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July 2005

July 26, 2005

Film Review--The Football Factory

The Football Factory
Directed by Nick Love
Starring Danny Dyer, Frank Harper, Tamer Hassan.

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Tommy Johnson is in an army--the Chelsea firm, arguably England’s most notorious group of organized football thugs.
Social theorists would point out that Tommy’s involvement is involuntary; that he’s conscripted by the grim stranglehold of lower-middle-class pecuniary. But Tommy would have it differently—he’s a voluntary member of a privileged troupe.
Tommy’s involvement entitles him to many perks: a sense of regiment and hierarchy which offer systems of mentorship and promotion. In addition, membership accords its soldiers with a rich gestalt—a camaraderie encouraged by a quaffed pint and shared membership, but soldered tight by the ritualized spilling of blood.
Also, membership grants soldiers a real combat zone—cathartic expulsions of lower-middle-class ennui are realised with real battle. Theirs is not a vicarious release—they punch, knife, ambush and flank their frustrations out, and their battles take place exactly where they live out their lives of quiet desperation—the concrete jungles of suburban Britain. So, not for them paint-balling or bungee-jumping; not for them expensive hours on shrink’s couches. No, they exercise real combat, with real brotherhood and real codes. This is their leisure.

Tommy’s a layabout recidivist who plays out his life in the local pub. His life would be, without his hooligan involvement, a dreary mess—a life of quiet pity. But within The Firm Tommy finds definition—his unremarkable self is eerily transcended by his involvement in something larger than himself. This is exactly how religion works, and Tommy, in exchange for his faith, receives loyalty on the battlefield, where he, and others, work out their own personal frustrations.
It seems irrelevant to Tommy that the codes of The Firm are based on thuggery and fascism, and that violence quickly assumes a position unchallenged by moral reckoning. No, the perks are much too great for such things to matter, and so Tommy eases himself into this brave new world….

The film’s succession of pitch-battles between rival gangs is filled with grim portents. Everything becomes a symbol of the inevitable bloody climax—Tommy’s nightmares, his speed-induced paranoiac delusions, his grandfather’s tired advice, even the graffiti splayed on grey walls—each is an obvious sign. This story does not end well for anybody.
A most compelling aspect of this film is Tommy’s inexorable draw towards destruction— Tommy consciously acknowledges the portents (they’re not solely reserved for the audience’s appreciation), but they’re ultimately discarded. The terror lies in knowing that Tommy knows just how obvious the violence is. But—and here’s the drama—he continues, led blindly by his unerring faith in the Firm, led on blood-stained cobbles towards a grim end he knows is coming.
And this may be the film’s heart: if he stays, he may well die, stabbed to death or stomped in a gutter somewhere. But if he leaves, he loses himself—that golden definition provided by his membership. This is Tommy’s choice.

This is not a film about football. It is a film about hooliganism, and for those who naively believe that there’s something about football that inspires violent phenomena, then think again. Football merely provides a sympathetic arch to organized hooliganism—colours, road trips, locals, battlefields. Football provides the means for base dichotomy, upon which gang culture rests.
It is also a film about Thatcherism, that especially English curse of the moribund ‘burbs—hooligans shepherded together in desperate need for solidarity. That, and the smoky corridors of the firm provide the perfect breeding ground for drug running. Money can be made, if you’re willing to put your neck out, but the simple thrill of even that can be a bonus for workers literally bored out of their minds.
The Firm’s glue is cathartic mischief, washed down with helpings of fascism and bullying. There is little here that is ethically sound, and the monotony of violence is often sickening. But, yes, it all makes an unnerving sense. Young men reclaiming their streets, painting their names with blood.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 2:06 PM

On Not Writing About the Ashes

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Last Thursday I came very close to writing up my first Sports entry. I like sport very much, but bombs and music and attempts to write a good short story always seem to take up the time. But here I was, piqued by the opening day of the Ashes, and I thought: “what could be a better subject?''
For the past decade and a half, England had fielded a charming but thoroughly incompetent bunch—incorrigible fielders, dope-heads, has-beens and atavists. They were unified in their awfulness and their crippling inability to play Shane Warne. But no more! This year it seemed that England’s large and healthy crop of youngsters had matured, in a sense. The one-day series conferred a long-missed respectability on England’s shoulders, and so England’s pre-series psych-outs with Australia actually had a modicum of credibility. Maybe England wouldn’t be so crap.
The lead-up was seasoned further by Warne’s personal blow. His serial sleazing had finally cracked his wife and she filed for divorce and took the kids back to Oz. Warne increased his daily fag ration, and we all laughed at the kinky, caricatured countenance of one of Australia’s greatest cricketers. Yes, what could be a better subject?
England sure did get off to a great start—Harmison was bowling straight, with pith and poise; Hayden lost his wicket cheaply and Ponting was struck on his grill, splitting his cheek open. He required eight stitches. And then, in the same city, some fascist waterheads planted death in their backpacks and rode the tube, assuming that today would be the last day in their lives. And for some others, too.
There were four of them, we’re told, and they had dangerous pieties and determinism in their backpacks also. It was a kinked operation from the start, and all four bombs failed to detonate, meaning that, on this day at least, there would be no terror-related deaths on the London tube.
People sure were jumpy, and whilst the media’s vox-pops showed plenty of the stiff-upper, the dream state of Britain turned decidedly dark. This, surely, was the hammer falling—we’re in this for the long haul.
The cricket wasn’t cancelled, by the way. Why would it be? This was quickly written off as a nasty couldabeen, nothing to worry about, and so at Lords Australia were bowled out quickly, only to pave the way for England to be destroyed even quicker. Glenn McGrath was the champion of the day, passing the 500 test wickets mark whilst he was at it, and the next day an innocent man, suspected of packing explosives, would be shot dead on a London train.
England went on to lose the Test. By a lot. Of course they bloody did.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 10:20 AM

July 15, 2005

Afterword on The War on Terror

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There are bombs everywhere now. By the time you finish your cigarette, or finish your beer, or finish reading this… someone’s brother would have been destroyed by a bomb, somewhere. We are told to be vigilant, hopeful. We are told to utilize virtues that, apparently, the West have a monopoly on—stoicism, comradeship, endurance, faith… it’s all very tiring, especially when the blue-blues are always there, knocking, knocking, trying to find a way in…
I’m listening to “Blackbird" now, from The Beatles White Album. If you do not like this song, or are sick of it, then you do not deserve ears. “Blackbird" doesn’t make anything make more sense, nor does it replace the blue-blues with croissants and light. Rather, it stands as rich, poetic companionship—a feat of breathtaking simplicity, composed by a man blessed. It’s here now, and will never leave us—our greatest achievements can be found and placed on our bedroom shelves. In my room I estimate I have over one thousand years of work—all of the novels, all of the records, all of the time it took to compose each and every one of them… a thousand years, give or take, and holding efforts spanning from Ancient Greece to last week.
The bombs are still there, always will be, and the smoke and the torn limbs and the moribund peace agreements and the high, high, high mountains of political spiel… Well, damn. But in my bedroom I have one thousand years of talking and whispering; one thousand years of graceful tears and laughter; there’s a thousand-years worth of fights and questions and work, work, work—ethical rationalism, psychedelic adventurism, cathartic meanderings, arguments, editing, recording, re-recording, bleeding, touring, leaving, coming, writing, screaming, finishing…
It helps.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 7:43 PM | Comments (1)

Running on the Spot: The London Bombs & the War on Terror

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Thursday, 7 July 2005—Terror strikes London
5.50 pm WST—It’s night here, on the other side of the globe, and cold and dark but for the news flashes of my cable news services—CNN, BBC, Sky London and Fox report with a frenzied vagueness—the services are reliant upon dazed eye-witness accounts, starved of information from authorities who clearly know better than to inflame panic. What is consistent though are words like “war'' and “fatalities'' and it’s clear that the second largest underground system in the world (it accommodates three million Londoners per day) is suspended. The symbolism of this attack, if not the fatalities, is staggering.
8.30 pm WST—Blair is approaching the lectern now, and he is clearly shaken. He speaks volubly, considering—determined, consoling, but eschewing the typical over-blown rhetoric which over-shadows real human drama and common sense. He is a man knifed in the stomach, but his presence is impressive, largely because it is so real. I wonder if I have to like him a little bit now…
9.00—Bush makes his eulogy, deputizing the cowboy-color we’ve come to expect. There is very little human about it. We have heard this all before…
11.00—Many hours have passed since the explosions, and various heads of various authorities now summon a press conference. The picture is roughly painted for us: Four, not seven explosions. Three on trains, the other on a double-decker bus. All the bombs were detonated in the heart of London. 33 people have died, the figure expected to rise by 20 or more. The head of the Underground says he hopes the tube will be reopened some time tomorrow…
In Iraq, during the same passage of time, there would likely have been 12 bombing fatalities (largely locals) and roughly 8 kidnappings.

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One Week Later
There’s a rub here, and it’s this—no-one can be protected from this kind of attack, not now, not ever. Bush, Blair, Howard, Scotland Yard, they all emphasize the importance of national security, but it’s futile. There is no such thing as an impregnable homeland security, not for this asymmetrical business. No Star Wars system would have prevented American jets being flown into American buildings, and no police presence could have prevented four Islamo-fascists carrying death onto the London tube. Our leaders have an increasingly tough sell on this point, for they themselves must realise the futility, and so we have a war on terror, a bogus idea that may assuage the dim-witted, but it won’t save lives.
We were sold the invasion of Iraq, in part, as a strike against a cultivator of terror. Well, two and half years later it hasn’t seemed to have worked, and stories like Abu Ghraib can only work as recruitment posters for prospective terrorists. In Afghanistan, well… the Taliban were smashed, but only in the sense that they were deposed from a central command. They fled to the mountains, taking their fighting expertise with them (this is the country, remember, that staved off a relentless Soviet attack during the ‘80s), and are now, apparently, exerting influence from there—a fact supported by Howard’s re-deployment of troops in that region.
So where are we? Homeland security is futile, and our military excursions (a vast, messy extension of protecting Western borders) hasn’t proved profitable. Rather it seems to have been an expensive, bloody, intractable mess.
So why do we continue to support the premise of the war on terror (i.e. that ideas may be combated by military extension)? Largely because our leaders continue to tell us that this is a war against our “ideals'', against “our way of life'' i.e. as distinct from a war against our politics. This is a crucial difference—it creates a discourse in which we resort to embedded notions of cultural ideals, cultural identification, stymieing discussion concerning our politics—i.e. the real versus the abstract.
Breeding nationalism is very important for keeping up our faith in this war on terror. Bush has used the tactic relentlessly since S-11, and now the political expediency of jingoism is apparent to Blair, who’s summoning the Churchillian stoicism, the Blitz-surviving strength, so integral to the British ideal. This may be something close to Freud’s “narcissistic ideal''—what Britain strives for as its ideal has already occurred (during the Blitz), thus creating a narcissistic satisfaction. All Britons, poor or rich, can identify with this, and so it becomes a substitutive satisfaction for the sacrifices of this war (e.g. dead troops, pissed Jihadists, restrictions on personal freedoms). Being told that this is a war against the British-bulldog, or against the Aussie-digger, is easily translatable, and encourages us to participate with the cultural ideal. Of course this leads to hyper-patriotism, and is clearly hostile to any deeper discourse concerning our relationship with the East.
So what happens now? The West is encouraged to retreat into cultural ideals, breeding a pig-headedness that will surely rub against the Islamo-fascists who continue to operate underground. We are at a stale-mate which has very, very little hope of being unlocked any time soon.

One Day Later
Ahh, queer ramblings for a queer time. The above requires some Heavy Editing, but who will do that? The above themes don’t bear looking at for extended periods—it’s much too thick and the stench of failure is everywhere.
We’re locked in now, for the long haul, and so you had better start practicing your responses to your future child’s question: “Did everybody used to have to wear these masks, Daddy?''

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 10:51 AM | Comments (2)

July 5, 2005

On Writing (Badly)

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…But if you only knew how distressing it is to spoil an idea that has been born in you, made you enthusiastic, of which you know that it’s good—and to be forced to spoil it consciously! —F. Dostoevsky

I’m hanging myself with that lament—that black rope which forms when the written word falls lengths shy of translating the hum and buzz and spit of something you know is true. It’s a real fucking struggle.
Looking back at my work, I see… what? Badly smudged carbon-copies of Hemingway, faint echoes of Brautigan—pale rhythms that communicate experience indirectly, the indirectness a result of some kind of Chinese whisper….
Sitting at my bench, reading Hem’s epithet “Write the truest thing you know,'' I wonder how best to tell you the story of Anne and her father. It’s a story that demands to be written well—written with commitment and a steady eye to the breathy sadness of it. Ahhhhh, right there: “breathy sadness''. That does it no justice, eh? But I’ll try to tell you the story anyhow, and you can decide for yourself and to hell with that black rope….

It was a Sunday and I was in bed beside her. The stray cat she had rescued meowed from the laundry. She wore a white t-shirt and gym shorts. I was in a smoky shirt. We both had headaches and I was very sure that I was in love with her.
She was much more attractive than myself, if such things can be compared, and much taller. Her apartment was small and warm and sparse and held Simon and Garfunkel CDs.
“My father comes to visit next week,'' she said, looking at the ceiling.
“For how long?''
“A week. He misses me.''
I too looked at the ceiling.
“He never knows how to be around us.''
“Who’s ‘us'?''
“Me and my sisters. There’s an awkwardness. He thinks he looks weak.''
I turned and looked at her. The cat meowed.
“A few years ago…''
She coughed lightly and I widened my eyes just slightly.
“He tried to kill himself once. Few years ago. He was up late one night, and feeling the weight… He went into the garage, fixed the gas and sat in the car, waiting. He was there for a bit, feeling it, you know? And then he realized he was leaving behind three girls. He turned the gas off and came back inside. Got into bed with mum. When mum woke in the morning she could see something from beneath his pillow. She pulled it out and it was a photo of us girls… she didn’t know anything until a few days later when he told her.''
We stayed in bed for hours, talking. I hesitated asking her “what now?'' but I did and she told me she wasn’t interested in anything more.
She had a party to go to that night and when she was in the shower I let myself out and caught a cab back home. It was a very long trip and I thought of calling home on my mobile, but decided against it, and sat back and watched the buildings and smog become one and I thought hard, real hard, about nothing much at all. My heart was too hung-over.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 10:44 AM | Comments (3)

July 1, 2005

Everywhere the Pursuit of Heaven

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His name was Robert and his best friend had hung himself three years ago. I never did find out why. Robert was very tall and serious looking and even his slightest movement suggested a very large weight that he was practiced at holding.
We met in Seoul in the summer when the nights relieve the humidity and you can drink beer on the streets that are full with lasers and pussy.

“It gets very cold in the winter,'' Robert says, expertly capturing his noodles, “it gets so that you can’t be on the streets.''
I take a large swig of beer and imagine the streets filled with snow. I wonder where the prostitutes go.
I begin to discuss Australian politics, but Robert cuts me off, “I don’t care,'' he says, turning his head to observe a group of young women, “I came here to get away from that.''
“What?''
“Australia. It’s mediocre. Classes and classes of mediocrity… I prefer it here—food and drink and women,'' he points to the women with his chopsticks. There is a hint of BBQ sauce on his chin. He wipes it away pretending that the weight is of no significance.

We finish our meal and Robert suggests a scotch bar around the corner. It’s an upper-class sort of affair, and our cultural-curio status and salary assure us front row seats.
It’s on an upper story as so you can look out at the girls and lasers and all around are red neon crosses. Everywhere the pursuit of heaven.
The girls here are cute as hell. It’s a prerequisite. They wear tight, white business shirts and black trousers. Their hair is modeled impeccably. They smile a lot. Robert knows them all by name.

We order scotch and I look around the place—red velvet and suits; a long, marble bar. Above the bar is a large computer screen. Robert explains: “I have a cyber-jukebox,'' he says casually, “I have an account and the girls access it and play my stuff.''
He selects some blues, and I nod my head in agreement. Why not?
“Good looking girls, eh?''
I have to agree, but watching Robert’s practiced examination of their shapes unsettles me and I take a long sip of my scotch. I light a cigarette and calculate the cost of it—about 10 cents.
“You like the blues?''
“Sure. I dig Howlin’ Wolf best,'' I ash and watch the girls. I wonder if I’ve stumbled onto an extravagant shoot for a shampoo commercial. I would think the same thing many more times in this country.
“Howlin’ Wolf, yeah… I’m not so familiar with his stuff.''
I shrug and ask him about BB King. “Yeah, he’s coming up. Excellent guitarist.''
I order two more scotches. It’ll help with the discourse, I tell myself.
“Are you intimidated?'' he asks.
“By what?''
“This place,'' he points out of the window, indicating the city.
“No, not really. Should I be?''
“N—it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. You need to learn a few things.''
I assure him I’ll be alright, aware of my neglecting his need to translate the East to the Westerner. I can’t be fucked.
We switch to beers, just because we can, and neck a few of those. They stock foreign beers here, which is rare, and we talk inanely about how Australians don’t drink Fosters, and how Heineken is overrated, and we share our respect for the Coopers—“it’s unpretentious, cheap and tasty,'' I offer unhelpfully. Sure.
A girl is finishing her shift and I tell Robert he should invite her over. Robert’s on it, seeing in her, as with most every other Korean woman under the age of 40, a prospective wife.
She sits on a stool beside us and Robert speaks a little Korean. He introduces me, but I can only smile and shrug playfully at her words. I resolve to find some friends that I can speak to, giggling bar girls be damned.

Winter came and the prostitutes went inside. I did not see Robert anymore. His body was an old museum of sad strangeness, but I hope he finds his wife.
Rather, I discovered a large group of Frisbee players—alcoholics, cynics, charmers, faux-intellectuals, pugilists and gypsies all. Our vibrations were intense but shared and steady and the winter was very warm.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 5:07 PM | Comments (1)