Sunday, August 22, 2010

We Gotta Stay Positive...

SO... is the presence of Nasri, Arshavin, Rosicky, Wilshere, and Ramsey reassuring, in the inevitably impending event of the captain's departure?

Now, it is true that Fabregas is Arsenal's best player by a country mile, their only GREAT player. But he is most impressive in the creative sense and Arsenal do, at the moment, have a surfeit of creative players. Perhaps, when he leaves, this relieves Wenger of the nightmare of having to find a direct replacement.

In fact, I think that one of the foremost priorities when Fabregas leaves should be a free-scoring striker, because last season Arsenal started to rely on the skipper for goals as well as passes. Chamakh, Bendtner, and, because of his frequent injuries, Van Persie are unlikely to hit 20 goals a season; with th loss of Fabregas's goals from midfield, that could become a problem.

A fascinating question that I think last season posed was whether Fabregas, and by extension Arsenal, lost something for the deploymentof the captain further up the pitch. Obviously, it freed him up to do some serious damage in the final third and unleash his latent goalscoring prowess, but in the bigger games, Arsenal's central midfield looked rudderless without his metronomic passing, and control of the game was often ceded as a result.

I frequently look back on 07/08 as Fabregas's real golden period, as he formed a formidable partnership with the dynamic Flamini. The Frenchman covered enough ground to allow Fabregas to indulge every facet of his game. Unfortunately, Arsenal do not have a Flamini now, and Wenger has had to adapt accordingly.

Interestingly, in the wake of the Blackpool game, the boss did mention the prospect of Chamakh and RVP linking up in a 4-4-2, which might suggest a return to Fabregas's previous 'midfield general' role. I think what could be more likely, and more effective, is a 4-2-3-1, with Cesc and Song as the '2', and Rosicky or Nasri in the middle of the '3'. The million dollar question is whether Wenger feels that this could offer the defence the protection it needs. I think it could, if Fabregas can indeed return to his role as a classic midfield playmaker, while not curtailing his instinct to get forward at the right times.

It's just a pity Arsenal don't have a more mobile midfielder than Song to partner Fabregas- for all his talent, the Cameroonian does not cover the ground as quickly as Flamini did. And as for Denilson and Diaby....

Arsenal 6-0 Blackpool but...

in the words of The Wolf in Pulp Fiction, "let's not start suckin' each other's dicks just yet".

Walcott and Rosicky both performed as well as they've ever done for Arsenal. In both cases, there has to be caution. Walcott's best display last campaign was at home to BURNLEY, so he is flirting a little with the "flat track bully" tag; then again, this time out it wasn't just raw pace and some tidy finishing that stood out, but some intelligent decision-making, leading the manager to suggest that he's become "more mature". He scored three and but for the profligacy of others might have made as many.

Remember, too, that Walcott's hat trick for England against Croatia in the Autumn of 2008 was a prelude to his best (fleeting) run of form, before injuries derailed his progress. Maybe the chastening snub from Capello in the Summer will indeed prove the kick up the backside that he needed. Can he develop a semblance of a football brain? Or is that simply something inherent to a player, something that can't be learned? Don't get me wrong, I'm still skeptical. But a little more optimistic now. I reserve the right to make these U-turns. Expect another one next time Theo runs into a competent left back...

As I've been saying, Fabregas, Nasri, Rosicky and Arshavin would all probably prefer to play in the same position- off the frontmen. Fabregas had his most productive season from there last time out. Nasri's best performances invariably come when he plays there. And it's no coincidence that Rosicky produced his best display in years when he was finally unleashed in the central creative role. He was at the heart of a lot of the best play on Saturday. I hope he stays fit for the season, but it is sad in a way that he will probably be shunted out wide or into cameo roles when Fabregas is ready to play regularly again. Could they both play centrally, with Song doing the donkey work? Maybe, but a team with a defence as suspect as Arsenal's can't really afford to compromise solidity much more. Then again, Fabregas is more a classic midfield player than he is a half forward, and frankly, Diaby and Denilson often don't look to be working hard enough to shield the defence anyway. So why not Fabregas, Song and Rosicky/ Nasri across the middle, in home games at least?? Something to ponder.

In the final analysis, it was a handsome win, though aided by Blackpool's concession of a dubious penalty and loss of a man at 1-0. Before that, they had exposed Arsenal's defensive frailty at times. It was the right fixture after the difficulties at Liverpool, and this Arsenal team has to prove that they can perform in the big games that define seasons (although, to be fair, the anaemic showing at Anfield was, it could be argued, largely due to rustiness and ill-preparation). Blackburn next week will be a lot more telling.

Scorers: Walcott 3, Arshavin pen, Diaby, Chamakh.

Can Anyone Stop The Chelsea Juggernaut?

Twelve goals in the opening two games is surely an unprecedented statistic? (I can't be bothered looking it up).

But West Brom and Wigan was a welcoming one-two to start a new season, especially with Chelsea having endured a torrid pre-season.

And Arsenal fans know only too well that the post-title winning glow of Champions in Autumn can be misleading. In 02/03 and 04/05, Arsenal kicked off with some of the best football they've ever played under Wenger, before finishing 2nd both seasons.

Chelsea already look the team to beat, and if they are beaten it might be as much a result of injuries as of formidable rivals, with United, Arsenal, Spurs and the rest all failing to significantly strengthen so far this summer. When you consider that Michael Essien missed most of last season and Chelsea still won the league, it is hard to see them not retaining their crown, but then if injury were to strike again for him, or Drogba, it would lead to a difficult period for the Blues.

As well as that, they've lost Carvalho, and Terry's fragility was evident in the World Cup. Unlike the Mourinho years, the likeliest way to beat Chelsea now is to try and get at them, because they're far from watertight at the back.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Given or Schwarzer or... the Unthinkable

It looks like Mancini's choice of the admittedly excellent Joe Hart has forced the Irish no. 1 out of Manchester. In theory (though maybe not in fact)this gives Arsene Wenger an alternative should his ridiculously drawn out pursuit of Mark Schwarzer hit a big, bruising brick wall in the shape of Mark Hughes.

But who would be the better option of the two??

For me, it's Schwarzer (although I'd love to see an Irish player at Arsenal). My reasons are probably not the same as Wenger's. Word has it the manager does not want the younger keepers at the club held back- one hopes this does not include Fabianski, because he should really have run out of chances by now- so he wants to sign an experienced stopper with not many years left, and Schwarzer fits the bill.

While Given is the more accomplished shot stopper of the two, there are weak points in his game. You have to wonder why a guy who consistently makes amazing saves and does not fumble many shots has never played for a really big club, especially when United and Arsenal have both suffered goalkeeper problems at times in the last decade.

Surely it is his command of the penalty area, or relative lack thereof, that has held him back.

Does he organise a defence as well as others? Is it just his poor luck that he always seems overexposed behind a porous back line?

Aerially, does his comparatively diminutive stature, in goalkeeper terms, root him to his line too often when crosses rain in? I think so, and that could be a fatal shortcoming for an Arsenal goalkeeper.

That said, he is absolutely streets ahead of what we have. Surely Wenger should at least test the waters, see if City would be willing to sell to a close rival, which is of course questionable in itself.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

City: Silly Money, Silly Deals

In: MILNER, another overpriced grafter
Out: IRELAND, one of their few crafty players

Maybe the model is Mourinho's Chelsea, but Adebayor is no Drogba, Milner no Lampard, De Jong, Barry and Yaya Toure together are not worth one Michael Essien... Usually a club splashing ridiculous amounts of money is more interesting than this.

Even Mourinho himself looks to be adapting his worldview a little. Already saddled with the walking Ego that is Ronaldo and a misfiring Kaka, he (or is he calling the shots???) has still seen fit to add Mezut Ozil to the mix. If Mourinho signed a player like that while at Chelsea, they probably would have won that elusive European Cup by now.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Familiar Failing

David Pleat in the Guardian writes that Samir Nasri taught Joe Cole a 'masterclass' in how to play behind a frontman.

While Nasri found space to get on the ball a lot in the first half, though, there was an almost complete lack of penetration from Arsenal. Chamakh looked isolated and ineffective, but where were the runners?

It's a problem this team has often suffered from. In essence, the attacking part of the team is full of 'half-forwards'- they would all prefer to play where, on Sunday, Nasri was playing. Arshavin, stranded again on the left, has never been given a chance. Wilshere might get the job some day, but here he had to play deeper. Rosicky on the bench is the same sort of player. And it's the position, more or less, that Fabregas will be asked to take up when he returns.

All of them want to get on the ball, wait for a clever run, and release a player into space. Or, when that's not an option, keep the ball in little triangles. But so often with Arsenal, we only get the second thing. Because they all have the same instincts, they all want to do the same thing. Arsenal are lauded as the most attacking team in the league, but they often look the least penetrative.

It's for these reasons that Theo Walcott, bad footballer that he is, often looks necessary. Sometimes, he shows a willingness to go beyond the full back, without the ball, and look for a through pass. When he is given the ball at his feet, he is invariably clueless, and even when he gets in behind, he's even more profligate than the average brainless winger, but he still sort of works because he's so different to everybody else in the team.

Sometimes I wonder if even the great Dennis Bergkamp would be a frustrated force in this side: he had Overmars and Anelka, then Ljungberg, Pires and Henry- all targets, people who would move away from, as well as towards, the ball. Now the balance is askew.

Spain, of course, can suffer from a similar problem (Barcelona can often solve it because Messi is so adept at taking on and beating players- at least against weaker teams). Funnily enough, Fabregas looked the closest thing to a solution to Spain's problem this summer. Perhaps his time in the Premiership has taught him the benefit of direct running. He was he only Spanish midfielder who looked to make runs through the opposition back four, and it almost gave him a goal in the final.

At Arsenal, becuase his team mates don't have the class of Iniesta and Xavi, he often has to be both conductor and finisher. What trouble Arsenal would be in without him.

shit performance, better result: Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal

That ninety minutes encompassed the good and the bad of this Arsenal vintage, but there was no sign of the great that now seems consigned to the past.

The first 45 minutes saw some tidy football, but- and this is hardly unfamiliar territory- an almost total lack of penetration, of chances, of dynamism. Liverpool eased their way into the Hodgson era, and were content to play a game of containment. While this made it difficult for Arsenal to find openings, it also gave the fresh partnership of Vermaelen and Koscielny a relatively easy ride at the other end.

Then Joe Cole got sent off for a pointless lunge on Koscielny, just before half time. Could Arsenal take advantage, or would Liverpool be galvanised by the adversity?

Liverpool were galvanised. Wilshere lost the ball cheaply on the edge of his own area, Mascherano passed to Ngog, and he blasted a shot in high at the near post. Andy Gray made a point of questioning Almunia, and while it's clear to all and sundry now that the Spaniard is out of his depth, I thought it was a bit unfair. That was a fine finish. For all the peddling of that cliche that keepers shouldn't be beaten at their near post, it happens all the time, and to better keepers than Almunia.

The bigger mistake was Wilshere's. Playing in central midfield, his naivety leads him to do final third things in the middle or back third. It's probably the result of playing further back than he is accustomed to, but it's a dangerous habit. It hardly helped that his "senior" partner today was that clown, Diaby.

For the next fifteen minutes or so, the extra man looked irrelevant; Arsenal barely got into the Liverpool half. And for the last half hour, they displayed a lack of urgency that either displays an overall lack of sharpness, or a lack of hunger that is going to be terminal to this side's hopes of silverware. Obviously, Liverpool's massed defensive ranks made things tough, but Arsenal set about the challenge at a snail's pace and looked incapable of a single move that could surprise the opposition. That same old parody of themselves, they funneled almost every pass through a congested central area, and when the ball went wide, Liverpool were happy, because Clichy and Sagna still can't cross a fucking cheque.

For me, outside of the two centre backs, the only Arsenal players emerging with much credit were Nasri and Rosicky, who looked sparky after coming on and almost scored a lovely goal late on.

The equaliser was undeserved, and worse still, a fluke, a mess, Reina shovelling the ball into his own net after the ball hit the post from a Rosicky cross. Chamakh deserves credit for putting him under pressure, forcing the first mistake. But it was an embarrassingly lethargic performance overall, in which Arsenal's much-vaunted pass-pass-passing game looked utterly ineffective. Again, you have to worry about the character of this team when they fail to show much of a reaction to Liverpool taking the lead.

At the same time, Fabregas and Song have to come back. Hopefully, Diaby won't get many more games in midfield. Surely, another centre back will come in (especially now that Koscielny faces a suspension for an amazingly harsh second yellow). And maybe, just maybe, Wenger will sign a goalkeeper. Things should get better, so a point from Anfield, even if undeserved, is a good haul.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

What Fresh Hell Is This....

It's a new Premiership season


It struck me watching this game today, that there are a number of fascinating contrasts between Man City and Arsenal. Most would immediately think of the financial differences, but think of the managers' respective football philosophies, and how they are being evidenced at the moment.

Arsenal are in desperate need of at least one centre back- have been almost all summer- and Wenger seems reluctant to get the necessary done. They could also do with a more defensively-minded midfield understudy for Alex Song, but this does not seem a priority at all. The predominance of attacking midfield players- Fabregas, Arshavin, Rosicky, Nasri, Diaby, Wilshere, Ramsey- gives the squad a lopsided look.

City under Mancini have collected defensive players, particularly combative midfield players. James Milner- a competent but limited and grossly overrated winger turned midfielder- is not going to turn that trend around. Stephen Ireland, their only truly creative midfielder, has been deemed surplus to requirements. Their squad has a similar, but inverted problem, to Arsenal's.

And this reflects the personalities of the two managers. Both equally stubborn in opposing ways. Mancini refusing to adapt a pragmatic Italian attitude to the gung-ho English game, constructing a team so dour it makes Mourinho's Chelsea look like the Harlem Globetrotters. Fielding three holding midfielders, without one to pick a lock.

Wenger, also unwilling to adapt, but his aesthetic completely different. A blind adherence to attacking principles. Ignoring crippling deficiencies on the defensive side. Believing that if the other team score four, we'll score five.

Another interesting contrast is that City still, at time of writing, have the two best shot-stoppers in the league on their books; Arsenal don't have a single goalkeeper worthy of the name.

One thing I believe Mancini and Wenger have in common is that they will both win fuck all this season.

SPURS are in similar shape to last season. The question is, if they embark on a Champions League run, can they balance that with another top four challenge.

With varying versions of 4-5-1 in vogue, their continued use of 4-4-2, and sometimes without a dedicated 'holding' player, is refreshing. They are capable of some of the best football in the league.

A lot of Arsenal fans seem to think that, even if trophies remain out of reach, a top four place is safe. I don't think it's been acknowledged how dangerous that assumption is. For Arsenal to improve, a few far-from-certain things have to happen. A decent goalkeeper must be signed. A regular partner for Vermaelen, ready for the rigours of the Premiership. Fabregas has to keep dragging the team through games at times as he did last season. Nasri might have to find the extra level he's been threatening to. All that is mere speculation. But what's close to god-damn-certain is that losing William Gallas (possibly, if reports are to be believed, to Spurs) and not properly replacing him with equivalent experience will make Arsenal's defence even more porous than last season's infuriating vintage. What is also questionable is whether this team will suddenly pluck the character to win big games from somewhere.

What I'm driving at here is that a top four place is under serious threat. If we are to assume, and I certainly will, that Chelsea and United remain out of reach, then there are four teams- Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool and City- scrabbling for those other two places.

Which two have the most capacity for improvement from last season???

Based on summer dealings, there is reason to believe things could get worse before they get better. And with the squad starting the season in an already ravaged state, Liverpool tomorrow could represent a wake-up call to complacent fans and a complacent manager.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Arsenal won a game 6-5 today.

Think about that. A team that wins a game 6-5 is not to be taken seriously in modern football.

This was having started with what is, at the moment, a full-strength team. Allied to the Celtic game last week, where Arsenal were very lucky to hang on in the end for an unconvincing victory, the defensive comedy today suggests big, big problems in the season ahead.

There is only ONE week until Arsenal go to Anfield. Arsene Wenger will not sort out in one week what he has allowed to fester for years.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Fabregas Stays: Some Relief, Little Joy

So it seems what is effectively a season long loan deal has been secured and Arsenal will have a leader for the season ahead.

On the surface, it's good news. More so because of the doomsday scenario we would face without him. The rest of the Arsenal team is not particularly good, and without Fabregas, Champions League qualification would look, to me, a huge ask.

It still does look a difficult task, because as it stands, this summer is a repeat of recent summers, with chronic problems ignored. That is why I get little joy out of hearing Fabregas is staying. It's sad, because he's the best player I've seen in an Arsenal shirt, but he deserves better than to play for the current Arsenal team. As ever, I hope I'm wrong, but I can't really see him getting a send-off to remember in the shape of some silverware.

We all know that, ultimately, the problem with a prospective deal was Barca's lack of funds. The kid wants to go, Barca want him badly, and if a figure upwards of 50million was involved, Arsenal would probably be singing a different tune too.

In a way, I wouldn't have minded that scenario so much. At least with a whopping big fee, Arsenal would have a chance to sign some players good enough to improve a young but already stale-looking team. Then again, would Arsene Wenger invest the money in the right way? I guess we are going to find out next summer, but more money spent on youth and potential will hardly be a clever answer. And will Wenger even stay on beyond this season?? So many questions.

The start of the season is just over a week away.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Thesis From Hell: An Excerpt

4. GoodFellas and 90s Ultraviolence
The significance of GoodFellas, Martin Scorsese’s first return to the gangster genre after Mean Streets, can only be appreciated fully by considering the way it influenced nineties film as a whole. It can, in some ways, be seen as a prelude to the films of Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone, films that pushed the boundaries of violence in crime films further. In its own right, the film is notable for its mixture of tones- on the one hand, it portrays the allure of an immoral but exhilarating lifestyle; on the other, it turns an irreverent eye towards the characters who live that lifestyle. It simultaneously invites the viewer to enjoy, to envy the gangster world, and to feel a moral superiority. It is, in other words, both a celebration and interrogation of a violent lifestyle.
A Precursor: Scarface
Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983) is an important precursor to GoodFellas in this regard, though rarely acknowledged as such. The earlier film is less subtle in its satire, but the ambiguity of the portrayal of its eponymous protagonist is illustrated by divergent audience reactions: for instance, among the gangster rap community, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is treated as a deity, a fictional embodiment of the rags to filthy riches life trajectory that they idealise; some other viewers are appalled by Montana’s descent into decadence and his over-the-top violence. What those who mythologise the character as a hero seem to ignore is his tragically pathetic decline, which takes up most of the film’s running time. However, this is superseded in immediate impact by the spectacle of a final cocaine-fuelled shoot-out pitting a defiant Montana against a mass of armed invaders, and kicking off with the immortal line “say hello to my little friend!”.
Scarface is a departure from the more noble sentiments of The Godfather films; in a way, it returns us to the kind of petty hoodlums that populated 1930s gangster films (albeit, perhaps, on a larger scale). It satirises the greed of American society for money and for success and for things, useless objects that are not even there to be consumed, as such, but are rather to be seen as symbols of success, even if the symbols are gaudy or tasteless as well as bereft of practical benefit. In this manner, Scarface is a rarely-acknowledged precursor to GoodFellas.
But perhaps the best way to continue is by examining GoodFellas’ relationship with two earlier gangster films: again, Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather films.
GoodFellas and The Godfather Trilogy
“It would be impossible to understand Scorsese’s two important forays into the gangster genre [GoodFellas and Casino]..... without viewing them against the backdrop of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy” (Bondanella 271).
Through looking at its differences from The Godfather, we can see GoodFellas’ valid claim to being, partly at least, an interrogation of violence. The earlier Taxi Driver, as Kolker argues (230), had functioned in some way as a critique of cinema’s cult of the action hero. Its narrative deliberately mirrors that of John Ford’s The Searchers, and the heroism of John Wayne-type figures is questioned. Travis Bickle, in his own disturbed mind, sees himself saving the 12 year old prostitute Iris from her seedy circumstances. In reality he is merely a lonely, pathetic psychopath. By presenting a violent anti-hero who is alienated and alienating to the viewer, one who cannot elicit much sympathy, Scorsese interrogates our habitual identification with killers in the movies. He does something similar in GoodFellas. This time it is the myths developed by Coppola’s trilogy that are targeted. The Godfather encourages the notion that there is a code of honour amongst thieves, and that their wrongdoings may not impact on the normal people; on the contrary, the Mafia acts as an arbiter of justice on behalf of these people, when the police cannot put things right. In the words of Bondanella (272), “Scorsese shows that these defining myths developed in Coppola’s view of the Mob are, at best, cinematographic conventions useful to concoct a great story”. Scorsese’s mobsters are not noble, but petty. They have a certain seedy glamour, but it is tacky. Particularly in the case of Tommy, they act without any sense of self-consciousness. There is nothing noble about what they are doing, and for the most part, they do not care.
Rock versus Opera: Stylistic Differences in The Godfather and GoodFellas
Kolker agrees that GoodFellas functions to some extent as a parody of The Godfather films (202). While they both belong to the same genre, there are myriad differences between the films’ respective approaches- and not just the ideological difference outlined above. A fundamental contrast is in the pacing of the two films, and this may influence how audiences react to the violence. The contrast here is perhaps best illustrated by a musical analogy (and one that is reflected by the respective soundtracks): The Godfather is classical, operatic in tone, GoodFellas is a rock and roll film. Regardless of actual content or message, The Godfather appears more measured because of its often reflective mood, and is therefore less obviously open to accusations of gratuitousness in its violence. GoodFellas, on the other hand, flies along at a roaring pace, and violence is never far away no matter what the scene or situation. The first twenty minutes of The Godfather proceeds at a stately pace and is solely concerned with a wedding. In the first twenty minutes of GoodFellas, we see Tommy, Henry and Jimmy kill a nameless man who they had stowed away in the boot of their car, before the narrative shoots back to Henry’s youth, showing his seduction by the local mobsters, his running of errands, his first encounters with Tommy and Jimmy; it sets a breathless pace that never drops. It is not easy to argue that GoodFellas questions the actions of its characters, because it never gives the viewer much room for reflection, and much of what we see unfold is so enjoyable that we do not even wish to reflect too much on it.
Aestheticised Violence: A Terrible Beauty
Also, the violence in GoodFellas is undeniably aestheticised. The “exhilaration” that Scorsese mentioned in relation to his filming of Taxi Driver’s final scenes is clearly present again. Much of the devastation wrought in GoodFellas can be viewed as terrible beauty. A good, but by no means the sole, example of this is in the montage that shows how Jimmy has disposed of the other hoodlums involved in the Lufthansa heist. The piano outro to Derek and the Dominoes’ classic ‘Layla’ plays over the scene, making this montage of death paradoxically beautiful, and thus summing up the inherent contradiction in the film’s representation of violence.
At other points, the content is less dressed up, and more disturbing for that. When Henry finds out that Karen’s slimy neighbour, Bruce, has laid hands on her, he confronts the man and beats him repeatedly with the butt of his gun. This is presented in a single shot without any of the editing flourishes that pepper most of the other violent moments. It is difficult not to turn away as Henry batters the man’s face, his friends looking on in impotent horror. This unflinching, bare presentation of a beating is repeated at the end of Casino, in a scene mentioned earlier. Joe Pesci’s Nicky and his brother Dominick (Philip Suriano) are double crossed in the desert and set upon with baseball bats. As with the similar scene in GoodFellas, there is no music on the soundtrack to distract from or aestheticise the horror. We are subjected to the image of two men relentlessly beaten to a pulp, the sickening sound of metal on flesh. The two men are buried alive.
While Henry’s attack on Karen’s neighbour shows what a violent man he can be, it is inferred by the film that this is part of the attraction. The threat of violence, his power as an alpha male, is what gives him power over her. Her voiceover on the soundtrack intimates: “I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I’ve got to admit the truth, it turned me on.” Before approaching Bruce with his gun, Henry tells Karen to go inside and clean herself up. When he returns, his gun drenched in Bruce’s blood, Karen is still on the porch. The camera’s lack of movement, its unflinching focus on Henry’s violent act, may suggest that we are sharing in Karen’s point of view, her voyeurism. She does not turn away from the violence, but is strangely fascinated, even aroused by it. We are challenged, too, to look away.
The next scene shows Henry and Karen getting married. The famous Copacabana scene, in which a single tracking shot shows Henry guide Karen through the back door and kitchen of the club to a stage side seat, illustrates the allure of his illegitimately-gained power. The beating he gives Karen’s neighbour and her reaction to it suggest that violence is a part of the allure.
These scenes of unadorned violence are more effective in facilitating the interrogation of violence than other scenes that seem intent on making horrific violence palatable to viewers. In Scorsese’s films, a lot of this work is done through the jarring juxtaposition of sound and image, mentioned earlier as a component of Mean Streets’ presentation of violence. When Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) is battered in Henry’s bar by Jimmy and Tommy, after memorably inviting the latter to “go home and get your fuckin’ shine box!”, the soundtrack’s use of Donovan’s song ‘Atlantis’ and the use of editing gives the scene a paradoxically enjoyable quality. As the song kicks into its soaring chorus, Tommy begins raining blows on Batts. The camerawork concentrates more on Jimmy swinging his boot and Tommy aiming punches than on Batts’ beaten and bloodied face, which is mostly kept out of shot. This may seem like responsible restraint, but it can also be argued that the most effective way to show the ugliness of violence is to show the damage it does, unflinchingly, in all its gory glory.
The film’s refusal to take on a completely sombre tone in relation to its violence is embodied by the scene that follows, when the boys visit Tommy’s mother’s house to pick up the shovels necessary to dispose of Mr. Batts. Forced to stay for a bite to eat, they engage in amusingly mundane chatter with the old lady (played by Scorsese’s mother), and dissolve into laughter when they see that the man in her new painting bears an uncanny resemblance to the one they have just beaten to a pulp. It is hard here not to share a guilty chuckle. We have already discussed the link between laughter and violence in Mean Streets, and it is a recurring facet of GoodFellas too. The most celebrated instance of this in any Scorsese film is Tommy’s grilling of Henry early in GoodFellas. Tommy is telling an amusing anecdote about some previous wrongdoing, when Henry tells him he’s funny. Thus follows a scene of excruciating tension, in which Tommy repeatedly asks Henry what he means by the remark. Henry, everyone else at the table, and the viewer, becomes progressively more afraid until Tommy finally drops the facade and admits he is joking. He instead takes out his latent aggression on the restaurant owner, smashing a glass over his head to the guffaws of all and sundry, before chucking a chair at a waiter who has the nerve to look at him sideways.
This is more than just a wonderfully-executed scene of tension and release. Kinder says that Scorsese “puts us in this double bind to show how the incongruous reaction is increasingly pervasive within our desensitised culture, particularly when the lines between all genres, tones, and feelings dissolve” (79). The location of violence and humour together has the power to arouse guilt in the viewer; when Tommy barks at Henry, “what the fuck is so funny about me?”, the viewer may ponder that question herself. It is also a link that becomes familiar through the films of Stone and Tarantino, as we shall discuss.
An Incoherent Message
GoodFellas’ roaring pace, the fervour of its violent flourishes, the enjoyment on the part of Scorsese that is communicated to the viewer, cannot help but compromise the interrogation of violence. The film is deliberately contradictory. It says that, “yes, this lifestyle is glamorous and enjoyably chaotic, but if you give yourself over to it, you sell your soul”. Scorsese’s Catholicism informs the film’s morally judgemental aspects. Early in the piece, when a young Henry is setting cars alight, his silhouette is freeze-framed against the explosion, suggesting his future descent to hell. At another point, the sound of sizzling food on the soundtrack, juxtaposed with the image of Henry’s face, suggests a similar message. Ultimately, Scorsese does not depict any of his characters as a winner, as Tommy is killed, Jimmy is jailed, and Henry is left doomed to what he sees as the worst punishment of all: a boring life.
At the same time, returning to the contrasts with The Godfather, GoodFellas turns a less reverent eye on its central characters. In The Godfather, there is an air of nobility around the Corleone family. But in GoodFellas, the swagger of the gangsters is often undermined, whether by their evident poor taste, or by their petty disputes, or by their cruel and often fatal actions. Whereas in The Godfather one is always rooting for Michael Corleone, GoodFellas encourages us to adopt a rather different and more complex position. We can laugh with the gangsters, particularly in the early scenes of the film, but as the story progresses, more and more we laugh at them. When Tommy is executed, we do not share in any sense of tragedy. If anything, we are invited to feel a sense of revenge for the countless wrongdoings he has perpetrated throughout the film. While the young kid Spider (Michael Imperioli) is by comparison an insignificant character in the film, his death at the gun of Tommy is significant because we feel a greater sense of loss here. He is needlessly riddled with bullets, and only for quite reasonably inviting the psychopathic hood to “go fuck (him)self”, having already been shot in the foot by said psycho.
Emotional Impact in GoodFellas
As aforementioned, a lot of the existing literature on film violence posits that there are responsible and irresponsible, effective and ineffective ways of presenting violence in films. Devin McKinney cites some of Scorsese’s violence as weak, failing to engage the spectator’s sympathies and thus offering only empty spectacle and cheap thrills. Talking about GoodFellas, he problematises the scene of Tommy’s death, saying that his execution is played to the audience: “...director Martin Scorsese overtly plays this violence to the camera. The characters face the camera, and the composition gives the viewer the ideal vantage from which to watch the violence” (103). McKinney says this in the context of decrying modern violent films as bereft of emotional involvement. But sympathy is not the only emotion that someone can feel. Anger and disgust can also be teased out by films. Perhaps we are not invited to feel a great deal of sympathy for Tommy’s sticky end, but Scorsese does not simply invite us to look on coldly. We are not exempt from feeling that even the amoral mob life has its own perverse sense of justice (even if it is for the killing of the equally reprehensible Billy Batts, and not the relatively innocent Spider, that Tommy suffers).
As I said earlier, when Tommy asks, during what turns out to be a tongue-in-cheek grilling of Henry, “What the fuck is so funny about me?”, the viewer is entitled to ponder that question. Should we be charmed by this character? Scorsese effectively nudges the viewer towards answering in the negative. But the fundamental contradiction of the film is ever-present. Scorsese never commits fully to a condemnation of these men and the lives they lead. There is no coherent message to the film as a whole. Whether or not this is a great weakness of the film is a matter of one’s perspective on whether or not a film should be geared towards imparting a clear and preconceived message to its viewers. Perhaps there is a message there, that life is chaotic and much of the time, our civilising wishes clash in an irresolvable conflict with our primal drives and desires. Maybe these men tip their inner balance too far towards primal desire, but does it really dehumanise them? What are the things that make us human? When we become obsessed by following the rules of socialisation, of civilisation, do we not lose some part of what makes us human, and become almost robotic? These are questions that the film can be seen to pose without concrete resolution. However, we can see here that Scorsese’s oft-analysed Catholicism may have obscured an equally-pronounced Darwinian aspect to his work.
Henry’s Pathetic Purgatory: Unorthodox Closure
Henry Hill’s entrance into the Witness Protection Program ensures he is the only man to emerge relatively unscathed at the film’s end. But while the obnoxiously charismatic Tony Montana of Scarface has become the definition of poster image cool on the back of his spectacular death at that film’s close, Henry is denied such classically cinematic martyrdom. His is the most hollow of victories. The voiceover, in fact, suggests defeat, almost as if death would have been glorious by comparison: “I get to live the rest of my life like a shnook”, Henry sneers bitterly. His moments of uncertainty at the sight of Tommy’s excesses have faded again, it seems, leaving only a regret of a very different kind, an aching nostalgia for his good old gangster days. There is no suburban redemption then for Henry; he is left trapped in a pathetic purgatory.
Overall, the film portrays a world that while initially exciting, spirals downwards into one utterly devoid of honour- a world with violence and betrayal as the currency. It thus turns the myth of The Godfather on its head. This project is subtly continued by David Chase in his HBO series The Sopranos- something we will return to later.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Emirates Cup

Arsenal have won the Emirates Cup again; probably as close as they'll get to any proper silverware again this season.

The games, a 1-1 draw with Milan and a 3-2 win over Celtic, were not revelatory experiences, but pre-season games don't tend to be. A lot of things that we have known for a long time were underlined. For instance, Arsenal suffer terrible, all-year-round injury problems. Two weeks from the start of the season, none of our familiar central midfielders are playing games. Song, Denilson, Diaby are all absent up to this point and with a horrendous opening fixture at Anfield on the first week of the season this is not ideal.

Manuel Almunia has his best games when his defence fails him completely and he faces a barrage of shots from the opposition. Think United away and Barca at home in the Champions League (although he did make a big mistake in that one aswell). It was the same against Celtic. He did not prove anything. He is, has been, and will continue to be a liability. He's run out of chances to prove himself, as far as I'm concerned.

Arsene Wenger is a bullshit merchant. I guess all managers are, to some extent, but I wish he would not revert to it so much. I think everyone would agree that Arsenal could do with a midfielder to compete with Song for the defensive midfield position. Wenger does not want to spend money on this problem, so as soon as a young lad has a half-decent game in a pre-season friendly, it's "case-closed". In fairness, Frimpong looked almost hilariously out of his depth then in the second game against Celtic, giving the ball away every time he had it. If you want to give youth a chance and promote these guys, do so, but just stop talking about winning trophies of note. Arsenal will not compete with the squad in its current shape.

Jack Wilshere remains an exciting talent, but perhaps a little naive to be a candidate for a CENTRAL midfield spot just yet. The penalty he gave away was very silly, but he had some great moments dictating play and came very close to scoring a wonder volley against Celtic. He's surely done enough to avoid another loan adventure, but is unfortunate that there are so many attacking midfielders in the squad. You have to wonder if it was right to keep Rosicky at the club. We have to keep around some RELATIVELY old heads, but it's funny when you think that Rosicky has been shown far more loyalty than players who achieved a lot more at the club and were then turfed out as soon as they passed their peak.

Maybe Wenger is seeing the error of his ways in this regard. You look at how central Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and even Gary Neville still are to United's perennial success, and it's hard not to suspect that a lack of such continuity at Arsenal has been damaging. It would certainly suggest the benefit of giving the likes of Gibbs, Wilshere and Ramsey the best possible opportunity to blossom into first-teamers. These guys would surely be less likely to obsess over a move away for bigger bucks or a better chance of glory or even just for the love of another club, as with Fabregas. THEN AGAIN, people probably said the same about Ashley Cole.

Finally, it should be said that Chamakh looked very good against Milan, showing the classy touches of Van Persie, but with added mobility. Nasri also looks like someone ready to explode to prominence. THEN AGAIN, he's often looked like that.