Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Michèle Bachelet, the first female president of Chile, put her training as a paediatrician to good use on a visit to a Santiago primary school, when an eight-year-old fell faint as a result of a dizzy spell. Señora Bachelet administered first aid and then remarked that it was probably just the late summer heat that affected the wee fella. It might seem a bit crass to point out the contrast between Bachelet and one of her predecessors, who had a penchant for dark glasses and throwing his political opponents out of helicopters (and who had a hand in the murder of her own father) but that Chile has a head of state these days whom you feel you could trust your children with is surely heartening.
Monday, February 26, 2007
Short of time so a quick resumé of a number of films I saw in the past week. There was William Friedkin's Bug, a film I went to see only because of a number of glowing reviews it received in the French media (Friedkin is one of those faded Brat Packers who the French still revere). Based on a play by Tracy Letts (and boy do its stage origins show) it is a diverting if not exactly memorable paranoia thriller about an AWOL marine who is convinced that he has had a colony of ravenous bugs implanted in his body by the CIA on behalf of a wider global conspiracy. Sounds like great fun already and joining Michael Shannon, who plays the paranoid marine, are nineties next-big-thing Ashley Judd and former Sinatra seatwarmer Harry Connick Jr., who is very good indeed, if largely superfluous. And there is also Irish actor Brian F. O'Byrne as a, well, shifty CIA doctor. It has one of the nastiest tooth extraction scenes in cinema history and should do a far trade on the DVD rental market.
There was also Steven Soderberg's The Good German, an anaemic and uninvolving espionage drama set in post-WWII Berlin. Soderberg makes films with such regularity that there are some that slip through the net; personally I think he is at his best with his less serious efforts, such as Schizopolis, Out of Sight and Ocean's 11. This is one to file alongside dull pedantic efforts such as The Limey and Solaris. I posted on Carol Reed and Graham Greene's The Third Man recently and it is striking how much fresher it is than this clunking beast that is let down as badly by Soderberg's own hamfisted monochrome photography as it is by the earnestness of the performances (Cate Blanchett Lili von Stupp-like Jewish whore is particularly culpable).
Better than these two is the Belgian film Nue Propriété, directed by Joachim Lafosse and which stars as Isabelle Huppert as a forty-something divorced mother of two spoiled brothers, played by real-life brothers Yannick and Jérémie Regnier - the latter of whom was in both the Dardenne brothers' La Promesse and L'Enfant. The film is a quiet, well-observed drama detailing the falling-out of the family as Huppert attempts to sell the family home, which the boys, and their estranged father, see as theirs, in an effort to open up a restaurant with her new beau. Nothing of note happens until the final twenty minutes but Lafosse has an impressive eye for detail and when the drama does arrive it is abrupt and unexpected. Huppert is excellent as the beleagured mother and even better is Patrick Descamps as her ex-husband, a great actor who has been a regular in the films of Lucas Belvaux. A worthy addition to the canon of bleak Belgian cinema.
It's a long time since I watched the Oscars, surely one the most unwatchable three hours of television this side of North Korea, and it's as long since I took them seriously as a barometer of cinematic quality. It was inevitable that Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker who has been in decline for some time and who persists in ploughing the same farrow, would eventually get compensated for his previous losses at the hands of far inferior hacks for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas. I reviewed The Departed, winner of four Oscars last night, a few months back and I wasn't too complimentary though it is a marked improvement on last year's Best Picture winner, the unspeakably bad Crash. While the film settles down to become a passable crime film its overweening pretentiousness in the opening hour and the ridiculously over-the-top performances prevent it from being a worthy addition to Scorsese's better work. It is a fittingly mediocre Oscar winner. I have seen only two of the other films that were nominated for Best Picture: Babel, which I was pleasantly surprised with though I can see how others thought it was unnecessarily high-minded and overly-serious, and Little Miss Sunshine, a film that I was forgiving enough of as a piece of silly fluff, until people like the Academy, and the French Césars, who awarded it Best Foreign Film on Saturday night, started to treat it like a quality comedy. Woody Allen or Wes Anderson it certainly isn't. Other than that I missed The Queen when it came out in the autumn and I have yet to see Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo-Jima. Some of the other films that were rewarded, such as Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and Kevin MacDonald's The Last King of Scotland, I have also yet to see. I can however congratulate the Academy on rewarding a worthy film in the Best Foreign Film category: Stasi thriller The Lives of Others, one of a number of enthralling German films to have been released in the past year.
Sunday, February 25, 2007
I have no animus for the Irish rugby team; their performance yesterday looked superb (I only saw the last twenty minutes) and rugby is a sport, like cricket, that I can say I admire without being really that bothered about it. But this valorisation of rugby players at the expense of 'overpaid' footballers is something that I cannot stand. Every time I hear this lauding of the moral virtues of rugby players vis à vis footballers, usually enunciated every time there is a tabloid-friendly spit-roasting scandal, it makes me sick. Such pundits make it sound like the choice between football and rugby was something that was made for games in 1st year at Belvo or Wesley. Or between Geography and German for Junior Cert. Never is there any reference to the social background of the various principles involved. The reason that God Save the Queen was thankfully not booed yesterday was not because rugby folk are more decent than footballing people but simply because their sport is for the most part divorced from many social realities. Rugby is followed in places like Donnybrook, the Malone Road and other well-heeled areas of Irish towns (yes, I know about Limerick, but this exception has been wheeled out far too many times for it to be relevant anymore); there aren't many hardcore Republicans in those parts. And so be it, I'm not hoping for a surge in support for Republican Sinn Féin in Dublin South East any more than I am for one for the PDs.
But this is the case for rugby with regard to football the world over. The rugby World Cup later this year will feature twenty countries, when one would be hard pushed to find half that amount where most people know they even have a rugby team representing them. Rugby is a minority sport (and even in Ireland this is very much the case) whereas football is not. By that information alone one might glean that professional footballers are drawn from a wider pool than professional rugby players, and therefore might be spared the condescending stereotypes that they are subjected to.
Rugby players generally benefit from a better education and more privileged upbringing than the majority of footballers do, and I don't begrudge them that, and neither am I salivating for the downfall of Brian O'Driscoll or Paul O'Connell in a tabloid sting. But I would like a bit of balance when comparing the two sports. When one hears rugby being lauded at the expense of football one hears the ugly resonance of class prejudice. Rugby and football are not rival sports; there is scarcely an overlap in personnel between the two. It is Gaelic football and 'soccer' that scramble for the talent, the two most popular sports in the country (yes, sorry, hurling is an exotic curiosity confined to the southern part of the island); and that, rather than anti-English bigotry, was the real reason for the GAA's infamous bans.
There are not many Irish sportswriters who have pointed out that the Irish rugby team is an irrelevancy for most Irish people, though Paul Howard, creator of the hilarious Ross O'Carroll-Kelly is one, as is my fellow Sligo man Eamonn Sweeney, who has this great piece in the Sindo today about Craig Bellamy. Not saying that I agree with him about Bellamy but he sums up what I've been saying; don't damn all footballers on the strength of a few muppets.
Anyway both Amhran na bhFiann and God Save the Queen are god-awful dirges when examined from a musical point of view and the previous should be replaced (not because of its violent lyrics - listen to the Marseillaise or dozens of other anthems for that matter) but because it is a drearily unmotivating piece of music. And, no Ireland's Call is not a suitable replacement (only the rugby shower could concoct a palliative as dull and unimaginative as this one), nor is The Fields of Athenry, a piece of plastic Paddywhackery that best symbolises the Irish people's loss of any remaining connection with genuine Irish culture. But given what passes for 'Civic' songwriting in Ireland these days any possible replacement would no doubt be something like John Waters and Tommy Moran's composition which will represent Ireland at this year's Eurovision. This piece of pan-European piffle demonstrates how truly toothless the Castlerea autodidact really is. When Slovenia gained its independence in 1991 it chose for its national anthem a verse of 'Zdravljica', a celebrated poem by national poet, the 19th century Romantic, France Prešeren, which begins with the most generous line: 'God's blessing on all nations'. The verse had already been set to music by Stanko Premerl, there presumably being no Slovene equivalent of Phil Coulter. It is a national anthem to envy, one that bears comparison with the best, such as the Marseillais, Brazil's and the Russian/former Soviet one. Ireland's choice would no doubt be selected by a Louis Walsh-chaired phone-in contest. It really doesn't bear thinking about. Better the devil you know.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Monday, February 19, 2007
As if that weren't enough French institutional hell for one week, I then discover that my bank, for some reason did not clear my direct debit rent last month, despite there being ample funds therein for it to do so. Which resulted in me spending a lot of money that was not mine to spend. And now I'm overdrawn. Admittedly I should have checked my balance a bit more attentively along the way, a mistake I will not be making in future.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Last year I mentioned Vikash Dhorasoo's film project on his time spent at the World Cup with the French squad and also his subsequent dismissal by the dastardly Paris Saint-Germain. The film has now arrived and though it is not quite up to the majesty of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parrano's film about his French teammate Zinedine Zidane, it is a likeable enough stab at a first film by the footballer.
Working with singer/songwriter and journalist Fred Poulet (yes, his name does mean 'Fred Chicken'), Dhorasoo documents mainly his own daily life during the tournament at the team's base in a chateau near Hanover. Despite playing in all the qualifying games, Dhorasoo found himself a fringe player at the tournament itself due to the arrival of wonder kid Franck Ribéry, whom, it is believed was imposed on the team, just as Fabien Barthez, was, by an insistent Zidane. Dhorasoo played only a total of eighteen minutes in the first two games against Switzerland and South Korea, when the performances of the French side were alarmingly bad. As Dhorasoo's World Cup got gradually spoiled - he admits on film to not really having that much interest in the team if he's not playing - the filmed project became one about alienation and the dejection of an adventure gone awry.
Poulet and Dhorasoo shoot on Super-8 and communicate mainly by phone, with the only sound recording emanating from Poulet's side, which records the games from the stands and the streets of Germany. The Super-8 lends a pleasing retro air, simultaneously mystifying and banalising a sport that enjoys such a huge, yet highly selective media coverage. There is however much of the clichéd confessional and mirror shots familiar from countless video diaries, though one can forgive Dhorasoo a bit of conceptual awkwardness given that he was not there primarily to film after all. The film's biggest disappointment is that it focusses a little too much on Dhorasoo himself. The man is an interesting character and he comes across as a highly amiable and witty sort, though I would have liked to have seen a little more of the rest of the team, for example to spy on the tensions between Zidane and Thierry Henry. That would have been a real fly-on-the-wall documentary though it is hard to imagine that any of the players would have consented to that, even had Dhorasoo the time to film them 24/7.
So we are left with one shot of Lilian Thuram signing autographs at Munich airport, being told to smile by a much more relaxed Dhorasoo. The final ten minutes of the film have the best moments, such as a brief glimpse of the defeated French dressing room and an even briefer cheeky glance into the Italian one. And then when Dhorasoo arrives back to his Parisian flat after the trip, he has to make three trips up two flights of stairs to haul his luggage up, before sitting down to deal with a month's worth of mail. It's a great scene that comes closest in the film to breaking down the mediatised barrier between public and professional footballer. Dhorasoo may yet branch further into film and this smart and curious autodidact would be a welcome addition to French cinema.
While sitting at the bar in the Bottle Shop last night I noticed, ordering a pitcher of beer at the far end of the bar, a young fellow that bore an uncanny resemblance to Nicolas Sarkozy (and was dressed in much the same standard French preppy way, though he was about two inches taller than the current Minister for the Interior (pictured)). It was an early enough hour of the evening and my judgement was not as yet impaired, and two friends of mine confirmed that he did indeed look just like Sarko. I can't imagine the young man enjoys going out much in the resolutely left-leaning 11th arrondissement if this similarity is so striking. But then again, just as with Thatcher back in the eighties and Fianna Fail in more recent years, Sarkozy is incredibly popular even though you never meet anyone that actually admits to supporting him. They're all around us...
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Meanwhile, the Onion has this funny take on Apple's follow-up to the iPhone.
It seems that some cad from Stab City is going around purloining valuables from dancing ladies; is nothing sacred? Can Shannonside slappers not dance around their handbags in peace without fear of losing their very soul? I thought the city had changed since Angela's Ashes...
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Music of the moment is provided by Just Jack, whose single 'Writer's Block' caught my attention late last year, and who have just released their second album 'Overtones'. The group is effectively a one-man operation, being 24-year-old Jack Allsop, a Camden boy who grew up listening to a lot of soul, funk and hip-hop. There is a lot of that in the mix and among recent British music there is a similarity too to Hot Chip's electro-groove though JJ has a greater predilection for live instruments. More notably, his lyrics are sharp and hilarious, sort of Woody Allen crossed with Ian Dury, and he more than makes up for the blotting of Mike Skinner's copybook with last year's nigh-unlistenable 'The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living'. A savvy observer of contemporary life, with more of an analytic bent than Skinner, he chronicles the ills of consumer-driven emptiness and the wan disappointments of boomtime Britain. He has little time for metrosexuals: 'I'm not a young man anymore/But I've got the face of a nineteen-year-old' and 'It's a face he knows well, although it should look less abused/With all these moisturisers and skin products he's used' and he has a pessimistic outlook on his own prospects for growing old and keeping his life together, without worrying about cash and his status.
Allsop has already even done his own track about the ills of fame, through the sprightly dancefloor pop of 'Starz in their Eyes' and the brilliant current single (which is likely to be one of the most memorable tracks of the year) 'I Talk too Much' speaks for all garullous, self-assured men with unsatistactory relationships: 'Sometimes I don't say the right things to make you/Love me even more than you do'. And despite Allsop's manifest discontent, he does at least know the virtue of a good bassline and a jangly funk guitar lick. Much of the rest of the album is less likely to fill the dancefloor, being more of a laidback nu-soul variant with sometimes ungainly rapping from Allsop, who says that he raps mainly because 'he can fit more words in that way'. But there are few weak tracks on the album, and it is refreshing to see a subversive wit at work in British music, that largely-barren terrain peopled by dull beardless youths with third-class arts degrees. Best album of the year so far, and that includes the mighty 'The Good, the Bad and the Queen', of which more later.
Monday, February 12, 2007
One of the people interviewed before the Portugal poll predicted a victory for the 'Yes' vote because, in their opinion, Portugal is a 'soft' Catholic country. I would say the same thing about Ireland; even in the days of a nation turning blind eyes to the Magdalen laundries, sexual abuse in Catholic institutions and rolling the red carpet out for the Pope, Irish Catholicism was always driven less by conviction than by docility and cowardice. A ban on abortion was always an easy sell for the minority of Catholic fundamentalists, armed with their plastic, made-in-Taiwan foetuses and abhorrent Holocaust parallels. The majority of people in Ireland, in the main people who had no need for abortions, nor any suspicions that people in their own families possibly did, were quite willing to support a ban on it, and would even go to a polling station to do so.
That has changed however and the defeated referendum of five years ago, which attempted to tighten the screw even more on the already nigh-impossible conditions for termination of pregnancy, lost simply because the only people that were sufficiently mobilised were the pro-choice camp. There was a low turnout, just as there was in Portugal yesterday, because the majority of people do not see it as something to bother moving their arses to vote on anymore. This does not necessarily mean that, were a referendum on legalisation to be held tomorrow, the 'yes' vote would win, but there would be a far greater opportunity than in the past. I don't expect any pro-choice candidates in this year's election to touch the subject with a barge-pole on the hustings but, should any of them get into government, hopefully they will show some backbone and endeavour to consign this hypocritical and inhumane law to history. And, making the morning-after pill available over the counter would be a nice way of introducing the 21st century to Ireland too, lads and lassies.
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Saturday, February 10, 2007
Café Hawelka, on Dorotheegasse, right up the street from the Dorotheeum, a famous old upmarket pawn shop, is renowned for its intellectual millieu of the 1950s and 1960s. It appeared briefly in the video for Kraftwerk's 'Trans-Europe Express' but according to Martin, a Viennese photographer, whom my friend Ashley put me in touch with, it is overrun with tourists these days. I found this strange as I seemed to be the only non-German speaker there on the two occasions I popped in for a beer, but then I realised that they were German tourists. Apparently the place's cachet across the border is still presitigious. In any case I found it charming, down-at-heel yet fastidious - people in Dublin might think Mulligans crossed with Bewley's - with the waiters all dressed in red evening jackets and it had that most civilised feature of Central European cafés: the newspaper rack with about a dozen papers, in all the major Western European languages. Though Vienna is not the city it was, it still has a hearteningly cosmopolitan outlook.
Last and best of all is the beautiful smokey little Kleine Café, which Ashley, who lived here last year, tipped me off about. Located on Franziskanerplatz, opposite the Franciscan Church, the place is a grubby little comfortable den, with cheap beer and wine, a great place for a drink on a cold night.
The Third Man is a cruel tale, not least because the Romantic anti-hero at its centre, Harry Lime, is a far more interesting and more colourful character than his good but undistinguished friend Holly Martins. In a way it is much the same as Graham Greene's other famous tale of beguiling criminality of that era, Brighton Rock, where the hapless reporter Kolly Kibber bears little comparison to the sadistic baby-faced Pinkie Smith. The Third Man is increasingly cruel for Lime's opening narration, delivered from beyond the grave, without a hint of regret and remorse, which sets his poor friend Martins up for an adventure of heartbreaking deception.
Walking around Vienna looking for the various locations of the film, one is struck at how close most of them are to one another; other than the trip out to the Zentralfriedhof (or Central Cemetery) for the two funerals and to the Ferris Wheel on the Prater Stern, the scene of Lime's famous 'cuckoo clock' speech, most of the action takes place in the Innere Stadt. Martins first arrives at Lime's apartment at 5, Josefsplatz, right beside the Spanish Riding School. The building is a neo-classical edifice called the Palais Pallavicini, dating from 1784, the portal of which is flanked by four enormous caryatids. As can be seen in the picture above, the door looks a bit unimpressive at the moment, having been temporarily replaced by a piece of plywood. That Lime should have landed such impressive digs in post-war Vienna is proof of the success of his black-market racketeering, though one imagines that the location was chosen by director Carol Reed as much for its ease of filming as for its impressiveness. The equestrian statue on the square in front is the location for Lime's putative death.
Just around the corner is the Hotel Sacher, behind the Staatsoper, where the Allied command was then stationed, and where Martins meets Trevor Howard's cynical and brusque Captain Calloway, who endeavours to open his eyes to the seamier side of Lime's character. Then a little further north on Nieurmarkt is the café terrace where Martins meets Kurtz, the Romanian confrère of Lime, who says that he may be identified by his 'holding a copy of your [Martin's] book'.
When Lime is chased down by the Military Police in the final reel, he descends into the sewers through a kiosk on Am Hof, which is about half a kilometer west of this; Lime's run through the sewers is not a long one, as he surfaces - or attempts to do so - on Minoritenplatzen, where his fingers slip from the bars of a man-hole grille, as he dies. I have to point out though in extremely nerdy fashion that the grilles on the square today are a lot thicker than the ones that Lime's fingers slip from. It's one of those things you can't help noticing. Thanks to this link for the information.
Thursday, February 08, 2007
The match itself was a wretched spectacle, served up by two of the best teams in the world at the moment. Argentina went ahead after fifteen minutes when Javier Saviola pounced on a ball that had been parried by Grégory Coupet and thereafter they were happy to hoof the ball up to Crespo - or sometimes just up in the air. When an Argentinian team's best passer is their goalkeeper - Roberto Abbondanzieri, you feel like asking for your money back. As for France, they were surprisingly short of ideas and had very little way past a well-marshalled Argentine defence. Despite the industry of Franck Ribéry, the French game was route one, balls spread out to an overlapping Willy Sagnol followed by a hopeful cross into the six-yard-box. Awful stuff.
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
I was warned not to expect too much craic in Vienna and it does not have the most obvious allure of a party town. In fact it is literally the quietest city I've ever been; even on Saturday afternoons while walking among dozens of people in the city centre the predominant sound is one of trams gently humming as they make their way along the Rings. The scale of the city is also a big excessive, or at least for its present situation. The grandeur and pomp of Vienna dates from a time when it was the capital of an Empire that stretched from what is now northern Italy to the Black Sea. Vienna was the centre of it all and that grandeur far better suited such a large trans-national Empire than it does a relatively small modern-day Central European republic. In this way it is similar to Trieste, its former chief port, which I visited last year, and which also lost its significance after the break-up of the Empire in 1918. If Vienna were a company it would have downsized; if it were a stately home it would have opened its doors to the rabble of the general public. Though, then again, Vienna has done that; it is effectively a museum city, most of the huge buildings that it has inherited from the Hapsburg era no longer as vital as they once were. The adverts on the U-Bahn for the Museum of the Imperial Palace (pictured) state 'We don't have aristocrats, just their jewels', which carries a faint note of regret as well as impudence.
But the Austrians are not unduly nostalgic for the Empire, one which was probably the most tolerant and enlightened of the European empires (Joseph Roth prophesied correctly that the protection the Jews enjoyed under the Hapsburgs, would soon crumble as the old hatreds of Europeans gentiles were again unleashed). Compared to the Turks and the Spanish (or at least the right wing in those countries) there is no infantile breast-beating about the long-lost historical might of the Austrian Empire. They are content with their modest, extremely well-administered Republic yet the street names are all the same from Imperial times, and there is no iconoclastic bent among present-day Austrians. Some people argue that the country has yet to come clean on its support for the Nazis, which may be true, but its Imperial past is something to be much less ashamed of.
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
I have long known about Mario Rosenstock's Gift Grub but it is only in the past couple of years, since I've left Ireland again, ironically, that I've begun listening to it regularly. The quality sometimes lags, as it must on a show that is produced daily and its recent regular spot of Ben Dunne and Ronan Keating telling jokes that are, given their unedited American terminology, whiskery old specimens, smacks of a certain desperation. Then there its gentle mocking of Bertie Ahern, which is possibly the greatest boon to the old crook ever granted. Ahern is a consummate politician and is only too happy to be lampooned regularly on the airwaves, which makes his managing of his job appear all the more remarkable. To be sure, to be sure. Dermot Morgan would have been a lot more unforgiving and it is noteworthy that the last of Scrap Saturday should have coincided with the maiden broadcast of TodayFM's forerunner Radio Ireland on St. Patrick's Day 1997. And Bertie was Morgan's emerging butt of jokes at the time. Not as funny as Gift Grub but probably more damaging.
But anyway Rosenstock's impersonation and writing is fantastic and his satire of football is unequalled anywhere in the English-speaking world. Latest is his piss-take of the Irish football team getting lost on the way to San Marino, and having to be rescued by Roy Keane, who negotiates business class seats - in Cork-accented German - for the players, while leaving the sozzled FAI executive in 'der sheisse seats' where they belong. Along the way there is Robbie Keane asking Stan if he can use the Internet ('I promise not to go on Bebo'), Damien Duff aghast at the FAI blazers' herculean boozing and Bobby Robson fearing that the events depicted in the movie Alive might reproduce themselves among the boys in green. Brilliant in all five of its episodes. Those that have not heard it yet can download it for free from iTunes Ireland (under Podcasts). And it's best subscribing for the gems that come from time to time.
Meanwhile back at Merrion Square, the muppets at number 80, in a press release regarding ticketing for the first games at Croke Park, refer to visiting fans being accommodated on the 'North Terrace'. Come on lads, get those pokers from out of yer arses, repeat after me: 'Hill...six...teen...Rail...way...end'. Some day you might even have your own stadium whose north terrace you can christen the 'north terrace'.
'the games will be played. It has always been shown that money outweighs anything else in football, especially just now. There is so much to look into but football will always turn towards the money.' A euphemism for saying to said hack: 'feck off with your stupid questions, will ya?'
Strachan a few months back laid into Walter Smith's fabled new method for building morale among the Scottish national team's members by having a few pints; he said (I paraphrase, because I read the words originally in French) that 'you say any old shite when you're drinking, you even claim that the person next to you is your best friend. What good is that?' Wally has since proven his commitment to morale-building by flying the coop for more cash at Ibrox. Football will always turn towards the money, as Strachan says. The wee man's piss-take attempt at hurdling the Camel hoarding after scoring against West Germany in the 1986 World Cup (in a tournament where every goalscorer was for some reason jumping over the same hoarding) now looks like premeditated comic genius.
"In a famous scene from Buñuel's Phantom of Liberty, the roles of eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at toilets around a table, chatting pleasantly, and when they want to eat, sneak away to a small room. So, as a supplement to Lévi-Strauss, one is tempted to propose that shit can also serve as a matière-à-penser: the three basic types of toilet form an excremental correlative-counterpoint to the Lévi-Straussian triangle of cooking (the raw, the cooked and the rotten). In a traditional German toilet, the hole into which shit disappears after we flush is right at the front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff and inspect for traces of illness. In the typical French toilet, on the contrary, the hole is at the back, i.e. shit is supposed to disappear as quickly as possible. Finally, the American (Anglo-Saxon) toilet presents a synthesis, a mediation between these opposites: the toilet basin is full of water, so that the shit floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected. No wonder that in the famous discussion of European toilets at the beginning of her half-forgotten Fear of Flying, Erica Jong mockingly claims that 'German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything.' It is clear that none of these versions can be accounted for in purely utilitarian terms: each involves a certain ideological perception of how the subject should relate to excrement.
"Hegel was among the first to see in the geographical triad of Germany, France and England an expression of three different existential attitudes: reflective thoroughness (German), revolutionary hastiness (French), utilitarian pragmatism (English). In political terms, this triad can be read as German conservatism, French revolutionary radicalism and English liberalism. In terms of the predominance of one sphere of social life, it is German metaphysics and poetry versus French politics and English economics. The point about toilets is that they enable us not only to discern this triad in the most intimate domain, but also to identify its underlying mechanism in the three different attitudes towards excremental excess: an ambiguous contemplative fascination; a wish to get rid of it as fast as possible; a pragmatic decision to treat it as ordinary and dispose of it in an appropriate way. It is easy for an academic at a round table to claim that we live in a post-ideological universe, but the moment he visits the lavatory after the heated discussion, he is again knee-deep in ideology."
The full article can be viewed here. Austrian Railways, I am pleased to report (but was dismayed to discover) employs the same useless spindle dispensers of powdered hand soap that have been Iarnród Éireann's hallmark for the last thirty years. But their rolling stock is better; I suppose, unlike Ireland, Austria's rail gauge has correspondents other than South Korea, thereby increasing the sources of its material.
Monday, February 05, 2007
I was particularly interested by the biathlon, which, on first reflection seems like a bizarre sport, involving a combination of skiing and shooting. But of course, that is where the origins of skiing lie, in hunting. I was also reminded of those tales I learned in history class in National School of the plucky Finns who held out for months against the Red Army in 1940 using ski-marksmen as their prime weapon. So I was a bit disheartened when I discovered that the shooting was all done at still targets just off the piste; surely a more interesting sport would be having the competitors shoot at one another, if even in a non-fatal, paintball-type way. Anything that might bring the leisure-industry cachet of skiing down a bit would be welcome. Give it back to the mountain-men and women.
Friday, February 02, 2007
Pressures of time prevent me from going into detail about four films I saw in the past week and liked (as most people who know me would aver, this is an unprecedented phenomenon) but I will list them anyway, three of them are German: Matthias Luthardt's film-school graduation piece Pingpong, about a poor cousin cuckoo's presence in his rich uncle's family nest. Icily gripping and wonderfully edited. Then there is the Stasi thriller The Lives of Others that, despite some rickety characterisation, is great entertainment, and the main Stasi guy is the spitting image of Colm Tóibín.
A friend of mine in Dublin warned me off Philip Gröning's three-hour documentary on the silent Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse in Grenoble, Into Great Silence. This friend goes on Buddhist retreats and Unitarian services and Tridentine masses while managing to be both gay and left-wing, but found three hours about monks intolerably boring. So the omens were not good but I found it engaging for the most part and a fascinating look at people that use utensils everyday that are usually only found these days in movie prop departments. Like ewers and so on. Mind you, the core audience for films like this is getting on a bit, when I finally got to see it after seeing it sold out twice, I was one of only about five people in the audience under the age of sixty. Last was the Catalan director Marc Recha's August Days, a road movie starring Recha and his brother David as themselves as they drive their camper van along the Ebro during a heatwave. I loved Recha's debut feature Tree of Cherries, which I saw in the Dublin Film Festival a long time ago and this film has the same balmy magnificence even though the difficulties putting a plot together is at times too obvious. But he more than makes up for that in the filming and the pacing.
I also finally got to see Robert Altman's Nashville on DVD, which is probably the best of all the Altman's I've seen. Most amazing is the music, which as well as being brilliant, was entirely written and performed by the cast. That's all for this week though. I'm off to Vienna for the weekend and I'm leaving the laptop at home. More next week.
France yesterday implemented the first stage of its workplace smoking ban, which will cover all offices, retail outlets, factories etc and will be followed in twelve months by a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. The news has been big outside of France where the clichéd image of the Gauloise-smoking Left Bank existentialist still holds some sway. The fact that the French smoke a lot less than most of their European neighbours (and their percentage of smokers is slightly less than the EU average) is something that armchair editorialists prefer to ignore. The previous Evin laws of 1991 - as Anglophone news sources have repeated tiresomely this week - were the most restrictive of their kind but were largely ignored, or at least in restaurants. The effect of the ban yesterday was difficult to gauge because, as in many other Western countries, most office workers have for a long time been forced to step outside for a puff anyway. The only people other than catering staff that could usually be seen smoking at work were less conscientious shop-owners.
The French claim that they will flaunt the ban (or at least the one in a year's time which will be more critical) just as the Irish did three years ago but, in reality the French are no more rebellious than we are when it comes to standing up to authority. It's true that collectively they can be formidable - if at times maddening - but on the individual level they are as conservative and docile as anyone else. Some of my students recently, upon being asked to sum up the French character, used the word 'individualist', at which I couldn't repress a smile. Well, maybe, in the words of Graham Chapman in The Life of Brian, they are all individuals. The well-known French attribute of je-m'en-foutisme (translated as 'I-couldn't-give-a-shite-ism') is less an expression of rebelliousness than a self-suiting creed of rudeness that is quickly abandoned when the user's self-preservation is threatened by it.
As for myself, I don't smoke and never have, though I have never banned it chez moi and many of my friends smoke as have a number of girlfriends. But I support smoking bans from a purely pragmatic point of view. With regard to smoking in pubs as a right, it ranks somewhere below picking one's nose in public as one I would be willing to fight to conserve. Vive la différence, as any lazy Anglophone hack writing about France would say.