Valletta Walk: The rock and sea, your only companions

“He said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.” – HP Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’

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Perhaps it’s not exactly loathsome, but there is something non-Euclidian about this place. It’s a place that fascinates me and yet, I don’t even know its name. A resident of the city told me that it probably falls under the Marsamxett Harbour, but he didn’t sound certain enough for my liking.

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The sea-and-weather beaten soft stone shaped in undulating, irregular bumps and curves. The remains of metal features, structures, now so completely rusted they look more like rancid fauna than a man-made imposition on the landscape.

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The man-made features that do retain a discernible function – the staircases connecting the the haphazard, treacherous space – are almost a parody of themselves. The entire area is so precarious that you feel stairs shouldn’t be there in the first place – walking through it shouldn’t be encouraged.

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Then there’s a kind of stone clearing; there comes a point when there are no longer any bridges or staircases, and you can get a level, clear view of the sea.

But this is only partly true, because the last staircase you see is also the largest one in the whole place. And the most obsolete. It stands like an obelisk, though it’s pinnacle is now boarded up by a iron gate (it’s new, as far as I know, but at a distance it looks thin, brittle). It amplifies its uselessness by simply being there – standing proudly to signify nothing.

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Around the staircase, another inviting paradox. The place is both anonymous and open. It faces the sea, and from a certain vantage point – i.e., its neighbour across the sea, Sliema’s Tigne – it is the most exposed part of the entire city.

But in truth, it’s so removed from the rest of the city that it provides a quiet, strange sanctuary. Perhaps this is why it’s a favourite spot for fashion photo shoots. It has a disquieting, undisturbed glamour. Or maybe its draw is that it’s one of the few places by the sea that more or less guarantees isolation. Logic: the droves that crowd to the sea at the first sign of decent weather aren’t going to brave this treacherous terrain so eagerly.

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But although the place is finally open – going by just this one snapshot, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish the area from Sliema’s ever-popular Surfside – it remains treacherous. Even if there are no longer any cramped, suspiciously sturdy stone staircases to make your way through, the rock here is entirely exposed to the sea, and the visitor is forced to negotiate through puddles now. Puddles that are really little ponds – the liquid inside them the dark green of fairy tale illustrations, where frog princes dwell. (Imagine slipping, now. Imagine falling on your back – the city where humans mill about to either side of you but so far, far away.)

These pods sometimes grow – they widen; not just puddles dotting the rock but a space big enough for a daring spirit to swim in.

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Turn a corner and find a shanty town; green doors caked with dirt and chipped with age, a family around a formica table, the patriarch with a blood-red bald head and hands flaked with a dazzling coat of white hairs. You imagine his fingers to be chapped, leathery like the rest of his skin.

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The water assumes the shape of a canal now. Below the shanty town it’s an emerald green, almost as if to mirror the doors. And on it float bread crusts – ten of them, then around twenty and then thirty, before they thin out to two or three as you walk on. There are no fish to disintegrate them, at least not now.

The cramped shanty town contrasts with its mirroring view. The sea opposite is a vast gulf framed by another mirror image: Valletta and Sliema sit at either side of your peripheral vision, as if ready for a duel.

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And then you walk under a tunnel, and what was wide is now thin again (the city’s familiar grid. You knew this interruption to its structure couldn’t last). You pass through this rounded maw of brick and you find yourself assaulted by fruit flies and saints: a commemorative collection of holy pictures stuck together, with an artificial candle standing vigil. The fruitflies are as multiple as dust mites.

You’re back in the city, and the only way forward is uphill.

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Monsters Do It Better: Oscar Season

Caravaggio's Medusa
A couple of things I came across on the web serve as a nice addendum to a previous blog post, where I complain about how anemic Oscar-nominated films tend to be.
China Mieville’s argument that Halloween is not an enemy to contemporary socialists – if ‘done well’ – bears the kernel of what I was complaining about. Allowing your kids to dress up as cowboys for Halloween means just succumbing to the capitalist machine; making them dress as ZOMBIE cowboys – thereby allowing the still-existent chthonic underbelly that Halloween hints at – is good, because it acknowledges the topsy-turvy disorder that Halloween (like Carnival) encourages – a temporary subversion of the status quo.
And films that are nominated or Oscars tend to be guilty of promoting this ‘vanilla’ view of culture. 12 Years a Slave appears to be searing, but it comes draped in the trappings of stereotypical period dramas – the worst of both worlds. American Hustle appears to be an edgy look at how the capitalist machine in America functions, but it’s too keen to please it viewers to allow for anything genuine to seep through.
Robocop 2014
This isn’t just limited to Oscar fare, either. The Robocop remake has been released to some negative press in the US and UK, and it appears to have fallen into a similar trap. It’s not a freakish creation like its original – a wonderful aberration by Paul Verhoven that doubles up as a satire of the Regan administration. As a wonderful article on The Guardian illustrates, Verhoven was successful – and this counts for his subsequent films Total Recall and Starship Troopers too – because he had a keen grasp of how the grotesque works.
His films walk like dumb action flicks, but talk like something far more playful.
It’s this commitment to your vision that I tend to admire, and that I want to champion here. Just like wearing non-supernatural, non-horror costumes in favour of something generic for Halloween is a disservice to the imagination and the subversive implications of the festival, so does making concessions to the audience and the established cultural order make for maimed storytelling.
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I admire China Mieville for saying what basically amounts to “Sometimes a monster is just a monster.” By making monsters obvious ‘symbols’ for something, you divest them of their real power. Monsters will always mean something, of course, but they can stand for a rich variety of things – as opposed to some single, often hackneyed idea – if you just let them be.
Utopian vision: Let the work do its work. And don’t give awards to work that is more interested in glory and appeasing the status quo than in delivering good work.

Concentrated Tedium: Oscar Season

Better as melodrama: American Hustle

Better as melodrama: American Hustle

Oscar season is upon us, and with it a vague understanding of what should constitute ‘quality’ in the world of popular entertainment. Perhaps I’m only echoing the sentiments of some kind of sneering elitist minority – if I do in fact ‘echo’ anyone’s sentiments other than my own – but this year’s crop of Academy Award nominees continues to promote an anemic form of storytelling that values telegraphed ‘messages’ and finely-wrought decorative flourishes over exciting, nuanced storytelling.

(Side-note: I like how the internet has made the Oscars into a fully-formed international spectacle. It always was, of course; the imperialist nature of American cinema has always been a part of its DNA. But now the boundaries of news and broadcasting that had in the past created at least an illusion of distance between us and the Oscars is completely gone… but here’s hoping that the running commentary that is the internet will at least give way to a more questioning attitude to the Academy’s choices – and I don’t just mean incessant complaints about how your favourite film was snubbed or short-changed.)

Out of the 2013/14 Oscar superstars I’ve seen – although we’re all privy to internet commentary about the films before/soon after they’re in US/UK cinema, Malta still gets plenty of films far too late – there has been only one that has genuinely touched me as a genuine piece of storytelling worthy of awards.

That film is Spike Jonze’s Her. It’s a joyous confluence of style and substance, working on an outlandish, sci-fi-lite concept that is executed with great sensitivity to the nature of relationships, a keen visual style – it’s a masterclass in worldbuilding through micro details – and genuinely affecting performances.

Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street was also not bad – though it’s relentless approach leaves no room for subtlety. But Scorcese at least allows himself – or, thanks to his now-vaunted and hard-earned reputation, is allowed – a vitality and brashness that is free of political correctness. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is a monster, but you may worry that some audience members will admire his voracious, unapologetic drive to shore up MORE MORE MORE and consume MORE MORE MORE. But then, why would you worry? That’s not your job. It shouldn’t be. Let the work do its work.

But the Oscars rarely cater for this kind of thing – art that really says what it needs to say with true creativity and verve. You’d think Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a raw example of what I’m looking for… but watching the relentless churn of suffering unspool before you with apparently no unifying narrative force behind it, it just begins to look threadbare – a litany of abuse left to play out on autopilot.

American Hustle is similarly directionless. Each scene of David O. Russell’s story of  cross and double-cross strains to give the audience some goodies (a line of zesty dialogue, sexual frisson, an ACTOR moment) but it never builds to a satisfying whole. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster made of derivative moments from both Scorcese and Paul Thomas Anderson’s back catalogue.

It’s like it was sent to the Academy in a marked envelope: ‘HERE’S WHAT I THOUGHT YOU MIGHT LIKE’.

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Yes, this is a hint.

These deadening things just make me think, “art is elsewhere”. Even, “fun is elsewhere”. In my next post – up tomorrow – I’ll entertain the idea that the grotesque is what could save us from this complacent rut.

(Yes, the picture is a hint.)

The Weird Down Under: KJ Bishop and Anna Tambour

Don’t know if it’s down to coincidence or something deeper (never visited the region + not an anthropologist) but I’m really happy to have discovered two great works of weird and wonderful fiction from Australia that I’m enjoying more or less concurrently.

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That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote by KJ BishopOne was less accidental than the other though. I had enjoyed KJ Bishop’s debut novel The Etched City immensely, so upon discovering that she had self-published a collection of short stories and poems, I was sold from the word go. So far it definitely doesn’t disappoint.

The collection is what I’d like to call ‘unaggressively strange’ – Bishop’s ease with language and her appreciation of the Decadent idiom gives the tone of the work an unapologetically ‘decorative’ quality that couches her zany imagination into something consistently enjoyable.

The overall feel of ‘That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote‘ is that of a cabinet of strange delights… due in no small part to it being a self-published work and so free from any overbearing commercial strictures.

Testament to its freewheeling, ramshackle variety are the poems accompanying the stories – surreal feasts of language, placed like addenda at the end of the book but in truth – and in spirit – reflecting the joyfully insane feel of the rest of the book.

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Though commenting on a book before you’re even done may seem silly or even crass, I can’t help but enthuse about Anna Tambour’s Crandolin.

Crandolin by Anna Tambour

Speaking about the art of criticism, Oscar Wilde said that, just like you don’t need to consume an entire bottle of wine to determine whether it’s any good or not, so a critic should be allowed to pass judgment on a work of art without having to have experienced it in its entirety.

Of course the statement is just a witticism to be taken with a heavy pinch of salt, but Tambour writes with such frenzied confidence (yes, a paradox worthy of Wilde) that her narrative voice alone is enough to convince me that she’ll carry her vision through to its end.

Using the titular magical device as a MacGuffin to pull a strange array of characters together (think Aladdin’s lamp, but if its gifts were less materialistic and more sensorial) Tambour lets her tale cumulatively paint a vivid picture. There’s no laborious world-building here: the reader is shoved straight into the detail, and save for a final destination involving the Crandolin serving as the figurative dangling carrot, we’re never sure where this is all headed.

Which is where Tambour’s grasp of language can really come out to play. Rhythmic, jokey and always at the ready with a wry (and not cringeworthy) pun, it works in perfect tandem with the craziness of the story so far.

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I’ve been trained to nitpick – both academically and professionally. Which is why it feels good to gush sometimes.

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READ MORE: Schlock Magazine interview with another favourite Aussie fantasy scribbler, Angela Slatter