I, Daniel Blake
It’s no secret that Ken Loach is a socialist, and he doesn’t seem keen to shirk such pidgeonholing. I’m left-leaning and proud, I share most of his convictions, yet as a cinemagoer I believe that a tinge of doubt is required in all celluloid political commentary. Why? Because otherwise you run the risk of handing an easy counterpunch to the enemy, who will cry ‘propaganda’. The right-wing press has of course done exactly that in reviewing this film, and though I have little time for almost anyone operating on Rupert Murdoch’s payroll, this time I must concur with them. You’re not going to win over the opposition by patronising them, so the honest, hard-working, caring everyman of Daniel Blake, the film’s working class hero, is easy to dismiss as a socialist’s idealised view of the poor, just as the empty-shell bureaucrats he encounters in the job centre are an exaggeration of the welfare system’s failures. I’ve been through the system myself, I’m well aware of its inadequacies, especially the way in which it treats people as a series of online stats rather than as the vulnerable beings they are. But despite moments of understandable severity, the majority of staff I’ve encountered whilst claiming JSA have seemed to be sympathetic and genuinely concerned with the welfare of their claimants. Naturally, I can’t speak for job centres across the country, and certainly not in Newcastle where this film is set. Yet the film’s depiction of the staff as droids just ticking boxes on a computer has a dehumanising effect, one that is comparable with the working class dehumanisation which so rightly disturbs Loach. I find hypocrisy dismaying wherever I find it, including here. It’s a pity, because the cast seem ready to take on more nuance than is ever permitted them, with Dave Johns radiating good humour as the title character, even if we never feel the weight of his lifelong struggles, and Hayley Squires superb as a single mother who delivers the film’s most devastating blow in a food bank. We badly need Britain’s art and culture to tackle the pernicious shambles of this wealthy country’s inability to look after its most vulnerable, we really do. But we need it to be done with a lot more tact than is displayed here.
Joanne – Lady Gaga
I’ve admired Lady Gaga ever since her inception startled the world – she represents many things that I support wholeheartedly: sex and music as unabashed pleasure; gay rights activism; big, daft hooks and bigger, dafter beats; a disregard for high/low cultural divides. But Gaga’s endearing zaniness has nevertheless resulted in an uneven banger:filler ratio on her albums, and that’s an issue here as well. For every ‘A-YO’, a tour de force of modern electropop songcraft with guitar licks from Josh Homme and searing vocals to boot, there is a ‘Perfect Illusion’, the weak first single which awkwardly pivots around a key change in its final third. The pink cowboy hat adorning the album’s cover is a signal of the significant shift in musical direction within, with Gaga dabbling in such country styling as the slide guitar which makes cameo appearances throughout and her twangy performance on the Nashville-inspired ballad ‘Million Reasons’. Country music thematically suits her predilection for bad men, with John Wayne here amusingly singled out for erotic attention as Judas was on Born This Way. But overall she seems hesitant to completely commit to the genre, of course not wishing to abandon her solid pop fanbase in the process. There’s nothing wrong with country-pop compromise in theory, genres which Shania Twain and Taylor Swift have shown are separated by a slim thread, however Gaga’s tentative approach makes songs like ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ quite laborious when a little chutzpah could’ve made them a joy. She sounds much more at home on the archetypal disco thump of ‘Diamond Heart’ and the epic masturbation odyssey ‘Dancin’ in Circles’, glitz and sensuality being more her thang. With luck age and experience will deepen the stylistic diversions that are indeed suited to her hyperactivity, but on this occasion any potential was missed.
You Want it Darker – Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen tends to inspire slavish devotion amongst his fans – and I’m not being rude, because I’m one of them. Anyone who has failed to listen to his works with even the slightest attention will think of him as a manic depressive on record, but give ‘Tower of Song’ a spin and proceed from there, and you will quickly realise the warmth, wit, humanity, and wisdom that underlines his gravelly voice and occasionally foreboding poetic discourse. Now Cohen has challenged his fans: You Want it Darker, as the title suggests, is his bleakest in years. It resembles Plastic Ono Band in its dawning of a new nihilism for the artist, rejecting outright a (Jewish) God that has always intrigued his sceptical mind: ‘If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.’ Cohen sounds so wounded by all of the appalling suffering in the world that he can no longer drag the mutilated corpse of his faith along. A God that permits such a vast scale of violence, a God that permanently wants it darker, is a God that no longer relates to his pacifism. He tries to offer up a reconciliation twice on the album: ‘I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine’, but the minor key and mournful tone of the string accompaniment don’t imply any hope of permanent resolution. The album sees a Cohen alone and defeated, despite the choruses that sometimes soothe the cracks in his ancient voice, abandoned not just by God but also by his libido: a notorious womaniser once upon a time, he now claims ‘I don’t need a lover, no, no/The wretched beast is tamed.’ There are jokes like this one, but not as frequently as expected, because defeatism seeps into every pore of the album’s being. It sounds like the tracks were recorded in a crypt, which matches the spiritual and romantic post-mortems to be found in the lyrics, with the prominent electric bass, as deep as thunder and of course Leonard’s larynx, a particularly unnerving feature. At the end, I felt the overwhelming desire to give Cohen a hug; he’s a man that I have loved and listened to so often, now in a period of darkness. As such, it’s an album that I’ll not be able to listen to often, but whenever I do I’m sure I will always appreciate the clear-minded transparency with which he has related this existential crisis.