Monday, 20 February 2012

Football's odd man out on film: Substitute

If you get the chance to see it, I highly recommend the film Substitute, which screened last week in Ciné Lumière's Ready Steady Doc! sporting season. The film was made by French footballer Vikash Dhorasoo, who shot his experiences of World Cup 2006 on a Super 8 camera given to him by his friend Fred Poulet, the film's co-director.

A midfielder who played for Lyon, AC Milan and PSG, among others, Dhorasoo helped France qualify, but once Raymond Domenech's team reaches the tournament he finds himself abandoned. He plays only 16 minutes of football.

He voices his frustration in phone calls to Poulet, who follows him around Germany for games. (The film could also serve as a nice little portrait of the country: it feels very familiar.) Dhorasoo speaks eloquently of his role, in the main avoiding the clichés to which we're permanently subjected in the English game. (Can we make out books by Jonathan Coe and Stefan Zweig in blurry shot, or am I imagining it?)

Redemption for the player comes when he decides to throw himself wholeheartedly into the documentary project, though this could as easily be his undoing, alienating him from teammates and the management (he quit not long after). Poulet makes the most of the initial footage Dhorasoo shoots to underline the footballer's estrangement from the squad but it is, too, a convenient fiction.

Dhorasoo can't show his clunky camera in public - nor film other protagonists privately without their permission - so we're left with the world of the footballer-traveller: hotel rooms, hotel corridors; there are several poignant shots of the team schedule, including matches in which Dhorasoo will never play. The technology he's given, which gives the film a nostalgic look redolent of the 1970s, contrasts with the 17 cameras trained on Zinedine Zidane by Douglas Gordon in the same year for film Zidane.

Zidane's availability, of course, is the main reason Dhorasoo is not playing and it is Zidane's outrageous act in the final that condemns France to finishing as runners-up. Throughout the film sports fans are confronted by the foreknowledge of the team's results and Poulet expends little energy filling us in; instead we have Dhorasoo wandering onto the pitch on his own at the final whistle of a game to salute the fans, or training with two other players who seem to have been left to have their own kickabout on the fringes of the main squad.

There's uncommon serendipity: Poulet films Dhorasoo in the grounds of the team hotel when, unnoticed by both, a branch falls from a tree to the ground behind the footballer. If a branch falls from a tree and nobody notices... A beautiful film, which I must try and get on DVD.

Ready Steady Doc! closes this Thursday, 23 February, with a look at the London 1948 Olympic Games through the eyes of the visiting Belgian team. The screening is due to be attended 98-year-old Yvonne Van Bets, who was a member of that team.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Cult viewing: Alex Cox and Moviedrome

For the current generation of nascent film buffs, there is Mark Cousins but the bolstering of my cinema knowledge came from director Alex Cox, presenter of BBC2's gloriously idiosyncratic Moviedrome. In the second guide to this cult film series of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cox warns: 'If you love big, glossy Hollywood productions starring Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, beware: the 'Drome may damage your taste!' (Substitute De Niro for Redford and little has changed.)

The first three seasons featured Big Wednesday, The Honeymoon Killers, One-Eyed-Jacks, Rumblefish... Peckinpah, Romero, Malick, Godard, Kubrick, Carpenter, Raimi and Craven are all present and correct . 'If there's a typical Moviedrome film,' Cox writes, 'it was probably financed by a major studio that fired the director half-way through and then pulled out entirely, leaving the cast to pool their savings and finish the film in another country, under the directorship of a generous used-car dealer.'

This could almost be the formula for Cox's own productions; his Walker featured here. Made in Nicaragua, it stars a Michael Fassbender-like Ed Harris as the eponymous, psychotic adventurer anti-hero and was written by Rudy Wurlitzer (author of Two-Lane Blacktop, which is one of those films that has such a groundswell of supporters currently it barely qualifies as a cult movie; it just needs somebody to screen it). 'There's not much... I can say about this film, since I am its director,' Cox says, 'I personally am very fond of it.'

It's worth pointing out The Long Hair of Death (1964), a 'spaghetti horror' directed by Anthony Dawson, which could form a counterpiece to Hammer's much fêted Witchfinder General (1968, Michael Reeves) - also included. There are, naturally, spaghetti westerns, given Cox's fascination, including Django (1966) and The Big Silence (1969) by Sergio Corbucci, A Bullet for the General (1966, Damiano Damiani), plus Sergio Sollima's Face to Face (1967), and Requiescant (1968, Carlo Lizzani)

Don Siegel features, of course - there's The Beguiled (1971) and Escape from Alcatraz (1979) - as well as John Sayles (for Alligator, 1980) and Sam Fuller, for Verboten! (1958) and Run of the Arrow (1957). There are several films by Robert Aldrich (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The California Dolls, Ulzana's Raid and The Big Knife), none of which I've seen, aargh!

Other curios spike my curiosity, too: Inserts (1975, John Byrum) and Romance of a Horse Thief (1971, Abraham Polonsky). A big fan of Vincent Ward - whose brilliant 1988 film The Navigator received a Moviedrome screening - I'm also intrigued by other contemporary choices, including Wayne Coe's Grim Prairie Tales (1990) and James Foley's At Close Range (1986), with Sean Penn, Christopher Walken and Mary Stuart Masterson.

Given that BBC2 separately celebrated Russian, Japanese and French cinema it's perhaps understandable Solaris (1972) was Moviedrome's first Soviet film. Cox recommends war film Come and See (1985): 'The Russians are our neighbours, right? And 20 million of them died on our side in World War II.'

Do also check out Cox's work: start with the excellent Highway Patrolman (1991). And, if you get the chance, dig out his introduction to the hugely underrated Bird (1988), directed by Clint Eastwood, who rightly also received a Moviedrome screening for Play Misty for Me (1971). Film clubs aren't a new phenomenon, but rarely can one have had such far-reaching appeal.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Dotty for Yayoi

Yayoi Kusama has been in town to launch a major retrospective at Tate Modern. In the summer of 2009 the Japanese artist - who famously is said to have chosen to reside in a mental hospital - decorated South Bank trees as part of the Hayward Gallery's Walking in My Mind (pictured above). This time round there is new work at Victoria Miro reminiscent of Austrialian aboriginal art, with touches of Cocteau and Niki de Saint Phalle, plus this version of outdoor installation Narcissus Garden (1966), which looked great locked in the ice on launch night:

Friday, 10 February 2012

Hungary's legendary Sindbad

I don't feel yesterday's post works, on Austrian-Hungarian literature available in English translation, alongside the tragic ends of the authors. I was inspired by New York Review Books' edition of Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy's short story collection The Adventures of Sindbad.

In his excellent historical introduction, George Szirtes suggests the book might have served 'a young Hungarian man of the 1920s... as a working manual of sexual relations.' Within a couple of chapters, Krúdy's semi-autobiographical hero is dead, but Sindbad's pursuit of women continues nonetheless.

'He liked lies, illusions, fictions and imagination - he would love to have swung from the high trapeze in a rose-pink vest or been an organist at a princely residence, or a confessor in a Jesuit church! A sought-after gynaecologist in Pest or a young tutor in a girls' school!'

I love his description of an elderly passerby's attention to a former paramour: 'The old gentleman's eyes rolled over her like a beer barrel across a yard.' Sindbad's thoughts infuse Ginsberg with melancholy: 'Frivolous, holy, holy and wearisome life! How nice it would be to start again!' A feeling underlined in the next story: 'A pity I am too old to begin my life anew.'

In its Classics series, NYRB could be accused of assembling a nice bunch of misogynists, including Georges Simenon and Alberto Moravia (Boredom). With them Kruda offers a prayer: 'Lord... give me untroubled dreams and a quiet night. Stop my ears against words poured into it by women. Help me forget the scent of their hair, the strange lightning of their eyes, the taste of their hands and the moist kisses of their mouths.

'Lord, you who are wise, advise when they are lying, which is always. Remind me that the truth is something they never tell. That they never do love. Lord, up there, far beyond the tower, think occasionally of me, a poor foolish man, an admirer of women, who believes in their smiles, their kisses, their tickling and their blessed lies... Lord protect me, never let me fall into the hands of women.'

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The empire strikes back

250th post: Ill health, suicide; ill health, suicide

Literature of the Austro-Hungarian empire has gained an increasing hold in English, kickstarted almost a generation ago by poet Michael Hofmann (latterly behind a revival of interest in Hans Fallada). Hofmann has just translated and edited Roth's Life in Letters, but German-language voices have been bolstered by such Hungarians as Sandor Márai and Gyula Krúdy.

Hofmann's translations of Joseph Roth are vital reading, notably his portrait of the collapse of the Habsburgs, The Radetzky March (1932). In 1933, Roth settled in Paris, where he died in 1939. Roth's final years were marked by the alcoholism he outlined in final novel The Legend of the Holy Drinker ('his last detail,' according to Hofmann), which was filmed by Ermanno Olmi. Rutger Hauer was the perhaps unlikely star of this miraculous homeless drama, which closes with the unforgettable: 'May God grant us all, all of us drinkers, such a good and easy death!'

Hofmann takes up the tale of Roth's death: 'In 1938, he went to Horváth's funeral, and told friends that the next obituary they would write would be his own. It was the news of another friend's death, the suicide of the playwright Ernst Toller, that precipitated his own collapse...' He died aged 44.

Through his descent into poverty, Roth was supported by compatriot Stefan Zweig who has caught imaginations for his novel Beware of Pity (1939). There is, too, The Post Office Girl, which was found among the author's manuscripts after his death and has been republished by Sort of Books (with a quote from Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant on the cover).

The author of short fiction The Royal Game and Letter from an Unknown Woman (filmed by Max Ophüls) left Austria in 1935 and became a naturalised Briton. He travelled to the US and onto Brazil where, on 22 February 1942 - an anniversary that occurs soon - he and his wife committed suicide.

For more short stories I especially recommend a collection by a Hungarian writer of the period: Life is a Dream (1931) is published in Penguin's Central European Classics series. Author Gyula Krúdy is also served by New York Review Books, which publishes a couple of his works, including The Adventures of Sindbad. The rogueish author is another who ended his life in poverty, inspiring compatriot Sándor Márai to lead a reappraisal with his own Sindbad Comes Home (1940).

Márai was also rediscovered posthumously thanks to the German publication of his Embers (Die Glut) in 1999 (it was later adapted by Christopher Hampton for a London stage production starring Jeremy Irons), followed by Conversations in Bolzano (alternately Casanova in Bolzano) and The Rebels. Márai's publishers made much play of the author's unhappy end: having survived the Nazis and Communists, he fled to the US where, in 1989, he too killed himself - just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the return of democracy to central Europe, is the line.

Monday, 6 February 2012

ROA in Brussels

Some work by the Belgian graffiti artist, in his home country. Click here for more of his animals on the loose in London.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A Pet Shop Boys iconography

On Monday 6 February, Pet Shop Boys release their second collection of non-album tracks, Format, covering 1996-2009. I've written elsewhere about the synth duo's best b-sides so I thought I'd look at some of my favourite PSB sleeves, which are tackled exhaustively in Philip Hoare and Chris Heath's five-year-old Catalogue (Thames & Hudson) - quoted below.

1. Graphic
For many, the covers for the group's first two albums - 1986's Please and the following year's Actually - represent iconic moments, but my favourite is this graphic interpretation for their third, dance-y outing. In the same manner they played with Cindy Palmano's photograph for the Actually sleeve for greatest hits Discography - with Neil Tennant arching his eyebrow instead of yawning - so this could be said to be the starting point for the colourful tick that heralded their last album, Yes (2009). The band's regular designer Mark Farrow found the image looking through a professional book of colour combinations. Tennant says, 'It's our least favourite sleeve.'

2. Portrait
Photographer Eric Watson has shot many Pet Shop Boys' covers and this is one of my favourites, in great part due to my anticipation at the time for what is my favourite PSB single. He also shot the four photos that make up the centrepiece of accompanying album, Behaviour (1990), although second single Being Boring features some great, separate shots of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe by the Douglas Brothers. So Hard's 12" sleeve featured large lettering and numbers, a device developed on...

3. Typographic
The fourth and final single from the Actually album, Heart (1988), was written for Madonna but the Boys' decided to keep it for themselves. As with so many of Watson's pictures of Tennant and Lowe, this featured the duo in some new clothes they were keen to show off. Different formats give an indication of Farrow's predilection for playing with fonts and words: on the 12", he replaced the title with the word 'Remix'. As early as 1986's Suburbia single, the designer had given up on lettering altogether, deciding a picture of Lowe in denim cap, Issey Miyake shades and a stripey T-shirt was enough to represent them. 'It's everything about Pet Shop Boys summed up to me in a photo,' Farrow says. 'That's something I've never backed away from - I've always thought that if the photograph is strong enough to do the work on its own then I don't really need to do anything. In my mind at that time... the way Chris looked was the logo of the Pet Shop Boys.'

4. Arty
I don't know about you, I find the covers for Disco 3, London, I get along... pretty unexciting, so I went for this lo-fi number instead. The first of the band's remix albums, the cover image for Disco (1986) was taken from a video Tennant and Lowe filmed in Milan themselves for song Paninaro. The inner sleeve features Tennant in a cowboy hat from the same shoot, which is pretty cool. The album's title was intended as deliberate provocation at the time - notably in the US - while the image, to me, represents a surprisingly home-made approach, despite the neon colours and pixellation. It's not for nothing their 2003 compilation is called Pop Art.

5. Offbeat
In 1993, Pet Shop Boys reached the peak of their pop sensibility with album Very, and matched it with a revolutionary CD box that went up for all sorts of awards and features in design exhibitions to this day. After that, well, things went a bit odd - I haven't even uploaded 1999's Nightlife to my iPod, and only half of Release (2002). Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for album Bilingual (1996), which featured another attempt to rework the CD box, and further off-guard snaps of the Boys. This image, for single A red letter day, was shot by Pennie Smith in Notting Hill and seems surprisingly informal but perhaps a little unnerving, too; Smith is best known for photographing rock stars like the Rolling Stones. This isn't how we expect to see the band. In typically extravagant manner, the outer sleeves were entirely red - a reversal of Behaviour's inner, red lining.