Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Danny Murphy The Brave

Every football fan in England knows what a head-bandaged Terry Butcher looks like.

The brave old English slogan is boring and, at least, ought to be, synonymous with kick-and-rush failure. Grudge and self-entitlement in England, from beach football to World Cup competitions, is embarrassingly enduring. It has been said before that the dad on the touchline, who discourages his son from experimenting with the ball, is as much to blame for our international shortcomings as any scapegoated manager.

If Danny Murphy's recent comments inspire any debate, then it must be about the physical nature of the Premiership and every league beneath it. BBC football writer, Phil McNulty, restricted his response to tackles-and-injuries, failing to see the bigger picture: what the culture of watching and playing football really amounts to in this country. After all, Murphy did refer to the role played by the manager - the tactician and the motivator - in all of this. It is not impossible to watch both a leaderly and pretty midfield; just observe Di Matteo's West Brom or Poyet's Brighton and Hove Albion; or remember when elite luxuries were commanded by Petit, Butt and Hamann; then treat yourself to a book on the emergence of passing football from Scotland in the 1870s to Vienna to the River Plate. There is a common good for any standard or epoch that will prevail in what is a global game. Mistimed lunges, whatever the unknowable motivation of the perpetrator, are unacceptable and in too many cases unforgivable. What I am not arguing is that only homegrown players are culpable. But what has to be destroyed is the widespread masochistic assumption that we'll give the grit and they'll bring the flair.

The Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper, Paul Robinson, described Murphy's opinion as "irrelevant". Apart from the obvious relevance - we know flung studs have wrecked careers before football became a full-time profession - violent tackling is clearly this autumn's hot topic. In recent months, Ryan Shawcross, Lee Cattermole, Nigel De Jong, Karl Henry and Jack Wilshere have all been guilty, either of grievous bodily harm or of misinterpreting the speed of their working environment, their deadlines as it were. A player who has learned is John Obi Mikel, the Chelsea and Nigerian midfield player. We no longer wince or roar at his defensive interventions: he has already done his job by being in the right place at the right time, keeping shape. Mikel doesn't do Gerrard anymore: if deployed as a central midfielder, he doesn't find himself negligently out of position, forced to scamper across the pitch and throw himself into a tackle to the misguided applause of Anfield or Wembley crowds. The principal culprit for Clint Dempsey's equaliser in Rustenburg was not Robert Green but the Liverpool captain, who could not stop the American turn as slowly as a clock hand, twice, and get his shot away. 

"You get managers sending teams out to stop other sides from playing, which is happening more and more. Stoke, Blackburn and Wolves, you can say they’re doing what they can to win the game, but the fact is that the managers are sending the players out so pumped up that inevitably there are going to be problems. The thing I think people miss is that it’s the managers who dictate what the players do and how they behave. If you have a manager in control of his team, who doesn’t allow these things to go on you have a more disciplined team.”

These were the well considered comments of an honest midfielder who has probably suffered from his nationality; I pity fans who do not think England would have retained possession and passed more penetratingly had such a playmaker made the cut for South Africa. Murphy is a signature, big-match performer. He scored for Liverpool against Manchester United in three one-nil victories in four seasons. And then there's his punditry, invariably smart, and it should be acknowledged with real alarm that Jamie Redknapp, Alan Shearer and Martin Keown are currently the official megaphones for our ex-players.

If Murphy made any mistake it was in naming three clubs: he should have named more. He can be proud, as publicly as he likes, of sharing responsibility for making Craven Cottage comely as well as homely. Fulham are an established Premiership club who can compete in Europe. They thrive on elegant, athletic football and a fine disciplinary record (1st last season, 3rd so far in 2010/11). This campaign, Blackpool and West Brom are not dissimilar. And then there are Stoke, Wolves, Blackburn, Bolton and Sunderland, probably more, who go on as ugly alternatives. Which is to say that people pay a lot of money to go and watch them kick opponents and scavenge for the second ball. However hard or conjectured it is to deconstruct the national game, where we can begin to catch up with superior cultures is off the ball. This way trickery on it does not mean putting bones at risk. Lengthy suspensions and fines for clubs will curb recklessness. It would be a breakthrough if more influential institutions than the FA, such as Opta and Sky, could publish and discuss data about dangerous tackling in relation to stylistic approach. We need to be factually clear.

During Blackpool vs. Mancester City on Ford Super Sunday, Andy Gray yet again revealed his inner coward. After a mistimed but harmless tackle, he sneered that this would get "the usual reprobates whinging". Hopefully the likes of Dean Ashton and Eduardo, the desecrated and the damaged, were not listening. And how I am happy for Ronaldo, the finest Brazilian forward in my two and a half decades, poorly protected by referees, who doesn't speak English and who wouldn't believe his hears if he could.

Danny Murphy is a fine example to young viewers and players. His comments evinced a bravery more important and more interesting than any Terry Butcher or John Terry self-portrait.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Classic Review: A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

* * * * *

(Dir. Kim Ji-Woon, 2003)

When does a person die?

What is most disturbing about Kim Ji-Woon's masterwork is surely the Freudian question, recently put by Nicholas Royle at the Brighton book launch for his debut novel Quilt. Quilt is the venerable academic's take on the death of a parent: a trampoline of words and symbols springs its narrator into a new height of breathing. Here, 'past' and 'present' lose significance. Here, humid illusion threatens to prevail. In A Tale of Two Sisters, a step-daughter struggles in this same air. There are the old devices of horror at work - the dead and the sick demanding attention via a seething piano. This time, the smallness of beauty preceding the climaxes is not played out in some pseudo White House in the Hamptons. On a film set in rural South Korea, audio-visual horror finds a cultural serenity all the more frightening to upset.
We begin at the psychiatrist’s table. The protagonist, Su-mi, is non-responsive and phantom-like. She is living in the past to carry on another person's life - that of her sister. Her malady - we realise later that this is severe dissociative identity disorder - is of casual concern compared with what she has lost. If we have figured it out in the first ten minutes, this doesn't spoil the movie. From the talkative psychiatrist and the catatonic Su-mi, we spring to an overhead shot of Su-mi and her little sister, lying above a lake, their shoes removed in pairs. As soon as we learn the sisters' mother has died, the tale begins and belongs to Su-Mi. Everything takes place in the house they are growing up within. Everything emotional is sincere, though nothing in the plot is remotely trustworthy.

Su-mi, fearful for her sister, believes that their new step-mother is guilty of child abuse. Su-mi's behaviour is curious and calculated, loaded with sexual jealousy, dispelling the Romantic myth that children are by nature innocent. One morning Su-mi wakes up from a nightmare to find her sister has begun her period. The step-mother finds this funny because she too has her period. The motif of bloodied bed-sheets is hardly original but it becomes essential in stitching together this episodic film. Run through a gentle landscape in South Korea, it is the red of fertility and familial blood that gives grace to Ji-Woon's gore. The step-mother is an imposter, but is it rather the case that she stands in the way of Su-mi's idealism? The usurpation of the mother by the daughter has been postponed. Time is all over the place; blood, ubiquitous and pungent.

The genre chosen is apposite. A Tale of Two Sisters is, among other things, about the limp, delicate role of women who are utterly domesticated. Su-mi smashes the idea of role playing, bent on protecting her sister from terror. The step-mother is constantly made-up and washing or preparing food, the pitiable father intellectually rejects his feminine household, the screenplay is notebook-thin and yet silence in this film can not be underdescribed as lingering.

Inspired by a myth originating in Korea, or what used to be Josean Dynasty, A Tale of Two Sisters was in 2003 the sixth attempt by film makers to do justice to this sinister folktale. It is so far the most successful; standing as the highest grossing film in the history of South Korean cinema, it won at the 2004 International Fantasy Film Awards but was snubbed, typically, by the Academy (last year it were Michael Haneke and Jacques Audiard's turns at empty-handed genius, for The White Ribbon and A Prophet respectively).

Kim Kap-su and Im Soo Jung were cast as father and daughter, and the actors fulfilled their contracts as if resolving some real life trauma. Yeom Jong-Ahn, as the step-mother, did a kind of Clytemnestra terribly well. As psychological thrillers and horrors go, this is cruelly honest: it goes down as the scariest I have encountered. For better or worse in our dreams, A Tale of Two Sisters is a resident desire.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Say When Once

New post,
I know these blocks of writing are flammable.

If I have no other choice but to write,
Where can I go but into house fires?
What can I emerge with, appearing from the smoke,
Except receipts?
Or the wallet you gave me,
Unstitching, indigent;
One flippant poem tucked behind points cards.

I open and close the wallet you gave me.
There are no possibilities,
Say when once I woke up on a school holiday morning,
And nobody else was in,
And plans stretched out over parks,
Into the back gardens of girls.

Whether or not I buy drink,
Dust puffs.

Slither. Shed skin. Slither along the same
Entries, you do, without penetrating.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

2010/11 Premiership Year: some Essaying, some Crude Predictions (Vol. IV. Tottenham Hotspur)

When the aircraft carrying Rafael van der Vaart touched down on September 2nd in the year 2010, it did so in a country where the advanced playmaker (or midfield-striker) role could never be the same again. Arjen Robben disapproved publically of the transfer: van der Vaart could have moved to yet another sovereign club in European football, Bayern Munich, having previously worn the colours of Ajax and Real Madrid. Robben went on to say that his Dutch teammate is as fine a player as Lampard, Gerrard or Fabregas, and that there is now no gap between Spurs and Arsenal. Don't think he wasn't being sincere. Perhaps a maturing Arsenal was the wrong choice of club; United or City would have made for more reasonable comparisons on paper. Perhaps he should have left it at Gerrard and Lampard and not mentioned Cesc Fabregas. What is important is that these are not flippant comments made by a braggart who had lost his marbles at Soccer City (where, almost two months before, Iker Casillas had denied the winger everlasting fame). On that July evening, as the best moment in Andres Iniesta's life happened, van der Vaart was wearing the captain's armband of a nation tortured by World Cup Final defeats, but blessed by some of the greatest attacking footballers the world has ever seen: Johans Cruyff and Neeskens, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Kiki Musampa, Dennis Bergkamp and Wesley Sneijder.

Having suffered a brief spell clothing Darren Bent, the Tottenham Hotspur no.10 shirt has returned to the dressing room peg of Robbie Keane, talent-asphyxiated though he may be. Despite this outrage, there are now three Lilywhites who, according at least to book-writer Richard Williams's demands in his prescious history, Perfect 10, could pass oaths unto those same sacred digits at the very highest level. If Bert Bliss, Les Allen, Jimmy Greaves, Hoddle, Gascoigne and Sheringham could recite every blade of White Hart Lane grass like lighthouse keepers blessed with ball skills, so now can 6. Tom Huddlestone, 14. Luka Modric (Jonathan Wilson's definition of "the modern playmaker" in world football) and already the new Dutch signing who wears 11. Warming the bench is another capable Croat, Niko Kranjcar. These playmakers are determined to establish Tottenham Hotspur as an elite club in the new decade, and not just for themselves, but because they evidently enjoy playing to the mores of The Glory Game. It might, at last, be worth Hunter Davies writing a sequel.

There is, as of now, no ostensibly world class riposte to Rooney, Drogba or Fabregas on the Tottenham squad list. Gomes, King and Gallas at their fittest and best might dispute this. So might Hollywood left winger Gareth Bale and his three poetic playmakers. Realistically however, Spurs are unable to challenge seriously for the most prestigous prizes. There are also two flaws that could stop them from maintaining their place in the top four: Redknapp is striker-lite and tactically obtuse in both 'big' and 'small' fixtures. Neither Defoe nor Crouch - Arry's Pompey lads - has ever claimed an England shirt as his own; that of a boring and frivolous major tournament team. Their partnership is primitive, big man / small man stuff, hardworking and unpleasant for ordinary defenders but unlikely to intimidate managers who boast Rooney, Drogba, Torres, Tevez and Van Persie. One up top will suit the wanderer, van der Vaart. It is an increasingly important tactical assumption, especially away from home and in Europe. Earlier this year though, Pavlyuchenko and Defoe intelligently moved Chelsea and Arsenal into defeat within the space of four days to guide Tottenham into the Champions League. They showed that, as mobile and skilled distractions in the final third, 4-4-2 can still threaten the titans of the game, whether coming up against a 4-3-2-1 or a 4-2-3-1.

However we now know there is nothing the Russian can do to atone for, well, whatever it is he had done wrong. Focused and upbeat every warm up, a fan's favourite in every stand, a proven goalscorer when it matters. In all competitions, he has scored for Spurs at a rate of 0.40 goals per game, Defoe at 0.40, Crouch at 0.35. And unlike his peers, Pavlyuchenko has had to get used to the speed of the Premiership, too often starved of opportunities. His most crucial goals include the first in Reknapp's tenure against Bolton, dragging Spurs away from the relegation mire in October 2008; there after arbitrarily ostracised, coming on to net twice against Wigan at the DW last season. He has scored the two most significant (rescue) goals of the 2010/11 campaign so far; a spectacular strike in Switzerland against Young Boys and, after losing at home againt Wigan, the delicate goal against Wolves that ensured Spurs their first league win of the season at White Hart Lane. His omission when there is no superior striker at the club - especially when Defoe is injured - can not be explained in footballing terms. Recruitment nightmares Rebrov, Postiga and Rasiak are distant memories. Perhaps it is too much to ask for the amelioration of the current caliber (Europa League / top half of the Premiership table) of strikers. Prioritising Pavlyuchenko every week is something Redknapp can do.

A more devastating truth about Harry Redknapp the tactician reveals itself to the football reader. It was Assou Ekotto's absence during the African Cup of Nations which forced Redknapp to play Bale. Then when Bale had impressed and Assou Ekotto had returned, Redknapp was had no other choice but to play Modric in his best position (central) and Bale filled in the gap at left midfield. Later still it was Palacios's suspension that allowed Huddlestone to establish a partnership with Luka Modric. Tottenham fans have benefited from an unwatched soap opera of tactical accidents: this does not happen at every club. And so shame on those who defend the boss for saying to the giggling media "What could I have done? That sort of thing happens every weekend on Hackney Marshes", or that a manager "in the Conference could do my job" or that football is "90% players, 10% tactics", or for transforming Tottenham's Sky Sports page into a permanent advert for his family. Which isn't just to say, "I didn't see it", but to go further and disagree, like some hyperventilating creationist, with empirical - video - evidence. 

Sylvie van der Vaart has all her aesthetic convincing still to do: when Rafael spins and finds an immaculate pass (into space, not to feet), or tests the brawn of gloves and goal nets, his artistry is more beautiful than any photogenic model. Closer to Penelope and Odysseus than Posh and Becks, the van der Vaarts are radiant symbols of Tottenham Hostpur Football Club's culture; about which Maradonna once described, "it's like playing at home." In my lifetime of Klinsmann, Ginola, Berbatov and van der Vaart, a trip down memory lane proffers, to varying degrees of consistency and grace, the surviving truth and beauty of the game. The associated failures are so nineties: a teamsheet televised in Champions League font, soundtracked by Handel - "Die Meister / Die Besten / Les grandes Équipes / The Champions!" - is entertaining reward for attacking football and clever business strategy.

Predicted finish: 3rd, though if you like, you can dismiss this blogger's integrity by skimming over Sigmund Freud's The Future of an Illusion or simply by reading the web address above. I call it reasoned wish-thinking: Spurs are a tactician and a world class striker short, but will climb above United and remain in the way of City - both rivals have realistic European glory to fly to later in the season, and their best players are either retiring, injured, off-form or do not know one another

Best signing: Rafael van der Vaart. I won't say Gallas

You Tubed / Football Manager wonderkid: Football Manager has been charitable to Spurs over the years. South African alcoholic Mbuelo Mabizela became the Thuram of the noughties. Tomas Pekhart, the Czech Alan Shearer. This year, be sure to follow Dean Parret and John Bostock on loan, who really are promising midfield teenagers

Flop: Robbie Keane, whose four goals at home against Burnley last season should not have justified retaining his services. Expect a lot of whinging (and diving)

Player of the Season: Tom Huddlestone who - by his continued absence from England squads - has become a symbol of everything wrong with the national football team. At sixteen, the pass master completed nine GCSEs (six at B, three at C) while playing for Derby County. He is now an established first team player and sometimes captain of a Champions League outfit. His style has been likened by various pundits to Beckenbauer, Hoddle and Xabi Alonso. Huddlestone is into football, not kick-and-rush; clipping, not hoofing; humbling, not whoring

Friday, 1 October 2010

The Expendables (2010)

* *

(Dir. Sylvester Stallone, 2010)

It often happens that a scroll of end credits begins its earthward reel and I know I’ll never see that movie again. In The Expendables, an island and some islanders get blown up; ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin is bald and wrestles for a while, and the veiny ventriloquist, Sylvester Stallone, mumbles his way through another silly flick. Stallone directs and acts. Neither effort is commendable. He might look like a gruesome elderly porn star but he is actually playing a noble protagonist - the leader of a veteran, baddy-bashing syndicate.

Much like in The A Team, its rival swab of action, the rag-and-bone mercenaries are kitted out with devastating arms and catchphrase brains. They include Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Randy Couture and Terry Crews. In the other corner, on a fictional island in the Gulf of Mexico, a tyrant known as General Garza is backed by tycoon Eric Roberts and thugs, Gary Daniels and Steve Austin. The Expendables must put a stop to this American-sponsored totalitarianism at once. A sub plot develops and Stallone, pitying the General's comely daughter, becomes desperate to rescue her. In hardly the most unusual role for a black actor in Hollywood, Crews - a former NFL athlete - has fun with a gun. He basks, after mutilating a single-file queue of enemy soldiers with a futuristic toy: “You betta remember this at Christmas!” Sad but entertaining.

I don’t remember much from the script (how can you?) but I laughed a few times. With John McClane, 'Rocky' and 'Stone Cold' essentially making appearances, this movie - much like Travolta's From Paris With Love earlier this year - is leftover fast-food for the starving. Schwarzenegger, Willis and Stallone meeting in a Church to talk with their balls is nostalgic, if not exactly cool. One hopes there is an honest hopelessness in the making of the aforementioned scenes; that The Expendables revels in irony and rebels against severity.

The fight scenes are a let down. Stallone should be disappointed for not making the most of the martial experience of Daniels, Lundgren, Li, Austin and Mickey Rourke among others. The only significant cut belongs to Rourke, and to no person's surprise. His professional duties are to counsel and tattoo Stallone. Sitting in his dim parlour, his giant features trembling and filling the screen, Rourke remembers a war in a monologue that gives us a glimpse of a better film.