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I Believe

How the US Soccer team made me love my adopted country

To get to the fields where I coach my daughter’s soccer team you drive to the edge of town and pull into a disused horse-racing track. Go past the collapsing ticket booth and park in the dirt lot, before walking through a tunnel that goes under the track and emerge on the infield, in the shadow of an abandoned grandstand.

Because this is New Mexico, the little grass we do have is in poor shape — some of the time it looks like so much dry breakfast cereal — but they do the best they can, and they’re among the best fields in town. And on Saturday mornings the infield is full of kids from the ages of four to twelve, all playing soccer while the wind whips across the high desert.

I grew up in England and as my daughter has become a football fan and player, I’ve taught her the lore and practices of football where I’m from (you’ll forgive me for calling it football from here on out, although I’ll confess that I’m becoming increasingly comfortable with ’soccer’).

She and I watch my London club Arsenal on TV on Saturday mornings before we head out to her games, and she know much more about the European leagues than she does about Major League soccer here.

Many of coaches in the league she plays in are ex-pats — there’s a Frenchman, a Romanian, another couple of English guys and some Mexicans, the full-time coaches for the club are from Spain and Russia. There’s a clear division between the Euro parents on the touchline who know what they’re looking at, and the majority of the US-born parents who encouragingly shout terrible advice: ‘Shoot it in, Sarah!’ as Sarah crosses the half-way line.

Some of the players have overseas connections, but most don’t and at times it feels like we’re coaching these kids in a foreign game — that the best athletes, at least among the boys, will age out of football and into one of the more mainstream US sports.

But my feeling that the US isn’t a football country has been changed by this World Cup, and with it, my feelings about American itself.

Like most Europeans and Latin Americans, I’ve historically taken a dim view of the quality of the football on display in Major League Soccer, and the quality of the support, seeing it as a sign that the country didn’t really get football.

We went to an LA Galaxy match last year, and it was all a bit too clean and stage-managed with designated singing zones, and pre-determined things to shout at particular times in the game. It felt forced, a clumsy combination of bits from other countries’ football cultures, with customs from other US sports thrown in for good measure.

There was no clear sense of what US soccer should be like — either in the stands, or on the pitch, where highly-paid ageing Europeans mixed with Mexican immigrants’ kids and Midwestern farm boys in a game that never really got going.

Like the Galaxy (and the girls under-12 team I coach), the US national team is also a mixture of backgrounds and cultures: combination of US-born players, German-born guys with US fathers, and a couple with Scandinavian connections. Many of the US-born players have at least one parent from somewhere else, and while star Clint Dempsey was raised in Texas with American parents, he learned to play with the local Mexican kids.

Crucially, the coach Jurgen Klinsmann, while being a German World Cup hero as a player and coach is also immigrant himself, with an American wife and US-raised son.

When done wrong, like the managed clash of supporting styles at the LA Galaxy, this global mixture can just be a mess that’s all too easy to ridicule. But I’m coming to realize, when done right, as Klinsmann has managed, this vibrant multiculturalism is what the US — a nation of immigrants — is all about.

Take a bunch of elements, combine them together with uniquely American commitment and enthusiasm. and you haven’t just got a mixture, you’ve got a compound — something more than the sum of its parts.

Anne Coulter might not like it, but could there be a more American team than one with half its players (or their parents) born somewhere else? This is what America looks like, and it’s what it looks like out on the fields when my daughter plays — it’s somehow right that it’s what America looks like at the World Cup.

But other countries have an easier time with their national identity, and their footballing identity. Brazilians know what Brazilian football looks like — skillful, flamboyant and imaginative; German football is athletic, well-organized and disciplined; Spanish, technically brilliant, collaborative and creative.

Players coming up through the ranks in these countries know what they’re aiming for. But the challenge and achievement for Klinsmann has been to create from a range of disparate parts something that is both uniquely American and successful.

This US team has the heart and self-belief and selflessness of the best of American competition — the Friday Night Lights ‘Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose’ attitude — combined with a style of play that is well-organized (if a bit individually erratic) at the back, hard-charging in defensive midfield and fast and skillful in attack. If this is what US football looks like, then I love it.

And I’m not the only one — the US team has had success in World Cups before, but almost no-one in America noticed. This is the fourth World Cup I’ve spent here and the first I haven’t felt alone in my passion. As the country embraces a genuinely global game, there are two huge benefits.

One is a realization that there’s whole world out there of talented sportspeople playing a game that is more nuanced and beautiful than most American sports. The other is that when it comes to football, the US is an underdog — well-resourced and with great facilities, no doubt — but still an underdog. And it’s a lot easier to support a humble underdog that gives everything it’s got and wins against the bigger teams. Even the English pundits I’ve been following have got behind the US, reflecting wistfully that Klinsmann’s team is showing more heart and ability than Roy Hodgson’s subdued lot.

Something is definitely changing here. I can see a line from the field my daughter plays on, through the semi-pro teams that are forming, through the colleges and the MLS to the heaving World Cup stadia. And I see the thousands of US fans who travelled to Brazil, and the thousands more gathering in parks and at other screenings all over the country. And they’re like me and my family and the teams I coach — some solidly all-American, some with family ties elsewhere, but now all united in support of this great team and their achievements.

This is what American can be — positive, welcoming, flexible, hard-working and generous of spirit. And that’s why for the first time in watching the US compete at anything, I’ve been saying ‘we’ and ‘us’ to describe the team, and for the first time I’m come to the shocking conclusion that when it comes to soccer, I’m proud to be an American.

Photography Santa Fe and New Mexico Travel USA

North to Chama and Beyond

Just before school started this week, we headed up to Chama in northern New Mexico, to ride the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, which winds its way through some amazing scenery on its way to Antonito, Colorado.

It was a family trip, but I brought the camera and got some images that communicate something of the day.

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Fall TV preview – ‘Attack of the Clones’

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

This season, cloning comes to television. The networks’ nerve has failed and instead of blazing new trails they give us copies of existing programs that weren’t great in the first place, or try two versions of the same suspect reality TV idea.

Several of the retreads build on the success of the tightly plotted but heartless ‘CSI’ franchise. CBS launches a new spin-off, ‘CSI New York’ (Wednesdays), with Gary Sinise lending some gravitas to the show. Proving that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, NBC also tries to cash in on our ghoulish tendencies with ‘Medical Investigation’ (Fridays).

These shows are competent but leave little room for character development, nuance or quirkiness, which is why they’re so easy to clone (the ‘Law and Order’ family follow a similar approach). The characters and settings are completely interchangeable: you just need one slightly aloof leader with a black sense of humour, one loyal female lieutenant, a couple of younger earnest helpers, two unrelated investigations each episode, one poorly-lit laboratory (where the requisite ‘science bit’ happens) and you’re done – in New York, Vegas or Miami. (article continues)

(first published in the Santa Fe Reporter, Sept 15th, 2004 – for the full text of the article, please contact me)

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All Grown Up – Minority Report reviewed

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

‘What happened to our sense of wonder?’ mumbles Van Morrison in his song ‘On Hyndford Street’, and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report answers that question with a degree of pain and pessimism we’ve not seen from him before. 

Spielberg was famously the Peter Pan of Hollywood, his films warmed by the sense that life could be wonderful if we just held on to our child-like innocence and enthusiasm. 

From ET to Jurassic Park, the grown-ups were responsible for all the bad things, but the kids were all right. And that gave us hope.

But his last two films show us a very adult world in which the kids are missing and parents bereft. In AI, the cyborg child fills the vacuum left by a child being in a coma, and in Minority Report, protagonist John Anderton is tortured by the abduction of his son. 

To lose a child is to lose hope in the future. Earlier Spielberg suggested that people were basically good and things would work out fine. The latest films show us what the future looks like and it’s no place for the children. 

Minority Report has a thick vein of unease and pessimism running through it. Despite the shiny advertising images and the impressive architecture, real life is seedy and decaying, even if on the surface things seem to be improving. 

Murders have all but ceased since ‘pre-cogs’ with the ability to see the future allow people to be arrested before they commit crimes. But there are bitter undertones to this – the pre-cogs doing this ‘previsioning’ are as imprisoned as the criminals they catch, and someone’s trying to get away with murder to ensure the success of the program. 

And there are small touches that make you cringe – the fetid sandwich in the fridge, the jarringly sexual kiss Dr Hineman gives Anderton in her conservatory. 

Is this our fate? Seen through the eyes of the pre-cogs, people have no choice but to commit murder, and the police know that even when surrounded, ‘everybody runs’. It’s a world in which children are taken, cuckolded husbands murder their wives, and even when you try and improve things, you end up hurting people. 

Colin Farrell, playing a fed who trained to be a priest, is most comfortable with this notion of original sin – he knows the pre-crime program is faulty because even though the system is perfect, there are imperfect humans running it. 

So amid the peerless effects and action sequences is a noir-ish movie of ideas. Schindler’s List was grim but hopeful, and it was tempting to ascribe the misanthropic elements in AI to Kubrick, but Minority Report shows that Spielberg has finally grown up. And lost his sense of wonder.

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Attack of the Clones – One of our heroes is missing

Thursday, May 23, 2002

It’s difficult to garner much sympathy when everyone knows you’re Darth Vader. Especially when you’re a snot-nosed teenager in a sulk.  George Lucas has been watching Harry Enfield – in Attack of the Clones, Annakin Skywalker is the teenager Kevin. With a light sabre.

The film is much better than The Phantom Menace, but the ass-backwards order of the two trilogies doesn’t help any. The Jedi are protecting the Republic – yay! The leader of the Republic is the Emperor Palpatine – boo! Yay for defeating the army of the droids!  Boo that it’s done with clones that will grow up to be stormtroopers.

And our foreknowledge ruins thing for young Annakin, who ideally should have two options, both based on the mythic archetypes than Lucas loves so much:

Option 1 – Child to Man – seen in everything from Cuchulainn to The Karate Kid: An impetuous and talented youth comes from nowhere, and matures into his powers with help from mentors. He makes mistakes, but eventually wins the day and the girl. This is the shape of the original Star Wars, but since we all know what’s going to happen to little Anni, this options’s out, leaving:

Option 2 – Tragic Hero – seen in everything from Macbeth to Blade Runner: A strong and brave character is brought low by a fatal flaw in their personality. Try as they might to extricate themselves, fate conspires against them and the audience is left chastened but sympathetic.

Lucas is trying for this, but Annakin’s part is so badly written that what we get is more Dawson’s Creek than Oedipus Rex.

Essentially, Annakin goes over to the Dark Side because Ewan McGregor keeps telling him what to do, and won’t let him go out and meet girls. God, it’s just so unfair! Hayden Christensen pouts and strops, slams doors behind him and leaves his room in a terrible state. His relationship with Amidala finally pushes him over the edge, but what Natalie Portman sees in him is anyone’s guess.

You just don’t care about Annakin, but if you don’t think too hard, there are distractions from this hole in the middle of the film. Yoda gets to hang out of a Huey like he’s in Apocalypse Now, McGregor’s modified his Alec Guinness impression into a likeable character and Sam Jackson almost becomes the first Jedi to say ‘motherfucker’.

The set pieces are great, but we’re still need a Han Solo charater to laugh at all the earnestness. Go for the swordplay and stay for a cameo performance from Trinity Library’s Long Room. Just don’t expect to feel anything.

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24-hour plot people – 24 reviewed

Sunday, April 28, 2002

It?s 8am in 24, and we?re a third of the way through the day. How?s it working out for you?

On the plus side, the plot?s gripping and has more twists and turns than Robert Pires on the dodgems. And there?s some good use of technology to drive the story along – closed circuilt cameras, mobile phones and a large number of beautifully lit Macintosh computers.

Some of the set pieces have been good too – we?ve had lesbian assasins escaping from exploding aircraft, spook pseudo-dads murdering their offspring and surprised slackers getting shot in the head.

Of course the biggest draw is the basic premise – 24 hours of drama each taking place over an hour (allowing for US ad breaks). Back to at least one of the Aristotelian unities.

But the writers have failed to take advantage of this framework, confusing action for intensity, and forgetting about characterisation.

Everything takes place at the same helter skelter pace – when nothing?s happening with one storyline, we just concentrate on another. Or rather, they make sure that there?s never nothing happening. So when Jack?s driving along, he?s also on the phone, or scanning fingerprints, or talking to Gaines.

This means that we get no real sense of the passing of time because all the characters are in their own little world. For example, there?s never any connection made between the events of the drama and real activites that take a set amount of time. We never see a kettle boiling, or have the action measured in the time it takes to play a song on the soundtrack.

And where?s the classic thriller device of the countdown to disaster? A simple ?if you don?t get here in five minutes, I?m killing your daughter,? would work wonders, as we?d see exactly five minutes played out on the screen. The plot is clever, but there?s no playing with the form, which is a real waste.

Senator Palmer?s breakfast was supposed to be the big hit that Jack and the boys were trying to stop, but because we?re not halfway through the series, Palmer couldn?t die, and there was so much other stuff happening that there was little enough tension anyway.

And with no pauses for breath, there?s little room for characterisation.  Kiefer Sutherland keeps looking unkempt and slightly desperate, young Kim is trying to avoid popping out of her red top, and the Senator is too good to be true. But we don?t really care enough about any of them.  Why is the CTU trying to kill Palmer in the first place? Why did Jamie turn bad, and why is soul patch Tony suddenly cuddling with Nina?

With another sixteen hours to go, I?m not sure I?ve got the necessary commitment to last the course. I propose the main figures all head off for a long breakfast (has anyone eaten anything yet?) so we can get to know them better. Otherwise it?ll be a race to see whether the characters or the audience run out of energy first.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSATelevision

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Black Hawk Down – TGF

Tuesday, January 22, 2002

There was a moment in the middle of Black Hawk Down when it dawned on me what I was watching – it was a TGF.

Those of you unfamiliar with US military slang will have to take my word for this, but it wasn’t that Friday feeling I was getting as I watched this grim depiction what it’s like to be stranded in a city where everyone’s got a gun and they all want to kill you.

What I was watching was a Total Goat Fuck. Everything that could go wrong in the film does go wrong, and it’s told without the usual sentimentality and tub-thumping bravado. We’re presented with a two-hour anti-recruiting commercial as Ridley Scott brings his technical mastery to bear on outlining the chaos of a disastrous mission to seize lieutenants of the warlord Muhammad Farah Aidid from Mogadishu in 1993

Watching this film, you know in advance that bad things are going to happen and that there’s no happy ending, so when you’re introduced to all the soldiers in the first twenty minutes, you’re already trying to work out which ones won’t be coming back.

But there’s little enough time for character development before everyone’s off into the city, afraid but committed. It’s a daylight raid into a hostile environment by a lightly-armed force with no armoured backup. The US authorities didn’t even tell the UN troops in the ‘safe’ part of the city what was planned.

The whole film gives us the point of view of the US soldiers on the ground, who as one of the militia men points out later, have no responsibility for being there, but are free to kill people.

And be killed. Things quickly fall apart as rocket propelled grenades and AK47 fire fills the sky, and from here on it’s a bloody mess. In the midst of it there are individual acts of bravery, but a much greater sense of everyone just trying to survive.

It takes a long time to come up with a plan to rescue the stranded troops, and meanwhile Tom Sizemore shines as the increasingly disillusioned lieutenant colonel who keeps being sent back and forth in his bullet-ridden Hummers in the middle of the chaos.

Most of the other members of the cast are interchangeably desperate and bloody (I bet Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner from Trainspotting never thought they’d be reuniting to don fatigues and get shot at for Ridley Scott), but that’s fine because this isn’t about heroes, and it’s clear that chance decides who’s going to live and die amongst the Americans.

You can level criticism at the movie for not exploring the context for the attack in more detail, and you can certainly argue that the US army shouldn’t have been there in the first place, but that’s not the concern of the troops on the ground, nor of the film.

When the exhausted survivors make it to safety, there’s no time for explanations or apportioning blame, except when General Garrison goes to visit some of the wounded. One of the young soldiers he sent into the city is bleeding all over the floor, and the general bends down to wipe it up. He’s got blood on his hands.

We all know that war is about killing people, but this film is a cold-eyed and unpleasant look at what that actually means if you’re some of the people involved. Especially when you’re asked to participate in a total goat fuck.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSAFilm

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Too cool – The Man Who Wasn’t There reviewed

Thursday, January 10, 2002

The Man Who Wasn’t There is a cool film – a moody period film noir about blackmail and murder – and the Coen brothers can always be relied upon to deliver something interesting, but is that enough this time?

Billy Bob Thornton plays the title character with such reserve and quiet intensity that he’s transformed from his other more showboating roles. He says very little, and drifts through scenes breathing, smoking and doing very little else.

His growing disdain for his own life and the misguided attempt he makes to break out of it powers the film. Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini put in their usual solid performances, and Tony Shalhoub threatens to steal the movie as the unctuous lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider.

The film is a tribute to movies such as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and creates the same sense of passionate menace under the surface of constricted lives in a respectable town.  Shot in black and white (or more accurately, shot on colour film stock but printed in black and white), it looks beautiful, and the plot unfolds with a certain tragic inevitability.

It’s very cool, but perhaps a little too cold to be engaging. It has the Coen brothers’ trademark cleverness – look at us, we’re making a film noir full of hip film references – and this distances you from the drama, making it feel like an expensive and elaborate fake.

The danger of having so passive a character as the lead in the film is that it’s hard to care what happens to him when he doesn’t care himself. The suggestion that he’s a representative of ‘modern man’ is to tie him to a deliberately dated idea, distancing him still further from us – there’s nothing so weird as an old-fashioned vision of the future.

And Riedenschneider’s version of the Uncertainty Principle is wittily done, but playing pick and mix from the big ideas of the 1940s only goes so far.

That’s not to say that The Man Who Wasn’t There isn’t worth watching (Scarlett Johansson is excellent as the teenager Birdy Abundas who’s old beyond her years), it’s just that you’d like the Coens to turn their considerable talents away from making smart films about film, and instead to making moving films about people.

A little less cool, and a bit more warm.

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Full-on integrity – Jackass reviewed

Sunday, January 06, 2002

Attentive readers will be familiar with my enthusiasm for watching people fall over. From Kirsty’s Home Videos to You’ve Been Framed, I’m right there if someone’s going to do a face plant, and so today I bow before the sick wonder that is Jackass.

The film of the MTV show is due here soon, and with a new season on the telly, it’s time for a look at why Johnny Knoxville and the boys are so damn watchable, as they find new ways to hurt themselves and gross us out.

Partly it’s because they are fully aware of the absolute stupidity of what they’re doing. It’s not called Jackass for nothing, and when they’re being knocked over by oranges being rocketed from jai-alai slingshots, you’re reminded of that country song, ‘If you’re going to be dumb, you’ve got to be tough.’

Another part of the appeal is that they clearly enjoy doing this shit. Knoxville himself says that they were doing it before they got the show, so they might as well get paid. The defining moment of most stunts sees at least one of them (usually Steve-O) rolling around in agony, laughing like a drain.

And while the guys share a predilection for hurting themselves in imaginative ways, and a scatological approach to life, they’re also quite different people. Knoxville is the something of the straight man – he rides bulls and gets classfuls of kids to kick him in the nads, but he actually seems the most sane.

Steve-O is clearly stone mad – he’s the one who had his arse cheeks pierced together, and had all his hair (everywhere) removed with waxing. Ryan Dunn and Bam Margera do more of the purely physical stuff, and Chris Pontius adopts some bizarre characters and gets naked whenever he can.

Add in Wee Man, Rab Himself and a few other bit players and you’re presented with an unlikely assortment of delinquency and strangely charming insanity. Yes, it’s all incredibly juvenile, and I really should know better, but when compared with other recent TV successes, Jackass also has some integrity.

There’s a purity to the foolishness feels much better than the bitter immorality of Temptation Island, and the clumsy voyeurism of Ibiza Uncovered and the like. The Jackass boys, as it says in the health warning at the beginning of the show, are professionals, paid for acting the maggot.

They’re not teenagers who volunteer to be pimped by unctuous music industry hags, or desperate wannabes who lock themselves in the Big Brother house. They’re not Jerry Springer guests or Survivor candidates or even materially-obsessed would-be interior desecrators on Changing Rooms.

They’re just big kids doing good-humoured stupid stuff and loving it. More power to them.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSATelevision

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It’s not easy being green – Shrek reviewed

Sunday, July 01, 2001

‘Shrek’, it’s funny, it’s cute, it’s clever; a modern style fairytale with enough gags to please both the kids and the grown-ups in the audience, it offers an alternative view of dragons, princesses and ogres, topped off with amazing animation. I’m still marvelling over the texture of Eddie Murphy’s fur, and it’s not often you get to write that line.

The film’s very careful to underline the message that you should take people as you find them, and not get caught up in assumptions about perfection. So the hero is ugly, the dragon just wants some love, and the beautiful princess burps and kicks butt.

The evil Lord Farquand is shown to want everything picture pefect, so he banishes the fairy tale freaks in favour of a perfectly manicured, thoroughly homogenized kingdom. There are many digs at Disney thoughout the film, and it’s not hard to read his shiny city as a sanitized Disneyland.

And of course he doesn’t really love the princess, he just wants to marry her because that’s what ne needs to be the perfect king. However, she’s not quite what she seems – he might not be so delighted if he heard her singing voice, and certainly if he saw her after dark.

The ending of the film – which most of the grown-ups will see coming – underlines the notion that it’s not about looks, it’s what’s inside that counts (although they still get the lovely Cameron Diaz to do the voice of the princess), and even though it’s billed as an anti-fairy story, we still get a happy ending.

Along the way there are some great one-liners, including an unimpressed knight offering a paltry bounty for the old man who turns in Pinocchio – ‘five shillings for the possessed toy’, and a pretty good soundtrack – who would have though Leonard Cohen would turn up in a summer animated comedy?

But, and here I’m probably reading too much into a kids’ film, it’s actually not as right-on as it thinks it is. Eddie Murphy still gets to play the familiar black sidekick role, even if the hero’s green and has a dodgy Scottish accent. 

And no matter how much Shrek loves the princess, he doesn’t get to live with her as a beauty, she has to become ugly(ish) before he’s allowed to marry her. The lesson’s supposed to be ‘love conquers all’, but it comes out like ‘ugly people should only breed with other ugly people.’

And despite all the stuff about not making assumptions about people before you really know them, the main reason for disliking Farquand appears to be that he’s short. There are a lot of cheap shots about this, and John Lithgow is largely wasted, except in the great gingerbread man torture scene (which should have been much longer – I was imagining a whole ‘Reservoir Dogs’ scenario in my slightly sick mind).

But despite those quibbles, it’s good summer fare and if you feel a bit sheepish going into a kids’ film without a kid, see if you can borrow one for the afternoon.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSAFilm