[WATCH] Literature in the Diaspora & Interview with Nikola Petković

The National Book Council of Malta has uploaded two events that I was happy to be involved in during the National Book Festival, which this year took place — as ever — at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta between November 7 and 11.

First, there’s the recording of ‘Literature in the Diaspora’ — a conference on the subject that I chaired and which included an eclectic selection of speakers, among them Lou Drofenik (Malta/Australia), Nikola Petković (Croatia), Vera Duarte (Cape Verde) and Philip Ò Ceallaigh (Ireland). 

It is of course a huge subject to have to tackle, a fact that becomes even more challenging once you consider your time limit and the desire to accommodate the various viewpoints on offer. But the main take-away from it all, I think, is an embrace of the inherent variety that lies in the diaspora, and a need to resist cut-and-dried ideas of what narratives about nationality should be about, and how we should respond to them.

Next, I was happy to get a chance to ‘zoom in’ on one of the speakers at the conference — the Croatian author and academic Nikola Petković, during a chat about his novel ‘How to Tie Your Shoes’ — which was significantly translated into English by the author himself.

The dynamics of self-translation were one of the many subjects we touched upon, in a conversation which I’d like to think ran as wide a thematic gamut as the prickly, bitter and wrenching ‘confessional’ novel itself, which uses a heavily autobiographical story to touch upon the patriarchy, national identity and the fallout of the Yugoslav Wars.

When you’re done with those, do check out the remaining videos from this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival, uploaded on the National Book Council’s YouTube channel — an interview with special guest Naomi Klein conducted by my colleague Matthew Vella being among them.

Of course, it’s hard to deny that the highlight of the festival for me, however, was the premiere of Camilla, the short film that I co-wrote with director Stephanie Sant and adapted from the short story of the same name by Clare Azzopardi, with a dash of Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ thrown in to help the shift from page to screen and indulge our vampiric tendencies further.

Brought to sumptuous life by producer Martin Bonnici and his team at Shadeena Entertainment — a process aided in no small part by the National Book Council’s funds — it was a pleasure to finally debut the film to an enthusiastic audience on November 10, and I look forward to the next stages of its distribution. Watch this space.

WhatsApp Image 2018-11-12 at 17.09.49

A representative sample of the team behind ‘Camilla’ (dir. Stephanie Sant, centre)

 

 

Advertisements

Palermo & Other Pulp

Haven’t updated here for a while (he says, as if we’re still in Livejournal-world, as if our ‘updates’ aren’t energetically diffuse and many across various platforms now), though I’ve been wanting to for quite some time.

It hasn’t happened for the usual reasons — as ever, time and energy — though a meditative pit stop over at the blog would have been just what the head-doctor ordered (if I still visited one, that is, so this is all speculation).

Hectic times require a time-out, but sometimes a time-out is not possible because hectic time leaves very little time for anything else. As the current leader of our supposedly “free” world might say, “Sad!”.

***

So while my nerves are in a slightly calmer state at this point in time, as I sit back at home freshly showered and returned from a long weekend in Palermo, the mind remains scattered, and this blog post will be scattered too. In fact, I will use it in an attempt to un-scatter the mind as much as possible. It will be bitty. It will be chaotic. But it will also be, I think and hope, true. 

***

Speaking of scattered, ramshackle, shambolic and words of that type — pejoratives designating ‘chaos’, as the Pedant Mind would perhaps put it — I have thoughts on the Tom Hardy-starring Venom. Though this is mostly because I’ve been paid to have them, and the result of all that can be read through here at your leisure should one be so inclined.

But beyond what I thought about this uneven and certainly messy corporate love child between Sony and Marvel, the reaction to the film also gave me feelings.

A big fuss was made on how audiences and critics were divided on this one — with the punter giving the thumbs up while the boffins gave it a thumbs down — this isn’t really the talking point that impressed me the most. Though it’s certainly interesting that the divide was so great this time around, what got to me is how critics in fact kept bringing up the issue of ‘tonal consistency’ as the main problem with a film like this.

Colour me unconvinced, because tonal consistency is the last thing I’d expect from a film like this, and if that really is a sore point for you in a film about a gloopy black alien ‘symbiote’ looking for a human host to get psycho with (on? through?) then, you know, priorities.

If anything, tonal consistency is really something we could do with far less of in mainstream cinema. The Marvel Studios film may hit the mark way more often than when they miss, but it’s hard to deny that their over-curated approach hampers style and invention.

A recent example of the opposite approach worming its way into the mainstream is Gareth Evans’ Netflix Original feature Apostle. Sure, it’s a mess that outdoes Venom on the ‘grace and coherence’ front — feeling more like a mini-series cut down to feature length size (while remaining lumberingly sizeable all the same) and whose sudden shifts and escalations will have one believe Evans way maybe — just maybe — taking a teensy bit of a piss as he hammered out the script for his own feature.

But it’s also a delightfully bonkers ride that plays with your feeling with the same intensity it juggles genres. Anything can happen in the manic micro-climate that Evans has created, and very often it actually does.

It strikes me that ‘tonally uneven’ stories are actually the best suited format for popular narratives. Are the folk tales we told ourselves by the campfire for centuries ‘tonally consistent’, for example? (They may be formally rigid – but that’s another thing entirely.)

I want my mainstream blockbusters messy. Because anything the alternative appears to be a deliberate flattening of nuance and the random energy that seeps into a work and makes it its own.

IMG_20181029_150315

Hope does show up in strange places, though. Just as we were about to board the flight to Palermo, I decided to go against my usual habits and actually pick up those collated Panini UK editions Marvel appear to have designed specifically for airports.

One of these anthologised and slapped-together storied featured a Ghost Rider-Venom hybrid. Now that’s the kind of pulpy chaos that I wanna see in these things.

IMG_20181029_150421

***

Speaking of things that are best left messy, Palermo was an utter delight. One does not want to romanticise decay and deprivation too much, of course, but coming off from our own Capital of Culture year — an initiative that actually extols the opening of over 40 boutique hotels in Valletta as something positive — witnessing the crumbly decadence of Sicily’s capital city, especially during their own run at an international contemporary arts festival (Manifesta 12) was nothing short of inspiring.

IMG_20181028_001314_569

While similarities to Sicily and Italy certainly abound — though the climate is ever milder and the Arabic influence is very much felt in the architecture too, sliding into the Maltese language instead over here — my impression this weekend is that where Malta is over-curated, Palermo runs on a kind of studied neglect.

IMG_20181027_110810_156

I couldn’t imagine the Maltese artistic establishment to ever work up the nerve to display artworks in an exhibition commanding international renown with as casual and lax an approach that we found at Manifesta 12; weaving through palaces long past their hey-day, and — one assumes — walking a precarious tip-toe across health and safety regulations.

In Malta, we are perhaps a little bit too afraid to fail. But that fear clamps down any nooks and crannies of possibility that may open up.

***

Back in Malta now though, and a crazy week of deadlines will hopefully give way to a long-awaited month to geeky opportunity and plenty. First out of the gate is a talk my dear friend and collaborator Stephanie Sant and myself will be giving at Malta Comic Con, concerning out short film ‘Camilla’, which you can read more about here.

IMG_20180806_132441

‘Camilla’ (dir. Stephanie Sant) stars Irene Christ (left) and Steffi Thake, and premieres at the Malta Book Fair on November 10

But wait! The real hook here is that the event will also serve as the trailer premiere for our short! So should you be at Malta Comic Con this weekend — and you definitely should be, given that it’s the 10th anniversary edition of one of the most enthusiastically put together and consistently strong celebrations of comics and pop culture on the island — do stop by on November 3 at 15:00 to watch the trailer and hear us speak about the evolution of the project.

I will also have a table at the Con all weekend, and would very much appreciate chatting to whoever passes by (I mean it — despite my lowkey misanthropy still going strong after all these years, these things can get dull for long stretches, to the point where human interaction suddenly becomes a welcome prospect).

***

More stuff! 

I will be chairing the Literature in the Diaspora conference at the Malta Book Festival on November 7 at 19:00. I will then be having a one-to-one live interview with one of the conference’s participants; the fiercely intelligent Croatian writer Nikola Petkovic, on November 8 at 17:30.

‘Camilla’ will then premiere on November 10 at the MA Grima Hall of the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta. The show starts at 20:30, and also forms part of the Malta Book Festival.

And after that’s done, I jet off to Glasgow to see Slayer and a bunch of other nutcase-loud bands. But that’s a story for another day — should I survive it, and whichever shambolic shape I’ll be in at the time.

 

Updates | Camilla at Malta Comic Con & Losing [Our] Space on YouTube

My last update was about the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival (MMLF), and this one is sort of about that too. We took a quick trip up to the in-laws soon after the event ended and got something of a breather from this stuffy, overcrowded and practically air-less island. It’s a trip that usually lasts quite a bit longer and is sometimes undertaken in different countries… whatever it takes to escape the July-August swelter of Malta.

The weather is still insufferable, the tourists and AirBnB-ers still crowd us and sometimes bar us from getting a proper night’s sleep, but on the whole — I say this with figurative fingers firmly crossed — it all seems to be thinning out, with the evenings even regaling us with the odd breeze to sleep through every now and then.

It’s a reminder that easier times should be just about ahead, and exciting ones too. It may be the flavour of pumpkin spice latte or crunchy leaves that announces the onset of Autumn pleasures to some… I’m just grateful for a mellowing out of the general atmosphere. But coupled with the fact that yes, Halloween (and horror) is also something I enjoy indulging in quite a bit, there’s very geeky pleasures to be had during autumn on our island too.

But, first things first

*

Losing My Space‘ – round-table discussion and MMLF pre-event – now on YouTube

Losing My Space Giola Cassar

Losing My Space‘. Moderated by Immanuel Mifsud (far left) and featuring Teodor Reljic and Roger West. Photo by Giola Cassar for Inizjamed

Taking place on August 19, Losing My Space was a well-attended and well-received discussion on just what writing can possibly do in the face of pervasive environmental devastation and urban/corporate overdevlopment, and in a lot of ways ushered in the Festival itself, because the ensuing discussion — undertaken by poet Roger West and myself and moderated by established Maltese author Immanuel Mifsud — reflected both the festival’s artistic sensitivity and political urgency.

But the warmth and wit of the audience is also a bit part of that experience, and I thought it was reflected with an apposite grace here. Either way, you can now see for yourself on YouTube. Be sure to also check out the Festival’s other big — bigger, even — round-table pre-event, ‘Writing Fragile‘. Kudos to Inizjamed for being so efficient with putting these recordings up — it’s a great way to ensure both outreach and posterity as well as, once again, prolonging the wonderful experience at the heart of this event.

*

Creating the Maltese Gothic: ‘Camilla’ at Malta Comic Con

IMG_20180804_192349

Happily, one of my favourite annual appointments on the island will be just-about coinciding with Halloween this year, as the Malta Comic Con gets bumped up a month ahead of its usual December slot to take place on November 3 and 4 this year at the MFCC in Ta’ Qali.

Apart from sharing a table with my very talented sister-in-law (I’ll be the guy peddling prose books); I’ll also be delivering a talk on ‘Camilla’ with the project’s co-writer and director Stephanie Sant, on November 3 at 15:00.

This would be just a week or so shy of the short film’s official premiere at the Malta Book Festival on November 10. Find out more about the event here; and click here to learn more about the project — a work of Gothic horror that adapts a short story by one of Malta’s leading literary voices by injecting it with a bit of Sheridan Le Fanu.

 

The politics of fantasy and the radical power of love | Antonio Piazza on Sicilian Ghost Story

One of the best things to emerge out of my admittedly truncated run with an MA in Film Studies at my alma mater was being introduced to filmmakers Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia. Not just introduced, but being put under a filmmaking wringer they helped crank up with inspiration and relish.

With the help of other equally acclaimed European masters in the field, the award-winning duo — of Salvo and latterly and spectacularly, Sicilian Ghost Story fame — helped us beat a script for a short film into shape, and eventually shepherded us through its production phase.

dramaturgy

Fabio Grassadonia (front) and Antonio Piazza (back) teaching ‘Screenwriting and the Art of Dramaturgy’ at the University of Malta (October 2015). Photo by Kenneth Scicluna

If nothing else, it made for a revealing look into the process of filmmaking. It certainly helped my writing from then onwards — their thorough, no-compromise understanding of the dynamics of story created helpful subconscious voices in my head that hammer through whenever I’m faced with a knotted plot problem or unclear character motivation.

So it was with great pleasure that I caught up with one half of that duo via Skype to talk about their compelling, harrowing and gorgeous sophomore feature, Sicilian Ghost Story, on the occasion of it finally reaching our shores on general release. Though I’d actually seen it just over a year ago when it made a ‘soft’ premiere in Malta as part of the third edition of the Valletta Film Festival, and I did not hesitate to subsequently name it the best film of that year.

TW FRONT PIX 1

Star-crossed, never lost: Julia Jedlikowska and Gaetano Fernandez in Sicilian Ghost Story

We spoke about the film’s enthusiastic perception in the “Anglo-Saxon world” and how this denotes something of a cultural divide between that region and their native European south, about how ethical responsibility plays a big part in the duo’s representation of the mafia. But most importantly and urgently — at least, as far as I’m concerned — we discussed how misunderstood and misrepresented the fantastical mode often is in contemporary cinema and perhaps Western culture in general.

“Our films are more closely connected to the world of dreams, nightmares… hidden desires and visions. They beg for a more metaphysical contemplation.”

Check out the interview on MaltaToday by clicking here

Savouring the Action | Mission Impossible: Fallout

It’s been a while since a summer blockbuster has impressed me as much as Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible: Fallout has, and this speaks to both my own fatigue with the Hollywood mainstream as well as the very evident mechanics which foment that fatigue.

I’m writing this literally minutes after having also enjoyed Ant Man & The Wasp, but that enjoyment was tellingly less pronounced when compared to the exhilaration I felt during particularly the latter act of the Tom Cruise-starring superspy epic, the poster for which I was left to gaze on longingly during our intermission for the latest Marvel Studios installment — yes, intermissions are still a thing here — and wishing that I was back in there with Ethan Hunt.

mission impossible tom cruise

I’m tempted to assume that a heady confluence of factors led to the Mission Impossible franchise being the primary rallying point for action cinema this season. One of them is Tom Cruise’s sheer determination to cement his status as a still-viable action hero, as he sets out on a warpath to run, climb, punch and kick his way out of an uncomfortable whirlwind of tabloid-friendly personal eccentricity.

The other is the simple existence of the John Wick franchise, which reminded all and sundry — but most significantly, studio heads — that shaky cam should no longer be the way to make action movies, and that if you do it properly, all the money you spend on thorough choreography and lucid camerawork will be recouped by an appreciative audience.

rebecca-mission-impossible-fallout

It’s also a reminder that action is a balletic feature of any narrative, that should be taken in slowly and savoured. Unlike the Michael Bays of this world, McQuarrie seems to understand that action is not a condiment to be assaulted with. It should be an integral part of the meal — a showcase piece, to be sure, but not a murderously spicy dish that brings tears to your eyes before coming to life to punch you in the face, leaving you black-eyed and confused.

Another thing that also made Fallout so endearing is that it tapped into the vein of espionage-pulp that the Bond franchise has gone weird on, and that Bourne has reduced to a gritty sludge that nobody is biting on anymore. It comes down to a pact with the audience – an understanding that these are superhero stories where the heroes have no powers but do superheroics regardless, and where technology is effectively magic.

So yeah. Mission Impossible: Fallout. I liked it a bunch. Read my ‘official’ review of it on MaltaToday by clicking here

 

Camilla Interview on the Times of Malta

Something really nice has happened this year. We get to make a stylish and LGBTIQ-friendly Maltese vampire film and screen it at one of the most long-standing and generously attended events of the local cultural calendar.

What I’m talking about is ‘Camilla‘, a project that just got some fresh media attention in the Times of Malta. It is also a project that blends one of the most exciting voices of Maltese literature with the legacy of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s foundational text of vampire fiction, Carmilla.

‘Camilla’ is a short story written by Clare Azzopardi and forming part of her anthology Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh — an award-winning collection released by Merlin Publishers in 2014.

It is the story of the enigmatic titular character, who has made a home in the bustling Maltese village of Naxxar — an Italian aristocrat of sorts (we suspect), spurned by a lover and left to write beautiful epitaphs for the local dead.

Capture

Stephanie Sant (right, in case you were wondering) and myself chat to the Times of Malta about ‘Camilla’ — along with our producer Martin Bonnici. Click here to read the interview.

My good friend and collaborator Martin Bonnici first approached me about adapting a short story for the purposes of entering into an annual contest put up by the National Book Council. Co-writer Stephanie Sant came on board soon enough, along with the rest of the team at Shadeena and a number of cool collaborators. Actresses Irene Christ and Steffi Thake got on board too, and we managed to score the funds on our second try.

Filming starts in a couple of weeks’ time, and I can’t be more excited to see the outcome, while wishing Stephanie and co. the best of luck as they amble around the locations for a rapid-fire shoot under the scorching early-August sun.

Meanwhile, Stephanie, Martin and myself have been interviewed by Stephanie Fsadni over at the Times of Malta on the project, so hop on over there to get the full lowdown on how it all happened and how we’re approaching it.

‘Camilla’ is made possible with the help of the National Book Council (Malta), and is produced by Shadeena Entertainment. It will be screened on November 10 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta as part of this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival

Berlinale 68 | Dreaming of a kinder world

The mercifully long-form article I got to write about my inspiring trip to the 68th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival is now online over at the newly-revamped MaltaToday news portal.

Photography was generously provided by my fellow “visitor” from Laos, the filmmaker Xaisongkham Induangchanthy.

TR FEATURE Berlinale PIX 2

But for all these hints of mystery, it’s deliberate and clear-eyed human impositions which engulf the city, in ways that are often inspiring and beautiful but which leave little room for the imagination. And if we are to speak of dreams from the lens of one of their most famous and enduring philosophers – Sigmund Freud – contemporary Berlin stands as precisely a rigid, assertive bulwark against the kind of subconscious demons Freud wrote about.

Click here to read the full article

The education of animals | Okja and Spoor

In the Polish-Czech co-production Spoor (Pokot), released earlier this year and directed by the acclaimed Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (who also serves as co-writer), Janina (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka) an animal-loving former engineer living on the Czech-Polish border starts to see her dreadful poacher neighbours disappear one by one, soon after she loses her beloved dogs.

In Okja, directed by Bong Joon-ho and released by Netflix earlier this year, a young girl from the Korean wilderness, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), has her GMO-enhanced ‘superpig’ Okja taken away from her by the corporation that made it in the first place (the ‘Mirando Corporation’, fronted by the creepily upbeat and aching-to-be-hip Lucy Mirando, played with typical aplomb by Tilda Swinton). Being the biggest and most beautiful of its lot, Okja will be paraded around in New York before being sliced up into sausages and other treats.

VIDA FILMS AUG 2017 Okja 2

A girl and her pig: Ahn Seo-hyun in Okja (2017)

Both films are inspired genre mashups operating to varying degrees of success — with Okja’s maddened but heartfelt modern fable coming up tops by a wide margin — and both have female protagonists on the opposite side of the age spectrum who are made to struggle with the brittle fault-line between the ‘animal’ and the ‘human’.

In Mija’s case, the girl forces herself out of her comfort zone in a foolhardy mission to America — where she is helped along by the Animal Liberation Front, a group of rag-tag animal rights activists who make Okja’s cause their mission… only to later reveal their true mission is to use Mija’s best friend as a mole to help them reveal the extent of the Mirando Corporation’s callous exploitation of the natural world.

Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka and Miroslav Krobot in Spoor (2017)

Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka and Miroslav Krobot in Spoor (2017)

Janina, on the other hand, is the village eccentric — the loony or idiot, if you want to be less generous, and the poachers who ring her existence and make her life a living hell — all the more because they’re aided and abetted by the legal, commercial and clerical strands of her community — are certainly happy to view her as a pitiable nuisance, at best.

Holland’s film — co-written by the source novel’s writer Olga Tokarczuk — muddles some of its narrative and thematic targets along the way, but its most interesting strand is the positioning of Janina herself. Hiding the main secret of the film in plain sight for a long stretch of its running time — it is finally revealed that Janina herself is the mysterious hunter-killer — she is presented as the ultimate unhinged ‘do-gooder’. Lacking perspective and a convincing way to make her case — her unquestioning belief in astrology is likely to alienate her from the bulk of the audience’s sympathies — her questionable mission only gains a truly humane backbone when she lets in some ‘allies’ into it.

Indeed, both Mija and Janina gain their small environmental victories by finally leveraging their ambitions with the realities of the world. There are crucial differences between the two, however. While Mija starts off as naive, learning that Okja is only one small part of a wider ‘family’ of superpigs, and whose very origin — and, sadly, fate — is a deeply disturbing matter, Janina’s starting point — and main psychological obstacle throughout — is a generally ‘cracked’ view of the world.

Cruel pens: Spoor (2017)

Cruel pens: Spoor (2017)

In some ways, it’s easy to imagine that Mija could easily have become Janina in a future iteration. Somebody whose love of a seemingly innocent natural creature — a love that, crucially, blossoms in an idyllic rural environment — is eventually corrupted into a resentment that gives way to a form of insanity. But it’s also worth noting that both films end on similar beats: with both ‘families’ — Mija, Okja and her grandfather; Janina and her allies in a secluded farmhouse commune — finding some form of solace after having accomplished their respective ‘missions’, to varying degrees of success.

Once again, Okja proves itself the more elegant film. The ending is not a pat reward for both the audience and Mija herself. While an inner peace may just radiate from the scene — the oblique benefits of Mija gaining wisdom from the experience, her slowly-curling smile as Okja conspiratorially whispers into her ear — it is also unquestionably dripping with melancholy. She is “sadder and wiser” for having undergone the ordeal of getting Okja back, and of learning that it was all just a tip of a very nasty iceberg. It is a fitting end for a true hero’s journey: a coming-of-age story where the sudden onset of ‘age’ is actually felt in Mija’s muted enthusiasm in those final scenes.

VIDA FILMS AUG 2017 Okja 3

Okja (2017)

Spoor is, true to form, clumsier in this regard; rewarding Janina with a commune for her vigilante efforts (and it’s a full-blown commune indeed, as Dyzio and Dobra are shown to have had kids so as to ensure the little society’s propagation). But in both films, what shines through is the necessity of searching for communal solutions to problems caused by individualism. The do-gooders of both films — Janina, and the Animal Liberation Front — are both shown as deeply flawed. But their efforts yield results precisely because they veer away from the individualistic approach to life we’re all encouraged to participate in.

We are trained to believe that the inherent problems of a set up like the Animal Liberation Front are enough to nip such an effort in the bud. And while it’s impossible to condone Janina’s murderous rampage — save for the emotional catharsis it provides to the viewer in the immediate term — it is the oppressive and fully sanctioned logic of murder for sport that the poachers engage in which have in fact pusher her over the edge. It is then up to her cluster of support — similarly sidelined kindred spirits — to rehabilitate her into a society that offers a better alternative.

A society — a commune — whose presentation may come off as being a tad contrived, but which remains a testament to how fiction can be useful in helping us lay down a blueprint for something better.

***

Human hypocrisy and short-sightedness should never be the last word on any phenomenon that exists on this world — be it natural or social. We will always make mistakes and blunders along the way; and we’ll tend to either forget some of the more vaunted commitments we may make in our quest to create the conditions for a better, more equal and overall ‘healthier’ world.

But while this does not mean letting the most egregious offenders of the hook, as both of these films show, the ambiguities of the situation should not be ignored, or brushed off as weaknesses or irredeemable shortcomings.

Success is a totem often built of smaller, chipped and cracking versions of the same, and we can only really achieve true progress by not giving these smaller bits a hard time along the way.

Unhappy with Pop Culture? Make Your Own | Ghost in the Shell & Fanboy Pandering

GHOST IN THE SHELL

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

This essay contains spoilers for Ghost in the Shell (2017). For my spoiler-free review of the film, click here

One thing that struck me in the aftermath of the live action version of Ghost in the Shell — controversially starring Scarlett Johnasson, formulaically directed by Rupert Sanders though undeniably beautiful to look at — is just how dearly some people cling onto their beloved pop culture properties, especially when a Hollywood adaptation comes around as does its thing with them, as it is wont to do.

Of course, this isn’t at all something new.

Neither is it something that I don’t myself recognise.

I’ve been guilty of it in the past, and I understand the strange cocktail that washes over a fanboy’s consciousness when these stories they’ve committed to, these stories that have carved an intimate wedge in our hearts and minds, are suddenly plucked out of their designated cubbyholes and thrust up on the big screen for all to see.

You feel as if your ownership of them is no longer a certain thing. In other words, you feel stripped of a privilege that was previously unassailable.

You feel like you should be the one telling people what this thing is really like, what it should really look and feel like, and how whatever adaptation has appeared on the scene is cheating people out of the ‘authentic’ experience of the original artifact in question.

Scarlett Johansson and Pilou Asbaek in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Scarlett Johansson and Pilou Asbaek in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

But in the recent past, this was no longer all that much of a ‘thing’. Canny studios have realised that pissing off fanboys robs them of a crucial revenue stream, and so fidelity became the new thing.

Ironically, Robert Rodríguez’s Sin City could arguably be the finest example of a direct and entirely faithful comic-to-film adaptation, but the system in which it was made could be broadly described as ‘pulp arthouse’.

But with the likes of Marvel simply up and deciding to set up their own filmmaking arm, fanboys could finally breathe a sigh of relief and revel in the knowledge that their beloved properties will be projected onto the world stage more or less unchanged.

They were finally able to tell their peers, “Look, that is the thing I’ve been obsessing over for so long. Isn’t great?”, instead of mumbling some irritate thing about how this is all horrible and skewed and why are you enjoying it?

So in a way, Sanders’ take on Ghost in the Shell felt like a refreshing jolt of nostalgia for a time when nerd butthurt was an automatic reaction to whatever adaptation of a beloved property came out in Hollywood at any given time.

The insides of a cybernetic geisha head in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

The insides of a cybernetic geisha head in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

It was all salted by a juicily political polemic too — the whitewashing accusations that are awkward because, you know, she’s a robot but then they’re also justified cos, you know, Hollywood so White — so that it suddenly felt like we were on contested terrain once again: this wasn’t just a motion comic/live action cartoon for fanboys to lap up, it was an adaptation through-and-through, and thus open to criticism from all sides.

Whereas a studio like Marvel has a militarily imposed editorial line it cleaves to, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell attemps to play with other tools to ensure both fidelity to the source material and a wide-enough audience appeal

In a cinematic landscape so aggressively framed by well-oiled franchises holding fanboys close to their hearts, even something otherwise equally a part of the blockbuster machine like Ghost in the Shell begins to feel like something of an outlier.

And ironically enough, its attempts to have the cake an eat it too — even if we assume the most cynical interpretation to be correct, that all of this would be in aid of raking in as large and diverse an audience as possible — only bolster its status as something of a more vibrant collage than its ultimately more successful counterparts.

Whereas a studio like Marvel has a militarily imposed editorial line it cleaves to, because it’s guaranteed success so far, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell attempted to play with other tools to ensure both fidelity to the source material and a wide-enough audience appeal.

Juliette Binoche in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Juliette Binoche in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

As if to compensate for casting Johnasson in the lead role, the rest of the cast is actually a pretty diverse international mix. ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano is wonderful as the mentor figure Daisuke Aramaki — and gets to speak Japanese throughout — while Johnasson’s closest friend and ally Batou is played by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, with the rest of the main cast rounded off by Juliette Binoche (France) and Peter Ferdinando (UK).

Also, the script allows for a notable mirror-image diversion from the standard Campbellian trope that most high-concept blockbusters of Ghost in the Shell’s ilk operate under.

Effectively, [Ghost in the Shell 2017] flips Joseph Campbell’s idea of a hero questing from an Ordinary World to a Special World to then take a boon back with them and help society as a whole

In this East-meets-West collage, it’s somewhat expected for Sanders and co. to take a more ‘American’ tack to the philosophy that underlies the entire Ghost in the Shell enterprise, and go to great lengths to humanise Johnasson’s Motoko in an attempt to give the audience a fully-rounded emotional arc for the character; as contrasted with the more nuanced approach to the cybernetic subject that we might find in the Japanese source material.

So, as things turn out, Johansson’s Major/Motoko discovers her human roots and sets out to reclaim them fully; rediscovering ‘her’ biological mother and embracing that her memories as genuine — which were previously suppressed by the Corporation that kept her as an agent in their employ.

Effectively, this flips Joseph Campbell’s idea of a hero questing from an Ordinary World to a Special World to then take a boon back with them and help society as a whole.

20170422_130744

Instead, Motoko’s trajectory is more akin to a journey FROM the Special World (as a cybernetically enhanced agent operating in a highly rarefied dystopian-cyberpunk universe) BACK TO the Ordinary World (when she discovers what really happened to her ‘organic’ self and rushes back to the warm embrace of what’s left of her human family).

As the film’s coda reveals however, this about-face does not mean Motoko will quit being an agent. What the ending suggests — apart from a lead-in to a sequel that is unlikely to happen given the film’s dismal box office showing — is that Motoko will continue to ply her skills with, presumably, a renewed peace of mind and a wider understanding of the world around her.

Scarlett Johnasson and Anamaria Marinca in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Scarlett Johnasson and Anamaria Marinca in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

She is no longer a cog in the Corporation’s machine, so the Hero’s Boon she in fact brings back — and which she’s aided in giving full bloom to by Daisuke — is the ability to do her job freed from the agendas of the agency — to actually do her work for the ‘greater good’ instead of doing dangerous work in service of the Corporation’s bottom line.

Certainly, this is a small enough innovation on the concept. It’s a modest and tacked-on twist that ultimately, didn’t pay off enough at the box office, for whatever reason.

But it does point towards a realm of possibility that opens up once you give slavish fidelity the boot.

major

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Pop culture artifacts like superheroes and even properties like Ghost in the Shell enjoy a mythic status in our consciousness which sometimes even spans generations.

The laws of intellectual property of course bars us with tinkering with them liberally — though the very nature of the internet runs counter to this idea, but that’s a discussion for another time — but licensed adaptations should at least be allowed a take on them that brings in something fresh.

We could make the mechanical vs organic metaphor here once again: with Marvel Studios and the like producing functional and successful but ultimately uniform fare while those filmmakers allowed to do something different are making wonderful work out of the unpredictable organic matter of Story.

But what it also brings to mind is, if you want something done differently, you should just up and do it yourself.

Unlike the dazzling but oppressive cybernetic interface that gives Ghost in the Shell its dystopian kick, the internet provides those willing enough to go the extra mile at least some leeway to producing their own stuff based on the things they love.

And if what you love is genre fiction, there’s plenty to play with there that will not, in fact, get you in copyright-related trouble…  

 

April Update | Censorship, Near Future SF & Campus Book Fest

April got underway to a head-start as I finished up my soujourn at the Kinemastik Film Club by screening the both beloved and reviled cult classic The Fifth Element to what seemed to be a pretty nostalgic and misty-eyed audiences.

The film was certainly a lot of fun, but it also felt a bit patchier than a lot of us remembered; with a jokey mess of a plot and visuals that were — yes — stunning in parts but hardly had enough ‘wow’ set-piece moments to justify the cult status Besson’s space opera still enjoys (as bolstered by both the Moebius inspired settings and Jean Paul-Gaultier costumes).

milla

Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element (1997), dir. Luc Besson

It was still somewhat heartening to see all that taking place on the big screen at the British Legion in Valletta, as I’m pottering away on my own piece of decidedly ambitious but also — one hopes, as a check on said ambition — silly and satirical slice of sci-fi. But soon after that, I was invited to participate to a project that teased at the more sober qualities of that same genre…

Archived Futures Harvest: Near-future SF writing in Rabat (sort of…)

Last week was in fact a pretty hectic one for this exact reason, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t rewarding. While details remain under wraps until the first week of May when the exhibition is set to open, what I can in fact tell you is that my friend Glen Calleja of Studio Solipsis invited me to do some writing for him at his Rabat studio, and that it was a great — if rather exhausting — time.

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

The extended exercise took its cue from a workshop organised some months back, and focused on a collective imaginary of the future. The content I was creating channeled paranoia about surveillance and smart technology, and took the form of fabricated (not ‘fake’!) news articles, surveys and the interpretation of surreal prose texts — or are they coded messages by underground movements?

Even apart from the coolness of working in Rabat and Glen’s zen-like demeanour and keen intelligence — and, of course, the project’s own rich potential, which runs on the intriguing paradox of mixing futuristic speculations with the instruments of the archive — gave me ample opportunity to flex some storytelling muscles.

I’ve always been one to work to limits, but being told to write something creatively based on a fabricated news report, or culled from — also fabricated — surveys and coded messages, gave me a special kind of frisson. I will definitely be applying some of these devices to my own writing in the future.

The Archived Futures Harvest exhibition launches on May 5 and runs for two months

Talking in public: Campus Book Fest, ACM Lab

Speaking about writing at the Campus Book Festival, April 4. Photo by Rik Van Colen

Speaking about writing at the Campus Book Festival, April 4. Photo by Rik Van Colen

As it happens, Glen Calleja was a stall-mate of my dad’s at the Campus Book Festival which ran at the beginning of the month — book-binding is one of his many skills — and it was after he heard me speak at the event that he proposed we collaborate on the Archived Futures project.

The talk — which took place on the bright and sunny morning of April 4 — went reasonably well, I felt. The original idea was to do something about MIBDUL together with Inez, but she happened to be in London for a workshop at the time. So instead of a visually-enhanced guide of how we’re slowly putting the comic together, I decided to speak about how my first novel kicked my ass into submission and taught me that structure is a very important thing indeed — and not, as I had foolishly assumed, the provenance of those who lack verve and imagination.

Some audience interaction proved that I was not alone in these concerns, and it’s always nice to find real-life correlatives to conversations you would normally have online — which lend a disturbing patina of anonymity even to your closest friends.

Arts Council Malta Head of Strategy Toni Attard and intellectual property lawyer Jeanine Rizzo at the ACM Lab on censorship/self-censorship in Malta, April 21

Arts Council Malta Head of Strategy Toni Attard and lawyer Jeanine Rizzo at the ACM Lab on censorship/self-censorship in Malta, April 21

More recently, I was asked to participate to the latest edition of the ‘ACM Lab’, which are public talks organised by Arts Council Malta on various issues germane to Maltese culture. This time around it was all about censorship and/or censorship, with lawyer Dr Jeanine Rizzo breaking down the new laws pertaining to freedom of expression, which led to a debate with theatre-maker Adrian Buckle — who bore the brunt of the law as it previously stood — and Mario Azzopardi of the Film Classification board.

The discussion was polite enough, with all of us agreeing that transparency is key in age classification — citing the BBFC as an admirable benchmark — but that when it came to theatrical productions in particular — whose producers are now free to self-classify in Malta — an element of risk always remained.

ACM’s head of strategy Toni Attard asked me whether I think Malta’s artists were ready to take full advantage of the newly relaxed laws, and whether evidence of this can be found on the ground. As ever, I believe that the ‘slow’ approach is necessary to all of this; we should keep our eyes peeled on what’s happening, but also be patient enough to wait until enough evidence has accumulated before making our final analysis.

And in our spare time…

Beyond all that, it appears that science fiction is something of a running thread this month. I’m taking steps towards making a trip to WorldCon 75 at Helsinki possible right now — read: assessing the financial viability of it all — which has motivated me to pick up a couple of Hugo shorlistees.

too like lightning

I’ve started with Ada Palmer’s ambitious and, let’s be frank, pretty fucking dazzling Too Like Lightning, which I can only describe as far-future SF written by a member of the Enlightenment literati from the 18th century. I’m only about a quarter of the way through and I’m not sure I’m quite getting all the nuances of the labyrinthine world that Palmer — a 35-year-old professor of history from the University of Chicago — plunges us into, but I’m also hooked.

Easier on the intellect but no less engaging is The Expanse, which I’ve finally gotten to after stalling for a few months and following a slew of recommendations. It certainly doesn’t disappoint: the world-building (!) is tight, controlled and crisp, the characters are richly but clearly drawn and the political intrigue is on the right side of soap opera.

Sure, Fifth Element it ain’t. But I’m looking forward to burning through the rest of it.