I most like about Totti is his imagination and his vision. The fact that he scores so many inventive goals testifies to the latter, and his range of passing and prompting is evidence of the former. Having begun life as an orthodox "trequarista" or playmaker, he has been reinvented at Roma in the last two seasons in Spaletti's new tactical formation. He now plays up front, often as a lone striker. But Roma's midfield is full of players who burst forward when they break with the ball, and the effect allows them to join Totti in attack, prompting him to play his perfect little through balls to the feet of his onrushing midfielders. He drops deep to control the play but also roams in the opposition half, dragging defenders in his wake, leaving space for his team to exploit. Or, if he sees an opportunity, Totti can go it alone, either by shooting or trying to trick his way into the box:
It was in this system that Totti scored 26 goals for Roma in the 06/07 Season. He seems to have improved with age, his football intelligence and experience giving him maturity and perhaps better decision-making than in his youth. He is now Roma's highest ever goalscorer and holds the record number of appearances for the club. In modern European football, only Raul and Del Piero, Totti's great rival in the Italian National team, really compare in terms of long-term service to one club. His standing in Italy is perhaps unmatched - he won Italian footballer of the year 5 times between 2000 and 2007. It was a near National state of emergency when he was injured in the last few weeks of the 2005/06 Season in the run-up to the World Cup. He was considered vital to his country's chances of success in the tournament, since Italy lacked another attacker of similar creativity and brilliance. He had an operation which required the insertion of metal plates, yet made it, only semi-fit, to the World Cup, where he played a fleetingly crucial role in Italy's triumph.
His Italian career probably explains why he is regarded with such ambivalence outside Italy. He ousted Del Piero from the role of first choice playmaker in the qualifying campaign for the 2000 European Championships, and was perhaps the Azurri's best player in the tournament itself. Then in the second round match with South Korea at the 2002 world Cup, with so much riding on his performance, Totti was sent off. Italy went out. At Euro 2004, when he was again under great pressure to perform and frustrated with his marking, he lashed out and spat at Danish midfielder Christian Poulsen, and was banned for three games. Without him, Italy's attack malfunctioned badly, and they again went out. His role at the 2006 tournament went some way to redemption, but he subsequently retired from International football to concentrate on Roma.
Disgracefully, he has never won either the FIFA World Player of the Year award, or the Ballon D'Or. But they don't define greatness, or even quantify it. Only what he does on the pitch does that, really. And he does amazing things on the pitch:
Unless you're a fan, mention of the Boo Radleys will probably make you think: Britpop band. One hit. Irritating Wake Up song. And no more. Maybe you'll remember that the singer was bald. Maybe not. Maybe, just maybe, you'll remember one of the post "Wake Up Boo" (for that was the name of the irritating wake up song) singles, or an appearance on Later...with Jools or one of their videos. Probably not.
For a handful of bands, after the initial deliverance it provided to the land of the chart single and a minimal public profile, Britpop was sort of a curse. Once it was over, as a movement, so were hundreds of careers, careers that might have been just fine were it not for Britpop. But yolked to a non-existent movement because they played some sort of guitar-based pop, dozens of bands just dissolved once pop culture moved on.
So here's the thing. The Boo Radleys were never Britpop. They began as a shoegazer band, influenced mainly by My Bloody Valentine. As such, nobody paid them much heed, despite the fact that even those early records - an assortment of EPs and singles, Peel sessions and a flawed first album - were filled with evidence that Martin Carr was a songwriter of real promise and vision. His version of a shoegazer record was a three minute suite ripe for experimentation, filled with unexpected melodies, a McCartney bassline here, a cloud of orchestral atmosphere there, a vocal harmony on the chorus, a house beat mingled with tribal percussion, whatever he thought he could get away with, whatever he could smuggle in.
In 1993 that all changed. Carr wrote "Giant Steps", the album that would prove to be his creative breakthrough and his band's masterpiece. Building upon that solid shoegazer foundation, his songs were eclectic, epic and thrillingly personal, his sonic palette suddenly freed from any generic bonds he had previously adhered to. The album features songs based on ringing guitars, splashes of strings and horns, "ba-ba-ba-ba" backing vocals, flirtations with house and dub music, and is lyrically concerned with life as a twentysomething in the early 90s and its attendant issues. But fundamentally it sounds as if he has sat down and listened to the records he loves - the Beatles, the Byrds, Love, the Beach Boys, the Zombies and the like from the sound of it - and decided to make a record like the ones they used to make. Only he utilises modern recording techniques and he understands that it is in the right spirit to absorb some modern music , too.
When I first heard "Giant Steps" at some point in the mid-90s it sounded unbelievably fresh to my ears. I understood instantly what Carr wanted to do. I could tell that this was a record that wanted to be a Beatles album, in effect, that he was trying to make a modern-day "Abbey Road" or White album. And he got close, too, I thought. The range and breadth of styles was there, the multicoloured soundscapes, the psychedelic cover art, the always melodic, hook-driven songs. "Giant Steps" sounded like a masterpiece to me then, and it still does today. Its centre-piece, and the greatest song Carr ever wrote, is "Lazarus". It had already been released in a shorter, inferior version as a single, on "The Lazarus EP" before the release of the album, signalling that the band understood its quality. On the album version, they included a minute long dub prologue, huge rumbling basslines and reggae guitars shaking the speakers and playing between the channels until they finally culminate in that beautiful, epic horn refrain, played by what sounds like a massed orchestra and rising on layers of distorted guitar. Then the verse kicks in.
And everything goes quiet. Thats how Lazarus works. Without a conventional chorus, the song relies upon that mighty horn melody - a tremendous, shambling beast of a melody if ever there was one - to carry its hook. So the horn refrains are thunderous, the guitars crunching and droning away and the bass bubbling energetically beneath that marvellous, sighing horn sound. It sounds like take off. Every time. Meanwhile the verses are exercises in minimalism. Just a band - bass, drums, guitars and a singer - carry the verses. Vocalist Sice always had a sweet choirboy's voice and he makes this melancholic lyric sound genuinely vulnerable as the backing vocals "ba-ba-ba-ba" behind him. It ends with a rising, intensifying reprise of the horn refrain, as it had to.
I always wondered why "Lazarus" wasn't picked up for use as the backing music for "Goal of the Month". Or used in an advert. Its the kind of song that you can imagine being used in a movie in a decade or so, and given a new lease of life. Because "Giant Steps" died a commercial death. Despite winning "Album of the Year" from NME and Select, it entered the Top 20 briefly, then basically disappeared. The band toured then began work on a new record. They must have wondered what they had to do to gain any real success. How good they had to be. As it turned out, they didn't even have to be that good ever again. In the interim, Blur released "Parklife", Oasis released "Definitely Maybe" and the British music industry changed utterly.
The Boo Radleys' next release was "Wake Up Boo", which is basically a hyper-charged skiffle song with a great chorus and a manic brass section. Musically, at least. Lyrically its a dark portrayal of life with a depressive partner ("You have to put the death in everything"), a fact that the chirpy chorus blinds most listeners to. It, and its parent album "Wake Up" were both massive hits, and its the song that people identify the band with. Their next album, "C'mon Kids" is their least commercial and seemed an aggressive attempt to shed the fans that they had gained, though Carr denied this, claiming it was an attempt to introduce such fans to something new. By that time Britpop was dying slowly, and the album failed commercially. Their last album, "Kingsize", was a sort of return to the styles of "Giant Steps", though the songwriting was not at quite the same level. Then the band broke up. Carr went solo as "Bravecaptain". "Giant Steps" has a little cult following that you can find if you google it. It might just be the great lost album of the 90s, though there are many worthy contenders for that title. "Wake Up Boo", on the other hand, will be mentioned in any obituary of Carr, and feature on 90s compilations forever. Thats fine, its a good song. But its not "Lazarus".