We’ve already destroyed most of Xlendi… so why not just destroy the rest?

But this? This is utterly indefensible (even by Hollywood movie reboot standards). So utterly, irredeemably awful, in fact, that… well, just look at us: we’re all retreating in horror into an artificial, fabricated past, just to get away from it…

A visual of the project based on a superimposition of plans on existing baseline
A visual of the project based on a superimposition of plans on existing baseline

It’s a funny thing, nostalgia. Just the other day, my attention was drawn to an article published in an American film journal – can’t remember the name – which questioned why there seems to be such a widespread public yearning for ‘the good old days’ right now.

And there certainly does, when it comes to cinema. Just consider how many of the movies being made today are simply rehashes – or even straight-up remakes – of older classics; and, more to the point, how so many of them end up being cheap, inferior imitations of the original (like ‘Dukes of Hazzard’, for instance. I mean… what were they even thinking?)

On one level, it might just indicate that today’s filmmakers and screenwriters are more comfortable working on what they already know, than coming up with original material of their own. On another, however, it may illustrate a familiar truism about the movie industry in general (and, let’s face it, pretty much everything else in the known Universe, too).

Films cost a lot of money to produce; and today’s financiers would much rather risk their investments on something that already has a tried-and-tested record of success, thank you very much...

Either way, the outcome remains the same.  Whether it is artistes who abdicate their creativity for lack of imagination; or risk-averse entrepreneurs, who doggedly stick to the only formula they’ve ever known… the result is an endless recycling of the same old material: the same old comic-book franchises, the same old 1970s TV series revivals, the same old dependence on the same old genres and tropes… in a nutshell, ‘same old, same old’.

But… well, here’s that ‘funny thing about nostalgia’ that I mentioned earlier. According to this article, this recent trend only serves to deprive today’s movie-goers of contemporary films, made by their own generation, which reflect the realities and concerns of their own everyday lives. In other words: movies which would probably be just as successful (or memorable) today, as those old classics were in their own era… and for precisely the same reason, too.

Because – to use the much more expressive Maltese idiom – they were “ta’ żmienhom”…

What this also means, however, is that nostalgia works in two, diametrically-opposed ways. For the older generations who actually remember the original films – or at least, the zeitgeist of the era – the pull-factor is obvious. It reminds them of the ‘good old days’: you know, when artists actually produced this thing called ‘art’, every once in a while (instead of just copying anything that might have sold well in the past); and when entrepreneurs also possessed something called an ‘entrepreneurial spirit’: occasionally risking their hard-earned cash on products that were new, different and (potentially) exciting…

As for the younger generation, however: the ones who cannot possibly feel any genuine emotion, for a past they never experienced themselves… well, it seems that nostalgia works slightly differently on them.

OK, this part is my own interpretation – nothing to do with that article at all (which, by the way, was mostly about the potential economic, and even political, ramifications of this particular trend) – but I, for one, suspect that younger audiences are drawn to evocations of the past, simply because they subconsciously ‘know’ that the present has nothing really comparable to offer them.

And like everything else, they are caught up in the same addiction to recycled material… always needing another dose of artificial, fabricated ‘nostalgia’, to satisfy a subconscious craving for ‘something’ that they feel to be missing from their own lives.

Anyway, I could go on – it was, after all, an interesting article – but if I do, I would probably lose sight of my original reason for even bringing it up.

So here goes: if you ignore the fact that I’ve so far only been talking about recent trends in movie-making… well, it could just as easily have been about anything else. Like, for instance: why the state of Malta’s environment has deteriorated so alarmingly, and irreparably, over the past 10 or so years. Or why the Planning Authority has just approved an application to destroy the last remaining unspoilt part of Xlendi (logically enough, after having already destroyed pretty much all the rest of it anyway…).

Ok, the analogy itself might break down at various points; but if you replace ‘movies’ with ‘buildings’; ‘screenwriters/directors’ with ‘architects/urban planners’; and ‘producers’ with ‘developers’… and, well, you’ll have part of the answer already.

It would, of course, be a little over-generous to describe today’s urban development as a ‘cheap, inferior imitation’ of past construction efforts. Certainly, they do not ‘imitate’ their predecessors in anything that really matters: like elegance; design; health and safety standards (seriously, though: Mnajdra is still standing after 5,000 years; today’s buildings have a tendency to collapse before they are even competed; etc, etc.…) and, least of all, respect for their surroundings, and the integrity of the entire townscape.

Other than that, however, we are still looking at the endless recycling of the same old ‘tried-and-tested’ development formula – apartment blocks, supermarkets, multi-storey garages, etc. – that not only disfigure the surrounding streetscape; but also radically alter the entire shape and character of the unfortunate localities they were inflicted upon… needless to add, steamrolling over all other considerations in the process.

Ironically, however, this same callous disregard for others – coupled with the sight of so much of our past heritage, being literally bull-dozed before our eyes – may also be having a similar ‘artificial nostalgia’ effect of its own. For once again, it not just old, romantic fogeys like me – who remember, among countless other examples, the Sliema seafront before its post-1980s mutilation – who are wringing our hands in despair.

No: a sense of exasperation can also be felt among the younger generation, too; even though – just like they don’t remember the original ‘Duke of Hazzard’ series (ah, what they missed!); or the original 1970s Star Wars franchise (in another galaxy, long before the prequels) – they don’t have any real memory of the Xlendi promenade lined with tamarisk trees, either… or when the sandy beach actually extended all the way across the shoreline (instead of ending abruptly in a concrete wall)… or when Xlendi’s most conspicuous building was actually the ‘Moby Dick Bar and Restaurant’ (now dwarfed by ghastly concrete leviathans, sprouting up from all sides)….

But while they may remember no such thing, themselves… they can nonetheless surely appreciate that ‘the past’ could only conceivably have been ‘better’, than a present they all intuitively know – and feel; and can see with their own two eyes – to be manifestly ‘worse’, at all levels.

And this, paradoxically, creates a fabricated nostalgia of its own. It explains, among other things, the enduring popularity of websites dedicated to all things ‘Lost Malta’: old photographs, old brochures, old postcards… old anything, really, that can fill that nostalgic void left by the depressing ugliness of the present…

But it is a nostalgic yearning that comes only from the dismayed ‘audience’; and certainly NOT from the ‘screenwriters and producers’: i..e, the architects, planners and developers, who are all caught up in the same, endlessly repeated loop. Too unimaginative – or risk-averse – to contemplate that there could be other, less aggressively selfish ways to invest one’s money; and too lazy or uncreative, to even bother designing more appropriate (and less appallingly hideous) buildings for their clients…

Either way, the result remains the same. And just to close off with one classic (alas, not in the nostalgic sense) example…. well, it’s the one I mentioned earlier: Xlendi.

Just consider, for a moment, what actually happened there. The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage (SCH), we are told, “firmly objected to a seven-storey development overlooking Xlendi bay, warning that the proposed increase in height will impact how the side of the valley is viewed in the wider context of the historic village.”

The case officer “recommended a refusal [because] the development did not conform to the ‘official alignment plan for the area’ […] and therefore runs counter to objectives of the Strategic Plan for Environment and Development which aims for the protection and enhancement of the character and amenity of urban areas”.

And yet… hey presto! “The Planning Commission […] overruled the case officer saying that the development was justified in view of ‘the site context’.”

Got that, folks? It turns out that all the relevant environmental/cultural/planning watchdogs unanimously agreed that this permit should NOT be approved, because of its impact on the surrounding site…

… to which the Planning Authority replied: “Surrounding site? You mean, the rest of Xlendi bay… which has already been raped and pillaged by all our own policies and past decisions anyway? Sorry, but… it’s a little late for that, isn’t it? We may as well just get on with it, and finish the job…”

And this, perhaps, brings me to the only truly unsalvageable flaw in my analogy. Film or television remakes might be, for the most part, awful… but there are still some valiant efforts from time to time (nobody’s going to convince me that the original ‘True Grit’ is a better film than the Cohen brothers’ version…); and besides: there may well be a good reason to revisit an old classic, once in a while; and maybe give it a little tweak for a more contemporary audience…

But this? This is utterly indefensible (even by Hollywood movie reboot standards). So utterly, irredeemably awful, in fact, that… well, just look at us: we’re all retreating in horror into an artificial, fabricated past, just to get away from it…