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The slush pile

It’s a glorious early summer Saturday morning in Gorizia, a small town of 35,000 inhabitants at the very edge of northeast Italy. So much at the edge that the Slovenian border quite literally cuts through the city – stroll casually through Piazza della Transalpina and, mid-square, you’ve suddenly moved from Italy into Slovenia, the only indication being the sudden change of language on the street signage.

So yes, Gorizia, Saturday morning. I’d expected to spend it with a cappuccino and a cornetto, possibly in one of the many outdoor cafes. But instead I was cooped up at the Università di Udine’s FilmForum, way too early for my tastes after a late night and still without my cappuccino, watching zombies mutilate and gorily chomp away at their victims.

And yet, I was hooked. The guest speaker, brilliantly weird academic and author Bernard Perron, was merrily chatting away to a packed hall about the development of the zombie genre in the movies.

Later in the day we shifted, as one does, from zombies to porn. Porn studies is not something that is currently – I believe – offered as a course of study at the University of Malta, but it is a fully-fledged academic genre with its experts and researchers. Subjects of discussion varied from the safety checks for on-set prosthetics, to the politics of hijab porn in the era of extremist terror.

All is discussed in surprisingly technical, fact-laden PowerPoint presentations. Until, that is, the speaker would bring up what she referred to, with a well-practiced (and, to be honest, slightly bored) glint in her eye as “the money shot”. And yes, even in the most erudite and cosmopolitan of surroundings, graphic sex still induces teenage giggles in large swathes of any audience.

And on it went, for a full week of highly stimulating and diverse insights into film studies. Now, of course, I was way out of my element there. I am what might be mercifully termed a neophyte in film studies, inhabiting as I do the world of film’s older cousin: literature.

From the perspective of the literary world, film studies is a fascinating, parallel yet distant, field. The aesthetics, the workings and the controversies seem all too familiar; yet the vocabulary is different. What drives both, though, is human nature and the quest for learning and conceptualising that which is instrinsically emotional.

From the perspective of the literary world, film studies is a fascinating, parallel, yet distant, field

As I listened and watched, I could not help tick off all the issues being debated that felt so familiar. The auteur theory ascribes to the film director an ‘authorship’ over the film, casting into the shadow all the other technical people involved. In the literary world, this comes up often because, of course, we all remember the author of our favourite books. But do we recall who the editor, or the designer, or the publisher, were? I say Life of Pi and many of us say Yann Martel. I say Harry Potter and we all say J.K. Rowling. But who published them? Edited them? Designed them?

There were long debates over whether anything put on film can be considered a work of art. In essence, high culture vs popular culture. Familiar, anyone? In the book world, this translates to the never-ending warfare between proponents of high literature and consumers of popular fiction.

There was concern about decomposition and decay of film archives, and about piracy (even as, ironically, one of the speakers didn’t think of hiding his folder with an entire pirated season of Game of Thrones on his desktop as he was setting up his presentation). And there was much discussion about how film is moving outside of the confines of the movie theatre and onto people’s smartphones.

Gorizia is a small town. In just over a week I began to recognise individuals on their daily passeggiata, down to the elderly couple constantly bickering and to the teenagers showing off to impress the girls. And yet, just in the centro storico, essentially a couple of streets, there were at least five bookshops. Italians love their books and their reading, and respect books enough not to mind paying for them. I, needless to say, spent an inordinate amount of time – and money – in these bookshops, stocking up on some enjoyable Italian literature.

One of my discoveries was Terapia di coppia per amanti by Diego De Silva. The intriguing premise for this is a couple of clandestine lovers who start attending therapy sessions to sort out their secret relationship issues. Yet what could have been either a fun comedy of errors, or a more reflective analysis of relationship complexities in the twenty-first century, does not manage to pull off any of the two.

The book gets tiresome after a while, and the author’s penchant for philosophising endlessly and, often, uselessly does not help.

Fabio Volo – the author and Italian TV personality – is possibly Italy’s most widely-read pop author. His books, while to a certain extent samey if read too closely after each other, are reliable entertainment for the 30-something crowd. And his latest book, È tutta vita, follows the author’s fictional alter ego as he moves into his forties, into a stable (sort of) relationship and into fatherhood. Volo fans will love it, down to the strong infusion of melancholy and incipient midlife crisis.

And there is one other book I read while in Gorizia. But I liked it so much – devouring it in one long dinner marathon, so long that the hostess began to turn off lights in the restaurant before I got the hint to leave – that I’ve decided to buy the Maltese rights to it, so I’m afraid I cannot tell you about it right now. You’ll have to wait a year or so until the Maltese translation is out.

That’s over and out from Gorizia and my Italian book-shopping. And yes, I’m still dreaming of those cornetti.

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