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

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

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Three: “Last Words from Montmartre” by Qiu Miaojin

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NB: Due to a library-related kerfuffle, I am substituting this text for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I will review in three weeks.

Representative excerpt: “Dusk in the Latin Quarter was like a fairy tale or a love poem, like a Klimt mosaic, like glowing, rose-colored clouds reaching toward the heavens…a swath of gold ringed in a misty-blue halo, this was the Paris that most enchanted me. None of us had brought an umbrella, and the other three women hurried ahead while I nearly burst with glee, singing one song after another deep down in my throat in unintelligible (to them) Chinese. They turned back to make funny faces at me, glowering, scolding, smirking. Their golden, chestnut-brown hair dampened by the rain, glittered in the sunset. They were beautiful, Paris was beautiful, life was beautiful, and I and them, I and Paris, my life felt so dear. We were four children under heaven, without nationality or student credentials, far from home, each abandoned by her beloved.” (p. 63, trans. Ari Larissa Heinrich)

How does one approach, much less critique, a work of art that essentially serves as a suicide note? I’ve faced this dilemma before my time with Last Words from Montmartre; Sarah Kane’s theatrical monologue 4.48 Psychosis and Joy Division’s album Closer come to mind. These works and more are no doubt well informed by their authors’ despair. Their authority on the subject of depression—in clinical and other senses of that word—is beyond dispute; they are a valuable resource in that regard, at the very least. They would be radically different texts if they were not infused with the aura of their authors standing on the threshold of death, and that these are the thoughts that came to them in the precious moments before they chose to move on to whatever’s next only increases their allure. We must be careful not to exploit the circumstances of these texts’ composition for pulp appeal and publicity, nor to reduce them to the level of “narratives”—and to consume them with all the conveniences inherent in that label—when they are clearly not just stories from which we take away themes and lessons. All that can be read must be read in context; real life always impinges on art. My ultimate belief is that appreciating these deliberate swansongs as works of art could well stand as a show of esteem to their authors’ final wishes. Some call their suicides narcissistic, and some view their art as tainted by pathology, but both of those perspectives show disrespect to the genuine struggles of depression.

I could write that such texts have plenty of artistic merit solely in that they display a struggle with a suicidal wish to which the author happened to lose, because there are people who do tragically lose in that conflict with the self. But that would be disingenuous. Taiwanese émigré Qiu Miaojin’s Last Words are split into twenty letters—twenty-one, actually, since two are labeled “Letter Seventeen” in what I imagine to be evidence of hazy happenstance. By Letter Twelve, Miaojin has announced her intention to kill herself. The final letter is dated June 17 [1995]; eight days later, she was dead at age twenty-six. If there is conflict, it gives way to acceptance, catharsis, urgency, a will to bear the weight of pain—and those tones imbue the entire text, which makes me wonder if Miaojin ever did try to fight back. A disclaimer states that we may read the letters in any order, which has the effect of styling them as separate entities in their own indistinct, isolated white-envelope vacua. They are mainly in chronological order, and they do follow a narrative-like progression, but they are so packed with emoting and philosophizing that the concrete details hardly matter. (I read them in the order they were printed in; otherwise, I would have gotten lazy and procrastinated and saved the longer letters for last.) If the text is any indication, she had her heart broken by multiple partners, some of whom alternate sex and gender throughout the epistles. The distance between Paris and Taipei and the death of a pet rabbit add complications. Miaojin’s pining for her lost loves may be dismissed as obsessive, and one does wonder how the addressees reacted or would react to these confessions. But that isn’t fair. Is it so easy to get over heartbreak? Is it not appropriate to respond to and release heartbreak through art? Can it not exacerbate depression?

What is there that I can write about this book? The way my Aspergerian mind functions is: I think visually, and concrete visuals stick out in my mind best. I need more time to register abstract texts such as this one, not just so I can manifest their ideas in tangible (if super-complex) mental images but also so I can remember them more clearly and appreciate them more. There is some tremendous prose here on casual encounters and on places such as Marais and Clichy, and some terse but provocative analyses of works of art that Miaojin sought inspiration from. (She shares my total adoration of the films of Theo Angelopoulos. If only she had lived to see his Eternity and a Day, and to see him win the Palme d’Or for it!) But mostly, this is a document of volatile emotions, which are not easy to trace and not easy to know—in the sense that one feels language is not enough for Miaojin to express herself. Her words, pure and abundant as they are, cannot keep up with her constantly fluctuating feelings, and she and the reader become dislocated in time. Sequences of events running from A to B matter little. Suicide was her means of escape from Heidegger’s house of language, and also from time. Nonetheless—this is a book I need more time with than this fifty-books-a-year challenge may permit, since I’d like to discover more connections between the nuances of Miaojin’s diction and the assumptions I have just drawn. (Look at the repetitions, the unhooked clauses, and the fusillade of disjointed adjectives in the excerpt above.) What I can be certain of right now at this very raw hour is that Miaojin dealt with her despondency in destructive ways—such as suicide and other behaviors that may have concerned her addressees—yet she also did so in productive ways—such as writing these epistles. The two are distinct but linked and cannot be unlinked. They amount to a blunt report from a deep abyss, which is beyond my criticism. But take my word for it: you should read this.

Grade: No. I cannot sully this book by assigning it a grade.

Next week: Another text based on real life and dealing with the suicide of a writer: Carlos Fuentes’ The Old Gringo, a spin on the life of Ambrose Bierce.

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Three: “Last Words from Montmartre” by Qiu Miaojin

31 Days of Cinema, Day Nineteen: “Lore”

Two days after watching Aguirre—a German film made on the outside, I felt vindicated in watching Lore—a German film made by an outsider, Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland. It’s refreshing to have an outside commentary; an exclusively local perspective risks too much bias. Lore takes as its subject the Holocaust, with which modern-day Germany is still wrangling, and the Allies’ subsequent denazification of the nation, which is rarely studied. There are some perceptions of the Holocaust as an isolated, uncanny outburst of psychopathy, and others of it as a careful exploitation of military industry to facilitate genocide, with much historical precedent. The latter has more truth to it than the former. Lore takes an even more daring—and, in my mind, more accurate—point-of-view: that most Germans of the era were enamored with and confident in Nazism to the extent that they adored Hitler and were willing to trust his prejudice against the Jews, the Roma and the rest, and to ignore if not support whatever he was up to with them. Crucial to this portrayal of modern history’s greatest catastrophe is the focus on children who grew up knowing and cherishing only Nazism, and who faced a most agonizing coming-of-age in the years following World War Two.

The English word “lore” refers to fictive legend, oral education, myth of perhaps national proportion, hereditary distortion. The pun is valid, but the title Lore is really a German female name (pronounced like “Laura”) belonging to the protagonist, played with neither fear nor flaw by Saskia Rosendahl. The film introduces her taking a bath in her spacious Black Forest home, counting along as her little sister Liesel (Nele Trebs) plays hopscotch outside. There is a playful naïveté to Lore’s youth, but also a classically paradoxical sexual component. The film makes no secret of Lore’s beauty; the sight of her rising from the bathtub and moving to the window has a troubling allure, erotic but not vulgar. You can tell that this is a feminine perspective in how it uses the female body and sex to gain attention, not to titillate but rather to perturb and provoke thought—for Lore is foremost a beauty in the Aryan sense. There’s a term out there called “body fascism,” which I find redundant. Nazism at its core was always about the perfection of the Nordic anatomy—its physique and its genes—and the ugliness of all other figures, and it was as much about the propagation of the Aryan race as it was about wiping out Judaism. You don’t believe me? Do some research on Lebensborn and Leni Riefenstahl.

Shortland has thus made a very moral, very ingenious choice in making Lore’s coming-of-age tale a mainly sexual one, and in challenging her adolescent romanticizing of Nazism with a mature erotic conflict. Abandoned by their parents, she, Liesel and their little twin brothers Günther and Jürgen (André Frid and Mika Seidel) flee Allied persecution and head north on foot to Jutland, to their grandmother’s house. They obtain a guide through the wilderness in Thomas (Kai Malina, subtle and unsentimental), a Jew and a concentration camp escapee who knows a thing or two about survival. The sexual attraction between Lore and Thomas—buttressed by them being young and alone in the middle of rural Bavaria—is underscored by their sociopolitical and racial convictions. Lore’s taunting of Thomas’ Judaism comes off less as genuine Nazism than as a girl in a schoolyard feigning open disgust at a boy she’s crushing on, so as not to embarrass herself in front of her chums, or maybe so as to deploy a half-sane reverse psychology. Meanwhile, the kids take a liking to Thomas and decide not to take his merciful assistance of them for granted. They are still quite young, open to influence and to new horizons, not as hardened to right-wing philosophy and urban creature comforts as Lore is. The film reminded me of another Australian film, Walkabout, in which a teen girl and her little brother are stranded in the Outback and depend on an Aborigine youth to survive. There is a sexual interest between the Aborigine and the girl that goes unfulfilled because of cultural disassociation, and the boy has less difficulty adapting to the desert than his sister. But that film is overrated, ruined by a style-over-substance approach and lazy characterizations. Lore is a massive improvement.

I’m slowly putting together a long-form literary project—a satire that plays on the sexual connotation of Nazism—and Lore was an invaluable source of research, but besides that, it’s great art. We pity the title character for her constricted worldview, but we understand that she must go through hell if she is to be saved from it. Several passages stand out in her journey: her pawning of gewgaws for food; her and Thomas’ intense, multi-dimensional encounter with a predatory oarsman; her obsession with a figurine of a deer, a classic symbol of innocence lost (recall Bambi, made in 1942); her tragic run-in with Soviet soldiers; her unspoken reaction to a stunning revelation about Thomas. Denazification is seen taking shape at intermittent moments. The Allies post photos of Jewish mass graves across the countryside for all to see, and German bit roles debate whether they are authentic. At that, bear in mind: if the Nazis did hate the Jews so much, wouldn’t genocide be a logical conclusion? Did they not? Was it not? Bravely, Lore makes no blunt effort to condemn Nazism. That is the right approach. There are no clichés, no platitudes, no judgments, no maudlin manipulations. The film trusts its images to speak for themselves, and the audience to have the moral aptitude to recognize that Lore’s half-assed Nazism holds no water against her childish, even primal, emotional and physical reliance on Thomas. Shortland has only one other film to her credit: Somersault. I am now quite eager to see it. Of all the films I will have watched this month, Lore will likely go down as my favorite.

Grade: A+

To Do: No longer any use bothering to predict what I’m going to do tomorrow, since at the rate I’m going, if I say I’ll do it tomorrow, I probably won’t. All things considered, Lore was a strong enough film to earn its own entry. I owe my readers reviews of Memories of Underdevelopment, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums and Nostalghia. On that note, I’m off to watch Eternity and a Day.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Nineteen: “Lore”