31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Two: “The Summer of Sangailé”, A Love Letter from Lithuania

Summer of Sangaile

My thoughts on Monsoon Wedding are imminent. I’d like to tell you about this film first.

For most LGBTQ persons today and before, the processes of coming of age and coming out are one and the same. Our current educational paradigm gives disproportionate representation to heterosexuals and straight romances (among other dominating demographics) insofar as to make the very concept of homosexuality an unknown-unknown for most children—so that if a same-sex attraction arises in puberty and post-, it comes as a shock, and seems like a total anomaly. “I thought I was the only one,” is a common refrain in the community. I connect with this because my Asperger’s made me gullible to teachers who associated teenage sex with STDs, pregnancies and general pauperism. I kid you not: I thought I was the only one who masturbated. Literally. The only one. So while most of my peers were either calling bullshit on the system and going their own way (more mature) or rebelling against authority out of spite (less mature), I was only starting to get in touch with myself as a sexual being, just as most homosexuals have to go through an M.O. to get in touch with themselves as homosexual beings. This is why I think I feel particularly strongly about justice and equality for LGBTQ persons. (When I first learned about what homosexuality was, I took for granted that gay men and lesbians could get married anyplace just like straight folks. I did not grasp the revolutionary quality of same-sex marriage until years later.) Yet, it is not enough for us to merely coagulate fictional stories with gay, bi and trans characters. We must give them agency and make them as enigmatic and morally complicated as the best-drawn straight characters—because, of course, they don’t have to be nice for straight audiences—without falling for the stereotypes with which we’ve been conditioned. We must normalize homosexuality so it does not have to be foregrounded, so that it could in some cases be for granted.

Because its two principal characters are lesbian lovers, The Summer of Sangailé has been billed as a primarily lesbian film, and as a weaker Baltic variation on Blue is the Warmest Color. Both labels are unfair. For one, the comparison to Blue is off. Sangailé is half the running time, and where Blue’s camera was handheld and roving, Sangailé is told in the longish, demure, delicately constructed static shots that have become standard in European cinema in the age of Haneke. Sangailé is also the more elliptical film—and, in that way, maybe even the more ambitious and experimental—to the extent that I am not ready to declare that the title character is learning about her lesbianism for the first time during this story. I think the odds are greater that she is settled on being Sapphic, and is merely encountering her first serious adult romance—with a girl selling raffle tickets at an air show. Early on, we see a POV shot of Sangailé (Julija Steponaityte) checking out a girl’s derriere as she strips to swimwear. She later spots said girl humping a guy in the grass, and from her poker face, we get an aura of…well, it’s so nuanced, it’s anyone’s guess. Disappointment at getting interested in yet another girl who turned out straight? Desire for the type of genital pleasure that straight people seem to obtain so much more easily? I’d bet on both. She does have sex with a guy, in the back of a car—but there, a POV shot implies that she derives more rapturous pleasure from the electricity flooding her from the nearby transmission tower than from the penis. (Also, memo to my fellow straights: sexuality is much more protean than you know. I’ve known lesbians who’ve had sex with men, and who are adamantly not bisexual. Because really, what is a penis to a woman but a dildo with a pulse?) The scene of her breakup from him is a smash cut to the same electricity station. She says, “No hard feelings.” He says, “See you,” gets in his car, and drives off bitter, leaving her with her bicycle. It’s so quick, you know it before you register it.

The elisions and caesurae that muddy Sangailé’s sexuality refocus the film on what turns out as its central story. Sangailé has an inclination to become a stunt pilot, but she has two things impeding that: vertigo, and a faint suicidal tendency—she’s self-alienated, estranged from her parents in their own home, and she has a habit of cutting her arms. What makes this film arresting is how those two conflicts play off each other as opposed to how they obstruct her career aspirations. Does she merely want to overcome vertigo so that she can die the epic plane crash death? Can she trust herself to go up into the air without wanting to crash? Is the vertigo a survival instinct that she depends on to live—a contrast to her cutting that brings the life force out from the death force cocoon? Alanté Kavaïte’s direction, Dominique Colin’s camera work, and Joëlle Hache’s editing blend with nary a seam to create startling motifs and counterpoints that reflect Sangailé’s turbulent inner world. Pensive crane shots looking down on urban landscapes from the airplane’s vantage point mirror awestruck angles on high houses, buildings and trees. The former tends towards dizziness, the latter towards stability; Sangailé’s ideal life in the skies remains infected by gnawing acrophobia as the earth remains secure. She must work her way up. Her bedroom is the top loft of her house, her bed perched against the railing over the stairs in an act of Mithridatic defiance. The flat of her art photographer girlfriend Austé (Aisté Dirziüté) is on the top story of her complex. These narrative choices are deliberate; the film’s sense of environment is acute and precise. Where Sangailé is not yet ready to board the plane, cranes and bridges and towers of zigzagging steel beams give her opportunity to practice, while swirls of flower buds and cupcake icing and tulle skirts keep her reminded of the smoke plumes emitted in a barrel roll.

This is an auspicious debut for Kavaité and for all involved, and a criminally underrated one. The critics’ maligning of it as mediocre in the face of the Blue behemoth is mistaken, and I suspect it comes from the notion that if the story were a straight and sterile romance, it wouldn’t receive half the film festival attention it did. (The most grabbing aspect of the film, to me, is that it’s Lithuanian. What do you know about Lithuanian cinema?) A straight story would be a different story. Sangailé and Austé’s romance is organic and invigorating; the sex they have is plausible and filmed purely to convey the rare peace Sangailé gains through it; and where a lesser filmmaker would have tritely paralleled Sangailé’s sexual awakening with her overcoming her vertigo, Kavaité perceives the two as separate if linked. One develops faster than the other. Her falling in love is a stepping stone, if anything, to her being able to fly a plane. This makes for a character with more dimensions. To her, Austé is served as a fascinating foil: a teen-at-heart steeped in fastidious chic, her apartment decked with fabrics, fur, miniatures, mirrors, fashions that she has Sangailé model, and a turntable that acts as a pivot for one of the film’s most evocative shots—where Sangailé’s living space and personality are austere, bare-boned, dry, yet refined and pragmatic. Does Austé help Sangailé realize her potential as a stunt pilot, as the love interest is wont to do in films such as these? Yes, you can count on that—not in the clichéd ways you’d expect to the genre, but rather in unique and uncanny ways that fit Austé’s character, and that don’t always succeed. (Watch her smart, unsentimental reaction to Sangailé’s cutting habit.) This is not a mill-product Sapphic paperback; this is a keen film rich with detail, subtlety and texture. Its best shot—a cloudy sky, which is actually its reflection in a pond—is its most quintessential. Watch this film with care.

Grade: A

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31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Two: “The Summer of Sangailé”, A Love Letter from Lithuania

52 Weeks of Literature, Book Ten: “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair–Agitprop Trash

chicago_meatpackers

Talk about badly dated.

Earlier this year, I called Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn “poverty porn”. I had no idea what I was talking about. No character in esteemed literary fiction, to my knowledge, has been through more trauma than Jurgis Rudkus, the protagonist of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—a novel which, in the hindsight of a century plus, seems more muck than muckraking. For Sinclair, it isn’t enough that Rudkus and his family emigrate from Lithuania to 1900s Chicago and sink into the inferno of the meatpacking factories. They also have to get robbed, starved, ostracized, sacked, blacklisted, jailed, prostituted, raped, drowned, diseased, backstabbed, subjected to deadly childbirth, conned out of every last penny, drenched in booze, stuck in blizzards, and killed (not in that order). I have nothing against narratives about despair; case in point, I’ll be reading The Painted Bird shortly. I do have plenty against narratives without nuance, in which one is either completely good or completely evil, either a total perpetrator or a total victim, with no ethical complications and no insight into the ways that iotas of humor, ritual and hope can assist people in surviving the direst holocausts. The characters of Sinclair’s Packingtown are zero-dimensional. Rudkus is Baltic muscle, and nothing else. These people have no agency; they are less people who do than people to whom shit is done. And Sinclair the novelist’s exclusive interest is assuring that as much shit is done to these poor suckers as possible. The Book of Job had a point to make about faith in God. Sinclair’s point is…what, exactly?

I was honored to see Slavoj Zizek speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia almost two years ago. He told an anecdote about a lecture he was giving to a group of ethnic Somalis in Minnesota (I believe), during which he stated that if someone came up to him and starting imploring him to help “the starving children in Somalia,” he’d reply—in his über-thick Slovenian accent—“Fuck off! I’m trying to write my book on Hegel!” How do you think the Somali audience reacted? Let me tell you: they applauded him, because they understood that talking about Somalia like that is manipulative and exploitative, and more often than not loaded with toxic careerist intentions. The belief that Somalia is only what the news shows us about it—depraved, backwards and miserable—is racist, and any charity that reverts to the old colonialist rhetoric about how these guys “need our help” deserves to see their condescension mocked with relish. This generation of Somalis have seen a share of trauma and uprooting and have been without stuff we in the West take for granted, true. But those who have survived and not fallen prey to ideological crap—and most of us do survive—have formed unseen social structures by which they care for themselves and each other, and it is their incremental changes to the Somali political infrastructure, not greater access to Western resources, that will change their circumstances in the long run. Of course, I could be discussing any Third World nation, failed or otherwise.

Sinclair was a Socialist. Zizek is a qualified Marxist. I proudly voted for Bernie Sanders. I cannot imagine Zizek or Sanders liking this book any more than I did. Its naked manipulation puts it right at home with today’s caged puppy infomercials and guilt-inducing doomsday clickbait. (Maybe this hasn’t dated so badly after all.) I can at least respect Sinclair’s effort to expose every back alley on the map of corruption in the Chicago of his time. As nonfiction, that might work; as literature, in execution, it’s preposterous. This author spends three hundred plus pages unloading every single catastrophe he can think of onto the Rudkus family, in ways increasingly contrived and implausible. Every time Jurgis’ prospects are raised, Sinclair crushes them by the beginning of the next chapter at the latest. The effect is repetitive and numbing. Not that said prospects matter. It isn’t so much that Jurgis’ happier moments weren’t a relief because I, the reader, figured out they’d be fleeting. It’s that when the novel is happy, it’s a fairy tale, and when it’s mired in its characteristic gloom, it’s maudlin, self-indulgent, self-serving, and totally ignorant of the complex personalities that created and sustained Gilded Age capitalism, so many of whom were shamed into philanthropy towards life’s end. (Assuming that exploitation of labor for profit is done for sadism is historically irresponsible.) Throughout, the initially promising view into Lithuanian culture turns glib quickly and remains so, and the only aesthetic concern evident in the prose is the infinity of ways in which agony can be detailed.

Much of this novel’s abject failure stems from Sinclair’s inability and unwillingness to decide just what he ought to write. Jurgis has no definition and no identity. Depending on the author’s whims, Jurgis is alternately a sweeper of cow entrails, an assembly line worker, an unemployed drunkard, a vigilante, an imprisoned victim of injustice, an orphan, a widower, a father to a dead child, a hobo, a witness to American ostentation, a petty burglar, a bellhop, a political activist…and so forth. The sense of genre thus becomes deeply muddled. The best counterexample I know is John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, a socialistic account of America and Europe in the years before the Depression that achieves its panoramic scope by conglomerating a cross section of characters from different literary genres and regions. The hobo, the capitalist huckster, the war vet, the socialite, the Hollywood star, the aspiring artist—these and more are all well defined by the literary conventions they embody, and they play off each other as Dos Passos scathingly attacks those conventions as part and parcel of consumerist capitalism’s stultifying mode of production. Desperate to capture the zeitgeist of Chicago with similar ambition but less space, Sinclair crams all of his favorite archetypes into an everyman vessel, meant to represent a whole society while really being a cipher. Halfway through, I stopped keeping track of Jurgis’ shifts and gave up on trying to delineate the other characters. I didn’t care.

No ending could have saved this unfocused, pandering, steaming guano heap of a book, but I was at least hopeful that Sinclair would see his pessimistic vision through to its logical end and have Jurgis martyred, hackneyed as it would be. Not the case—the final chapters are a cop-out. Socialism saves and redeems Jurgis, nabbing him a stable job and income, and the last few paragraphs portend a Eugene Debs presidency. (Never mind that to get there, Jurgis has to abandon his family in an act of cowardice—a convenient means for Sinclair to dump characters that he was making up along the way and that thus weren’t working, where the mounting death toll simply won’t do. Man, this book.) It took me a while to finish reading this, and as a result, my yearlong project was nearly derailed. In that hiatus, I thought a lot about how some youths go into the arts to strike it rich, while others aim to create actual fucking Art and/or to make a difference in the world through their Art. And because the young are frequently demeaned as stupid and naïve, their urges for creativity and invention are cruelly labeled pretentious, their idealism interpreted as evidence of a political agenda, and their output dismissed—hence the market domination of genre fiction and vapid Alice Munro wannabes. This begs the question: how can literature change the world if experiment and agenda are frowned upon? Here’s what I’ve learned: you start with the story and characters, and let everything stem organically from there. Remember the immortal last lines of Middlemarch: excessive ambition breeds disappointment, best laid plans backfire, and the ones who leave a mark on history are the ones you least expect. The Jungle got us the FDA; its importance in letters stops there. As we trundle around in a new Gilded Age, gearing up for yet another lesser-evil-versus-greater-evil election year, we need authors who can wrestle with the dilemmas of capitalism and socialism more honestly than Upton Sinclair ever did.

Grade: F

52 Weeks of Literature, Book Ten: “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair–Agitprop Trash