Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Something Better Change

Although I have been a football fan for nearly forty years, there are still a few things about the beautiful game that I would like to change. Despite watching far too much football, at least according to my lovely wife, there is still room for improvement in my favourite sport, though you would never guess this was the case when watching our friends at Sky Sports, who, to be fair, are the main reason why I can take in 2-3 (OK, 4-5) matches every week.

As people staggered their way through the twelve days of Christmas, I got to thinking whether I could find twelve areas that I would like to change to make the world’s most popular sport an even better spectacle. You’d better believe it. So, here’s my Dirty Dozen – a list of suggested enhancements for Sepp and his mates, which I’m sure they would welcome, as they don’t require anything as contemporary as using technology (even though every other major sport seems to have embraced the modern world with few problems), nor do they need any significant rule changes, just the application of existing regulations and good old fashioned common sense.

As they say on the best (and the worst) shows, in no particular order, I would like to see the following in the New Year. Funnily enough, many of the examples that I can immediately think of are from Chelsea, which in no way implies that this is a team of cheating, lying, hypocritical bastards, who would win a gamesmanship league every single year without fail. Oh, no.

1. Wagging a finger at the referee

This is done to indicate disagreement with a referee’s decision and is intensely irritating for the spectator, so God knows how angry it must make the ref feel. I would make this an automatic yellow card, especially as the wagging is no indication of whether the player is telling the truth. The worst offender is Chelsea’s Ricardo Carvalho, who usually shows us his dodgy digit after he has cleaned out an opposing forward and the ref has the temerity to give a foul against him. I have long harboured an irrational dislike of Carvalho with his musketeer’s haircut and his weird frame. I am unsure whether this is because his legs are too short or his trunk is too long, but what is undisputable is that he gets away with numerous fouls, so it’s pretty rich for him to complain in this way when one is actually punished.

2. Staying down, feigning injury

There has been a well justified media campaign to stop players diving, but less of a fuss has been made about the new art of players staying down after a foul, pretending to be hurt, in order to break up an opposition counter-attack. Although the rules have changed, so it is now up to the referee to stop the game in such instances, the crowd will inevitably whistle and scream for the opponents to put the ball into touch, so that their player can receive immediate medical assistance. This is hardly ever merited, but the player will milk the attention, gingerly get to his feet, grimace like a street mime artist, take a few hesitant steps off the pitch, only to return fighting fit seconds later. The absolute master of this ploy is Didier Drogba, who coincidentally is also a world-class diver. Only this week, we saw him lying prostrate in his area as Birmingham put the ball in the Chelsea net. Unfortunately, the goal was disallowed, as it would have been sweet justice if the Ivorian’s latest bout of play-acting had resulted in his prone body playing the forward onside.

3. Stealing ten metres on a throw-in

Virtually every time a full-back takes a throw-in, he will perform the same routine. Initially, he will simply walk down the touchline with a vacant expression on his face (not too difficult for most Premiership footballers), before coming to a sudden stop, which will allow him to look around the pitch (yes, your players are those wearing the same colour shirt as you). Then, he will repeat these actions, the only variation being that the walk is now stuttering, as if he is actually going to make the throw. Not so fast – it’s only the third run where he will actually release the ball. This pantomime will routinely gain his team ten metres, but if you are really good at this, like “Cashley” Cole, then you can occasionally secure twenty metres. Of course, sometimes the referee will spot the offence and send you back, whereupon the player will grudgingly back up, perhaps, two metres, still leaving his team with a net gain. When you look at other sports like American football or rugby, where inches are vital, this laissez-faire attitude is plain stupid.

4. Swearing at the referee

While I have been known to use industrial language, it doesn’t make it any more attractive when you see players abuse the ref in the foulest terms imaginable. There seems to be some sort of licence given to the better-known players, who are allowed to swear much more than Joe Average, so the likes of Wayne Rooney (“Wazza”) and John Terry (“JT”) are permitted to give the ref a mouthful without fear of sanction. I was going to say give them a “piece of their mind”, but that would suggest very little swearing, so went for “mouthful”, which also implies the spitting that invariably accompanies the invective. As the Premier League now contains so many foreign players, we are witnessing a new trend, whereby players curse the ref with impunity, as they are speaking in their mother tongue. I recently watched the saintly Fernando Torres constantly call the ref a “hijo de puta”, which is surely not that difficult to understand, but was apparently beyond the man in black.

5. Wrestling matches in the penalty area

Every (yes, every) time a cross comes into the penalty area from a corner or free kick, the sport suddenly changes from football to all-in wrestling, as defenders ignore the ball to concentrate on grabbing the striker’s shirt or even wrapping their arms around him. This is so blatant that it has become a joke. Very occasionally, the ref will give a penalty (or “pelanty”, as Chris Waddle would say), but the only way to completely stamp this out is to award a spot-kick every time it happens until even the thickest, dirtiest stopper (for example, everyone’s favourite tour guide, John Terry) realises that this “tactic” won’t work any more. Given that England have been eliminated from at least two major tournaments by climbing on opponents (Sol Campbell against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup; that man John Terry against Portugal in the 2004 European Championship), you would have hoped that the penny had dropped by now, but apparently not.

6. Screaming like a girl when fouled

Hands up anyone who has ever played football. OK, keep your hands up if you ever heard anyone you played with or against you scream like a bitch when they were fouled. Thought so. This only happens in professional football. We know that the reason the players do it is so the ref will notice that an offence has been committed, but just how useless do they think that the ref is? Don’t answer that. It’s particularly unedifying when a big bruiser squeals like a pig if he has been barely touched. Step forward (and fall down) the 6 ft 2 ins Michael Ballack, whose high-pitched Teutonic cry whenever he hits the deck is especially painful on the ears.

7. Holding head in hands after missing a chance

I think that this gesture is intended to demonstrate to all and sundry how close the shot was to being a wonderful goal, when fans usually interpret it as “How did that over-paid, hopeless pillock manage to balloon the ball over the bar from there?” It’s clearly a self-serving act, as the player bemoans his terrible luck (as opposed to lack of ability), while giving his best Victor Meldrew impression (“I don’t believe it!”). England’s erstwhile wunderkind, Joe Cole, is normally good value for money if you want to witness this phenomenon, but his Chelsea teammate, Nicolas Anelka, is no slouch in this department either.

8. Fouls

Obviously we cannot ban fouls completely, but what annoys me is that there seem to be some players earning a living in the game who commit fouls every time that they make a challenge. Instead of being pilloried for being generally useless, bizarrely they are often lauded for their work rate, commitment and attitude. The least I would expect from any professional athlete is good work rate, for heaven’s sake. In addition, I would expect them to be able to time a tackle and make a pass, but the only contribution that some players are capable of making is to increase their side’s quota of fouls, yellow cards and red cards (though nowhere near as many as they deserve). My Hall of Shame includes Ricardo Carvalho (yes, again), Michael Brown (a journeyman who has hacked his way around the pitch for many clubs) and Phil Neville. Phil’s sibling Gary is now too slow to be able to foul as consistently as he used too, though he is just as ugly – Brothers Grimm, indeed.

9. Constantly caught offside

Even though FIFA have frequently tinkered with the offside rule to favour the attacking side, there are still forwards who are too idle or stupid to avoid being caught the wrong side of the defence. A couple of times a match is forgivable, especially if the attacker is “playing on the defender’s shoulder” and actively looking to exploit any advantage, such as little Mickey Owen in his prime (before he became more interested in horse racing), but all the time? Arsenal fans would agree with me if I suggested that the worst culprit at brainlessly straying offside, the all-time world champion, is that perennial waster, Emmanuel Adebayor. It was almost beyond belief last year how many times the dozy idiot ruined an Arsenal attack by wandering yards offside. Oh well, at least we got one good season out of the over-rated walking ego, before he effectively decided to go on strike, which appears to be one more than he will condescend to give Manchester City.

10. Wall not retreating

When a free kick is awarded, the defensive wall should be at least ten yards away, but this is hardly ever the case. If a ref ever bothers to pace out the distance, the second his back is turned, the wall will shuffle forward like a geriatric line dance. In South America, they experimented with an aerosol spray that marked the proper distance with the line somehow disappearing a few minutes later. Seemed like a very good idea to me, but for some reason it has not been adopted worldwide. Maybe Blatter thinks that a spray-can smacks of technology, which obviously can never be allowed into the game he rules, unless of course it’s called television, and that's only because it is one of the major driving forces behind FIFA’s growing revenue.

11. Consistency

Or, more specifically, people talking about this theme, as in “all we ever want is consistency”. This is a line that is usually wheeled out by a less successful manager when he feels that his team has been the victim of a poor decision, so is almost exclusively used by old-school English managers like Tony “if the cap fits, wear it” Pulis, Phil “Tango” Brown and Sam “lump it” Allardyce. Well, if you’re so keen on consistency, why can’t your players pass the ball accurately more than twice in a row? Why can’t your strikers hit the target more than once in every ten attempts? Surely this concept should cut both ways, or is it just more convenient to blame the officials for the inadequacies of your pathetic teams?

12. Jamie Redknapp

Like almost every football fan I know, I’ve had it up to here with this unshaven, thin-tied, tight-trousered buffoon. Yapping like an excitable puppy that has just seen its first bone, he shouts out his opinions as if they’re enormously insightful, when in reality they’re banal, predictable and often plain wrong. Someone should inform him that it is possible for his cousin “Fat” Frank Lampard to have a bad game once in a while. My dearest wish for 2010 would be for fellow pundit Graeme Souness to take his obvious contempt for Redknapp’s lack of knowledge to the logical extreme and put in one of his legendary “reducers” on the former Spice Boy. Literally.

Much as I would love it (“really love it”) if these thoughts were to come to pass, it’s about as likely as Santa coming down the chimney, to use a seasonal comparison. Never mind, there’s still hope for us footy fans and I will be happy, so long as Arsenal win the treble, England win the World Cup and Hull City and Blackburn Rovers are relegated to the Championship – where their clodhopping brand of football belongs. That would be a genuinely Happy New Year.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cooking Up A Story

I would imagine that for the majority of the hard-bitten football journalists the average press conference (or “presser”, as they so amusingly call them) would be ditchwater dull, but that was most certainly not the case when Manchester City gave their fans an early Christmas present by announcing the sacking of their manager Mark Hughes. Leading with his pronounced chin, Chief Executive Garry Cook gave a dazzlingly incompetent, buttock-clenching demonstration of exactly how not to present such news. To paraphrase Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder, they were definitely at home to Mr. Cook-up.

In some quarters, Cook was praised for actually turning up (big deal), but he was asking for trouble by insisting that his attendance was on the condition that he would simply read from a prepared statement and not answer any questions. Even that was hideously mismanaged, as the script was embarrassingly self-serving with Cook vainly attempting to portray himself as some sort of media victim, while only succeeding in giving the impression that he was a man with something to hide.

"Chin up"

Furthermore, Cook’s desperate claim that City had only offered Roberto Mancini the manager’s job after the game against Spurs the previous week was immediately contradicted by the urbane Italian, who calmly revealed that he had met the club’s owner Sheikh Mansour and Chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak two weeks previously. Impossible as it might seem, Cook’s jaw dropped even lower, as Mancini’s simple act of telling the truth exposed him as this season’s panto villain (“Oh, no he didn’t”, “Oh, yes he did”). Having initially refused to take any questions, Cook found himself under increasingly hostile fire, as City’s bid to defend their conduct over Hughes’ sacking fell apart, and he was forced to “clarify” his earlier statement, i.e. totally change it.

In stark contrast to Mancini’s languid, easy charm, Cook increasingly resembled a nervous schoolboy, as he just kept digging in a feeble effort to extricate himself from the hole. While Mancini demonstrated that he is cool and composed under pressure, Cook turned in a prissy, agitated performance that convinced the kindest observer that here was a man completely out of his depth.

Initially, he opted for some sort of false bonhomie, as if he were among his best mates, “Listen fellas, I’m just going to try to make a couple of points here”, before completely losing his rag with the assembled journalists. As he tried to justify City’s actions, he slapped the table nine times, presumably as a sign of his “passion”, but his ashen face told its own story. You would have thought that the very least a man with his PR background would understand is that it is better to remain calm and dignified in the face of some obvious questions, rather than melt down and throw a hissy like Mariah Carey on a bad night. His evident discomfort at having his version of events probed reminded one of Bill Clinton’s denial that he had ever had sexual relations with “that woman” – and was about as convincing.

"Who's the bulldog chewing a wasp?"

In an obvious ploy to suck up and save his own job, Cook was particularly keen to describe his boss in the most glowing terms, “The Chairman has been nothing but transparent with Mark throughout his tenure and he has communicated with him regularly over the last several weeks”. Except when he was courting Mancini (and possibly other managers like Guus Hiddink) behind Hughes’ back, of course. A tale of two-faced cities, if you will. It became clear to everyone that Cook was being "economical with the actualité" at the very least. Like City’s poorly assembled defence, his argument was riddled with holes. The old-fashioned simple test of a man’s basic honesty is to ask yourself whether you would buy a used car from him. In Cook’s case, the answer has to be resoundingly in the negative.

As you watched Cook wriggling like a worm on the hook, he resembled David Brent at his obnoxious worst. Similar to Slough’s finest, he resorted to type, hiding behind a series of ridiculous corporate buzzwords, as if he had foolishly decided that a spot of bullshit bingo would be just the ticket to defuse the situation. After bizarrely claiming, “some of this could be deemed in translation”, he followed that up with the equally meaningless, “It seems to me that there’s an overwhelming theory that there is a conspiracy. We’re not going to commit to that”. Er, what? By now he was really getting into his stride, describing the summer’s transfer spending as “accelerated player acquisition activity”. For crying out loud, it comes to something when Cook’s English is worse than Mancini’s. At least, the Italian’s faltering efforts in his second language don’t set your teeth on edge like someone scraping his nails down a blackboard.

"Some mothers do 'ave 'em"

I am not against businessmen in football, but please don’t talk like a walking commercial cliché. Also, don’t think that you’re something special just because you know the difference between a profit and loss account and a cash flow statement. There have been far too many ordinary businessmen, seduced by their proximity to the glamorous, high profile world of football, who become sure of their own brilliance and importance. So, when Cook should have been conciliatory, demonstrating some class and style, he opted for arrogance. His pursed lips and folded arms loudly proclaimed that he, Garry Cook, CEO of Manchester City PLC, was in the right and everyone else was an ignorant fool, even as his unforgettably awful display set a new low – mistaken pride before an almighty fall.

No football manager is ever truly safe from being handed his P45 these days, but Mark Hughes must surely have felt that he was going to be given more time, if he listened to the praise that Garry Cook heaped on his shoulders. When Cook first appointed Hughes to the hot seat in June 2008, he boasted, “I am delighted to welcome Mark on board. In our view he is the brightest young manager in the game and he was our number one target for the manager's job”. Speaking with all the authority bestowed by his many years in football (one, in fact), Cook later boomed, “Every successful athlete has a certain mental strength that defines him as different to the average person. Alex Ferguson and Mark Hughes both have it. Mark’s a winner and he’s the ideal person to create a culture of winning at this club”.

"He's behind you"

So Hughes must have been an abject failure to get the boot after all these fine words? In fact, his sympathisers point out that he left Manchester City just two places off Champions League qualification in sixth position and in the semi-finals of the Carling Cup (the first time they had reached such heady heights in 28 years). On the face of it, that’s not too bad after so many changes in playing staff, but it obviously was not sufficient for the owners, even though their original target was indeed sixth place, so they basically moved the goalposts and stated, “the new target that the playing staff agreed with the board was 70 points. The trajectory of recent results was below this requirement and the board felt there was no evidence that the situation would fundamentally change.”

Apart from the fact that Cook should probably be sacked just for using godawful phrases like “trajectory of recent results”, the facts (as Rafael Benitez would say) don’t really support City’s argument, as the club had secured 29 points after 17 of 38 games, so if they were to be victorious in their next two matches (against Stoke and Wolves, both eminently winnable), then they would have 35 points at the half-way stage. In other words, City would be exactly on target for the revised budget (sorry, target) of 70 points – unless Cook is still under the impression that it’s only two points for a win.

"The Cook, the sheikh, the knife and the loser"

Whatever the statistics say, there is no doubt that the manner of Hughes’ dismissal left a nasty taste in the mouth. Even though the world and his wife knew that Hughes was a dead man walking, City’s hierarchy still deemed it acceptable to let the Welshman take charge of the home game against Sunderland. Cook was at pains to stress that Mancini had not been in the stadium, as some newspapers had reported, as if that were the important point. The fact was that not only had Hughes’ replacement been well and truly lined up, but Mancini had also signed his contract at least 24 hours earlier.

Of course, it is absolutely the owners’ right to decide who manages their football team, especially as they had given Hughes £250 mln of their money to invest in the team. When you look at some of his highly debatable purchases, they could argue with a great deal of justification that he had effectively spunked it away. The wily Arsene Wenger conned him out of around £40 mln for a couple of duds: Emmanuel Adebayor, a lazy waster who is a poisonous presence in the dressing room, and Kolo Toure, who has not been the same player since contracting malaria in the African Nations Cup. However, I’m not sure whom Hughes can blame for his insane decision to build his defence on the ludicrously over-rated (and certainly over-paid) pair of Wayne Bridge and Joleon Lescott. On the other side of the deal, Hughes got rid of proven performers like Richard Dunne, Vedran Corluka and Elano for sums well below their market value.

"Take it on the chin, son"

It is also true that Mark Hughes is not the most sympathetic character. Famed for his sharp elbows during his playing days, “Sparky” appeared to have lost the plot during recent weeks, as evidenced by his touchline spat with Wenger, which by all accounts followed a foul-mouthed tirade from a man showing all the signs of becoming too big for his boots. Forgetting that it’s generally recognised as a good thing to exhibit a degree of humility, Hughes strutted around like cock of the walk, always ready to haughtily comment on matters inside and outside his club, e.g. his unsubstantiated allegations that referee Mark Clattenburg had described the angelic Craig Bellamy as a bit of a trouble-maker. He also lost a lot of respect in the summer for his conduct during the transfer of Joleon Lescott, when Everton manager David Moyes described the way that Manchester City handled the negotiations as “disgusting” and “disruptive”.

So what about the new boss, Signor Roberto Mancini? First of all, the line spouted by football’s talking heads that a foreign manager new to England cannot possibly succeed in the Premier League is arrant nonsense and if you don’t believe me, why don’t you ask Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger or even (stretching the point) “Sir” Alex Ferguson? Il Mancio has a very good record in Italy, having won three Serie A league titles with Inter, though this achievement is somewhat diminished by the impact of the Calciopoli corruption scandal, that saw Juventus relegated to Serie B and the other main challengers given big points deductions. It is also true that Inter performed poorly in the Champions League, singularly failing to make an impact in Europe’s premier competition. Now that City have a new manager, it will be interesting to see whether Garry Cook is true to his word, as he recently stated that the club had drawn a line under their spending spree and would now invest in youth development. Somehow I doubt it.

"Don't call me scarface"

By now everyone will have appreciated that Garry Cook is an egotistical blowhard whose only talent appears to be an unshakable belief in his own ability, despite all evidence to the contrary. He appears to be absolutely certain of his acumen, even though he is no stranger to making spectacular gaffes.

His first own goal came when he praised former City owner Thaksin Shinawatra as a “great guy to play golf with”, which I am sure would have carried great weight with Amnesty International, who condemned the Prime Minister of Thailand as a mass murderer for his treatment of the country’s Muslim minority. He then accused Milan of “bottling it” following the breakdown in negotiations attempting to bring Kaká to the club for a world record transfer fee. That would be the Milan that has won the European Cup on seven occasions, as opposed to Manchester City, whose European roll call of honour is restricted to a single victory in the Cup Winners Cup almost thirty years ago. Only a few weeks ago Captain Cook put his foot in it again, when he welcomed former City striker Uwe Rösler to the Manchester United Hall of Fame. Cook was still being booed for this outstanding effort by the long-suffering City fans, as poor Rösler attempted to give his acceptance speech.

As Chief Executive, one of Cook’s responsibilities is to handle transfer activities, which he appears to have interpreted as tapping up other clubs’ players, such as when Mark Hughes was trying to lure Joleon Lescott away from Goodison Park in a confidential move, Cook spoke of his manager’s admiration for the defender, “Mark loves the player. He is a great player and Mark has always talked about investing in young, international talent”. Then there was his far from subtle, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to woo England’s Brave John TerryThe Guardian), whose head was unquestionably turned, even as he was kissing the badge on his shirt.

"What's your handicap, Thaksin?"

When City did manage to splash the cash, Cook again embarrassed all and sundry by over-doing the welcome to Carlos Tevez, first hugging him like a long-lost son, then authorising a fatuous poster with the message “Welcome to Manchester” emblazoned across an image of Tevez’s grotesque features. Cook’s pathetic justification was to brag, “I like being a noisy neighbour. It means we are making an impact on what we are trying to do”. Yeah, right. The only statement Cook has made all year that rings true is, “Comedy has always been at the heart of what this club is all about”. Well, you said it, big boy.

The Cookster (as he almost certainly refers to himself) was back on form when he justified the sale of the club captain with “Richard Dunne doesn’t roll off the tongue in Beijing”, implying that shirt sales (or “branding”, as it is now called) are more important than a solid back four. Dunne’s response was right on the money: “All Cook wants is big-money players. He doesn't understand the core loyalty of the club and where it begins. I just needed people to be honest with me. I was getting phone calls from people saying Garry Cook was trying to sell me behind my back, two months after me going to him and saying if he has any problems to come and deal with me”.

"The only way is down"

Cook’s apologists point to his glittering career at Nike, where he was in charge of the “Brand Jordan” project, but, seriously, how difficult can it be to market the best basketball player in the world? Those who have worked for a major multinational will be well aware that holding a senior position is absolutely no guarantee of competence, as it can also owe a great deal to being in the right place at the right time – or just plain brown-nosing. Cook’s mission statement is “building a club that is a successful business whose core competency is football”. Apart from bringing to mind Basil Fawlty’s great quote about his ghastly wife Sybil (“specialist subject – the bleeding obvious”), once again the corporate-speak is enough to make you retch. Cook is clearly a man who loves to “run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it”; a geek who is more likely to wet himself at the sight of a healthy balance sheet than a glorious volley. When discussing Hughes’ performance, Cook revealed, “Mark had an appraisal like any employee” – and you just know that he called it The Cook Report.

This is the man who produced an 83 page tome, grandly entitled “A New Model for Partnership”, which outlined his vision for the future of football, even though he had only been in the sport for about five minutes. This seemed to consist of protecting Manchester City’s future by reducing the Premier League to 10-14 clubs, though why City would deserve to be in this elite is beyond me. In his usual gormless manner, Cook muttered, “The fans would find a way to get passionate about it”. His other great idea was to brand anything that moves, leading to City drinks, City credit cards, City restaurants and probably City airports (hang on, that’s already been done).

"I'm all right, Jack"

Apparently Roberto Mancini’s contract has a get-out clause after six months and there are already rumours that Cook is actively working to replace him with a legend like Mourinho or Wenger at the end of the season, but the City fans would be entitled to ask whether Cook’s own position has become untenable. Where does the buck stop? After all, Cook is the man who recruited Hughes and persuaded the new owners to stick with the manager when they bought the club. His endless list of excruciating blunders have turned him into the new Peter Kenyon (“the most hated man in football”) and it would be no great surprise if he went the same way, with the City board getting rid of him. Hopefully, with a full Blue Moon.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Through Glasses Darkly

On his exhilarating debut “My Aim Is True”, Elvis Costello sang, “I’m not angry any more”, but listening to his outstanding follow-up “This Year’s Model”, nothing seems to be further from the truth. Released in 1978, Costello’s second album finds him at his most scornful, dripping with the aggression, menace and dark humour that have become his trademarks, though it also defiantly deals with the disappointment and denial experienced by this Angry Young Man.

While “My Aim Is True” definitely possessed the punk spirit with its biting lyrics and stripped-down production, “This Year’s Model” actually sounds like punk, almost as if it is kicking open the door that the first album had left ajar. Perfectly balancing the raw energy of his debut with the more elegant songwriting that would come to characterise Costello’s later work, this record explodes into action with (ironically) “No Action”, two minutes of fury wrapped up in a delicious melody that immediately establishes his punk credentials, as the group sounds as if they are spinning out of control. This is a dynamic, yet complex album of sparkling songs featuring an earnest maelstrom of emotional spite, bitter frustration, sexual angst and caustic political commentary – in other words, perfect for almost every teenager.

"Let them all talk"

The songs are as fast and spiky as the most vitriolic punk band, but Costello is a true Renaissance man and he manages to successfully blend in pop, new wave, rock and roll and even reggae without missing a beat. Having worked with the likes of The Damned and The Ramones, producer Nick Lowe not only brought all the punk credibility any group could want, but also gave the record a phenomenal sense of urgency. Edgier and nastier than ever before, Lowe pumped up the volume and delivered a raucous, full-bodied sound, teetering on the edge of combustion. There is a frenetic, jerky quality to this music that is highly infectious. Surrounding Costello’s breathless, snarling vocals with swirling keyboards and slashing guitar breaks, Lowe’s superb production means that “This Year’s Model” flashes by at a blinding pace.

Much of the credit is also due to The Attractions, whose sterling efforts on this album marked the beginning of a long, illustrious collaboration with Costello. Their wired intensity adds something to this album that was lacking in his more restrained debut, as they detonate in all their chaotic glory behind him. The engine’s dynamic propulsion is driven forward by the thumping rhythm section of Pete Thomas (drums) and Bruce Thomas on bass (no relation). Pete’s powerful drumming maintains a furious pace throughout, particularly on “Pump It Up” and “This Year’s Girl”, while Bruce’s nimble, innovative playing style provides a perfect counter-point.

"I can't stand up for falling down"

However, the keyboards of the incomparable Steve Nieve are the most important ingredient in the mix. Wielding his organ with the strength of a punk rock guitar, he gives the music much of its character, combining quirky progressions with edgy, piercing chords. The irresistible momentum of Nieve’s keyboards was an ideal match for Costello’s acerbic wit and transformed his sound into an intricate, sophisticated post-punk. It’s the moment when the New Wave movement found its front man – though this did unfortunately launch a host of feeble imitators (step forward The Jags and The Vapors). Of course, Costello’s raw voice is simply perfect for the job, a stunning combination of vocal range and sneering attitude that is against virtually everything.

In fact, Elvis Costello’s style is firmly anti-heroic and he resolutely refuses to glamourise himself. His compositions are like barbed, personal missiles aimed at friends, lovers, enemies and, well, everyone really. “Me and You (Against the World)”, as Joe Jackson, one of his better copycats, would later sing. However, what saves Costello from merely being a hateful figure is that he is just as honest and brutal towards himself. On “Hand in Hand”, he bitterly spits out, “Don’t you know I’m an animal?”, and he is only marginally less scathing on “Lipstick Vogue”, when he snarls, “Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being”.

"It's the truth, you will believe, Steve Nieve"

Costello makes it abundantly clear that he is suspicious of the new showbiz world he finds himself in. Whereas many of the relationship songs on the album deal with the fear of rejection, paradoxically there is also a palpable fear of success on the tracks that potently satirise fame and the music business. Costello’s strained voice accentuates the tension and suffering of his protagonist, as he makes clear that the Material World is not for him. He explores the theme with vicious attacks on his own status as the next big thing in “Living in Paradise” (“Cause meanwhile up in heaven they are waiting at the gate/Saying, We always knew you'd make it/Didn't think you'd come this late”) and celebrity culture in the almost psychotic “Lipstick Vogue”.

In the awesome “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” he needs all of his resolve to resist the temptations of the bright lights: “Photographs of fancy tricks to get your kicks at sixty-six/He thinks of all the lips that he licks/And all the girls that he's going to fix/She gave a little flirt, gave herself a little cuddle/But there's no place here for the mini-skirt waddle/Capital punishment, she's last year's model/They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie/I don't want to go to Chelsea/Oh no it does not move me/Even though I've seen the movie”. The lyrics portray a claustrophobic paranoia, while the anxiety is developed by the taut, ska-influenced groove.

"A jaundiced worldview"

The pent-up scorn and anger that Costello so obviously feels is sprayed out in every track, even the slower, quieter ones, with “Hand in Hand” demonstrating the sheer force of his will, “No, don't ask me to apologise/I won't ask you to forgive me/If I'm gonna go down/You're gonna come with me”. The blistering indictment of everyone and everything that stands in his way rages on in the kinetic, hypnotic “Lipstick Vogue” when he yells, “You say I've got no feelings/This is a good way to kill them” and the deceptive “Lip Service” (“is all you’ll ever get from me”).

Even the nervy “The Beat”, which sees him wrestling with loneliness and insecurity (“I don't go out much at night/I don't go out much at all/Did you think you were the only one/Who was waiting for a call”), is fundamentally a tale of sexual frustration that brims with naked aggression and nervous energy, as he contemplates the emptiness of meaningless nightclub encounters: “See your friends - treat me like a stranger/See your friends - despite all the arrangements/See your friends - nothing here has changed/Just the beat”.

"Clowntime is over"

Most adolescent songs are about desire, but Costello’s manifesto is the antithesis of wanting something (or someone). His focus on repulsion is neatly encapsulated in the album’s opening lines, “I don't wanna kiss you/I don't wanna touch/ I don't wanna see you/Cause I don't miss you that much.”, which is a bold denial of yearning. This track, “No Action”, is a fine example of Costello’s ability to pen a harsh song about life’s negatives and is entirely appropriate for this album’s message of “don’t wants”. Examples abound throughout: “I don't want to check your pulse/I don't want nobody else/I don't want to go to Chelsea”; “I don't wanna be hung up, strung up/When you don't call up”; and “Don't say you love me when it's just a rumour”. Costello chooses not to fantasise about his unrequited desire, but to savour the exquisite torture of prolonged frustration.

Maybe that’s why this record at times can sound like a lengthy misogynistic tirade. Costello’s biographer wrote, “There is little point in denying that many lyrical images of his early songs attest to a barely contained contempt for women”. In Costello’s world, women are usually painted as one-dimensional tricksters who use their looks to ensnare men, pretending to love while planning their escape. Even the album’s title “This Year’s Model” could be a reference to the world’s oldest profession. His venomous attitude towards the opposite sex is apparently most evident in “This Year’s Girl” with its take-no-prisoners attitude: “See her picture in a thousand places/Cause she's this year's girl/You think you all own little pieces/Of this year's girl/Forget your fancy manners/Forget your English grammar/Cause you don't really give a damn/About this year's girl”. However, this could just as easily be interpreted as a condemnation of the commercial world. Costello is nothing if not an equal opportunity hater.

"Mystery Dance"

Despite all this resentment, nobody was more adept at sugaring a bitter pill than Costello. He possessed a superlative talent for contrasting (and disguising) his withering words with irresistibly infectious melodies, playing the traditional pop misfit better than anyone. Just look at how the cheerful, catchy tune of “Living in Paradise” provides some sort of respite from the song’s tormented message of wanton betrayal, “You better have your fun before it moves along/And you're already looking for another fool like me”. Similarly, while the violence of “Hand in Hand” is being described (“Don't you know I got the bully boys out/Changing someone's facial design”), Steve Nieve’s organ provides a sweet, carnivalesque background to the ferocity.

Costello himself argued, “There is less humour on This Year’s Model than on My Aim Is True. It’s more vicious overall, but far less personal”. While most would agree that it’s a vicious record, where it’s at its most malicious is when it’s dealing with fractured relationships, so it doesn’t feel any less personal. In many ways, it’s a quintessential break-up album – “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” for the punk era, if you will – with most of the tracks either cruel tirades against former lovers or anxious entreaties about potential romances. These are indeed songs for the broken hearted, albeit from the perspective of a disgusted, enraged Romeo: “And I think about the way things used to be/Knowing you with him is driving me crazy/Sometimes I phone you when I know you're not lonely/But I always disconnect it in time” (“No Action”).

"Live and dangerous"

Actually, some might say that Costello perhaps protests too much. On closer examination, the album’s derisive critique of relationships masks our hero’s need for love. He’s a mass of contradictions, so in “Pump It Up” he can’t make up his mind what he wants: “She's been a bad girl/She's like a chemical/Though you try to stop it/She's like a narcotic/You wanna torture her/You wanna talk to her”. From proclaiming that “No, I don't want anybody/Saying you belong to me”, he immediately argues the opposite, “I don't like those other guys looking at your curves/I don't like you walking round with physical jerks”. Even in the nasty “Lip Service”, he ends up with a plea, “But if you change your mind/You can send a little letter to me”. Costello had already revealed his emotional bluffing and crossed signals in “The Beat”, when he admitted, “I don't wanna be a lover/I just wanna be your victim”. He so badly wants to negate his cynical views on love, but when any hope fizzles out, he resorts to aggression – of the verbal variety.

The rise of Elvis Costello coincided, spookily enough, with the death of Elvis Presley, which took place a month after “My Aim Is True” was released. Although “The King” had been responsible for some of rock & roll’s finest moments, he had become a bloated parody of himself and was one of the symbols of over-indulgent excess that punk was so keen to replace, as was so memorably chronicled by Brighton’s Peter and the Test Tube Babies: “Elvis had a heart attack/Cause he got so bleeding fat/He weighed nearly half a ton/He looked more like a pregnant mum”.

"The breakthrough album"

Perhaps more relevantly, the late 70s were a time of enormous social change, as the Thatcher years began. This signaled the awakening of social conscience among Britain’s youth in response to the divisive policies of the Conservative government and Elvis Costello was among the most acidic and articulate of commentators. A few years later, he would make his feelings about Mrs. Thatcher absolutely clear: “When they finally put you in the ground/I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down/When England was the whore of the world/Margaret was her madam”.

The political commentary on “This Year’s Model” is restricted to “Night Rally”, which touches on a fascination/hatred for Nazi Germany that pretty much defines the next album “Armed Forces” (originally entitled “Emotional Fascism”). It conveys a warning in a disturbing, but clever way by using powerful imagery, such as “Everybody's singing with their hand on their heart/About deeds done in the darkest hours/That's just the sort of catchy little melody/To get you singing in the showers”. There is little doubt about what Costello is talking about here, but he is also comparing those atrocities with the contemporary rise of the Right in England: “I would send out for assistance, but there's someone on the signal wire/And the corporation logo is flashing on and off in the sky/They're putting all your names in the forbidden book/I know what they're doing, but I don't want to look”.

"From a whisper to a scream"

However, the social commentary is never rammed down your throat – Costello is far too good a songwriter to fall into that trap. More than any other musician, he is able to successfully combine personal truths with political views, yet never appearing at all self-indulgent. His lyrics are always elegantly constructed and incisively insightful without ever being too trite or obvious and every song includes numerous quotable lines: “He's got the keys to the car/They are the keys to the kingdom” (“No Action”) and “Things you see are getting hard to swallow/You're easily led, but you're much too scared to follow” (“You Belong To Me”). Many lines contain a double meaning: “Every time I phone you/I just wanna put you down” (“No Action”) and “Sometimes I think that love is just a tumour/You've got to cut it out” (“Lipstick Vogue”). Costello’s unapologetic cynicism is more than matched by his black sense of humour and his jaundiced worldview – no meaningless rants from him.

A self-proclaimed “bug-eyed monster", Elvis Costello didn’t look like any one’s idea of a rock star (though Buddy Holly might have disagreed), but this was one guy you really did not want to mess with. He may look like a harmless geek on the album cover, but his lyrics are anything but gentle. Written in a poison pen, he unleashed venom-dipped darts in many directions, hitting every target with unerring accuracy. You might even say that his aim was true …

"You looking at me?"

Back in 1978, Elvis Costello remarked, “What I do is a matter of life and death. I don’t choose to explain it, of course. I’m doing it and I’ll keep doing it until someone stops me forcibly”. Over thirty years later, he is indeed still making music better than most, but “This Year’s Model” remains his finest hour (or, at least, thirty-six minutes). Others may prefer the more mature songwriting on “Trust”, the clearer production of “Imperial Bedroom” or even the pop masterpiece that was “Armed Forces”, but everybody would agree that Costello and the Attractions never rocked this hard again. For fans of music bursting with energy and intelligence, it really doesn’t get any better than this. It’s a truly brilliant, absolutely essential record. Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has torn down the building.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hidden Depths

Most modern thrillers start with a bang, but that’s certainly not the case with Michael Haneke’s “Caché”, a coolly elegant, challenging French mystery movie released in 2005. No way, José. Instead, this insidious film opens with a lingering, static shot of a nondescript, gated townhouse in a bourgeois Parisian neighbourhood. We watch in silence as a woman leaves through the front door. We observe nameless pedestrians strolling by. We note the parked cars in the side street, for in truth nothing much happens for a few minutes. Eventually we hear a couple talking to each other, though we do not see them. Finally, the image abruptly blurs, and then begins to fast forward and we realise that we’ve been watching a videotape, along with the couple that owns the house. It’s been sent to them anonymously and they are as much in the dark as we are. In this way, “Caché” grabs our attention from the very first frame (literally).

Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), the successful host of a literary talk show on television, lives in a comfortable house with his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), a book publisher, and their teenage son Pierrot. They appear to be the perfect (happy) family, but cracks appear when Georges starts to receive surveillance tapes of his family and alarmingly gruesome drawings from a stalker who seems to know a great deal about their lives. As the tapes contain no direct threats, the police refuse to help, leaving Georges to follow a clue in one of them, which leads him to the modest apartment of an Algerian man named Majid (Maurice Bénichou), whose parents worked for Georges’ family when he was a young boy. This meeting raises questions about Georges’ childhood, which he does not want to discuss, not even with his wife.

"Welcome to the house of fun"

In fact, nothing is ever as it seems in this film, which was aptly translated as “Hidden” for the English-speaking market with a double meaning – hidden camera (camera obscura, if you will) and hidden guilt. From that very first scene, the viewer can never be sure of what he is watching: is it the film’s (semi-reliable) narrative or another tape recorded by the unknown voyeur? Before long, we feel as off-balance and confused as Georges and Anne. As their trust in each other crumbles, we also realise that the director’s perspective is untrustworthy, resulting in an ever increasing sense of dread and paranoia. The same, indistinguishable long distance view is used on numerous occasions, but only as the scene develops does it become clear whether the shot is “live or Memorex”. Haneke is subtly, but effectively warning us that we should be suspicious of any expectations we may have or indeed any “reality” that we are shown – it’s what’s under the surface that really counts.

The movie is all the more powerful for the secrets that it keeps and most of its inner tensions are left unresolved apart from one brief and shockingly visceral moment. As it happens, the director is not the only one holding out on people, as Georges informs Anne that he might know who is behind the terrifying campaign, but refuses to say any more. It becomes increasingly likely that it pertains to some unspoken and long suppressed event, but Georges keeps the truth hidden in the same way that Haneke conceals the movie’s point of view, its political references and even the identity of the perpetrator.

"Video killed the radio star"

It’s a masterclass in how to unnerve your audience, not through what you show, but what is hidden from view. The tapes sent to George contain nothing threatening, but their menace arises not from their content, but the fact that they are being filmed. In traditional European fashion, not much seems to take place, but this slow burning study in buried guilt and sub-conscious prejudice steadily ratchets up the tension and develops an atmosphere of approaching danger. The film might not scare you out of your skin, but it will most certainly get under your skin. While Haneke clearly wants to deliver a political message, he never allows himself to be distracted from the business of building suspense, resulting in a taut, unsettling psychological thriller of the utmost originality. He manages to imbue the most ordinary of moments with a feeling of vague dread, making use of disquieting devices and sinister hesitations, as he repeatedly subverts the audience’s expectations.

As with many previous Haneke films, such as “Funny Games” and “Time of the Wolf”, there is a sense that something dire could occur at any time. Another common premise in his movies is the comfortable life of a complacent, middle-class family being threatened by an outside force. In this case, the simple fact that someone is watching them is enough to shatter their smug world. Their contented existence would have continued in its merry way, except for the disturbing fact that it was being observed by persons unknown. Although Socrates believed that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, the other side of the coin is disquieting in its own way.

"Can you guess what it is yet?"

Consequently, the mystery of who sent the tapes is of almost secondary importance, as the impact on the Laurent family becomes the most significant issue. Previously unimagined weaknesses in the fabric of Georges and Anne’s marriage emerge, as their well-dressed façade begins to fracture under the pressure of untold secrets. There is no real love or sentiment with this couple, just the cosy chemistry of a shared existence. The fragility of their ideal relationship is revealed and matters are made worse when Pierrot’s simmering discontent causes him to accuse his mother of having an affair.

When the intimidating tapes start to arrive, Georges initially seems almost paralysed by the need to carry on as if nothing had disturbed his glamorous media life. The deflating of his self-importance seems almost as painful to him as the notion that his family is under attack. Aficionados of French cinema have long appreciated Daniel Auteuil as a great actor and he delivers a magnificently compelling performance here as a man who cannot acknowledge his past – not because he thinks that it didn’t happen, but because he does not appreciate its significance.

"It wasn't me"

It’s an ambiguous, and in many ways unsympathetic, role, as Georges simply refuses to accept any responsibility or express any regret for his previous actions, which is hardly surprising, as he does not even connect emotionally with the present. He is an arrogant, self-justifying man, who has repressed his youthful cruelty for a long time. His anger lies just beneath the surface, so when he feels under pressure, he reacts with (racist) aggression, repeating the behaviour that started the cycle and adding insult to injury.

As his more balanced wife, Juliette Binoche is equally superb with her subtle, but utterly convincing portrayal of a woman who comes to realise that she no longer understands a husband who cannot be honest with her. Anne is one of those beautiful women who make everything seem effortless, balancing a flourishing career with an enviable private life, where she is a loving wife, a dutiful mother and a gracious hostess. It’s a sensitive display of bemusement and betrayed trust, and Anne is shocked to witness Georges’ emerging secrets and violent reaction.

"Juliette Bravo"

Haneke’s characters are never easy to like, yet it’s impossible not to empathise with the Laurents’ predicament and their growing anxiety. Initially, we cannot help but relate to this seemingly decent couple, as their perfect lives come under threat, but gradually we begin to question the basis of their conceited, self-righteous existence, as it appears that Georges’ casual cruelty as a child has returned to haunt him.

Ultimately, “Caché” is a story about guilt and how this is denied – on both a personal and collective level. The events not only re-open old wounds that Georges had long since repressed, reminding him of the harm he inflicted on his Algerian “brother”, but also highlight the issue of the French nation’s collective responsibility for the mistreatment of Algerian immigrants. As Haneke said, “this movie is a tale of morality dealing with how one lives with guilt”. In the case of Georges, the answer is to deny any responsibility, so when he meets Majid’s son, he says, “You’ll never give me a bad conscience. I’m not to blame”.

"It's such a perfect day"

While the film is almost claustrophobically personal, it is fascinatingly broad in scope, as it addresses the universal theme of the West’s responsibility for the damage done while colonising Third World countries. On the face of it, Georges is an educated, enlightened liberal, but his response to the tapes is to accuse the foreigner in his midst, thus exposing the latent fear and hatred of the Muslims that lies not very far below his urbane exterior. This is an obvious metaphor for France’s inability to accept accountability for the way it has handled its indigenous Algerian population. We hear that Majid’s parents never came back from a march in Paris, which is a reference to a shameful night in October 1961 (“la nuit noire”), when the police massacred up to two hundred Algerians during a peaceful demonstration.

The film’s social statement is unmistakable, but it is so skillfully woven into the fabric of the story that it never feels like a lecture. Indeed, the subject matter proved eerily prescient, when the movie’s release preceded the riots in the Parisian banlieues by only a few weeks, once again demonstrating the problems caused by the divide between those who enjoy the fruits of a capitalist society and those who are consigned to its fringes. There are parallels with other recent conflicts, such as the ongoing struggles in Iraq, which is actually shown on the enormous TV screen in the background of the Laurent’s living room. Needless to say, the unworried couple remains oblivious to the deaths announced by the latest news bulletin, only reinforcing the blithe indifference felt towards those less fortunate than them/us.

"Is it because I is black?"

Yes, I do mean “them and us”, for one of Haneke’s great strengths is the way that he uses the camera to engage the audience, so that it is impossible to remain a passive participant. At first, he makes the viewer complicit in the voyeuristic pleasure in watching Georges disintegrate on receipt of the creepy tapes, turning us all into accomplices for the crimes being played out on screen, as his destructive gaze invites us to partake in the remorseless campaign of terror. Then, by creating sufficient suspicion of Majid in Georges’ mind, the film forces us to confront our own attitude to immigrants in the post-colonial world. In the same way as the camera, we edit our memories in order to spare our conscience.

With its sparse, economical manner, the film confronts viewers head-on with some issues that are profoundly uncomfortable. Haneke is just as uncompromising in the way that he does not mollycoddle his audience. He glories in ambiguity, leaving the audience to think for itself, pretty much letting people draw their own conclusions. He explained this approach thus:

I like the multiplicity of books, because each book is different in the mind of each reader. It's the same with this film - if three hundred people are in a cinema watching it, they will all see a different film, so in a way there are thousands of different versions of “Hidden”. The point being that, despite what TV shows us, and what the news stories tell us, there is never just one truth, there is only personal truth.

"He's behind you"

Frequently described as the “conscience” of European cinema, Michael Haneke is a provocative film-maker with a justified reputation for stark, sometimes brutal, films that will make heavy demands of their audience. His trademarks include tremendously long static shots, no dramatic musical scores and brief outbursts of extreme violence. “Caché” is possibly his most watchable work, and though it is still an austere piece, it manages to explore serious themes of guilt and complacency without stinting on the suspense - demanding yet accessible. Critics have long acclaimed Haneke with the Cannes Film Festival giving him the Best Director prize in 2005 for “Caché” and this year rewarding his latest film “The White Ribbon” with the coveted Palme d’Or.

With its voyeuristic theme, “Caché” inevitably recalls Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”, albeit the perpetrator’s intentions are much less benign than good old James Stewart and Haneke has a far more political agenda than “the master of suspense”. A better comparison may be David Cronenberg’s powerful “A History of Violence”, which is also about a man with a secret history hidden from his family, whose capacity for violence emerges when under attack. Like “Caché”, the fate of the “violent” hero is similarly uncertain when the film ends, though at least we are reasonably sure of the identity of the “bad guy”.

"My life's not an open book"

Haneke, on the other hand, does not play by the traditional rules of the thriller and never explicitly identifies who has been sending the tapes. He very cleverly uses the audience’s greed for a neat answer to encourage any preconceptions we may have. The desire to know “whodunit” leads us down many false roads, making us Georges’ partners in crime when he flings out false accusations. This absence of closure may frustrate some, but is an essential element in the film’s success. Haneke is unapologetic about not dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s:

I'm not going to give anyone the answer. If you think it's Majid, Pierrot, Georges, the malevolent director, God himself, the human conscience - all these answers are correct. But if you come out wanting to know who sent the tapes, you didn't understand the film. To ask this question is to avoid asking the real question the film raises, which is more: how do we treat our conscience and our guilt and reconcile ourselves to living with our actions? I look at it as productive frustration. Films that are entertainments give simple answers, but I think that's ultimately more cynical, as it denies the viewer room to think. If there are more answers at the end, then surely it is a richer experience.

It is therefore logical that the closing scene, a long shot of multi-cultural pupils conversing on school steps, is defiantly ambiguous, but it feels like a natural conclusion to a film that aims to prove that there are no easy answers. If you watch closely, you will observe two children casually talking in the background, giving a tantalizing hint of something truly horrible. But is this really the solution? Is it the end of the family’s torment? Or the birth of another revenge plot? Maybe Haneke is once again toying with our perceptions by alluding to a vision of modern France at peace with itself, when it could be yet another videotape. Whatever the answer, the ending has the desired effect of leaving the viewer feeling as paranoid and distrustful as the characters, underlining the need to think more deeply about who the real victims are in this tale.

"Silent night"

Like the best French films, “Caché” is open to numerous interpretations. It is a movie of rare, penetrating intelligence that will leave you considering the many issues that it raises long after the closing credits have rolled. Haneke has produced a wonderfully edgy thriller, while addressing important themes like guilt, racism, recent French history and even the art of cinema, so it would be churlish to also expect him to present us with the “answer to life, the universe and everything else”. As he said, “It's the duty of art to ask questions, not to provide answers. And if you want a clearer answer, I'll have to pass”.

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