Thursday, 31 January 2013

WHAT WINS FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIPS?

If you're not interested in football you might not realise that during the NFL season I write a weekly column called Friday Morning Tight End for nfluk.com. Because there were no games to preview last week, and because this year's Super Bowl matches up two teams that play extremely physically up front, I used the extra space to discuss the old issue of whether a good defense beats a good offense. This week's FMTE column, with a Super Bowl preview and an analysis of the NFL's Deer Hunter, Ray Lewis, will be up at nfluk.com tomorrow...

Around Super Bowl time, some fogeys older than myself like to quote the old adage that says 'defense wins championships'. They also say you need an 'elite' quarterback or an 'elite' running back to win, and that's easily disproved. Although we think of teams with 'great' defenses, and remember the Super Bowls they have won, few Super Bowls match great offenses vs great defenses, and of the recent games where you might argue defense did win it, you could only call two or three of those teams great defenses (2000 Ravens, 2002 Bucs, maybe 2005 Steelers). We look at the adage when we see great offenses getting stopped by less than immortal defenses: the Patriots beating the Rams, the Giants doing it twice to the Pats. And you can certainly argue that the Saints beat the Colts because they played better defense. Super Bowl winners generally don't establish any trend at all, though in any game you can always try to say the winning team played better defense. But did defense win the championship?

The guys who claim it does often quote the table of the highest-scoring teams in NFL history. They'll tell you that, in the Super Bowl era, there were 28 teams that averaged 30 points per game or more, and only five won the Super Bowl. Interestingly, in the pre-Super Bowl era the numbers were 7 of 23, including the highest-scoring team of all time, the 1950 Rams, who averaged 38.8 ppg, went 9-3, and lost the NFL title game. In the Super Bowl era, the highest scoring teams are the 2007 Pats (36.8), 2011 Packers (35.0), 2012 Pats (34.8) 1998 Vikes (34.75),and the 2011 Saints 34.2. None of them won the Super Bowl; in fact only the 2007 Pats even made it to the big game. Note that the 07 Pats and 98 Vikes had something in common, besides not winning the Super Bowl, namely Randy Moss, who happens to be playing for the Niners this season.

Consider the 1948 Cardinals, who averaged 32.9 points per game, but lost the NFL championship to the Steve Van Buren Eagles 7-0. Did they lose because defense beat offense? Those Eagles averaged 31.2 points per game, themselves, and the one-touchdown game was due more to the awful weather conditions than anything else. Were these teams high-scoring because the AAFC was draining off a lot of the better players from the NFL (they would merge in 1950)? You always have to account for context; thus it's no coincidence four of the top five scoring teams of the Super Bowl era played in the past five seasons.

Context is even more important when you do what few pundits sever bother to do, and reverse the equation. If defense wins championships, how come the stingiest D of all time, the 1977 Atlanta Falcons, allowing only 9.2 ppg, went 7-7 and didn't even make the playoffs? The best of the Steel Curtain teams, the '76 Steelers, allowing only 9.9 ppg, shutting out five of their last eight opponents and holding two of the other three to a field goal, went 10-4 and lost the Conference championship 24-7 to the Raiders. It's context again; of the ten 'best' defenses of the Super Bowl era, in terms of points per game allowed, nine played between 1968 and 1977—after which point Bill Walsh and the competition committee relaxed the blocking rules, reduced contact on receivers, and made the West Coast offense possible. So those teams were losing to each other, or to teams that allowed 11 or 12 points a game, like the 66 Packers or the 72 and 73 Dolphins.

Indeed, of the 30 defenses, 12 either didn't make the playoffs at all or lost in the first round. So considering their era, the 2000 Ravens, tied for eighth best with the '68 Colts (who lost the Super Bowl to the Jets), have a great argument to be considered the best defense ever, especially when you realise their so-called pathetic offense (which still averaged 20.8ppg) allowed two touchdowns, which means their D actually gave up only 9.2 ppg, same as the '77 Falcons, in a much more high-scoring league. A similar argument might be made for the '85 Bears, who allowed 12.4 ppg but averaged 28.5 and won the Super Bowl, or the 2002 Bucs, who allowed 12.3 and won the Super Bowl.

This suggests balance is important. But even when you look at the teams with the biggest scoring differentials, only one of the top five won a Super Bowl (the '99 Rams, averaging 32.9 ppg and allowing 15.1). The 2007 Pats were the best (36.8-17.1, 19.7 differential) followed by the '68 Colts, the '99 Rams, the '69 Vikes and the '68 Cowboys. The Rams were the only ones who won the big game. However five of the next six on the list were Lombardi Trophy winners. We are, however, entering an area where there is an element of the tautological—good teams win because they have big winning margins sounds like the kind of thing Bill Belichick says at post-game press conferences.

When Peyton Manning's Colts used to fail in the playoffs, fingers were pointed at their defense, but the reality was their losses came when their offense couldn't function normallyt; the same thing the Ravens did to the Pats Sunday (they lost this season to the Ravens twice, the Cards, the Seahawks, and the Niners, all physical defenses, and four of them birds). In Tom Brady's playoff wins, the Pats have averaged 27.5 points, in their losses only 18. For Manning the split is even higher, 31.4 in wins, 16.1 in losses. This year the Broncos allowed 19.2 ppg, the Pats 21.5, and both fell to the Ravens, who allowed Denver's offense only 21 points, and the Pats only 13.


The adage makes more sense the way Jim Criner once said it to me, 'offense wins games, defense wins championships', meaning (I think) that a good defense could always stop an offense, whereas a good offense might not always be able to top a defense. Think about it in the context of the Patriots-Ravens game last Sunday. The Pats scored a lot of points this year, but their offense was largely horizontal, especially without Gronk. So a typical Patriots' drive contained a lot of plays, and required a good deal of precision. Watching them run hurry-up on teams like Houston was a thing of beauty. But if you have to be precise on six, or eight, or ten plays, it only requires the defense to upset that precision once, or twice, in order to stop your drive. The Ravens, by playing a lot of nickel, with Haloti Ngata at the nose, weren't as bothered by the hurry-up, and their physical dominance made them less vulnerable to the runs, and allowed them to disrupt enough plays to force the Pats out of their comfort zone. I'm convinced Wes Welker was concussed by Bernard Pollard with the hit just before he made a crucial third-down drop; Welker also seemed to be favouring his ribs. Tom Brady was clearly thinking about hits when he collapsed after running into the umpire, when he slid rather than try to get out of bounds at the end of the first half, and when he threw a ball away on fourth down rather than try to evade Ngata. The Ravens took the Pats out of their timing, and the Pats made enough mistakes themselves to 'prove' yet again, as Peter King might say, I'm not saying defense does win championships, but defense won this one. Or maybe it was the Ravens' offense. And Jim, at least until the Super Bowl, was right.


Wednesday, 30 January 2013

HOW PRO FOOTBALL HOOKED AMERICA REVISITED


This Sunday, 3 February, I will be offering analysis of Super Bowl 47 on BBC2 (and BBC-HD) live from the New Orleans Super Dome. This will mark the sixth straight year for the BBC and me, and we've had five great games in a row, on top of the hype-fest of spectacle, and in contradiction of that adage that Super Bowls, like FA Cup finals, rarely live up to the hype. Back in 2008, before my first BBC Super Bowl, I wrote the following piece for bbc.co.uk--I was asked about it recently, so I thought I'd reprint it here. I intended to go back to my original copy, but when I looked at the piece as posted I thought it held up well enough as it was (if you want to check it on the site, here's a link). One thing that was edited out was that, at the time, Ray Berry was my favourite player (and I would wear his number, 82, in high school because of that). I probably should have mentioned that, after the game, having drunk whiskey and beer all afternoon, all the men  got their families together, and drove them home through the snow.  And I should also point out that in the five years since I wrote that piece, the price of a 30-second TV ad during the game has increased from $3 million to $4 million, only six per cent per year. Who says America isn't fighting inflation?




Miami Super Bowl in 1999
Millions watch the annual Super Bowl - a money spinner for advertisers
 

How pro football hooked America


By Mike Carlson
US sports analyst


The Super Bowl, the championship game of America's National Football League (NFL), is the world's richest single sporting event. Nearly half of America will watch it on television on Sunday 3 February.
It's the most costly advertising platform in the world: each 30-second commercial will sell for $3m. There is no other day in the American calendar which unites so much of the country.

It hasn't always been so. Today the NFL may fairly claim to be "America's game" - even though baseball has always been referred to fondly as "America's pastime".
But not so long ago, pro football was not even gridiron's glamour game - that honour belonged to the college version of the sport. 


First Super Bowl
Their relationship was similar to the traditional status of British rugby. College football was the equivalent of rugby union, an amateur game played on Saturdays by gentlemen. The college "bowl" games, played on New Year's Day, in sunny parts of the country between teams from different regions who normally never met during the autumn season, were the equivalent of rugby's internationals.

Baltimore Colts v New York Giants, Dec 1958

Pro football, in those days, was America's rugby league: played primarily in the industrial north, on Sundays; a hard game played by hard men.
The first Super Bowl took place in 1967. At that point it was already clear that pro football was a business about to boom, thanks to television. No sport has ever been better suited to the small screen than American football, with its breaks between plays to invite analysis, and utilise technological innovations like instant replay, split screens, and isolated cameras. 


Colts and Giants
But the game that first showed pro football's potential to hook a mass TV audience took place almost a decade earlier, on 28 December 1958, in New York's Yankee Stadium, when the New York Giants met the Baltimore Colts for the championship of the NFL.

The Colts' quarterback, Johnny Unitas, played semi-pro football on Pittsburgh fields so devoid of grass they were sprayed with oil to keep the dust from rising
The NFL players with the highest public profiles were those who had been college stars, at big universities, and the Giants had more of them, particularly Frank Gifford, whose good looks and effortless grace at the University of Southern California inspired Frederick Exley's classic novel, A Fan's Notes.
I grew up in nearby Connecticut. My father, grandfather, and uncles were Giants fans; in fact, my father had played in college against the Giants' star defensive end, Andy Robustelli, who'd come from little Arnold College in nearby Bridgeport.
But "fan" meant something different then. When these men, aged from 30 to 55, watched the game, they didn't wear replica jerseys, paint their faces, or discuss their fantasy teams. The idea grown men might follow a game like children would have struck them as insane.
The Colts, in fact, were closer in spirit to my father and family. Their quarterback, Johnny Unitas, with his buzz-cut hair and high-topped boots, had played for little-fancied Louisville University. He played semi-pro football on Pittsburgh fields so devoid of grass they were sprayed with oil to keep the dust from rising.


Unitas in 1955
Unitas led his team back into the game, at the end of normal time
The Colts had their own Italian defensive end, the fierce Gino Marchetti, playing alongside Art "Fatso" Donovan, and Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, a six-foot-five, 300-pound behemoth (by 1950s standards, that is - for today's game he'd be considered undersized.) The Giants had qualified for the final by beating the Cleveland Browns two weeks in a row, first in the season's final game, which brought them level at the top of their division, and then in a one-game playoff.
Their defence, anchored by middle-linebacker Sam Huff, closed down Cleveland's star runner, Jim Brown, (the future Hollywood actor) who recorded the worst performance of his career. 


Extra time
The championship opened with the Colts dominant. They led 14-3 at the half. But the Giants struck back in the second half, taking a 20-17 lead late in the game.
Unitas calmly led the Colts back. He had a pass-catcher, Raymond Berry, who ran precise patterns: Unitas could throw the ball knowing exactly where Berry would be. They combined on three consecutive pass plays, covering 62 yards. With the game about to end, kicker Steve Myrha booted a 20-yard field goal, levelling the scores at 20, and sending the contest to "sudden death" overtime. The first team to score would win.

Only quick-thinking by a television staffer, who ran on the field like a drunken fan to delay the game, allowed technicians to find and re-connect the cable
Extra time was a football first. Traditionally, gridiron games ended when the clock expired, and a draw was considered just reward.
But pro football needed a champion, and the idea of a soccer-style replay was never an option. The Giants won the coin-toss to receive the extra time kickoff, but struggled against the Colts' defence. They punted the ball away, and Unitas took over.
Keeping the Giants off-balance by combining runs and passes, he marched the team down the field. Then, America lost the television transmission. The foot-pounding of the visiting Colt supporters had knocked a cable loose. 


Record television audience
Only quick-thinking by a television staffer, who ran on the field like a drunken fan to delay the game, allowed technicians to find and re-connect the cable. Then, before an astounding (for the time) 45 million viewers, Alan "the Horse" Ameche carried the ball into the end zone from a yard out, and the Colts had won.

Jim Brown and Raquel Welch
Football celebrity: The Cleveland Browns' Jim Brown later made it in Hollywood
I can still recall the whoops of my father, grandfather, and uncles as the game was won; a sound of amazed and excited relief, even though their team, the Giants, had lost. The game marked a turning point in many ways. It had attracted a record television audience, but the stadium had not actually sold out. Giants' owner Tim Mara would die a few weeks later, saddened by the result, but overjoyed at the rush of season-ticket requests that followed the contest.
The New York Times ran a magazine feature on Giants' linebacker Huff, and a CBS television documentary called The Violent World of Sam Huff would follow. People still loved their local college teams, but the pro game had announced itself as the better television spectacle.
Finally, the Super Bowl would cement pro football's new place in American consciousness. In the words of Tex Schramm, the former Dallas Cowboy general manager, "It was the time when people stopped doing and started watching".
On Sunday, more of them will likely be watching the Super Bowl than any show American has ever offered. And it all started with an overtime game half a century before.

Monday, 28 January 2013

TAIHO: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Taiho, the greatest yokozuna in Japanese sumo history, is online in today's Guardian, you can link to it here. It ought to be in the paper paper tomorrow. One of small changes made was adding 'official' to my definition of 'honbasho'...I wrote simply 'real', but should have explained it meant 'real' basho, in the sense of first-rate. It was felt I needed to explain some of the basics of sumo for the readership, whom I guess by now no longer include those who watched on Channel 4 in the 1980s, when Taiho's son-in-law, Takotoriki, was a star player. I also made an error in the piece, which should be corrected; Taiho's 45 match winning streak was indeed surpassed, by Chiyonofuji in 1988, and has been broken since.

Another bit that was left out was a reference I made to the fascinating story of Taiho's birth, and his mixed heritage. Many Japanese references would list him as being born in Hokkaido, and much was made of the string of Hokkaido champions--Taiho followed by Kitanoumi (who became a yokozuna a month younger than Taiho) and Chionofuji. I was curious to see if there was a parallel between Taiho's rivalry with Kashiwado (pictured below left, with Taiho on the left) and the relationship in Japanese baseball between the Yomiuri Giants' stars Sadaharo Oh, the all-time home run champ, and Shigeo Nagashima, who was the Japanese 'Mr. Baseball'. Because Oh was half-Chinese, Nagashima was arguably the more popular, and, as with Taiho, after retirement, it was Nagashima was was first choice to manager the Giants. Of course, when Oh's single-season home run record was threatened by foreign hitters, teams Oh managed were never shy about denying the gai-jin pitches to hit. But I could find no evidence of it, and certainly the overwhelming level of Taiho's popularity would argue against any such bias.

Nowadays with the influx of highly successful sumo wrestlers from America (or Samoa) and Mongolia, these issues are once again crucial to sumo, as is the whole business of gambling and fixing fights. Like boxing in the glory days, fixing scandals have long plagued the Sumo Association, and ties with organised crime always seem to be lurking in the background. That Takotoriki, Taiho's son-in-law, could be implicated in a gambling scandal, even if it was baseball, was enough to force him out of Taiho's sumo school. I used to correspond with the poet and editor Cid Corman (you can read my Guardian obit of him here), who lived in Tokyo and was almost as big a fan of sumo as he was of poetry and baseball, and he would complain about the blatant decline in honesty in the bouts he watched. Supposedly, steps were taken to clean it up. But another sign of sumo's troubled times is the fact that the Nishonoseki stable, which produced Taiho and many other greats, is scheduled to close next month.

It was odd how much more Russian Taiho looked in his old age--the pure Japanese handsomeness of his youth changed somewhat, reflecting the sad tale of his ancestry. His grandchildren are apparently in sumo training, and that was the hope to which he alluded in his final interview--the endurance was something he'd already shown all through his career.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

AMERICAN 'LOSER': JOHN THOMAS IN MEMORIAM

'American spectators are frustrated athletes. In the champion, they see who'd they'd like to be. In the loser, they see what they actually are, and they treat him with scorn.' John Thomas, who has died aged 71, said that, and though his wasn't quite a Wide World Of Sports 'agony of defeat' moment, any American of my generation will recall exactly the amount of scorn which was heaped on Thomas, whose failings were that he won bronze and silver medals at successive Olympic games, when he was expected to win gold.


Thomas was a 6-5 17 year old freshman at Boston University when he became the first man to high jump 7 feet indoors, and it did it at what was then America's biggest stage, the Millrose Games at New York's Madison Square Garden. By the time the Rome Olympics came along, he was 19, and held the outdoor world record at 7' 3 3/4” (or 2.23 metres, though in high jumping no one ever talked about breaking the 2.13m barrier) and was considered a sure-thing for a gold medal, in one of the few events where Americans and Soviets would battle head to head. His major competition, however, was supposed to come from his teammates, Charlie Dumas, the defending Olympic champion, who had been the first to break the 7-foot mark as a 19 year old at the 1956 Olympic trials, and Joe Faust, himself only 17. But both Dumas and Faust were nursing injuries, and went out of the competition early, which left Thomas against three Soviets, their champion Victor Bolshov, the veteran Robert Savalakadze, and yet another teenager, 18 year old Valery Brumel, who had come out of nowhere (actually Siberia) to clear 7 feet for the first time at the Soviet trials. Thomas had been bothered by the constant attention he'd received since arriving in Rome. By the time the bar hit 7' 1” only Savalakadze, who had never before cleared seven feet, was successful. Brumel and Thomas were level, but Brumel got the silver based on fewer misses at lower heights; the two men thus bound together would become good friends.

Thomas biggest mistake afterwards may have been being honest. He told the press he was proud to have won a bronze medal, and was greeted with the scorn reserved for those whose expectations the media themselves have elevated. Thomas was handsome, athletic, smart--potentially another Cassius Clay. Instead, as he put it,  'I was called a quitter, a man with no heart. It left me sick.'

Dumas leapt to Thomas's defense. 'What do you want – blood?' he asked. 'John jumped seven feet, but the others simply were better on this particular day. He’s just a boy...and never has there been greater pressure in high jumping than here today. Just John left alone against three Russians.' But few others did.

Four years later in Tokyo, the pressure was on Brumel, now the world record holder at 2.28m (7' 5 3/4”), but coming off a loss to Savalakadze at the Soviet championships. He struggled in qualifying, and at 2.14m both Soviets and Thomas were one jump away from elimination; only the American John Rambo had cleared the height. But the three men all made their final jumps, and Brumel and Thomas both went on to 2.18. When neither could clear 2.20 Brumel took the gold, again based on fewer misses at lower heights, and Thomas the silver, with Rambo getting bronze. Yet again, in the eyes of most of America, Thomas had failed, but in reality he had jumped with a hernia.

The following year, Brumel would be injured seriously in a motorcycle crash, nearly severing his right leg. Thomas sent him a telegram which read: 'Sometimes a twist of fate seems to have been put out there to test a man's strength of character. Don't admit defeat. I sincerely hope you come back to jump again.' Brumel would indeed jump again, coming within a quarter-inch of seven feet, but never competed internationally.

Thomas was born 3 March 1941 in Boston and grew up in Cambridge, Mass., where his father drove a bus and his mother worked in the kitchens at Harvard. He was a good enough all-round athlete to consider taking up the decathalon, but in the end he settled for four NCAA titles, seven AAU national championships, three world records, and two Olympic medals. He lost only eight times in his career, but both those Olympic medals go down as losses.

I always wondered if part of the problem for Thomas was that he wasn't celebrated enough in his home town—Boston at the time was known for sporting frustration. Their only winners were basketball's Celtics, led by Bill Russell, and many felt the city didn't open to Russell's team they way they might to their white heroes. I often looked at Patrick Ewing, doomed to fall short of championships in basketball, as perhaps being a victim of that same lack of whole-hearted hometown support.

Yet he gave back much to the city. After retiring from competition, he coached at BU, and went into business with the telephone company. Eventually, he worked as athletic director at Roxbury Community College in Boston, where he was successful not only on the playing fields, but also on sending many of his charges, mostly from poor inner city backgrounds, on to four-year universities. Thomas died 15 January while undergoing heart surgery in Brockton, Mass., where he lived. He was divorced from his wife Delores, and is survived by five children.

In the aftermath of the Rome Olympics, Thomas wrote a letter to his coach at Boston University. It was eventually made public, but I hadn't seen it before. Thanks to Leigh Montville, who write a moving tribute to Thomas at the Sports On Earth website, I can quote it here.

I was almost to the point where I was afraid of the people. Afraid even to go out of my room because I knew I would get mobbed. As a matter of fact, I never left the village except to work out. Then came the day of the meet and I guess within the space of 12 ½ hours my attitude on life changed. 

People think I’m ashamed of my third place. I’m proud of myself and I hope you are, too. 
 
I did the very best I could on that given day. 
 
I really learned a lot because now, for the first time since 1958, I know how it feels to come in behind a winner. I often wondered how I would react to defeat. Would I sulk around in a corner and cry on my own – or would I? I took it with the same attitude you have instilled in me and if luck was with me maybe I might have won.
RIP John Thomas. Champion.

IT'S A GIFT: W.C. FIELDS: AMERICAN ABSURD

If you follow Simon Louvish's essay carefully, you can see that It's A Gift is an important film for W.C. Fields, marking in a sense the end of his reliance on patching together vaudeville sketches. His later films would be more complete, if no more coherent, screen stories, in which he did the lion's share of the screenwriting himself. But as Louvish makes plain, the essence of Fields' films was Fields himself, and to some extent the character we associate with him was as much a product of vaudeville as the routines he left us on film.

This was one of the early entries in the excellent BFI Film Classics series, when it was at its best edited by Edward Buscombe. Louvish's massive and detailed biography of Fields, Man On The Flying Trapeze, would be published three years later, but this slim volume provides just enough information about the man to leave the decision whether to pursue his inner genius and inner demons further to you. Here, Louvish takes apart It's A Gift, analysing the set-pieces in terms of Field's stage acts, ending with the apotheosis, the back porch scene, which culminates in the brilliant exchanges with T. Roy Barnes' insurance salesman. This is Fields at his best, and Louvish not only draws out the background, but also allows the scene to play.

Dealing with the period leading up to It's A Gift, Louvish notes Fields' short, The Fatal Glass Of Beer, was his only box-office failure in the early 30s, calling it 'the most surreal movie ever made by a major studio'. But he's also just mentioned, in passing, International House, a surreal variety film in which Fields' presence alongside Bela Lugosi and Peggy Hopkins Joyce is almost literally surreal, but also in which he gets virtually all the good lines (apart from those reserved for George Burns & Gracie Allen, which come out of their routines). There are also very loaded double-entendres, usually at the expense of Joyce, who started in vaudeville too before moving on to a career as an international playgirl. I love International House, and Louvish makes the point that Fields didn't go off into 'never-never land' again until Never Give A Sucker An Even Break.But for me it also reinforces the most telling bit of Louvish's essay, in which he compares Fields to Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

Louvish mentions Beckett's self-acknowledged debt to vaudeville, but what is worth noting is both the quality of the delivery—compare Bert Lahr in Waiting For Godot to Fields, the forced nature of even the most off-hand comment, the timid drifting off of sharp irony, and you'll see how true that is. No Theatre Of The Absurd without Fields is an exaggeration, but it does lead one to consider the basic psychological malfunction which Fields' characters find, primarily when faced with 'modern' American life.

Which was true of Fields himself. His companion of many years Carlotta Monti, once claimed Fields relative lack of stardom was down to, as director Eddie Sutherland told her, his not being liked by women. There is a misogyny to his character which influenced American sitcoms starting with Life Of Riley and The Honeymooners. Yet he was a brilliant Mr. Micawber, a role Dickens might have created for him.

He was an alcoholic, and Louvish's brief account of his facing the DTs in the period just after It's A Gift was made is particularly touching. His grandson Ronald produced a warts-and-all biography which made much of Fields' worries, about his eczema, his unattractiveness to women, and he may have had a huge fear of VD, which may have originated in his seeing a presentation about the dangers of promiscuity in the 1920s. At any rate, when asked by an interviewer if he'd ever been put at great risk he did answer, 'Yes, sitting on a toilet seat after Greg LaCava just got off.' Fields' was estranged from his wife and son, and had probably suffered a rough upbringing from his own father. In such things often lie the roots of humour, and of the neuroses which power the Theatre of the Absurd. And they certainly powered Bill Fields.

It's A Gift by Simon Louvish
BFI Film Classics (1994), no price listed, ISBN 0851704727

Saturday, 26 January 2013

TOM PICCIRILLI'S SHADOW SEASON

Once upon a time, Finn was a cop. Now he teaches English at a small girl's prep school in upstate New York. And he is blind; losing his vision in the attack that cost him his wife. His ex-partner on the force is in prison, and Finn has retreated into an existence where his past never matters—he has a relationship with the school nurse, and fending off another from a needy student—people he cannot see but he feels he can understand. And then, as the snows fall around Christmas, the school is suddenly under attack, and he seems to be in the centre of the assault, for reasons he finds impossible to understand.

The great thing about Tom Piccirilli's novel is the way the past dominates the present—Finn may be trying to avoid his past, but he finds it lives with him regardless of what he does. Yet to understand what's happening to him and his friends in the present, he has to try to face it, and pick it apart. He will uncover details about the corruption in the police force that drove him and his partner apart, that had more serious repercussions, and he will uncover facts about relationships he never really understood. Piccirilli's pacing is first rate—the very real threat, taking place in a blizzard, mixes with the flashbacks to keep the reader twisting.

Where he's less successful is in conveying Finn's blindness. He starts strongly, with other senses rising to the fore, and is particularly good with the way physical contact takes the place of vision. But as the action increases it more and more seems as if Finn sees, albeit badly. He resists letting Finn find some sort of miracle ability, which makes this just a small flaw, but it is something that's important, because it's so central to the story.

In the end, the way the story resolves itself was problematic. It reminded me of the weird terror pulps, in which the eerie threat was ultimately revealed to be something more mundane, and there's an element of this in what Finn finally discovers behind the terror at St Valerians. But Piccirilli redeems the story in the final confrontation, which is beautifully done; returning Finn to the condition of blindness we can understand, and bringing him to wholeness with his ultimate fate. Simple, you'd think, but not an easy thing for any man, blind or not. Nor for any writer.

Shadow Season by Tom Piccirilli
Bantam (US) $7.99 ISBN 9780553592474

note: this review will appear also at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

STUART NEVILLE'S RATLINES

It's 1963 and John Kennedy is about to land in Ireland for a visit to the country of his ancestors. But when a German businessman is murdered in guest house overlooking Galway Bay, it begins to look like an epidemic, as he is the third foreigner living in Ireland to be killed in the space of days. And Ireland's justice minister, one Charles J Haughey, is worried someone might start to notice that these corpses belong to ex-Nazis who've found post-war havens in Ireland.

Albert Ryan, a lieutenant in G2, the intelligence directorate, is assigned to Haughey, to investigate the murders but more importantly to protect the man who may be their ultimate target, Otto Skorzeny, the famous SS commando leader. Ryan is a protestant who fought in the British army during what Haughey, and the Irish, called 'the Emergency' (in much the same way the British call the prolonged insurrection in Northen Ireland 'the Troubles') and he would prefer to avoid the obvious political snakepit. But he as he investigates, he finds there is even more going on than he may have feared.

Stuart Neville has built up a tremendous story in Ratlines, with the immediate awkwardness of friendly Ireland harbouring Nazis a point of contention which puts all the other issues into sharper focus. Ryan's family back in Carrickmacree is being victimised for his perceived betrayal, and later the IRA will be brought into play by their putative allies—in the maelstrom of Irish politics, not even tribal loyalties are sure, and my enemy's enemy may or may not be my friend. And in that situation, Neville has built two very distinct villains, along with a cast of people who are better or worse as they try to pursue their own benefit on a smaller scale.

Skorzeny is a more standard sort of evil, even for a Nazi, a sociopathic pragmatist who will do what is necessary to get what he needs.The ratlines of the book's title are the escape routes taken by Nazis after the war, and Skorzeny knows them, and controls a fund which helps them out in their new identities, making him a power broker both in his world and in Ireland. His clever ruthlessness is essential to the drive of the novel, and Neville does well. And he creates a nice sort of contrast with the appealing, but equally ruthless, American-born member of the Mossad who is on Skorzeny's trail.

But the real vicious evil figure is Haughey, whose machinations are the stuff of politics in general, and Irish politics in particular. He is a glad-handing bully-boy, a facile liar, and a man who's always weighing the scales of what's in it for him. Neville sets the scene before the novel begins with an author's note, pointing out what bits of the book match actual history—among the facts being Haughey's presence with Skorzeny at a reception in 1957, Skorzeny's purchase of a mansion in 1959, and Haughey's denial to parliament in 1963 that Skorzeny had ever lived in Ireland.

As the plot gets complicated, things become more action-oriented, but Neville restrains himself from a bloody finish, whether by shoot-out or torture, and twists it nicely. Haughey, of course, must go on. And Nazis, we recall, have their uses. An offbeat thriller which tells us, in the end, a lot that is nuanced about Ireland.

Ratlines by Stuart Neville
Harvill Secker £12.99 ISBN 9781846557378

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Monday, 21 January 2013

THE GOLDEN GLOBES, IN GLOBS

The important thing to remember about the Golden Globe awards is that they serve their purpose, but that purpose (or purposes) have nothing much to do with predicting Oscars or judging quality. The awards are voted on by about 90 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and their biggest purpose is to do what that organisation set them up to do: ingratiate themselves with the Hollywood studios, get better access to them, and to their stars. Their members, of whom I've known a couple, are not usually film critics but primarily writers chasing celebrity interviews and entertainment previews, indeed some are general reporters. Their jobs depend largely on studio public relations access, and if you look closely at the banquet, you'll see the members are scattered among the tables, giving each a built in chance for a couple of exclusives on the night. Something the movie-makers like, because being of small number, and desperate, the Globes voters are eminently, shall we say, vulnerable to inducement. And the awards serve a useful purpose to Hollywood: both as a way to hype up films pre-Oscar, and also to generate some ticket sales for films that won't triumph at Oscar time. This is made easier because the Globes give separate awards for 'drama' and 'musical or comedy,' twice the winners mean fewer losers! Given given the extra shot at the odds, the Globes more often than not fail to predict the Academy Awards' best picture. And television loves the Globes too, for the rub they get with the movie people—you could argue that the worldwide market for television programmes and their stars makes this even more essential than the film awards. Then there's that European obsession with golden-this and golden-that awards; I once served on a jury for a Sports TV award called the 'Golden Shot'. If Oscar had lived in Cannes, rather than its twinned city Beverly Hills, he'd be called The Golden Oscars.

Keeping all this in mind, it was funny to read some of the British critics opining that Argo's award for best drama came because the picture shows 'Tinseltown coming to the rescue of the real world', as if the Globe voters were actually part of Tinseltown. I suppose you could argue that, in a Stockholm Syndrome sense, they are. As a piece of historical drama, Argo may well be more accurate than Zero Dark Thirty, or indeed Lincoln (neither of which I have seen as I write this) and it is both suspenseful and entertaining, as well as catching its period very well. But you can pretty much write it off for an Oscar. Director Ben Affleck wasn't even nominated for an Oscar, and neither was Tom Hooper, who directed Les Miserables, which won the best musical award.

Besides Argo, it was a good night for the CIA, who also took the best actress awards in both drama and TV, though they weren't nominated for the Zero Dark Thirty script. Jessica Chastain's role, which is supposedly a composite character, seems oddly similar to Clare Danes' Carrie, serving primarily to nag her organisation into following up on her work. I've written about Homeland elsewhere on this blog, but it does occur to me that in its insistence on Carrie's neurotic behaviour, the show has it both ways, presenting a strong female character who's driven crazy trying to succeed. It may be that the point is it's a man's world, and its corruptions would drive anyone insane, but that interpretation is also tempered by her love for Brody, which renders her all marshmallowy in the end. It is also reflected in other women characters: Aileen Morgan, (Marin Ireland) the American woman working for Al-Queda, who kills herself rather than spend her life as a tortured prisoner in a mainland Guantanemo, or the Vice President's wife, who knows how the game is played, as an adjunct of the males. The most telling character, however, is the British journalism student cum Al Queda operative Roya Hammad (played by Zuleikha Robinson) who, after she is captured, has to listen to Carrie telling her all the great things she has to look forward to in life without Al Queda—and then spits out her defiance and her disgust at Carrie's lack of understanding what her 'enemy' is all about. It was as powerful as Morgan's suicide—and presumably wouldn't be needed in Zero Dark Thirty.

Among the actors it was a good day for the British Lewis brothers. Daniel Day-Lewis won for Lincoln, and Damien Lewis for playing Brody in Homeland. I can't comment yet on ' Lincoln, but I wonder if comparing Day-Lewis' career to Spencer Tracy's might be apt (for example, Northwest Passage vs Last Of The Mohicans). Damien Lewis seems to specialise in playing American characters who are trying to draw on inner reserves in the face of being asked to do things they might have found impossible not long before. In Homeland, particularly in the second series, his visible breakdown was almost a parallel to Danes' in the first series; theirs may be the relationship most ripe for psychoanalysis since McMurtry met the Chief.

In the wake of this non-consequence it probably wasn't surprising that the scene get stolen by a couple of sidebars, which made the biggest and the funniest splashes in the chativerse. The biggest, of course, was Jodie Foster's acceptance speech on being given the Cecil B DeMille award. CB, were he alive today, would be rolling over in his grave. Foster's rambling 'j'accuse' appeared to be blaming the press in general for making her not come out when she was out, or maybe the opposite, and perhaps using the stage to complain about the attention she's received. Not for nothing did her dress appear to be made of chain mail. It's hard to escape the idea that Jodie might have been saying she'd like back the lifetime for which she was being given her award. In fifteen years, I fully expect Claire Danes to be making the same speech.

The more amusing moment for the Globes actually came the next day, in a New York Times blog written by Alessandra Stanley, whose take on the awards was headlined 'A Salute To Girl Power' and boasted the following lede:

At a time when President Obama is under attack for appointing so many white men — and so few women — to senior positions in the White House, Hollywood seemed intent Sunday on correcting the imbalance at the Golden Globes. 

Apart from the wave of nausea, if I understand this correctly, 'Hollywood', in the person of 90 foreign journalists who work there, tried to correct an 'imbalance' in the American government by hiring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to host their show. Leave aside the idea that the President was somehow obligated to replace Hilary Clinton was another woman, or that he actually tried to and had the idea shot down from all sides; this vacuity is remarkable on a couple of lesser levels. First off, the idea that hiring Tina Fey, who after all was the best Republican candidate in the 2008 elections and is one of the funnist people out there, needs to be explained as some sort of market correction is insane. It should be taken for granted and pass without notice that Tina Fey should be hosting. But even more stunning is the assumption that her hosting the inanity of a second-tier self-congratulatory award show somehow would rebalance the perceived faults of the United States government. 'Oh, no woman is secretary of state, but that's OK because TWO women hosted the Golden Globes!'. The logical next step would be to demand that Obama nominate either Jessica Chastain or Claire Danes to become head of the CIA!
 



Tuesday, 15 January 2013

EVAN CONNELL: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Evan S Connell is in the Guardian, you can link to it here. It is pretty much as I wrote it, apart from North Point Press being called a small 'outfit', which somehow seems lessening the impact of what was one of my favourite smaller publishers (though they would have probably enjoyed it). Interestingly, some of the other obits out there were saying North Point had published Mrs. Bridge in 1959, but they weren't around then, and the novel, like his first book of stories, was published by Viking. The main thing cut out was a reference to one of Connell's relationships, with the singer Gale Garnett, who remained his close friend. I was hoping (without writing it in) that people might make the connection to her hit song, 'We'll Sing In The Sunshine', in the context of his life.

It would have been great to have more space to discuss Son Of The Morning Star, which remains to me the best study of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I'd also recommend Douglas C Jones' novel The Court-Martial Of George Armstrong Custer, which I believe I read around the same time, although it was published earlier. It's a central story in the American myth--where the greatest tropes are mainly about losses: The Alamo, Custer's Last Stand, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickock, as if to emphasise the violence and somehow portray us as innocents in the face of it.

Mrs. Bridge is a great novel, Mr. Bridge suffers a bit by comparison. The film may actually be a bit better than I implied; Paul Newman is impressive in the way he tries to stiffen his interior, but it makes the character somewhat one-dimensional. Joanne Woodward nails Mrs. Bridge totally. I recall feeling it was the casting of the daughters, particularly Kyra Sedgwick, and Margaret Welsh, that hurt; they play it even more one dimensional (and somewhat anachronistic) than Newman.

But thinking about it, it may be that Connell was a better essayist, even in the long-form, than novelist; you could argue that his fiction is best in the short story form, where the emotional detachment doesn't dominate, keeping the characters at arm's reach from the reader. His talent was at its most impressive in the way he could perceive and analyse, get under the surface of hard-to-see things and render them comprehsenible through beautiful prose controlled as carefully as his most restrained characters. He was a great writer.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

ALAN FURST'S NIGHT SOLDIERS

Night Soldiers was the 1988 novel in which Alan Furst began to work the territory which through him we now know so well: Europe in the 1930s, in the build up to World War II, and in the early years of that war. It's fascinating because a number of the characters from this book will pop up again – particularly in his next novel Dark Star, but Ilya Goldman recurs four times—but also because this novel is presented in a series of four episodes, starting with the recruitment and training of Bulgarian Khristo Stoianev to the Soviet NKVD, and through the Spanish Civil War, pre-war Paris, and the efforts of the French Resistance during the War. In a sense, it encapsulates all the concerns which would come to define Furst's later works, not least the sense in which putative allies can often be one's worst enemies.

The most successful of the four is called 'Blue Lantern', set during the Spanish Civil War. But for the fact that the back story of some of the characters has been filled in by the previous section, this actually reads like a excellent short story, beginning and ending with the olive trees of San Ximene, a metaphor which works without being overbearing. Of course it isn't self-contained; it has set the stage for the story to move on, and for other characters who will come back, but I found it instructive both as a story and as an indication in just how well Furst makes this episodic approach work.

Furst is often compared to Eric Ambler, and sometimes to Graham Greene, and there is validity in each, but that is more the surface of the stories. When you go underneath, the better comparisons might be to LeCarre, and that is the other thing that makes his writing work. It's the way situations exist in flux; assignments, betrayals, relationships. Stoianev may not be Furst's most-fully delineated character, but that suits the style. His very identity is constantly morphing, his nationality, his allegiances, his dreams. Even the most deep personal anchors turn out to be ephemeral, at least in reality, if not memory or emotion. That is the beauty of Furst's writing, and if this is not the most polished example, it is certainly a many-faceted jewel of a story.

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst
Orion Phoenix (2009) £7.99 ISBN 978-0753826355



Tuesday, 1 January 2013

ELMORE LEONARD'S HOMBRE

I'd never read Hombre, probably because I knew the movie so well that it never occured to me to go back and seek it out after I'd exhausted all Elmore Leonard's other westerns, and the magnificent collection of his western stories. But I came a across a copy recently, and read it as a little Christmas treat for myself. It turned out to be more of a Christmas treat, it's a superb novel, whose strong points typify what makes Leonard so good.

The biggest difference from the film version is that Leonard's story is told from the point of view of a young man, whose job with the stagecoach company that's closing down of the local office provides the starting mechanism for the plot. Carl is extremely naive, and not very courageous, and he's the one who has the rifle in the book's climactic scenes, and his version of events that is the only one being told. He's a more dependable narrator than, say, Charles Portis' Mattie in True Grit, which came a bit after Hombre and might well have been influenced slightly by it. The obvious influence on Leonard is Stagecoach, which similarly puts the passengers together on the stage, and includes one figure of authority who's fleeing with an agenda of his own.

John Russell, raised by Apaches, is the hero, and he's a quieter character in Leonard's version, remembering that it's Carl's perception that is passed down to us. In the film, Carl turns into a young man who's leaving with his wife, along with the woman (Diane Cliento) who ran the boarding house Russell inherited and which he's closed down. You can see how the movie involves Russell more in white society even before he gets on the stage--in Leonard's book it's not a decision he's fully embraced yet--and the Cilento character becomes a woman who was kidnapped by Apaches and lived with them for two months. This serves to heighten both the racial tension and debate, and also to emphasise Russell's ultimate decision when it comes to the codes each race lives by. Leonard's Russell is less knowable (again, remember, we are at the mercy of our narrator), and his actions more matter-of-fact than the film's star; Newman plays him far more Christ-like at film's end. But then he is Paul Newman; when you read the description of Russell's blue eyes you realise Newman was almost perfect for the role, and he plays with almost the restraint it requires, although in the end it always seems improbable that Paul Newman would be turned away from anything, even if he were an Indian.

Where the movie is superior in in the villains. Frederic March and Richard Boone are each, in their own ways, hams at heart; March draws out every drop of venal hypocrisy from his portrayal of the corrupt Indian agent Favor. His slickness contrasts perfectly with Boone's sandpaper roughness; just as Boone's bombast and earthiness contrasts with Newman's restraint. Boone's best roles were as likeable villains (see The Tall T), and he injects Grimes (called Braden in the book; the name is shifted to Cameron Mitchell's outlaw in the film), with a perfect mix of cruelty, charm, and slyness. Between them Favor and Grimes define the bit of white civilisation not defined by women. Barbara Rush, as Audra Favor, makes the most of what is a rather thankless role, but the better she plays it, the more difficult and telling Russell's final decision becomes.

Unlike the original film version of 3:10 To Yuma, where an entire backstory was tacked onto Leonard's movie, filling it out brilliantly (what the remake did is another story!), the film follows the book pretty faithfully, and is all the better for that. But it inevitably has to show things Leonard lets you intuit for yourself; he builds his characters by letting them say and do, and letting you compare those things. That you are placed behind the eyes of a naive young man probably tells us more about ourselves, as readers of, or perhaps believers in, the myths of the West than we need to know, and that's what makes Hombre so brilliantly discomforting.

Hombre by Elmore Leonard
originally published by Ballantine in 1961
Orion Phoenix Books, £8.99 ISBN 9780753819111