Getting it Ass-Backwards: ‘Booty’ and the Genre-Mainstream binary at LonCon

Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azaela in the promotional video for Lopez's single 'Booty'.

Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azaela in the promotional video for Lopez’s single ‘Booty’.

Considering Iggy Azelea and Jennifer Lopez’s collaborative single ‘Booty’ as a pop single – complete with an accompanying promo video that is arguably more of an ‘event’ than the song itself – is, I think, a fundamental category error.

Taking the aesthetics of both the song lyrics and the video (dir. Hype Williams) into consideration, it becomes clear that what we have here is less to do with music and more to do with pornography.

This isn’t a moral statement, it’s purely a matter of taxonomy, for what it’s worth. When the morally enraged tend to point their guns at supposedly decadent pop culture artifacts, there’s often just enough ambiguity in the equation for them to come across as uptight fuddy-duddies to their opponents.

But it is difficult to make a claim for ambiguity when a song calls itself ‘Booty’ – thereby making it clear that its priorities are purely limited to amplifying the erotic appeal of the bodily feature in question. Though it could also be seen as a collaborative attempt to dethrone Nicky Minaj from booty-pop dominance, the Azelea/J-Lo duet is also something of no-brainer considering both singers have put their backsides as the forefront of their brand.

Their effort is also significantly different in degree to Destiny Child’s now-classic ‘Bootylicious’. Where Azelea/J-Lo repeatedly and aggressively thrust their sculpted backsides to the camera in an attempt to entrance us with their particular anatomical prowess, Beyonce and co. go anthemic: the song understandably became a rallying call for amply-bottomed women to celebrate their bodies. While DC don’t of course deny the intrinsic erotic value of her subject, ‘Bootylicious’ emphasizes a feel-good factor, calling on listeners to cultivate confidence in their bodies.

But as they participate in what is essentially a Booty Dream Team, Azelea/J-Lo, like good capitalists, collaborate purely to maximize their own assets (!), and empowerment for the big bootied masses is clearly not on their agenda (‘Prepare Audience For Maximum Impact’, an opening scroll teases in the song’s promo video).

It’s Booty Degree Zero, and can therefore be seen as nothing more than pornography – a fetishisation of the flesh bolstered by pinprick-precise brand management that has the advantage of a far larger budget than other productions we would be less ambivalent about filing under ‘Porn’.

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The issue of taxonomy appears to be a consistent bugbear in some of my most frequented cultural circles: namely, the field of literature, particularly the strands of what can broadly be termed genre fiction when offset against what – again, with a disappointing short-hand – can be termed ‘mainstream’ literature.

It was a distinction – one with any number of attendant polemics – that appeared once again as a consistent theme during my visit to LonCon (or WorldCon) – a predominantly science-fiction based convention that took place in London in mid-August.

Must not forget to get down on Friday.

Must not forget to get down on Friday.

Amid a rich variety of panels – it would have been physically impossible to attend enough of them to get a representative sample – I was disappointed to find that a victim mentality still reigns supreme among certain elements of the science fiction and fantasy community.

I think this reduces our – ultimately quite human and universal – need to clarify and classify into its least productive mode.

While a discussion entitled ‘When is a fantasy not a fantasy’ did yield to some cogent and perceptive observations about the ways we tend to process fantastical works of fiction, it all unfortunately returned to a rather depressing cul-de-sac: that what we’re discussing here remains the purview of dedicated fans, whose passion the ‘mainstream’ world will never understand.

This, despite the fact that “Death to binaries!” ended up being an impromptu slogan of the panel, which included among its ranks Catherynne M. Valente, Jonathan Strahan, Paul Kincaid, Graham Sleight and Greer Gilman (it was moderated by Miriam Weinberg).

'The Wasp Factory' at the LonCon Dealer's Room - an installation in honour of Iain Banks.

‘The Wasp Factory’ at the LonCon Dealer’s Room – an installation in honour of Iain Banks.

Valente, a writer whom I greatly admire for her effusive baroque sensibility and her inspired weaving of myths and folktales into contemporary and often erotically charged narratives, disappointed me by assuming a boringly predictable stance towards ‘the mainstream’.

Though it was buttressed by an interesting central point – that people who aren’t all that familiar with fantasy literature are actually more comfortable with reading ‘straight’ fantasy than any slipstream variation that mixes various narrative registers – Valente dismissively waved away “Booker Prize books or whatever” as if they’re a homogenous, over-privileged bunch that deserve our derision by default.

The old chestnut that mainstream writers use “genre ingredients” with less rigour than genre writers, often levelled at the likes of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, was trotted out once again, with Valente observing that this amounts to “playing with a shiny new toy without reading the instruction manual”. These writers use genre elements as “just a manner, a flash of colour”, favouring emotional impact at the cost of cogent, convincing world-building.

But I would argue that these writers are to be commended for accomplishing their narrative goals without having to worry about finicky world-building details. A writer is, among other things, an illusionist: they are supposed to convince you to plunge into the world they’ve created, and they shouldn’t be “shamed” if they succeed in doing so in a way that you don’t like.

This isn’t to say that categories of literature shouldn’t exist. Beyond commercial considerations – i.e., in which section of the bookshelves you’re expected to stuff certain books in, and how you want to ‘target’ your marketing – I still maintain that it’s useful to discuss how boundaries reflect on our reading experience and expectations.

It’s a factor that the above-mentioned panel did in fact grapple with, which makes the overall notes of victimization all the more deflating.

Paul Kincaid rightly complained that “fantasy is the wooliest word in the English language” – an apt opening salvo for a discussion which then sought to edge out some particulars about this all-embracing genre, or more specifically, our perceptions of it.

While Jonathan Strahan pointed out that certain books are “demonstrably” works of fantasy – the kind of books you wouldn’t hesitate to slide into the Fantasy shelf in bookstores – and that cover illustrations can in fact powerfully calibrate our expectations of the text, almost to the point where the text is altered completely (there goes branding again), this strand of thinking also accommodated a richer part of the discussion: that it is ultimately only the reader who can define a genre.

This is where art triumphs over pornography, I think.

Pornography is not narrative. Pornography is not interested in stories. It is uni-directional: Set phasers to ‘Arouse’. Storytelling allows for ambiguity, but the best stories take advantage of established boundaries – even when they aggressively run counter to them – to maximize the effects of stories.

LonCon/BarCon - alcoholic lubrication aplenty.

LonCon/BarCon – alcoholic lubrication aplenty.

To obsess over a perceived, looming bogeyman called ‘The Mainstream’ is to miss the wood for the trees. Let’s focus our attentions instead on what the literary traditions we want to work in have left us. If it was anything, LonCon was a celebration of the kind of communal fellow-feeling that creating distinctions in the first place can create. Let’s keep reminding ourselves that these distinctions can exist to give us a starting point: to add texture to our work and our discussions.

Otherwise we risk of them turning into something they turn into all too often: marks of segregation and exclusion.

Virtual Borders, Virtual Wars | Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Toby Kebbell (left) as Koba and Andy Serkis as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Toby Kebbell (left) as Koba and Andy Serkis as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – an entertaining and effectively realized action-blockbuster, by all accounts – reminded me of just how much the idea of home is related to complete, all-out aggression. It is one of the key justifications for war, and if it isn’t Hollywood blockbusters that remind us of it, real-life world events will, unfortunately, persist in doing their darndest to ensure that we do not forget.

From my sheltered and privileged standpoint, obsessing over national borders instinctively feels doubly surreal, as I – like many people of my generation, and many of those living in some kind of diaspora – have made the internet their second home. Cultivating and negotiating a virtual identity has become a direct part of who we are, and the more that shapes itself into the fabric of our day-to-day life, the more it will assume the likeness of an undeniable, self-evident and near-physical ‘space’ which we may feel justified in fighting over.

Even my workspace has apes in it

Even my workspace has apes in it

Beyond the fever dreams of cyberpunk – from William Gibson to The Matrix – the web has become so ‘normal’ that it’s not far-fetched to assume that it will soon adopt other, less pleasant features of human ‘normality’ – our insistence on waging border wars being just another one of them. The ongoing debate over net neutrality is one explicit portent of the above, but I’m sure there will be many related polemics to come.

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Another thing that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – or DOTPOTA, an acronym I love – brought to mind is the panicked and often messy way in which pop culture responds to contemporary anxieties, and processes ‘universal’ themes.

To my mind, the film is great because its ‘message’ doesn’t feel like a tacked-on imposition, but part and parcel of its conceit. Of course, Matt Reeves’ continuation of the Planet of the Apes mythology reboot doesn’t really say anything new about the enduring phenomenon of border conflicts, or our stewardship of the earth. But I’d still like to think that it contributes to the discussion in its own way.

Though even the word ‘discussion’ feels wrong here – it assumes a lilting, rational conversation about carefully ironed-out topics. Because what we in fact get is far more chaotic: the necessities of crafting a crowd-pleasing blockbuster in which talking apes do battle with economically compromised humans only allows lucid allegory to slip through up to a point.

The presence of Zero Dark Thirty actor Jason Clarke is significant here.

Like DOTPOTA, Zero Dark Thirty is an action-intensive mainstream film shot with a gloomy palette that has become par for the course among blockbusters which aspire to court the critical consensus as well as the box office success that it is often assumed they would secure anyway.

(Largely blaming Christopher Nolan’s stratospherically successful Batman film The Dark Knight, critics of this pervasive aesthetic trend have taken to name-calling it ‘grimdark’.)

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

But unlike DOTPOTA, Zero Dark Thirty is about a very specific and very real event – a persistently controversial one, to boot. Katheryn Bigelow’s treatment of the steps taken to ensure the assassination of Osama Bin Laden is a fascinating watch even if you – like me – were unconvinced by its narrative thrust and troubled by its murky ethics.

Whichever way you slice it, ZDT was a brave attempt at tackling a very recent and morally, politically fraught scenario. In the end its internal contradictions forced it to devour itself, but only because Bigelow aspired to tackle her subject head-on, with as little aesthetic filters as possible.

This is where genre allegories like DOTPOTA have the upper hand. The way the message is processed is of course open to cynical interpretation: “It’s not really saying anything, they’re just re-treading secure narrative and thematic ground to ensure they make money at the box office”.

But the mere fact that it’s out there, doing its thing for a large audience who will enjoy it – or not – on the surface level to begin with feels like some kind of potential triumph.

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Final question: as more of the world goes online, as more of the world does ideological battle online and as more of our personal identity is shaped and justified by our online presence, will the web be treated by poets much in the same way as the natural world has been treated in earlier times?

Inspiration | Mad Magus Artist Documentaries

Moebius' Arzach

Moebius’ Arzach

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

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

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

In Search of Moebius

The Mindscape of Alan Moore

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown

H.R. Giger Revealed

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

Why I Love NBC’s Hannibal – Part I

Taylor Swift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man of wealth and taste: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter

Man of wealth and taste: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued.

Debut novel jitters: ‘Two’ pre-launch fun

Two book launch invite

My debut novel, Two, will be out from Merlin Publishers in just over a week’s time. The promo-machine for the book, such as it is, has been continuing apace, and it’s been great fun so far.

My good friend – the actor, theatre director and stand-up comedian – Philip Leone-Ganado wrote up a great interview on The Sunday Circle, which he also edits (yes, a Renaissance Man if there was one).

Photo by Jacob Sammut for The Sunday Circle.

Photo by Jacob Sammut for The Sunday Circle.

Bolstered by great photos by Jacob Sammut (who seems intent on becoming my unofficial portraitist these days), it delves into the book’s themes, textures and origins, with a coda about the philosophy and day-to-day operations of Schlock. Click here to check it out. 

Following the release of the interview, the guys behind Merlin Publishers and myself activated one of our first ideas for Two’s actual book launch, taking place at the Wignacourt Museum in Rabat, with the aid of Nicole Cuschieri from Creative Island. Seeing as the narrative of Two hinges on a big secret, we’ve decided to make secrets the focal point of the launch.

To this end, we’re inviting everyone to anonymously submit their own secrets online, so that we may use them to ‘decorate’ the launch party’s venue. We’ve already amassed 60 secrets at the time of writing, and you’re still in time to submit your own by clicking here.

(Usage note: if you’re a first-time user of the simplyconfess.com site, you might need to click on the link and ‘enter’ the site — confirming you’re over 18 — then leave the site and re-enter via the same link.)

Finally – for now, anyway, because there’s still a couple of things I’ll be attacking you with in the coming week or so – we’ve also set up a Spotify playlist themed around the novel. I’d like to think that selection accurately reflects the mood of the book, at least to some degree. Click here to listen to it.

After the first couple of drafts of the book were finished, what I found most rewarding was doing my best to ensure that the texture and feel of it was flowing and consistent – a particular challenge in this case, given that the novel is structured on a parallel narrative.

Putting together a playlist that capitalises on that just feels like a (dare I say it?) well-deserved cherry on the cake.

Hope to see you on March 28. Overseas readers: we’ll keep you posted on ebook options for Two as soon as we have them.

Confirm your attendance to the launch on Facebook.

LONG READ: Joshua Oppenheimer on The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer. Photo by Daniel Bergeron.

Joshua Oppenheimer. Photo by Daniel Bergeron.

At the tail end of last year, as the film was screened in Malta, I had the privilege of interviewing Joshua Oppenheimer, one of the directors of the blistering, Oscar-nominated – and otherwise award-winning – documentary The Act of Killing. A print-friendly, compressed version of the interview can be read here, but with Mr Oppenheimer’s permission, I’m reproducing the full transcript of our interview below – hours before this year’s Academy Awards get underway. Enjoy.

First of all, congratulations for making it to the list of 15 documentaries at the forefront of the Oscar race. How does that feel?

It’s really great for film to come as far as it’s come, and to be in the company of such other wonderful films. But I think above all, even making it to the shortlist means that it made big headlines in Indonesia, where the downloads for the have increased by something like five-fold (the film is made available for free download in Indonesia). So any attention from the Academy is really constructive in Indonesia, so that’s what I’m the most pleased about.

Did you expect the film to have such an impact, as you were making it? Because surely you were aware of the fact that you were making something that could have a profoundly political, and even perhaps historical, impact. So I was wondering if maybe all of that was running through your mind as you were making it.

Well I think that the film itself… I guess you saw the 159-minute edit of the film, right?

Yes.

Yeah, in that cut of the film in particular the boundaries between the scenes that they’re making and our film, if you like, blur together, and our film becomes a kind of apocalyptic fever dream, an apocalyptic vision, and I think that to create a work that’s so unsettling and dark, of course on sme level you have to have a pretty bleak view, right?

On the other hand you could never sustain the energy to make such a work if at some level you weren’t also hopeful. The hope is that by forcing people or inviting people to look at the most painful aspects of who were are as human beings, that we would then somehow be able to confront our biggest problems. So there’s a kind of optimism that underpins the whole effort. Now I always had this hope, always had this sense, that my task was to create something that forces this confrontation with the truth.

But when you spend eight years making a film you have ample time for self-doubt, and you start to wonder if it’s gonna make a difference. And you know, when I started making the film Indonesians were barely using mobile phones, but by the time I was done they were on Blackberries and on Twitter and so on. So I said to myself: if Indonesia is moving on, why can’t I move on?

Maybe one of the reason for this change is that there’s a whole younger generation of Indonesian professors and academics coming into their careers now, who want to create an Indonesia which is genuinely democratic – they want to have control over their future, which should be case in any democratic society. Nor are they paralysed by fear of direct retribution. And they’re not invested in the status quo because they didn’t form part of the military regime – they’re too young for that.

So I think the film was also allowed to have the impact it’s had because this time has elapsed.

This is in fact what survivors and human rights groups suspected might happen when they saw the footage of the perpetrators boasting that I had originally filmed back in 2003. They told me to continue filming the perpetrators in particular – “you’re on to something terribly important”.

Behind-the-scenes shot of The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (far right). Pictured in car, left to right, Indonesian death squad members Safit Pardede, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry.

Behind-the-scenes shot of The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (far right). Pictured in car, left to right, Indonesian death squad members Safit Pardede, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry.

They told me that every Indonesian who sees this will be forced to acknowledge first of all that they’re all afraid, why they’re afraid and what lies at the rotten heart of this whole regime.

“Make film about the perpetrators, document and analyse their boasting, and you’ll create something that comes to Indonesia like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes: forcing everyone to confront the realities that they’ve hitherto found too painful to address.”

How much has actually changed in Indonesia since you started filming?

There was a significant political change in 1998, and it actually became possible to make such a film as ours in the first place. Before that, we would have been under a certain amount of surveillance which would have made it impossible for us to make it.

But I don’t think there has been anything like a kind of steady march towards increasing openness. On the contrary, in 1999 a new president tried to take a stance against corruption and tried to apologise for the genocide and for these things, he was thrown out by the military.

Now there’s another election coming up in next year and the likely winner is a man called Prabowo [Subianto]– an army general who has the dubious distinction of being the first person ever on a US State Department black list for masterminding torture and murder in 1998 against student activists, ethnic Chinese and East Timori citizens.

So all I can say is that while, partly thanks to The Act of Killing, there’s an openness to start a national conversation about the past, and the thuggery in the present, at the same time the regime is sliding backwards.

Every president since Soharto – except for the one who was thrown out in 1999 – would hold meetings with his high-ranking ‘preman’ (gangsters) to discuss skimming oil. Indonesia is an OPEC country, and here you have a gangster running the nation’s oil imports and exports. This guy skims around 10 to 15% of all the oil which goes through Indonesia – he steals it, then pays off the Indonesian president.

Every day in office there’s a meeting with the president to sign off a certain amount per barrel of oil. It used to cost one dollar and now it’s down to 60c – which still amounts to a total of $480 a day over a 10-year period. This is the beating heart of a military dictatorship which will never stop.

Although there’s been change on a superficial level – there’s talk of clamping down on gangsterism and corruption – until this high-level corruption stops, nothing will ever change. Pancasila is certainly not afraid of protest. Recently tens of thousands of people – among them sweatshop workers – were out striking out on the streets, and Pancasila was on the front lines hacking at the workers with machetes.

And they were all paid by a garment sweatshop that makes clothes… both for us, and Indonesians.

As you set out to make the film, were you at all apprehensive about the ‘heart of darkness’ you would by necessity have to confront? How did you prepare yourself, psychologically, for the experience?

It was difficult and painful. The very first perpetrator I filmed was from a plantation village where I started this journey. After I filmed him he showed me how he killed hundreds of plantation workers by beating them up until they were unconscious and drowning in mud. He demonstrated this in his living room in front of his wife and daughter. I was shocked, mostly because of the smiling, boastful tone with which he told the story. I walked across the road to this little village, back to the house I was staying in. About an hour later his wife shows up at the door with plate of fried bananas. And I felt profoundly afraid that she had come to my home… this woman I’ve just seen sitting next to her husband as he performed that horrific re-enactment.

And she came with a plate of fried bananas, and I accepted it, very politely, and got rid of her as quickly as I could, and I threw the bananas away. I felt that anything she made was tainted. And afterwards as I saw her granddaughter playing right in front of my house I started to think about that, and I began to regret having thrown the bananas away. I realised how easy it was for me to treat the whole family as radically ‘Other’ and tainted. And I decided I would never do that again, that I would try to empathise, to understand. Because I realised that the main reason I did that was to reassure myself that I was not like them. And while I hope that I would never make the same decision as Anwar made if I were growing up in the 50s, I know that I’m extremely lucky to never have to find out.

Ever since, I insisted that I would let myself become close to Anwar. Doing that meant the process was all the more difficult. I don’t know how to make an honest film about another human being without being close to them. And so I tried to become close, and as I became close it became harder and harder to conceal my feelings. For example you know the scene in which Anwar butchers the teddy bear? That scene was so horrific to film. When I was filming that I was only a metre away from him and to my alarm, I noticed that I was crying – it just caught up with me. Then at some point we had to stop to adjust a microphone or a light or something and Anwar noticed that I was crying and he asked, “Josh, are you okay?” and I said “yes” (though I wasn’t, really). And he said “let’s continue then”. And in my mind that was the start of eight months of very difficult nightmares…

Still from The Act of Killing. Photo by Carlos Arango de Montis.

Still from The Act of Killing. Photo by Carlos Arango de Montis.

It was painful. And when Anwar saw the finished film, he cried. Then he was silent for a while, and then he finally said, “the film shows what it’s like to be me”. And I was relieved. I’m relieved to finally have been able to show what these things have meant for me.

And he and I remain in touch – I wanted to make sure that there’s no physical reprisal against him after the film. And there hasn’t been – they’ve just blamed me. Which is fine, it just means I can’t go to Indonesia safely… but it’s good that they’re blaming me and not him. I think the other reason I remain in touch is to try and understand the situation beyond just the film. And I may never quite figure it out…

The scene with the teddy bear – which stands for a baby in that particular re-enactment – certainly shows a point of no return…

Yeah, it shows just how damaged Anwar is. The re-enactment becomes a kind of cinematic prism through which Anwar comes to recognise the meaning of what he did. But it’s not a linear journey to that point… it’s more like a pendulum that is swinging wildly, or a seismic vibration that grows greater and greater in amplitude.

For example, he goes into that scene as an act of despair – he moves from that re-enactment in which they’re burning down the village. He starts to feel remorse after that, and in response he despairingly turns to the worst parts of himself… as though to say, “yes it is still me and I did this and I can still live and be this”. And it hurts him, it’s painful, he hates playing that scene. We see him lying in bed with that wind-up chicken and singing the most self-pitying song… and through that self-pity he comes to play the victim. He doesn’t come to play the victim knowingly, but out of pure… simple… he’s just the victim. And then through playing the victim he experiences real trauma, and to wash the trauma away he proposes that ‘cleansing scene’ by the waterfall, this phony redemption… and I was so disappointed with him. Because I had hoped that maybe he’ll be waking up to something. And that happened again and again but instead he chose to run away – 180 degrees, completely the opposite direction. And I felt that the film had to faithfully show that. It might be easier to take if it was about a man who was coming to terms with himself… but rather, he’s zig-zagging – zig-zagging frantically.

To put it in a more concise way: the film bears witness to how the maintaining of the lies we tell ourselves leads to a moral vacuum. A downward spiral of evil and corruption. You now have to blame your victims – because that’s the excuse, they deserved it – and that allows you to oppress them, and you have to kill again. Because if the army tells you okay, for the same reason you killed the first group, now kill this second group… if you refuse the second time it’s equivalent to admitting it was wrong the first time. And so the reason you need to maintain the lie is not because you’re a sadistic monster, but because you’re human… and being human, you’re moral, and you know what’s right and wrong, and you don’t want to live with the tormenting effects of guilt.

You’ve mentioned previously that the film is about ‘a failure of the imagination’ – with particular reference to the way the West reacted to the massacre back in 1965. This may be a bit of a trivial comparison to make, but given how it’s more or less taken for granted that contemporary Hollywood is operating on a dearth of the imagination, would you say we are ‘at risk’ of this happening again?

Yeah, I think the film shows not the danger of violence in movies, but escapism, right? And our problems become more intractable as our crises deepen. We then become more eager to escape from our realities. And escapism, denial, is what inevitably leads us to a moral and cultural vacuum.

And I think… yes, I think as our crises – ecological, economic, demographic, political – deepen, the dangers of escapism become critical.

I mean, Anwar says that he got his methods of killing from movies, and while I believe that’s true to a degree, I don’t think it’s definitive – I mean I’m pretty sure he would have found ways of killing people bloodlessly without watching movies. What he does say… when he talks about coming out of Presley musicals, dancing across the streets, intoxicated by his experience of cinematic identification… and killing ‘happily’… Now, Elvis Presley musicals are not violent. They’re just dumb. But that’s the problem. So I think you’re right, I agree with you.

I suppose it’s more about the iconography of Hollywood, rather than anything to do with content. Which brings me to the more stylised moments in your film – particularly the central musical sequence, which appears to be primarily spearheaded by Herman Soto… speaking of wish-fulfillment and so on… was there any particular reason why Herman Soto insisted on being in drag during the re-enactments (I’m going to assume it was his decision…)?

Ah! Well the answer to that is rather prosaic. Herman was in a theatre troupe until 2003 – the paramilitary Pancasila had a theatre troupe, and being a military theatre troupe, all the roles were played by men – they would have men playing  women’s roles, like Shakespeare’s Globe back in the day, or like Japanese Kabuki theatre – and Herman would often play the comedic storyteller role, and Anwar loved that, and thought it would be wonderful for the film.

So he cast him to play the role of the femme fatale, a communist’s daughter who takes revenge on Anwar in that jungle sequence – a scene inspired by Anwar’s on nightmares, where we see Herman ‘feeding’ Anwar his own liver or also in the studio, when he’s seen ‘cutting off’ Anwar’s head.

Then there were two musical numbers. We filmed one – ‘Born Free’ – which you see in its entirety, and which came in the production in the same order that it appears in the film. As I said earlier, I was deeply disappointed that, right after playing the victim, Anwar proposed this grotesque scene in which the victims thank him for sending them to heaven.

Still from The Act of Killing. Photo by Joshua Oppenheimer.

Still from The Act of Killing. Photo by Joshua Oppenheimer.

Then the second number, which was filmed on the set of the ‘giant goldfish’, was a staging of one of Anwar’s favourite songs – Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is?’, where he substituted the spoken verses from the song with spoken verses from his own life.

And it was a strange… mysterious…. the ‘giant fish’ had been a seafood restaurant until the mid-90s (it failed during the Asian economic crisis).

As we passed by it one day Anwar said: “It’s beautiful – it’s embodied all this hope but now it’s just sad, it’s all gone wrong, just like my life.” He said it was perfect for the Peggy Lee musical number. But being a ballad, it was very long, so we interspersed these strange, dream-like sequences throughout – like the scene in the storm where Herman sings about the movies, and directs the dancing girls, shouting “more hot, more hot!” I would say that these moments in fact embody the poetic core of what the movie is all about. About how we as human beings get lost in our fantasies, or our stories.

It was a case of either/or for me. I could either just use the musical numbers by themselves – which were surreal and funny, but a little thin – or I could use these moments, which would in fact be more representative of what the film was about. Then I realised that I had no choice – I had to use these poetic moments, and I decided I would employ them to mark chapters across the movie. And it changes in tone, from sunny and bright to increasingly dark and frightening throughout the course of the movie, reflecting the film’s emotional journey.

Something I also noticed was that Anwar appears to be very sensitive to the art of filmmaking, or at least storytelling. For example there’s that scene in which he’s explaining to Herman that you can’t make a film tense all the time – that you have to insert moments of humour and so on. Did just you stumble upon this intuitive quality that he had, as you were making the film?

I loved that, yeah I loved that. I was always so charmed by it! He was a sort of cinephile, or at least a cinephile of those low-end Hollywood products that made their way to the region in the 60s. He would present himself as the authority. And I love that everything he said about the film was true. And it was proven to be true by The Act of Killing. He said in the film you need a love interest – which of course we had, and I’m not just talking about the fictional relationship with Herman in drag and so on but also the dynamic between Anwar and Herman themselves – they were like a old bickering married couple, they were ‘married’ to each other in a way. I had actually filmed some funny scenes with Herman and his actual wife, in the part of the film where Herman is running for office. But it was imp for me not to use these scenes. Because within the logic of the story, Herman can’t have a wife… he’s ‘married’ to Anwar.

So everything Anwar said about the film is true to the film – you know, it can’t be tense all the time, needs comic relief, a love interest… and he also said that this film will attract so much attention because no other film has ever used the real killer to play himself… and that is, of course, why it has attracted attention.

And he makes this wonderfully poignant point, doesn’t he, when he says, “why do we watch films about the Nazis? To see power and sadism.” And yes, that’s exactly why we watch films about the Nazis. You cannot say it better.

One last question: I’ll understand if you don’t really want to talk about it for fear of spoiling its ‘magic’, but I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about that final, uninterrupted shot of Anwar coughing and dry heaving, which appears at the very end of the film…

Well I’ll tell you the story to that shot. Going back to the first time I met Anwar… he was actually the 41st perpetrator that I filmed. I spent around two years filming them. All of them showed me how they killed boastfully, and I handed over some of this material to the Human Rights Commission so they could use it as evidence.

The very first day I met Anwar was the day he took me to the roof and danced the Cha Cha Cha [a sequence appearing early on in The Act of Killing], and then I spent five years with him, dramatizing, in a sense, everything that went on in that office. And I never could get back to that office: and I tried, time and time again, to gain permission.

What I wanted was for him to walk me through that office and tell me, “this happened here”; “we did this and that here”… but when we filmed for the first time he was remembering things as we went along and it came out rather incoherently.

Then, six months later and at the tail-end of the shoot, we met with some of the highest-ranking political leaders of the country. I saved this to the end because I knew that they could question why I was there and stop me from making the rest of the film. It could have endangered us and our production. And during the final day of that final shoot, I’m walking down that street… and I knew a shop had opened up on the site just that day, and the owner of the shop was a Chinese-Indonesian – he knew exactly what had happened there and was happy to let us come in and film.

I asked Anwar to go back to that office, walk through it quietly and tell me what happened. I told the cameraman: “There’s only one rule – we’re going to stay against the wall, we’re not going to step into the roof terrace at all, because that space belongs to the dead.” Because the first time we were walking on the roof felt like we were dancing on the dead, just like Anwar did.

And so we walk in. Anwar is trying to slowly walk upstairs and tell me what happened on my roof. I’m keeping my distance – we’re not doing any zooms or close-ups – and maybe Anwar felt I was holding back, I don’t know… when suddenly he’s caught completely off-guard by this dry heaving.

I felt it was awful. He had no idea what was happening, I had no idea what was happening… I wanted to put down the camera, come up to him say, in that stupid way we Americans do sometimes, that it’s all ‘going to be okay’, but then I realised… oh no, this is what happens when it’s really, really not okay. And when someone realises that it will never be okay.

The final shot of him standing by stairs was the moment that I realised I can never film this man again. If it were up to me, I would want to just get out of there as soon as possible. Get out of there and go home.

Why doesn’t he go down the stairs? What’s he waiting for on the landing? He must know that will never be free of this.

Monsters Do It Better: Oscar Season

Caravaggio's Medusa
A couple of things I came across on the web serve as a nice addendum to a previous blog post, where I complain about how anemic Oscar-nominated films tend to be.
China Mieville’s argument that Halloween is not an enemy to contemporary socialists – if ‘done well’ – bears the kernel of what I was complaining about. Allowing your kids to dress up as cowboys for Halloween means just succumbing to the capitalist machine; making them dress as ZOMBIE cowboys – thereby allowing the still-existent chthonic underbelly that Halloween hints at – is good, because it acknowledges the topsy-turvy disorder that Halloween (like Carnival) encourages – a temporary subversion of the status quo.
And films that are nominated or Oscars tend to be guilty of promoting this ‘vanilla’ view of culture. 12 Years a Slave appears to be searing, but it comes draped in the trappings of stereotypical period dramas – the worst of both worlds. American Hustle appears to be an edgy look at how the capitalist machine in America functions, but it’s too keen to please it viewers to allow for anything genuine to seep through.
Robocop 2014
This isn’t just limited to Oscar fare, either. The Robocop remake has been released to some negative press in the US and UK, and it appears to have fallen into a similar trap. It’s not a freakish creation like its original – a wonderful aberration by Paul Verhoven that doubles up as a satire of the Regan administration. As a wonderful article on The Guardian illustrates, Verhoven was successful – and this counts for his subsequent films Total Recall and Starship Troopers too – because he had a keen grasp of how the grotesque works.
His films walk like dumb action flicks, but talk like something far more playful.
It’s this commitment to your vision that I tend to admire, and that I want to champion here. Just like wearing non-supernatural, non-horror costumes in favour of something generic for Halloween is a disservice to the imagination and the subversive implications of the festival, so does making concessions to the audience and the established cultural order make for maimed storytelling.
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I admire China Mieville for saying what basically amounts to “Sometimes a monster is just a monster.” By making monsters obvious ‘symbols’ for something, you divest them of their real power. Monsters will always mean something, of course, but they can stand for a rich variety of things – as opposed to some single, often hackneyed idea – if you just let them be.
Utopian vision: Let the work do its work. And don’t give awards to work that is more interested in glory and appeasing the status quo than in delivering good work.

Concentrated Tedium: Oscar Season

Better as melodrama: American Hustle

Better as melodrama: American Hustle

Oscar season is upon us, and with it a vague understanding of what should constitute ‘quality’ in the world of popular entertainment. Perhaps I’m only echoing the sentiments of some kind of sneering elitist minority – if I do in fact ‘echo’ anyone’s sentiments other than my own – but this year’s crop of Academy Award nominees continues to promote an anemic form of storytelling that values telegraphed ‘messages’ and finely-wrought decorative flourishes over exciting, nuanced storytelling.

(Side-note: I like how the internet has made the Oscars into a fully-formed international spectacle. It always was, of course; the imperialist nature of American cinema has always been a part of its DNA. But now the boundaries of news and broadcasting that had in the past created at least an illusion of distance between us and the Oscars is completely gone… but here’s hoping that the running commentary that is the internet will at least give way to a more questioning attitude to the Academy’s choices – and I don’t just mean incessant complaints about how your favourite film was snubbed or short-changed.)

Out of the 2013/14 Oscar superstars I’ve seen – although we’re all privy to internet commentary about the films before/soon after they’re in US/UK cinema, Malta still gets plenty of films far too late – there has been only one that has genuinely touched me as a genuine piece of storytelling worthy of awards.

That film is Spike Jonze’s Her. It’s a joyous confluence of style and substance, working on an outlandish, sci-fi-lite concept that is executed with great sensitivity to the nature of relationships, a keen visual style – it’s a masterclass in worldbuilding through micro details – and genuinely affecting performances.

Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street was also not bad – though it’s relentless approach leaves no room for subtlety. But Scorcese at least allows himself – or, thanks to his now-vaunted and hard-earned reputation, is allowed – a vitality and brashness that is free of political correctness. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is a monster, but you may worry that some audience members will admire his voracious, unapologetic drive to shore up MORE MORE MORE and consume MORE MORE MORE. But then, why would you worry? That’s not your job. It shouldn’t be. Let the work do its work.

But the Oscars rarely cater for this kind of thing – art that really says what it needs to say with true creativity and verve. You’d think Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a raw example of what I’m looking for… but watching the relentless churn of suffering unspool before you with apparently no unifying narrative force behind it, it just begins to look threadbare – a litany of abuse left to play out on autopilot.

American Hustle is similarly directionless. Each scene of David O. Russell’s story of  cross and double-cross strains to give the audience some goodies (a line of zesty dialogue, sexual frisson, an ACTOR moment) but it never builds to a satisfying whole. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster made of derivative moments from both Scorcese and Paul Thomas Anderson’s back catalogue.

It’s like it was sent to the Academy in a marked envelope: ‘HERE’S WHAT I THOUGHT YOU MIGHT LIKE’.

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Yes, this is a hint.

These deadening things just make me think, “art is elsewhere”. Even, “fun is elsewhere”. In my next post – up tomorrow – I’ll entertain the idea that the grotesque is what could save us from this complacent rut.

(Yes, the picture is a hint.)

The Weird Down Under: KJ Bishop and Anna Tambour

Don’t know if it’s down to coincidence or something deeper (never visited the region + not an anthropologist) but I’m really happy to have discovered two great works of weird and wonderful fiction from Australia that I’m enjoying more or less concurrently.

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That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote by KJ BishopOne was less accidental than the other though. I had enjoyed KJ Bishop’s debut novel The Etched City immensely, so upon discovering that she had self-published a collection of short stories and poems, I was sold from the word go. So far it definitely doesn’t disappoint.

The collection is what I’d like to call ‘unaggressively strange’ – Bishop’s ease with language and her appreciation of the Decadent idiom gives the tone of the work an unapologetically ‘decorative’ quality that couches her zany imagination into something consistently enjoyable.

The overall feel of ‘That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote‘ is that of a cabinet of strange delights… due in no small part to it being a self-published work and so free from any overbearing commercial strictures.

Testament to its freewheeling, ramshackle variety are the poems accompanying the stories – surreal feasts of language, placed like addenda at the end of the book but in truth – and in spirit – reflecting the joyfully insane feel of the rest of the book.

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Though commenting on a book before you’re even done may seem silly or even crass, I can’t help but enthuse about Anna Tambour’s Crandolin.

Crandolin by Anna Tambour

Speaking about the art of criticism, Oscar Wilde said that, just like you don’t need to consume an entire bottle of wine to determine whether it’s any good or not, so a critic should be allowed to pass judgment on a work of art without having to have experienced it in its entirety.

Of course the statement is just a witticism to be taken with a heavy pinch of salt, but Tambour writes with such frenzied confidence (yes, a paradox worthy of Wilde) that her narrative voice alone is enough to convince me that she’ll carry her vision through to its end.

Using the titular magical device as a MacGuffin to pull a strange array of characters together (think Aladdin’s lamp, but if its gifts were less materialistic and more sensorial) Tambour lets her tale cumulatively paint a vivid picture. There’s no laborious world-building here: the reader is shoved straight into the detail, and save for a final destination involving the Crandolin serving as the figurative dangling carrot, we’re never sure where this is all headed.

Which is where Tambour’s grasp of language can really come out to play. Rhythmic, jokey and always at the ready with a wry (and not cringeworthy) pun, it works in perfect tandem with the craziness of the story so far.

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I’ve been trained to nitpick – both academically and professionally. Which is why it feels good to gush sometimes.

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READ MORE: Schlock Magazine interview with another favourite Aussie fantasy scribbler, Angela Slatter

January commemoration: Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Robert Burns

Virginia Woolf was born on January 25, 1882.

Virginia Woolf was born on January 25, 1882.

One of my favourite things about the internet is the easy availability of material that has been released into the public domain.

Literature fans are especially fortunate in this regard, with sites like Project Gutenberg providing a rich variety of writings ‘only a click away’, as the cliche would have it.

One thing I like to do is to commemorate dead authors, and the internet certainly helps to a) remind me about birthdays/death days of the authors in question and b) provide me with enough material to commemorate them properly, for free.

Said commemoration usually involves just reading out something of theirs to mark the occasion. I try not to miss out on any of my favourites, dorky or obliquely cult-like as it may sound, mostly because I never really grew up with any real sense of ritual.

Books and stories are my ritual. Having grown up in a family that wasn’t in any way religious and that had to find its place in a foreign country while still getting on with day-to-day affairs, stories were always a welcome mental buttress through which I tried to make sense of the world.

I took this behaviour to its conclusion after I resolved to study English literature at university, though I may not have known it at the time.

I channel my academic years somewhat too, I suppose, when I look back at authors I want to remember and commemorate. This sense of history is important to me, but being outside of the academic sphere now also makes it possible for me to come at it more casually, playfully.

Writers commemorated this month

Edith Wharton – January 26 (birthday)

Can’t say I’m terribly familiar with Wharton’s work. Save for a BBC Radio adaptation of Ethan Frome and Martin Scorcese’s Age of Innocence, I have had no direct contact with her novels and stories. So I looked her up last Sunday and came across this, a Christian allegory that reads like a folk tale and/or, at a stretch, a fantasy story.

Again, this is probably a superficial assumption, but the story popped up as a bit of a surprise to me given that the Wharton I know is the buttoned-up early 20th century chronicler of high society – much like her compatriot Henry James.

READ: The Hermit and the Wild Woman

Virginia Woolf – January 25 (birthday)

One of my favourite authors of all time. Woolf’s work made me realise that prose fiction can explore the psychology of character in a way that is natural and beautiful, though often crushing.

READ: A Room of One’s Own

Burns Night – January 25

I never had the chance to delve into the works of Scotland’s national poet properly. But that’s one great thing about being alerted about these celebrations – they remind you of the authors whose works you’ve missed and might want to catch up with.

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With this in mind, I should really be getting back to my own fiction writing. Later!