Thursday, 28 January 2010

Man In The Arena- JD Salinger (1919-2010)

"Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." The last lines of The Catcher in The Rye by JD Salinger, who died today. It is an important, if slightly overrated, novel hijacked by disaffected and self-professed 'misunderstood' teens, and the odd serial killer. The line is up there with some great last lines in literature. A few spring to mind. John Fowles The Magus "A flight of pigeons over the houses; fragments of freedom, hazard, an anagram made flesh. And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves." Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho: "This is not an exit." Of course, the great closing line of the great American novel- The Great Gatsby- "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Man In The Arena- Wayne Rooney

I am the archetypal football fan- biased to the point of blindness and bellicose to the point of nastiness. I am a football fan. I am rancorous. Incite me. I have gall and pride. Debate with me, argue with me, agree with me, don't agree with me. But don't silence me. I enjoy nothing more than assuming an immediate- and irrational- hatred of a footballer when in rival colours, or insisting that half of a current World XI would be made up of my team's players, or boring deep into the annals of my club's history so that the darkness of its current underachievement might be alleviated by some reflected glory, like light traveling from some distant star. It follows that a paean to a United player from a Liverpool fan is, at best, unlikely. But unthinkable? No. The Wayne Rooney of the 2009/2010 has earned this. So for him- a moment where I swallow my partisan bile. Wayne Rooney has been a marvel this season; free-scoring, marauding, creating with grace and orchestrating with power. He is the most intelligent footballer in the world- spatial awareness, anticipation, timing of runs. Control is instant, gears change seamlessly and with the ball at his feet he is irresistible. It is both the the stuck-to-foot gliding of an Henry or Torres, and the drive of a Zidane. The ball is under his spell, and we go with him. He is everything to United. At Eastlands, in the first leg of the Carling Cup Semi-Final, eleven City players were playing one man- he burst, danced, dazzled his way through their defenses, one moment a ball was drawn out of the air with a gravitational precision, the next a pass was chiseled out with beautiful ease. This ease is his gift- why he is so watchable- he plays with the bravery for invention, the fearlessness, of a child in the street. Yesterday he scored a crucial goal at a crucial time in another brilliantly belligerent Manchester derby. With Gerrard's season a non-event, Rooney will be England's ammunition in South Africa- if he can catalyze plays in the same manner as he does for United, England will have a good tournament. 21 goals in 29 games is a heartening return for a player who is now as much a poacher as a creator. Treacherous and gushing tribute complete, time for some moderation. Horrible Manc twat.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Theatre for The Arena- Red

John Logan. Donmar Warehouse. London.

John Logan's portrait of an artist and a young man is typical of all productions I have seen at the Donmar. The acting is pitched perfectly, the use of its intimate venue is inventive and always original and it is thoroughly engaging. Both production and play are excellent. The setting is Mark Rothko's studio- details are engrossing- a sink encrusted with what looks like centuries of paint, a heady aroma of white spirit, groundsheets flecked with colour. There is an inherent irony to the work's presentation, and Alfred Molina's embodiment, of Rothko. Meditations on death and posterity abound; 'Rothko and Rembrandt, Rothko and Rembrandt, Rothko and Rembrandt' he chants with an almost religious fervor- a fantastical incantation, an attempt to convince himself that he is worthy of the same breath and will be as canonical as the Old Master. That he will matter. But Rothko himself is a life force- blustering, antagonistic, didactic, he moves in fits and bursts- of anger, of creativity. The play's most memorable scene has him and his assistant priming a canvas with frenetic exhilaration. It is raw and involving artistic expression, paint springs and smells on the stage, and we are charmed to be party to it. Rothko's energy is his character; he casts himself as a titan raging against the dying of the light and the contrast between light and dark form a key conceit for the play. He eschewed natural light- he saw it as clinical, giving a studio the atmosphere of a surgery. Only in soft, controlled light could the work 'pulsate'- perhaps a further indication of his pretension, his artistic tyranny. But darkness for Rothko is more than literal. It is youth yielding to age. It is the untimely death of Jackson Pollock. It is the burgeoning success of 'consumer' artists such as Lichtenstein and Warhol, whose work Rothko derides as 'mantlepiece' art, artwork that people buy to keep up with the Joneses. Finally, it is reduction of Rothko's palette, from plums and scarlets to sooty grey and bible black, in the face of incipient oblivion. This is well realized by Christopher Oram's stage design- background canvases are intermittently changed throughout the production, red's predominance is eaten away by black. Rothko's bombast is fuelled by a desire that his work be more than a bourgeois interior design aid- that his shapes could be mouths, his colours howls, eliciting the entropy and Shakespearian sense of inevitability at the heart of Rothko's human condition. When he asks his assistant Ken (Eddie Redmayne) 'Have you read Hamlet?' he may as well have said 'Do you understand my art?' But, the hypocrisy of Rothko's diatribes is flagged by his decision to accept a commission from the New York Four Seasons, his paintings will be a visual appetizer to the convoluted and overpriced dishes on offer. One particular speech describes his distaste for his 'vulnerable' paintings new home- and in the acerbic adverbs that occasion his description of the clientele he rejects not only their class, but humanity in its entirety. Ken is on site to make this hypocrisy all the more clear and painful as he morphs from timid ingénu to a vocal advocate for a new artistic age, a surrogate conscience who divests Rothko of his pretensions and delusions of infallibility. He is Lear's Fool in a painter's overalls. Rothko's tragedy is not Lear's, his children are his paintings and they outlive him, but nothing would sate his vanity more than the comparison- an equatable suffering to a titan of literature. Sterling stuff again from the Donmar.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Film for The Arena- Dead Presidents (1995)

Mark Kermode followed up his review of the Hughes Brothers latest feature The Book of Eli with a special tribute to Dead Presidents. He said that it was the pair's best work and implored people to seek out a copy of it and have a watch. I rarely disagree with Kermode, and often find we champion the same films. He adored The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (my film of the last decade) almost as much as me. I have on occasion taken issue with him, namely for customarily greeting pictures from the Judd Apatow stable with a sigh. Superbad, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express are all perfectly fine and enjoyable, and are not an example of the 'death of narrative cinema.' More recently, he inveighed against a film I rather enjoyed- Fantastic Mr. Fox- which was charming- beautifully crafted and funny. The jokes were knowingly, but not snidely, above Dahl's intended audience- and his spirit was retained. Dead Presidents is a fine piece of work. It has a drawn out and memorable opening credit sequence- dramatic close-up shots of flames ripping through the stoic faces of dead presidents, as dollar bills burn. The sequence is prescient of a complication during the heist, but also a visual metaphor for a troubled America- one lingering shot shows the flames slowly eating the 'In God We Trust' adage into darkness. It manages to control ideas about race, war (and specifically the emptiness of the Vietnam veteran) drugs and the economy. It has a brutal 20 minute Vietnam sequence, which does as much to realize the horror and moral vacuity of the soldier's lifestyle as Platoon. Its also worth seeking out for one of the greatest heist sequences committed to film (other recent ones that spring to mind are Heat, Point Break, The Dark Knight and a poignantly botched one in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead). This heist is deftly controlled- uncomfortably tense, sickeningly violent and there is something timelessly disturbing about the white-face disguise used. Three more reasons to watch; first, a cameo by Martin Sheen as a court judge (always great when pontificating, see The West WIng) and second a performance of quality from Chris Tucker before he gurned and laughed his way through the Rush Hour movies. FInally, the soundtrack- a collection of soulful orations and smooth funk, showcasing the likes of Barry White and Isaac Hayes, which inspirits the films with vigour and dampens it with melancholy at every turn. Worth a watch.

Black and Gold Superbowl

There are times when the argument of home advantage- fact or fallacy?- in sport is muted, struck dumb by a wall of noise. At Anfield on the 4th of May 2005 Liverpool were carried to Istanbul and their fifth European Cup by the phenomenon. Chelsea's players walked out of the dressing room puffed up, prepared, upright- only to buckle, faced with a weight of catcalls and whistling that elicited a visible, physical reaction in the players. Their shoulders dropped, they faded. Romantics might argue that the atmosphere willed balls over the line, caused shots to be dragged wide. A more serious takeaway lies in how communication was compromised by the atmosphere- Benitez's tongue was bloodied by his vocal exertions, but need he have shouted at all? Plans and preparations were laid in the days ahead, last minute advice was dealt out, and the players walked out. For all the imploring and wild gesticulation, there is a rupture between player and manager. When Gerrard et al. took to the field they had a different kind of support, a motivation that morphed from a Spanish lilted whisper in the ear, to a throaty scouse roar. The Superdome on Sunday night is a greater example- anchored not by romantic notions, but by the fans effecting a real schism between coach and player. Noise levels were especially important for Vikings QB Farve pre-snap, who found calling an audible a virtual impossibility. Adjustments, changes in tack, however innocuous, are unwanted on game day. Communication problems were tenable- on the final drive of the 4th Quarter, the Vikings were penalized for to many men on the field. Field-goal range was yielded, Farve paused for too long, passed, intercepted. A mental mistake, an unforced error. Or perhaps a crowd-force error. These errors cost the Vikings a place in the Superbowl in a game they dominated on almost all criteria- rushing yards, passing yards, downs and possession time. But a host of turnovers- three fumbles and two interceptions- proved their undoing. The occasion seemed to haunt them- the Superbowl loomed large. But, the Dome loomed larger. Special mention goes to Garrett Hartley, especially with Viking's coach Childress icing the kicker, for the most important swing of his boot in Saint's history. What a wonderful story it would be if the Saints can win in Miami on the 7th. Ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, a franchise which some predicted would flat-line has a pulse again. The party in New Orleans would be colourful, long and loud.