ARTYFACTS: July 2013

Sunday, July 28, 2013

We steal secrets. The story of Wikileaks: It all started with an unexpected WANK

WANK was the name of the worm which NASA detected in their system and which was most likely created by the young, white-haired one - Julian Assange. It foxed the Americans and he’s been foxing them, and other sovereign states, ever since. I’ve read several books on Wikileaks, follow the story, even spoken to Julian Assange, albeit by video link, when he was locked up in his country refuge. So does this film tell us anything new? Well, no.
First, Assange and Wikileaks lie in another land, which the newspapers, books and films don’t, and perhaps can’t, fully grasp and capture. So keen are the old media to characterise, nay caricature, the players that they fail to report on the game. They slip all too easily into celebrity narrative, with Assange, Manning and Snowden. So keen are they to come to some simplistic conclusion (every film needs an ending) that they paint Assange as the rapist with ‘bllod on his hands’ and Manning as a sexually confused miscreant. This is storytelling, not journalism. Even worse it’s re-storytelling by lazy journalists, as it’s largely manipulated by the US Governments PR machine.
What the film does is follow biographical plotlines and fails miserably to tackle the issues and these are big issues. Assange is well read and a sophisticated thinker on the moral philosophy and arguments behind freedom of speech. He knows his Mill a good deal better than his inquisitors, who wouldn’t know the ‘harm principle’ if they found it in their inkwells. Assange doesn’t fit the dominant liberal ‘groupthink’ that pervades old print, radio and TV media. He is a libertarian, who knows what the variants of the ‘harm principle’ are and understands the nuances of the free-speech argument. At times the film puts words in his mouth or relies on people who don’t agree with him to state his position, so I’m not surprised that he refused to participate.
In focusing on Assange’s character we’re focusing on the wrong thing. We need to examine what Wikileaks has achieved, which is considerable. It set the ball rolling in exposing Julian Bar and Kaupthing Bank fraud. It has exposed the corrupt and criminal behaviour of dictators, helping oust them from power. It exposed the brutality of asymmetric war in Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘We steal secrets’ is an altogether misleading title. The US and other governments STEAL secrets, Wikileaks publishes leaks from whistleblowers.
Assange escapes capture
Ultimately Assange escapes capture, as he is not a ‘rock star’, ‘lothario’, ‘hacker’ or ‘madman’. He looks unique and is unique as he moves through an uncharted world where old-school journalists simply never leave port. He’s a navigator in the virtual underworld, uncovering places we never even knew existed, dark parallel continents of information where morality is sometimes abandoned and dark deeds suppressed. Assange inhabits this world and moves through it undetected. He knows how to keep himself hidden and uncover its secrets and they hate him for it.
Wikileaks escapes capture
Wikileaks also escapes capture, as it is not of their world. Traditional journalists just don’t get it. The web has scale on its side, scale in several senses of the word. Scalable content – it can handle huge amounts of searchable data – traditional, linear media cannot. Scalable production – digital copies are infinitely and perfectly copyable. Scalable reach – Wikileaks is immediately available everywhere in all time zones. Scalable presence – it doesn’t exists in a country even continent, as it is mirrored on servers across the globe in a transnational space. On the bright side the film does make the following, often overlooked point. Why is the US pursuing him with such venom and vigour? All he did was publish the same material as The Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel? Don’t see them hunting down those journos? This is a telling point – they fear Wikileaks, they no longer fear embedded and emasculated journalists.
In this increasingly emasculated paper and TV world, the world of print, radio, TV and film, he is admittedly clumsier and has been a victim of its clumsy media mechanics. It explains his reluctance to give interviews or play along with biographies and documentaries that start to play too traditional a game. This may be an unpopular view but I really do think the two Swedish women were in fact internet ‘groupies’ who willingly slept with Assange at the height of his manufactured ‘rock star’ fame, got jealous of each other and started a media-driven process they couldn’t stop (there is no CIA conspiracy). Once again the seedy (sic) details of a couple of one-night stands have become the story, not the corruption, connivance and carnage that Wikileaks exposes.
Assange, Manning, Snowden – they’ll keep on coming. Good people, smart people, talented people, principled people,  who expose what they think is evil to public scrutiny. It is a little known fact that Assange had asked the Pentagon to help with the redaction of the documents, to prevent identity leaks – they refused. The hypocrisy of Obama over the torture of Bradley Manning, and it was unnecessary torture, an unworthy act of revenge, demeans him and the US. The hypocrisy of VISA, MASTERCARD and PAYPAL in stopping payments, under orders from the US government, to Wikileaks is astounding.
Big story is the big picture
The big story is the big picture, that these are two tectonic plates hitting each other and causing lots of friction and small eruptions. As the world creates more information, shares more information and sovereign states gather more information, and overreach themselves, there’s bound to be reactions and leaks. That’s real progress. More importantly, there needs to be a serious debate about the limits of the state as well as the limits of free speech. Assange knows his Mill and understands, in detail, the arguments in this area. I think the state founded on free-speech, the US, has forgotten these principles and resorted to intimidation, torture, bizarre legal cases (even a dirty tricks ‘blood on his hands’ campaign) instead of debate. Their policy is not prosecution, it is persecution.

This position has been strengthened recently by Snowden who claims that, “The 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution of my country, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous statutes and treaties forbid such systems of massive, pervasive surveillance. “ This, I fear, is correct. The US has gone feral on information. Snowden makes another point which Assange has held to for a long time, the need for individuals to hold principles that transcend national interests. They can isolate Assange, torture and lock-up Manning, pursue Snowden, but there will be a long line of people willing to step into their place, until the debate is done. Wikileaks is alive and kicking.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Latitude: dandy time

You get a lot of sniping about Latitude from music journalists and others about its middle englishness, as if a Festival ain’t a Festival unless it’s a mad mudfest. I don’t want the dangerous, drunken madness of T in the Park or Reading. Latitude works because it is NOT these Festivals, that’s the whole point. Set around a lake in a beautiful valley, the organisers create a world in which you can easily wander from venue to venue. It’s not crowded, you never see any violence, even angst. Even when it rains, it’s on sand, therefore minimally muddy. It’s calm, chilled and hassle free. What’s not to like?
Found ourselves camped next to two guys from Aberdeen, who were encycopedic in their knowledge of music. Their advice over the four days was a Godsend, as the choices were bewildering. Had a wander round and a stop off at the Disco Shed. At night the site looks like an old town from a western only lit up like Las Vegas. The site is heavily wooded around the edge and so there’s lots of places to walk to and little venues in the trees. Absolutely magical.
Daniel Kitson
We’re off and it’s Daniel Kitson’s ‘Work in progress’ in the Theatre Tent, fitting, as he’s far more than a stand-up comedian. After having a go at the photographers (your job is redundant, technology won – people take better photographs drunk, at 4am with their arses). The theme, as he always has an overarching problem, which gnaws away at him, is ‘groupthink’ or his tendency to feel uncomfortable with clubs, groups and movements. Formal movements repulse him. He likes football, plays football, but feels squeamish when people chant in unison. It’s about the stupidity and bullying of the crowd. I liked this, as I’ve never ever joined a club, not even the Scouts, and am similarly repulsed by Golf Clubs, Institutes and other godforsaken pools of group banality. It was a lovely ramble from someone who exposes himself to risk by sticking not only his neck but his whole soul to public scrutiny. He genuinely works through his material live when preparing a show. That, in this case, becomes a performance in itself, with all of its flaws, uncertainties and vulnerabilities.
Nick Helm
Next up, Nick Helm. I can’t really take standard stand-up these days. Hence my fondness for Kitson and a couple of others, such as Nick Helm. No standard stand-up here, just an hour of madness. He’s a sort of motivational speaker gone mad with disillusionment, disappointment and despair. The backing band drive out rock tracks to create a weird spectacle. We sing and chant slogans but it’s all meaningless. The audience participation is on scale but pointless and that’s the point.
Tim Burgess
He of Charlatans fame has set off on his own but, despite the blond pudding bowl haircut, doesn’t have the voice to do the solo thing. This is a boy who was in a band, now a man lost without a band.
Popped across to see this lot as I’d heard they can craft a song or two but it was on the main stage and the ditties felt a little lost.
Akron Family
This is more like it. I remembered that the afficiados in the next tent had said ‘Don’t bother with the main stage’ and they had a point. Inside the big tent, the Akron Family thrashed out their psychedelic rock with some aplomb.
John Grant
This is why I come to Latitude, to see faces and music I’ve never heard  of. Grant is a bearded crooner, of sorts, with a band that send out electronic wails that add atmosphere to his tragic ballads. Moving stuff and I’ve never heard anything quite like this. A real find.
Over to the woods to hear the Churches, a Glasgow band with a Claire Grogan-like, lead singer, whose singles I rather like. They lived up to the promise and their album, out in September, will be bought.
Loved this set from this New York band who give it large on guitars. I’m on a roll, three great bands in a row.
Chole Howe
Another find. Chirpy singer with excellent songs who was belting it out in The Arcade, literally under the boughs of some trees.
Bloc Party
Didn’t actually know they were on the bill but I have to say they hammered out their hits and Sharlene Spiteri was the best front-woman of the weekend. Her ballsy attitude and swearing drove the set forward, although, as a swearer myself, I found her use of the word ‘motherfucker’weird. Glaswegians are good at swearing, it’s part of their everyday language, and have more than enough of a swear vocabulary to go it alone, without imports.
Daniel Kitson
Started the day with Kitson and ended it with Kitson. This time, a properly crafted two hour show and classic Kitson magic, although we were so tired we were nodding off.
Two young brothers on guitar and drums. A British Black Keys, but much rougher and rawer. Best thing I’ve seen so far.
Steve Mason
Ex Beta Band man Mason can craft a tune and I really enjoyed this set, though his political rants were a bit wearing.  
King Charles
What he lacks in substance he makes up for in hair. Only ever seen him on TV and YouTube where his ditties are well received but he translated well to the big stage with a rousing rock set. As my friend Al, who’s in the music business, says, “the most important thing in rock ‘n roll is a good haircut”. Al will give you a detailed, historical and convincing analysis on why this is true.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
John Helmer, who plays in teh Pyranhas, has a good line about Annabella from Bow Wow Wow, “making that difficult transition from jailbait to MILF”. Karen O isn’t quite pulling off the wild vamp these days but still gives it her all.
Hot Chip
Wise choice before Kraftwerk and they tinkled out their foot tappers in the perfect time that electronic gadgets provide. Laid Back remains their best song and I’m not sure they’ve progressed much beyond that first hit.
Seminal, yes. Original, yes. Relevant now, no. Turned up but not sure that I’d listen to Kraftwerk for pleasure these days. The show was amazing, all minimalist stage and 3D graphics but donning specs at a headline act seemed odd. The 3D graphics were OK, nothing special. Nostalgia induces exaggeration and just because a band influenced lots of people, doesn’t necessarily mean their own music can deliver a two hour set decades later. She’s a Model and Autobahn, fine, but who listens to Kraftwerk these days? Stuart Maconie, disagrees, and sees in Kraftwerk Europe’s answer to the Beach Boys. Mmmmm….
Refreshingly non-nostalgic set from Alt-J, who were playing in a tiny tent last year. Good on them.
Stuart Maconie
This man can pen a sentence or two, so I toodled along to hear him speak about his new book
He was hugely amusing, as good as a professional stand-up with his journey through British pop-music which, he claims, we Brits invented. From “Bluebirds Over The…” to Bonkers, he takes us through, not the pop-songs he likes, but those that got under the nation’s skin. I liked his point about the nation’s reaction to Thatcher, in London we got Spandau Ballet and ‘Gold’, in the north we got The Smiths. Or his description of Queen as the Matalan Led Zeppelin. Found the £20 book in a small stall in The Woods for a tenner – bought!
Dr Who & The Lattitudes
Nice theatrical skit on Dr Who with suitably near to the bone jokes about paedophilia and BBC Saturday evening shows, and jokes about Latitude. Very funny.
David Trent
Primary school teacher turned comedian, in the Cabaret Tent, gave a show about spontaneity in comedy, where his contrived jokes were the reveal. Novel act that turns the so-called ‘spontaneity of live comedy' on its head, showing it up to be no more that old music-hall gag sets. His spontaneous sex sketch sent mums with children scurrying to the door which has a clear sign saying 15+.
Bobby Womack
Conformation once more that the Main Stage is to be avoided. Getting tired of hearing the word ‘seminal’.
Whole load of young British Psychedelic Rock bands here and I’m rather enjoying them. These guys, however, are a work in progress.
James Yorkston
Scottish crooner who delivered a lovely set of songs in the dappled woods. We sat on a log with a pint of cider and all was well with the world.
The Great Tax Robbery
Poor debate by a Private Eye journalist and ex-VAT inspector about our failure to sole this obvious problem. They were keen to blame the robber capitalists, but the’ incompetence  and no longer fit for purpose’ state of the HMRC was evident. I asked a question to try and enliven the debate “Do you think that tax evasion has infected Middle England, with tens of thousands of teachers tutoring for cash, paying builders in cash and putting spouses on the books of small businesses?” In other words, the people in this tent have long broken the laws on tax, we’ve just grown used to it and that’s why the politicians are so laissez faire about the whole thing. Bullshit replies about how it’s all about context. Minutes earlier they had all agreed it was a serious matter of morals and principle. Oh well.
Another psychedelic rock band and well worth the walk to the woods.
James Blake
Fantastic set in the early evening sunshine.
Eddie Izzard
Getting a bit formulaic is old Eddie, although he may well be focussing less on laughs and more on the Mayoral election. He could just edge it. Still funny as fuck though.
My son recommended this and it was MENTAL. Big Tent wet bonkers with a mixture of R&B and club music that’s just great fun. Now if you get me dancing, you know that its music gold!
Hung around for another recommendation from my son, and as I had on my dancing feet, absolutely loved the White Light/White Noise beats of these brothers ( a lot of brothers on stages this year).
The Foals
Not a great fan but went up to see the final half hour of their set and was impressed. Great way to end three days of unadulterated fun and escapism. See you all next year.

Monday, July 15, 2013

World War Zzzzzz

Zombie movies, I love. The Walking Dead, I adored. World War Z was, well OK. It rips along and the zombie apocalypse plague idea is clever but there’s aspects of the film that just jar. First, the scientist’s death, a key plot turn, is simplistic and contrived - he slips on a ramp. bumps his head and dies!? The scene with Israel welcoming Palestinians through their wall, if not unlikely, is certainly contrived (ah – so they built the wall to keep zombies out!). The ‘family’subplot is also overwrought and too sugary for my taste. And whenever I hear the phrase ‘Navy Seals’ I yawn involuntarily – here comes the banal macho dialogue, bandanas and mock heroics.
Sci-fi and horror can explore sophisticated ideas and push the imagination into philosophical realms, relating to the status of our species, cosmological ideas and so on. But this has been through the Hollywood ratings mill (rated 13+)and ends up being an emasculated, tame thriller. Where's the 'horror'? Some of the zombie scenes are terrific but you're never terrified. Like Pacific Rim, it’s another sci-fi movie that fell to earth. Let’s boldly go back to where no man dared to go…. space!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pacific Rim – when homage turns into montage

OK, I get it del Toro, it’s a homage to all of those movies you loved as a kid but when the homages have more screen time than the movie you’re making it turn from homage to montage. The endless references to previous movies are too obvious to be smart and too many to be interesting. Bladerunner, Aliens, Star Trek, Godzilla, Iron Man, Transformers, even Chinatown gets a reference.
The neuroscience stuff is also odd, you need two people, as you get nosebleeds if you don’t. What a coincidence, as is is also a chance for father-son, romance etc. It also makes the fight scenes confusing. In any case, the Jaegermeisters are too corny and clichéd to be interesting, so you don’t really care of they live or die and the plotline about big daddy, the red shoe (gettit?) and the Japanese girl was trite. As for the two scientists, they were cartoonish and although the dialogue tried to be smart-ass funny, was well below par. Corny dialogue may have been the aim but it’s not funny over an entire movie. The English scientist was just ANNOYING.

The fight scenes are terrific, but are loosely held together by a shoestring of a plot, corny characters and flimsy dialogue. My ultimate dismay comes from the fact that sci-fi has fallen back to earth, this means that imaginative plots, places and ideas are replaced with fanboy homage, monsters and big toys. For kids who haven’t seen all this stuff, fine. For adults, it’s a waste of talent and budget.