Film

'Whitey: United States v. James J. Bulger': Lies, Files, and Silences

Whether officials' lying and covering up in order to crack cases are a matter of necessity, ambition, or ineptitude, the lack of investigation in this case is just that, a lack.


Whitey: United States v. James J. Bulger

Director: Joe Berlinger
Cast: James J. Bulger, J.W. Carney, Steve Davis, Hank Brennan, Shelley Murphy, David Boeri, Kevin Culllen, Fred Wyshak
Rated: NR
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-06-27 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer
"The only audio of Whitey comes from 30-year-old wiretaps and recently at trial a couple of minutes of recorded conversations when he was talking to relatives. But those were unwilling and unaware that he was being captured on audio. The only audio of him willingly participating in a media project is in this film. It is by no means, necessarily, the truth."

-- Joe Berlinger

"You've never been an informant." Whitey Bulger's lawyer is speaking to him by phone, and his statement might just as well be a question, as the conversation -- performed for a camera -- means to clarify or at least reframe a few things. As J. W. Carney Jr. leans over his desk, his client makes an emphatic denial. "Never," Bulger says, his voice simultaneously pointed and muffled. "As a teenager, I took many a beating in the police station. I never cracked."

The point is apparently key for the 83-year-old Bulger, who maintains that he was a "good bad guy" or "a gangster with scruples," as the Boston Globe's Kevin Cullen phrases it. This even as Bulger doesn't appear on screen in Whitey: United States v. James J. Bulger, except in archival photos and mug shots. His absence looms in Joe Berlinger's remarkable documentary, mostly because everyone else has so much to say about him, "everyone" meaning his former colleagues, his victims, and the FBI agents who worked for some 16 years to bring him in.

Arrested in June 2011 and convicted on 12 August 2013 of 31 counts, including racketeering, extortion, and murder. Bulger's defense, that he was essentially given immunity to kill and commit other mayhem, was premised on the government's corruption, its complicity in his crimes.

For the many people affected by Bulger's legendary brutality, the people he threatened and the relatives of people he killed, his status as an informant only complicates the damage he's done, neither reducing nor augmenting it. The case either way might never be resolved, given that so many of the men with whom Bulger worked or allegedly worked, are dead.

On its face, Bulger's insistence sounds like he's invested in a tedious macho reputation ("I asked the questions. I was the one directing, they didn't direct me."), but the case raises so many concerns that this one about his self-image seems almost irrelevant. Whatever Bulger thinks or says he did, lingering doubts about what the government said and did remain troubling.

Bulger is a self-admitted criminal, even if he claims to have "standards". But the state's judgment in his case is less an endpoint than an occasion for another set of questions in Berlinger's film, which screened at AFI Docs and is opening in in theaters and on demand 27 June. These questions have to do with systemic deception, incompetence, and abuse, not just the deviations of individuals, but more worryingly, the persistent condition of social and legal structures, the same structures the filmmaker investigates in the Paradise Lost trilogy, in Crude, and in The System with Joe Berlinger.

Bulger's lawyers argue that his case was contained, in court, in order that particular backstories were not revealed. They make a persuasive demonstration that the FBI file on him is uneven, perfunctory, and likely not compiled with his help as an informant (or else, it was just poorly constructed and maintained). While Bulger hardly needed to be an informant to do what he did, the government's insistence that he was -- to deny him the immunity defense -- helps to close down avenues of inquiry that may or may not have revealed other crimes by other people.

The film's structure highlights ambiguities and doubts regarding other people's parts in his career. Specifically, it raises uncertainties -- not originally, but cogently -- about people who had the institutional power to countenance or even support his enterprises, power that allows allows them to remain unaccountable. Carney introduces at least one piece in this puzzle when he says, "This isn’t really a typical criminal trial."

That is, Bulger's assertion of criminal corruption among legal officers is not a means to claim innocence or even reduce his sentence, but instead, "It's like his last opportunity to tell people that he was never an informant, that our federal government is more corrupt in law enforcement than anyone ever imagined even to this day in this trial."

The truth of this assertion is unknown and clearly, Bulger has reason to lie. But so does the government. When Bulger's colleague Kevin Weeks says in court (one of several recordings and transcripts include in the film), "I been lying my whole life. I'm a criminal," you may be struck by its weird truthfulness. (And this reaction may be exacerbated when, in turn, you hear Bulger telling his protégé, "You suck.")

It's not weird that criminals lie for a living, but it is distressing to know that people assigned to curtail and stop criminals also do. Whether such tactics are a matter of practical necessity, ambition, or ineptitude, the lack of investigation in this case is just that, a lack, leaving open questions.

Whitey allows that Bulger's victims might be best able to measure the tradeoff of Bulger's conviction for an unfinished story. Indeed, their stories begin and end the film: "Ever since that day, I've never been the same," recalls Stephen Rakes of a traumatizing visit from Bulger and Weeks, "I couldn't protect my own children. As a man, that just took me away."

Still, and as harrowing as these experiences surely are, the film suggests that the unfinished part is also disturbing, Cullen doesn't pretend to measure, but he does offer this: "Whitey Bulger is a vicious, venal murderer, but he was enabled by the FBI and the FBI was enabled by the Justice Department." These are tradeoffs that can't be measured, because they remain unseen.

Or, as the liar Kevin Weeks has it, "Nobody's ever gonna know the truth until people start telling the truth."

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image