– My favourite movie Batmen — Burton here and Reeves’ recent outing — are the ones that display at least a glancing affinity with subcultural figures, in contrast to hectoring enforcers of the status quo. Musical choices confirm it.
– Case in point: The Batman (2022), famously, re-introduces Nirvana to Gen Z, and on top of ‘Returns’ pan-freakshow of fetishistic weirdness, let’s not forget that Bruce and Selina kiss under the mistletoe while Siouxsie and the Banshees are snuck into the playlist for the Gotham one-percenter’s schmoozy Christmas do.
– The very ’90s ‘battle of the sexes’ sub-theme just scans as quaintly adorable now.
– Yes, Burton was unfettered this time around in contrast to the 1989 original. But I dream of a world where screenwriter Daniel Waters was ALSO allowed to go full Heathers on this one. Not that I don’t cherish the crystalline nuggets of punny dialogue that do betray his indelible presence. And on that note, last but not least…
– Max Shrek absolutely, positively, has the best lines.
POSTSCRIPT: It’s hardly surprising that a beloved film you love so much and have rewatched so often leaves an indelible stamp on both sub- and conscious mind. And over the past couple of rewatches, it’s become clear to me how strong an influence this movie in particular has been in the creation of Mibdul.
Following the annual horror binge of October, I tend to slip back into fantasy favourites during the subsequent months in an attempt to close off the year with something of a cosily immersive lilt; to both weather and take advantage for what passes for autumn and winter in this warm part of the world, and to plug into its wellspring of restorative nostalgia.
This often gets me thinking about the vilification of the fantasy genre — broadly speaking — as ‘escapist’, which tag tends to be loaded and, as is often the case, flung around in a dismissive and rather unreconstructed way.
The implication being that, the further we are from a cleanly mimetic representation of reality in fiction, the more ‘irresponsible’ we become in its consumption. That such a mode encourages us to forget the world as it is now, in favour of an ethereal indulgence that numbs us to our day-to-day realities and leaves us in a torpid stupor, the kind that Tennyson detailed in The Lotos-eaters.
There’s of course been endless shadings and nuancing of this argument over the years, but I believe that the core of it has remained with us — throbbing like a planetary core that has lodged itself and become essential to historical ecosytem of the discourse, much like any other ossified truism.
I find it to be endlessly faulty, and not just because I’m a fan of fantasy literature (and therefore don’t appreciate being characterised as some sort of head-in-the-sand naive idiot by proxy).
My issue here is far more fundamental. To put it as plainly as I can manage: it assumes that reality is a flat, clearly definable surface, and that we can posit a clean reality : fantasy binary.
The popularity of such an assumption is hardly surprising, given that it’s taken root primarily within the confines of a materialist, capitalist western society. This is a mode of living which at best compartmentalises all that is not tangibly measurable, rendering it peripheral to the day-to-day workings which make the machinery tick.
So that religious practice is tolerated, as long as it can be woven into the fabric of the day-to-day without causing too much offence (and crucially, it is called upon to occasionally prop up the agendas of certain politicians and ratify certain acts of exclusion and social inequality).
Perhaps we accept the intangible when it relates to issues of mental health. There is, at the very least, an understanding that — medication-based psychiatric help aside — the mental realm needs tending to in ways that are suspiciously apposite to the kind of treatments and rituals we would associate with religious and/or magical practice.
But even then — the overarching practise is to simply ‘treat’ any mental health anguish in a way that’ll make it go away so that you can resume being a healthy cog that can help keep the system chugging along. We are hardly encouraged to take its wider implications — that there’s more to life than what’s in front of us — and run with it.
In the same way, fantasy is also compartmentalised, only to be richly consumed by all of us. Literature aside, its popular adaptations litter our screens and the streaming services that have latched onto them like eager barnacles. Adaptations of the works of JRR Tolkien, George RR Martin and Neil Gaiman were some of the most-watched (or at least most talked about) shows of the past year or so.
Even something like Amazon’s take on William Gibson’s The Peripheral — ostensibly a work of ‘hard’ neo-cyberpunk from the grandfather of that subgenre — ultimately partakes of fantasy tropes at its root: it’s a portal fantasy with virtual reality and cyborg stand-ins only superficially replacing the mechanics of magic and its adepts.
Ultimately, branding fantasy more escapist than its supposedly ‘realistic’ counterparts is bound to devolve into a fool’s errand animated into being solely by the assumptions of a category error.
If you’re reading, watching or hearing something — anything — for an extended period of time, you’re lost in that experience, and at least somewhat disconnected from the real world, by proxy. Whether this is an epic adventure quest populated by dragons, elves and goblins, or a kitchen-sink drama of an immigrant family trying to make ends meet in present-day Munich, is really beside the point.
That’s not to say that there are no distinctions to be made within the minutae of experience to be had in each, of course. But the moralistic tone that is often taken against the allegedly more ‘escapist’ of the two still betrays at least a hint of lazy thinking.
For all that the more grimily realist fiction can illuminate and raise awareness — political awareness which, it must be said, is thinner on the ground(s) of that genre’s more navel-gazing counterparts — the fantastic acts as an extension of that experience.
Let’s give voice to what’s easier to defend here, for starters. Boundary-pushing works of the fantastical — the kind you’ll find among the likes of Kafka, Angela Carter or David Cronenberg — will exaggerate and amplify with the aim of exploring loftier points. The flinty realists are largely on the side of these non-escapist works of the fantastical.
But I would submit that even the most reactionary or nostalgic of fantasy works can have a purpose which isn’t simply redolent of intellectual vacuity or laziness, of a kind of distracted quietism that numbs the intellect and reduces its consumers to little more than sludge.
At the end of the day, even the knockiest of Tolkien knock-offs will be better for your mental hygiene than hours spent doomscrolling through the social media platform/s of your choice… and the degree of actual, conscious choice involved in that experience is questionable to begin with.
Because if distraction from reality is what makes fantasy such an ‘irresponsible’ intellectual pursuit, what is the doomscrolling impulse of the 24/7 news cycle, which has now emigrated beyond the relatively confined space of the television screen to also latch themselves onto our mobile phones? (Yes, Gibson and Cronenberg have been warning us of this with grotesque gusto for decades).
Haunted by this reality, I submit that anything which promotes immersion of any kind is a better and more meditative alternative.
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.
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.
Just like many other freelancers the world over, the economic fallout of the covid-19 epidemic has left me scrambling for work that would ensure my livelihood in the coming months. Scrambling is something out tribe is accustomed to, of course, and I’ve often been in this situation before and have emerged (relatively) unscathed.
But of course, these are extraordinary times, during which some old clients will scram any prospective ones suddenly find themselves denuded of any lust for adventurous new collaborations.
Freelancing in marginally less trying times, with thought bubble lamp for added effect
To this end, I would like to invite anyone who does retain a sense of adventure during these trying times to consider taking on my services as a freelance writer with experience in various fields — journalism, content writing and scriptwriting being the main three, though I’d be more than happy to work on anything you’ve got going as long as it’s in English and the deadlines are humane.
Neither is there any need to simply take my own word for it, however: do take a look at what some kindly but exacting professionals had to say about my work in various fields by popping over to the ‘Services‘ section of this very site.
Though it’s hardly the Netflix back (and front) catalogue, some of my own work could very easily keep you company while you’re social distancing away at home.
My debut novel started life as a piece of flash fiction, tumbled into larger and more mottled being thanks to the steady encouragement of Merlin Publishers’ Chris Gruppetta and was released into the little slice of world that would have it at the beautiful Cafe Wignacourt in Rabat, my Maltese town-crush.
Very much a debut novel in spirit, tone and theme, it is a labour of equal parts love and pain: deeply autobiographical and largely told from the POV of a young child, for gods’ sake. Does it get any more debut novel-y than that?!
You can find out more about it here. Those of you in Malta and Gozo can currently avail themselves of a 25% discount from Merlin Publishers — a covid-solidarity move that applies to all of their books. Do also check out Awguri, Giovanni Bonello, featuring a vampire-tinged historical fiction tale that was a blast to write, and which dovetails nicely into our next item…
Short Film: Camilla
Literary film adaptation and vampires are just about two of my favourite things, so it was an honour and a pleasure to be able to adapt Clare Azzopardi’s ‘Camilla’ into a short film, together with Stephanie Sant (who co-wrote and directed) and under the ever-intrepid auspices of producer Martin Bonnici (Shadeena Entertainment). The film was made possible thanks to a competitive fund awarded to us by the National Book Council, whose sterling work can, I hope, continue unabated after all this mess is over.
Meanwhile, please feel free to enjoy our 21-minute slice of Mediterranean Gothic, cross-generational romantic intrigue and sexual discovery, all wrapped up in a coming-of-age story featuring a wide-eyed but hardly bushy-tailed protagonist, brought to entrancing life by Steffi Thake, working under the austere shadow cast by the inimitable Irene Christ.
We can’t manage to catch a break in Malta, can we? It’s been at least since last November that some kind of mental stability or continuity — the latter being a repeated slogan in the party leadership campaign that was to crown the November madness — was the norm in both public and private life.
I was actually on a break of sorts when that first crisis hit. High on the freshly released fumes of success generated by our being awarded the inaugural Malta Book Council feature film fund for our feature film adaptation of Alex Vella Gera’s Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi, I decided to go for an early, modest version of a writerly fantasy and booked a ‘writing retreat’ at the sister island of Gozo in off-season.
It was a no-brainer, at least in theory. I chose to stay at the notoriously quiet village of Gharb, with a pipe-shaft view from my typing window and grossly over-pixelated landscape printouts hanging by the bed. So, no distractions there. The breakfasts were also nice and energising — full English, with a dollop of French sweets and Gozitan cheeselets on the side — and having paid in full for room and board meant that I was internally pressured to get cracking on the reams of research and story development that needed to be done.
But the trip also coincided with the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, so I could forget all about isolation and silence, in the broadest sense of the word. How could I resist checking my phone when the political status quo of the island was being dismantled right before our eyes? Not least when the project itself hardly offered a neat cutoff point: my research dealt with political violence and corruption in 1980s Malta, and if anything was to be salvaged from the distraction it was that the resonances between then and now ensured that our film will be laced with an enduring, if unfortunate, relevance.
With the fallout came the protests, and an unprecedented political crisis culminating in the resignation of then prime minister Joseph Muscat and the election of Robert Abela in his stead, with a reshuffled cabinet following suit. As alluded to above, ‘continuity’ was the watchword, and Abela — to the cynical chuckles of many — quickly declared that ‘normality’ has been restored to the island.
The onset of the global covid-19 pandemic makes short work of precisely that kind of rhetoric. We have seen how it’s served to symbolically unseat the likes of Donald Trump, whose bluff and bluster collapses ‘like a flan in a cupboard’ when faced with a threat both invisible and undeniable. Though I would caution against declaring that ‘the Trump presidency is over‘ so categorically — the orange oaf has survived a record amount of scandals — watching him scramble for some political purchase while playing the same old xenophobic tunes is just farcical at this point.
But it’s not just limited to politicians. The sight of suddenly quarantined celebrity actors deciding to make use of their newly housebound condition to splice together a group singalong of John Lennon’s Imagine — “Imagine there’s no people” is hardly the thing you want to hear while a murderous pandemic continues to spread on a murderous rampage of the elderly and otherwise vulnerable — also points to the tone-deaf nature of another privileged class.
The cluelessness of the global rich is hardly news — Best Picture winner Parasite all but rendered it into an archetype, and these elites are actually nice — but a pandemic has away of making it all come out like a particularly eye-grabbing Lovecraftian bas relief.
So yes, we’re still very much not getting a break right now: not from the bone-headed stupidity of the global hegemony, not from the callousness and stupidity of those at the top. But we’re joined in this worldwide, and while the imposition to enforce ‘social distancing’ certainly lends fuel to the fire of certain xenophobic tendencies informed by the idea of the infectious and corrupting nature of otherness, we’re also getting to see limits of our status quo.
A status quo within which, as a self-employed freelance writer, I am likely doomed to remain on the fringes of, for better or worse.
(Here’s the bit where ask anyone who’s reading this to consider making use of my services as a journalist, content writer or scriptwriter during these trying times, as existing clients start to bail and any prospective ones suddenly be).
Perhaps some would call the largely worldwide self-quarantine a break of some sorts, though of course it’s not that, not by a long stretch. But it’s certainly a break in the aggressive sense, a rupture of the old routines we’re now scrambling to become accustomed to, with varying degrees of success, and each in their own way.
I’ll try to keep chasing the resonances. Even if they’re not all pleasant ones. Because in times like these, some kind of internal coherence is what we need more than anything else.
A South American migrant whose mother is undocumented – that the Thrombey heirs and in-laws consistently getting her nationality wrong during police interrogations is one of the film’s best running gags; some say she’s from Ecuador, others from Paraguay – she does her best to placate the spoiled brood after a plot-important (and therefore spoilery) development flips the power dynamic between her and her erstwhile employers, edging the proverbial knives out of the rich family’s sheathes and placing the perennially good-hearted Marta in a thoroughly uncomfortable position.
Keen to show that she has no intention of offending or otherwise discomfiting the Thrombeys in light of this new development, Marta insists on pointing out how the family has been “good to [her]” by giving her employment and at least ostensibly making her feel part of the privileged Thrombey fold while she took care of their patriarch in his dotage.
The family takes this as a given, never for a second considering that there could have been any ‘decent’ alternative way for all of this to pan out. Being a migrant, her inherent abjection and lack of agency is the default setting she’s expected to operate under. Though nominally valued, the work she does for the family is not nearly enough to grant her anything resembling full personhood, and anything that crosses the line of that rigidly defined master and servant relationship is to be apologised for profusely, or else.
Keeping up with the Thrombeys: After Harlan Thrombey (centre) is found dead in an apparent suicide, the rest of his family decend into a not-so-petty extended squabble over the spoils
It is at this point that Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) – Johnson’s wonderfully conceived riposte to the Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot archetype, gleefully brought to life by a relaxed and game post-Bond Craig – crosses a line of his own. Lifting the veil of cold calculated deductive reasoning that has so far been his modus operandi (and that of his literary and filmic antecedents in the detective genre), he interrupts Marta by giving in to a bubbling ethical indignation:
“Excuse me. You have not been good to her. You have all treated her like shit […] You’re a pack of bloody vultures at the feast, but you’re not getting bailed out, not this time.”
We can make much out of Blanc being something of a ‘white knight’ in this situation, also pointing out that most migrants out there do not in fact have such figures bursting through to speak out in their favour when things get really tough. But within the context of the film, Blanc’s outburst serves as a welcome bit of catharsis. How much of this misguided, undeserved and disingenuous shit are we going to take, and for how long?
Disgraced former tourism and energy minister Konrad Mizzi recently evoked something of a similar reaction in local quarters after posting an incendiary Facebook post following a literally incendiary event in Marsa.
“You fled your country. We saved you from drowning. We gave you shelter in our home. We dressed you, fed you. But now learn to respect us, our culture, our religion and the Maltese population,” Konrad Mizzi wrote on Facebook on January 8th, 2019, in the wake of a fire engulfing the Marsa Open Centre, which led to the arrest of 20 people.
Like the Thrombeys, Mizzi betrays no qualms at lumping all migrants in the same basket, with an added sting of political convenience handy to local politicians – particularly ones given the chop in the wake of shady financial dealings, who are now perhaps hoping that a new party leader will allow them to once again rise in the party ranks, previous sins washed clean as they are buoyed back into the public discourse by this recent appeal to far-right sentiment.
Mizzi does indeed expect all migrants to merely shut up and take any indignity thrown at them, except perhaps when they open their mouths to intone just how “good to them” we’ve been for allowing them the privilege of taking shelter on our island.
Never mind that the true source of the fire has yet to be determined, and never mind that this rush to condemn sits uncomfortably when compared to Mizzi’s own post-Panama political trajectory, during which we were all expected to let the legalisms that have exonerated him to speak for themselves.
Never mind that, even if the fires at the Marsa open centre are proven to have been deliberately started by migrants housed there, Mizzi’s diabolically moralistic generalisation cannot even begin to hold water: it assumes that all of the migrants there would have been in full agreement with any criminal action taking place.
And in this particular case, the notion that the migrants at the open centre should be grateful to us for ‘housing’ them is also off base: by its very definition, the open centre largely serves as a transitional space in which migrants are made to wait while their paperwork is processed and before they are given the go-ahead to either stay in the country or move elsewhere.
But apart from being an obvious and cheap attempt at garnering public support from literally the most toxic of national sources, Mizzi’s attitude is also redolent of the kind of ‘logic’ and ‘common sense’ which underpins some of the same toxicity within the migration debate. ‘We will charitably do our bit to welcome third country nationals into the country, but if they dare express anything other than adulation of even consider making minor legal infringements – infringements that we’d easily forgive among ‘our own’ – the only thing they should look forward to is swift deportation’.
Ana de Armas is Marta Cabrera in Knives Out (2019)
It is a logic that is accurately, meticulously and painfully articulated in Knives Out. In an early scene – or rather, early confessional flashback – Marta is brought in as an unwitting ‘exhibit A’ of the ‘good migrant’ by Richard (Don Johnson), as a tangible closing salvo to a family debate on Donald Trump’s heinous migration border policy (Ol’ 45 is not explicitly mentioned by name, but the correlation is impossible not to make). Conceding that ‘putting children in cages’ is a bad thing, Richard clings to legalisms:
“But I blame the parents […] for breaking the law. You’re going to hate hearing this but it’s true, America is for Americans.”
It’s at this point that Richard commands a vigilant and nervous Marta to come over, as if a walking, (barely) talking illustration of his point. Making a point to wave his polished-off cake plate at the trembling girl, to be taken away later, Richard carries on,
“Marta, your family came from Uruguay but you did it right, she did it legally, I’m saying. You work hard, and you’ll earn your share from the ground up just like dad and all of us did – Marta I bet you agree with me.”
Never mind Richard obliviousness to both Marta’s own true country of origin (something the audience itself never becomes privy to either, to be fair); the fact that Richard is also ignorant of her family’s legal status is of course the deeper cut. Once that truth is revealed – by one of the supposedly more ‘woke’ members of the Thrombey family – the information gives way to blackmail, not help from this monied and influential family. Truly, they have not been, and will insist on never being, good to her.
Many arguments in favour of existing, status quo migration policies accuse the ‘other side’ of sentimentality or misdirected compassion, of refusing to consider the rational underpinnings behind arguments like ‘America is for Americans’, ‘illegal immigrants are simply breaking the law’.
But pronouncements like Mizzi’s own are also an act of obfuscation, apart from being a vulgar attempt to piggyback on racist undercurrents in an attempt to salvage some form of political capital. In framing migration policy as little more than an act of charity, Mizzi conveniently dodges the responsibility of rigour that is crucial if one is to honestly engage with issues of such complexity.
It’s a smoke-and-mirrors exercise made possible through the mechanisms of privilege – Mizzi’s own monied background, his history as a politician which, however chequered, still garners active support from a vocal contingent of Labour supporters – and it’s also the main obstacle that Benoit Blanc faces as he attempts to crack the case he’s now facing.
Because while Marta’s part in Johnson’s serpentine plot is hardly as simple as her otherwise diminished social standing would suggest, the Thrombey’s arsenal of cash and influence goes a long way towards making the case as juicy and complex as possible, as an eleventh-hour reappearance of an absent Thrombey scion makes clear as the film transitions from the second act to its third.
Somewhere over gravity’s rainbow: Daniel Craig is Benoit Blanc
Blanc uses the title of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow to describe his working method to Marta – a famously impenetrable tome that neither of them have read, but whose title Blanc is partial to because,
“It describes the path of a projectile, determined by natural law. Voila, my method. I observe the facts without biases of the head or heart, I determine the arc’s path, stroll leisurely to its terminus, and the truth falls at my feet.”
Mizzi and other politicians of his ilk are in the business of putting themselves precisely in the path of the projectile, blocking a thorough examination of the truth by opening the floodgates to angry, misguided sections of the electorate who will offer them their support in the wake of such toxic battle cries.
It is a self-serving move masquerading as a beacon of wider social concern, and it precisely encapsulates the paradox of figures like Konrad Mizzi: well-oiled businessmen brought into the fold of an ascendant Labour Party and asked to deploy their technocratic skills in the interest of securing continued victory.
It’s a paradox that also came undone in the wake of a murder – that of Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose mysteries have been unravelled somewhat, but not in their entirety.