The lingua franca of yearning and inquiry | Marina Warner

Marina Warner in conversation with Gloria Lauri-Lucente, Valletta, 29 August 2015

Marina Warner in conversation with Gloria Lauri-Lucente, Valletta, 29 August 2015. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

One of my most eagerly anticipated events of the year is the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival – a multilingual gathering of authors and poets set up by the Inizjamed literary NGO, which has been steadily growing in stature over the past few years, boasting an admirable array of foreign guests on its CV while allowing local authors to showcase their work on equal footing.

Thanks to the efforts of lecturer, poet and Inizjamed head honcho Adrian Grima and his many collaborators – not least the helping hand of various local institutions – the festival is a balm against parochialism in the local sphere, as it accommodates not only the (often self-crowed) local contingent, and neither is it limited to ‘special guests’ from the expected English-speaking regions. Rather, and true to its name, it’s a refreshing gathering of writerly talents from all over the Mediterranean.

But at the risk of being criminally reductive to this year’s line-up – which included among its ranks the Booker shortlisted Libyan novelist Hisham Matar and the rousing Palestinian Egyptian poet Tamim Barghouti – I have to confess that the main attraction for me was the participation of Marina Warner – author and mythographer extraordinaire, and a consistent intellectual inspiration for me over the past few years.

Warner’s presence certainly felt like the cherry on the Festival’s cake, and having a writer of this stature on board this time around was certainly apt, given that this year also marks its tenth anniversary.

But Warner would have been a good fit for the festival either way. Though ostensibly British, the former academic, fiction writer and myth-and-fairy tale authority boasts Italian family connections, and a childhood spent in Cairo. Her recent book Stranger Magic is a study of The Thousand and One Nights, and the author doesn’t shy away from addressing the cosmopolitan sweep of the snowballing, multifaceted and latterly controversial collection of folktales of the ‘Orient’.

And in her conversation with Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Malta Prof. Gloria Lauri Lucente – which capped off this year’s edition of the Festival – Warner’s sensitivity to the various cultural networks found within the Mediterranean was fully borne out. But more than anything else, it was a pleasure to witness these two great women discuss both the universal and the personal as it pertains to Warner’s work – from the enduring global appeal of fairy tales, to Warner’s upcoming short story collection Fly Away Home, which taps into her experience of growing up in Cairo.

Once again showcasing her organic, interdisciplinary grasp on cultural studies, when asked why fairy tales continue to fascinate us, Warner went for a musical metaphor.

“I like to think of fairy tales as a tune,” she told Lucente. “You know the tune, I know the tune – we remember it, we can play it – it isn’t confined.” Fairy tales, Warner went on to say, suggest a kind of “lingua franca” for yearning and inquiry. “And stories are vessels for very difficult inquiries.”

Just as Stranger Magic was a sensible and considered riposte to Edward Said’s monumental critical characterization of ‘Orientalism’ – an articulation of how exoticised Western projections of the ‘East’ and the ‘Orient’ serve to facilitate cultural dominance – so Warner encourages us to not dismiss the significance of fairy tales simply because the bulk of them offer seemingly pat endings whose function is to ‘console’.

For in offering alternatives and pathways for the imagination, fairy tales can be emancipatory. In terms of their phenomenological dimension – and while stressing that she doesn’t encourage total escapism and delusion and that she remains an adherent of the Enlightenment project – Warner reminds us that, “the mind’s eye that imagines a mermaid on the shore, and that simply witnesses, and then remembers, a fisherman catching dolphin fish, is the same place.”

(It’s not a dissimilar position to the one expressed by Ursula K. Le Guin in her National Book Awards address).

Marina Warner reads from 'Fly Away Home'. Valletta, 29 August 2015. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

Marina Warner reads from ‘Fly Away Home’. Valletta, 29 August 2015. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

A discussion on the rift between fiction and non-fiction was another topic – also poignantly tackled by Barghouti on the first night of the festival – which allowed Warner to point out how, far from serving as a distraction from social and political strife, fiction can provide an additional leeway for discourse, especially in countries where those freedoms are otherwise suppressed.

“People are now using novels to do all sorts of things. There is censorship in so many places in the world, that fiction offers some sort of shelter.” But fiction has yet another, more subtle advantage.

“With fiction, unlike in essays, you don’t have to ‘make up your own mind’. And I do find it much more satisfying.”

But as if to illustrate Hisham Matar’s point on the previous night – that while our freedom to reinvent our cultural, social and professional identities in the modern world is a great thing, we shouldn’t forget that we remain privy to historical currents beyond our control – Warner was candid about a key motivation for her wide-ranging work.

Unlike, say, Hisham Matar himself – whose father was abducted by the Libyan regime and whose ultimate fate remains a mystery to the author and his family – Warner’s upbringing remained relatively comfortable.

“I came from a background of petite bourgeois colonialists,” she told Lucente to disarming laughter. “So I always felt like I had to make some kind of reckoning. And this has been my spur.”

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Popol Vuh and Malta

‘Krautrock’ band and frequent suppliers of soundscapes for Werner Herzog movies Popol Vuh are gradually becoming my ‘return to Malta’ soundtrack.

Since I often take two or three weeks off in August to skim off at least some of the time spent under the scorching heat we’re blessed with during summer, this means I return as it’s all just receding – that inevitable twilight hum that’s perfect for moody langour.

It all started with a crazy Dingli-Rabat hike in 2013

It all started with a crazy Dingli-Rabat hike in 2013

Nothing says moody langour like ’70s prog, of course, but I do find something in Popol Vuh’s sound that is particular to a Maltese landscape still stewing in summer’s juices.

Maybe it’s all about the temptation to take shelter from the sun, and in Malta said shelter would often come in the form of limestone blocks (trees would have a very practical application here, alas). And in Malta, limestone also means history, lots of it.

The rock is cooler than you

The rock is cooler than you

Shadows and barely-comprehensible ancient history – it’s no wonder that out of all of Popol Vuh’s albums, it’s their soundtrack to Herzog’s Nosferatu that I find most apt of all.

Ghar Lapsi

Zonqor

Chernobyl Barbeque

St Thomas Bay

Rabat blog6

There and back again | Trip to Serbia

Just returned to the island home after a long-overdue visit to the original homeland of Serbia, and apart from the dreaded-but-expected plunge back into the heat and a grudging return to the work routine, what sticks in the mind is that heady cocktail of nostalgia and sentimentality that such a trip inspires, and which, I think, even those most impervious to such irrational (but all-too-human) reactions would find difficult to short-circuit.

Kovilj: True Detective-worthy?

Kovilj: True Detective-worthy?

Apart from the usual visit to relatives – a nicely balanced town & country trip encompassing both Belgrade and the Vrujci Spa – this time I also joined a group of fellow Maltese on a tour to Kovilj, a village near the city of Novi Sad known for its rich stork population and which boasts a proximity to the Danube.

Some non-euclidian architecture courtesy of the Kovilj monks

Some non-euclidian architecture courtesy of the Kovilj monks

There’s obviously something bracing about visiting your native country after six years, not least because you’re bound to change your perspective substantially since the last time you were there.

One of the reasons for my absence was that I wanted to travel a bit more. Malta -> Serbia was pretty much the extent of my travel experience for the longest time – i.e., until I was granted Maltese (and therefore EU) citizenship a couple of years ago – and having now seen a bit more of the rest of Europe, I could view the home country with a bit of a tilted perspective.

Eclectic sight in Belgrade

Eclectic sight in Belgrade

Belgrade itself certainly reminded me of other places now – Rome, Berlin – and so I could appreciate its beauty better for placing it into some kind of context. Edinburgh was one of my favourite recent travel destinations; Belgrade doesn’t have all that much in common with it save perhaps the comfortably compressed size of its city centre – a coziness I find essential.

Malta is infamous for its lack of greenery, and an aggressively neo-liberal policy of its current government only spells further doom for the island in this regard. So the trip to Banja Vrujci – where my maternal grandparents have been keeping a summer house for 35 years, give or take – was welcome as ever, even if the overcast weather was something of a downer.

Our family plot at Banja Vrujci

Our family plot at Banja Vrujci

But the Kovilj tour took us to other green places too – some of them housing beautiful monasteries – and it was a reminder of how Serbia, for all its problems, retains a proud farming tradition in certain areas.

One thing I didn’t do much of in Serbia is write. Between the fact that we were moving around so much and simply being on ‘holiday mode’, I can’t really say I took full advantage of a change of setting and pace to give a fresh spin to the projects I’m currently working on.

On the Danube: Algernon Blackwood was on to something

On the Danube: Algernon Blackwood was on to something

But the summer – and its attendant torpor – should be winding down soon enough. And Malta is inspiring too, in its own way. Obstinate yellow streets and buildings, flashes of beauty both random and stuffily curated, contradictions that can’t be explained and so make for great fodder. We’ll start at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, then take it from there…

And amusingly enough, our Kovilj tour made it to the local online news portals… 

The Films That Never Were | Jodorowsky’s Dune, Lost Soul & The Death of Superman Lives

Poster for Alejandro Jodorowsky's aborted attempt at making Dune

The practically back-to-back release of three documentaries about films that never ended up being made makes for quite the wistful (and geeky) movie marathon, but it’s also a great exercise for the imagination and a jumping-off point for other artists to maybe get inspired to do something similar.

I’m talking, of course, about the trifecta made up of Jodorowksy’s Dune, Lost Soul and most recently The Death of Superman Lives. With ‘Dune’ being the most intriguing and richest of the bunch, it’s also garnered the most attention so far, in large part thanks to the charismatic, loquacious presence of its central protagonist, the cult Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, as well as the totemic reputation of another key cook in the abortive Dune broth – pioneering French comic book artist Jean Giraud, aka Moebius.

Frank Pavich’s film sets the tone for this strand of documentary, balancing industry gossip with insights into the artistic process, and so feeding our curiosity from two different angles. We get to hear about ‘Jodo’ wrangling with studio execs, convincing the likes of Salvador Dali, Orson Welles and Pink Floyd to join what was already becoming a movable feast of a film.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, seen here with the totemic book of storyboards for Dune

Alejandro Jodorowsky, seen here with the totemic book of storyboards for Dune

But by dint of the fact that Moebius had completed the storyboards for the film long before the film went into (ultimately doomed) production, Pavich’s film also has the luxury of being the most visually arresting of the three films we’re discussing here, giving us a presumably accurate approximation of what Jodoroswky’s film may have looked like.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is also, perhaps, the most ‘culturally significant’ film of the three, because the fallout of the project then paved the way for likes of HR Giger and Dan O’Bannon to assert their influence on that other sci-fi behemoth – Ridley Scott’s Alien – to say nothing of how the would-be Dune’s reputation had a ripple effect that helped give rise to the likes of Star Wars.

Though all of the three projects were ultimately felled by a common enemy – film studios getting cold feet over what were essentially sprawling, avant-garde projects – this predicament is felt most keenly in Lost Soul, directed by David Gregory and charting the demise of director Richard Stanley’s attempt to make The Island of Dr Moreau.

Concept art for Richard Stanley's The Island of Dr Moreau

Concept art for Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr Moreau

Eventually released in 1996 thanks to the efforts of a new director, John Frankenheimer, the Marlon Brando-starring stinker had a far more interesting – read: disastrous – behind-the-scenes story, owing in no small part to its exotic Australian location. Being the most ‘advanced’ project of three – for whatever it’s worth, the film was actually completed – its make-up is slightly different to that of Jodorowsky’s Dune or The Death of Superman Lives… but only to a point.

We’re here to lament the loss of Stanley’s proposed visionary take on HG Wells’s classic novel, the film suggests, and the fact that a bastardized version was sent to die to the theaters is irrelevant – if anything, it’s yet another twist of the knife.

Lost Soul is mostly talking heads and some piecemeal archive footage – there’s a disappointing scarcity of concept art on display – but its narrative does boast a universally appealing backbone: the tragic story of a misunderstood eccentric crushed by bean-counting and nervous executives (there’s a more tenuous connection too – Stanley can also be counted among the talking heads in Jodorowsky’s Dune).

Richard Stanley, holding the Dog Man mask he used to sneak his way onto the set of The Island of Dr Moreau after he was fired

Richard Stanley, holding the Dog Man mask he used to sneak his way onto the set of The Island of Dr Moreau after he was fired

Though Jodorowsky is hardly the pinnacle of well-adjusted normality, and though would-be director of Superman Lives Tim Burton has built a career out of marketing himself as an ‘outsider’, it’s only Stanley who comes across as the true eccentric of the bunch. Dressed all in black and sporting a hat at all times, a believer in the power of witchcraft (as bolstered and made somewhat more intellectually palatable by his background as an anthropologist), Stanley arrives to the project with plenty of interesting things to say, and a passion to lend a relevant, contemporary spin on Wells’s story while fully respecting its historical and intellectual history.

Things are, of course, not as black and white as all that, and what also emerges is how unsuited Stanley was for such a large scale project. Fresh off cult hits Hardware and Dust Devil, Stanley was a stranger to big studio films and hardly inspired confidence on set – refusing to have meetings and clearly not being comfortable with the demands of such a production.

To say nothing of dealing with the egos of the likes of Val Kilmer, whose fee ballooned the budget to ridiculous proportions, putting further pressure on an already strained shoot (to say nothing of the fact that he had reduced shooting days, and acted like a complete dick on set).

Still, the documentary suggests that Stanley had a healthy clutch of supporters, and that even the film’s producers were sympathetic to his overall aims and wanted what was best for the film.

Actress Fairuza Balk, who found a kindred bohemian spirit in Stanley, comes across as his most impassioned defender in Gregory’s film, and her immediate reaction to Stanley being eventually fired from the production makes for a hilarious anecdote.

By contrast to the two other films, The Death of Superman Lives is a conversation with high-powered industry individuals who, despite the project never getting off the ground (hur hur) remained comfortable in their careers and weathered this (very expensive) storm in the end.

Poster for Death of Superman Lives

Whereas Stanley went into exile after being fired from ‘Moreau’ – first in Australia, then to the Montsegur commune in France – Tim Burton was allowed to continue his career in the rarefied atmosphere of Hollywood virtually unimpeded… although, as one-time screenwriter for the project Wesley Strick tellingly suggests, he hasn’t scaled the heights of its potential ever since.

Directed and narrated by Jon Schnepp – who is seen chatting to all of the interviewees – the partially Kickstarter-funded documentary has a rough-around-the-edges feel to it.

Sound quality fluctuates throughout and a disproportionate amount of the running time is dedicated to the costume Nic Cage would have worn for the film – perhaps betraying the ‘fanboy’ nature of Schnepp’s project (where dwelling on seemingly superficial accoutrements becomes a matter of cultish fetishisation).

But barring Nic Cage – whose presence is nonetheless felt through the use of now-totemic archive footage of costume fittings – Schnepp manages to assemble all of they key players involved in the cancelled production to have their say (on this point he gets one over ‘Lost Soul’, in which the absence of Kilmer and fellow actors David Thewlis and Ron Pearlman is keenly felt).

Giant spider! Pre-production concept art for Superman Lives

Giant spider! Pre-production concept art for Superman Lives

If nothing else, the film is a treasure trove of concept art. The jump to a high-budget production of this kind from Dune and ‘Moreau’ is made all the more evident by just how many varied talents were brought in to help bring Burton’s vision to life, and Schnepp succeeds in bringing the wild, colorful panoply into relief.

But for better or for worse – and despite a somewhat woozy presence from Burton himself – the key attraction remains producer Jon Peters. A former hairdresser with claims to bona fide street cred (at one point he tells Schnepp he was in “five hundred fights”), he comes across as a well-meaning nuisance at best, a bully at worst. He’s a fervent believer in the project but clearly also the product of the deluded Hollywood machine; 20 percent substance and 80 percent bullshit.

Tales of wondrous projects squashed by the machinery of ‘reality’, these films give breathing space to a pop culture landscape rapidly losing any heterogeneity in the name of financial security.

Perhaps they’re also a by-product of the internet age, in which nothing remains hidden for long, and where film fans become pseudo-historians and archivists by proxy. Whatever the case, I hope that they end up serving as cautionary tales above all, rather than just harmless curiosities.