Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Skyline, the worst film of 2010

I don't know whether bad movie reviews ever have any effect other than encouraging people to go see the damn thing, so chances are I've just promoted this piece of shit pseudo-sci-fi flick, but you know what? If you wanna go see it, do. There's certain films which are so bad they make you lose even your basic sense of humanity towards other people which make you want to save them from wasting seven euros and two hours of their lives, and this is most certainly one of them. Besides, it keeps me off studying graph mathematics. So here goes.

Skyline is an alien invasion flick, one of those innovative emergent genres which you've probably never heard anything about before, and whatever issues of originality may arise from its choice of genre, they pale before the staggering banality of its execution. I suppose it's a good starting point if you've seen Cloverfield because, uhm, IT'S THE SAME FUCKING FILM. In both cases there's a house-party of rich wankers and top-models and suddenly aliens come and everybody dies, except that this new film loses what good there was in the original and fucks up the rest. By the way, Cloverfield is a pretty dreadful movie, so if I'm saying 'Skyline is the bad version of Cloverfield,' I'm really not paying a very high compliment at all. (If the claim needs explaining, Cloverfield wants to create an immersive film by means of that hand-held camera technique, but then it stuffs its plot and dialogue with so many screaming clichés to remind you that IT'S ALL JUST A FILM that you're pulled right out of the experience before you can even get into it).

But about the IT'S THE SAME FUCKING THING problem, it recurs often enough in Skyline that I'm going to create an acronym for it: TSFT. You'll see this appearing a couple more times.

So we open the film with the typical collection of clichés, from the white guy who is dissatisfied with his job to the loving wife who, whooops, is pregnant and tells him in the middle of the party and then goes into a hissy fit because he isn't leaping for joy (no shit lady, the guy can't afford his damn car and he's meant to take care of a child, let's throw a party - oh wait, too late). Right behind them we get the other two clichés coming out of a room where they've been banging each other: the black guy, who is the best friend of the white guy because the latter, you see, he isn't racist!, and whose destiny is death because he's black, and the pretty girl, whose role is that of whimpering throughout the film and whose destiny of course is death because she's a slut. Then there's the 'official' girlfriend of the black guy, who is a bitch (not in the profligate sense, she's just really annoying, which is meant to 'excuse' the black guy for cheating on her with the slut, although the slut is exempt from such moral generosity of course), and a generic, emotive white guy who is (presumably?) the actual boyfriend of the slut. Ten minutes into the film, and we've established three love triangles we do not care about. This is going well.

As though we didn't already know by this stage that we're headed into one massively inbred movie, the director gives us an appetizer of the kind of mentality that we're going to have to endure by a rabid assertion of homophobia. Emotive guy is 'entertaining' everyone at the party by pointing a telescope (connected to a giant TV) at the neighbouring windows and trying to catch someone having sex. I don't know how something so fucking perverted could pass for endearing party-games when they should all be locked up and hung on the nearest tree the next day, but anyway. He catches this guy's face who's obviously on the receiving end of a blowjob, and when the other head comes up, it turns out, hold your breath, that it's another guy. Personally it struck me as the most predictable thing, but still everyone at the party starts yelling and laughing and going all icky, because homosexuality is sooo funny and sooo disgusting (then why are you pointing your telescopes to it in the first place, you fucking morons) while Emotive guy stands there gaping like he's just seen aliens landing on earth. The irony isn't lost on me nor on anyone else, though when aliens actually *do* land on earth no-one seems half as surprised (the clichés are so powerful that even the clichéd characters themselves have gone dull to them).

So the aliens land at night, the blue light attracts Emotive guy to his doom, and we find out the 'twist,' guys, the thing that makes this film 'original.' The idea is that the aliens hypnotise you by means of this blue light. OOOOHHHH I SEEEE!!!!! The directors want to make sure we don't miss out on the particular cleverness of this, so they have the characters remind us. It's 'ingenious,' says Pregnant-girl, looking into the camera. Uwe Boll, take notes.

So the rest of the film is basically these guys trying to survive in the condo while the aliens wreak havoc. Their ideas are never much smart: first the black guy wants to take everyone to the yacht (rich sons of bitches, of course I'm supposed to identify with these assholes when I can't afford a hoover), Pregnant-girl vehemently disagrees and says they should not be doing that nor 'waiting here to die' either, not that anyone knows what the fuck else she's proposing, but the white guy agrees with the black guy, so they go out. There, half of them get sucked off, pardons, sucked *away* by these slimy bug things who suck brains out like it's TSFT as Starship Troopers and who fly around in capsules like it's TSFT as Independence Day (hard to believe anyone would go to the length of copying the creative ideas of that film, that's like trying to steal the dialogue from a silent film, there just isn't any). Then they all run back into the building, being saved in passing by the next cliché, the Tough Guy. Said Tough Guy is a bearded guy with a beer-belly who was the chief security of the building or something and who goes around insisting to our protagonist that 'this is real' and that he has to face up to the situation.

We get some shots of the military attempting to take down the aliens and failing (they throw an atomic bomb on them which somehow destroys the ship and leaves Los Angeles intact, which is absurd, but then the creatures inside the ship didn't even die, which is even more absurd, but by this stage we might as well be reading Beckett). Then the protagonist suggests they should all go back to the yacht, and the girlfriend looks at him bewildered, I mean, 'after what happened last time?' The protagonist looks at her with puppy eyes while muttering 'you say that like it were my fault' and he actually thinks it isn't, and meanwhile, just in passing, we're all wondering about a little detail: what in the name of flaming hell ARE these alien bug-things flying around?? What do they want? Where do they come from, why are they here? I mean, in the entire film they just land and kill everything and we're never told anything else as to what they are or want. They seem to have no civilisation, no culture, no coherent biology. They might as well be coming from the centre of the earth or from another dimension or from hell or from the projection of the human psyche or from the books of Armaggeddon or from some poltergeist gone wrong or from some ancient pharaoh's curse or from literally whatever. There isn't a single line of explanation.

Perhaps the only thing that seems to give them a casus belli is that they suck out human brains so that they can put it into their own creatures and make them live. Take a minute to soak in just how absurd this is from any scientific point of view. A species evolved in heavens knows which remote corner of which galaxy or temporal dimension is somehow dependent for its reproduction on, uhm, the human neurological system, which has only been in existence for a couple of hundred thousand years anyway? This is beyond any degree of stupidity!! And if they're so advanced as to create ships capable of spontaneously rebuilding themselves from an atomic explosion, wouldn't they already have brains far more bad-assed than ours? And then there's that process of 'instant transplant' where they just rip out a brain and insert it into their bodies and, hey presto, it's working for them just fine, what do you think it is, a phone card, and why the hell are they glowing like armbands when they're pulled from... oh FUCK IT.

So everyone dies but for the two protagonists, but not before the Tough Guy gets the single biggest cliché in the entire movie, because before dying he opens up the gas and when he's about to get sucked off, pardons, sucked *away* by an alien, he lights the match and says 'Vaya con dios, you son of a bitch.' You could hear the groans from outside the cinema, I swear.

What happens then? After the Terminator 2 TSFT mentioned above, the two protagonists get sucked up into the alien space-ship. We get a number of shots of different cities in the world run over by the aliens, so it's one of those depressing apocalyptic endings... but wait! We cut back to the inside of the alien ship, inside a gooey hive which is a blatant Aliens TSFT. The boy gets his brain sucked out while he's unconscious, and the girl is taken somewhere so her baby can be ripped out or something (yes, it's as disgusting as it sounds). But, when the brain of the boyfriend gets transplanted into the alien, for some utterly inexplicable and delusional reason it takes over the consciousness of the alien, and he runs to the rescue in slimy form. The girl recognises him, and we cut to credits as the 'man' gets ready to fight hoardes of aliens.

This is actually the most absurd, implausible, ridiculous and downright silly moment of the entire movie, but I'll say this if nothing else, that it's also the only bit which is kind of respectable. I mean, it's incredibly stupid, but at least it's stupid in its own way, a bit like Toxic Avenger or other splatter/horror films, rather than being a mere daguerrotype of other films seen before. It's a shade of another kind of movie, a movie which would have been wholly more stupid but also wholly more uncompromising and entertaining, one which I could have respected at least for what it was trying to be. Dostoevsky will have to forgive me for mentioning him in this review, but I think he was the one who said it's better to be stupid in our own way than clever in someone else's. Skyline doesn't have the courage to be either: mostly, it's just stupid in other people's way, a waste of your time and money and generally a disgrace to the genre, to the medium, and to the possibility of intelligence in the universe. Maybe we really do deserve to be invaded.

And with that, I've wasted my good hour and a half of the day. Now I'm off for some cookies.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Saint Petersburg, a further recollection

An over-echoing music slurred its notes in the staircase which wound, corner by corner, to the fifth floor of the hostel. I have no idea what was on the other floors. Outside the door of the third there was always a collectivity of three or four middle-aged woman, one of them very fat, sitting there and smoking cigarettes and speaking in Russian.

It was late as I walked back in, perhaps past two. The girl at the impromptu reception greeted me and I smiled at her. I took my coat off and, in passing, I said hello to the cat, whose name was Zeus (pronounced 'Zois' in Russian - the cat was the one living thing in Petersburg with whom I was not embarrassed to try the language). Noiselessly I stepped into my dormitory, pulled out my laptop from the locker, and took it to the kitchen. It was a modest place, this, which is the reason I could afford staying there for an entire month. White tiles covered the pavement like a grid and were continuously sullied by the boots of incoming residents (the girls at the reception were charged with swiping it with a mop when this happened, and they were at it all the time). A single wooden table ran the length of the kitchen, and there were no hobs to cook with, only a fridge and the cutlery. I opened my laptop on the table as I sat.

Idling about on the web, my facebook window popped with a new chat message. Ella was online. I was surprised - I'd expected her to be asleep - and I said hi. She'd been ill that day and she couldn't come out. I chatted with her about that a little. She seemed determined to come out the next day even though I urged her against it, on account of how she may fall back. She's as obstinate as she's pretty, that girl. I also wonder if it mayn't be a Russian thing - like, the impassive attitude towards cold-related illnesses, which I've already encountered in their literature and which I figure makes sense in a country where your piss can freeze into a y=x2 graph.

We came onto the subject of seduction. I joked with her, I don't remember how, that I don't like being approached by a girl who is drunk. I also told her that I'd never seen her drunk. She told me that I had, but that I hadn't realised. I asked her when. And suddenly it became clear that she had been drunk when she had been with me, in the brief window of tenderness which we'd been allowed. Forget it, she said, realising her mistake.

This isn't real, I told her, Both nights? She retracted, hastily. I was mentally inert for a moment, wondering whether to press on or not. The truth is, I didn't know what words to look for. My hands hovered over the keyboard for as long as it took me to, well, say nothing. I told her I was going to sleep. She asked me to chat a little longer, and then I left.

I folded down the laptop, then I stood up, feeling for the packet of cigarettes in my pocket, and I walked out. I passed the reception and in a few strides reached and pulled open the grey iron door. I was on the staircase again. I walked to the corner, where two chairs and a cylindrical ash-tray had been placed, and I sat.

It was the one moment when I felt truly miserable. And yet it was a quaint, self-searching misery - I didn't fully understand what had happened. I had crystallised my failure into a narrative, so far - I'd seen that I was not the prince come to claim his lady but the fool, and that my role indeed was that of the comic relief, with the function of undergoing hopeless ventures to assert, by inverse demonstration, the value of everyday life. I understood (and appreciated) myself as that figure whose comic shape was determined by the illegitimacy of his aspirations, and whose numerous tumblings consequently failed to displace sympathy from the real protagonists. Here I had come, in faith by a false promise, lured by words, and only to find that the girl whose property was all my affection had indeed not the slightest sentiment for me, had a legitimate life and flow and order of her own where I had no place nor could hope to find one. It seemed fitting, too, as I'd been convinced from the first that such a girl as that was not made for me, that it was like a Liszt piece played to peasants, and that indeed she was not part of my destiny in the first place, so why grieve if I lost her? It was such a splendid tale of imbecillity, that I wanted to write a farce about it. A cautionary comedy, perhaps. One deserves to be laughed at, at times.

But now the very substance of my equations had been taken away from me. I had so far been allowed to believe that those two open nights on Deck 8 of the MSC Opera, where the moon burned by night the same way that sunshine did by day, had been a parenthesis of fable happiness in what was otherwise a twenty-five year-old parable of incorruptible realism. I love strange countries, the blue seas which flourish with islands. Upon them I had found more treasure than ever there rested below them. And now it was all reduced to nothing, evaporated, as it were, by the peripeteia of her numb drunkenness. I was not even allowed my story. I had never made love to her, and she had felt nothing, known nothing, cared nothing. There was no syntony: we were like two radio transmissions on different wave-lengths.

It was more to my merit, naturally, because if I was mistaken about her it meant that I could not reprise my projected role as an imbecile. If there was no ideal romance to be fooled about, no heaven to provide a moral order, then there could be no tragic mistake, no story in the first place for the good or for the bad, and therefore I was no fool - not in the literary sense, anyway. And somehow the idea did not console me. How could I have been so misguided? A judgment I'd made on a person had proved not just solecistic by whichever margin but the negative of itself, the exact opposite to how things truly were.

My life has been strafed by the permutations of the heart three times to date and there shall no doubt be space for more. The first of these periods came in adolescence and was defined by its colour: it was black. The sentiment was not original and so its expression wasn't either. Everything I touched went black, everything I saw, thought or heard came reduced to charcoal, and smeared me in turn with its patterns. The second of these times was defined by weight, or lack thereof: I felt ever so very light. Even as I came to pits of unhappiness which I have perhaps not matched before and never again since, it seemed to me as though I were entirely composed of mere electrons, floating elliptically without a nucleus. More, it seemed as though everything around me were weightless, too, as though the cups, the folders, the granules on my table were at any moment to detach themselves from the desk and rise into the spaces of my room. The third time here in Russia was defined by substance. There was something cloudy about it, like a sand-storm flying somewhere over my emotional geography, though I could not have placed exactly where. I wouldn't have called it smoke, because it was not merely gaseous, but all my days were made of some friable matter which nonetheless reproduced itself to the point that its constitution never suffered any damage, and so that all of the blows I took were instantly healed and rationalised, and I knew where else to take my djinn away from the sand-storm. This time alone was painless. Even at the height of my disappointment I could not be scathed in my love for the present moment and for the things around me, not when I saw her kissing another man nor when she refused my touch, and besides, I knew the prospects from the beginning. I knew it could have turned out unfruitfully when I set off, indeed I was certain of its improbability, and I was not afraid of a failure nor of the pains that it could imply. But this - this was the only night in which I was profoundly unhappy, for not the future but the memory had been disloyally washed out, and for this I was not prepared.

I was not the imbecile. Indeed, I was nothing. Zero wounds more than negative numbers, I have to remark. I finished my cigarette and did my best to go to sleep, later on. I knew I had a lot of work to do, and I needed to be well-rested. The reconstruction of my good mood would have to start first thing tomorrow morning.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Remembering Saint Petersburg 2

No-one knows snow who has not been to Russia, I thought, remembering an old film with Sofia Loren. I was going home via broad Nevsky prospect, on the black and slippery sidewalk, at some time past three or four. Two fellows came the other way, one with a pair of drooping plastic bags in his hands, and the other said something to me in Russian when I walked up. I stopped. 'Ya ne gavarish Russki,' I emitted. There was a bitter wind, funnelled through the long vein of the Prospect. Above, the darkness seemed to go on forever past the last lamps and windows. My interlocutors managed to make themselves understood. I offered them the cigarette they were asking for, and the one who masticated some English cracked into a smile. 'Come and have a beer with us,' he said, and lifted the plastic bag towards me: I saw there were a couple of beers in it, hugging like protons in the stomach of plastic.

I followed them only a few steps further and they pushed open a pair of gates, these heavy, glass-and-steel gates, which gave into a building. Inside, it was lugubrious. The light was feeble, and the place was dirty. A beggar sat on the steps which rose towards the reception, his beard almost colourless and the skin of his hands thick like wood. Another man stood next to the beggar, not unlike my two companions.

This trio, beggar excluded, sold trinkets to tourists. They bulged out of their rucksacks, little wooden artefacts of different colours which seemed to me of no value at all. I saw a few of them were made of tissue (or something like that - I can't remember). They passed a bottle of perfectly transparent glass, holding a perfectly transparent liquid, no labels nor anything, and I took a sip too. Vodka of the most malevolent type. I passed it back and decided not to have any more. They'd already opened one of the beers and offered it to me while they shared - among the four of them - the lone cigarette I'd given them. The beer was impossible to drink - the surface was strafed with a sort of icy foam, like sorbet. No more than a trickle came out, and it was so cold it hurt to drink. The polyglot merchant took the beer from me and rested it on a thin grey pipe next to the wall, waiting for it to melt a little. I lit myself a cigarette in the meantime. When it was finished, I took the beer again, drank a few more sips of it, gave it back to them and left.

Outside, it was back in the hostile frore. I pulled my hood down and tramped back on my way. The Hermitage Museum glowed at me through the square, green and golden and candid. I turned the corner and walked by mounds of shovelled snow. My hostel was only a few minutes away.

There's a poem by Rupert Brooke where he says, if I should die, there will be a spot in foreign lands that is forever England. I have no England to die for, of course, but maybe in a certain sense that little spot is mine. Or it is the other way round - now a little bit of my past belongs to that spot, having been annexed by that little square of wet concrete. It can go either way. Anyway, wars of the spirit do not have adversaries and maps. They're campaigns against the grey, efforts to save a little place or a day or a meaning from the anonymous space that later becomes our memory (a bit like the city of Saint Petersburg itself, where a luminous centre stands steadfast surrounded by seas of undead soviet blocks in the suburbs). If it isn't a war, it's fierce all the same. And if it isn't of the spirit, it's of something else that defies taxonomy.

As for the soldiers who fight by our side, they don't need much in the way of equipment. Our allies are made where we find them.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Rant Roma Regarding - The Offence

I'm not even sure whether the hairstyles are supposed to be intentional, Vucinic for a change looks like he shaves in the dark, Borriello can never turn towards the camera without making me think of Wile E. Coyote and the way he looks when he's standing suspended after having just stepped off of a cliff (but he wore the Batman mask for a while, so I suppose he's justified, even though if Bruce Wayne had to go around like that he'd have so many people rolling on the floor laughing that the Joker would probably shoot himself). As for Totti, good luck trying to figure out what the fuck happened to his head last Thursday, he looked like one of those goofy Japanese animation characters you get in role-playing games, the ones where they have swords the size of a planet's dick and dialogue going something like [GUY:] "I'm so tough, I'm gonna make you eat your balls for breakfast!" [GIRL:] "I can see, you've got a sensitive side somewhere beneath you... stop being so insensitive and inhuman... liberate yourself from your hatred..." [OLD GUY:] "(some wise stuff)".

But the hairstyles aside, there's another problem. It may seem strange to speak of problems in a department which could probably inspire the sequel for Midget Spice's song 'It's raining men halleluja' (was her name Midget Spice? I'm sorry. Anyway she may have an even better time going to Milan, and I'm sure she'd find someone of her level in Robinho, no offence by the by).

So what's the problem? The exact same thing as in all other departments! The management decided to FOLLOW THE GLITZ, keeping in mind that OLD IS BETTER THAN NEW. And so they purchased Adriano. The guy's been deconstructed quite thoroughly, so I'll contain myself. I'm aware it's a gamble that could pay off, but as long as we're gambling, why not do so on someone young? In fact, why not simply nurture Okaka? As with Cerci, not everyone is a fan of the man. You may claim that in order for him to pay off, it would require lots of time and investment. Fine, but how much time and investment has Adriano cost us so far? Youth is a gamble by default. Buying a waning star is also a gamble, but the difference between the two things is that the former usually costs a tenth of the price of the latter. Even if we choose to forget priorities (which, again, should have gone to the midfield), we could have had a player just as fruitful for a fraction of the price.

I'm actually not even a huge fan of Borriello. I applaud management for having taken him only because he came practically for free. In truth, he underscores the managerial philosophy which I've been criticising all this time. He has been scoring very much, no doubt. But I think he's benefited from Roma's current game, not the other way round. In a team playing fresher, faster football, the type of football I'd expect from a team thinking towards the future, I don't think he'd have fared quite as well. He's a good addition to a flawed type of team - in other words, he's the right piece of jigsaw puzzle if you're building an ugly picture. He's not the kind of player I'd like to see in a team managed according to modern principles.

Incidentally, Menez is perhaps the most important player in the Roman team at the moment, and he's an example of just how much there is to gain from investment in youth. He is also the only player we can be certain will still be effective three years from now. Everybody else will be pushing age boundaries, or even crashed past them like suvs. Since we currently have five forwards in our roster (Menez, Totti, Adriano, Vucinic, Borriello), this means that in order to keep up our ranks, we'll have to buy four new forwards over the next three years. At what kind of price? Sure, Okaka and other youth products may have their comeback, but they're never going to mature and be useful until we start effing playing them. Suppose that instead of Adriano we'd purchased, say, Giovinco (I know, it's impossible with Ranieri as our coach, but then getting rid of Ranieri is part of the problem). Not only we'd have a player who would likely have been far more useful than, erm, the "Emperor" has been so far, but over the next three years, we'd have one less forward to buy, and we could have invested that money on the midfield or the defence. I mentioned Giovinco because he was the most important young star up for grabs this year, and it's unbelievable that he ended up at Parma. But he's not the only kid with potential. And as long as you're gambling, you gamble the right way - with patience and work and minimising expenses, not by FOLLOWING THE GLITZ.

Conclusions. The future.

I've outlined three paradigms which have been behind management's philosophy in the last few years. I'll state them again:


These are not minor issues which every team suffers from in a form or another. They are very serious strategic shortcomings, inaugurating problems which we shall drag along with ourselves for the next five years (if not longer). They are also all related and interdependent. You can't get rid of one without flushing out the others, because they're all rooted in the same fallacious vision of how a team should be managed, one which prizes the ephemeral over the concrete and holds immediacy to be a greater virtue than patience. Not that everything should be prospective, there's seasonal results which must be be prioritised over future investments. But neither should the present come at the expense of the future, and yes, that's what happening now, and the fact we've been doing this for the past few years is the reason we're taking damage today.

I've been one of the most vocal defenders of the Sensi oligarchy back when the ghost of Soros loomed over the eternal city, but now for the first time I find myself hoping for a change of management. In fact, I even hope to see a new Coach soon enough (not right now, obviously). I want guys above who build a team properly and a Coach below who implements their resources with modern thought and modern football. Ranieri is great at patching stuff, not at creating it. I fear the same may be true of the Sensi, ever since Franco passed away.

This team needs neither youth nor money, neither tactics nor players. It needs vision. And it's only by changing management that we're going to get that.

That's all I've got to say. Peace out.

Closing note. I've actually brought this blog back online because I'm on holiday. I don't know how long it's going to last, but while I'm here, I'm going to drop down my thoughts on the team as it develops (amid more regular posts). Should last until the end of February. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Rant Roma Regarding - The Midfield

I have no idea what this image has to do with anything

And so on to the next grand issue. The midfield. Last year saw Pizarro playing a season which was a bit like Ridley Scott's 79-84 period, absolute unrepeatable gold. I think if there's one player getting the credit for how well Roma did last year in the second half of the campionato, that's him. In terms of performances, he was the best regista in Italy, no less.

There was little doubt around Chili Smurf's being the starter again this year. I didn't agree with that, and that's why I was advocating the purchase of a new regista. In fact, I hold that this is where all the energies and resources should have been invested - not on Adriano, but in getting our hands on a regista who could truly break the mould. If you've really got to FOLLOW THE GLITZ, at least do so where it matters, in the part of the field where it's really needed. It was simply impossible to expect Pizarro to have another season at the same levels, and as far as I was concerned, it would have been great to have had him coming off the bench.

Management decided not to change this particular starter because GOOD FACTORS ARE A CONSTANT, and what else is there to say? When Pizarro went down like Apollo 13, it turns out that the most useful and functional pawn we grabbed over the entire summer mercato is, yo there bro, Simplicio, the closest thing to a regista we've got. In fairness to management, they did at least do *something* here, unlike with Riise, where they sat on the dynamite scratching their bellies. Still, Simplicio was intended as an airbag, as a safety measure for those times when Pizarro had to be rested in view of the Champions League games. Imagine if instead we'd invested on, say, Andrea Poli. As well as the performances, what kind of prospects would that offer for the next three years?

Instead, looking at the team entering the field to play Catania made me want to cry. Cassetti, Taddei, even Perrotta, and Totti, who had the most precipitous fall of form this year. All of the names whose role was to provide speed and dynamism to the team (except for Menez) were slow and dehydrated. Ranieri's been a mixed bag tactically, alternating some strokes of genius like taking off Totti and De Rossi to win the derby with some monumental fuck-ups like, well, much of the first half of this season. But one thing I don't like is his football philosophy, which weds itself perfectly to that of the higher strata of management. Like the upper echelons, Ranieri believes that OLD IS BETTER THAN NEW, and so he'll let someone like Cerci go die in Fiorentina because he prefers playing Taddei. I actually don't mind Taddei as long as he's used sparingly, and I was in awe of him in the 2006-07 season (second best player of that year after Totti, even more impressive than De Rossi). But not in 2011, goddamn it!! At least not in a team which is meant to compete for the Scudetto.

(I should also add that I'm one of the staunch defenders of Cerci, and that I realise this is a subjective matter. But yes, Cerci, like Andreolli, required patience and trust. Neither were given, and I can't blame him for leaving. If he becomes a starter for the Azzurri before the next World Cup I'll be the last to be surprised - there's so few Italian players in his specific role).

Anyway, Ranieri seems to have no problem building his teams around a very slow core, leaving the forwards kind of fending off for themselves. Unsurprisingly, the other midfielder he gave away aside from Cerci was Guberti, who was the 'other' fast midfielder we had. His tactics, for what little I've seen of them this season, seem something like "Toss that dang ball to Menez and wait till that frog-swallowing baby-faced Hugh Laurie invents something." For the rest, all of his midfielders seem to be muscular, substantial types, the kind who could be bouncers outside clubs (last November I was walking drunk through Rue de Chatelet in Paris and I walked up to this bouncer outside a pub and hoarsely yelled, 'Get out of my way, I'm someone important!' I was subject to the same identical foul that De Rossi pulled on Brian McBride in 2006). It's no cause of wonder that Greco flourished this year. There's something funny about the idea of a Greco-DeRossi-Brighi panroman midfield, but it's not really how teams should be built when they're fighting in the Champions League, where speedy football usually gets the edge.

Actually, the Champions League is the one most underestimated factor of the year. I haven't seen a single prediction which seriously took it into account as a major variable. I'm going to quote myself again, this time from the preview to Roma's 2009-2010 season, written before the summer:

The common opinion is that Roma’s objective will be to regain the fourth place. This is true, but in this case the objective belies the potential. People tend to underestimate the difference in mental and physical energy that results from playing or not playing in the Champions League. Roma, being the only great team to be excluded from that competition, will enjoy a considerable advantage over its competitors in the race for the Scudetto. We do not exaggerate when we say that next year Roma could actually win it, if luck is on their side and the referees stop gracing the big three. Roma Club Focus, 11/06/2009.

The fact that we weren't playing in the Champions League is perhaps the biggest reason why we almost won the Scudetto last year. It's the reason Inter dropped a thirteen-point lead, busy thinking about Chelsea and Barcelona. This year, the same conditions do not apply. Incredibly, no-one in either the management or the media seem to have made much of this. Roma's objectives for 2011 were drawn out as though there had been no major shift in conditions - and playing in the Champions League is a GIGANTIC differential. I'd call this an example of the GOOD FACTORS ARE A CONSTANT faux pas, but the blind spot seems to have been so widespread that I hesitate to blame it entirely on Sensi & co.

Sadly, perspectives are not too bright this year either. The team in theory has the talent to compete for the Scudetto now that it has (kind of) stabilised itself, but the tax of playing in the Champions League will produce too much damage on the long run. I'm also afraid that we won't go too far in that tourney itself. As I said, Ranieri's tactics also follow the OLD IS BETTER THAN NEW philosophy and they're old-fashioned, almost obsolete. Borriello's odd goal and Menez's talent, coupled with a talented pair of central defenders, means that he's still a tough bone to chew on. But his teams are too slow and static for a competition like the CL. Prospects are quite grim.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Rant Roma Regarding - The Defence

Ok. I've had the impression that this team was headed for dark times the moment I saw what choices they'd made on the mercato. I mean, Adriano's been made fun of so often that his mother is beginning to think of bringing it to legal terms, but that's not the point. Management philosophy says: FOLLOW THE GLITZ. And so they purchased a forward, and a star. This was, well, how to put this? A fuck-up. It reminds me of that time I sat under a bridge in Newcastle with some friends taking bets on who the seagulls would take a shit on first. The correct mercato moves, as I saw it, were a decent substitute for Riise (the guy has a face a bit like one of those reptiles you see in South America) and a real star in the midfield to take the place of Pizarro, and the foresight proved so accurate that I really wish I had the written document to prove it... oh but wait, I do!

The most urgent requirements are two players for the bench who can substitute, when needed, David Pizarro and John Arne Riise – in other words, a playmaker and left-back. Both these players have had a fantastic year and they’ll be starters again after the summer, but there is no-one to replace them in case of injury or even just fatigue. Roma Club Focus, 09/04/2010.

But management does nothing, because management philosophy says: GOOD FACTORS ARE A CONSTANT. In other words, if something works good, it's going to stay good. This is so dumb I actually feel my IQ jolting just by typing it. We'll discuss the issue of a regista later, but honestly, how the fuck can you expect Riise to keep playing like a locomotive piloted by Steven Seagall as he did the entire last year and never need to sit back, or, MAYBE, get injured?

Then the season starts and, suprise surprise, our reptilian-faced Norwegian bangs his head against a lamp or something and he's down, to the anguish of all the iguanas who support Roma, and who do we substitute him with? Mary Poppins? Jacques Costeau? Anatole France? Oh wait - Marco Cassetti.

Marco Cassetti will remain to me one of those odd, grotesque puzzles which make less and less sense the more you get away from it with age. Some time ago he used to wear his hair and moustache like Adolf Hitler, and people thought my reaction to him was aesthetic. Not at all. It's the way he plays that gets to me. He is not useful in the offence. He is not much good in the defence. He is never seen in the midfield. When everybody else is performing the offside trap, he stands there like a mongoloid, looking around himself with a tragic look of disorientation in his eyes, like a child in one of those Lassie episodes where the kid gets lost by the river and has to hang weeping on to the tree-trunk till the hyperactive collie comes yapping about in the break between yapping to four adolescents taking ecstasy and yapping to a T-Rex that got lost in Greenwood National Park or wherever. I sometimes wonder if Cassetti could walk through the wardrobe of Narnia and enter into the other world and hold a different type of expression on his face for a change. I mean, I've had my issues with Perrotta, but at least that was localised - Perrotta was great at doing everything, but absolutely terrible at shooting. Cassetti is just terrible at everything. It was particularly painful to hear that he was being employed on the left. Why on earth he's still not just in the team but a fucking starter is to me utterly mysterious.

Presumably the reason is that as well as holding to the principles of FOLLOW THE GLITZ and GOOD FACTORS ARE A CONSTANT, management are so full of illuminati that they also follow this little pearl of Tibetan wisdom, OLD IS BETTER THAN NEW. Another retarded assumption. Yay.

Marco Motta did not deserve his spot after his performances started resembling those of a toilet-seat which grew legs and started playing, but I honestly believe that Aleandro Rosi is better than Cassetti, by an arm's length and more. The fact that he's gonna get better with time while Cassetti is going to get worse is another point in his favour. And this reminds me - whatever happened to that young fella, taken from Inter, super-promising young central defender, yes? A certain Andreolli? He was sent away on loan, he had serious injury trouble, which were solved with all due patience, and last year he came back to Roma. AND HE BARELY EVER PLAYED. From what I saw, he really looked intriguing. He was thrown away. I say give him a starter's shirt this year. Yeah, and I'm not even drunk. Give him a starter's shirt over Juan or Mexes or Burdisso (fine start to the season by this last dickhead, by the way). It's a risk, of course it is, but how do you think young players are made? By throwing vitamins against their heads? No, by PATIENCE and by giving them responsibility and by taking risks. You HAVE to, sometimes. This guy wasn't a total stranger, we'd seen him play, he'd shown he had promise. Play him. Yeah, he'll make a few mistakes. He'll allow a few goals. So what. The adult defenders conceded a few stupid goals as well (a certain Juan this Sunday against Sampdoria could have been Ben Stiller, or even Fantozzi). Besides, consider again the youth factor. As time passes, the number of goals he costs you can only go down (if things go according to plan, drastically down). Those of older players will stay the same at best or start going up as they age.

But why put faith in him, right? I mean, remember the tenet, FOLLOW THE GLITZ. And if you've got to buy a new central defender, stick with OLD IS BETTER THAN NEW, so that someone like Burdisso will always be preferable to, say, Cagliari's Davide Astori, who was young, accessible and excellent.

I'm not discussing fantasy football here. I'm speaking seriously. The guy deserved to be used, even in a position as delicate as that of the centre-back. A team that starts the same crap right-back that it did five years ago and throws away the likes of Rosi, Motta, Curci, Antunes and Andreolli in the process is a team where something is seriously wrong. And the 'wrong' starts up there at the level of management.

Coming up tomorrow: The midfield. Exclamation mark!!

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Rant Roma Regarding - Prolegomenon

One of the reasons I stopped writing about football was that I'd started working as a sailor on a cruise ship. Considering I worked ten or eleven hours a day, there was little space left to watch the sport, and even less to write about it. Another reason though, or at least the thing which made the pill a little less bitter to swallow, was the fact that I knew we Italy and Roma fans were going to get our arses steamrolled like the highways of Japan in the near future, and I didn't really feel like watching it.

I'll pass on how the World Cup went for the benefit of my over-90 readership who may suffer from a stroke at the mere mention of it, but I'm thinking of this fat pianist who worked on my ship and thought he 'knew a thing or two' about football. When an Italian tells you that he 'knows a thing or two' about football what he means is that you can hear his opinion and die, so I knew I was in for some monologues. So Yoda here is sipping his Scotch at the crew bar and he tells me, with this air of casual solemnity, 'way I see it, Roma are going far this year. I see them in some serious good shape.' My response was that, way I saw it, we weren't going far enough to pick our own noses. The team suffered from some serious structural limitations and the real problem was the whole managerial philosophy behind them, which exacerbated rather than addressed the cracks in the red and yellow dam.

The guy chuckled. (Fat people are particularly exasperating when they chuckle at you). Me, I didn't say anything. But I bet him a beer for Roma's results against his. A few months later, I had so many beers on credit at that bar that I could have got half of deck 4 as drunk as a bunch of salamanders. 'I don't get it,' Yoda said, shelling out the cash, 'they had such a solid team. They improved so much. Whatever went wrong?'

Yes, whatever did go wrong? I'm going to spend the next few posts explaining why. I guess it's just for the satisfaction of getting to write about football again.

And then there's the fact of pointing out something that I never tire of pointing out. Whenever something doesn't work in a team, you get these football rednecks who start yelling like someone stole their frisbees and pointing their fingers at one particular problem. Like, Claudio Ranieri's the problem! Or, our weak attack is the problem! Or, the new plutonium toothpaste in Coverciano is the problem! Or, the fact that Marco Cassetti has been tied to a dead elephant for the last twenty years is the problem, and the fact that we've purchased another dead elephant (Adriano) on the mercato is also the problem!

No. When you lose one match, maybe there is one problem (which is why one single problem is enough to screw up an entire World Cup campaign, see Dunga's Brazil and the most rigid 4-2-3-1 in history, but anyway). When a whole half-season is going pear-shaped, then THERE'S ALMOST NEVER just one problem, it is always a COMBINATION of problems. A single problem can be solved quickly. A combination of problems perpetuate each other and require ages to be disentangled (see Spalletti's trouble in getting the old Roma back on their feet, and the time it took Ranieri to restabilise it).

At the heart of it, these problems are caused by a deeply flawed football philosophy entertained at the levels of management, one which leads to choices which, on the long run, really hurt the team. Why do I say this? Let's break it down, and let's go see exactly where the problems lie - or, more accurately, how the exact same problems re-present themselves for all departments of the team, leading to a single unified brain meltdown.

Coming up tomorrow: Part 1, The Defence.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Dom Grego

When people asked me about my impressions of D---, after the first few months I'd spent working there, my answer was always - the backstage is the more interesting bit. Two years later, I stand by that statement. The 'magical' face of D---, the facade, as it were, appears to me as a succession of small and predictable set pieces, with little or no emotional transport for an adult. But the backstage, where all the grit and energy are thrown into the dynamo, where the individual inclination clashes against the professional demands, that's something special.

My favourite spot was the 'Monster' breakroom, that is to say, the spot reserved for the breaks inbetween sets held next to Park II's 'M--- & Co.' zone. There's a long stretch of concrete inbetween a restaurant and the Cinemagique which leads to an open ground, a sort of connecting space between that part of the park and its entrance. There, strategically, a prefabricated breakroom made of glass and plastic, little more than a cagey rectangle, stands behind some vases of plants. I remember that place because my most frequently assigned character, big blue monster S---, rested there next to the smaller ones working at the entrance. There weren't many of us who played S---. The guy was so big and heavy, the head wasn't even a helmet, it was a backpack wrapped around your waist and shoulders and dangling in front of you, with the rest of the matted costume ponderously hanging from it, and the arms a pair of plastic extensions (a few, the old ones, were even made of metal). The 'feet' were enormous and the sweat you produced inside that blue fur-sack was beyond belief. You had to be 187 cm at least to play him.

Most people in that height range tried to avoid the guy, so the task fell on the few regulars who never protested. There were perhaps four of us. I actually rather liked old S---, if only because the shift on the whole was quite clement once you got the morning out of the way. The others not so much, though some of them never complained. And among the ones who never complained, there was a guy called Dominique, or Dom Grego.

Dom Grego was a big guy. He was taller than I was, which wasn't common in that place, but unlike some of my other substitutes, he was bulky as well, with meaty arms and a thick, round thorax. His skin was soft and shiny, like that of a sea-mammal. His hands perhaps betrayed him, thicker, more worn than the rest of his body, full of lines like the map of a city planned a hundred years ago and never built according to project. I got to see a lot of his skin because whenever any of us came back into that breakroom and shrugged off the artificial furs from our body, the first thing we'd do would be to throw the t-shirt into the bag (there was a black bag in a bin for used linen; we'd change t-shirts at every set). In the summer, when the air was so dry it was almost better to stay inside, we'd sit wheezing on the sofas for a few minutes in our underwear, oblivious to the fates of the little 150 cm characters who scuttled around us to get outside like Wookies, watching our counterpart as he donned his own version of the big blue bastard. Many times he saw me wheezing, my forehead pearled with sweat, and many times I saw him, gasping for breath as the mask fell over my line of sight.

I never spoke much with Dom Grego - I never spoke much with anybody but my closest friends, truth be told - but there's some reasons he sticks out in my memory. He was sweet, for one thing. He always had a smile on his face. He never complained, or never seemed to do so seriously, which was a rarity in there. He had soft, child-like eyes (something I never had twenty years ago). I said I didn't speak with him much, but when I did, it was always for a laugh.

When Fred told me a few days ago that he was decesead as a result of an epilectic crisis, the thing that came to mind was this - that in all my memories with him, we were laughing together. Not a single moment that I remember with him was sad. I'm not the best person to write a memorial for this infinitely gentle giant, not by a long shot - when I checked, his remembrance facebook group counted more than 650 contacts (and growing), and I don't think I'm among the half who knew him best - but one thing that struck me was that, whoever little I may have known him, I knew only happiness for what he brought to the people around him, and all I know to be taken away from the world, now he's left it, is this happiness. Or, to put it in terms which all who knew him will be more familiar with, his smile. That lovely big smile.

It comes to me, as I sit here in my studio, two years and a thousand kilometres from that breakroom, that I am probably the only one, barring perhaps those few other regulars, who will remember him for those particular afternoons as S---. And if that part of him only lives in my memory, it follows that that part of me only lived in his. It means that, in a sense, a little part of me died with him, too. It was the part of time that I shared with him. As I look at the hundreds of faces on his facebook memorial who joined to pay him tribute, I can only marvel at the richness of life and experience he shared with others, and I can only gape at how much of the world just died when Dom Grego was not in it anymore.

I wish to tender a little memorial here, perhaps because I have nothing else, perhaps because I cannot send over flowers or share some words with the friends he has left, perhaps because nobody else would really care that I cared. And for what it's worth, I do care. Rest in peace, Dom Grego, and thanks for your kindness. Thanks for being the one who smiled. Thanks for being my back to back. Thanks for helping me put that Genie costume on, with those impossible shoulder-pads. Thanks for not being afraid of my silence. Thanks for never complaining. Thanks for the little things. Thanks for everything. A thousand times thank you, from all of us. Now. Forever.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Remembering Saint Petersburg

I was sitting in a bar off Nevsky Prospect - the Tower Pub, it was called - and I had my usual armament spread out before me: a porcelain tea-kettle, the cup, a packet of cigarettes tossed by the crimson tissues, the Tower Bridge box of matchsticks which I called my luck, and the blue Wordsworth Classics paperback of Crime and Punishment. I'd reckoned that now that I was in Russia was as good a time as any to catch up with my Dostoevsky, and I'd been taking it to the bar to kill my long daylight hours, alongside the poetry books I was meant to review for Jon.

Holidays as I like to enjoy them are more about the night-life than they are about the day, or, for that matter, the place. I saw very little of St Petersburg in terms of art and culture in my second visit (not that the city is lacking). I did flesh out the more transient world of discos and clubs, and that with a certain assiduity. By day, though, when no-one is about and you can't really do much without also spending much, the only thing to do is to find a pub, sit there with literature and some vice (alcohol, fantasies, cigarettes, sweets or an old sorrow), and let the mind go until it forgets about time. Eventually, you also forget that you are there to forget about time. And then you put the mobile phone on the table and send random texts to people you know. Their answers are shaken out into your blue digital window over the breadth of an hour or two or three - it makes no difference, by that stage you do not remember - and when the night folds over the city, you usually have a place to go.

I made it my policy not to socialise too much with the staff. I really needed a place where I could feel welcome any time I went, and I've found that often the best way to ensure a consistent good disposition from other people is to keep your mouth shut. Besides, I didn't want to look like I came there to look for friends. The only time I made some contact with others in there, barring the times when the sun was down, I was approached by someone else. There was a cul-de-sac at the end of the pub with some tables, where I usually sat on the padded benches against the wall, my things resting on the wood in front of me. There was the best light in that corner, and I'd been meditating there for the early afternoon. Somewhere further down my right, a bulky, curly-haired figure of considerable height and weight, dressed entirely in black, sipped a beer at the languid rate of a bradypeptic. Every two or three sips he'd light himself a cigarette, held like a sword of chalk on his clothes full of night.

'That's one of the most amazing books I've ever read,' he said to me, at one point when I was lost in my thought. He spoke in perfect English, with this skirled, slightly nasal voice. His finger was pointing to my Dostoevsky. I smiled at him, looking for a discussion of any type but the literary, and quickly changed the subject. Our exchange was tentative and broken - neither of us were over-eager for a conversation, but we did not disdain the distraction. I reasoned to myself that I had several turns of the clock to go and that it wouldn't hurt to spend a half-hour now in chat with this local. We spoke vaguely about our jobs and backgrounds, he said his name was Kyle, if I remember correctly, and he was Canadian. He'd come here to Russia for business (what else? But then I know what else), and he'd worked on a ship too, in some remote past when he had no money.

'Some time ago I was coming out of the metro,' he told me, 'and I was addressed by this beggar. A bum. And I said something to him in German and he replied, also in German. I was pretty riddled to find a bum in St Petersburg who could express himself in a good German language, with no accent and all, so I asked him, howcome you speak German? And he told me, I've been here since the war. There was snow and everything. He tells me this, he tells me, I've been here since the war, and I couldn't come back, and I've been in slave labour camps and all.' He said everything in pretty much a monotone voice. We'd both lit cigarettes as he was talking. 'And after that I came here to St Petersburg, and I had no papers and all, and I was stuck. There was nothing for me here, and even if I could go back now, there would be nothing for me home. And I told him, you poor bastard. I told him, you poor bastard. This was one guy who had been through some shit.'

There was a tone of genuine compassion in his voice, not at all marred by the note of humour which rang through it (it was the enjoyment of telling a good story). When his phone trilled he answered in Russian. 'Priviet, Vassily,' he said, and stood to pace about the lounge. It was a short while later that he left, leaving me his card. It had been a pleasant chat.

I returned to my Dostoevsky, ordering a fruit beer to go with. I walked out a few hours later and I reflected with no jealousy on how ordinary, even how easy it is to find tragedy in Russia. Maybe this characterises the country more than the cold and the snotty skies. Or maybe the two things are linked in mysterious ways.

I started crushing a line of snow as I headed for the hostel, my hands curled into fists into gloves into pockets, my forehead low under the fuzzy hood. Another time, I would have cherished the opportunity. I would have called it gratifying to have the chance to let him live on a little - I'd have been under the deterministic impression which tells a budding story-teller that stories redeem, that morality has a voice, that responsibility is fulfilled by words. I guess the bum's best hope is not to be under the same delusion.

History played around with him a little, and now the only enemies which deign him with attention are the parasites of myth. (That, and the cold, of course). If he knew that I'm telling his story, or that I have the power to lift it from the snow of memory, I'm sure he'd still get it backwards. His story is an invisible house of cards, which only makes sense because it is untold. Even if I could give him immortality, I wouldn't have the heart.

Post-script. The Tower Pub has a site. Ella disliked the place, disdaining it as 'boring,' though I suspect her disinterest was cultural in its origin. Those who wish to see the setting for this story can find out a little here: http://pub-tower.ru/