Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Heart's Blood

Your heart is not just a bloody pump.
Otherwise, there wouldn't be heart ache
and heart burn. Broken hearted
hearts on fire.
The heart of the matter,
or, them what don't have no heart at all!

When they cracked me open
and put me on a heart machine,
they pumped me full of someone else's blood,
gifted me a void.
I lost most of my short-term memories.
But not you. Never you!

Sometimes I call numbers somehow
stuck in my mind. I get people I don't know.
Hear alarm clocks going off
from far away. Black holes in my life,
They are, I'm sure, carried in the corpuscles
of my blood: Mysterious strangers.

So, I know what's mine is mine
But there's someone else out there,
their heart pumping: Carrying my cells.
The burden of my lost memories
Straining sorrowfully at their atom heart
Foot tapping to a funk beat I alone hear.

—Ivor Irwin

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Macular Degenerate or Is Arséne Wenger Legally Blind?

Arsenal coach Arséne Wenger takes a loss to Manchester United badly!

Many of you don’t like Arséne Wenger. Being the big-hearted, forbearing person that I am, and admiring his dexterity with the English language, which is far superior to my own, although I can’t say I ‘like’ him, I can definitely say I admire Wenger's gift for making Arsenal into the greatest Selling Club in the world. There’s that and his rigid adherence to a fast, pretty, short-passing mechanized style of play that reminds everybody of the style he taught the guys who make FIFA Soccer for PlayStation and XBox360. Until Arséne, the notion of ‘walking the ball into the net’ was a joke. Now it’s taken seriously. No one can walk the ball into the net with the same willful panache as Arséne’s Arsenal artistes.

Fluent in five languages, Wenger is a man who insists he has "no other hobbies." Perhaps a vacation may be due. During the two press conferences before the game on Saturday, August 29 against Manchester United, the Arsenal boss twice alluded to a E.U.F.A. 'Witch-hunt' after his striker, Eduardo, was charged with diving during a Champions League victory over Glasgow Celtic and was, subsequently, suspended from two E.C.C. games.

"I find it a complete disgrace and unacceptable," the Alsatian barked. "It singles out a player to be a cheat and that is not acceptable. I believe you can debate whether it is a penalty or not, but this charge implies there was intent and a desire to cheat the referee. Having seen the pictures again, nothing is conclusive. It is a Witch-hunt."

By 'pictures', I believe Wenger means that he looked again and again at the same video most of the rest of us saw. If Eduardo, who made no contact with any other player before throwing himself to the ground as if a bullet had felled him, was moved by some divine force of nature, only his coach knows exactly where this force comes from. One is certainly left bamboozled enough by what Wenger actually saw to wonder if the F.A. might, instead of insulting Wenger with the aforementioned suggestion that he ought to take a break, simply send him on a trip to the optometrist's office.

Beaten on Saturday by a disappointingly anemic Manchester United side, despite the predictions of a preponderance of opinion among the pundits, ex-players and the press, Wenger was too big a man to claim that the linesman was wrong when he called Robin Van Persie’s last second goal offside. Instead, Arséne went on a rant about Manchester United playing 'anti-football.' Wenger also babbled out various bellicose insults in the direction of referee Mike Dean for letting United "repeatedly foul" his side.

"I have seen a player make 20 fouls without getting a yellow card. You don't need me to tell you who, but their player gets away without a yellow card. It's quite amazing," stormed Wenger. When someone in the press corps mentioned that his players had received six yellow cards of their own versus United's three, Wenger moved on to a new questioner. In truth, it's the usual case of Wengeresque deja vu again. Indeed, after a very similar 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford in 2004, his players having been issued nine yellow cards and an F.A. fine, Wenger's only defense was to attack the referee and to try to steer the discussion in a new direction. Martin Samuel and Kevin McKenna, two of Britain's more conscientious football reporters persisted with their questioning about the Gooners' predilection for petty fouls, but, in each stated example, Wenger insisted he hadn't seen any of them. Not a one.

"How is it you expect me to comment on something I clearly did not see," he insisted with a Gallic shrug

Darren Fletcher's "20 fouls" having gone unpunished, Wenger used this excuse of "persistent fouls" against his pure, naïve charges to twist the argument around toward the new subject of diving. This after E.U.F.A.'s decision to ban his star striker Eduardo from two games after he was caught diving and then simulating an injury by the referee in a Champions League win over Glasgow Celtic on the previous Wednesday. Indeed, another Arsenal player, Emmanuel Eboue, was cautioned for diving against United, although, obviously, it goes without saying that Wenger insisted he had not seen it. Both United and Celtic, Wenger repeated, "directly targeted my players."

To be sure, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher were tackling Denilson, Eboue and Sagna hard and conceded a number of dangerous free kicks. These fouls were witnessed by Wenger. "I don't know (why they went unpunished). You should ask the referees. I don't know." To an unbiased eye, this kind of hard-tackling, no-quarter football is what the game is really all about. To Wenger, however, his macular faculties constantly being, as we say in England, "on the blink," contact in general and tackles against his players in particular, must genuinely seem crude and brutal.

For fairness' sake, I tried to find an entry on 'temporary blindness' in both the Yahoo Health Encyclopedia and on the web site of the American Optometric association. There was nothing. Anyone with vision worse than 20/200 which cannot be corrected with corrective lenses can be considered legally blind.

According to the A.O.A. "A legally blind person with vision of 20/200 has to be as close as 20 feet to identify objects that people with normal vision can spot from 200 feet. So a legally blind person needs a distance of two feet to spot the letters on a standard eye chart that is 20 feet away. Legal blindness is very common in older people because eyesight tends to worsen with time and age. Approximately 135 out of every 1,000 people over the age of 65 are considered legally blind. Only about 10% of legally blind people read Braille. A much smaller percentage use white canes or guide dogs."

Many of you will insist that I am biased or insane, but I honestly believe that Arséne Wenger is a macular degenerate. It's quite logical to believe that he's legally blind, or, at best for him, although not necessarily our beloved game, often—very often! —temporarily blind.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On President Obama’s Speaking to Our Kids

To be sure, the obnoxious Right’s relentless hissy-fit about President Obama’s school chit-chat is mean-spirited and cynical. Still, there is a point in reasoning that all political and religious leadership ought to be kept out of the public school classroom. In this case, the imperial presidency rears its ugly head and I want to decapitate it.

I grew up in England, where public school is actually private school. Public school there meant corporal punishment, starched uniforms, polished shoes and the absolute intimidation of the student body by teachers. Please don’t ask me to explain why. I am still recovering from the beatings I took like a champ and the kind of learning by rote that still allows me to remember Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ now and forever. I do know, however, that the President “has that lean and hungry look.” Anyway, I digress, once, when I was in the common folks’ primary school, our local M.P. came to visit us in the classroom. All I remember about him was that he wore a bow-tie and had a waxed handlebar moustache. In a prissy upper-class voice, he told us all to study hard and stay in school in the most blah, anodyne way. Yawn! Later, four years later, in an attempt to reach into our addled adolescent brains and communicate concepts beyond rote and fear, the Manchester board of education brought in Willie.

Willie’s visit came courtesy of Her Majesty’s Pleasure at Strangeways Prison. About 5’3” with a thick Glasgow Gorbals accent and brilliant blue eyes, he rolled up his sleeves and showed off his tattoos and track marks. Then he rolled his trousers up to the knee and showed off the collapsed veins and tracks all down his calves and feet, even between his toes. This interested us very much. He told us about his service years during World War Two and how he got addicted to painkillers when he was a medic serving with Montgomery in the Western Desert. Finally, he did a Q and A. We asked him what seemed like logical questions to ask a junkie. What was better? White or brown eych? Did he like Methodone? Then he told us about using Preparation H to shrink the kind of scabbed-over wounds and collapsed veins you get from shooting up. Naturally, we knew plenty already about his 'shock' subject matter. So, when talk turned to hints about the do's and don'ts of shooting up between the toes, and, when all other veins fail, in the eye socket, the teacher suddenly got a case of cold feet and prevailed upon Willie's minder to interrupt. At that point Willie's rhetoric turned into the usual usual: Stay in school, work hard, respect and obey your parents and teachers, never challenge authority, and, always, always always remember that dope is for dopes.

“Dinna grow up tae be like me, lads,” Willie said. “He-ruin is thay road tae hell!”

I doubt that I would have ever become a true dope fiend anyway, but, as I remember Willie so vividly, I think the school board was wise.

I’ve been living in the United States for 32 years. England, however, never leaves me. The aftermath of the Philby/Blunt affair and the endless sectarian strife in Northern Ireland lead me to mistrust all authority figures. As with popes, pastors, rabbis, litigators, physicians and politicians in general, I deeply object to the automatic elevation of senators, five-star generals, rich folks and presidents in general to the role of “trusted moral leader.” Consequently, I deeply, humbly wish President Obama and all his advisors and successors will reject and eschew that role, instead of attempting to further the narcissistic, narcotic vanity that is the awful notion of the Imperial Presidency. This was one of the reasons I enjoyed the eight years of the Clinton presidency. You knew he was a hustler. A clever good-ol'-bwoy on the make! Liking Bill Clinton always seemed to be beside the point. He was a first-rate C.E.O., although I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him.

Let’s face it, after Nancy Reagan’s 'Just Say No!' rants and Dubya’s bizarre predilection for abstinence-only ‘education,’ American parents ought to be mistrustful and skeptical about any notion which posits that our children’s behavior can and ought to be influenced by a presidential speech. Unfortunately, there's a small group of folks out there which thinks the notion of the bully pulpit is a reasonable one. Me: I just think that the time the President of the United States' speech takes up would be far better occupied in learning mathematics. Whether the dose of ra-ra is overtly political and self-serving or not, the truth is that President Obama’s speech will be focused around the idea that he’s a role model and life adviser. This is problematic. Is the presidency, in and of itself, presumed to confer his or her superior status as a moral role model, including chats with kids meant to influence their life choices? The Big Macher, Father-in-Chief role is mine in my house. My son doesn’t need another one: I’m it!!!

To me it’s creepy if the president uses kids as shills or props, while he tries ever so hard to convince their parents of the sincerity of his educational policies. Consequently, if Obama starts to do this annually, one suspects his successors will carry on his neo-first-day-of-school policy into perpetuity. Couldn’t we all prevent ourselves from embracing trouble if we kept our ideological obsessions away from our children until they’ve had years more of educational opportunity to figure out their political priorities for themselves? If you can't bring in Willie, why bother?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Can Manchester United Make it Four in A Row?

Yes They Can: If the Gaffer Reads the Writing on the Wall!!!

Well, having had his head handed to him twice last season, Sir Alex Ferguson still seems bound and determined to ignore the handwriting on the wall. The sheer depth of talent in his squad, however, will always allow the Gaffer to peek into the abyss, throw out some appropriate barbs meant to psych out the immediate opposition and still find a way to pull a nineteenth trophy. Nevertheless, slightly weakened, at least psychologically, by the departure of Ronaldo and Tevez and the shrill clang and rattle of coin resounding from the deep oil money-filled pockets of Manchester City, the grand old geezer of British football and his squad really do have their work cut out for them this season.

“You need a new leader!” the handwriting says.

And we do. Rio’s magazine is very nice. I am impressed. He has also become, in partnership with Chelsea’s Ashley Cole--yes, the Cashley Grrrl and her bad left-footed self--a film producer. This is all splendid and wonderful. I’m sure Rio’s thinking ahead to retirement. Still, the absolute howler Rio committed for England on Wednesday while making a simple back pass may be the sign of a return to old habits and vices, or even a flashback. Neither Rio nor Ryan Giggs owns either the moxy or personality to be the truly great captain United need. Sir Alex needs to step in now and force the responsibility on Wayne Rooney, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, or... someone new!!! Picking Wazza may sound daft, but I think it would help force him to grow up.

I was kind of disappointed to see a strong character like Lorik Cana sign for Sunderland on the cheap. Cana, a decent post-to-post midfielder and an inspiring gung-ho captain for Olympique Marseille, would have made a wonderful skipper and definitely would have made a more natural successor to Roy Keane than the Gaffer’s pet, Darren Fletcher. Now don’t get me wrong, Fletcher is definitely what Ferguson calls a ‘trier.’ To be sure, Fergie was referring to Carlos ‘el traidor’ Tevez at the time, but, I say, if the shoe fits... Darren has been learning on the job for six seasons now and his diligence is to be applauded. As a sort of super substitute, I think Fletcher is fine and capable of being even more adaptable than Johnny O’Shea. For some reason, however, Fletcher’s diligence and hard graft is mistaken for quality. I have never been enamored of the Scotsman, but have seen a steady incremental improvement. There are those who believe he was the missing link in the E.C.C. final against Barcelona. This is absurd! Whether we’re up against Xabi Alonso, Stevie G and Javier Mascherano or the even better midfield of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, the fact is that we just don’t have the horses in central midfield to take it to the next level! In a nutshell: Anderson is still being forced to play out of position and Fletcher simply isn't good enough. This is United's single biggest problem.

“You need a truly great hard midfielder if you want to win everything,” the handwriting says.

Now that Xabi Alonso’s gone, I’m not really worried about Liverpool. His replacement, Alberto Aquilani, is a fine footballer; but beyond his constant ankle problems, it will take him a season for him to get acclimated to the speed of the EPL. Buying Glen Johnson will improve their right side a lot, but, ultimately, Liverpool are completely dependent upon Fernando Torres and Stevie Gerrard remaining fit. I hear Rafa Benítez is a deeply religious man who prays every morning with his daughters. If Torres manages to stay fit throughout the season, I, too, may become a believer in miracles. I won't make too much of 'Pool's 2-1 mugging by Spurs last weekend and then the humiliation by Burnley, except to make note of the fact that they only lost two Premiership games in all of last season.

As I write, I hear on Spanish language radio that Arsenal are trying to squeeze 45 million quid out of Barcelona before agreeing to flog Cesc Fabregas next year. Even with Fabregas, even if there were to be a miraculous shopping binge before the window closes, I can’t see the Arse staying in the top four. Having massacred Everton 6-1 at Goodison in their first game, Gooner fans are already talking the talk. Yesterday I got eight e-mails from different Arse men. Promises and predictions! The usual! I say sssssh! Same old Arsenal: No testosterone!

Are Chelsea good? Sure Chelsea are good, but they’re getting really old. If Chelsea stay fit, particularly my darling Michael Essien, they have to stand a good chance. Anyone watching the Community Shield match clearly saw that this cynical group of mercenaries are going to grind out victories any which way they need to. Carvalho, Terry and Ballack are gristled, mean, dirty and past their pomp, but they will well and truly mount up for this their last serious season as a group and go for it. Clearly, this season Chelsea will be very physical, like Big Sam’s version of Bolton Wanderers, only with a touch of class. Aston Villa and Everton will hang in there on the periphery, but just don’t have good enough squads. Both teams got badly beaten in their first match, and, although there shouldn't be too much made of it, Joleon Lescott moping for a move to Manchester City for a whole season will poison the Toffees dressing room in much the same way Gareth Barry's whinging to be a Scouser hurt Villa last season. This leaves Manchester City. Despite their still being a little anemic-looking at the back, I have to believe their depth of talent will tell on the opposition after January, especially if Robinho is happy. It is imperative that the old big four need to put them to the sword early in the season before they’ve gelled as a unit, or else they really may sneak into the top three.

This brings me back to United. As I said earlier, United’s only two major defeats of last season were very public, totally humiliating and telegraphed our weaknesses to all and sundry. We have three potentially brilliant attacking midfielders in the wingers Valencia, Nani and Tosic. Old man Giggsy should be able to make his mark as a substitute. The energy machine, Park ji-Sung may have already overstayed his welcome and is probably due for a move to a club where scoring isn’t important by next season. What I expect to happen in game after game is the Chelsea model from the Community Shield match. Everybody will try to beat United up in central midfield, and, even though the red devils will never be turned into the kind of passive, testosterone-free team Arsene Wenger has fashioned in his own image at Arsenal, I expect the squad will be battered and become tired early enough in the season to have to trot out Darron Gibson and Tom Cleverly regularly in the Spring. In United's first game, a 1-0 win over Birmingham City, neither Ginger Scholes nor Darren Fletcher kept possession for long. This is worrisome. The 5-1 win over Wigan Athletic was encouraging, but there's still a strong sense that Ferguson is papering over the cracks in central midfield. The upcoming match with free-scoring Arsenal will be a big big early season test.

“Berbatov is a load of rubbish!” the handwriting on the wall says.

In my heart of hearts, if United can just hold on until January, I think everybody around him will ultimately convince the Gaffer to swallow his pride and go out and spend big money on a midfield general. Ideally, I’d like Ferguson to splash big on Daniele De Rossi or Hernanes; but, more realistically, I’m sure he’d rather gamble on the youth of Javíer Martínez, Blaise Matuidi, Stephane DuFour, Anthony Annan, Axel Witsel or Scott Brown. Out of the six, although he may not be as good a technician as the others, DuFour looks to have the best leadership skills.

We may mourn the exit of Ronnie and Carlitos, but I truly believe that Wazza, Macheda, Welbeck and little Mickey Owen can get the job done if Berbatov keeps out of everybody’s way. Dmitar Berbatov, like the League of Nations, America in South Vietnam, the Concorde, Massimo Taibi, Eric Djemba Djemba, Juan Sebastian Veron and Kleberson, exists to illustrate the folly of owning absolute power. Sir Alex Ferguson, easily the most successful manager in British football history, and a fine motivator of young men, has been calling the shots at Old Trafford since the last old school club chairman, Martin Edwards, stepped down in 2000. To be fair to Ferguson, he has truly been a mostly benevolent dictator since Edwards walked away from the club. Despite his habit of teasing Jose Mourinho, Carlos Queiroz and the press about his ‘imminent retirement,’ most of us true believers think he will never quit, and end up being carried off the field of play on a stretcher, exactly like his mentor, Jock Stein. Even if Taibi, Djembax2, Kleberson and the fitfully brilliant £28M Seba Veron could be written off as honest mistakes on the Gaffer’s part, the whole circus involving Berbatov has stunned many fans. Slow, lazy, selfish and beguiled by his hubris-driven ego to a point of ridiculousness, the shrugging Bulgarian is truly the Gaffer’s weakness. The almost perfect diamond formation of the 1998-99 season may have been the hardest working football team ever. They smothered a brilliant Barcelona team at the Nou Camp in 2008. The full-frontal battering ram effect of Tevez and Rooney up front allowing Cristiano the freedom to score 42 goals. Clearly, we can see now, this team was brilliant, but often rejected pretty football for the sake of practicality. The cliché is: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Unfortunately, Ferguson wanted a new kind of aesthetic perfection last season. Dmitar Berbatov, a big man who can dribble, flick and dish, can be a dazzling technician who, at his best, reminds you of Eric Cantona on Paxyl. Perfect for the slow, deliberate system at Tottenham Hotspur, like some big-ticket chatchke at Fortnum & Mason’s, Berbatov was truly the object of the Gaffer’s lust and desire. Without ever fitting into the system, Berbatov was trotted out week after week. Well, £32M is a lot of money to spend and the Gaffer wanted to get his money’s-worth. Fortunately, United are such a good team that they kept winning anyway. The disenchantment of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez was clear for everybody to see, yet Fergie's righteous band of committed professionals still managed to hold onto the premiership crown by the skin of its collective teeth and can do it again.

As far as strikers go, I hope Ferguson stands easy until January. I really believe we have ample strikers. Come Christmas, if the Gaffer finally loses his faith in Berbatov, perhaps we can dump him on Athletic Madrid or Valencia in part-exchange for Sergio 'el Kun' Aguero or David Silva.

“We need a good goalkeeper NOW!” the handwriting on the wall says.

This is the least of our worries. EVDS will be back soon and our defense is still really solid. It’s very clear that, similar to Tim Howard before him, Ben Foster is turned into a nervous wreck by the pressure of big games. Howard has matured slowly at Everton and I expect Foster will have to improve really quickly or else he'll be shipped somewhere else. Kucszak, although prone to mistakes in the air, looks to be a better choice as he gets far less flustered than Foster in pressure situations. If Manuel Neuer is available, Ferguson has food for thought. Schalke will surely prefer to sell Neuer--who really does have all the tools in spades--to Manchester United rather than their permanent Bundesliga rivals Bayern Munchën. Is he worth £20M? I wish United would have bought Sergio Asenjo from Real Vellodidad before he went to Athletic Madrid for £3M a few weeks ago, because I think he has surpassed the aging Gianluigi Buffone as the second-best keeper in the world. At 6’4” and around 17 Stone(238 lbs) Neuer is exactly what Ferguson has wanted for two seasons: A true successor to Schmeichel and Van Der Sar. Comparative theorems are a slippery slope, to be sure, but, if Diego Lopez is deemed to be worth £12M by his club, Villareal, then, yes, Neuer is worth £20M. Still, Foster made four fine saves from Birmingham City last Sunday, gave up an unstoppable goal to Burnley and made a couple of fine stops against Wigan, which is cause for celebration. His footwork, however, is horrendous. More than a few weak passes fell short and United were extremely lucky that the hapless Brum forward line were too surprised to take advantage.

Clearly, Ferguson is committed to his two weakest starters, Darren Fletcher and Dmitar Berbatov. He is not the kind of man to cut his losses in the way Rafa Benítez did after the disastrous £20M purchase of Robbie Keane. As long as the lads win, he will keep trotting out Berbatov, again and again. If the goals aren’t going in by January, however, stuck with a 29-year-old Jonah of steadily diminishing value, I would expect Ferguson to use him as swap bait for Agüero or to be sold back to Spurs for about 50% of the price he was purchased for.

“Manchester United will win again and Fergie will laugh as you swallow your humble pie!” (once again!)" says the handwriting on the wall.

As I said earlier, I can't see anyone mounting a season-long challenge good enough to challenge United for the Premier League honours. United will not just survive without Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, they will thrive. With Adam Ljajic arriving from Partizan Belgrade in January our attacking midfield options will improve even more. I don’t think we will make it to Madrid this year for the ECC final, but I do expect United will have found a new, inspiring holding central midfielder by this time next year. With a week to go before the transfer window door slams shut all things are possible.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Ivorismo Rating ***

The closest I can describe the feeling after seeing The Hurt Locker is “Shaken Baby Syndrome.” My world got rocked a bit. I am not naïve. I’ve seen my share of war movies and had a father and a father-in-law who, between them fought in four wars. The visceral shocks in The Hurt Locker, however, are shocks of recognition, Kathryn Bigelow's stunning film about a bomb squad in Iraq will leave you exhausted. This truly is high art in its most populist form.

There’s nothing aesthetically new here, per sé. A low-budget Vietnam film called ‘3-Charlie-Mopic’ covered the same ground first. Bigelow’s originality here lies in a unique kind of observational action moviemaking. Every new take yanks you into a kind of POV reconnaissance. The camera sensitizes you to changes in atmosphere. Objects are fixed upon, piles of garbage, bombed-out cars, gore-covered, apron-wearing butchers smoking during their lunch break, The mundane becomes a kind of metaphorical gargoyle. Bigelow fixes on each moment for a long time as a portent of lethal danger, all the while giving us a fixed sense of the paranoia and fear which dog the observer. Character is fate, according to Chekhov, but could that rusty pair of old paint cans really be a bomb? Every long, and sometimes tedious, shot hints at some hidden meaning while furthering our sense of refined character and plot. While the Second World War and Vietnam were very clearly reported, our sense of the young men and women in Iraq is murky at best because the government and military have stage-managed the choreography of this war so well from the sidelines. Somehow, Bigelow manages to flesh out the character of soldiers we know absolutely nothing about, yet makes them completely convincing.

Whether they’re defusing a bomb on a sandbagged Green Zone street in Baghdad, getting drunk at their Camp Victory base, buying a DVD off a bootlegger on the street or talking down a taxi driver who may or may not be a Jihadi, every single act seems to carry consequences for these men. They are caught in a vortex of imminent danger where every act may have a mortal aftermath. Something as insignificant as the sight of Iraqi adults appearing on top of a minaret staring in their direction, or in a window, could mean they’re bombers. Are they about to detonate a bomb or just curious: watching? What is that man with a camera doing? Clearly the best bet for safety would be to simply blow them away. The rules of engagement do not allow for this, of course, but this film helps us understand how such desperate acts end up happening in a way that no war movie I've ever seen before have done.
The screenwriter, Mark Boal, keeps it simple. Three men in a bomb unit are counting the 38 days to the end of their Baghdad rotation after their leader gets killed by a mistake. Day by day they engage in a war with a crafty group of bomb-makers and their lethal devices. To say they’re ‘stressed’ is the understatement of all time. Yet, in incident following incident, they improvise new ways to adapt their individual eccentricities to their awkward, emotionally spastic but ultimately lukewarm group chemistry. Boal, formerly a freelance investigative reporter for the likes of Playboy, the Village Voice and Harper's, seems to have entered the screenwriting profession as a means of no longer allowing other writer/directors the opportunity to mutilate his work, as was the case with the writer/director Paul Haggis, who took one of Boal's Playboy articles and turned it into In the Valley of Elah (2005). Boal, who produced this film along with the director, Katherine Bigelow, seems to have learned everything he needed to know from Haggis' complex failure. There is nothing extraneous in this movie. No fat. His screenplay is first-time perfection.

Sergeant J.T. Sanborn is superbly played by Anthony Mackie as a kind of lean and hungry macho lion-tamer. In a relative sense, especially in dealings with people from other squads, he is an island of sanity. Sanborn's leadership skills are a smorgasbord of hood rat wisdom, the dark results of time spent working in military intelligence and the lethal street reflexes honed in any number of fire fights. His motherly vigilance and ra-ra pep talks are the slender thread which keep the ultra-sensitive and doggedly naïve Spec. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) from jumping off the precipice of a cliff. These two welcome Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), but quickly realize that he is both brilliant and suicidally reckless in equal parts. James views the world in the myopic manner of a very hungry fat man at a buffet. It is his buffet and he does not share.

Sanborn and Eldridge are the carefully trained auxiliary eyes and ears for bomb disposal experts who don protective suits and defuse IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Protocol is King in the military. From the get-go, however, James rejects both their practical support and camaraderie. Indeed, James goes to war with every bomb he goes up against. It’s a kind of lone wolf, single-warrior combat that Sanborn and Eldrige just can’t deal with or share in. Indeed the sharing of information is an anathema to James. Military etiquette is simply ignored. There is no need-to-know basis when you are the one who dismantles the IEDs. Rules and procedures are meaningless to James. Consequently, Sanborn and Eldridge find themselves handcuffed into a state of complete dependance on James and his foibles.

This, umm, explosive scenario makes for a strong viewer connection to the daily chaos these men face in Iraq. It's impossible not to identify with Sanborn's obvious doubts about his stated gift for leadership. Between Eldridge's permanent state of panic and James' relentless fervor for hand-to-hand combat with the fiendish machinations of the bomb makers, Sanborne's attempts to assert leadership and maintain camaraderie are like a lame attempt to fix a crack in a dam with a roll of Scotch tape. Conflict piles on conflict. The POV camera is everywhere, mutely recording the utter terror of war via every shift in movement and sound.

Renner's performance as James goes beyond someone very tightly wound. He is not some mere bomb disposal addict with a death wish. James is an egocentric artist dedicated to his craft. After dismantling one particularly complex set of carefully disguised booby-trapped devices, James' unstated, beaming sense of pleasure shines through his skin so that he's like some beatified saint in a mediaeval painting. He has touched greatness in his specialized vocation and the other members of his squad, mere mortals, can never understand or share his glory. Atypically, James keeps a box under his mattress filled with a diverse collection of triggers and tripping devices for bombs that he's conquered. These hellish chatchkes are mementos, like a box of smelly unwashed underwear belonging to scores of old sexual conquests. That he is also capable of a surprising sentimentality toward both his fellow soldiers and a sad-eyed Iraqi boy who loves soccer and sells bootleg DVDs is not so much surprising as darkly comic. These contradictions shock Sanborn into a kind of suppressed muteness until the built-up bile is allowed to escape after a night of drunken debauchery ends in James and Sanborn punching each other into a kind of vicious truce.

For two committed warriors like James and Sanborn, it's clear that life will never be the same again. We are left in no doubt that neither the traditional longing for the pull of family, nor any other kind of work will come close to the thrill and fear of combat and bomb disposal these men have encountered. Atypically, toward the end, in a brief supermarket scene, James, home from the war, wanders the aisles, dragging slowly behind his wife and son. Through James' tragically heroic POV, we see boxes of cereal and carefully stacked cans and jars as objects of threat. Random objects are dangerous in his eye. As if any one of them might be an IED, too.

In The Hurt Locker, Katherine Bigelow has create a shockingly complex, yet muscular and spare war movie. A prismatic voyeur's view of men in combat, rendered even more gainfully enigmatic by the Summer heat of Baghdad. Bigelow, who began her career as a painter, is picky about her projects. Having made only nine films over a 26 year period, her technique demands long takes, commitment from her actors and an obsession with character-driven storytelling Pegged by critics as a director of fairly successful 'action' films, Bigelow has long run underrated below Hollywood's hack radar and, for a change, gender has never been an issue. They are indeed action movies but Near Dark (1987), Blue Steel(1990), Point Break (2001) and Strange Days (1995), all work hard at offering motivation for their characters' indulgence in acts of homicidal mayhem. Near Dark is too talky for some, but it's my favorite vampire flick ever. In her collaboration with Mark Boal, Bigelow finally seems to have found a partner worthy of her gift for getting ratcheted up performances from her cast. Bigelow's multifaceted vision ruthlessly yanks us into a nightmare world, but without ever intruding enough to try to transpose us into their insane points of view.

I've talked lot about Bigelow's eccentric vistas through her obsession with the minutae of garbage and wire. Halfway through the movie, however, Bigelow exercises a little sleight of hand. There's a desert gun battle, right up there in the heart-racing excitement stakes with the shoot-out that follows the bank robbery in Michael Mann's Heat (1995). It's a balls-out duel in the desert outside Baghdad between insurgents and members of the bomb squad after their patrol accidentally stumbles into an assassination squad of British SAS men just as they get trapped in an ambush. It's just a coincidence. A moment of fated bad luck. As sniper bullets fell this group of elite killers one by one, we get a shocking take on just how it feels for soldiers to be pinned down in wide open spaces. It is the only time in the movie where we actually clearly see the enemy. There's a bonding for the survivors at the end of the short action, but we realize this will all instantaneously dissipate once the bomb squad returns to its routine. The Hurt Locker is extraordinary. 130 minutes, but the time goes by fast! See it!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cloughie Agonistes: The Greatest English Manager Finally Gets His Due

'The Damned United' by David Peace
Ivorismo Rating****

'Provided You Don't Kiss Me' by Duncan Hamilton
Ivorismo Rating***

'The Damned United'
Directed by Tom Hooper. W/Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall & Jim Broadbent

Ivorismo Rating**

Parkinson: You're a bit besotted tonight, aren't you,Cloughie?

Clough: Oh aye! Cheese and onion pie, meat pud, chips and a lot o' Boddies.

Freud: Ee-yuch! Disgusting! Your stomach is a wasteland.

Clough: I remember when there were no food on't' t' table, you big silly puff. I'll be as besotted wi' me own self as I want to be.

Parkinson:They do call you ol' big 'ead, don't they, Cloughie?

Clough: Oh aye! But I say, if tha've got it, flaunt it!

My long-term memory is pretty good. This previous conversation, although I may not be remembering it with any sense of absolute exactitude, took place on Granada's Mike Parkinson Show when I was home visiting Manchester in the summer of 1979. I never saw an odder group on the telly than that go-getter Manc journo host Parkinson, his musical guest, the squeaky-voiced jazz chanteuse, Blossom Dearie, Clement Freud, one of England's leading cultural critics, host of a witty cooking show and the absolute flaming progeny of Sigmund Freud, and, my favourite Englishman ever, Brian Clough. On this warm summer night, a fortnight or so after his Nottingham Forest club had won the European Cup for first time, Cloughie was in his pomp.

My Dad, another Mike, having betrayed my grandmother's Socialist memory by voting for Margaret Thatcher, was on a sort of mock-elitist guilt jag. The Sex Pistols were "Human Fecal Matter." Jeanette Winterson was a "Filthy Lesbian cow." Brian Clough, he insisted, always wearing that big rosy-cheeked grin, "always acting like he knows somet'' you don't," always disrespectful of the old guard of the game, wasn't a good coach. "He just got jammy twice!" silly old Mike said. This tirade only served to make me love the one and only Cloughie all the more.

Brian Clough died in 2004 as a result of decades of alcohol abuse. Irascible, truculent, snarky to the nth degree, possessing a dry, anarchic tinderbox sense of playful wit, viciously ambitious, dogged by an army of personal demons, with a personality shaped by the cruelty of childhood poverty and a personal playing career destroyed by injury, Brian Clough, like Robert Johnson before him, had a hell hound on his trail. Always self-promoting, always bragging, a regular guest on any late evening talk show willing to have him, Clough was like a character out of a late-1950s northern kitchen-sink, working-class novel by Alan Sillitoe or John Braine. He also, by the by, just happened to be able to coach top-flight football teams into giving reality to the nation's dreams.

The English love their game of football, but have produced only three successful managers in the modern game. The first two, Alf Ramsey and Bob Paisley, were referred to by Cloughie as 'Sir Alf Wank 'and 'Bobby Pisshouse.' The winning coach of two European Cup champions in 1979 and 1980, his Nottingham Forest team, populated with only British players, all of whom were purchased on the cheap or out of the club's academy, executed Cloughie's unique kind of exciting entertaining football. To be sure, the man only passed away five years ago, but Britain and football in general have undergone a complete renaissance since 1980. Televised all over the world, the English Premier League is a moneymaking machine dominated by foreign investors and players from all over the aforesaid world. This is not a bad thing, to be sure, but, in a post 9/11 world, many fans hark bark to simpler times. Clough looks great in retrospect. So much so, in fact, that they've erected statues of him outside the stadiums of his two best teams, Derby County and Nottingham Forest.

Along with the statues comes a mountain of hack biographies, a comically whitewashed, badly ghostwritten memoir and now even a movie. The only one of these pseudo-bios that reads really well is Duncan Hamilton's 'Provided You Don't Kiss Me.' At the same time, an exiled writer of thrillers, David Peace, has given Ol' Big 'Ead the starring role in what is absolutely the best football novel ever written. The fact is that Sports Fiction in general usually leaves me feeling nauseated after consumption. Books like 'The Legend of Bagger Vance,' 'Fat City,' 'Shoeless Joe,' 'The Natural,' 'The Dying of the Light,' 'Bang the Drum Slowly' and 'The Rise of Gerry Logan,' coat their characters in a thick sauce of clichéd syrupy sentimentality. Professional sports, however, is devoid of romance. It is a world populated more accurately by greedy, venal owners and equally greedy, vain, spoiled, hubris-ridden athletes and their agents. I can think of only one novel, David Storey's 'This Sporting Life' that deals in something resembling truth about professional sports. Storey's book is a classic of politicized Social Realism. The concept of the Angry Young Man at war with his social betters, still holds up well. Its harsh prose takes pride in its devout diligence toward plainness. By comparison, in 'The Damned United,' Peace has produced a master work that is muscular, sharp-witted and brilliant. His prose also allows for some moments of the deftest purple. No mean feat.

Which brings us back to Brian Clough. A World-Class striker for Sunderland F.C.--the scorer of 251 goals in 274 performances--he had his leg shattered at 26 by a vicious tackle. Already bumptious and shiningly charismatic, with a Mephistophilian chip on his shoulder, Clough, the abrasive one, paired himself with an easygoing tactician friend, Peter Taylor, and set about managing the only club who were willing to hire him, Fourth Division Hartlepool United. In two seasons, Clough had improved Hartlepool, who for more than 22 years had been anchored in the very basement of the league, to a spot at the top of the table. This was when Derby County came calling for him.

Clough took a mixed bag of mediocre players and way-over-the-hill small-time veterans, pruned away the no-hopers and forged them into a force to be reckoned with. Derby County were a small so-so competitive club with ambitious ownership when he took over in 1967. The rest is all legend. Building a team from scratch with a mixture of tough veterans and ambitious youth from other small town teams, Clough took Derby from the Second Division to the First within three seasons. After coming second to his nemesis, Don Revie of Leeds United in 1971, Clough led the team to the First Division championship in 1972. Constantly at odds with the Derby County board over his side-career as a T.V. pundit and the limits of a thrifty transfer budget, Clough began repeatedly agitating for a big job at one of the richer clubs like Manchester United or Spurs. Ultimately, inevitably fired for insubordination, Clough and Taylor agreed to coach at Second Division Brighton. It was then that Leeds United, a very rich club with a penchant for thriftiness, stepped in and made him successor to their coach, Don Revie, who took the England job after the firing of the aforementioned Alf Ramsey.

Hired by Leeds, Clough found himself suddenly in charge of the champions of England. His long time best friend and assistant, Peter Taylor, however, wanted no part of a move to Leeds and stayed at Brighton. Thus began Clough's short-lived sojourn at Leeds United. Only in charge for 44 days, Clough somehow managed to alienate everyone at the club and yet get them to pay off his contract. Free again, Clough was offered the job at perennial Division One also-rans, Nottingham Forest. After making up with Taylor, Clough led Forest to successive championships and two European Cups. Again, what made Clough remarkable while winning all these trophies, was his ability to locate cheap, talented lower division players and put them together with veterans who were past their best and win things. Only Bob Paisley had more success, but his was partially a result of his being part of a free-spending, ambitious club culture at Liverpool which was at odds by about a million miles from any situation Clough ever found himself in while coaching penny-pinching, low-budget obsessed clubs like Derby and Forest! Openly, wantonly jealous, Cloughie would say of Paisley and his free-spending Liverpool F.C.: "If I 'ad Bobby Piss'ouse's brass, my team would be more infallible than the bloody Pope!"

Peace's second 'serious' novel comes from a very different place to his previous work. The Red Riding Quartet' 'eventually grew out of his obsession with the Yorkshire Ripper case. In 2003, Peace was named 'Best Young British Novelist' by Granta magazine. His fifth novel, 'GB84', set amid the historic 1984 miners' strike, was published in 2005 to much critical acclaim. Peace’s sixth novel, 'The Damned United' (2006), focuses on the forty-four days Brian Clough spent battling the forces of evil at Leeds United F.C.. Like 'The Red Riding Quartet,' it reads like a thriller.

The novel is rendered as a first-person narrative by Clough about the disastrous 44 days in 1974 when he took on the manager’s job at Leeds United. After taking charge at the country’s most ruthlessly successful side, Cloughie found himself at odds with an organization and a bureaucracy put in place by his predecessor, Don Revie. Imagined from the inside, Clough’s battles with intransigent players, an interfering chairman, a Uriah Heapish board of directors and the soul-destroying unpredictability of the game itself, develops an odd poignancy that echoes beyond the boundaries of sport, or the usual first-person monologue clichés. At one point, journeying to a match on the outcome of which his job may depend, he reflects how, “Saturday comes again, welcome or not, it comes again like it always does, welcome or not, wanted or not, another judgment day — The chance to be saved, the chance to be damned.”

That sentence, typical of the incantatory rhythms and repetitions of Peace’s prose, sums up the weekly trial by football that Clough faces. Success or failure, justification or damnation, always hang agonizingly in the balance. A football manager may seem an unlikely sort of tragic antihero, but Peace’s eccentrically idiosyncratic imagination transforms Clough into something close to one. At the same time, Peace's deft use of the first-person monologue allows the reader a window into the peculiarly British obsession with class betrayal. The men who make up the boards of the football clubs Clough manages are self-made, bootstrap, mini-oligarchs used to using intimidation and a check book as a means to an end. All their bad behavior gets them when they attempt to bully Clough, however, is reprisals. As a committed Socialist, or so Cloughie insists, these men are not the kind of Tory Old Boy network it's easy to hate. They are worse. They are class traitors: Working Class men who have abandoned their roots. Indeed, Clough wastes no time in telling them this. He also goes on talk shows and tells the people, the fans, that the owners and certain players are a poison rotting the game from within with their relentless greed for cash and victory. Brian Clough takes no prisoners and makes no new friends.

Clough wins, but in his own unique way. He gets rid of players he doesn't want. He buys the players he wants, athletes who are a part of his unhidden agenda.

"Where is the consultation? Where is the conversation? The respect and the trust?" the Chairman of Derby County's board of directors wants to know.

"There wasn't the time," you lie. "There were other clubs knocking."

Thus, ultimately, Brian Clough manages to get himself fired at Derby, and moves reticently with Peter to Brighton; but, just can't take a return to third division mediocrity. Once Leeds United offer him the job, Cloughie has to take it. He may not actually like anything about Leeds United, but they are champions and have lots of money that he can spend. Working his anarchy from within the belly of the fatted beast appeals to him. Clough may have passed himself off as a committed socialist, but Peace's creation is a committed, ruthless anarchist if and when it suits.

Like a missionary, Clough wants to win, but in an entertaining, extraordinary way. One that goes against the Leeds United penchant for winning ugly. Most fans for other teams like the entertainment provided by crafty dribbling and ball-handling. Leeds United fans, however, genuinely love thuggery. A cynical, winning team for a cynical group of fans. Yet Cloughie will not compromise with any of them. They will do it his way. "The lads won't like it," a trainer tells him. "They don't like change. They like consistency."

"Tough fucking shit then," I tell him and head inside the place to the deserted, silent restaurant; deserted but for the first-team, sat staring into their tomato soup, waiting for their steak and chips."

In no time, the players, the fans and the board all despise him. "Leeds United hate Brian Clough. Brian Clough hates Leeds United. Dirty Leeds. Dirty, fucking, cheating Leeds. Don Revie’s Leeds. The cheating fucking Champions. Leeds United, the country's most hated club. Dirty Leeds. Dirty, fucking, filthy Leeds! They didn’t win it! They stole it! Pour another drink. Light another fag."

Peace delivers words and sentences which resonate and syncopate into lovely rhythmic little codas. Like the voice of the people forming a chill echo outside a cold, deserted Leeds' Elland Road stadium. Chop! Chop! In and out of italics, down that corridor, past those trophies, down them stairs, cutting between Clough’s glory at Derby and his damnation at Leeds, 'The Damned United' bobs and weaves, the minstrel telling his tale of spite, jealousy, camaraderie and recrimination. Twelve years of dues-paying and success are spoiled by forty-four days of Job-like, partially self-inflicted misery. Bereft of his erstwhile best-buddy, shotgun-rider, right-hand straight-man and scapegoat, Peter Taylor, Cloughie is on his own at Elland Road and the hair shirt he wears is of his very own design.

But Cloughie’s not listening. Down the corridor. Round the corner. Down the stairs. Cloughie has plenty of suggestions as to where they can stick said advice. Down the corridor. Round the corner. Down the stairs. Cloughie doesn’t believe in God. Up the stairs. Round the corner. Down that corridor. Cloughie doesn’t believe in luck. Pour another drink. Light another fag. Cloughie doesn’t believe in professional fouls, pressurizing the referee, diving, time wasting, getting people sent off, dossiers, tactics or strategy! Cloughie doesn’t believe in Don fucking Revie. He wants to burn his desk, his chair . . . his fucking legacy. Pour another drink. Light another fag.

Consequently, short of dragging you to the book store, let me unequivocally announce that 'The Damned United' is not only the greatest novel ever written about football, it is the best book ever written about sports ever! 'The Damned United' throws reality and fiction into a blender, transmogrifies the accepted truth, hits a shot on the volley past a diving goalkeeper into the back of the net. Yes, please: Pour another drink. Light another fag.

In Duncan Hamilton's 'Provided You Don't Kiss Me', you'll find a nice nonfiction companion piece. Mostly concerned with what happened after the years at Derby and Leeds, Hamilton avoids the usual pitfalls of what I'll call hackiography. Still, lovers of abstract truth may not want to sway this way. Often this biography is one which makes Cloughie's irascibility seem somehow cute. It is the one which got the blessing of Clough's wife and kids Yes, it says, he was known to drink on duty, punch employees, generically referred to journalists as "shithouses", and extemporaneously produced brilliant epigraphs and one-liners, not to mention the rumours that he took a bung(bribe) whenever club transfers took place. No matter. Cloughie got results.

Playing the Boswell role we get Duncan Hamilton, once a teenage reporter on the Nottingham Evening Post, thrust into 20 years of what he calls "spurious intimacy" with the Nottingham Forest manager. During their first meeting, Clough insists they drink Scotch at 9.30 a.m. Later, having written that Forest's morale is low, Hamilton is paraded before the team and screamed at by Clough: "You're banned for ever from this ground. For ever!" Two days later, Clough calls him back: "Where are you, shithouse? I've got a story for you. Fancy a glass of champagne?" All can be forgiven, but no sleight will remain forgotten. Slowly, Clough becomes "like me Dad" to Duncan. Indeed, on hearing the young man stammer, Clough offers to phone him every day for a fortnight to help cure it. Quite how this would help cure the young reporter's affliction Cloughie never explains, but it seems to be an act of kindness.

Strategically, Clough was always very unpredictable as a coach. He lived to ignore the most commonly used tactics. He liked to buy good players and come on in an artificially gentle way to them, like some gentle guru, shocking everybody's expectations. One day, Clough catches Hamilton reading Freud's 'The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.' Disgusted, he goes on a prima donna diatribe: "I don't need a boring book by Freud to show me how to do all that... it only takes seconds to change someone's outlook with a word or two."

Hamilton witnesses triumph as Forest win two European Cups on a budget. Unfortunately, by 1993, he is observing "the disintegration of a man as well as a team." It's good, although sad reading. Cloughie can't cope with the modern footballer. The announcement by one of his star players, Justin Fashanu, that he's gay absolutely freaks him out. Later, red-faced and inebriated, Cloughie is in a state of agony over whether or not to buy certain players. After agonizing over signing striker, Stan Collymore, for weeks, Cloughie ultimately loses him to Liverpool and then goes on a true bender.

Hamilton gave up football writing after Clough retired, rendered somewhat cynical and bitter by some of the worst aspects he'd witnessed of Clough and his acolytes. Yet, in 2004, when he hears of Clough's death, he weeps like a baby. In an obituary, Hamilton writes that "Clough the vaudevillian obscures Clough the master manager" and that the public ought to forgive his faults because he "cared about the spirit of football and the need to play the game stylishly and without cynicism."

One book is a masterpiece. The other is at least a fun read. So, I wonder, what would Clough think of these lives of Brian? "Not bad for a pair of shithouses!" I'm sure he would say.

Last, but not least, is 'The Damned United,' the film. The performance by Michael Sheen as Cloughie is interesting, but odd. Obviously, the poetry of the book is lost. And Brian Clough, a big, lumbering 5'11" Centre-Forward is rendered as a sort of slightly fey, rapid-fire comic who dabbles in football. To be sure, Sheen and Timothy Spall, who plays the gangling 6'2" Peter Taylor as a sort of short fat Falstaffian foil, are creditable. Clough is a much nicer person in the movie. There are certainly not too many "Shithouses" utilized, to be sure, as Clough becomes another larger-than-life real English 'character' up there with Winston Churchill, the Kray Brothers, Margaret Thatcher, Billy Bunter and Fred Karno. Sheen can at least pass, dribble and kick the ball about a bit. You can take the kids to this one, to be sure, but keep your expectations low.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Born Again: How the Deep-Lying Midfielder Position is Reviving Careers

In football, as it's played today, central midfielders have become the most important players on the pitch. Due to the growing importance of the transition game, the roving role of a post-to-post player demands competence in both defense and attack. Finding the right player, however, is difficult. The position demands an innate intelligence. The ability to improvise and shift on the fly. Caught out of position, a central midfielder can leave the defense open and vulnerable to quick counterattacks. Marooned at the back, often in position to fill in holes left by marauding full backs or wingers charging into midfield, they may also leave the striker(s) isolated if they can't move up the pitch in support. Consequently, knowing how to utilize a central midfielder is absolutely the key tactical decision a manager has to make.

The phenomenon of our times is the notion of a deep–lying play maker. One who sits deep in a pocket in front of the defensive line, using a virtuoso's quiver full of long and short-range arrows. Attacks and counterattacks are begun using a wide range of passes. Historically, a deeper midfielder had been what, in the late 60s and early 70s, was known as a 'sweeper,' a hard man, an enforcer. Someone capable of thuggery, mayhem and gamesmanship, but also blessed with the ability to tackle like a ton of bricks. Beyond protecting the defense, and breaking up plays, his job usually stopped at passing the ball to more creative players around him. Theoretically, at least, this type of player needn't be the best natural footballer. All that was necessary was a good sense of tactical discipline, brute strength and tackling ruthlessness.

A deep-lying play maker, however, has no particular need for brawn. Coaches who use a deep-lying play makers are generally absorbed in playing possession football. Atypically, instead of utilizing the long kick, the goalie rolls the ball to a defender, who, in turn, passes to the play maker sitting just in front and sets the attack in motion. Andrea Pirlo and Michael Carrick are the finest examples of deep-lying play makers currently in the game. No disrespect is meant toward Claude Makalele, once the absolute epitome of said job description; unfortunately, he is now three seasons past his best, although still strutting his stuff with Paris S.G.

Pirlo began with a small club, Brescia, before moving to Internatzionale Milano. At Inter he played a more attack-minded role. The ideal at the time was that Pirlo, as an attacking midfielder, be capable of both working on the wing and inside. He'd be fed by a sweeper, have a full panoramic take on the action in front of him, pass short and long balls and then run to slot in wherever a forward attacked, while, at the same time, he'd always be looking to make that single assassin's pass, the one which rips apart the opposition defense. Bought to connect with the defensive midfielder, Vladimir Jugovic, and enhance the attacking skills of Alvaro Recoba and Christian Vieri, Pirlo found himself at odds with the silky skills of the Uruguayan. Recoba has a lot of talent and a marvelous ability to hold on to the football. Unfortunately, his 'ball hog' style and an innate unwillingness to pass and share left Pirlo lost.

Sold to A.C. Milan, Pirlo found his dream coach in Carlo Ancelotti. A rapturous admirer of the little Congolese magpie, Claude Makalele, Ancelotti loved his minimalist, vanity-free style. Makalele won the ball with his quick feet, not savage tackling. He would hold the ball, assess a strategic situation and quickly fire off a killer pass. Ancelotti saw that Pirlo’s extensive passing skills would be well suited to a similar, deeper role and moved to play him further back in midfield next to Gennaro 'Rhino' Gattuso, the archetypal midfield enforcer. Thus Gattuso become Pirlo’s hard-core right-hand man. Rhino was all over the pitch while Pirlo probed, winning the ball, allowing the slightly-built Pirlo the freedom to work his magic.

Since his move to Milan, Pirlo has won one Scudetto, two Champions League titles, and, along with Rhino and a second tough customer, Daniele De Rossi, was instrumental in Italy’s 2006 World Cup triumph. It’s not hard to make a case for him as the best player in the world in the deep-lying role and it’s not surprising that there are rumours that Ancelotti would like to take Pirlo to Stamford Bridge, no matter what the cost. If Ancelotti gets the go-ahead from Chelsea's oil oligarch owner, Roman Abramowich, Pirlo is going to cost Chelsea at least £40M.

Michael Carrick came through the ranks of the old youth conveyor belt at West Ham United, alongside Joe Cole and Rio Ferdinand. He quickly gained a reputation for his long stride and accurate passing, earning himself a PFA Young Player of the Year nomination for the 2000/01 season. However, once the Hammers were relegated from the Premier League, Carrick decided he wanted a new club. Consequently, the Geordie kid, sold to Tottenham Hotspur, went through a renaissance under the tutelage of Coach Martin Jol and his staff. His talent, overshadowed at the Hammers by Joe Cole's flash bag of tricks, only needed a little nurturing to bloom. Very much instrumental in Spurs' finishing in fifth place in the 2005/06 season, Carrick's splendid passing displays caught the eye of Sir Alex Ferguson, who spent £18M on him in the summer of 2006. Ferguson, having never properly replaced the divine passing skills of David Beckham, long since sold to Real Madrid, felt he had finally obtained the missing link for his team to once again win the European Champions Cup. Fully matured for the 2007/06 season, Carrick's radar passing dissected the likes of A.S. Roma, Olympique Lyonnais, Villareal and Barcelona on the way to winning it all.

Unlike Pirlo, Michael Carrick has not made the most of his England chances. England, although deficient in other positions, have a wealth of players capable of shining in a central midfield role. An impressive performance in Berlin alongside Gareth Barry in England’s 2-1 win over Germany clearly showed that he could play the international game. The problem for Carrick has been, however, that his main rivals, Frank Lampard and Stevie Gerrard are flair players, much more intent on scoring than being the kind on-field instigator that is Carrick. Tooled to suit the more spontaneous game of give-and-go utilized by Gerrard and Lampard, Fabio Capello's England team just don't seem to need Carrick's game. Still, there are many of us out there who believe that the opposite is true. Lampard and Gerrard will shine against ordinary and mediocre teams; but, that Carrick's passing game will be exactly what England need to take their game to the next technical level if they want to defeat the likes of Brazil, Spain, Argentina, France and Italy at the 2010 World Cup.

In the recent 2008/09 English Premier League season, Xabí Alonso, Jermaine Jenas and Stilian Petrov played key roles in midfield for their clubs, but proved slightly less successful. At Liverpool, Gerrard and Torres relied on Alonso to begin attacks from a deep position, dexterously feeding the short ball to Gerrard and, longer, usually over the top passes for Torres. Opta Statistics clearly showed that Alonso was the first player in the league to complete 1,000 successful passes. How weird that Alonso had a career season while his coach, Rafael 'The Tinker Man' Benitez was desperately trying to sell him in order to buy the crude talent of Gareth Barry. Alonso's problems are less in his style of play, because he is capable of doing everything Pirlo and Carrick can do only with more physicality, than the odd tactics Benítez uses to support him. Possessed of probably the finest defencive midfielder in the world in Javíer Mascharano, Benítez prefers that he run interference for the second striker, Gerrard. rather than protect Alonso.

Coach Harry Redknapp of Spurs has also chosen to marginalize a player who has the talent to be a world-class deep-lying midfielder in Jermaine Jenas. Redknapp has preferred to defer to the physicality and speed of Wilson Palacios and Didier Zokora, even though neither one of them is much of a passer. Although Zokora has been sold, Redknapp seems to prefer using the big bench-warmer, Tommy Huddlestone in his place, rather than using Jenas' more sophisticated finesse style. Things will look up for Jenas, however, as Inter-Milan's boss, Jose Mourinho, aims to buy the lad use to replace the ageing Patrick Veiera in partnership with his midfield enforcer, the wide-bodied Sulley Muntauri.

Stilian Petrov was the most consistent performer for a callow young Villa team which flirted regularly with the Premiership top four in the first half of the season. Petrov's long range passing ability complemented Villa's quick-on-the-break counterattacking style of play. Having mostly played on the wing in the Scottish Premier League at Glasgow Celtic, Petrov found himself competing with three young speedy wingers in Ashley Young, James Milner and Gabriel Agabonlahor. Under the wise tutelage of coach Martin O'Nell, Petrov has found a brand new niche as a deep-lying midfielder. If Villa's erratic defencive midfield pair, Nigel Reo-Coker or Steve Sidwell, manage to get it together, Petrov could yet take Villa to the next level.

Gaetano D'Agostino

Pirlo definitely rules in the deep-lying role in Italy's Calcio, although two young pretenders, Udinese’s Gaetano D’Agostino and A.S. Roma's Alberto Aquilani have stepped up the competition. Like Pirlo, D'Agostino used to play in an advanced role just behind his strikers at his old club, A.S. Roma. Unable to make the grade at Roma, where Francesco Totti stood between him and the first-team football, D’Agostino eventually ended up playing for Messina before being sold to Udinese. In D'Agostino's second season in Udine, Pasquale Marino was hired as coach. An Ancelotti acolyte, Marino took D’Agostino’s passing ability and moved him to deep in the midfield. The midfielder’s long range passing then caught the eye of the national coach, Marcelo Lippi, who, because Pirlo was suspended over a red card incident, called D'Agostino up to the full Italian squad for the first time in November 2008. D’Agostino made his first appearance for the Azzurri against Northern Ireland in June 2009. His other rival for an Italian national team place, Alberto Aquilani, is much more physical than Pirlo or D'Agostino, but lacks that penchant for executing the perfect killer pass. No wonder he's being chased by Italy’s big three, Chelsea and Liverpool.

Surprisingly, the role of the deep-lying play maker is still conceptually new. Pirlo, Petrov and D’Agostino have revived fairly ordinary careers. An apt conclusion is that there are a number of players out there with the ability to play in that position but don’t know it, and, more surprisingly, coaches don’t seem to know it, either. The Petrov example, because he was such a clever 'jinky' winger, might lead you to imagine that any player with high-quality technique and ball-distribution skills, like, say, Kieran Richardson of Sunderland, Chris Eagles of Burnley or Simeo Sabrosa of Atletico Madrid, are naturals for the job. A certain kind of vision, an ability to relax and a unique gift of intellect are necessary for this kind of player to succeed, however. Accompanied by a hard man, a creative deep-lying midfielder has that bit of protection he needs in order to make a positive impact on game day. He is very much like a quarterback in American Football.

The role can clearly play a big part in the game everywhere. In Italy the pace of the game is slower and the gamesmanship of defenders allows any deep-lying midfielder constant access to the ball. Interestingly, in England, where the game is often played at a frantic, frenetic pace, midfielders get little time on the ball; nevertheless, the role of the deep-lying play maker can be utilized to allow flair players an extra second to pick out a pass. Only in Spain, where every player seems to want to hold onto the ball, will the concept probably not work. Being converted in soccer terms is like being Born Again in the Real World. Revival=Survival!!!

Sunday, July 12, 2009


I explain. You
hear shouting. You
regroup. I see
you’ve picked my scab.

You are reasonable. I
see shades clipped onto your bifocals. I
aplogize profusely. You
sniff out expedience.

I am a nice Jewish dove. You
say I’m crazy, like Saul. You
throw me an olive branch. I
am cut by its thorns.

You gush blood. I
see no tears. You
will not take a dive. I
have loved you for eleven years.

—Ivor Irwin

Thursday, June 25, 2009

To All You Yid Traitors Who Fucked Up My Passover

It’s nice having a country of your own.
It’s nice to own a house.
It’s nice to have a pair of shoes to throw.
All the better if your wife can wear a blouse,
and doesn't need to wear the veil.
Dubya said the Big D is it.
Democracy is what everybody wants.
He didn’t say it in a conceited way.
Just that he was certain.

The lessons of history teach us that Haman
was voted in.
And Mussolini
was voted in.
And Hitler, Oh yeah, Hitler
was voted in.
And now let’s give a warm Oak Park welcome
to Hamas and Hezbollah, because they
was voted in.


Just like leaving a place for Elijah’s cup,
or the second sitting for the Last Supper.
I suggest: After your Sabra folk songs,
sung in your shitty Ivrit.
And having the audacity to trivialize 6 million dead kikes.
The next bit about “God bless the Palestinians!”
I wish, like an old Yiddisher witch,
that those words catch in your throat and choke you,
and that that affliction you get is stomach cancer.

I have an honest, simple suggestion.
Because you love the Palestinians so,
and, because, after turning all four cheeks,
you’ve got no more to show.
Give them your house. And, sure...
You’ll feel guilty. All Jews feel guilty
You can keep up the mortgage payments.
I would call you a traitor,
but I know already that you own no sense of shame.

—Ivor Irwin

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Bitter Defeat: Aftermath and Perspective

Sir Alex Ferguson was doing his suffering in public after Manchester United were left shell shocked, nauseous and punch-drunk from taking a hammering in Rome. Allowed to play their unique brand of heart-stirring football, one which relies on one-touch passing, a relentless ability to retain possession and surgical execution, a ruthless, brilliant Barcelona team stole away Manchester United's Champions League crown 2-0. Openly critical of all his players, which is a rarity for the crusty old Glaswegian, Ferguson described United's vaunted defence as "shoddy" and the whole team to be "a disappointment." In truth, however, the one who got it wrong and might have been a little more circumspect about there being plenty of blame to be placed at his own door for some disastrous strategic choices, was the great man himself. The Gaffer is not used to taking a pummeling, and, although the club have only taken two major losses this season, the chickens have clearly come home to roost.

The truth is that United were tactically bankrupt before the referee, Massimo Busacca, ever blew his whistle. United's humiliation of a callow, gutless Arsenal side two weeks before in the European Champions Cup semifinal at the Emirates seems to have bamboozled the Gaffer into believing his strategy was infallible. The truth is that the Gaffer learned nothing from a far more important game, when the club were defeated 1-4 at home by a very ordinary Liverpool team a month ago. Barcelona's awesome midfield pair, Xaví and Andrés Iniesta, were the instrument of destruction, just as another brilliant pair, Xabí Alonso and Javier Mascharano were for Liverpool four weeks earlier.

"I don't think they have ever given the ball away in their lives," is how Ferguson put it when asked by the press to describe Xavi and Iniesta, but the same is also true in the former case. Ferguson can righteously claim that the season-long absence of Roy Keane's post-to-post warrior successor, Owen Hargreaves, has left him no choice but to revolve the triumvirate of Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Paul Scholes as emergency defensive midfielders. It's a fair excuse, especially because, by nature, all three are attacking midfielders. All the more pressure seems to pile on the triumvirate at the behest of Michael Carrick, a floating midfielder with silky passing skills who seems to expand more energy willfully avoiding tackles than slotting into his position.

Being dismantled by Liverpool, who also did it to Real Madrid, and Barcelona, who did it to everybody, is, I'm told by certain friends, no disgrace. The question is: Why did it happen? How could our World Champions, knowing well in advance the tactics which were about to be used against them in both cases, not be prepared? Ask anyone: A pundit or a casual fan, a professional player or coach. We all knew what Barcelona were going to do. Which ponders a couple more questions: How come Ferguson couldn't figure out what the rest of us instinctively already knew? And, from a philosophical bent, I really need to ask everybody: How is it that the three best teams in Europe have no Plan B?

Barca's native Catalan coach, the kid-like Pep Guardiola, has, at 38, already won the treble of La Liga, the Spanish Cup and the European Champions Cup in his maiden season as coach. This is a first in Spain and comes exactly ten years after Manchester United did it for the first time ever in England. Thus I would playfully suggest that, for the rest of his career, Pep has nowhere to go but down. He's a nice man, I'm told, a very simple, down-home guy. So simple, in fact, that everybody knew exactly what he was going to do. Having the horses helps, of course, and having horses like Xaví, Iniesta, Eto'o, Henry and the ultimate little pony, Lionel Messi, is invaluable. The plan was to keep it narrow and not make mistakes in defence. Yes: It was as simple as that! Guardiola's money star, Messi, instead of going toe-to-toe with United's speedy, hard-tackling left back, the brilliant Patrice Evra, was moved inside. Thus, without the use of marauding fullbacks, Daní Alves and Eric Abidal, both of whom were suspended, Barca were always going to pack the midfield and attempt to smother any United creativity by choking off the blood supply to their hard-working strikers, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.

A lot of post-match fuss has been aimed at the absence through suspension of United's brave, aggressive midfielder Darren Fletcher, but his replacement, Anderson, is more than adequate. Indeed, Anderson is much quicker than Fletcher and far more intelligent. No! The problem lay in the fact that, for two weeks, during the buildup to the game, Pep brilliantly fired off his propaganda bulletins concerning keeping the beautiful game beautiful to a hungry press. A game of wide-open football was what he wanted and the vain Scotsman gave it to him.

Having watched United execute Assistant Manager Carlos Queiroz's smothering tactics a year ago to beat Barcelona in the semifinal, Guardiola knew exactly what to do. Despite winning two European Champions Cups, Ferguson's United teams, although often heavily favoured, have stumbled out of the competition again and again. Atypically, two of Ferguson's best United teams ever were knocked out by the same aging A.C. Milan club in both 2005-06 and 2006-07. In both cases, Carlo Ancelotti's team gummed up the midfield, forcing United's speedy, short-passing team, to slow down. Once they were bogged down, United's midfielders did what English teams have always done--they started making risky long passes. Such a telegraphed passing game will never work against a well-drilled midfield group like Milan's Seedorf, Gatusso, Pirlo and Kaka, and the four of them began surgically picking off virtually every United pass and executing lightning counter-attacks. After four humiliations by the Italian club, Ferguson finally allowed Queiroz to take complete tactical charge last season. Instead of fighting it out with Barcelona's even more potent midfield, Queiroz put nine men behind the ball and had United counterattack instead. It wasn't pretty, but it worked and United won the competition.

A year later, having lost Queiroz, who took the job of Portugal's national team coach, Ferguson was faced with the same predicament again! After watching Chelsea break down every relentless Barcelona attack, again with nine men behind the ball, and only lose the semifinal because of some atrocious refereeing, surely, I thought, Ferguson would be cautious. After, as he put it, watching Pep's lads "annihilate" Real Madrid 2-6 at the Bernabeu, surely Ferguson would be cautious. After having eaten four cans of Ancelloti's Milanese ass-whup, surely he would be cautious.

Unfortunately, although the most successful manager in British football history has a great mind and an amazing ability to install a will to win in his players, Ferguson decided to let Pep Guardiola establish the rules of engagement. There would be no nine men behind the ball in Rome. The tsunami of unctuous praise which had followed his double dismantling of a sparkling young Arsenal team certainly played a part in his decision. If cynical veteran journos like Martin Samuel, Kevin McCarra and Barry Glendinning praised his tactical nous, surely he could trust this team? If old pros like Lee Dixon, Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker all said this was probably the best Ferguson Manchester United team ever, surely he didn't have to make them win ugly?

In the opening nine minutes of the game, as Cristiano Ronaldo ran riot, bottling three clear chances, and Barcelona were a nervous wreck, Ferguson really looked like a tartan Einstein. It seemed like Barca had no physical presence whatsoever. What was Messi doing in the middle? Where was Henry? Their goalkeeper, the much maligned Victor Valdez, looked to be the only calm player on the field.

The torture session began with Samuel Eto'o's opening goal after 10 minutes. This absolute shocker began innocuously enough. It started after Xaví whipped the ball off Anderson's toe. He slid it to Iniesta, who shimmied past a lunging Giggs and then did a quick 1-2-1 with Messi which fell to Eto'o, who saw, courtesy of a second Nemanja Vidic panic attack(just like the first panic attack against Liverpool's Fernando Torres), a clear way to goal. Edwin Van der Sar—clearly recognizing the deer-caught-in-headlights awe which Nemanja Vidic exhibits when he goes head to head with world-class strikers in really big matches—came charging out of his goal, his arms splayed wide with expectation of a lob from the Cameroonian striker. Instead of lobbing the ball, however, Eto'o, at his cool panther persona best, juggled the ball at shin height and then flicked it into the net with a light prodding motion off the very end of his right toe.

To all intents and purposes, this was the end of the actual game. Every single grain of confidence passed from United to Barcelona. It was as if a gale force had displaced a sand dune. Ferguson's strategy fell to smithereens as his go-to-guy, Ryan Giggs, went from playing in the hole to falling down the well and drowning. Wayne Rooney, deployed on the left to torment the slow plodding Carlos Puyol with speed and muscle, spent the next 80 minutes displaying the face of someone whose hemorrhoids are being squeezed in a pare of pliers.

Lionel Messi, placed by Pep in a central position as opposed to his usual wide man role, went from being anonymous to enormous. Nagged at and smothered by Patrice Evra and Wes Brown a year ago, United had no clue what to do to deal with him this time. His assigned marker, Patrice Evra, who almost played the little magician off the pitch last season, was caught in an enormous quandary. If he moved in on Barca's magician, it exposed United's left flank to marauding attacks from the other ball whiz, Andrés Iniesta, our old nemesis Thierry Henry and, Oh-My-God, Carlos Puyol. As this reality set in and Messi gamboled about, free as an Amsterdam whore with a brand-new red card, every United defender already had his hands full trying to deal with Iniesta, Henry and Eto'o. What Ji-Sung Park was doing out there is impossible to fathom. He actually managed to mop up more than a few loose balls, but, unlike Iniesta, instead of holding on to the ball or being able to pass it on to an already emotionally and physically spent Old man Giggsy, he kept passing the ball away to the opposition. Indeed, by the 80th minute, when the little Argentine's brilliant header scored a second time, it was a kind of mercy killing.

I have to first say that this was a glorious night for those who love football. But then I also have to say, as a Manchester United fan, that Ferguson's decision to go for it was absolute 100% folly. What is also settled, for the time being, is the argument about who is the world's best player. Messi was a colossus. He put Cristiano Ronaldo out to pasture. It was not even close. Contrary to so much blog wisdom, Ronaldo clearly showed a lot of guts out there. Along with the plucky full backs, Johnny O'Shea and Patrice Evra, and the sad, marooned Wayne Rooney, Ronaldo was one of the few players in a white shirt who did not quit in the eleventh minute. Indeed, Ronnie never stopped running and his raucous petulant little skirmishes with Carlos Puyol showed off his frustration and commitment. Credit where credit is due to Puyol also, whose gamesmanship is the stuff winners are made of. Indeed, Messi had all the available help he needed from Xavi and Iniesta while Ronaldo was a lone warrior. Clearly, Rooney's deployment on the left won't work against a team that denies United possession. Wazza';s best work is through the middle of the pitch and this is where he has to be restored come next season.

With the news that Owen Hargreaves is healing more slowly than was expected and won't be back until at least January(if he ever comes back at all), Ferguson must man up and face facts. Instead of wasting 32M on Dimitar Berbatov, when having another striker was an unnecessary luxury, he should have settled with Carlos Tevez's owner/agent early and bought a strong-minded, hard-tackling midfielder last season. It's unfair to expect anyone to be the next Roy Keane, but the Gaffer's faith in Darren Fletcher and Anderson, two converted attacking midfielders, is the club's Achilles heel. Buying a ready-made, good-to-go, post-to-post midfielder like Javíer Martinez or Miguel Veloso is one way to go. If Ferguson is bound and determined to wait for Hargreaves in the same patient way he did for Louis 'Sick-note' Saha, he ought to invest in an old-hand like Genarro Gatusso.

Ferguson's massive cock-up now needs to be placed in context. United have just won the World Club Cup, the Premier League for a third successive season and reached a Champions League final for the second year in a row. This was a defeat. It is not a catastrophe, even though right now it still feels like one. A cock-up does not constitute even the semblance of a crisis. Barcelona's superiority on the night has truly shaken Ferguson and his squad, but a temporary case of hubris such as ours will surely set in with Barca, too. The pressure cooker atmosphere of life in La Liga, the Premiership and the ECC makes it very difficult for any team to repeat easily without having a huge price to pay in pure mental and physical exhaustion the next season. Rival clubs of both teams, especially Real Madrid and Chelsea, are about to lay out hundreds of millions in a massive effort to prevent both clubs from repeating.

This tournament represents both the best and worst of United's history and Ferguson's mighty heart. Naturally, the agony is especially painful when it is played out at the highest stage and, God knows, we United fans are dreadful losers! United will regroup, remake, remodel, polish their boots and go at it again. Barcelona are the best team in Europe right now. It hurts, but it's true. Still, even at 68, Sir Alex Ferguson learns from his mistakes. We'll be back for our cup next year!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Midnight Express: Redux

Ivorismo Rating: *

Old rubbish never dies, it just makes your mind fade away. Go on, take a load off me: You find the appropriate cliché! I never thought I’d have to sit through this old sack of dreck again, but, instead of a remake, almost thirty years later, we get the Director’s Cut. It’s kind of funny, actually. I really like Oliver Stone’s On Any Sunday, which also just came out in a new, marvellous director’s cut. Well, I’ll be danged if, after raving about Ollie’s best piece of work, I don’t get to review his total worst a week later. Fair enough, he didn’t direct this one, but, as screenwriter, his DNA is splattered everywhere. A huge success when it came out in 1975, Midnight Express, allowed its director, Alan Parker, the chance to pick his own scripts ever after, which more or less destroyed his journeyman career. It also allowed Stone the chance to direct his own script, Salvador, and onward to sustain hit after hit with the likes of Platoon, Wall Street, Nixon, JFK, U-Turn, Natural Born Killers, World Trade Center, and, of course, one of the greatest comedies ever, Alexander.

Stone’s academy award-winning script is based on Billy Hayes’ memoir of the same name. You know you’re in murky territory instantaneously, because, along with the percussive putt-putt-putt pummeling of Billy’s heart, a big yellow banner says, just like in those old Warner Brothers thirties classics, ‘Based on a true story! Yes, we’re inside a nice, wonder bread college boy’s chest as he straps a couple of kilos of hash to his stomach and gets caught at the Istanbul airport just as he’s boarding a plane for New York. For the next two hours, we go for a brutal-but-beautiful ride, as our pretty, virginal Billy (Brad Davis) is battered and buggered by the savage, homo-eroticized Turks with the accompaniment of composer Gorgio Moroder and his disco-bleep synthesizers. Billy is rendered naked a lot, and the hairy-eared Turks, led by an ox of a huge, head screw, Hamidou (Paul Smith), who welcomes him by hanging him upside down during the first night and then rapes him. As the film piles on the torment, Billy slowly deteriorates and becomes more or less like the English junkie, Max, a nice star turn for John Hurt, the hotheaded American psychopath (Randy Quaid), and the scores of exquisitely beautiful thirteen-year-old boys who seem to have been imprisoned solely for the pleasure of the evil Turkish prisoners and guards.

Yet, no matter how degraded and tortured Billy is, beneath the deathly pallor we still see the steadfast true-believer eyes of a Slavic Christ icon. And those dirty Turkish prisoners and screws, sodomites all, seem to do nothing but stab one another, scream and shout in their funny language and come off not so much as icky Moslem foreigners, but as a different hairy species. By the time Billy snaps—in the midst of giving a seductive kiss to a Turkish informer which becomes a horrifying, slow-motion act of biting off the informer’s tongue and then spitting it out—it signals an end to the former, expected, run-of-the-mill sort of “this could be what happens to you if you break the law in a foreign country”-film sort of way, into a kind of propaganda bludgeon. What follows is a long, Fellinesque coda accompanied by a Moroder synth wash. Dragged off to the sector of the penitentiary reserved for the insane, Billy becomes a raving, raging mumbler. By the time Susan, his girlfriend, visits, Billy is a hysterical babbler. Then, abruptly, five years later, after somehow getting himself together, Billy manages to escape.

The massive box office success of this movie seems incomprehensible to me still. What I do remember well from seeing it in the theater is the mass cheer that came from the audience as Billy spat the Turk’s tongue out, which turned to applause as he stood there, his arms upraised, another white champion triumphing over the innate wickedness of the barbarous third world, a pixilated slo-mo Christ spattered with heathen blood. Michael Seresin’s cinematography, an earthy palette of burnt siennas, mustard browns, and a journey through the full gray scale, has to be complimented. In the hands of a less subtle lens artist, say the subtlety-free work of that bludgeoning iconoclast John Alonzo, the film might have slipped into a state of total, umm, vulgarity.

Midnight Express is a relentless exercise in audience manipulation. A cynical use of manipulative technique very far removed from any mode of sincere artistic impulse. Parker and Stone use a cow prod to goad the viewer from one brutal shock to the next. There are no ambiguities in this xenophobic tract. It’s a cruel bit of rabble-rousing. The Brit and Yank prisoners (oh, and the one flamingly gay Swede) are civilized and noble. The Turks, even Billy’s lawyer, who picks his nose and clears his ears with his pinkie in the only comic turn in the film, are sadistic, filthy, and, did I say, hairy?

How could I help but check out the extra commentary from Parker and Stone that accompanied this, the glorious director’s cut with seven added minutes of footage hacked cut out of the original release?

“I couldn’t help but see the parallels between Express and the stuff I’ve been reading about Abu Ghraib and Gitmo,” Parker--now Sir Alan Parker-- says very solemnly in his awful North London accent as he revisits the film’s creation. Now I know the problem. He’s an Arsenal supporter. Running a nervous hand across his comb over, Parker adds. “Prison brings out the worst in human behavior.”

All right, now I get it. Prison brings out the very worst in human behavior. On the other hand, Stone, being a writer and all, digs a tad deeper. “It strikes me that, despite a few bad examples of errant behavior by ill-trained guards at Abu Ghraib, our people, whether, you know, it’s the army in particular, or the penitentiary system in general, our people are just not capable of the kind of behavior you see going on in this movie.” Enough said. It seems to be imperative for Americans to believe that we are, all of us, naïve and misunderstood. As the gregariously crusty barkeep of The Simpsons, Mo Cieslak, sings in a state of utter frustration at the rest of the cruel populace:"Why don't they like me?/Nobody likes me?"

Nah, I can't let Stone have the last word. Having failed so miserably with Alexander, his elegiac World Trade Center movie proved to be a fairly subtle success. Now, with Wall Street 2 shooting, the signs are there for all to see that the cupboard is, if not bare, down to a few canned goods. With Shia LeBouef replacing the long-since-dissipated Charlie Sheen, one wonders if he might do a redo of his whole oeuvre. Consider those five missing years Billy Hayes spent in jail getting his shit together. Billy Hayes: The Lost Years. It's a natural for Stone. Neither a prequel nor a sequel, the film would be something conceptually new: A mequel. Well, Brad Davis may be dead, but I'm sure Shia will be game, as long as the Turks brush their teeth.