February Updates #3 | Awguri, Giovanni Bonello; Toni Erdmann; Brikkuni & Unintended

Yep, I had said February was a wonderfully busy month for me, and it’s proven to be so right until the end.

Awguri, Giovanni Bonello launch

giovanni-bonello

First off the ground is the most recent — the launch of Awguri, Giovanni Bonello at Palazzo Pereira in Valletta, which I’ve spoken about earlier and which was commemorated at a very posh — but otherwise very pleasant — party organised by Merlin Publishers and the other ‘conspirators’ involved in this festschrift for Judge Giovanni Bonello, who turned 80 last year and who apart from a distinguished legal career, penned his own micro-histories which Merlin cherry-picked through and passed on to ten selected authors.

Judge Bonello was nice enough to say — in a moving speech at the event — that we lent an extra dimension to his otherwise “two-dimensional” figures; but all I’ll say is that I certainly had great fun with my story ‘Bellicam machinam vulgo petart appelatum’, which allowed me to meld the history of an already-sensational character — Caterina Vitale — with Gothic pastiche. Being encouraged to channel the likes of Frankenstein and Dracula into something of my own certainly felt like opening a fount that was dying to be opened; as was being able to indulge in an ornate, baroque literary style (whose convoluted sentences proved to be something of a challenge to read out loud during the launch party, however!)

Click here to read more about the book 

***

Toni Erdmann | Film Review

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller play a distant-but-constricting father-daughter pair in Maren Ade’s critically acclaimed comedy Toni Erdmann

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller play a distant-but-constricting father-daughter pair in Maren Ade’s critically acclaimed comedy Toni Erdmann

“Growing tired of their distant relationship following yet another whirlwind visit from his go-getting daughter, Winifred decides to pay a surprise visit to [his daughter] Ines in Bucharest. When his plan for enforced bonding fails, Winifred changes tack – and persona – by adopting a wig and fake teeth and introducing himself as ‘Toni Erdmann’ to Ines’ friends and colleagues… while a horrified Ines looks on as her father threatens to compromise her professional and social standing.

“While this sounds superficially amusing and perhaps even creepy, what in fact develops is a touching study in second chances. For Winifred, this is something of a last-ditch effort to make up for any mistakes he may have made while raising Ines – his bumbling nature throughout suggests there may have been many – while Ines is suddenly given a chance to inject some humanity in her ambition-driven, corporate existence.

“Ade’s deceptively loose directorial style leaves plenty of room for the excellent performances by Simonischek and Hüller to shine through, building the film at a humane pace that ensures its emotional peaks feel entirely earned, and not forced into place by a script aiming for formulaic pressure points.”

Click here to read the full review

***

Rub Al Khali by Brikkuni | Album Review

Brikkuni debuting songs from Rub Al Khali during a concert at the Manoel Theatre in October 2015 (Photo: Chris Vella)

Brikkuni debuting songs from Rub Al Khali during a concert at the Manoel Theatre in October 2015 (Photo: Chris Vella)

“Because [Brikkuni frontman Mario Vella’s] expressions of anger and disillusionment, harsh and inflected with dark humour as they sometimes are, always come from a place of earnest emotion. Vella’s not one for protective irony or tongue-in-cheek games: his political, social and critical observations are always made plain for all to see – something that holds true for both his oft-legendary Facebook posts and the content of Brikkuni’s songs in and of themselves.

“And with Rub Al Khali he has taken his earnest approach into what is arguably the most vulnerable place imaginable. Brikkuni’s third album is a concept album, of sorts. A concept album about the dissolution of a ten-year relationship. Yeah.”

Click here to read the full review

***

Unintended | Theatre Review

Close shave… too close: Mariele Zammit and Stephen Mintoff. (Photo: by Christine Joan Muscat Azzopardi)

Close shave… too close: Mariele Zammit and Stephen Mintoff. (Photo: by Christine Joan Muscat Azzopardi)

“But ironically, for all the hard-ons it seeks to inspire in our beleaguered protagonist, the second half of the play is remarkably limp as far as narrative drive is concerned. After poor Jamie is drugged and drugged over and over again and seduced into having aggressive – though it must be said, not entirely unsatisfying – sex with Diana, the play abandons its previously established vein of cheeky black humour and simmering tension in favour of a terminal descent into tired ‘torture porn’ territory.

“That Buckle is a fan of the in-yer-face theatre genre will surprise absolutely nobody – at least, not those who have followed the trajectory of Unifaun Theatre with even a fleeting sideways glance over its admirable run – and let’s face it, we all knew Unintended was heading towards a gory climax of some kind. But the problem is neither that the violence and degradation on display are ‘too much’, and neither, really, that this was a predictable move for the debut play by Unifaun’s founder and producer. The issue is one of simple story structure.”

Click here to read the full review 

Witch

‘Witch’ by Goblin, composed for Dario Argento’s giallo classic Suspiria (1977) appears to have a compelling series of tributes – deliberate, direct or otherwise – in more recent songs. But I am not a music critic is this is all based on intuition.

Valhalla Rising – Theme – Peter & Peter Kyed

The occult connection is something of a given in this, one of my favourite films of all time, but Peter & Peter Kyed’s main theme to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising carries over the same ominous percussion as Goblin’s incantatory trip. Bonus link: Refn is a dedicated giallo fan who will be putting his money where his mouth is.

Burn the Witch – Queens of the Stone Age

Certainly a more upbeat experience than either of the above, but the breathy-screamy sample at the beginning marks a clear link to its goblinoid predecessor. Radiohead’s recent namesake track channels The Wicker Man instead – shoving us into northern climes far from Argento’s Italy but closer to Refn’s own sublime and brutal hills. Bonus link: Both Valhalla Rising and The Wicker Man were shot in Scotland.

Fleaing

birgubricabrac

Flea market, Birgu, Malta (2013)

“The flea market ethos, like many countercultural values, paid its respects to a modernist notion of prelapsarian authenticity. In an age of plastic, authentic material value could only be located in the “real” textures of the preindustrial past, along with traces of the “real” labor that once went into fashioning clothes and objects. By sporting a while range of peasant-identified, romantic proletarian, and exotic non-Western styles, students and other initiates of the counterculture were confronting the guardians (and the workaday prisoners) of commodity culture with the symbols of a spent historical mode of production, or else one that was  “Asiatic” and thus “underdeveloped.” By doing so, they singled their complete disaffiliation from the semiotic codes of contemporary cultural power. In donning gypsy and denim, however, they were also taunting the current aspirations of those social groups for whom such clothes called up a long history of poverty, oppression and social exclusion. And in their maverick Orientalism, they romanticized other cultures by plundering their stereotypes.” – Andrew Ross

*

Read previous: BODYING
Read related: Flea markets and hypogeums

Ecstasy of influence: Bowie via Manson

Marilyn Manson - Mechanical Animals (1998)

I first got to know about Elmore Leonard through Quentin Tarantino – on that note, Tarantino introduced me to a whole raft of pop culture curios – and I started digging into Norse mythology after Marvel Comics planted a seed in my brain thanks to their version of Thor.

Lovecraft swam into my purview during my teenage years – though I would delve into his stories much later, again – motivated by this initial, delayed spur – through the likes of Metallica and Cradle of Filth, and Lord Dunsany I read after finding out that actually, both Lovecraft and my former literary hero JRR Tolkien were influenced by him.

One of the joys of delving into the DNA of your favourite creative people is finding out, once you crack that shell, what lies beneath. Everyone is influenced by someone else, and this hall of mirrors is what arguably characterises our relentlessly postmodern age. (Should that be post-post-postmodern? I’m not an English undergrad anymore, which frankly means I’m past caring.)

In the case of the late David Bowie, it was Marilyn Manson who did it for me – specifically, the Marilyn Manson of the androgynous Mechanical Animals era.

Now of course, I had known who Bowie was long before my friend Herman loaned me a bootleg tape of the said Manson album (come to that, I of course knew who Manson was before that talismanic tape too). Family lore has it that my aunt and father went out to buy the latest Bowie LP to reach Serbia during a respite from the hospital as my mother was getting ready to give birth to me, even – and I’m sure that same record was spun in my presence after I eventually popped out into the world on that fateful May day in 1985.

But I think I first started to gain an understanding of what Bowie was “about” thanks to Manson’s very deliberate and openly acknowledged cribbing from Bowie during that comparatively brief chapter in “the God of Fuck’s” career.

I wouldn’t really be able to talk about the technical make-up of the songs in Mechanical Animals, so I doubt that I’d be able to construct much of a formal argument in favour of why these songs ‘worked’ on me the way they did.

But neither was it a case of being transfixed by the superficial aspects of Manson’s project, dazzling and sort-of* subversive as they may have been in the pop-culture mainstream at the time. And I say this at the risk of discounting just how mind-blowing it was to me to watch Manson’s performance of The Beautiful People – taken from Antichrist Superstar, the album previous to Mechanical Animals – at the MTV Video Music Awards back in 1997 (I was twelve). It still gives me a thrill of sadistic pleasure to remember the cut-aways to the likes of Sean Combs apparently scandalized by Manson’s bare-bottomed, fascist-attired attack on MTV glamour culture. The hypocrisy of someone like Combs taking apparent offense at Manson still strikes me as telling, in a “gotcha” kind of way.

But Mechanical Animals was certainly a ‘softer’ beast, and its immersive qualities are what seduced me. Beyond the obvious, catchy charms of The Dope Show and I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me), songs like The Last Day on Earth and my personal favourite, Coma White, transported me somewhere alien but strangely calming.

The electronic wash that characterises the album still gives me a sense of something cold but meditative, and it’s all helped along by the androgynous surrogate – ‘Omega’ – that Manson created for the purpose of the album. As I would later learn, creating an artistic persona, particularly an androgynous one of this kind, was cribbed from Bowie, who admittedly trumps Manson on this front – not only because he ‘got their first’ but also because he had a far clearer vision about when to adopt these personalities and when to drop them**.

But at the time, it introduced me to the concept of, well, the concept album. Not only that, but the concept album as propped up by an invented personality the performer deliberately took on. In short, the idea of music as storytelling, which has resonated with me ever since.

It’s this echo of Bowie that I’ve carried with me ever since. Of course I’ve listened to Bowie since that time too, though not, I must admit, with the kind of visceral fan-like fervour the teenage me bestowed upon Marilyn Manson.

That’s another thing about influences. You can be introduced to artists askance. Simply put, it wouldn’t have made much sense to me to force myself to listen to Bowie at the time. I was into hard rock and heavy metal, and Manson was a more palatable jumping point into the Bowie milieu for me at that point. This is, of course, the problem with recommending essential works to people with the kind of evangelical zeal we reserve for the very best. We tend to forget that everyone’s on their own journey, and telling them that you HAVE to read/watch/listen to this at that point in their life makes little sense.

If you’re meant to reach it, you’ll reach it. In the meantime you can follow the breadcrumbs you recognise.

*I think I opted for ‘sort-of’ partly because I know Bowie did all this before

**Manson’s dithering post-Holywood career is a testament to this… compare it to how Bowie, despite some flailing years of his own, remained so much in control that he even recorded a final album as a farewell

Soundtrack to a speculative action scene

1. Your job is to try not to think of Dredd, but think of something more fragile and immersive.

2. We’re going deeper and wider, and the horror is closing in.

3. Running, jumping. But no fancy parkour. Stylised flames (you have no idea where they came from) just about lick an army of weaponised motorbikes. You notice the giant octopus from the edge of your vision.

4. This is what passes for romance in this world – or at least at this point in time. You recognise the threat and, hands trembling and sweat pouring in FFWD streaks, you try to formulate a plan.

5. Is it a plan of escape, or attack?

6. The moment of hesitation. Death or glory? Whatever the case, this is the point at which we – the sadistic, baying audience – get to revel in the beautiful, dark maw of what’s chasing you. The Gothic, blissful evil that’s more powerful than you could ever have imagined.

7. You have a power, a weapon – whatever. It could be an army of tanks or an armada or a hive of mind-controlled killer bats. Whatever – you’re channelling it, and you’re winning.

8. But for how long?

9. What happened? What’s the outcome? Somebody’s calling, which means somebody is alive. Will they live to fight another day?

Popol Vuh and Malta

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rock is cooler than you

The rock is cooler than you

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

Ghar Lapsi

Zonqor

Chernobyl Barbeque

St Thomas Bay

Rabat blog6

Worship My Wreck | The Pale Emperor by Marilyn Manson

Guess who's back: Nostalgia and slick production values rescue Manson from has-been histrionics

Guess who’s back: Nostalgia and slick production values rescue Manson from has-been histrionics

It was a combination of factors: slick marketing campaign that toned down the kitsch in favour of an appealing glacial menace, an evocative title that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Moorcockian post-swords and sorcery romp (and so was fun to think about) and a killer riff on its first single (‘Deep Six’). Whether it was one of these ingredients or a combination of all, I somehow found myself enjoying the latest Marilyn Manson album, The Pale Emperor, again and again.

The last time I dedicated as much time to a release from the former musical enfant terrible was when I was just pupating out of my own youth: Holywood, the final in an unofficial ‘trilogy’ of albums that still defines Manson’s contribution to pop culture: ‘Antichrist Superstar’ and ‘Mechanical Animals’ being the preceding albums… both of which I preferred to Holywood, though Holywood certainly made more of an impression than subsequent releases – the fact that it made an impression at all is already a step up, in fact.

There is something heartening about a former musical idol sort-of emerging from the has-been doldrums to release a decent album, and the fact that The Pale Emperor is not a tacky rehash of former glories while somehow also managing to ride on nostalgic appeal, is what allows it to pass muster, I think.

Despite the archly melodramatic title, Manson isn’t reaching for the same concept-album grandiosity of the ‘trilogy’ here. I’m not equipped to talk about the technicalities of the album’s sound and musical direction, but since Manson has always been conscious about ‘message’ to deliver either counter-cultural slogans or simply for shock value, I will say something about the lyrics.

The album kicks off with a Wildean refrain on ‘Killing Strangers’ – ‘We’re killing strangers so we don’t kill the ones that we love’ – which sets the poetic tone of the rest of it. It all tends towards the facile and it’s cringe-inducing at the best of times, but it’s so polished and earnest that I couldn’t help but find it charming.

Other notable nuggets:

– ‘It’s better to be blamed for robbing Peter than guilty for paying Paul’ (‘Devil Beneath My Feet’)
– ‘You want to know what Zeus said to Narcissus?’/’You better watch yourself’ (‘Deep Six’)
– ‘I feel stoned and alone like a heretic’/’I’m ready to meet my maker’ (‘The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles’)
– ‘Cannot say, I’m breaking the rules’/’If I can glue them back together’ (‘Worship My Wreck’).

What I will say about the sound is that it all comes across as less of a rock stadium courting experience, though one that still packs a punch. ‘Deep Six’, ‘The Devil Beneath My Feet’ and ‘Cupid Carries a Gun’ have a rock-and-roll sense of pure fun about them that’s infectious, and there’s also a rip-roaring appeal to ‘The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles’ and ‘Slave Only Dreams to be King’.

It’s the more vulnerable tracks that feel like innovations in Manson’s repertoire, however, with ‘Worship My Wreck’ and ‘Devil Beneath My Feet’ bolstering their confessional approach with equally ‘exposed’ vocal stylings.

I was introduced to Marilyn Manson during a blistering performance of the now-classic ‘The Beautiful People’ at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards. An impressionable 10-year-old me was transfixed by this cross-dressing figure and his equally menacing band, ripping into the big middle finger of a song accompanied by confronting, fascist stage design as the likes of Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs looked on, aghast. He would then become something of a benchmark figure for me, and I’m sure everyone has ‘their own Manson’, whichever side of the generational divide they hail from.

For myself, Manson inculcated an appeal for gender-bending decadence which has stayed with me, and a love for gothic and subversive effects that threads through most things I love. (I never quite latched onto the anti-Christian element since I was raised in an atheist-cum-agnostic household, for better or worse).

Flawed as The Pale Emperor is, it feels good to learn that he can still punch his weight in a contemporary musical landscape. Though this time it feels less of a subversive slap on the face, and more of a welcome visit from an old friend.

Red Right Hand | Hellboy & Crimson Peak

Nick Cave and PJ Harvey

Nick Cave and PJ Harvey in the video for Henry Lee (1996)

Not quite a case of cover versions I prefer to the original, but the recent trailer for Guillermo Del Toro‘s upcoming Crimson Peak (yay!) showed us how Nick Cave’s haunting ditty Red Right Hand is etching itself into the Mexican director’s oeuvre as a musical placeholder, albeit as ventriloquised by different musicians.

A version by Pete Yorn was heard in the original Hellboy (2004), also directed by Del Toro. Something of a logical choice given the subject matter, even if the connection is a shallow one (i.e., limited to the song’s title). Yorn’s jauntier version certainly strips the song of its atmospheric sense of foreboding. Which is just as well in this case, because even though Hellboy – and Del Toro’s films in general – may have its creepy gothic touches, it remains a quirky superhero romp at the end of the day.

PJ Harvey’s version, originally commissioned for another audio visual project – this time the British gangster TV series Peaky Blinders – feels right for gothic melodrama Crimson Peak, at least insofar as the trailer suggests. Harvey’s pained vocals offer a nice contrast to Cave’s hard, stark imagery.

It’s a dynamic that matches my expectations of Crimson Peak itself. It appears to be a ghost story of the Victorian variety and as such, one that would by definition rely on subtle scares, rather than the outre, primary-coloured flourishes Del Toro is known for, and which he doesn’t appear to be shying away from here. I anxiously await to see how the twain will meet – if it does at all – come October.

Messaging

The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1570). Source: Wikipedia

The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1570). Source: Wikipedia

“At best, anyway, his ministry had been an odd assortment, attracting hippies and the straitlaced alike, because he’d pulled from the Old Testament and from deism, and the esoteric books available to him in his father’s house. Something his father hadn’t planned on: the bookshelves leading Saul to places the old man would rather he’d never gone. His father’s library had been more liberal than the man himself.

“The shock of going from being the centre of attention to being out of it entirely – that still pulled at Saul at unexpected times. But there had been no drama to his collapsed ministry in the north, no shocking revelation, beyond the way he would be preaching one thing and thinking another, mistaking that conflict, for the longest time, as a manifestation of his guilt for sins both real and imagined. And one awful day he’d realized that he was becoming the message.” – Jeff VanderMeer

*

Read previous: HOUSING

Read more about Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy in this month’s edition of Pop Culture Destruction on Schlock Magazine