LISTEN | Fastidju & Mongaliech

Mongaliech

I especially like my music dark and immersive – I find it perfect to write to, for one thing, and my social network has been very generous on that front this particular month of May (hey, it is my birthday month after all), as two friends of mine – one from this here isle, the other from one further up north in Scotland – both unveiled their dark, twisted projects to the world, and I found them both a joy to listen to.

First out of the gate is Fastidju, the brainchild of Nigel Baldacchino who, together with a veritable ‘super-band’ of local talent, has released a double-CD album of haunting, burrowing (and bi-lingual) sounds. It all comes gorgeously packaged too. Check out a track below, and click here to go to the band’s Facebook page, where you’ll find info about how to acquire a copy of the album.

Next is MONGALIECH – a two-man-band release brought to my attention by horror writer Alistair Rennie, one half of this heady initiative. It’s a dramatic soundscape that clearly evokes the duo’s Scottish environs, and will be of particular interest to those who like a bit of horror, in whichever form. Their entire album is available to listen to and download for free from bandcamp. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Inspiration | Mad Magus Artist Documentaries

Moebius' Arzach

Moebius’ Arzach

Call it glorified procrastination (then again, what isn’t?) or a genuine pursuit of inspiration, but there are few things I love more than watching documentaries about creators I admire.

The release of Jodorowsky’s Dune (which my friend Marco incidentally nattered about on recently over at Schlock Magazine), coupled with the sad passing of HR Giger, made me think of this again, so I thought I’d compile a list of some of my favourites – all of which are thankfully available online.

I know I’ll be returning to this list every now and then for an inspiration top-up. Feel free to suggest any others I may have missed.

In Search of Moebius

The Mindscape of Alan Moore

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown

H.R. Giger Revealed

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Incidentally, did some more nattering of my own, this time into the ears of the protean Maltese lifestyle web-hub, Malta Inside Out.

Why I Love NBC’s Hannibal – Part I

Taylor Swift

Standing with perfect symmetry at the centre of the frame, pop starlet Taylor Swift here embodies divine indifference.

Framed by two other ‘stages of man’ she stands as an aspirational vortex; a totemic reminder of what most of us want but cannot have.

The man to the left, jeans tattered, with the beaten-down expression familiar to so many ‘supporting characters’ in paintings by any number of the old masters, is on his way out: he has tried to scale heights but never managed to reach them, and it is clear that this dawns on him with fresh immediacy every waking day now – now, that he’s realised just how few of those days he has left.

To the right is his younger counterpart, his clothes clean-pressed and chosen with sensitivity to colour-coordination, the shades completing a look of sharp impersonality.

And in the middle stands the figure of Taylor Swift: even when disembodied away from the stage, from red carpet events and curated photo shoots, immaculately – because casually – beautiful, her pose strikingly Christ-like but free of any suffering.

Her weary gaze at the paparazzo; she’s so young and already so jaded by the mechanisms of the world – her world, not ours.

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It’s easy to wrench deities and archetypes out of pop culture representatives, partly because they pitch themselves that way. In some sense they can’t help but do this: see how Taylor Swift, simply by standing in front of a gardening shop, lends an aura of something other than what meets the eye.

The thrill of recognition is of course at the heart of what makes celebrity culture tick: bumping into celebrities, even spotting them on the street, becomes a story worth retelling to friends and family; a memory to be cherished, even in this day and age, where the ubiquitous torrent of images of the same celebrities should be enough to make us entirely jaded.

But the thrill of recognising someone who is supposedly ‘important’ – or at least, special enough for us to separate them above ourselves, and even our peers – remains a key instinct, and it’s not just limited to ‘real’ people (though the layers of simulacra through which celebrities are often transmitted to us do complicate this substantially, I’ll admit).

One such example – of a modern talismanic presence in fiction, I mean – is the figure of Hannibal Lecter. Originally a character in the bestselling Thomas Harris crime-horror trilogy of novels (Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal), he has of course been elevated to the status of pop culture royalty thanks to his cinematic outing via Anthony Hopkins.

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991)

This was of course a career-defining performance, but it’s worth noting that the constituent elements making up Hannibal Lecter aren’t to be sniffed at. I wish I had a keener, more intuitive grasp of which literary factors, exactly, contributed directly to his creation. Perhaps it’ll serve as a research strand for another day, when I’m in a more industrious mood. Suffice to say that, whoever or whatever may have inspired Harris to breathe life into his archly horrific – and horrifyingly charming – figure, the fact remains that he has comfortably eclipsed them for quite some time, emerging as a trademark fictional character in his own right.

Hannibal Lecter is often citied as one of the great villains in the history of recent narrative. It’s not too hard to see why. He is an intriguing juxtaposition of opposites. Like most outré characters in fiction – the kind of characters whose composition in and of itself is exciting, beyond how they serve the story: think of Dickens – he is fascinating even in isolation. A respected psychiatrist who is also a cannibal. A highly cultivated – ‘cultured’, if you will – self-made man (there is something of an American projection of ‘European’ culture here) who is also in touch – and indulgent of – the most barbaric human impulses.

And now that he has made the jump into television – a medium undergoing its own steady renaissance – his domination has continued apace.

Man of wealth and taste: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter

Man of wealth and taste: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter

I am a proud evangelist for Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, produced and aired by NBC, in which the eminently watchable, razor-sharp-cheekboned Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen takes on the titular role.

Though its first season was a workable enough affair – relying on the basic thrill of recognition of seeing Hannibal Lecter again to spruce up what was essentially an FBI murder-mystery procedural of the Criminal Minds/CSI ilk – come the second season the series reaches full bloom, allowing the ominous relationship between Hannibal and his ‘charge’ – in this case, a younger version of Red Dragon’s Will Graham – to be exploited for its “fucked-up” potential to the fullest.

Becoming: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal and Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

Becoming: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal and Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

“Fucked-up” isn’t a cue for cheap titillation here. Being a prequel series to the trilogy we’re used to, the show by necessity has to ‘stretch’ Harris’ central conceit to fill up more story-time. Ordinarily, this would not augur well: stretching anything beyond its organic narrative confines usually results in stories that remain – to broadly apply the term – ‘unnecessary’; a limp extension of its mother-narrative, a decorative but hollow appendage.

No, “fucked-up” here extends the central taboo at the core of Harris’ stories – receiving useful investigative advice from a cannibalistic murderer, “fighting evil with evil” – to a mythic state.

Wrenched free from the three-act structure of novels and films, NBC’s Hannibal exploits the thrill of recognition to drive these characters to their logical narrative conclusion: away from mere innovative kinks, curios of the crime fiction genre, away from the exigencies of the ‘thriller’ plot structure, and further into the realm of the archetype… the realm of myth.

To be continued.

Authenticity: Richard Linklater, Woody Allen, Romanticism, Decadence

I’ve stopped giving much credence to birthdays over the past couple of years (I’m writing this on the eve of my 29th). Once the rites of passage in life become murkier – i.e., after you’re done with school and have no set ‘stages’ to go through any more – birthdays start to feel truly arbitrary.

But something strange, and just about wonderful is happening this year: right now I truly feel like there’s some kind of culmination of the recent experiences I’ve been through.

Part of all this is, of course, down to finally finishing and publishing the book, and I’m wary of how this feeling of relief mixed with euphoric uplift can be temporary and elusive.

But there’s other factors which have contributed to me feeling an increased sense of peace, and a receding of the persistent self-doubt which comes with – in a big way – from the very same arbitrariness that characterizes most of adult life.

It’s a hard-won sort of peace, though, and one which needs constant vigilance to be maintained.
I suppose the cost of growing up is, ultimately, the realization that bliss can no longer, at any point, come automatically.

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Increased self-awareness also means an increased sensitivity to what is authentic about yourself – what you should keep and cultivate, and what you should discard because it’s no longer relevant to you: a dead-end road.

Authenticity was always a bit of a thorny subject for me; one the one hand yes, I work for a newspaper – which, at least ostensibly, trades in remaining authentic – while on the other, my primary obsessions are concerned with both the production and consumption of fiction.

A recent ‘catch up’ marathon for three films I’ve been wanting to watch – the ‘Before‘ films by Richard Linklater, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (I know, I know) – put this in focus for me once again.

The trio’s breezy style clearly emerges as a result of consummate, carefully cultivated filmmaking, of course, but the way the films worry at concerns so delicate, intimate and – ultimately – relatable puts a number of cinematic attempts at the same themes to shame.

There is both a sensitivity and a kindness – as well as a dramatic dynamism, taking the shape of the best stage play’s effortless back-and-forth banter – to Linklater which made me think, first and foremost (and for whatever reason): Woody Allen is a fraud.

The comparison came to me just as automatically as that: finishing off either the second or the third ‘Before’ film, Woody Allen’s attempts at extrapolating home truths about sexual politics came to mind, and just didn’t ring true.

Where Linklater zooms in on an unfolding relationship between just two people – a thespian duo he clearly trusts – first by charming us with their idyllic romance but then boldly returning to his subject/s years later to shade that relationship, Allen props up his ping-ponging dialogue in the midst of cardboard cut-outs and facile plot developments.

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My own reaction came as something of a surprise, because in recent years I’ve developed an increased fondness for artifice – a resistance to the ‘organic’ creation of art so vaunted by the Romantics, in favour of what we could, I suppose, at a stretch venture to call a more Decadent approach which places increased value on form and ornamentation.

In retrospect though, I think this may have something to do with the fact that over the past few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to write my own fiction, TO MAKE MORE STUFF, and so the – broadly defined – Romantic idea of ‘waiting for inspiration’ or of dedicating your attention solely to the perfect subject that is closest to your heart was not really helpful.

Focusing on just putting the thing together, on the other hand, helped me to move forward, and so the opposing milieu became more attractive.

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Now that the novel is done, though, I have to confess that ultimately, its autobiographical elements are what kept me going – or, at least, that engine that whirred in the background, quietly fuelling me ahead as I scrambled to put the whole thing together.

Having a personal stake in something – anything – by its very nature adds urgency to a project, and one of the best things I’ve heard said about Two is that it made some readers – two of them, actually, as far as I know – “give me a hug”, because they recognized the emotional authenticity of the book.

Truth is a slippery thing; I will never understand it, not fully. People are constantly called out on begin ‘phony’ and ‘fake’; even a kind of manufactured authenticity seems to have pervaded our culture (see: Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, and countless other celebrities presented as ‘just one of us’).
But I’ll be happy if I hit upon it, however fleetingly, when “it matters”.

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Some more coverage for Two:

The Times of Malta – A measured, well-written review I’m quite happy about.

The Malta Independent – An interview by Colin Fitz, also delving into my work as a journalist. Some of the quotes come across as a bit pompous, and I’m fairly certain I was more self-deprecating during the conversation itself. But whatever.

If you – my fine, illustrious readers – insist on doing something for my birthday, might I suggest you pick up a copy of Two, either from “any good” brick-and-mortar store if you’re in Malta and Gozo, or through Merlin’s website if you’re seeing this from abroad? Shipping rates have been reduced to normal prices, thankfully, so you can order away without too much of a burden on your pockets. Ta!