A young girl whose mother has committed suicide discovers she’s able to commune with ancient monsters, who have emerged from their slumber to wreak havoc on the over-developed, tiny planet of Mibdul.
‘Mibdul’ is a six-issue comic book mini-series written by myself, illustrated by Inez Kristina and published by Merlin Publishers. The first issue will be launched at Kixott on 14 April, and the party starts at 19:30. Said party will feature a signature cocktail, and early-comers will be rewarded by an open bar tab courtesy of our long-suffering but beloved publisher.
Now that the logistical stuff’s out of the way…
I’d like to point out that, much like the last few posts to appear on this sporadically updated page, Mibdul is a tribute to Marsascala. The place served as a hometown for both Inez and myself while we worked on the book, and the very idea for the comic came about after it was announced that the unspoilt patch of seaside land at Zonqor Point was given away to a Jordanian construction company.
The ‘American University’ project thankfully never panned out as per its worst threats, but at that point I needed a vent for the helpless rage that came over me and many others.
It is, sadly, a rage that continues to crop up every now and again, whenever the construction lobby which de facto rules the country proposes a fresh monstrosity.
We all protest in the ways we know best. At least, we should be allowed to. From each according to their ability. And my own tend towards a love of genre fiction. As such, Mibdul taps into the ‘space fantasy‘ popularised by Star Wars, with a dollop of cosmic horror and the freewheeling surrealism of Euro-comics.
Mibdul will be published as a monthly six-issue series, starting from April and running through to September. We hope to see you at the launch for Issue 1. But in the meantime, do avail yourselves of the pre-publication offer, to have each issue delivered to your door upon release, at a discounted price.
Having lived in Marsascala between 2015 and 2020 and seeing the sleepy-but-bustling former fishing village once again become a target for suffocating over-development, I’ve decided to look back on some of my impressions and memories of the town, partly motivated by simple nostalgia, partly by an urge to help myself understand just why the authorities and the business class so often make it a point to single out Marsascala in their ongoing drive towards uniform devastation.This is the third blog post in an erstwhile series.
So we had a sea view.
Sullied at the edges of your peripheral vision by clumsily placed solar panels, sure, but it was there. It greeted you each morning and provided a balm in the evening during summer – then, in all of the expected ways – and during winter it allowed for a showcase of nature’s fury as the waves crashed in violent foam over the promenade.
It remains the one undeniable perk we both miss very much now that we’ve relocated from Marsascala to Rabat a year ago. No longer being able to wake up and smell the sea, taking in its blue-on-blue hue, can’t be brushed off so easily. You can only be stoic about so much.
Thinking back on this, it’s the Marsascala dawn that really stands out in the memory. The sea view is the sea view, yes, but it really comes into its own in the morning, when it allows you to greet the day with a particular sense of accessible, graspable majesty. You visualise the opposite bay like a slowly-loading act of creation: the sight of the water hits you first, with the promenade and the dotted boats appearing gradually, replotting themselves into the scenery. A wide blue expanse, from eyeline to sublime horizon, would have its meditative perks too, of course.
But there’s something charming in the way the sea is stoppered by the twist of the promenade, at least viewed from our former spot in Zonqor. (One of my smallest – and so, most precious – delights was spotting buses work their way across the promenade road from our terrace. A miniature reminder of a system that somehow, with all its faults, still manages to work. To serve people.)
You realise it all the more when you actually go down and see for yourself – when you experience the promenade as a participant, not just a mere spectator. The slippy-slide of the moss-strewn walk down by what is a de facto boat yard… a brief shot of pure vernacular beauty, sadly interrupted too soon by the parked cars that insist on crowding you before you’re allowed to emerge to the main walk, facing the church.
But for a while, it’s like you’re transported into a scene redolent of the early 20th century: the promise of an effortlessly charming Mediterranean village fulfilled. Old houses fronted by streetlamp-flanked benches, for lovers to share pizza and beer purchased from very close by. Room for families to spread out a formica table and benches for a multi-generational gathering of card games and barbecues. And despite the independent flurry of boats that frame and flank it all, room enough for an old man with a bad leg to dull his pain with diligent exercise – a refreshing dip into the sea, after which he dries himself off seated upright by the wall, before working up the strength to head back home.
Regular sights for me, but morning and evening. But it all goes by in a few seconds: a pocket of fantasy, a near-literal blink of an eye. Because after that, you’re either back to the sea-view blocks by the road, where you’ll get to enjoy the more traditional pleasures of a rocky beach which will – eventually – be joined by the Zonqor fields we fought very hard to retain back in 2015. Or you’re more likely to head about your business in the opposite direction, marching your way to the promenade and its string of shops and restaurants, along with a nail technician and real estate agents’ office (or two. Pretty sure there were at least two).
This is where the true ‘life’ of Marsascala could be said to begin: the trigger of the daily churn of people and business. In the absence of a concentrated square, we get a stretched out one: the promenade serves as a gathering point for people and a stopping point for fruit & veg trucks, at least until it sheds the skin of a village square and becomes the ‘leisure’ promenade expected by convention.
The transition point for this is the small area by the traffic lights which lead to the bus terminus – or more accurately, to the recently-refurbished, multi-generational family restaurant Grabiel – where the barriers to the sea are briefly opened up; a place that serves as a small parking space and which in winter leaves plenty of leeway for flooding – you’re often forced so skip over and otherwise creatively manouevre through large puddles of pooled and brackish sea water.
From there forward, the communal spirit becomes more solitary and leisurely. You grab an ice cream and march forward towards St Thomas Bay and its environs; an area of true sublime beauty very much compatible with tourist postcards. But it also exists in the shadow of a fallen ruin: the old Jerma Palace Hotel, now a crumbling reminder of mismanagement and institutional dithering, but also a pro-active breeding ground for some of the island’s more interesting street art, and the location for many a low-budget music video.
Its neighbour, the St Thomas Tower, taps into a similar vein of neglect and decadence: it’s thankfully no longer a pizzeria, but any historical glory it may boast feels diminished by its flaking exterior, and its proximity to the far more imposing Jerma ruin. Still, both structures are also notable for their cat colonies, often seen crossing indistriminately from one side of the street to the other, making this cat lover’s heart skip a beat each time.
If our walk from Zonqor is undertaken during the evening, this is the point at which we often begin to turn back home. That, or we extend our walk past St Thomas Bay itself – to overlook the beach during magic hour and forgive this island and its people its many shortcomings.
Having lived in Marsascala between 2015 and 2020 and seeing the sleepy-but-bustling former fishing village once again become a target for suffocating over-development, I’ve decided to look back on some of my impressions and memories of the town, partly motivated by simple nostalgia, partly by an urge to help myself understand just why the authorities and the business class so often make it a point to single out Marsascala in their ongoing drive towards uniform devastation. This is the second blog post in this erstwhile series.
Marsascala always struck me as one of the few villages or towns in Malta whose borders are actively separated by clear distances.
Most of Malta’s localities exist on parallel and intersecting lines – like the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma in China Mieville’s fantasy-noir novel The City and the City. Plant yourself at any border on the island and you’ll likely find yourself facing or tailing a couple more. Not so with Marsascala.
The road that extends from its closest Southern cousin of Zabbar feels like a proper ‘highway’ between one town, city, village and the next. Neither is it terribly feasible to walk to nearby villages through its other end – a one-hour trek to its more decorated fishing village cousin of Marsaxlokk is certainly beautiful in the right conditions, but impractical in others; opting to walk to the equidistant Zejtun is neither a pretty nor safe proposition.
And trudging through the ‘pedestrian’ highway to Zabbar (and nearby Birgu) would be pointless – it’s a strip of land designed exclusively for cars, and all the ramblers would get out of it would be inhaled fumes.
But this isolation equals neither boredom nor tranquility, much as I sometimes wished that to be the case. Marsascala is ‘bustling’ in various senses of that loaded word. A fishing village turned summer-house location for local families turned expat haven turned half-hearted tourist spot.
A few decent restaurants have popped up in recent years, but the provision of overall services remains on the sketchy side. No need to pine for the mercilessly ‘sleek’ counterparts of Sliema and St Julian’s – which would be uncomfortable for a host of related or vaguely-related reasons – but moving to the more centralised and quieter area of Rabat has quite literally brought home the benefits of the more traditional village structure.
Marsascala, on the other hand, is marked by long stretches and disproportionate distances, only to be stoppered by sprawl on its edges and contours. The long promenade cuts a swathe across Zonqor Point and St Thomas Bay on either end, and both of them are then burdened by apartment blocks – snails carrying a shell of cramped-together dwellings. In between are the shops, restaurants and yes, some villas with ‘unobstructed views’ for those who can afford them.
It’s a mish-mash rearing for change – or rather, for streamlining and ‘completion’ – a completion which in Malta signals only oblivion.
This is why a raggedly hybrid place like Marsascala is so vulnerable to attacks of ‘development’. Its liminal state – between warm summer dwelling and tourist hub, between fishing village and cool hangout – is an affront, an offence.
And its edges must be smoothened into the choking nothingness that Transport Malta, the Planning Authority and – crucially – the status-hungry populace want. Anything that just “sits there” is a waste of time and resources.
The poverty of the Maltese school system – a reheated version of utiliatrian British methods based on rote learning and mechanised exams – means there is no oxygen left to cultivate a sense of enrichment and belonging in leaving things just as they are, and enjoying them as such.
Which is why we are left to suffer under the yoke of public officials such as the Planning Authority’s executive chairperson Martin Saliba, who equate the zombie-brained expansion of ugly urban sprawl with an inevitable drive towards a vaguely-defined “modern era” for Malta.
Distance is what isolates Marsascala, and what makes it vulnerable. You reach it after a long stretch, and you find it to be all alone. You imagine it cupped in the palm of a distracted sea-goddess.
No UNESCO-protected fortifications defend it from attack, alas.
The seaside village of Marsascala which served as my home for roughly six years up until recently has once again become a beacon of environmental resistance in Malta, after a government-sponsored proposal to choke its bay with a vulgarly gigantic yacht marina has led to a near-unanimous uproar among both activists and locals.
If the root of the complaint were not so depressing, such a united front would have been inspiring to witness. After all, it’s a ripple that follows on from a similar wave or organised dissent back in 2015, when the ‘American University of Malta’ was proposed on the same village’s outskirts.
This was to be a beacon legacy project for disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat and his chosen coterie of movers and shakers in the political and business world – a Malta-Jordan collaboration built on virgin land with a pre-packaged, pre-purchased American university syllabus aiming to attract further ‘high net worth’ individuals to spend their money in Malta and Gozo.
That the project is now little more than a shadow of its proposed self stands as something of a feather in the cap of the same environmentally-conscious protestors who took to the streets to fight it tooth and nail.
We should remember this. We often denigrade ourselves for not doing enough, or for doing too little, too late. Or for not accepting that the status quo will carry on in its usual churn regardless, and give into apathy and a sense of futility as a consequence.
But the long view is that while short-term battles may be lost and while, on the environmental front at least, the political and business hegemony may continue to treat us with utter contempt (whose unholy alliance is still not taboo, even after it was a direct contributor to the murder of a journalist), taking a stand still matters.
There’s a lot to scoff at in the current generation’s earnest, somewhat pat ideas on how to make life marginally more tolerable – as was the case for generations past. But I would insist on encouraging everyone involved in this ‘resistance’ to exercise a degree of self-compassion.
Following the concerted uproar, the American University of Malta was set to be split into two campuses – one ostensibly to remain in a ‘reduced’ capacity on Marsascala’s Zonqor Point, the other to occupy an historic colonial building at the harbour town of Bormla. The extension back to Zonqor will only happen if the Bormla campus fills up. This remains an unlikely outcome, given how student count amounted to under 100 by late 2019.
Activists should allow themselves not just self-compassion here, but an enlivening jolt of sadism too. This is a call to laugh at the critically wounded near-corpse of a mortal enemy. To cackle in the face of at least one of these offenders – who cackle at our earnest attempts to counter them nearly 24/7, as more and more obscenities crop up at every corner. It may not be the most noble emotion to indulge, but we deserve it. If anything, it will give us fuel for the next fight… which will always be around the corner.
I’ll be putting out some follow-up posts to this one, in which I’ll finally be dumping some memories and impressions of the town. Don’t expect amusing trivia and historical rigour. But feel free to expect pretty much anything else. I know I am.
With A Vipers’ Pit (Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi) enjoying a healthy run at Eden Cinemas, I thought I’d compile a little guide for prospective viewers before they take a chance on our political thriller-family drama-literary adaptation.
Response has been better than anything I had every hoped for: reviews ranges from ecstatic to ecstatically disappointed, but indifference was never the least bit part of the equation. For a low-budget debut based on a beloved book which attempts to treat national wounds, it’s just the kind of response you want.
So here’s a handily collated list of some previews, interviews and even reviews that the film has already amassed so far.
Starting from this Friday (6 August), those of you based in Malta can watch a film I wrote at Eden Cinemasin St Julian’s.
This is the first feature film script of mine to be produced, and suffice it to say that I’m excited about how audiences are going to react to our adaptation of Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi (literal translation: ‘The Snakes Are Venomous Again’; our translation, ‘A Vipers’ Pit’) by Alex Vella Gera, a novel whose trajectory I’ve followed from a very early stage back in 2012.
Director-producer Martin Bonnici called me up to ask if I’d be on board with adapting the novel back in late 2015, by which point the book had been established as a landmark of contemporary Maltese literature. This had partly to do with its thrilling core conceit – a group of ultra-Catholic nationalist insurgents plan the assassinaton of firebrand socialist prime minister of Malta, Dom Mintoff, in the 1980s – but also for more formal reasons.
Vella Gera’s novel is written in the bilingual register which reflects how a large part of the Maltese population speak; a linguistic schizophrenia that stands in for the binaries of social class on the island. The middle classes speak English, the working classes speak Maltese. At least, that’s the boilerplate belief, which has of course always been more nuanced on the ground than on paper. Middle-class born Noel Sammut Petri decides to break with that tradition after a move to Brussels, insisting on speaking Maltese in Maltese company.
It may seem like a small detail, but it speaks volumes. Where the English-speaking Maltese are either coded as elites or subject to gentle (and not-so-gentle) ridicule for the most part, Vella Gera chooses to depict this reality honestly, filtering some of this understandable distaste through the now liminal figure of Noel.
It’s one of the many ways in which the book resists an earnest, try-hard attempt to flaunt an idea of Malteseness that can be packaged and sold, and it’s probably the reason why it felt so refreshing to so many. Despite the attention-grabbing Mintoff plot, at its core the story is about the emotional landscape of the people trying to navigate the uncertain morass that is Malta: an infant Republic in its early segment set in the 1980s – following Noel’s father Richard as he’s pushed to serve as triggerman for the Mintoff assassination – and an EU member state at the cusp of regime change in 2012.
Vella Gera himself told me as much while we were conducting an email interview about the book prior to its publication in 20 October, 2012. Here’s a quote that didn’t make the final cut:
“I wanted to steer away from narratives dictated by the political parties. In a way, this book is a direct challenge to that bipolarism. Not that I’m propagating a “third way”, which is really conservatism by another name. However, like Noel, I too am aloof from the tug of war of local politics, so if my book were to be “unofficially boycotted” I think in a way it would be a success because it would underline that aloofness and continued lack of understanding of where I really come from
“Obviously, I have my political opinions, which to a certain extent continue to validate that aloofness, because I find very little in Maltese politics to rejoice over. I wonder who Noel would vote for. Probably [Green Party] AD, or perhaps he wouldn’t vote at all, or then again, he’d vote Labour just to spite [his property magnate friend] Roger. But I never get into these intricacies, because I find them very dull to deal with […] Personally I tried to steer away from getting too specific about anything except the gut feelings of people, which is what I’ve always felt is missing in most Maltese political fiction. That gut feeling that cannot be brushed aside or censored, or made more palatable with a joke or a witty aside, or some satirical tone.”
Despite its many changes to the source novel, I also sincerely hope that our film adaptation manages to convey a similar commitment to the complex emotional spaces the characters occupy, in favour of safely packaged assumptions, and jingoism by any other name.
When you spend a large chunk of your adult life going to the cinema during weird lonely hours as part of your job routine, something alters about the way in which you view that space. Working as a film critic for a national newspaper since I was 18 years old – albeit the nation being the micro-island state of Malta – while being blacklisted from the local distributor critics’ screenings for… reasons, meant that I got to watch films for review with a general audience, though rarely a full house.
A Friday deadline meant that I would need to get my films in by Thursday latest – leaving me little wiggle room as new films tended to make their way into cinemas on Wednesdays.
So aside from those rare occassions in which I could convince partners and/or friends to accompany me to watch a film that’s not entirely baker-fresh but which still remains reviewable after a weekend viewing, I got to spend a lot of lonely, torpid midweek afternoons in a darkened room with only a creepy trickle of strangers for company.
Looking back, it’s kind of jarring to think just how uninterrupted an activity film reviewing was for me.
There *was* a brief respite at the peak of my university years – during which I still maintained a nominal relationship with the newspaper, slotting in bits and pieces for the cultural supplement while one of Malta’s more veteran film critics took over – but I was soon back at it, penning a review for the then much-hyped Kate Winslet-starring middlebrow Oscar-courter, The Reader while starting my MA.
(How I would have loved to delve into Winslet’s richly devastating and utterly enthralling turn as the titular Mare of Easttown in HBO’s deservedly beloved recent mini-series. Or maybe that’s not true. Maybe I’m finding a new appreciation for just leaving things be).
The only thing that could stop me, it turns out, was a murderous global pandemic. Between mandated cinema closures, the paper shortening its culture pages, and me opting for a return to full-time employment to stem the resultant economic haemorrage, reviewing films made for one unfeasible activity too many.
It would be romantic to say that I miss the darkened rooms, the creak and pull of the seats, the crunch of popcorn (crushed by both tooth and boot) and the promise of the possibility of total, immersive storytelling, with the auditorium as a dark womb keeping the world at bay while beautiful lies are spun across a screen as large as six or so people and accompanied by deafening sound.
The reality is of course far more prosaic – even if you’re after that level of immersion, your fellow punters are unlikely to be as committed, and the advent of the smartphone, coupled with the tendency to view the cinema as an extension of one’s living room, are just additional punctures. I don’t think I miss anything about being a regular film reviewer.
If anything, I honestly appreciate the unwitting benefits of this covid-induced break. A treadmill implies thoughtless forward motion. Now, I can finally think about what I was doing all these years. Or rather, what the process has done to me and for me.
When all is said and done (though it never, of course, truly is) what film criticism gave to me was an opportunity to work on my craft as a writer. This was hardly a pre-planned process borne out of specific ambitions and career goals (I was not too young to dream, but I was certainly too young to do so in anything resembling a structured fashion).
Yes, I did love movies as far back as I could remember. Yes, I did make a habit of leafing through Empire Magazine whenever I saw it on the shelves, sometimes even buying my own copies with pocket money. Yes, I can sheepishly confess to Marilyn Manson’s autobiography being a trigger for me here, a particularly embarrassing confession given the has-been shock-rocker has now joined the ranks of the justifiably ‘cancelled’.
But at the time, he was a gateway drug into a more flamboyant universe which openly flouted the shit-steamed sauna of the boys-only secondary school I attended. I saw something in his early forays into zine culture and freelance journalism which clicked with me. That possibly taking his path could serve as a stepping stone to more fully-fledged creative work.
Reviewing films on a weekly basis also gave me a glimpse at the inner workings behind a key truism that’s often bandied about in the general direction of so-called ’emerging’ writers: That it ‘never gets easier’, and that every subsequent project will be just as tough to think through and execute as its predecessor. But I found this truism to be both true, and not.
Certainly, it’s shocking – and hilarious – to me to think back on those early all-nighters as I desperately battled with my inner demons to churn out 800 words before deadline day. Social media as we now know it did not exist back then, so I would take to the then still-extant IMDB forums to temper my own critical insecurities by parsing through the smogasbord of public opinion: deluding myself into thinking that this is how I will get a feel for the consensus opinion so that my own review will be more far-reaching in scope… but really, I was just shit-scared to committing to my own ideas and opinions because I felt they were lackluster and inadequate.
So while the amount of required concentration and effort to execute an effective review did not diminish with time – much as I fantasised about it as some sort of romantic possibility, I never got to a stage where I could thoughtlessly churn out a review and submit it in under an hour – I did learn to quieten at least some of those demons to a whisper.
Coupled with the fact that my career path subsequently forced me to learn to juggle far more than just that one 800-word review a week – between writing other articles, curating a culture section, copy-editing commerical press releases and proofreading the entire paper, I was left with little room to be precious about *anything* – submitting one review a week over a long stretch of time meant that I learned to predict how my thoughts pan out across the process while also picking up on new tricks that would help me save time and effort.
The first of these was learning to relax into the viewing experience and doing all that I can to take it in as an audience member, not through some sort of strained ‘critical’ eye that favours a rarefied perspective.
One step at a time: first comes the viewing, then the retrospective critique. This was a crucial lesson in respecting the stages of the writing process and giving them their due. When writing a script, it’s wiser to consider the outline and treatment before jumping into the scene… in the same way, I picked up on how it’s best to just let the film unspool over you before the critical demons start puncturing through to cloud the experience. This also had to do with knowing your audience and understanding the parameters of the job.
After all, I was writing for a national newspaper, not an academic journal or a magazine that specialises in cinema, so the core purpose of my review was to give readers a full picture of what the given film is about – not just in terms of plot (and I always endeavoured to keep spoilers at a minimum) but the overall feel and tone of what they’d be experiencing if they choose to watch it.
Once I twigged to this function of my reviews, it became easier to focus on the task at hand at sentence-level, instead of worrying about how my piece will fare in some imaginary hall of fame of cuttingly perceptive analytical studies of contemporary mainstream cinema. The advent of Rotten Tomatoes and aggregator-culture in general would have plunged the knife even deeper anyway: who the hell is going to actively seek out my review when a three-second Google search will likely resolve the question of whether or not they should waste their time with any given new release? Had I let this get to me, I would be toast.
Instead, I learned to appreciate the more immediate pleasures at hand: the possibility to reverse-engineer my experience of watching a film and to assess its entrails for what’s worth cooking, what should be discarded… and what could be used to map out my own future as a writer.
I’m sure there’s tons more of my kindred spirits scattered around which I could find if I deigned to look hard enough, but so far the only prose works to make me feel a frisson of recognition when it comes to all this are Caitlin R. Kiernan’s short story ‘The Prayer of Ninety Cats‘, and Gemma Files’ haunting novel Experimental Film. Though Kiernan and Files can broadly be said to form part of the upper tiers of the international genre fiction community – with those works in particular mining a vein of elegantly disturbing horror – their approaches differ even in the works in question.
But there is something in both ‘Cats’ and Experimental Film that speaks to me: the idea of criticism as a starting point for keener existential immersion that goes beyond meta-ficitonal games. The idea that regularly putting films under the microscope means abandoning yourself to a labyrinth that could, by definition, go either way.
Looking back on it now that I am no longer in the grind and can finally afford to take a broader perspective on things… the greatest value of criticism for me lay in having to fully visualise and reverse-engineer an entire film while writing about it. It sounds like the kind of phenomenological minutae that can dovetail all-too-easily into banality. But it’s something that I think, in the end, gave me the tools I needed to help picture plot outlines and arcs for myself in a more solid and grounded manner when it came to writing my own stuff.
In many ways – and to risk banality once again – the clue is in the name: review. You are forced to run through the film once again in your head – because no, I could never spare the time or expense for an *actual* rewatch – and that does train your visualisation muscles. You begin to create a mind palace of story – reflecting somebody else’s, sure, but also adaptable to your own, eventually. It’s a retracing and remapping process, where you skim back over your memory of the film to rediscover what was notable, or to confirm or disprove and assumptions that you hold. In this way, the process is also useful to assess your own knee-jerk reactions and inbuilt prejudices.
Was that bit of dialogue really that bad? Could it have simply been functional to the story, or a reflection of the character’s state of mind at the time? Was that bravura mix of swelling soundtrack and magic-hour cinematography really great filmmaking, or does it fall apart upon reflection? But is the reflection a moot point anyway? Could it be that the reviewing process is not always the right approach to these things – that the ephemeral should be valorised as such, that its immediate experiential result is what should be placed under the microscope, and nothing else?
These are things I learned only gradually, and in small steps. ‘Learned’ is also too definitive – it implies a completed process: signed, sealed, delivered. It would be more accurate to say that I learned to internalise certain lessons by glancing at them and making a note of them for next time. But when the next time rolled around, I may or may not have forgotten what I was supposed to have learned. And the process starts again without the luxury of reflection, because the tickets have been bought, the voluminous Thursday afternoon seats are beckoning, and the Friday deadline is looming.
Film reviewing taught me to write. It could have been film reviewing, it could have been something else, but that’s what I was handed and it was a privilege in its own way. I entered in medias res – I did not start reviewing after a stint in film school (there was no such thing at the time in Malta, and there still barely is), and I only learned to pick up on film history further along the line, and in my own time. So there was no chronological development here for me – my training trenches were the early noughties releases from mainstream Hollywood, for the most part.
Truth be told, I don’t miss it terribly. Being a semi-professional opinion-haver is a thoroughly unsexy thing to be in this day and age, when social media has democratised such chatter to oblivion. (Actually, oblivion is too kind as it once again implies finality – a feverish vortex would probably make for a better fit).
But I am glad to the Hollywood behemoth for giving me a training mat on which I could jump, fall, and make a fool of myself before getting up again to fight another day. Its steely chassis will barely have registered the clinking and plinking punches from tiny Malta, so my necessary mistakes were allowed wide berth and shame was ever a stranger.
The morning I woke up to discover that my mother had died, my first instinct was to feed the cat. I woke up later than I usually do – that is, 7am rather than around 6am – and succumbed to the dispiriting habit of checking my phone before doing anything else.
Appropriately enough, it was my father who delivered the news – on a Facebook Messenger thread shared by him, my siblings and myself. It was short and emphatic, and sent two or three hours prior.
I gasped in shock, but the cat was unperturbed and blissfully ignorant – whining for her routine delivery of early morning wet food. My father told me to call him as soon as we get the message, but I knew that this would not have been in any way viable before Olivia had her breakfast.
I peeled off the thin sheet that I was using as a coverlet – anything else would have been too heavy for the early August heat – and rose mechanically, Olivia sauntering steadily to happiness, the trademark fluff that frames her jiggling its way from the bedroom to the corridor before finally reaching the living room.
At this point, the apartment is no longer really a home – with V. away on a long trip to Rome, I was left to take care of an imminent move from one flat to another: from the South of the island to its centre, by dint of our landlord wanting to sell the place that had served as a home for V., Olivia and myself over the past half-decade.
I crack open a satchet of food for Oli and place it in the bowl. I lie down on the living room sofa and I make the call.
It wasn’t covid – at least, that’s what the final analysis said. That clarification feels jarring, like a sop to topicality in a story that had encompassed years, that had touched me in ways that are truly universal.
My mother, Jasmina, suffered a stroke and fell into a coma just under 10 years before she finally passed. This happened in early November of 2010, just as I was about to graduate from my Masters degree in Contemporary Literature and Criticism within the English department, and just as I had started to embark on a full-time career at a local newspaper.
I mention this to illustrate how the decade that followed would be crucial to me in many ways, and in some ways may even have laid out a fairly conventional trajectory of academic and professional training, peculiar for a family in which the conventional pathways might not always have been the ones we ended up taking. But that all of this happened without my mother watching on the sidelines altered things irrevocably, in a way that I’m only ready to accept and explore further now.
That is, now that a degree of closure has finally been made possible, now that the strange limbo state in which she was plunged for nearly a decade has come to an end.
“And how is your mother? Have there been any changes?” This question would understandably crop up every now and then, from concerned friends and acquaintances who knew about our situation and would want to show they’re keeping tabs; and, of course, who cared for us and wanted to share in at least a modicum of our grief. But it was always a strange question to answer, even if the facts of it were simple: ‘No’ was always the long and short of it.
What is interesting is that in answering it, I always felt at least a twinge of shame come over me. Like I could have been more specific in my reply. Like that ‘no’ should have been qualified somehow; that it should have come with contextual and conditional clauses.
‘No, but we’re doing all we can’ ‘No, but there has been some sign of improvement’ ‘No, but the doctors say that we might see progress in a few months or so’ ‘No, and we’re preparing for the inevitable’
Any of these would have felt more satisfying somehow, conforming with a narrative of life that we have all learned to expect and somehow also predict: birth, effort, tragedy, death; birth, effort, shortcoming, improvement, final outcome. For someone who would subsequently begin to place great stock in narrative structure my mother’s situation was particularly disorienting: she was in a proper limbo state, a purgatorial condition whose ‘true north’ was nowhere in sight.
This is, however, only an abstract adjunct to the more visceral truths of this experience. Whenever I’d allow myself to think about what she may be experiencing during this weird time, I would feel a stab of pain – part guilt, part pity, but all-encompassing in its ability to metaphorically bring me down to my knees.
The sheer unfairness of it all: her, alone in the hospital bed, with no respite from whatever discomfort or pain she was feeling at the time. We would visit, but no visit would ever feel like it’s enough. Even if we had moved in to the hospital – and, later, the old people’s home – to live by her side full time, it would not have done anything to bridge that chasm of consciousness that now existed between us.
My mother was a respected and much-loved seamstress and in many ways, it was thanks to her skills that this immigrant family managed to ingratiate itself into its host community in Malta all those years ago. She was hard-working, talented and beautiful – a scintillating presence at social events and parties – the latter of which she would begin to organise herself in later years, and whose mantle my sister and I would take on at least in part.
She was also my closest confidante in many ways.
I would visit her studio – now my father’s film photography darkroom – as she would thread needles over tracing paper that would in turn be placed over pieces of fabric. One of my regrets is that I never inquired into the details of her profession all that much. (As a writer, I constantly disappoint Henry James by failing to follow up all that much on his principle of ‘solidity of specification’ – my instinct tends to be towards arcs and moods, so the details I fill in dispassionately later).
But our conversations certainly encompassed the implications of what it means to devote oneself to a creative pursuit. My mother had gone to art school back in her Belgrade years and struggled with climbing that particular ladder: becoming a seamstress was that oblique pursuit that she wasn’t expecting but which, in the end, gave her the most satisfaction.
She was 19 when she had me – her eldest – and it’s only now that I’m starting to fully realise just how much she came of age while raising us. The clear arcs of growth that I’ve experienced since, she experienced during the years we were all very much around: some of which are not just faint miasmal memories of formative infancy but the solidified impressions of late childhood and even adolescence.
The weavings, longeours, deceptions, depressions and compressions of time are at the forefront of my mind whenever I think about my mother now, in my memories of her walking and talking and in the more recent period when she was bedridden and unresponsive, lost in a vortex where time had no meaning and neither her nor us could assume there would be any parameters to the experience.
But parameters, check-points and life-markers would form part of our conversations on a fairly regular basis. My mother would be the person I would go to when I’d need frank perspective on pretty much any issue.
Ensconced in that focal point of her studio, and when not consulting clients, she would be receptive to me walking in and plonking down on the nearby sofa: a stolid piece of 60s/70s furniture the likes of which we would later find valorised as a bona fide piece of modernist fare in a local exhibition, but which now mainly doubled up as the archetypal ‘therapist’s couch’.
My mother would be occupied in focused but non-verbal labour – again, that mysterious-to-me set of measurements and markings on tracing paper over fabric, sometimes with a soap-like, hexagonal piece of chalk – so I would let my anxieties in a way I knew she would understand.
Her feedback would often be encouraging, but it would also be tinged with focused and pro-active tough love. The lesson was that all troubles are actionable. Every situation has an exit if you train your mind well enough to look for them at each turn.
Of course, this makes what happened to her all the more tragic. The root causes of what happened remain frustratingly vague to us to this day. ‘Stress’ is the only real factor, and it feels both lacking and entirely appropriate. She was an overworked perfectionist who wanted to be the best at what she does, and work to deadline to continue supporting her family.
Was she looking for an exit of some kind, herself? Was she not waving but drowning while we looked on all the while?
She would likely chide me for dedicating so much time to such a non-actionable emotional trajectory. There is work to be done, and I shouldn’t waste time wallowing in regret. But I would contradict her on this point. She deserves this space. This emotional oxygen in her direction, too little and too late as it may be. Pressured into working all her life, albeit in a profession that she loved and excelled in, she dedicated a lot to others and very little to herself.
Neither is it entirely true that her predilection for the actionable and productive came at the expense of a more ‘holistic’ approach to life and her surroundings, though.
Some years back, when we were far from the studio and had embarked on a sunset walk at the holiday village in Serbia where my maternal grandparents have a summer home, my mother laughed amusingly when I commented that I wanted to crystallise this sunset somehow, that I wanted to do something with it and not let it go to waste.
‘That will pass,’ she told me, smiling in recognition.
It still hasn’t, really. There’s still a nervous, grasping tendency in me. I am not as ‘zen’ as I wish to be. Perhaps that’s true for most of us.
But that doesn’t change what she continues to teach me. Because her lessons aren’t definitive, finite, dogmatic. They contain true wisdom, which is not marked by clear targets and trajectories, but which swirls in a circle of awareness, challenge and comfort in equal measure. I’ve been lucky enough to absorb some of it, having been in her orbit during her all-too-brief time on this earth.
Ten years of mourning is both a long time, and not nearly enough. But time will do its work, and the rest will pass.
That Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body (2009) is now a re-excavated post-#MeToo classic has become a bit of a trope, albeit one rooted in undeniable truths. Buzzfeed’s picked up on it two years ago, so that just about seals the mainstreamification of that take, and I’m glad it all panned out that way, don’t get me wrong.
But neither should that smoothen out its punkier bona fides. This is a film whose title and overall thematic contours are drawn from a song by Hole, after all… one that’s culled from its early-90s sophomore album Live Through This (1994), itself a solid-gold piece of early post-grunge whose inherent quality transcends any reputational iffiness that the legacy of Courtney Love carries with it.
In many ways, I think it also course-corrects the riskily schmaltzy elements of Diablo Cody’s breakthrough, Juno (2007), by passing them through the B-movie horror lens. Yes, the film’s marketing department contributed to its initially dismal box office and critical performance by relying too much on the cheaply exploitative Megan Fox-isms; playing to the peanut gallery of horny teenage boys by presenting her demonically posessed man-eater character as something akin to Natasha Henstridge’s murderous alien seductress in 1995’s Species.
Apart from the now-documented sexism and idiocy that underpinned this entire marketing debacle, it must also be said that they missed a trick in other ways. There is certainly a schlocky exploitation element to Jennifer’s Body, but it’s informed by the same strain of subversive, tongue-in-cheek humour and cheekiness that characterises a lot of the vintage horror cinema that Cody and Kusama doubtlessly draw energy from. That its overlaid with Cody’s now-trademark crackling dialogue provides an added layer of cool, self-aware appeal, but its dark, disemboweling overtones ensure that it doesn’t slip into Juno’s sometimes grating over-cuteness.
Sated and well-fed: Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body (2009)
After demonic-Jennifer claims her first on-screen victim, the unfortunate teenage boy’s father responds to the police’s promises that they will do their utmost to catch the perpetrator (whom they automatically and tellingly assume to be male) with a hilarious counter-missive: “I’ll get him myself! I will! You hear me, you bastard? I’ll cut off your nutsack and nail it to my door! Like one of those lion doorknockers rich folks got! That’ll be your balls!”
But Jennifer’s Body will also continue to survive by dint of its sneakily truthful exploration of female friendship, and problematic ‘sisterhood’ as expressed during the turbulent high school years.
Don’t you know that I’m toxic? Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body (2009)
It’s rightly hailed as a feminist film, but it sugar-coats nothing, in a way that ties into its erstwhile spiritual predecessor: John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000), in which this time literal sisters are forced apart when one of them succumbs to lycanthropy – a metaphor that once again plays out as the supernatural pushing already-latent hormonal angst into overdrive. (Film Geek Six Degrees of Separation Time: Ginger Snaps’ Emily Perkins has a cameo as a memorably disinterested abortion clinic clerk in Juno).
Even prior to her demonic posession, Jennifer is a domineering, gaslighting presence for Amanda Seyfried’s aptly-monikered Needy – and it is Needy’s arc that we end up rooting for in the end, after she sheds her co-dependence on Jennifer to truly claim her full agency.
But the undeniable toxicity of their relationship does not in any way dampen the violation Jennifer suffers at the hands of the Satan-courting band Low Shoulder, who attempt to use her assumed virginity to seal a demonic pact that will secure their future success. That they get their just desserts by Needy’s hand in the end is not down to the mousy protagonist pathetically avenging ther domineering ex-friend. She does it for all womankind, not just for Jennifer’s sake.
A heroine we barely deserve: Amanda Seyfriend as Needy in Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Now it wouldn’t be entirely right to cast Jennifer’s Body as some sort of all-out gritty underground cult gem: while a lot of us agree that it was misunderstood and maltreated both from within and without upon release, it remains a sleek piece of mainstream horror top-billed by then white-hot Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried (both, let’s be frank, squeezed a bit too tightly into teenage roles that we’ll have to squint a bit to believe).
But even then, the very fact that it was produced by 20th Century Fox and given the spit-polished star treatment is likely what it led to it being shish-kebabbed on arrival, as this inevitably leads to it being catapulted into a rarified atmosphere of corporate bullshit whose baseline expectations have zero to do with memorable storytelling. Kusama and Cody did NOT play ball with this one. And thank the demonic deities for that.
I rewatched Jennifer’s Body after a day of packing more of our flat into boxes and suitcases for an imminent move to another apartment, in the peak of summer no less. This is both a physical and emotional struggle in many ways, so a degree of rawness at the end of the day is to be expected.
It certainly made me more vulnerable to the layers of nostalgia that this 2009 film is now riddled with: the references to MySpace, Low Shoulder tapping into the emo craze (see also: the Fall Out Boy poster on Jennifer’s bedroom wall), Needy’s schlubby boyfriend Chip using “everyone [at that bar] has a mustache” as a pejorative.
“Take no enterprise in hand at haphazard, or without regard to the principles governing its proper execution”
– Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, Book Four)
Yes, I’ve been cracking open ye olde Meditations back up because some advice from the grandfather and grandmaster of Stoic philosophy would certainly not go amiss right now, when uncertainty is the order of the day and the mainstream world media — especially its malignant ‘social’ offshoot — is doing absolutely zero to counter the mood with some sense of sobriety or perspective.
But the above quote popped out for me, during my now once again regular re-read of the embattled Ancient Roman emperor’s diary to self, for reasons that have very little to do with the essential self-care we need all the more urgently at this moment in time.
No, the reminder to do nothing at ‘haphazard’ reached me on a more professional — or rather, vocational — level, as I felt it very much got to the heart of an important lesson I have learned about writing narrative stories — be they in prose or script format — over the past couple of years.
Marcus Aurelius via Batman, or vice versa: Daily meditation with the Meditations, with journal entries jotted into the Bat-book
It’s not a glamorous fact of the writing life, and neither is it bound up to the ‘tortured artist’ archetype in any way. In fact, in a lot of ways what I’m about to talk about swerves directly into the opposite camp, and perhaps the times we are living in call for precisely the kind of habits that evoke a degree of control and agency over the traditionally — notoriously — chaotic process of making up stories from scratch.
I’m talking about finding the rationale that lies behind either your plot mechanism, or the choices your characters make, in the interest of improving them for the benefit of subsequent drafts.
Now ‘character’ and ‘plot’ are almost always inextricably bound together, or at least they should be. What should we call this? I’m struggling to think of a more bite-sized term for it right now. Is it as broad as ‘rewriting’ or ‘editing’? Is it just ‘tweaking’, or does that teensy word not quite do it? Maybe I’ll arrive to the correct term or neulogism, maybe not. The point is that the process I’m describing often takes on a similar trajectory: that of working away at issues, problems and unwanted lacunae through the process of writing itself.
For me, it’s important that this does not happen before a complete draft is well and truly finished. An imperfect draft, sure. But a complete one. That allows me to see the big picture — such as it is — and make a clear and rational assessment of what needs to be fixed.
That’s why the Marcus Aurelius quote resonated with me. Sending off that draft without having polished it up, or even stopping half-way through to tweak at something that I nervously, pre-emptively assume is gonna be a problem later on, would indeed by a haphazard way of going about it. A script, novel or short story often has a lot of stuff going on inside it. Even the most minimalist of stories and narrative situations need to be informed by subtext, by nested considerations that move things forward, that plant seeds in the reader/viewer’s mind before hopefully being taken to full term in the most felicitous way possible.
But beyond the disciplinarian ‘good sense’ of not rushing things and giving them their due before assuming they’re ready so that you can focus and/or indulge in something else, the Meditations quote also got at something I legitimately find pleasurable about this stage of the writing process.
Just like certain filmmakers live by the dictum that ‘directing is the price you pay for going into the editing room later’, I find the greatest pleasure in cutting underneath the draft I’ve just written (over and above the more obvious, superficial ‘cuts’ that are also inevitably made) and figuring out why something doesn’t work, and how it could work better.
I think the ‘fun’ of this process has a lot to do with a sense of regaining control over the work. Now that the draft’s done, there’s far less of that Dark Night of the Soul feeling descending, and the associated ‘staring at the blank page’ jitters that either accompany it or are triggered by it. I can finally bring the full extent of my rational and analytical mind to bear: the same mind that I’ve chiseled into a decent-enough shape through my academic training and working as a film reviewer for over 15 years.
So finally, a touch of the familiar, the graspable and the tangible appears through the haze of uncertainty that otherwise characterises the writing process. It’s an uncertainty that is conducive to both chaos and play, to be sure, so that it can be fun in its own way. But regaining a sense of control is also affirming and energising.
This brings me to the latter part of the Aurelius aphorism, the bit about ‘the principles governing its proper execution’. Because the process of making something better through this kind of reworking would be hollowed out if it didn’t consider the in-depth internal logic of whatever problem you’re facing.
My most immediate experience of this process had to do with responding to a script note that called for a pivotal event in the story to occur much, much earlier than it does in the script as-is. My producer and I both agreed that we should think of a way to take this criticism on board and implement it productively, without compromising the integrity of the script as a whole.
So I got to thinking about how this action would alter some of the characters’ actions throughout the script as-is. I went back to the quasi-literal drawing board, writing out the logical trajectory of these change in long-hand. The end goal of this was to have a clear, bullet-pointed battle plan for what needs to be done. The changes that need to be implemented so as to make this note work. And it did happen, eventually.
But before I could get there, I spent a few pages writing out the characters’ motivations for taking this particular action, in this particular order, to accommodate the changes in line with a new chronology. This also led me to reconsider some taken-for-granted aspects of the characters in question. I thought I knew them. Turns out I didn’t get a chance to know them all that well, before.
In working out a logic that would justify the alterations suggested by the note, new things clicked into place. No, that one character doesn’t have to be as passive as they appear. They do have a desire, it’s just submerged so deeply it’s barley visible. And we need to think of ways to make that pop out. And so on.
In short, the process got me thinking about the ‘principles governing the proper execution’ of this character, and a couple of others who orbit around them and are influenced by their actions. It felt both rational, and organic. Like a clear understanding of something that lives and breathes, and which may yet surprise you in positive ways if you lay down a good environment in which it can thrive.
Chaos is often the order of the day because we aren’t born with a map at birth and cannot see into the future, which is why good stories are built in a way that respects certain internal harmonies that promote coherence. Focusing on the elements of the craft in this way has helped me find a ballast in these times. There’s a baseline for who we are no matter what happens around us, and that internal coherence is crucial to maintain because of what’s coming at us all the time, pandemic or not.
PS: Keeping me sane and out of the maddening rigmarole of the frenzied news cycle are great reads such as this, and this, as well as the ‘Coronavirus Newsroom’ set up in the Members’ Area of the Rune Soup portal.