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, Days Twenty-Nine, Thirty and Thirty-One: “Yi Yi” | “Pather Panchali” | “Winter Sleep”

The opening of Yi Yi—the three-hour swansong of the late Taiwanese New Wave master Edward Yang—had me worried: the character introductions are uneven, the musical theme is saccharine. But the film quickly recovered after that. It traces one year in which a well-off Taipei family faces crises of communication, trust, maturation, and the major transitions that we like to package into things called milestones. The father, NJ (Nien-Jen Wu), heads to Tokyo to cement two relationships: one with the Japanese software developer Ota (a tender yet serious Issei Ogata)—with whom he talks in halting English, since neither knows the other’s native tongue and English is a global force—and one with an old flame, Sherry (Su-Yun Ko). His daughter, Ting-Ting, has a crush on Fatty (Pang Chang Yu), the moody boyfriend of her best friend, Lili (Meng-Chin Lin). Her little brother, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang)—no doubt named for the filmmaker—is precocious and wise for his age, a fact that the adults around him don’t appreciate as much as they should. NJ’s mother is comatose but back at home; doctor’s orders are to keep talking with her as if she were conscious to keep her uplifted in case she does wake up. The family can say anything they want to her yet can’t expect reward from it. She is a vessel for catharsis, and one of the film’s chief themes is whether environment, or at least an unconscious entity, can have a tone, an emotion.

Several scenes occur in an empty room or in a room into which innocuous action is filtered, with the central narrative developing offstage in the actors’ urgent voices. There is a disconnect between sight and sound, yet also an esteem for and an effort to capture urban space unfettered by human presence or perception—an artifact and a memory that will withstand the most pressing concerns of the mortals on its periphery. We’re always on the periphery with these characters, not allowed to get too involved, because we’ve got three hours to hustle through, yet we grow quite attached to them. The standard rituals that form life’s milestones—the wedding, the firstborn birth, the anniversary—are all on display here, but Yang does not use them as clichés, rather as defense mechanisms by which people stave off the stress of transition, insomuch that by the time of the funeral that concludes the film, they’re exhausted and have no walls left to burn. There’s some commentary on globalization—McDonald’s, Coco-Cola, the English language—and we wonder why such staples in society have to promote themselves so aggressively when we all know what they are already (to foist their power, of course, in particular over youths), yet Yang’s view of this urban global culture is always impartial, leaving the people there to set the mood. Fatty does collapse into cliché—as he becomes the mortality-obsessed teen turned homicidal—and I was disappointed in his arc. But the film ends strong, and Yang-Yang’s climactic speech is undeniable.

Grade: A-

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As with most though not all debut films, Pather Panchali—the world’s introduction to West Bengali master Satyajit Ray—has its shortcomings, though it was and is quite an auspicious debut, especially considering the immense poverty and dearth of resources that it was made under and depicts. Based on a novel by B. Bandhopadhyay, and kicking off the filmmaker’s Apu trilogy, the film chronicles the efforts of Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) to care for her two children, Apu (Subir Banerjee) and Durga (Runki Banerjee and Uma Dasgupta) and her aged cousin Indir—played by Chunibala Devi, in a performance so great, so minimalist and sexless and stoic, that I thought she was a man—in the absence of her husband Harihar (Kanu Banerjee), a poet who goes off to the city for work. Note that none of the Banerjees were related, yet their family unit is plausible throughout, so you could be forgiven for mistaking the coincidence. The story is built from vignettes that are connected perhaps a bit too loosely. There’s a contrast between the urban-industrial and the rural-pastoral that goes undeveloped; one scene set in a field of train tracks and power lines is supposed to suffice. I could have used more of that.

Granted, there is plenty of contrast between wealth and destitution, as is evidenced by Durga’s incessant impulse to steal fruits from the orchard of the family’s neighbor and (in a smattering of irony that I hope I am recalling correctly) once-landlord. And the vignettes host some truly beautiful moments: Apu’s introduction, which is constructed ominously enough to foretell a later death; the aforementioned train; an interaction with a candy vendor; a bathing scene; a play-within-the-play; a brutal monsoon; and an extended, impressionistic shot of a cow standing in the middle of ruins right after it. The photography is by Subrata Mitra, also debuting, and it is baffling that he had no experience with a camera before this. The film’s testament to innate talent over pedigree—to earning a living off artistic merit and not off playing to identifiable tropes, even while not everyone can succeed at that, much less use that to escape poverty—is thus very genuine. I hesitate to give away too much about the film, as it ends in tragedy (the monsoon is the least of it), and it is the sort of tragedy you must feel rather than be told about. Ray constructs this catastrophe with long takes, with set pieces of viscous silence and suspense, and the payoff is loud and vigorous. If there is one element that makes this film worth watching, however, it’s the music of Ravi Shankar. It doesn’t take long to see how he got famous. It’s stunning how broad an emotional range that man was able to create using just a handful of sitars and percussion. The soundtrack here is an aural feast.

Grade: A-

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The last three days of my July challenge saw me going west across Asia, from the Taiwan of Yi Yi to Ray’s India, finally ending with Winter Sleep in Turkey, on the cusp of Europe inasmuch as I was on the edge of the month, looking into an August in which I would not be burdened with thirty-one films. There is something sacred about an ending, something furtive and ethereal about having gone through a film—or a group of films—as a rite of passage, and emerging with the awareness of how it culminates. Spoilers cannot suffice for this feeling. Much of these emotions in fact were conjured by the Cappadocia depicted in this film, a borderland of modern buildings and houses carved into jagged, imbalanced, unstable towers of rock, a clash between nature and man, old and new, tradition and liberty. The most ostentatious of these constructions is an inn, the Hotel Othello, run by Aydin (the superb Haluk Bilginer), a retired actor who spends his days writing hot air for the local news (on his rare Mac laptop, no less), extracting rent from the villagers, and insisting to himself that he will start writing his history of the Turkish theatre very soon. Towards the beginning, he’s riding shotgun in a truck when an indignant kid chucks a stone at his window. The entire plot emanates from that single moment.

Adapted by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (who won the Palme d’Or for this, after several attempts) from some Chekhov stories, Sleep runs at over three hours and has been accused of wheel spinning. I disagree with that sentiment. The story uses as an axle two confrontations in its middle act—one between Aydin and his blasé sister Necla (Demet Akbag), the other between Aydin and his younger, more humane and simmering ex-wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen)—that are almost twenty minutes apiece. These scenes and others felt much more to me like real life than contrived cinema. People on different sides of a coin try to get their points across, things boil, they reach a détente and fall silent, then one of them can’t resist muttering a riposte, and the other’s passions grow inflamed, and it all starts up again and repeats itself…and so on. Tensions play out in the void between words, when words are calculated, as much as when they are spoken, and when they are, they aren’t always clear or accurately chosen or what ought to be said. Writing and acting scenes like that is a hundred times easier said than done, and Ceylan and his ensemble pull it off time and again. The effect is more hooking and exhilarating than one might think a three-hour gabfest should be. Throughout, the film shows awareness of time as a straggling process, but not without a pitch-black sense of humor. At one point, Aydin is told that his train is delayed by an hour, and that’s about how much of the film is left. Characters invoke Shakespeare and the tenets of Islam, with as much pretension as one may expect from artists and wordsmiths, yet the film is far from pretentious, as it exploits these references for irony and meta-commentary, which it earns. There is banal hunting scene, a use of English as a universal tongue similar to that in Yi Yi, and a climactic act of pure spite that nearly had me jumping from my seat. I’m with the Cannes jury here; this was a tremendous closer to the month.

Grade: A

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Well, folks, I’ve done it. Yes, it took me longer than I’d hoped to get the reviews finished, and yes, I abandoned my original schedule completely in the final days. Never mind. I watched all thirty-one films I said I’d watch, all within the month of July, and though the execution wasn’t perfect, the challenge was a success. There were a few duds and disappointments, but gratefully, there were no outright bad films in the bunch (except for maybe La Ciénaga), and I discovered five masterpieces (Eternity and a Day; Lore; In Vanda’s Room; Je, Tu, Il, Elle; and Open Your Eyes), several films that were close to, and several films that may grow on me in the coming weeks–which is more or less what I set out to do. Thanks to everyone who watched and read along, or who will watch and read along in the future. This challenge nabbed this blog its greatest number of readers yet (special thanks to the Robert Pattinson fans who recognized my approval of The Rover), and I will definitely do it again in the future (next January, perhaps) and am even contemplating making it an annual or twice-yearly tradition. I already have another list of films to get through. Furthermore, taking the effectiveness of this effort into account, I’m thinking of doing a similar challenge for literature, as God knows there are too many books that I need to read, so giving myself a concrete schedule of books just might do the trick. That’d have to be a yearlong endeavor, though, and the reading of each book would have to be drawn out to a week–two weeks, if it’s long. It’ll be more complicated. But it might be worth it, so don’t be surprised if you see a “52 Weeks of Literature” challenge springing up next year. In the meantime, I’m more satisfied than I’ve ever been to take a break from viewing films, and I’ll be glad to turn my focus back onto my Great Films reviews and other projects. Once again: thanks for reading!

31 Days of Cinema, Days Twenty-Nine, Thirty and Thirty-One: “Yi Yi” | “Pather Panchali” | “Winter Sleep”