Gilbey on Film: Gregg Araki and the geeks

Why was Kaboom pulled from FrightFest?

Curious goings-on this past week at FrightFest, the UK's splendid annual fantasy and horror film festival, which runs each August over the bank holiday weekend.

Last Friday, the film journalist Alan Jones, one of FrightFest's organisers, wrote on his blog about the decision of the director Gregg Araki to pull his latest picture, Kaboom, from its slot at the upcoming festival. Kaboom, which screened at Cannes earlier this year, reportedly blends Araki's usual milieu (sex, drugs and general debauchery among elegantly wasted teens fired from Abercrombie & Fitch for being offensively pretty) with horror-movie overtones, and has been widely compared to Donnie Darko. It has also been described as "a messy clusterfuck of excessive surrealism, low production values and characters speaking in that mannered way that only exists in the movies".

Jones has been an enthusiastic champion of the film, and FrightFest doesn't want for prestige, having introduced to the UK films such as Old Boy, Shaun of the Dead and Hostel. So it was a surprise to read his take on why Araki had put the kibosh on Kaboom:

[We] were told that Araki wanted Kaboom pulled from our line-up because he didn't want it being seen by a "bunch of geeks", his alleged words. The first thought that crossed our minds was, how come he's taken this long to tell us when we've been publicising the programme for a month now and every major website has carried the news? The second thought was what sort of film does he think he's actually made? The third was: so much for the pleas of tolerance and acceptance he advocates in his movies. The fourth was: Wow, has he got the FrightFest audience wrong. The fifth was . . . we don't need his movie if that's his blinkered attitude.

It certainly seemed a rum state of affairs, not unlike discovering that Steven Spielberg has it in for UFO nuts. Who would be left to stick up for the geeks if not Araki? His work stretches from his flawed but well-intentioned 1992 debut, The Living End -- a key text of the new queer cinema -- to his beautifully controlled film of Scott Heim's novel Mysterious Skin. Conventional he is not. Even allowing for the inclusivity of terms like "nerd" and "geek", which are affectionate rather than discriminatory, it would be dangerous for any film-maker to dictate in advance a desired audience.

Now Araki claims, in a message posted today on Jones's blog, that he never made any such statement. In fact, he seems to have been kept out of the loop entirely, professing that he only recently discovered his film was off to FrightFest:

As anyone who's seen my movies would know, I'm a cinema geek and genre fan myself . . . As an indie director, I never take any fan of mine for granted and am grateful for each and every one. The only part of this sordid saga that's true is that Kaboom was unfortunately removed from the FrightFest line-up. That decision was made after careful consideration by myself, the other producers [and] the financiers and upon the advice of friends who work in distribution. The sad fact of the matter is it's becoming harder and harder to make and distribute truly independent films in the current marketplace. Getting your film out there to audiences is more difficult than ever and requires careful planning and strategy.

Fan buzz-generating screenings like FrightFest are of course amazing and great fun to do but they're normally slotted closer to a film's theatrical release date as part of an orchestrated marketing effort. Our foremost concern right now is what's best for Kaboom overall and how to parlay the movie's amazing debut in Cannes into the widest distribution possible. As to why the film was pulled so late, I wasn't even told of its inclusion in the festival till a little over a week ago (sorry, but I don't google myself or my films on a regular basis and have no staff or assistants to keep me updated on stuff like that).

That would appear to be the end of the story, at least until Kaboom shows up in this October's BFI London Film Festival line-up, as Jones predicts it might (he says the LFF is "obviously the place Araki thinks would be best for Kaboom even though it hasn't yet been accepted by that flagship festival"). Still, FrightFest gets some well-deserved publicity out of all this, while Kaboom is now a title that people will recognise. So can we kiss and make up?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times