Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Django Doesn't Deserve Its Oscars

Django Unchained won two Academy Awards on Sunday night, one for Christoph Waltz as Best Supporting Actor, and one for Quentin Tarantino for writing the Best Original Screenplay. The film deserves neither – spoilers ahead.

Why Django won its Oscars isn’t all that hard to figure out. Around Christmas, Lincoln was the favourite to sweep all before it as one of those classically Oscar-worthy movies, like Ghandi or A Man for All Seasons. And then two things happened. Firstly, Argo built up momentum and chimed with the inherent US patriotism that saw the Academy Award go to The Hurt Locker ahead of Avatar a few years ago. Secondly, people began to realise that Lincoln, while worthy, is deathly, deathly dull.

Lincoln is three hours of CNN political reporting. It’s one of those movies that will be shown in secondary school history classes from now until Doomsday, while the pupils nod off silently in the dark through generation after generation.

However, the issue of slavery was in the air and Django must have collected a lot of votes as a second-best option for Hollywood to show that actors are aware that slavery is wrong. And Tarantino has been the most exciting director since the young Scorsese in the 1970s so how bad if he gets his moment in the spotlight?

The problem is that Django just isn’t that good. It’s not bad, but it’s heartbreakingly disappointing. And it’s heartbreakingly disappointing because Django could have been the best US slavery movie since Gone with the Wind, and Django’s failure to realise that potential, having been so very close, stings more than if it had not been so very close to glory. We can forgive a popcorn movie for being a popcorn movie because it never pretends to be anything else, but Django is a lost masterpiece, and that should not be celebrated on cinema’s greatest night.

By the start of Django’s fourth act, when Django and Dr Schultz have met Calvin Candie and are making their way to Candieland to free Django’s wife, Broomhilda, the film is outstanding. Truly outstanding. We eagerly await further twists in the tail as master of puppets Tarantino pulls our strings.

But that’s not what we get. That’s not what we get at all. What we get instead is a cheat, a massive cop-out, an utterly phony and completely wrong deux-ex-machina where Tarantino forces one of his characters to break character to facilitate a plot point. All suspension of disbelief is lost at this point. We realise that Tarantino is struggling. That his decline is continuing, and that he will never achieve the maturity that his early career promised.

This is the spoiler. Final warning.

The problem with Django is this. By the end of the fourth act, Django and Dr Schultz have won. Calvin Candie has signed Broomhilda’s letters of freedom, and is taking no steps to avenge himself on our heroes over their attempt to con him. None. It’s a clear win for Django, Broomhilda and Doctor Schultz, and there is nothing to stop them living happily ever after.

Nothing except the half an hour of film that Tarantino has yet to fill. Who knows what his original plans were – a massive slave fight, familiar to fans of cobble-fighting here, perhaps. But he found himself stuck at this point, and escapes his spot by having Dr Schultz behave as we cannot imagine him behaving heretofore.

It’s utterly out of character for Dr Schultz to refuse to shake Calvin Candie’s hand after their deal is done. He’s been in the South for years – he’s shaken hand with worse men than Candie. Equally, he’s seen slaves maltreated before – why would he break now? Because he hears Lara Lee playing Für Elise on the harp and it breaks his heart? I think not. He’s seen and done too much to get sentimental now.

The only reason Dr Schultz breaks, refuses to shake Candie’s hand and eventually shoots him is because Tarantino knows this film has to end on a bang, not a whimper, and this is either the only way he can do it, or because Tarantino was too lazy to figure out another ending.

And the whole film falls away to pieces after that. There’s a good scene between Stephen (and if anyone was getting an Oscar for this, shouldn’t it have been Samuel L Jackson?) and Django in the barn after Calvin’s shooting, but Django’s escape from hapless Aussie larrikin slavers is worse than pathetic. Tarantino should be better than this, and he’s not.

As for Christoph Waltz, he seems a nice man and I hope he’s enjoying his time in Hollywood and making every dollar he can. The astonishing, and not very cheering in terms of the culture, thing about Waltz is that he’s now won two Oscars for playing the same character, The German with the Curl. When he’s good, freeing slaves in the ante-bellum South, he’s very, very good, but when he’s bad – being a Jew-hunting Nazi, say – he’s horrid. And if that’s not ham, then I’m Kevin Bacon.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Joe Brolly and the Problem of Perspective

Joe Brolly is misunderstood. Much of this is his own fault, of course. He wants to be misunderstood. There is an impish streak in Brolly. He finds it extremely hard to resist divilment. We saw it during his playing career, when he blew kisses to the crowd after scoring a goal. We see it now again on the Sunday Game, when puts a match to a stick of dynamite and then pretends to be surprised at the resulting explosion.

Brolly’s attitude is fundamentally different to the other agents provacateurs on the RTÉ Sports payroll. Eamon Dunphy and George Hook are professional irritants. They have made such names as they have by insisting that black is white and holding firm on that belief in the face of facts or evidence.

Dunphy and Hook have to do it because, if they were to lose the punditry gig, it’s not like Google or Facebook would come running to get them to write a few yards of Java or C++. Brolly is different; Brolly is a QC. He doesn’t need the pundit gig. He does it because he likes it. He does it because there’s a part of him that craves the attention. It’s the same part that made him blow the kisses, even when he knew his corner-back was likely to take the gesture the wrong way.

Brolly is different too in his attitude to the game on which expounds. Hook and Dunphy claim to be great lovers of the game, and make much of having seen an exceptional display by a brontosaurus at stand-off half/the hole behind the front two back in old God’s time, and it’s a perpetual disappointment to both men that none of these modern Jessies can fill that brontosaurus’s admittedly enormous boots.

Brolly doesn’t really do that schtick. Brolly talks about football and he knows about football but he keeps it in its context, as only a game. As only one part of the rich tapestry of life. And Brolly’s donation of a kidney to someone he hardly knew last year is proof that Brolly does see the big picture and, in that big picture, surely walks with the angels.

Unfortunately, the big picture is problematic for the Mayo football public. Mayo can only see two things – Sam, and bleak and utter hopelessness. Nothing else. Sam they’ve seen on the telly. Bleak and utter hopelessness they live with every day.

Big picture wise, Brolly is correct. Football is only a game. But equally, Brolly can see the big picture because he was sated during his football career. Some believe the Derry team of the early 1990s should have won more than one All-Ireland but at least they did win that one All-Ireland. Joe knows what it’s like to be an All-Ireland Champion. He has that warmth to temper and add perspective to his views, to help him relax.

Mayo people know no such temperament. All they know is the Fiend. The Fiend that visits every night and whispers “if only he’d sent off McDermott … if only someone had levelled Lacey … if only this fella had done that … if only that fella had done this.” If, if, if.

Martin “Glory” Storey, hero of the Model County, was profiled on Laochra Gael some years ago. In the early ‘nineties, the Wexford hurlers couldn’t win a raffle. They lost sixteen finals in a row, between Leinster and the National League. The National Leagues, if anything, were worse, because it’s not like anybody cares who wins it. But Wexford couldn’t even manage to win a title nobody wanted, reaching a nadir in 1993 when they took Cork to two replays and still couldn’t fall over the line.

Storey was smiling as he reminisced about those finals. But Storey wasn’t smiling because he’d been talking to Joe and reading Kipling and treating triumph and disaster just the same. After those sixteen loses, Storey’s Wexford finally did win Leinster in 1996, and then went onto to win the All-Ireland.

Storey’s smile may have been partly due to bonhomie and good will to all, but your correspondent will bet Grafton Street against a two-bed apartment in Gorey that Storey’s particular smile was fueled by the presence of a little celtic cross in the dresser, on the wall or inside the hip pocket. Just like the one Joe Brolly himself has.

Without that celtic cross, would Storey have been so wry in his reminiscences? Would he have spoken so easily about all those finals? Or would his haunted and hollowed out look be like that one most Mayo men see in the mirror on the fourth Monday in September?

The people of Mayo would like to look on those twin imposters, triumph and disaster, just the same. But they really need to triumph before they can realistically compare it to the disaster they’re all too familiar with, and that hasn’t quite clicked yet. So, if their outlook seems especially gloomy, if they seem particularly irritated by Joe Brolly in a way they shouldn’t, reader, forgive them. They have no other cheek left to turn.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

St Malachy's Prophecy, the Last Pope and the End of the World

In the first half of the twelfth century a pilgrim to Rome was granted a vision – the next one hundred and twelve popes were shown to him in a dream, after which would come the ending of the world. If that prophecy is correct, yesterday’s news of Pope Benedict’s resignation means that there’s just one more Vicar of Rome to go and then it’s so long, been good to know you.

The pilgrim in question was one of our own – St Malachy, Primate of Armagh. He went to Rome in 1139 to petition the then pope, Innocent II, to recognise Armagh and Cashel as being suitable to become metropolitan archdioceses. While in Rome, Malachy received his vision, the parade of the popes starting with Celestine II, Innocent II’s successor, all they way to the successor of Benedict XVI, whose reign will begin around St Patrick’s Day this year.

Malachy described his vision of the popes in pithy Latin phrases – pastor et nauta (pastor and sailor), flos florum (flower of flowers), and so on. All except the last man. The last pope Malachy explicitly named as Petrus Romanus, Peter the Roman, about whom Malachy makes the longest, and most devastating, of all his remarks: "In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church there will reign Peter of Rome, who will feed his flock amid many tribulations; after which the seven-hilled city will be destroyed and the dreadful Judge will judge the people. The End."

The End, indeed. And this is where it gets interesting. After he received his vision, Malachy’s prophecy was never heard of again for four hundred years. Malachy returned to Ireland, and died nine years later.

The prophecies were first discovered in 1590, in time for that year’s conclave. The story was that, after receiving his vision, Malachy presented the list of his successors to Innocent II, as a consolation to Innocent during a particularly fraught time for the church, what with anti-popes in Avignon and crusades and all the rest of it. Innocent placed the list in the Vatican archives for safekeeping, and there they stayed for the four hundred years until their reappearance in 1590.

Sceptics – and they’re out there – contend that Malachy’s prophecy was hidden for four hundred years because it had yet to be written. As ever, there were shenanigans taking place at a conclave, and a nephew of Pope Julius III fancied the job when it became vacant in 1590. His name was Girolamo Simoncelli and the fact he was from Ovieto, which means old city, made him completely papabile if the next man up had been described in the prophesy as “ex antiquitate urbis,” from the antiquity of the city.

Simocelli didn’t get it the triple tiara though. Niccolò Sfondrati was crowned Gregory XIV instead. The Sfondratis were nobles of long-standing in Milan which, you could argue, is more semantically fitting as from the antiquity of the city, rather than from the antique city. If you were so inclined.

One of the arguments in favour of forgery is that the match between the popes before 1590 is quite obvious while it’s something a stretch for the popes after then. But that’s not accurate – some of the anti-popes are listed and some are not. If you were forging in 1590, surely you’d chose to leave them all in or leave them all out?

It’s also a thing that the list of modern-day popes isn’t a bad fit at all for the prophecy. Of course, when you’re taking a phrase and trying to hook it back onto someone you’re being lead in a particular direction rather than seeing all of the facts. And again, we’re talking about a prophecy from a time when they still dunked witches.

But still. It’s interesting that the thing has persisted for so very long. There is a story that refuses to die that Cardinal Francis Spellman, a former Archbishop of New York, was a big fan of the prophesies of St Malachy.

Aware that the next man up after the death of Pius XII in 1958 had been described as “pastor et nauta,” shepherd and sailor, Spellman is alleged to have hired a boat, filled it with sheep and sailed it up and down the Tiber, all in the hope of a rub of the relic.

Angelo Roncalli was crowned John XXIII instead. John XXIII convened Vatican II, the famous pastoral summit of the sixties. Before being crowned pope, Roncalli was Patriarch of Venice, a town noted for boats and maritime activity.

John XXIII was succeeded by Paul VI, who sported a fleur-de-lis on his papal arms. Malachy describes him as “flos florum” – flower of flowers.

John Paul I’s papacy lasted 33 days. Slightly longer than a half-moon (“de meditate lunae”), but a pretty short spell nonetheless.

John Paul II was born during a solar eclipse. His tag is “de labore solis” – of the eclipse of the sun.

Benedict’s XVI description in the prophesy is “gloria olivae,” the glory of the olive. The olive is the symbol of the Benedictine order.

And now, Peter the Roman. Whatever about the Roman part, it’s deliciously interesting to note that one of the early favourites to succeed Benedict XVI is the current President of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, His Eminence Cardinal Peter Turkson.

I don’t know about you, but I’m dressing for showers of frogs, locusts and assorted pestilence from here on in.

FOCAL SCOIR: If anyone is degenerate enough to bet on a conclave, my tenner is going on Angelo Scola, former Patriarch of Venice and current Archbishop of Milan, at 8/1 or so. That’s good pedigree in a papal election and, like Kerry in any given year, the Italians want their birthright title back.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The Pietà of Irish Catholicism

There was a curious reaction on Twitter to yesterday’s Magdalene Laundry report. Some people thought it was a cover-up, which is fair enough, but it seemed that some others were disappointed that the history of the country was insufficiently horrible. Which seems a strange way of looking at it.

There are a number of issues in contemporary Irish life which all boil down to the same thing - the breakup of the sixteen hundred year love affair between the Irish nation and the Roman Catholic Church. There are people who are passionate advocates on either side of the gay marriage, abortion or schooling debates but it seems reasonable to guess that most people will divide up according to how they feel about the faith of their fathers.

George MacAuley Trevelyan published a shortened version of his epic History of England in the late 1930s, when National Socialism was on the rise in Europe and he wasn’t even sure that his civilisation would even survive. There’s a real sadness when he writes about Ireland; it was a genuine puzzle to him why the Irish couldn’t get with the program and integrate into the United Kingdom, just as the Welsh and Scots had done.

The reason why, of course, is religion. There may have been an outbreak of ecumenism during the time of the United Irishmen, but the identification of Ireland with Catholicism has been a constant theme of Irish history since Henry VIII got the glad eye from Anne Boleyn.

The Church’s own history towards the eight hundred years of oppression is an interesting one, with a certain amount of running with hares and hounds. The Norman Invasion was sanctioned by Pope Adrian IV. It was only when the English started claiming church lands and putting prices on priests’ heads in the sixteenth century that the church changed its mind on that policy.

By the time of Catholic Emancipation, the Church was quite happy with the status quo, until they saw the British Education Act as act of Protestant proselytism, and didn’t care for it. And then came the Rising and the Civil War and partition, and the emergence of a Catholic state for a Catholic people in the south and a Protestant state for a Protestant people and everyone was happy. Except any poor mug who should have been in one but ended up born into the other. He or she had no great time of it.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, David Trimble admitted that Northern Ireland was a “cold house” for Catholics. It was none too toasty for Protestants in the south either, as the triumphalism that is one of the baser strains of the Irish character abounded. Anyone who doubts it should read Pat Walsh’s excellent and humiliating Curious Case of the Mayo Librarian, the sad story of Letitia Dunbar-Harrison, and realise just how shabbily the Irish nation treated freedom when we got it.

And, having sown the wind, the Church is now reaping the whirlwind. The revelations of abuse have been too much to bear for a people who once thought nothing of gathering at Mass rocks in the wind and rain. And, like all spurned lovers, the people’s need for vengeance is now bloody and insatiable.

Perhaps the most bizarre thing of all is that the small band who do defend the church defend what they consider the Vatican II church, the church of the sandal-wearing priest with his guitar and his beard and his “please, just call me Eddie” shtick. They think it connects with people, when all it connects with is Craggy Island. Feck.

One of the features of the Catholic Church is that it is meant to be the same all over the world, but it’s not – every country puts its own particular stamp on things. In Ireland, for instance, there are none of the ornate churches that you see in Europe. It was a much more monastic church, with emphasis on penitence and suffering – Croagh Patrick and Lough Derg have always done business. It’s hard to see how this particular flavour of Catholicism sits with Father Eddie singing Bind Us Together, Lord.

But then, perhaps to be Irish is to live with contradiction. It is unusual, with the country still mired in recession and questions about its sovereignty being both very real and very unanswered, that the death agony of the Church is so important to us and permeates so much of public debate. I guess it’s always hard to say goodbye.

Friday, February 01, 2013

An Bás nó an Ghlóir ag fanacht ar na Gaeil i gCaerdydd

Tá daoine na Breataine Bige ana-chosuil lenár ndaoine féin cois Laoi. Agus siadsan ag dul go maith, táid i gcónaí ag labhairt faoi chomh mór atáid. Agus siadsan ag dul go dona, táid is gcónaí ag caint faoi chomh tragóideach é an scéal, seacht uair níos measa ná aon tubáiste riamh. Athraíonn na nótaí, ach leanann an port go deo.

Agus is iontach é. Tá trí thír sa ndomhain ina bhfuil an rugbaí mar chreideamh na daoine, agus is iad an Nua-Shéalainn, an Afraic Theas Bhán agus an Bhreatain Bheag. Tá airgead a dhóthain ag na tíortha móra, ach níl amháin a saoirse féin ag na Breatnaigh bhochta. Níl acu ach an rugbaí, agus bíonn a n-imreoirí i gcónaí á ghoideach uathu ag daoine eile. Ó lucht an rugbaí sraithe ins na laethanta imithe, nuair a d'imigh Terry Holmes nó Jonathan Davies thuaidh ag imirt ar son an phingin in ionad na glóire, agus le déanaí ón Fhrainc, agus sparáin mhóra na gclubanna mór ansin. Tuilleadh faoi sin níos déanaí.

Cé gurb iadsan Seaimpíní na Sé Náisiún anois, agus don triú uair as seacht mbliana, tá croithe na mBreatach istigh ina mbróga arís. Theipeadar i rith camchuairte an tSamraidh agus arís ins na cluichí sa bhFómhar, tá a leath-chulaí amach gortaithe don seasúr agus tá a n-imreoirí is fearr ag imirt thar sáile. Bíonn siad cráite tuirseach nuair a fhillean said abhaile agus faitíos gearr i gach croí Breatnaigh go bhfuil scríosadh, agus fíor-scríosadh, i ndán dóibh an bhliain seo.

Ag tosnú le cuairt na nGael an Satharn seo chugainn. Tá an tuairim amach gurb é an cluiche seo an cluiche is tábhachtaí do Declan Kidney ón am ar cheapadh é sa gcéad uair mar choitseálaí na hÉireann. I ndáiríre, bíonn gach cluiche a n-imríonn na Gaeil an cluiche is tábhachtaí do Kidney. Deirtear go bhfuil sé ró-dhílis lena imreoirí, agus go bhfuil easpa radharc aige ó thaobh an rugbaí ionsach. Ach tá Kidney tar éis Jamie Heaslip a cheapadh mar chaptaen na foirne in ionad Brian O'Driscoll, agus a gcéad cáibíní a thabhairt do Simon Zebo agus Ian Gilroy, cúnna na gcliathán, in ionad roghanna níos coimeádaí mar Keith Earls nó Andrew Trimble.

Tá todhchaí na hÉireann dorcha, ceart go leor. Is léir anois go bhfuil an ghlúin órga thart anois, agus an t-aon dóchas fágtha ná go seasfaidh sláinte an Drisceoileach go dtí Camchuairt na Leon, mar tá sin tuilte aige ar a leithéid. Nuair a n-imeoidh Jonny Sexton go dtí an Fhrainc imeoidh roinnt eile ina dhiaidh, mar bheidís siad go léir ina n-amadáin thofa dá gcuireadh an méid airgid sin ar reic dóibh agus go ndiúltóidís é. Bhí an IRFU sásta go leor fánacht siar ó chumacht an margaidh nuair a thóg Laighin na h-imeoirí Chonnacht. Táid ar tí fáil amach go gcasann an rotha mór i gcónaí.

Agus níl na h-imreoirí imithe fós. Dá n-imreoidís cluiche i ndiaidh cluiche, seans go mbeidh seasúr maith ag na Gaeil tar éis an saoil. Caithfear éirigh in aghaigh na Breataine Bige ceart go leor ach dá n-éireoídís, tá Sasana agus an Fhrainc acu sa mbaile. Is iad Sasana rogha na coitianta agus thugadar scríosadh ceart do na Gaeil Lá 'le Pádraig seo caite i Twickenham, ach seans ann go dtabharfaidh Sasana bata is bóthar do na Albanaigh bhochta an Satharn seo chugainn agus go dtíocfaidh an bua mór isteach i gcinn na Sasanach. Agus má n-éiríonn leis an Gaeil luíochán a chur ar na Sasanaigh i mBleá Cliath ocht lá ina dhiaidh, osclóidh an seasúr go maith os a gcomhair ansin.

Seasann nó titeann gach rud leis an tús i gCaerdydd, ar cheann de na páirceanna rugbaí is fearr agus is draíochta sa domhan mór. Bíonn an lucht tacaíochta ag seinnt a gcuid cainticeanna roimh an cluiche, idir DelilahFir Harlech. Téann banna na Reisiminte Rioga na Breataine Beaga amach, agus an saighdiúir singil Williams Jenkins ina cheannaire acu, mar i gcónaí. Is blásta an ócáid é agus, pé scéal na Gael an seasúr seo, is ionach go leanann an sean-Chomortas glórmhar stáiriúil ar aghaidh sa ré gránna gairmiúla seo.