You have not been ‘good to her’! | Konrad Mizzi Gets His Knives Out

Perhaps the true emotional climax of Rian Johnson’s rollicking, wildly entertaining and fiercely intelligent murder mystery Knives Out (2019) comes midway through its final act, after Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the beleaguered nurse to the recently deceased (and filthy rich) crime novelist Harlan Thrombey, is all but forced to apologetically prostrate herself in front of his sneering, sniveling and money-grubbing heirs.

A South American migrant whose mother is undocumented – that the Thrombey heirs and in-laws consistently getting her nationality wrong during police interrogations is one of the film’s best running gags; some say she’s from Ecuador, others from Paraguay – she does her best to placate the spoiled brood after a plot-important (and therefore spoilery) development flips the power dynamic between her and her erstwhile employers, edging the proverbial knives out of the rich family’s sheathes and placing the perennially good-hearted Marta in a thoroughly uncomfortable position.

Keen to show that she has no intention of offending or otherwise discomfiting the Thrombeys in light of this new development, Marta insists on pointing out how the family has been “good to [her]” by giving her employment and at least ostensibly making her feel part of the privileged Thrombey fold while she took care of their patriarch in his dotage.

The family takes this as a given, never for a second considering that there could have been any ‘decent’ alternative way for all of this to pan out. Being a migrant, her inherent abjection and lack of agency is the default setting she’s expected to operate under. Though nominally valued, the work she does for the family is not nearly enough to grant her anything resembling full personhood, and anything that crosses the line of that rigidly defined master and servant relationship is to be apologised for profusely, or else.

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Keeping up with the Thrombeys: After Harlan Thrombey (centre) is found dead in an apparent suicide, the rest of his family decend into a not-so-petty extended squabble over the spoils

It is at this point that Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) – Johnson’s wonderfully conceived riposte to the Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot archetype, gleefully brought to life by a relaxed and game post-Bond Craig – crosses a line of his own. Lifting the veil of cold calculated deductive reasoning that has so far been his modus operandi (and that of his literary and filmic antecedents in the detective genre), he interrupts Marta by giving in to a bubbling ethical indignation:

“Excuse me. You have not been good to her. You have all treated her like shit […] You’re a pack of bloody vultures at the feast, but you’re not getting bailed out, not this time.”

We can make much out of Blanc being something of a ‘white knight’ in this situation, also pointing out that most migrants out there do not in fact have such figures bursting through to speak out in their favour when things get really tough. But within the context of the film, Blanc’s outburst serves as a welcome bit of catharsis. How much of this misguided, undeserved and disingenuous shit are we going to take, and for how long?

Disgraced former tourism and energy minister Konrad Mizzi recently evoked something of a similar reaction in local quarters after posting an incendiary Facebook post following a literally incendiary event in Marsa.

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“You fled your country. We saved you from drowning. We gave you shelter in our home. We dressed you, fed you. But now learn to respect us, our culture, our religion and the Maltese population,” Konrad Mizzi wrote on Facebook on January 8th, 2019, in the wake of a fire engulfing the Marsa Open Centre, which led to the arrest of 20 people.

Like the Thrombeys, Mizzi betrays no qualms at lumping all migrants in the same basket, with an added sting of political convenience handy to local politicians – particularly ones given the chop in the wake of shady financial dealings, who are now perhaps hoping that a new party leader will allow them to once again rise in the party ranks, previous sins washed clean as they are buoyed back into the public discourse by this recent appeal to far-right sentiment.

Mizzi does indeed expect all migrants to merely shut up and take any indignity thrown at them, except perhaps when they open their mouths to intone just how “good to them” we’ve been for allowing them the privilege of taking shelter on our island.

Never mind that the true source of the fire has yet to be determined, and never mind that this rush to condemn sits uncomfortably when compared to Mizzi’s own post-Panama political trajectory, during which we were all expected to let the legalisms that have exonerated him to speak for themselves.

Never mind that, even if the fires at the Marsa open centre are proven to have been deliberately started by migrants housed there, Mizzi’s diabolically moralistic generalisation cannot even begin to hold water: it assumes that all of the migrants there would have been in full agreement with any criminal action taking place.

And in this particular case, the notion that the migrants at the open centre should be grateful to us for ‘housing’ them is also off base: by its very definition, the open centre largely serves as a transitional space in which migrants are made to wait while their paperwork is processed and before they are given the go-ahead to either stay in the country or move elsewhere.

But apart from being an obvious and cheap attempt at garnering public support from literally the most toxic of national sources, Mizzi’s attitude is also redolent of the kind of ‘logic’ and ‘common sense’ which underpins some of the same toxicity within the migration debate. ‘We will charitably do our bit to welcome third country nationals into the country, but if they dare express anything other than adulation of even consider making minor legal infringements – infringements that we’d easily forgive among ‘our own’ – the only thing they should look forward to is swift deportation’.

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Ana de Armas is Marta Cabrera in Knives Out (2019)

It is a logic that is accurately, meticulously and painfully articulated in Knives Out. In an early scene – or rather, early confessional flashback – Marta is brought in as an unwitting ‘exhibit A’ of the ‘good migrant’ by Richard (Don Johnson), as a tangible closing salvo to a family debate on Donald Trump’s heinous migration border policy (Ol’ 45 is not explicitly mentioned by name, but the correlation is impossible not to make). Conceding that ‘putting children in cages’ is a bad thing, Richard clings to legalisms:

“But I blame the parents […] for breaking the law. You’re going to hate hearing this but it’s true, America is for Americans.”

It’s at this point that Richard commands a vigilant and nervous Marta to come over, as if a walking, (barely) talking illustration of his point. Making a point to wave his polished-off cake plate at the trembling girl, to be taken away later, Richard carries on,

“Marta, your family came from Uruguay but you did it right, she did it legally, I’m saying. You work hard, and you’ll earn your share from the ground up just like dad and all of us did – Marta I bet you agree with me.”

Never mind Richard obliviousness to both Marta’s own true country of origin (something the audience itself never becomes privy to either, to be fair); the fact that Richard is also ignorant of her family’s legal status is of course the deeper cut. Once that truth is revealed – by one of the supposedly more ‘woke’ members of the Thrombey family – the information gives way to blackmail, not help from this monied and influential family. Truly, they have not been, and will insist on never being, good to her.

Many arguments in favour of existing, status quo migration policies accuse the ‘other side’ of sentimentality or misdirected compassion, of refusing to consider the rational underpinnings behind arguments like ‘America is for Americans’, ‘illegal immigrants are simply breaking the law’.

But pronouncements like Mizzi’s own are also an act of obfuscation, apart from being a vulgar attempt to piggyback on racist undercurrents in an attempt to salvage some form of political capital. In framing migration policy as little more than an act of charity, Mizzi conveniently dodges the responsibility of rigour that is crucial if one is to honestly engage with issues of such complexity.

It’s a smoke-and-mirrors exercise made possible through the mechanisms of privilege – Mizzi’s own monied background, his history as a politician which, however chequered, still garners active support from a vocal contingent of Labour supporters – and it’s also the main obstacle that Benoit Blanc faces as he attempts to crack the case he’s now facing.

Because while Marta’s part in Johnson’s serpentine plot is hardly as simple as her otherwise diminished social standing would suggest, the Thrombey’s arsenal of cash and influence goes a long way towards making the case as juicy and complex as possible, as an eleventh-hour reappearance of an absent Thrombey scion makes clear as the film transitions from the second act to its third.

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Somewhere over gravity’s rainbow: Daniel Craig is Benoit Blanc

Blanc uses the title of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow to describe his working method to Marta – a famously impenetrable tome that neither of them have read, but whose title Blanc is partial to because,

“It describes the path of a projectile, determined by natural law. Voila, my method. I observe the facts without biases of the head or heart, I determine the arc’s path, stroll leisurely to its terminus, and the truth falls at my feet.”

Mizzi and other politicians of his ilk are in the business of putting themselves precisely in the path of the projectile, blocking a thorough examination of the truth by opening the floodgates to angry, misguided sections of the electorate who will offer them their support in the wake of such toxic battle cries.

It is a self-serving move masquerading as a beacon of wider social concern, and it precisely encapsulates the paradox of figures like Konrad Mizzi: well-oiled businessmen brought into the fold of an ascendant Labour Party and asked to deploy their technocratic skills in the interest of securing continued victory.

It’s a paradox that also came undone in the wake of a murder – that of Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose mysteries have been unravelled somewhat, but not in their entirety.

Capital of Culture Fallout | The legacy of the Valletta 2018 Foundation

I’m currently snuggled up the sofabed nursing the remnants of a hangover following yet another spectacular edition of the Reljic NYE house party, as well as the beginnings of a cold which I’m thankful appear to have hit me later than most — late enough, at least, to allow me to enjoy said party virtually unimpeded.

With that in mind — and with Issue One of the latest Conan the Barbarian series from Marvel seductively calling to me on the Comixology tab — I am in no real condition to do a coherent round up of 2018’s professional highlights — though it was certainly an eventful, satisfying and exhausting year in equal measure.

I will, however, leave you with my latest and most substantial journalistic contribution: my article on the legacy of the Valletta 2018 Foundation and all of its works, according to some of the most relevant players in the local cultural industry.

READ: ‘After Valletta 2018, we will never be the same again’ 

It was a satisfying piece to put together — not least because I had a comparatively leisurely amount of time to work on it, giving me a taste of the ‘slow journalism’ I so desperately crave and want to do more of in the future, though it doesn’t look like the realities of the industry will be able to allow for that any time soon.

But I’m also glad to be able to tackle such a contentious topic with a varied array of voices to serve as a buttress; though a large clutch of diplomatic replies were expected, I was very grateful to receive the kind of honest — and sometime searing — responses from people who either bore the brunt of the Foundation’s more questionable practices, or felt shoved to the wayside as it continued its colourful, gentrifying churn across the capital city (and by extension, island as a whole).

Click here to read the full article

Wishing all of my readers an excellent 2019. 

No Sleeping Beauties | Steve Hili on The Adult Panto

Anyone interested in the general direction of the Maltese ‘arts and culture’ scene is bound to have formed an opinion about Valletta 2018 — better known colloquially as “V18”, though its overstaffed PR machine has been keen to quash that tag of late, deeming it off-brand.

I’m writing this at the tail end of a balmy pre-summer’s day, after having actually enjoyed a V18-supported event, so I’ll keep both the ranting and mild hypocrisy down to a minimum here. But I will say that the focus on branding is starting to grate a little on me, along with the feeling that somehow, the whole initiative seems to be characterised by an insistent tendency to miss the wood for the trees.

This, along with the fact that consistency and sleek branding seems to run counter to the behaviour and reputation of V18’s Chairman Jason Micallef.

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Valletta, when it’s allowed to just do its thing.

No doubt already slotted in as a gaffe-prone, politically-appointed chair-warmer by a large chunk of those with an eye on the island’s cultural scene, the man is clearly a political animal, with a crude but nonetheless effective ability to tap into ready-to-burst emotional veins among the supporters of his political-ideological home base.

It creates something of a critical impasse, where anyone criticising Micallef and the Valletta 2018 Foundation is branded an elitist and, as the above-linked example involving Mario Vella suggests, something of an ingrate. Add a dash of that peculiarly Maltese brand of “If you don’t agree with what I’m doing it means you’re just a stooge of the other political party” into the mix – et voila!

But like I said, I’m amenable to take all of this philosophically, and even to wring out some positives from an equation whose results seem to be either a churn of deafening quietism (a large percentage of artists in Malta and Gozo are somehow tied to V18, and therefore contracted to remain silent on any shortcomings), or a pile of broken promises.

It creates something of a critical impasse, where anyone criticising Micallef and the Valletta 2018 Foundation is branded an elitist and even, perhaps, something of an ingrate

Because at the very least, V18 appears to have created something resembling a ‘mainstream’ under and against which other more independent-minded initiatives can emerge. It may all sound like scraping the bottom of the barrel of hope, but I think it’s a matter of focus and perspective that feels important.

It certainly had an impact on our devising of Apocalesque!, a comeback show for our little burlesque/cabaret troupe after a four-year hiatus. Somewhere down the line of devising scripts and planning rehearsals with our resident director Nicole, I was struck by the realisation of how most of our shows — having been performed during a time when the centre-right, ‘Catholic-Democrat’ Nationalist Party was still in power — would previously be concerned with issues of ‘public decency’ and censorship.

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Backstage at the Apocalesque, 17.05.18 (dress rehearsal). Photo by Jacob Sammut

We knew we were pushing an envelope that had more to do with matters of morality and antiquated laws — which have thankfully now gone the way of the dodo.

This time, however, the motivating factors had less to do with easily-understandable cries for freedom, and more about puncturing a zeitgeist based around gentrification and the grandstanding so eagerly offered up by Micallef and his ilk. With V18 swallowing up so much of the cultural oxygen, we felt compelled to blow some of our own air out.

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Undine LaVerve at the Apocalesque, 17.05.18 (dress rehearsal). Photo by Jacob Sammut

And I’m glad to see that we weren’t the only ones. Fresh off our show — and sharing one of our own performers, the inimitable Undine LaVerve — this year’s edition of Steve Hili’s Adult Panto puts the tale of Sleeping Beauty through its crude-and-rude wringer, and the go-for-broke approach was actually born out of a desire to swerve away from mainstream practices and do something loud and fun instead.

Throwing some insights my way, Hili recounts how the ‘Adult Panto’ series — now five editions old — in fact started off while he and other cast members would be goofing off backstage while taking part in the traditional Christmas pantos.

“I had been in a couple of traditional pantos and there always seemed to reach a point in rehearsals — when everyone was tired because we were in the middle of production week — that we would be messing about and coming up with our own jokes. A lot of these jokes were very very naughty, and we would always lament the fact that we could never actually use them in to what to all intents and purposes is a kiddies show!”

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The cast of Sleeping Beauty: The Adult Panto. Photo by Sergio Morana

That simple prompt led to a series of raunchy shows existing at the periphery of the local theatrical scene, but performed with what I suspect is the same devil-may-care gusto of our our burlesque acts.

Being largely based in the UK these days, Hili — previously an energetic fixture of local radio — extols the “DIY” approach to comedy, and believes this to be, ultimately, the most liberating approach to the material that one can adopt.

“I have found that creating my own work and shows really works for the type of comedy I enjoy doing and I am good at. You would hope that artists here would feel the urge to adopt a DIY spirit. As part of V18 or as a response to it. That would be quite a legacy.”

In fact, turning his guns on V18 in particular, Hili laments how the Foundation and everything associated with it has not been successful in fostering the kind of freewheeling atmosphere of creativity that he describes.

“The way I had hoped that V18 would work was like the Edinburgh International Festival works,” Hili says.

You would hope that artists here would feel the urge to do adopt a DIY spirit

“I had hoped that there would be lots of high-brow culture but that this would breed fringe events… I would hope that V18 was (and still is) a great opportunity for artists to take the bull by the horns and to create fringe events that offer alternatives including perhaps a way of dissecting the current political scene in a way that is free of the toxic environment that seems to have taken over the islands.”

Ultimately, however, Hili zones in on what will always motivate him to keep creating rough-diamond shows like this.

“We feel like we are thumbing our noses at authority. And I love it.”

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Photo by Sergio Morana

Sleeping Beauty: The Adult Panto will be staged at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta until June 15. For more information, click here

Lullabies to Paralyse

I didn’t want there to be such a radio silence up here for such a long time. As October got underway, I hit upon the idea of leading up to Halloween with a fun little round-up of mini-reviews of season-appropriate stuff I’ve been reading – and to be fair, I did manage to roll out a first-and-only installment with my review of Kali Wallace’s deliciously autumnal sophomore effort, the Young-Adult-but-don’t-let-that-stop-you novel The Memory Trees.

But then, life happened, as it tends to. The freelancer cup did overrun this month, and I suppose I should be grateful for that; stress and lack of time to update one’s blog and continue pottering away at ‘passion projects’ notwithstanding. The good news is that I did manage to keep up with the reading schedule – I devoured John Langan’s The Fisherman, Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, and enjoyed all of them – but apart from brief Facebook missives, that’s all there was to show for it.

(I also owe the great gents who are Neil Willamson and Nathan Carson some reviews for their juicy and memorable takes on various genres, and I promise that’s upcoming very soon). 

It could have simply been a matter of scheduling. But it could also have been down to that other thing. The thing that once again thrust Malta into the international spotlight. The thing that put a lot of the hyper-local controversies, paradoxes and scandals into far sharper relief, now.

Because the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia was one of those events you can’t run away from. You can’t shake them off from your mind and get back to your things with a business-as-usual attitude. Because, unlike the many petty grievances (that nonetheless still betray something of a rotten core) which I talked about in a previous blog post, a murder hits a far more direct note than the rote examples of corruption and complacency that gnaw away at us otherwise.

I was of course not alone in reacting to the numbing effect of such an event with, well, a pervasive, deep-seated sense of numbness. And after it had all just about started to subside, then came the reactions in earnest; some knee-jerk, some more considered and others, quite wide-ranging in scope, such as the rapid-fire succession of protest and ‘civil society’ actions, most of which were well-attended enough to possibly break local records, but all of which soon became mired in the kind of controversy that is unavoidable in a country where the partisan divide is so stark as to be almost physically tangible.

But neither am I too comfortable in suggesting that Daphne’s murder made me stop thinking and reading and writing – first of all, that would simply have been false because I have continued to read and write all the while, the only difference being that it’s been happening at a far slower pace than I’d hoped it would, now that the climate has cooled down and I could have, theoretically, begun to power through some work that would make me proud and remind me there’s tons left to do, and tons to live for.

No, I will not inject this event with an unsavoury jolt of facile, narcissistic tragic romance. And much as I strongly believe that the mythological idiom is an underused device in today’s age of bitty, rolling info-nuggets which more often than not, offer stimuli disguised as truth, I don’t think that mythologising Daphne or reducing her murder into some kind of commemorative meme would help to make the best out of a terrible situation.

The effect is disorienting. Before the murder, I had my issues with Malta, but I still felt as though I had the tool to process them and make something drinkable out of what are still essentially rancid lemons. Now, that suspect juice produces only poison, and I’m not sure what to do with it.

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Of course, it all changes on a day-to-day basis. One mantra that I’m trying to maintain is one that’s similar to “Don’t let the terrorists win” – which is facile and shallow in its own way, but it can be the kind of ‘fake it till you make it’ device to get some coherence back up in your brain.

I intend to not let this lull continue, and will be back with a quick report of some of the stuff I’ve written for ‘day-job’ purposes, and some ideas I’ve had swirling around regarding books, authors, film and TV. Because what else can you do?

(Featured image: Ruth Borg in the upcoming, Malta-shot ‘Bahar Zmien’ — Of Land and Sea, directed by Peter Sant. Photo by Michael Galea)