Monday, 28 June 2010

World Cup, Day 17

I had booked a window-seat for my evening train home, having spent the weekend in Leeds where I watched the match on a big screen at Headingley Stadium. In a moment of weakness, I deemed my reflection pretty cool - big shades, High Violet entering my brain through white wires, a slide show of daring sunset and browned acres moving over a tired me: another wretched passenger sipping on a beer leftover from an unsurprising, hot afternoon.
Instead of apologising for this vanity, I go on and wonder about Brazil 2014, Jacks Rodwell & Wilshere, Johnsons Glen & Adam, Hart, Huddlestone, Lennon, Milner and Rooney four years the better, and I'm thinking up a football revolution to crush the foreordained failure that characterises our every World Cup. It's simple; a shift from domestically decorated, awkward and overrated anti-heroes to a winning blend of the dogmatic and the inventive who may not be Premiership medalists: the current and permanent philosophy of glorified kick-and-rush has never helped England, a top 10 team in the world, towards any meaningful victory. We are still a set piece team, our master debilitated and tuxed on the sidelines.

The permanent obstacle is the hegemony transgressing media, pub, school; that there are people who really believe John Terry and Frank Lampard are fine football players and are not utterly dependant on being partnered by babysitters - Chelsea's cultured imports who make life extremely easy for these one-dimensional, hackneyed gargoyles. Neither should play for England again, but both will. Were Mowbray & Lawrenson being sincere in commentary, or were they just pandering to the dumb aspect of nationalism that shows how poorly evolved we are? Apparently Neuer isn't a good goalkeeper. When he comes and punches the ball away from the penalty area, he is "all over the place." Apparently Capello would only swap "one or two players" with the victors, despite the truth on the pitch and in the trophy cupboard, that Germany are a far superior footballing nation to England. There's underestimating and then there's idiotic patronising or unwarranted hatefulness. Are there young English people who really hate Germany? If so, shame on them. The war-jokes are dated and boring like popular culture generally is on these shores; dated and boring like James Corden's sense of humour, who really could do with a fist of mustard gas. Germany ought to be admired and cheered on now for their professionalism and penetrative attacking football.

The fear of the other is holding this country back, a burden inconducive to realistic, great expectations. I would cherish seeing our most talented (non-Spurs!) players go and achieve things in La Liga, Bundesliga or Serie A. Yet despite England's three stand-out performers in the last decade having each spent invaluable time abroad - David Beckham, Michael Owen and arguably Owen Hargreaves - dispassionate followers of football are still reluctant to lose compatriots from shabby highlights packages on a Saturday night. More worryingly, it makes no sense for agents or families to encourage players to take flight from home and the celebrity epicentre that is the Premiership. What an imaginative, indescribable player Gerrard could have been had he spent a few seasons in Spain. How I would love to see Madrid snap up, and complete, Rooney. There is nothing remotely English about this league: an Australian tycoon's overinflated toy whose greatest managers are Scottish, Italian, Portugese and French. It's no wonder Arsene Wenger always scouts overseas, and it's a real shame his tactical influence on his peers has been scarce. It starts with a child learning to trap a ball, to pass into space, to find more space. It has to start now or we'll go on getting bad results.

Thank you for following my World Cup blog. Until four years time... Auf Wiedersehen.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

World Cup, Day 13

No particular individual was
inspired. Laborious short-passing detracted from what was otherwise a determined attacking performance and a comfortable-enough 1-0 win. For the first time since Gerrard's opener against USA, we can earmark ball-playing achievements. Despite his wastefulness in possession, James Milner's crossing impressed every skeptic. And where Heskey had failed to unwrap Lennon's gifts, Defoe's wily, decisive forward-play requited Milner's fine delivery. Even if Defoe doesn't score again at this World Cup, his selection over Heskey or Crouch should stub out the familiar long-ball approach; surely a good thing. There were also welcome glimpses of the captain's long-range passing prowess which might become a critical asset when England need to switch play authoritatively.

Against a more potent winger, Glen Johnson might have seen red, consistently guilty of ill-disciplined and technically wanton tackling. James was commanding again, though the very composure and confidence about his presence is a contant reminder of the painful truth - that Green's (or rather Capello's) error has brought about this game with Germany, England having not defeated a World Cup winner at the World Cup, other than Argentina in a group game, since '66.

Time-travel even farther, and today's push-and-run stuff would have made even Arthur Rowe proud - perhaps an indication of how little our grass-roots education in touch and movement has evolved. England showed too much pace and power for Slovenia but challenges demanding patience and subtlety await. I wish I trusted guts and bullishness as a passage towards glory: I just don't see wrestlers like Melo & Gilberto, Busquets or Mascherano budging. Nor do I prophesy danger-men like Ozil, Robben, (insert any Spaniard), Messi or Ronaldo stalling, and by doing so, allowing England to dictate the pace of a match.

It is probable that Joe Cole will feature when, on Sunday, this hereditarily blunt England so dependant on tempo meet a flexible as well as compact Germany. If the comparably eloquent Mehmet Ozil were English, one can't help but think he too would be stuck on Capello's bench or at left midfield, apprised to track back at all times. No longer laughed off as a cause of 'the footballing left' (Xavi-infatuated purists), the argument for invention
behind Wayne Rooney is difficult to defeat. Except for the brainwashing-victims of Kasbian-soundtracked, HD slo-mos of Lampard (Sky's alter-logo), most fans are aware of how one-paced the (Chelsea) talisman is.

At dawn the World Cup will begin its fourteenth day. An improving Rooney still hasn't found the net; Frank Lampard becomes more and more pointless; Milner and Lennon seem an awesome tag-team; the defence, efficient. Above all, Joe Cole's imminent importance must not be deflected by a 1-0 victory over ordinary opposition.

Monday, 21 June 2010

another road

stopping, I unstooped at a little fence,

through garden-air at our first property,
where our custom cricket square
has dissipated -

now there are flowers and I do not know their names

here, our once stadium,
here, my brother's tutelary bowling action,
a show for the wading giants of gods
breathing into spaces before their shrinking,
before logic

(the milk in my bones, overflown
and date-stamped, keeps)

there can be no edited ending,
I snip obsolete wires for a living,
undoing that believer,
gods blowing over
as rain-clouds do

cruelty continues without resemblance,
the old photograph is guest, party laughter

and continuing the day,
sandals spit out orange dust,
freckles from a beachy promenade,
nostalgia is a skim-read, toilet literature,
so stooping and continuing the day,

i am good, godlessly,
evolution is love is me -
rhyme and piety are overrated

Saturday, 19 June 2010

World Cup, Day 8

Tonight tested faith and dimmed passion. The substance of manager, player and stadium-fan disgusted crowds in pubs, homes and hospitals up and down a depressed England. Unprofessional or acute, Rooney's comments after the final whistle, camera in face, epitomised our collective failure.

Once again the back four were efficient. Complaints here are vain if plausible, though with the excellent Carragher suspended, Capello's reluctance to cap Dawson might prove his umpteenth error in recent weeks. James looked fine while the reintroduction of Gareth Barry nullified Algeria's commendable efforts in possession. But neither Barry nor any player on the field passed with correct weight or invention.

Frank Lampard's presence in midfield is startlingly reductive. I'm still waiting for somebody to justify his England career without referencing an infinitely resourced, well-balanced and ruthless Chelsea FC who play week-in, week-out and thrive on deploying a one-paced, consistent goalscorer. Several meaningful statistics glare at Capello. Not for six years has Lampard scored a significant goal (2 against a broken Croatia doesn't count), and he shares responsibility for qualification failure in 2008. At the last World Cup, Lampard had the most shots yet failed to score once, even in 120 minutes against the worst team in the round of 16, Ecuador, then again in 120 minutes against Portugal. Of his twenty England goals, five have been penalties; the most important (QF shoot-out) and the most recent (Japan) he both missed.

In the face of Sky's ubiquitous montage imagery - Lampard-8-blue, Gerrard-8-red - fans must realise that the consistency of their threats has been made possible by steely ball-winners (Makelele, Essien, Hamann, Mascherano) and enhanced by creative, tempo-effectors (Xabi Alonso, Deco, erm, Joe Cole). Moreso than Lampard, if Steven Gerrard wearing the armband is served in this way, he can decide games by striking the ball crisply, just once, in 90 minutes. So is our only playmaker still injured, utterly untrusted or a divisive figure in the camp? What can it be, really? This is incredulous.

Perhaps Capello, having always played with 4-4-2 in club football, feels he can not incorporate Joe Cole into a system that did the job in qualifying. There is now a good enough goalkeeper, a good enough defence (just watch any of the tournament favourites), a holding player, a talismanic midfielder (the captain), a talismanic striker (if Rooney can forget about coming deep) and potent width (in Lennon, Johnson, Ashley Cole). Where Capello has been publically admired for his confidence and discipline, I wonder whether it is fear and strategic error, not braving (not using common sense) the selection or substitution of Joe Cole. Totally ambivalent is Cole's fitness; no doubt he is fresh for having featured so rarely this season, but equally his lack of match-sharpness could lessen his impact. Well, no performance will be as blunt as what we witnessed tonight.

For most of the people in the pub where I watched this England World Cup fixture, the occasion seemed to be a vehicle for drink and sex, rather than a seminal match whose every minute demanded their attention. Flirting talk, weighty make-up, hair-wax and over masculine
handshakes were as fastidiously applied as you see at any promiscuity-advancing, kaleidoscopic night club. I lost my patience when a thirty-year-old near me blew his pink vuvuzela as if fun was happening - this man cloaked by the cross of St George, on which was written not the names of his family or of the football club or community he supports, but The Sun. He never booed animalistically, but he targeted players: "Heskey, you're shit" (it's not his fault he has been on the pitch for so long), "Rooney, you're shit" (fatigued, and should be playing on the last shoulder), and "Where is Joe Cole?" (rhetorical question). I restrained my inner moral violence, tolerated the anti-culture, and fixed hope on the spark of a single player: Aaron Lennon. However Lennon's two dissecting crosses were once again inconsequential. Answer your critics, but do not expect praise for judicious wide-play unless a centre forward is in the right place and able.

Had the manager tried another spark, the imaginative flame in England's squad (of course, Joe Cole), then I believe - though it is only belief - that England could have lit up, not only a listless evening, but a tournament where contenders disappoint daily.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

World Cup, Day 2

Fabio Capello's shrewd, tactical nous certified the ease of England's qualifying campaign. The presence of a disciplined, protective midfield player had ensured the freedom for Gerrard, Lampard et al to fulfill their potential as direct, talismanic enterprises. Meanwhile Wayne Rooney began to score consistently for England because now he could restrict his artistry to the final third of the pitch, knowing that ball retention and domination were no headache. England's historical dearth of lateral movement and tempo in the midfield was redressed by an efficient, left-footed Gareth Barry and the bright-light outlets; a dramatically improved Aaron Lennon, Rooney, and now it seemed, a fit-again Joe Cole.

The sensible response to Barry's injury is like-for-like. So I first began to worry when neither Scott Parker nor Tom Huddlestone - on-form, holding assets - were included in the final twenty three. I remained hopeful that Michael Carrick would rediscover himself and I was certain he would play, or at least feature, necessarily against USA. Tonight was no disaster, but it was a snubbing of the successful system we have become delightedly familiar with during Capello's tenure.

Heskey justified his selection immediately, assisting a determined captain's goal and winning several headers to put the Americans under early pressure. Inevitably his impact would wane, and perhaps it should have been Rooney leading the line, getting on the end of Lennon's pass of the match for instance. But this is mere conjecture, and Capello will be happy with Heskey's key contribution. And then why, so late in the game, Peter Crouch? Confronting a physically exceptional American unit, when instead Joe Cole's invention and subtlety could have won the game for England, the Crouch substitution was insipid. Throw on a fresh playmaker, and Rooney might have been fed further forward where he has recently scored 34 goals in 44 appearances for United.

But a world-beater dropping deep and no consistent pattern of passing were never going to stop us from defeating even as stern an opponent as USA (the only team to have defeated Spain in over 50 matches). The difference between three points and one, possibly first and second place in Group C, was a teamsheet spearheaded by the name, Green, and all its connotative mediocrity. Not a freak mistake, but the consequences of opting for that flake in West Ham's feathery defence; error-prone and who, contrary to the patriotic mumblings of some pundits, has only ever stood out for club or country for the wrong reasons. Despite Green's overexposure to international football in a scare-free qualifying campaign, I didn't expect Capello to adopt the sewage paradox - that there is such a thing as a "compromise goalkeeper".

James's fitness concerns and Hart's inexperience are simply irrelevant: you pick your best and most confident stopper. And I wonder whether any other manager in the history of the World Cup has picked his least talented, least confident goalkeeper, while two commanding superiors are ready and waiting in reserve. Applying the logic of caps, Paul Robinson - who actually
has major tournament experience - must be questioning why he is sat in Blackburn, listening to vuvuzelas and A-Level English Lit hopeful, Clive Tyldesley. Terrifying logic. Irritating musical instrument. God-awful commentator.

Tyldesley, the voice of ITV Football, proclaimed after an ordinary shot seeped through Green's fingers and onto the inside of the post, that the goalkeeper had redeemed himself with a fantastic save. In all its clownishness, everything came back, and I was 18 again, it was Germany, and I saw a face I loathed winking, graceless in victory, and a youth that was mine evaporating in a miserable pub. Surely not another tournament defined by specific failure and vacuous incite? Oh the dejavu of fans and pundits repeating endlessly to themselves the word
dejavu, perpetuating such nonsense as to whether dropping Robert Green would shatter his confidence. Call me cold, but I'm more interested in a Goals Against column than in a no.12's paltry career and its bleak future.

Although livid at Green's selection, at Heskey's finishing and at the snail-pairing of Carragher and Terry, as England supporters have every right to be, Capello's team looks no more flawed than outside-chance-rivals, France (Domenech-depraved) or Argentina (Maradona-misguided). What I have enjoyed most since Tshabalala's belter is France's inability to score against Uruguay and Championship winger, Jonas Gutierrez, playing as Argentina's right back, rather than this season's Champions League winning captain, Javier Zanetti, not even in the squad. A well-organised, Rooney-topped XI is going to give contendors a run for their money, if we give ourselves the chance. Every outfield player did what was asked of them this evening, they just didn't get the two, safe helping hands they needed.

As a rejuvenated Steven Gerrard said in his post-match interview, the most important thing is to come away from the opening game unbeaten. Tonight's howler is a blessing-in-disguise, and common sense demands a reaction. A capable goalkeeper and a disciplined holding midfield player must be assimilated before it is too late. Dynamic, samba-educated opponents will waltz in and out of our core and head for a pace-bereft central defence, unless we adapt. Still, it is encouraging that after five matches, three significant footballers have begun casting their footprints amid the giddiness - Lionel Messi, Park Ji-Sung and the captain of England. For now, romance and realism remain allied.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Killer Inside Me (2010)

* * * * *

(Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2010)

Casey Affleck has spent the Spring of his employment defining latent menace in American cinema. His youthful but sorrow-pricking features are a realisation of the sinister male as imagined by a thousand authors. And his pale complexion and hoarse, squeaking vocals have empowered eerie semiotics like no other breakthrough-actor of this generation, pumping film lovers with toxic butterflies in Gone Baby Gone and (sometimes I feel this blog is a love letter to...) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. So when Winterbottom planned to direct John Curran's screenplay-adaptation of Jim Thompson's psycho noir classic about a serial-killer deputy-sheriff, Affleck readied to take control over another godsend of a script, and the prejudiced eagerness and disgust towards this project began on their uncompromising orbits.

Affleck plays first-person narrator and deputy sheriff, Lou Ford, in a quiet town in 1950s Texas. He is seen in public as a chivalrous protector. In private, he is a manipulator and a serial killer. As the movie unfolds we learn that Ford sexually abused a little girl when he was younger, but his brother took the blame. Released from prison, Ford's brother dies in an accident on anti-union businessman, Jim Conway's property. Ford is assigned to blackmail a prostitute (an impressive Jessica Alba) into incriminating Conway or she will be persecuted herself. Instead, they begin a violent affair. The film tells the widespread consequences of what happens when this violence gets out of hand, and Ford's mask of innocence begins to wear off.

Winterbottom's sociopath is precise. On a pragmatic visit to the district prison, Ford's official badge glints in the light that sheds ironical liberty and dubious visibility, as he paces through, grinning on the wrong side of bars. He can not even evince a glance into the cells where imprisoned are the men whose crimes can not compete with their pathological master's. This is because we have just witnessed Casey Affleck punching Jessica Alba until her face resembles a "hamburger". After a scene of biting and sweating and sharp thrusts, where the gulf in meaning between love-making and fucking has never been so conspicuous in mainstream cinema, Ford loses his control but not his cool, inflicting the work of the devil unflinchingly.

This incredibly acutely directed violence (the beating is an exercise in alliteration) occurs twice in the movie, deafeningly punctuating, but not overshadowing, the surrounding two hours of expert noir - in which country melodies score Ford's folly. One particularly amusing, or at least satisfying sequence, sees Ford slipping over before chasing a witness into the road with a kitchen knife; his beaten, immobile girlfriend smiling at his humiliation. Both his prostitute and girlfriend (Kate Hudson) are under his complete control, and here is the sharp point at the end of Winterbottom's spear that has divided opinion (and emotion) worldwide. Ford's male victims do not suffer as atrociously as the women on screen, unlike in Thompson's novel. What this adds to the cinematic experience is clear. Winterbottom has chosen to build a story around merciless domestic abuse in an especially patriarchal society.

The feminist voice is protected as opposed to obliterated: everyone has lost because of a reckless, insane man. Women are portrayed longing to be sexually and violently oppressed, yet no more than men are dehumanised, stripped of reason and of peace. We can choose to review The Killer Inside Me from a feminist or misogynistic perspective. Or - sensibly, and of more interest - neither. Brilliantly, Winterbottom opts for the humour championed by new-noir, Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang. As the film draws to its close, Ford orchestrates his own demonized Poirot assembly, gathering all the familiar (surviving) characters and an extra whom he tells, "You keep your mouth shut, I didn't give you any lines". The audience, amazed at its ability to laugh, is reprieved from anxiety. It's a bitter show, and like most motion pictures, it culminates with credits, the white font of each victim shuffling into useless black space.

The nightmare is inside, interior, despite the wrapping paper of the vast continent, our safety-veil throughout, as car and house windows separate rolling camera from impending horror. "The problem is everyone thinks they know who you are": Ford's introductory narration resonates in the fists, blades, black gloves and warped privacy. The title is a pun that requires a second or third glance. We know Ford's psychopathy, and that no amount of reading, piano-playing or service to his community will purge. But it's also a reference to the tragic heroines, their sexual colonisation, abuse and suffering, as well as the contamination of the police force, which consists of the remaining significant players.

The Killer Inside Me is a portrait whose distorted face and primeval purpose are softened by some playful, pantomime fingers (it's okay to laugh). At its most eloquent, the film is also a bloodied Mona Lisa, avenging from every untrite angle in a room where, in one terse frame, the Bible and Freud brush shoulders on hell's bookshelf. There are mirrors at work, and Lou Ford's flashbacks and command of his fate mean that any violence is cyclical as well as total. A dusty, salty tour de force, The Killer Inside Me is not for the faint hearted.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Four Lions (2009)

* * * *

(Dir. Chris Morris, 2009)

Abandon premonition, forget right from wrong. Four Lions is a laugh for, and never at, our worst collective nightmare as British citizens. For his debut feature film, the outrageous Chris Morris has turned his boundless comic gaze to terrorism, swapping paedophile for jihad jokes, strapping us to his own cinematic explosive. This is terrific and terrible stuff.

Omar (Riz Ahmed) is a British Muslim turned terrorist, enraged by the commerce obsessed, secular society to which he no longer wishes to belong. His various clownish companions include his gullible brother, Waj, and a white, working class man, Barry, bearded like Bin Laden. Their communion has no religious context and when Omar rouses all with an anti-Western speech, Waj concurs:"Yeah... fuck mini babybells". Omar is a symbol for the difference between wit and intelligence. Bilingual, he sarcastically bullies and nourishes his recruits with some of Chris Morris's best metaphor-gag writing, playing both general and stand-up comedian. But he lives according to an idiotic dogma, listening to his "heart" and ignoring his "head", a strategic triumph of the movie, keeping sympathy for terrorists at bay.

When Omar and Waj fail to impress at a training camp (not the World Cup sort), they find themselves back in Britain, eager to make amends. The planning, or rather procrastinating, unfolds in Sheffield (close enough to Leeds, where the 7/7 attacks were planned) until the time comes for the amateurs to make their mark on history. This is the London Marathon - an original denouement - where bombs are hidden beneath silly fancy dress costumes to bring about serious consequences. In an explicit reference to 7/7, the perpetrators are ridiculed in their apparel, engaging in a group hug that omits no spirituality or determination.

But before they make it to the capital, a more amusing interim sees the group driving down the M6 to their fate, singing along to Toploader's 'Dancing in the Moonlight'. The shape of Britain and its infrastructure is exact. There are hospitals and homes, high-street shops and newsagents, agriculture and industry, and copious snapshots of a multicultural society that make this sad, side-splitting black comedy anxiously real.

Omar's family are as startling as any of the script's spiky one-liners. There is an intelligent, modern and beautiful wife who refuses when told to stand in a different room by a conservative Muslim neighbour and visitor. Her relationship with Omar seems a little too healthy considering his gross ambition, and the fantasist's brainwashing of their small son. Omar's innovative bedside storytelling borrows (manipulates) wisdom from the Koran's Mohamed as well as Disney's Simba.

Four Lions is an assault on the heart and the rib-cage, frightening and tickling in equal measure. It is debatable as to whether it is liberally important or socially irresponsible for this film to have been omnipresent, nationwide, in recent weeks. Just as mind-boggling is whether the humour is too soon for this post-9/11 world, or whether its power has arrived too late. By removing this sense of 'post', and making clever fun directly from the horror of inane extremism, Morris escapes with the benefit of the doubt; unlike his characters, who are brutally condemned to neither certainty nor pity nor heaven.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The Walcott Problem

Theo Walcott is thriving tenuously in the same way that, abroad, Michael Owen built an indelible reputation as one of the finest strikers in the sport; a once speedy prodigy at France '98, zig-zag sprinting his fifty-yard path towards Carlos Roa's goal, before telling Paul Scholes to mind his own, and netting to the astonishment of a global audience.

But not quite in the same way. For Walcott, it was a superfluous, pubescent call-up in the last World Cup and, soon after, a hat-trick in a qualifier that safeguarded his critical future. Looking at both Owen's and (so far) Walcott's careers, is it insensitive to question whether injuries have actually protected their reputations more than they have thwarted their achievments?

Unlike the Liverpool (or) Manchester United legend (?), Walcott still doesn't know his best position, has neither scored nor assisted consistently when fit, and is a bit-part player even in an under victorious Arsenal squad. But if Owen lost his legs, he never lost his Morientes-Inzaghi analogous poach mastery, an accomplished goalscorer, but perhaps not the world-beater some Wembley members would like to claim. However neither club nor international manager seems to want Walcott up front - his boyhood and best position.

Like Owen, it's running in and behind a defence where Walcott is at his most comfortable: not on the wing, where his unwillingness to terrorise full backs and his inability to whip in a cross have led to three assists in thirty appearances for the Arsenal 'winger' this season. Worrying, when compared with Lennon's 12 in 24 or Adam Johnson's 7 in 15. In Ashley Cole's heart of hearts (lol), he must fear defending against Aaron Lennon, even Adam Johnson, Ashley Young or Shaun Wright-Phillips, more than he does, Walcott, on Premiership match days.

That Mail writers, Martin Samuel and Matt Lawton, have selected Walcott in their England vs. USA team sheets, says more about the dire state of quixotic, statistics-neglecting, sports journalism in this country than it does about the Arsenal substitute's ability. I'm not interested in watching a 100-metre sprinter at a World Cup. I want our no.7 to dazzle with his footwork, to supply Rooney and co, and to keep the ball when he darts past his opposite man.

Theo Walcott has won all the critical protection of an early Oasis album or a glamorous education. Only there is no satisfaction for the unblinkered football fan in replaying the what-was and what-could-have-beens amid the cruel gaze of a lurking major tournament.

He is still young. There is still time. The time is not now.