marți, 30 decembrie 2014

What a Friend we have in Jesus

Philippe Auclair - CANTONA. THE REBEL WHO WOULD BE KING, Pan Books, London, 2010

It is with good reason that some readers deride sports biographies as being an inferior genre to 'proper' literature. Even sports fanatic readers. I believe it to some extent and it is right, to some extent. It would be extremely ignorant, however, not to be aware of the limitations of this fact. It would be even more ignorant to judge all the sports biographies/sports history books by the same measure. Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch immediately comes to mind to destroy all stereotypes. Yes, it is an account of following Arsenal for 20 years, thus coming under sports history genre, but it is so much more than that, with its brilliant writing, its humour and its psycho-sociological investigations to mention but a few qualities.

With a sports book it is very important to look at the context before looking at the content. First and foremost, motivation: why has it been written? Is it an attempt to provide an honest historical account, or is it solely a commercial enterprise? It is also easy enough to know. Of course books like The Secret Footballer or The Secret Diary of Mario Ballotelli are abusing the dedication and often the ignorance of the game's followers. Of course yearly catalogues, club magazines and official accounts are just PR exercises of self-aggrandisement. Likewise Wayne Rooney's My Story So Far written at the ripe age of 18 or Cristiano Ronaldo's Moments (just contemplate for a moment this thought - Cristiano Ronaldo, the writer). There's stuff like Cantona on Cantona or Rio Ferdinand's My Decade as a Red that prove that writing isn't even esential to a book - they contain next to none and are mere selections of pictures accompanied by quotes. All these make a lot of money in the process, and keep the huge football marketing beast fed.

But then, of course, there are the honest accounts, be they commercially motivated or not. Even then, they can fail miserably, when the author, former footballer, either: tries to resolve issues with his peers, takes all the writing upon himself without trusting a journalist or picks a bad journalist/writer. Easy example, Dwight Yorke's Born to Score, which checks the first two.

Sometimes, however, biographies turn out brilliantly. Although very naive in some respects and by now inadecquated, I think Duncan Edwards' Tackle Soccer This Way is a brilliant read. So is Denis Law's autobiography.

Thus, the best shots you have in picking football literature are biographies written by professional sports journalists of footballers whose careers ended at least a few years back. This is a sure-fire way to know the book is not exploiting the fame of the moment, as I'm sure there are currently enough of Messi's biographers not only to defeat Barcelona, but also to provide the public for that game. This is exactly what Phillipe Auclair's book is, but let me stress one more point before I get to it:

At the end of the day, it matters for nothing. A fan is a fan, and would buy anything. I would literally buy shit with United's crest on it, and figuratively speaking I have already. I paid double the price for a stupid collection of pictures containing Rio Ferdinand playing football just to have a copy signed by the man himself. Most of the books I mentioned above as being stupid, fake or commercial I have bought and read, in full knowledge they're either stupid, fake, commercial or a combination of these. Why? Well, too big a question for me to answer. But I will refer you back to Nick Hornby's book, he gives it a pretty damn good go.

I wanted to read Auclair's book on Cantona since it came out and it is with a feeling of guilt that I think I haven't done it so far. Did it teach me a lot, did it make me a better man, did it reveal me any secrets about the universe or the world we live in? Well, I know more about Cantona now, and I feel very content about this, although by most accounts I knew a lot more than is healthy about Cantona even before. The hell with it! What do they know? Let these naysayers go back to their world, we have football!

Strangely enough, however, I did not think it was a particularly great read. I mean... it's well written, well documented and for the most part very engaging. But to my mind, Auclair fails the most important challenge he set out on, granted, the most difficult one, too. He does not give a satisfactory explanation to what is it that makes Catona special. Obviously, Cantona is like no other footballer in a number of aspects. But why is he The King? Or The Saviour, on a par with Jesus himself in the eyes of Old Trafford faithful, and bigger than the advent of Christmas? With a mere 4 seasons played for United and no international trophy with club or country to his name, Cantona's figures are easily beaten by other players with peripheral roles in United's history. And for all the talk about the poetry of the game, inspiration and artistry, it is Cantona himself who says he talks a lot of rubbish. So we need to look elsewhere to discover the essence of Cantona's greatness, and this, I think, is what Phillipe Auclair doesn't do. He tries to explain the miracle by staying grounded, tries to prove what it only takes faith to be understood. Sounds too religious? We haven't even scratched the surface.

I like to tell people this about Cantona: 1992, Cantona is playing for Leeds, Leeds wins the title. 1993, Cantona is playing for United, United wins the title. 1995, Cantona is suspended for the second half of the season, United lose the title to Blackburn. Obviously, 1994, 1996, 1997, the other seasons Cantona spent in an United shirt, United won the title every time.

Interesting as his early life might be, and the interaction between him and the management legend that is Guy Roux is pretty interesting, these 4 years are the miracle of Cantona, and the moment he'll be remembered for, just like of Jesus' 33 years on earth, it is only the last few weeks that the Christians celebrate, completely ignoring the rest.

I didn't like how the lead to the Selhurst Park incident felt so much like a build up. Important as the kung fu kick might have been - and its importance is hugely inflated by the media, as was the punishment, it is by no means the defining moment of Cantona's United career. Hell, the press statement in the aftermath is more memorable.

Myself, I cannot reduce Cantona's time at United to less than it was. This was his defining moment, these 4 years and a half in which, with Cantona, United not only played so much better that they completed turned their fortunes around, but they set out on a path to greatness that is, at least so far, unstoppable (meanies, don't mention Moyes!). If anything, Ken Loach was closest to the truth, in Looking for Eric. "You have to trust your team mates", "My best moment was a pass", these are all part of the Cantona canon, and they set that model of imitatio Catona that United has been so successful in following.

So in Cantona's case, there is no point to go looking for the man behind the myth.

For Cantona the footballer was pure myth. And today, if it happens to accidentally meet Cantona, he is transfigured before us.

A child born on the day Cantona retired would be 17 today. But if that child would go to a Manchester United game, he's gonna sing and drink a drink to Eric the King.

"I'm so proud the fans still sing my name, but I fear tomorrow they will stop. I fear it because I love it. And everything you love, you fear you will lose." (Eric Daniel Pierre Cantona)

And quotes, because Cantona is an inexhaustible source of great quotes:

"It is better if it's not said but shown in other ways"
"And you can cry, even when you are a strong man. You can find something beautiful and simply cry because it is so beautiful. You can find emotion in the beauty of things and, to me, that's love."
"You see a lot of civil servants in football. This type of behaviour doesn't agree with me. I become bad"
"You need a lot of personality to accept putting yourself at the service of someone else. The creator doesn't exist without this tacit agreement."
"The problem is that England is very beautiful in may respects, but very ugly when it comes down to the image and to the press. It's unhealthy."(Eric Cantona)

"In football, yesterday happened a long time ago" (Billy Bremmer)

"For that money? Has he lost a leg or something?" (Brian Kidd upon news of Cantona's £1M transfer from Leeds)

"I'm so glad to meet the second most famous Frenchman in Britain" (Speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd greeting French president Jacques Chirac)

29: Justice is an instinct, not a rulebook. No rules should circumvent invention. Those who have the ability to imagine beyond the rules have a right, maybe a duty, to break them, and damn the consequences.

155: You only used your voice when you had failed to share information and feelings in a different, more profound way - instinctively, by exchanging a look, or by passing a ball.

317: Federer's astonishing exploration of his gift is a selfish enterprise, an attempt to fins the answer to this question: how far can I go? But because this adventurous impulse takes place in a public arena, it becomes almost a gift to others.

sâmbătă, 27 decembrie 2014

Cowboys and gays

Dallas Buyers Club (USA, 2013), Directed by Jean-Marc Valée

In the age of CGI monsters and graphic novel superhero movies, it is refreshing to see that one can still make an exceptionally good movie with a $5M budget, and be rewarded with a few Oscars for it.

Dallas Buyers club has started at the point that any movie is supposed to start: a good story. The complexity of the main character and the very peculiar string of events makes it very unlikely for such a wonderful story to be completely made up, although I'd sure as hell watch every movie of the writer that could. The fact that is based on real events, like in most cases, neither adds nor retracts anything from the merits of the movie.

To me, the outstanding aspect of this feature, is the unusual ethical complexity of the main character. We are faced with a guy who passes as pretty regular amongst his peers and a complete product of his environment. To most viewers' standards, I guess he's rather unlikeable. And the good thing is, the movie does not try to make him any more likeable. It is a great directorial ability, to tell a story entirely made of facts, leaving all judgements to the audience. And it is interesting to see how, although staying true to himself, the character of Ron Woodroof undergoes a massive transformation.

His homophobia and his exclusively pecuniary motivations are shattered and in the course of his journey we discover his humanity coming out in full bloom from deep beneath multiple layers of social prejudice. And if it was for this aspect only, the movie would still be very good. But the story touches on a much greater number of ethically grey social aspects: the prejudices linking homosexuality with AIDS in the 80s and 90s, the interests of the pharmaceutical industry confronted with the interests of their clients, regulation of food and drugs and the fairness of outcasting or outlawing the unorthodox elements that dare to think outside the box.

It is how far outside the box Ron Woodroof dares to think that drives the story forward, and his ingenuity in always finding regulation loopholes is a big part of what drives the story forward. Funny how the producers chose a Canadian director for a movie that makes the FDA look so bad, thus completely fulfilling the cliché of horrible health care in the US. It is also scary to think that American directors would actually hesitate to take on the topic.

Quite a few memorable scenes in the movie, from the one when Ron forces his homophobic fried to shake his cross-dressing homosexual partner's hand to the one that nearly brought me to tears of the old homosexual couple donating their house to a cause that started as a profit driven enterprise and became the only hope of many hopeless cases. It is the reverse journey of the pharmaceutical industry and it shows the dangers of not including an ethical element in the development of commercial products.

I'm not entirely sure if Matthew McConaughey's performance is exceptionally good, or if it's just the weight loss and the make-up. He's rather hard to recognize, if that's any worth. And his posture and accent place him right in the heart of Texas, just like the character he's embodying, although this might actually be the merit of the casting director. I am sure he deserved his Oscar ahead of Christian Bale's American Hustle, although I'm curious to see what Bale would have made of this part.

I'm not a big fan of Jennifer Garner and this movie doesn't help her cause. She's good, granted, but she benefits from an exceptionally well written part.

Jared Leto is, I think, the revelation of the movie. I thought everything we feel for the character is entirely down to his acting. And by no means I would have expected this from him, the pretty boy with a pop star image playing Alexander the Great's sexual partner.

Griffin Dunne's Dr. Vass is a very interesting part and I would have loved to see it developed a bit more, especially in terms of motivation and awareness of own impact.

So that's my take on a movie I felt a strong urge to write about, most likely because of its ethical implications. Great story, great writing, great directing and quite possibly Matthew McCounaughey's best role so far. And despite his best effort in both, this movie is so much better than Interstellar it defies comparison. Possibly because it doesn't rely on expensive CGI. And it's 2D.