Lana Del Rey: Lust for Life (2017) – Album Review

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Besides the great ‘High by the Beach’, I’ve never really connected with anything this melancholic pop chanteuse has done before. I disliked her Born to Die and love-as-Ultraviolence eternal teenager schtick, despite being fascinated by that floating voice. And I found the oh… so… slow… dirges of Honeymoon just… too… lethargic.

So it was with great excitement that several listens into Lust for Life I noticed my total engagement as a listener, throughout every single one of its 71 minutes. The first couple of times it sounded too long, for sure, but when I finally set myself the task of considering which songs should be cut, I was stumped – they all succeed as entertainment, art or both.

What’s changed from the early days? How’s her consistency percentage suddenly shot so high? Perhaps the key’s to be found in a recent interview Del Rey did with Pitchfork, where she reveals: ‘When things are good, the music is better.’

That sounds like wisdom to me. Maturity, even. One of the biggest fallacies in music is that you have to suffer for your art: life is full of pain, we all know that, but that doesn’t mean it’s only pain. Nihilistic despair, particularly with regards to romance, is an easy trick to deploy in pop music because it generates instant empathy from an audience with plenty of problems of their own. Artists who acknowledge the simple pleasures in life, without making it sound schmaltzy or too ignorant of real-world pain, deserve a lot more respect, I believe.

So on Lust for Life it’s no coincidence that things are going pretty well in Del Rey’s life and the music is better. In fact, just as she predicted, they’re interlinked.

Along with long-time producer Rick Nowels and a team of co-writers, Del Rey fashions an album that still sounds downbeat on the surface – there’s lots of minor-key ballads, funereal tempos, and eerie multitracked vocals – but that also manages to hide plenty of subtle summery touches underneath. So the haunted ‘White Mustang’ starts off with just a soft piano accompaniment and Del Rey’s quiver, before it starts piling on trap beats like a pop Bolero, soon taking it into an unexpectedly danceable realm. It shouldn’t sound inspirational, but it does.

Fun is to be found round every corner, with a lust for life and music very much keeping her alive. She quotes Iggy Pop on the album title and cover, of course, but throughout the album she also drops references to such classic rock staples as The Angels, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Sam Cooke, and Neil Young (the ending ‘Out of the black/Into the blue’ is nicked straight from Rust Never Sleeps). Her distinctive contralto, shuffling between octaves with ease, also deliberately evokes past greats such as Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Amy Winehouse. Her love and respect for the culture that created her comes across powerfully, perhaps most entertainingly on a duet with Sean Ono Lennon where she suddenly exclaims: ‘“Isn’t life crazy?” I said/Now that I’m singing with Sean/Whoa!’ It’s a great moment, with the Stevie Nicks collab ‘Beautiful People Beautiful Problems’ further proof that Del Rey should do more duets. The fangirldom of these moments are incredibly fetching – they sound distinctly like her fallback pessimism being shattered and replaced by the communal spirit that good music should bring.

Darkness gets dispelled everywhere on Lust for Life – even on the political cuts, which are a first for Del Rey. At first you might suspect the title of ‘God Bless America’ to be ironic, considering the nation’s current president, but then consider the subtitle: ‘And All the Beautiful Women In It’. Irony melts away. Then the following track asks: ‘Is it the end of an era?/Is it the end of America?’ and bravely answers it with ‘No, it’s only the beginning.’ That song’s called ‘When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing’, but an alternative title might be ‘Fuck Trump – Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’.

Elsewhere there’s an ode to love (you guessed it, ‘Love’), followed by an ode to sex and dancing on the ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign with The Weeknd (‘Lust for Life’). There’s also a search for ‘something real’ that ingeniously uses a backdrop of faker-than-fake synthesizers (’13 Beaches’). And then there’s the last track, ‘Get Free’, which has been criticised for snatching its melody from Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, and indeed it does. But then Thom Yorke’s never penned a lyric as smart as this: ‘Take the dead out of the sea/And the darkness from the arts/This is my commitment/My modern manifesto’ (I don’t know who wrote it, but Del Rey owns it). In fact, it’s the very antithesis of Yorke’s own philosophy. So whisper it: I think ‘Get Free’ is a much better song than ‘Creep’.

Back in 2014, Lana Del Rey sang on Ultraviolence: ‘I look pretty when I cry’. Lust for Life is here to prove that she looks and sounds a whole lot prettier when she smiles.

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Dunkirk (2017) – Film Review

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Christopher Nolan’s not one to shy away from big topics or Biblical running times – so it’s no surprise that his latest tackles the most spectacular and in many ways successful retreat in British military history, but it is a surprise that it lasts a mere 107 minutes.

Dunkirk’s a bit like the last half hour of The Dark Knight drawn out to feature length: lean, focused, people- rather than CGI-driven, and edited to within an inch of its life as Hans Zimmer ratchets up the orchestra to overdrive on top. It’s quite a spectacle, the sight of our finest young action director paring things down to essentials, and if you’re not thrilled, then check your pulse.

Despite its leanness, Nolan can’t resist chucking in some time-bending play, much like Inception or Memento, and the decision to cover a week on the beach, a day on the sea, and an hour in the air, crisscrossing between them, is either foolhardy or impressively ambitious, depending on your perspective. I think it’s a little of both – the film demonstrates how time appears mutable, lengthening or shortening according to where you are. In combat, an hour of fighting inside a cockpit might feel like a day, a day on a boat journeying into a warzone might feel like a week, a week of waiting onshore to be blown up or rescued might feel like a lifetime. But the jarring cuts from day to night and back again that the film undergoes thanks to its timehopping structure sometimes has the effect of distancing from the action, with thoughts leading to the construction of the film rather than the immediate peril of the men.

The film works best as a simple story of survival. The dialogue is clunky when it comes, which is not often, and when it does we long for them to shut up and carry on with the act of surviving.  So we really do hope that the soldiers make it back home, of course we do, but the script doesn’t give any impression of the men’s inner lives. Who is Harry Styles playing? Tom Hardy? Kenneth Branagh? They could be anyone, they could be cardboard cutouts, and when they speak that becomes apparent.

Nolan’s been interested in characters before – particularly the Joker, whose richness exposes the shallowness of all other comic book villains – but they’ve always come second to the relentless narrative drive of his films, and perhaps third to the pondering of big themes such as the nature of time, space and memory. Dunkirk abandons the formulating of characters altogether, and can be accused of a certain coldness. It only really displays emotion via a few tears from Kenneth Branagh, and at the end when it turns towards Spielbergian propaganda with a rendition of the famous ‘We’ll fight them on the beaches…’ speech accompanying the homecoming of survivors.

Yes, I’m aware that the lack of character development is deliberate, a rejection of the cheesy back stories that bog down so many war films. But I think the interchangeability of these men is a mistake, and that a little more effort spent colouring them in could have made for a much more memorable film. Tom Hardy in particular is wasted, playing a pilot whose performance mostly takes place behind a mask and in silence. Hardy’s an outstanding actor, and can do so much when given free rein. But here he’s only required to blink and move his hands a bit, which is a great pity, a really great pity.

Obvious flaws aside, it can’t be denied that this is an impressive film. Some of the action scenes are overwhelmingly visceral – point-of-view shots of planes being shot down are so close to the total immersion of video games that I almost had the urge to press ‘R2’ at the screen. But I can’t quite buy the argument that this film is a modern classic. I don’t agree that Nolan ‘eschews war porn’ in Dunkirk, not like Kubrick in Paths of Glory, because the way he films combat is so obviously ecstatic (although it’s stately, and at least you can’t sense Nolan jacking off by the side of the camera, like you could Mel Gibson with the dreadful Hacksaw Ridge).

Which is not to diminish either Nolan’s achievement or that of the British in Dunkirk: both are fairly wondrous success stories.

I salute it.

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Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017) – Film Review

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Available on Netflix.

With the UK’s media currently under scrutiny following the release of the BBC’s staff salaries, I was reminded yesterday to check out this Netflix documentary about America’s press under siege, and have been thinking about little else ever since.

It’s an unruly film that tries to logically link together three separate cases of the US media under attack – each time from billionaires, and for reasons of vested interest. The links could have been made more clear – it’s rather shabbily edited. But the conclusion drawn is obvious: the constitutional rights of the free press have never been under greater duress than at the present moment.

The first case Nobody Speak looks at is the least morally clear. It concerns the lawsuit brought against gossip website Gawker by the wrestler Hulk Hogan, after they leak a sex tape involving him doing the naughty with his best friend’s wife. As a freedom of speech issue it’s confusing, with the filmmakers inviting us to be confused. Should a ‘news’ website have the right to put out graphic, sensitive material into the public domain, and should it be protected under the First Amendment in doing so? Is a spurious organisation such as Gawker, who smack of this country’s Daily Mail, but with even less scruples, worth defending?

Nobody Speak bypasses these issues by choosing to follow the money behind the lawsuit. Its greatest concern is finding that Silicon Valley billionaire and Facebook shareholder Peter Thiel, in an unprecedented move, is the one bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s case through the courts. Why? We can only speculate, because Thiel isn’t interviewed. But the film does reveal a number of articles that Gawker published about him, explicitly alleging his homosexuality and criticising his numerous business ventures. As such, it’s suggested that Thiel probably has a personal vendetta against them. So when Gawker are found guilty on all charges and fined $140 million, bankrupting them, we are invited to share the concern that a member of the 1% global elite has managed to fund the takedown of an entire news outlet. All on his own. Whatever our thoughts on the morality of said news outlet, the precedent set of capitalists using their influence to meddle in the media when it’s had the gall to affront them is still troubling. So sayeth the film, anyway, and I tend to agree.

The second case is a more straightforwardly abhorrent example of big money’s interference in the free press. It details the mysterious takeover of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by… an unknown buyer. The journalists working there instantly smell a rat, and like good old-fashioned heroes from All the President’s Men, they use all of their resourcefulness to uncover a conspiracy. It turns out that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is behind it all, purchasing the company through his son-in-law in order to block certain columnists from writing criticism of him in its pages. The journalists with integrity are forced to quit, leaving behind what? An empty shell of a news journal, blocked from honest reporting by corporate interests. The title Nobody Speak continues to speak for itself.

Finally, and perhaps inevitably, we are confronted with the hideous power mogul to end all hideous power moguls: Donald Trump. If the footage of Trump’s bashing of the media at his rallies, and his miserable cronies Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway crowing ‘fake news’ at any opportunity, have somehow managed to escape your notice, well, here they are in all their vulgar glory. Trump is like any of the other billionaire bullies in this film, using his power to attempt to silence the freedom of the press when it threatens to expose his vested interests. He sees himself as above interrogation, as supreme possessor of the only ‘truth’. The man’s an almost unimaginably awful threat to the founding principles of western democracy, but the film impressively shows him as being only a symptom of the ugliest, vulgarest side of capitalism: where if you have money, you can damn well bully whoever you want, including those protected by the First Amendment.

So it’s no surprise that Trump’s planning to make it easier for people (rich people) to litigate against the media, his only real passion in life being to silence those who oppose him.

It’s a concerning time, for sure, and Nobody Speak is a compelling diagnosis of our time. Does it leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth? You bet. We need to have our noses rubbed in the scummy earth of consumer capitalism once in a while, and we should thank the global corporation of Netflix for so obliging us.

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My Top 10 Beatles Covers

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My favourite band of all time – not a controversial opinion I’m aware, but an honest one – had such an outstanding trio of songwriters at their core that any list of their ‘standards’ must extend way past the obvious hits and into the deep album cuts that are the pitfall of so many lesser groups. Therefore Beatles covers, inevitably, are greater in quantity than those of any other band, and also greater in quality, because the couple of hundred modern folk songs they penned were so universal and hence difficult to ruin through misinterpretation.

That said, The Beatles were also some of the greatest performers of the century as well. If their vitality was remotely easy to reproduce then our music scene would be a lot richer than it is (our most popular songwriter of the moment, Ed Sheeran, makes me want to weep with boredom). So in this list of my favourite Beatles covers, only no. 1 and, at a push, no. 2 manage to convince me that they’re better than the original. I long for the harmonies and tight economy of playing that the Fab Four bring, even when the artists covering them are major.

Every single one of these is still worth listening to. And together they form a moving tribute to the endless, endless joy to be derived from the sunny songwriting of these boys.

 

1) ‘She Came in Through the Bathroom Window’ – Joe Cocker

Most prefer the slow-burn soul of Cocker’s ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, but I’ve always found this jaunty little number far more impressive: whereas in Abbey Road it got somewhat lost in the second side’s suite, here it stands boldly and plainly on its own, and Cocker’s throaty vocals bounce off the country-twanging guitar and piano to create real rock n’ roll excitement. The only Beatles cover I play with any kind of regularity.

 

2) ‘I’m Looking Through You’ – Steve Earle

The reason I’m writing this piece is because I’ve recently discovered this gem of a cover, stumbling across it whilst exploring the work of Steve Earle, an artist I formerly knew only from a small part in The Wire. It appears on his gorgeous acoustic roots-rock album Train a Comin’, which also includes an unmissable duet of ‘Rivers of Babylon’ with Emmylou Harris. I so fell in love with its deepening of the country rock logic that forms Rubber Soul’s primary appeal, that I had to write this list just to let y’all know about its existence. Check it.

 

3) ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ – Prince, Tom Petty, Steve Winwood & Jeff Lynne (2004 Hall of Fame Inductions)

I only love one of these musicians, and my God does he steal the show here: skip to 3:27 for one of the finest live guitar solos of all time, a moment so indelible it went viral shortly after his death. The great man demonstrates a playful virtuosity worthy of making his own guitar weep, for sure, and it probably makes the chumps on stage with him weep a little inside too.

 

4) ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ – Miley Cyrus & The Flaming Lips

Miley Cyrus gets a lot of stick from far too many rockist dinosaurs, who love the commercial pop music of The Beatles and really should know better. But her brand of eccentricity eases the sometimes pompous prog-psychedelic noise of The Flaming Lips, whose Sgt. Pepper covers album With a Little Help From My Fwends was wackily uneven. Cyrus gets the ethereality of this song pretty much spot-on.

 

5) ‘Hey Jude’ – Wilson Pickett & Duane Allman

It interests me how many of these are billed as collaborations, the spirit of collaborative fun being one of the key reasons for The Beatles’ enduring popularity, I believe. The Beatles were famous for many things, but never for bringing da funk – but then again neither was Duane Allman, and Wilson Pickett manages to bring it forth from both of them. Scream for scream he matches Paul on the fadeout, and the horns should remind us all of the Motown and R&B hits that were formative influences on these northern England white boys.

 

6) ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ – The Breeders

This White Album highlight was always on the brink of chaos, structurally quite absurd, so it fits well with The Breeders’, and grunge’s, aesthetic of sloppy just-about-holding-togetherness. It’s from one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite albums, incidentally, which should help sell it to you.

 

7) ‘Dear Prudence’ – Siouxsie & the Banshees

Another Lennon highlight from the unwieldy White Album – the chord progression and lyrics are, surprisingly, no less sweet in this gothic interpretation. I don’t believe Siouxsie was ever a great singer, or her backup a great band, yet a feeling of kinship with The Beatles’ darkest and most fascinating member shines through here, brighter than anything she wrote herself.

 

8) ‘We Can Work it Out’ – Stevie Wonder

Joint first as the most tonally audacious work in The Beatles’ canon (along with ‘A Day in the Life’), a perennial battle between Paul’s jaunty optimism and John’s pitch-black interjections of death. Dark and light, it’s made to bounce all the same by Stevie Wonder, who doesn’t approach the original’s complexity, but damn sure doesn’t seem to care as he sings his big heart out.

 

9) ‘In My Life’ – Johnny Cash

The Man in Black really does sound like he’s at the end of his life here, which is what makes it so moving. The Beatles’ version was the sound of a maturity beyond their years. Cash’s version is the sound of those years having been stripped away, leaving nothing behind but a profound simplicity, of voice and expression. That’s maturity.

 

10) ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ – Jake Shimabukuro

Repeating myself, I know. But I make no apologies. This guy kills it.

The Lost City of Z (2016) – Film Review

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It took me a while to ‘get’ this film, but certain imagery and sequences have kept coming back to haunt me, with a hallucinatory relentlessness that recalls fever dreams and Apocalypse Now.

Like that great film, this one is largely set in the jungle (this time in Bolivia), and features out-of-their-depth westerners traveling down a river (this time the Amazon) and out of their minds. You can feel the sticky heat oozing off practically every inch of every frame as British explorer Percy Fawcett (a real-life figure who partially inspired Indiana Jones), played by Charlie Hunnam, and his team venture downstream in the early 20th century. First they go in search of a conciliation between the Bolivian and Brazilian tribes at the border, in order to stabilise the price of rubber. Then they head off in search of a lost civilisation, which at times only Fawcett and the native Bolivians believe they will find.

Is Fawcett mad? Perhaps not in the literal sense of Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now or Aguirre in Wrath of God: Fawcett is more practical, calm and collected than either of those conquistadors. He never resorts to indefensible violence against any of his co-explorers or the natives they encounter, and his thoughtful demeanour deflects accusations of delusions of grandeur. Yet there is a strange subconscious compulsion that draws Fawcett back, three times, to the dangerous Bolivian jungle in search of his lost city; just like Beowulf who fought monsters, three times, we know that it will inevitably end in tragedy. Maybe it’s a desire for prestige that drives him – we’re told early on that his father drank and gambled away their family’s reputation, so there’s clearly the concern of having to return honour to the family name. But in arguing for the existence of an intelligent tribe that predates white Europeans, Fawcett does take quite the gamble with his reputation, at the possible expense of his family’s wellbeing – remember this is stuffy, imperialist-minded Britain (MPs openly jeer him, like primates, at Westminster in one of the film’s best setpieces). Could it be that Fawcett’s interests are genuinely anthropological? Or is there something more basic about the rainforest that keeps on drawing him back, a primitivism that leans closer to God than he could ever have imagined?

So he’s a complicated chap, played with admirable reserve by Charlie Hunnam. Hunnam’s performance has unfairly been attacked for lacking charisma by some critics, presumably because he doesn’t go all bug-eyed schizoid on our asses like Martin Sheen or Klaus Kinski. But the film’s dreamlike logic tends to pull back from any literal interpretations, and Hunnam’s underacting considerably deepens both his character’s and the film’s mysteries.

The dreamlike vagueness does wonders for creating interest in the mirage personality of Percy Fawcett then, but the haziness also undercuts the efforts of the supporting cast in reducing their roles to anonymities. Robert Pattinson as a fellow explorer struggles to act his way through a stifling beard. Sienna Miller as the wife isn’t given enough time to explore the interesting oxymoron of her being a homebound feminist. And Tom Holland as the son is sullen and then suddenly in awe of his father in a way that doesn’t quite add up. They all leave only a slight impression, which I don’t believe is the fault of the actors but the fault of the director, James Gray.

Gray has shown brilliance before – take 2013’s The Immigrants, for instance – and though he orchestrates the photographic contrasts between London city life and the humid climes of Bolivia with a keen eye, and also writes dialogue with a distinct ear that holds you to the screen, I feel that his grip on The Lost City of Z is not quite tight enough. It’s easier to create an air of mystery than to offer specific answers to questions raised, particularly when filming in the wilderness of nature, and his dodging of narrative convention is sometimes intriguing but often structurally clunky. There is little forward-motion to smooth over the cracks.

In comparison, despite its many excesses, Apocalypse Now offers us a firmer vision: a delineation of human horror that is at once terrible, awe-inspiring, and exciting. Herzog’s films seem clearer on the mad pursuit of dreams. And last year’s The Revenant explores the intersection of mankind, nature, and God with greater depth.

Where does that leave us with The Lost City of Z? A somber, well-made film it most surely is, and the ending is so shrouded in the many mysteries that it has accumulated as to genuinely touch upon the unheimlich.

Yet like its hero’s quest, James Gray’s film never quite reaches its destination. Which is a shame. But perhaps it was the intention all along, for both of them.

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Jay-Z: 4:44 (2017) – Album Review

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Jigga’s changing on us. Maybe it’s middle-age approaching, maybe it’s becoming a father to some stupidly named twins, maybe it’s his superdiva wife slapping him down with irresistible force on Lemonade… whatever the reason, the old gangsta’s softening up.

4:44 follows the misstep of Magna Carter Holy Grail, and its main purpose is to let the world know that, right now and forever more, family is the most important thing in his life. Even more than money. Even more than street cred. Even more than demonstrating he’s the best rapper alive.

Tracks 1-6 are the most revealing Jay’s ever been, taking a leaf out of his apprentice Kanye’s soul-searching book of rap. He addresses, you’ll be amazed to hear, with a high level of humility various accusations that have been levelled against him over the years. He kills off Jay-Z, the cocksure street thug persona, in the first track: ‘Fuck Jay-Z… You got people you love you sold drugs to/You got high on the life, that shit drugged you/You walkin’ around like you invincible/You dropped outta school, you lost your principles.’ He follows that up with a neat little ode to black pride and O.J.’s betrayal of it, betrayal being the one of the album’s key themes. Then on the title track he finally owns up to cheating on Bey with the mysterious ‘Becky’, in a song so full of quotables that it’s hard to choose just one, but this particularly got to me: ‘You matured faster than me, I wasn’t ready/So I apologise/I seen the innocence leave your eyes’. And then on the next track, in full splendour, his cuckolded wife joins him to inform the world that ‘Nobody wins when the family feuds’. Beyoncé cries ‘Amen’, and so do we.

I’m tired of the fools on the internet who spend their time posting theories about how this whole marital spat has been made up to sell albums. Because if it has, then so what? Who cares? I don’t know Mr. Carter or Ms. Knowles personally and neither do you. Therefore the ‘truthfulness’ of this whole ‘Becky’ situation has no relevance – we should treat Lemonade and 4:44 as artistic projects about the difficulty of sustaining love and marriage in the modern world. Because adultery is commonplace, whether we want to admit it or not, and the fact that this particular couple have addressed it so openly and intelligently in their music makes for absorbing, fascinating listening. That they happen to be superrich and famous is completely irrelevant. They’ve given their fans a window into the troubles involved with sustaining a relationship beyond the happily-ever-after of marriage, and personally I love them for it.

4:44 is not, however, as focused or perfect as Lemonade. Tracks 7-10 sadly peter out, aiming for a return to the operatic level of boasting that made Jigga’s name, yet sounding less convincing than usual after the vulnerability displayed before. His takedown of the Migos ‘skrrt-skrrt’ school of rappers on ‘Moonlight’ is admittedly deft: ‘We stuck in La La Land/Even when we win, we gon’ lose!’ But ‘Legacy’ doesn’t leave you pondering the enormity of his legacy the way it promises to, riding a half-assed beat in a way that won’t make you come crawling back for more in the way that, say, The Black Album will.

Jay-Z’s always been very, very funny and his flow’s never been less than enthralling, but never before has the man seemed, well, likeable. Enter the joyful Stevie Wonder sample and open-hearted message of ‘Smile’, which includes Jay’s response to finding out that his mother was a lesbian: ‘Cried tears of joy when you fell in love/Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her/I just wanna see you smile through all the hate.’ Well, well. Even if he nearly let the ‘baddest girl in the world’ get away through his own selfish pride, I’m starting to like the man. Not just his music.

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Risk (2016) – Film Review

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I get frustrated with those on the left – and I am on the left myself – who treat Julian Assange as some kind of anti-establishment hero, and as someone who’s somehow beyond criticism because of his imprisonment and ‘martyrdom’. We can believe in the principles of WikiLeaks, as I do, and believe in holding governments to account with absolute freedom of information, without elevating the organisation’s founders to Godlike (or at least, for radicals, Guevaralike) levels of irreproachability.

Risk comes as a vindication for those of us who have long mistrusted Julian Assange and his well-documented fascistic and sexist tendencies. Because, simply, they’ve never been so well-documented as they are here. Director Laura Poitras was granted unprecedented access to WikiLeak’s inner circle in her filming, and closely follows the team from the early days of enormous data leaks, through Chelsea Manning’s shocking arrest and 35-year prison sentence (of course she’s now freed), and Assange’s fleeing to the Ecuadorian embassy where he is still shacked up. It would appear to be a tale of courage under adversity then, and that’s what Poitras initially set out to film. However, it becomes a much darker beast when Assange’s hostility and bullying nature starts to become self-evident both on and off camera. Laura eventually acknowledges around the half-way point that: ‘I thought I could ignore the contradictions, I thought they were not part of the story. I was so wrong. They are becoming the story.’

The heart of WikiLeaks turns out to be a heart of darkness: Assange, as we know, was wanted for questioning in Sweden over four counts of sexual molestation, including the rape of two women. Although Sweden have since dropped its investigation, the allegations of the two women stand, and it doesn’t take much reading around to work out that these allegations are not fabricated by the US government, as conspiracy theorists would have you believe. Here are some revealing words, for instance, by James Ball (in a must-read article), who worked with Assange at WikiLeaks for a short time:

The details of what happened over those few days remain a matter for the Swedish justice system, not speculation, but having seen and heard Assange and those around him discuss the case, having read out the court documents, and having followed the extradition case in the UK all the way to the supreme court, I know it is a real, complicated sexual assault and rape case. It is no CIA smear, and it relates to Assange’s role at WikiLeaks only in that his work there is how they met.

I can’t, and won’t, speculate on the truth of the rape allegations either. However, one appalling moment in Risk demonstrates Assange’s misogyny in full bloom, and unequivocally on display: Assange responds to a female lawyer’s request for more conciliatory language towards his accusers by informing her that it’s all a ‘radical feminist conspiracy’ against him by women who run a ‘lesbian nightclub’. And then later, he tells Poitras in an interview that if the case ever reaches the courts, these women would ‘be reviled forever by a large segment of the population’. His victim-shaming starts to look like a Trump-level of egomaniacal delusion. Which is why, with breathtaking hypocrisy, considering what WikiLeaks represents, Assange apparently called his lawyers to demand these scenes were removed from the film and furiously texted Poitras that it was a ‘threat to his freedom’.

There are other uncomfortable truths that the film wisely covers in detail. For example, there’s the sexual abuse allegations made against another WikiLeaks operative, Jacob Applebaum, with whom it transpires Poitras once had a short affair before he abused one of her friends. Then there’s the 2016 Hillary Clinton email leaks scandal, in which Assange played a huge role, yet still denies collusion with Russia. Nobody could rationally blame the leaks for her election loss – it was likely more to do with a lacklustre campaign and already tarnished political reputation – however it does still smack of a personal vendetta against Clinton that’s disturbing. Where were the Trump leaks?

A portrait builds up of abuse of power amongst the founders of WikiLeaks that is deeply unsettling, and a far cry from the more straightforward heroism portrayed in Poitras’ award-winning Citizenfour, which was about the plight of the genuinely decent Edward Snowden. Yet though Snowden’s the better person, Risk is the better film, I think, because its moral haziness accrues ambiguities and causes all of us, and Poitras, to think hard about the efficacy of unaccountable organisations such as WikiLeaks, and not just unaccountable governments.

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