“Final Departure” by Steve Pickens— A Bad Day

final departure

Pickens, Steve. “Final Departure”, Bold Strokes Books, 2016.

A Bad Day

Amos Lassen

It was a really bad Seattle day for Jake Finnigan and it got even worse when the body of Susan Clark, a notorious tabloid reporter was found in the trunk of her car. That car was on the ferry where Jake works.

Crane is bound, gagged, and has a bullet hole in her forehead yet her death was ruled a suicide. Jake is sure that there was a cover-up and he soon finds himself involved in the investigation and this does not sit well with his partner, Sam O’Conner. Jake and Sam learn about Crane’s blackmailing schemes and as they do the list of suspects keeps growing. They understand that they might just be in danger now to. There are suspects and many different motives to off Crane and there was probably evidence in the trunk of the car. The question is why is everything not being covered.

When the story opens we meet Jake at work on the ferry. He goes home to wait for Sam who is returning home from abroad. Jake really wants to investigate the murder but he still has memories of the unsolved murder of a good friend and these haunt him. Sam gets home and he learns of what happened and he enlists some friends to try to figure out what really happened. Alex is a friend who has keep things to himself lately. Jake has a strange feeling and he is determined to find out whatever he can. Of course, by nature of Susan Crane’s profession, there are probably many who did not want her to live.

Jake and Sam know that they are being stalked and followed. Suspense had already taking over and I found myself reading very quickly and turning pages as fast as I could. I am really not much of a mystery reader but this one with its vibrant characters really pulled me in. When a book makes me uncomfortable that means it works and that is exactly what happens here. This is the first book that I have read by Steve Pickens but I know it is not the last.

“Black Deutschland” by Darryl Pinckney

black deutschland

Pinckney, Darryl. “Black Deutschland: A Novel”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

Berlin— Modern and Decadent

Amos Lassen

Jed Goodfinch is young, gay, Black, out of rehab and far away from good prospects in his hometown of Chicago. He decides to leave and runs to his city of fantasy, Berlin, noted for modernism and decadence: Berlin. Berlin, we know is a city that had become a paradise that came into being as a result of the tyranny that created it. Then Berlin was isolated behind the Berlin wall and this was the place that Jed had chosen to become a black American expatriate. He goes to Berlin to find boys and to run away from being a black male in America. What Jed does not realize is that it is not possible to run away from problems.

As author Darryl Pinckney tells us, “the past never stays past even in faraway Berlin”. Jed remembers “the judgment of the cousin he grew up with and her husband’s bourgeois German family, the lure of white wine in a down-and-out bar, a gang of racists looking for a brawl, or the ravaged visage of Rock Hudson flashing behind the face of every white boy he desperately longs for”. Jed was looking for adulthood as he finds himself among the marginalized— “the outcasts and expats, intellectuals and artists, queers and misfits”. It is the age of Ronald Reagan and AIDS. Jed’s life has been influenced by the writings of Christopher Isherwood and he sees Berlin as a site of intellectual and sexual liberation. He compares himself to “most American queers in West Berlin, I was in love with Weimar culture.” He is in his 20s and a lover of architecture. He has come to Berlin to work as well, he has a job with N.I. Rosen-Montag, a famous and controversial architect on a “back-to-the-eighteenth-century-scale crusade.”

However that falls through and Jed stays in Berlin with his “cadre of fellow expatriates, part- and full-time lovers, and family—a second cousin, Cello, who embodies Berlin’s “traditional high culture”—to rely on (or not)”. He makes occasional trips back to Chicago, where his family is involved in black society and politics while in Berlin, Jed is “that black American expatriate.” In Chicago, however, he’s a social problem. Jed says that, “I wanted to live where authority had little interest in black men.” Jed is a lost young man of the black upper-middle class and like other Blacks who left this country, Jed finds the escape to Europe less than wonderful.

At work, Jed is treated as “exotic” yet he has to deal with his cousin, Cello, a once-promising concert pianist who married to a wealthy German industrialist. She has made herself a member of the cultural aspects of Berlin and views her younger cousin as a project that she must help to save him from drinking and the boys. She lets him sleep in her maid’s quarters and he thinks that she has told her children to stay away from him.

We learn that Cello’s father lost his mind during the civil rights movement and that Jed’s mother forced her into becoming a “Negro Achiever”. Dram, Cello’s husband found cocaine in Jed’s bathroom and tells him to leave the house. Jed goes back to Chicago to think things out and then the book goes back and forth between Berlin and Chicago and between past and present. We realize that we are in the midst of a family tragedy. In the chapters about Chicago, we see American racism. We learn more and more about Jed’s mother and how she was an activist in the civil rights movement and that she was a woman who demanded excellence from her sons. Jed’s father published a Black community newspaper that is heading toward obsolesce.

Jed knows that he has disappointed his parents by his drinking and coming to represent what others stereotypically thought about Black men. His parents’ home had become something of a collection place for information about civil rights. Returning to Berlin, Jed had his fantasies about the place. He joins a left-wing co-op near the Berlin Wall, where his lack of knowledge about Marxist theory was not problematic.

Jed’s search for the fulfillment of a desire in the present is the overall thrust of the novel. Eventually Berlin becomes for him what he always wanted it to be. This is Jed’s story of how he constructed himself. He began as an outsider whose past was sad indeed and his future also seems to be that way. Above all else, we see “the survival of the intellect”. This is a beautifully written story and it asks questions. Berlin is a perfect setting for Jed’s self-construction and we are lucky enough to be able to read about it.

“EVERY FACE HAS A NAME”— Approaching Freedom

every face poster

“Every Face Has a Name”

Approaching Freedom

Amos Lassen

In “Every Face Has A Name”, director Magnus Gertten tracks down and interviews survivors from German concentration camps seen in a 35mm archival film reel showing their arrival at the harbor of Malmo, Sweden on April 28, 1945. The group includes Jews from all over Europe, Norwegian prisoners of war, Polish mothers and children, members of the French resistance, British spies, as well as a young Italian-American accused of being a spy. We see personal reactions that are powerful and moving.


Many documentaries start with taking on a big challenge and that is certainly true of “ Every Face Has a Name”. Director Gertten was fascinated and obsessed by a film reel showing war survivors arriving in the harbor of Malmö, Sweden, the 28th of April, 1945. He wanted to know how many of the anonymous faces is it possible to identify 70 years later?

His team at Auto Images had been researching this historic footage since 2008. They’ve identified and put names to approximately 60 out of the several hundreds of survivors from the German concentration camps that are visible in the archive footage. Several of them are surprisingly still alive. Nine of them actually ended up being main characters in “Every Face Has a Name”.


This documentary has an obvious humanistic mission. The people in the archive footage are not just anonymous victims. They are real people with names like all of us. The film, an almost ceremonial way, gives back the names to many of the survivors who arrived to Malmö, Sweden in 1945. Today we see thousands of war refugees arriving in various places and to a certain extent, they can be compared to the refugees after the second World War.

This film brings the audience close to the characters on the screen and it does so through emotionally strong interviews. The film combines the emotional power in the portraits of people with a concept based on an exploration of a 35 mm film reel from 1945. The goal here was to make the film reel one of the main characters in the documentary and sophisticated editing, high end technology, a new 4k scan, have revealed new details and helped create ”new scenes” in the archive footage.


“Every Face Has A Name” is about one specific day and the complicated moment of freedom. Prominent here is the shocking story of Elsie Ragusin, a now-93-year-old Roman Catholic who lives in Orlando, Florida. She is the only Italian-American to survive Auschwitz, she went with her father to visit relatives in their home country in 1939 and they became stuck there when Italy entered the war in 1941. hey were soon arrested by Germans who accused them of espionage.

New York-based brother-sister duo Bernhard Kempler and Anita Lobel relate their remarkable survival tale with a surprising lack of sentiment. Bernhard was 9 years old when he came to Malmo, having remained alive during the war by dressing as a girl. He and older sister Anita were sent away from Krakow by their parents and spent the war years together. Using false identities, they constantly escaped and hid. When they were finally reunited with their parents in Sweden in 1947, Bernhard recalls that he felt no emotion, only the feeling they he didn’t want to be looked at.


In contrast to this is former Norwegian POW Svenn Martinsen who was obviously moved by the images of his 23-year-old self as he disembarked in Malmo after two-and-a-half years in captivity. He recalls cognitive dissonance he felt and was not able to believe that this was freedom at last. He talks about recounts being at a camp outside Hamburg where the SS were performing experiments on Jewish children. The Norwegians had already hatched a plan with the Swedish Red Cross to rescue the kids, but before it could be carried out, the youngsters were murdered.

The interviewees give provide important context for the images in the archival footage, and it is extremely moving to watch as they identify mothers and friends. Fredzia Marmur describes the Red Cross parcels that the refugee women and girls are clutching. The archival footage includes many scenes inside open-air showers and sanitation tents where the women wash, dispose of their clothing and are examined by medical personnel. None of the interviewees mention the contrast with the “showers” awaiting arrivals at the extermination camps.


Gertten’s attempt to give a comparison with today’s global war-refugee situation does not really satisfy but there is so much other important information here and we can let that slide. The faces we see in the archival footage are emaciated, desperate and both confused and joyful. We can only wonder who these people are. We see about 2,000 faces filing by on grainy film as they disembark from a boat in Sweden in April, 1945. They have just been released from concentration camps and do not know what will happen next.

Gertten studied the passenger lists from this day and tracked down some of the survivors. Then he brought them the archived footage so they can find their faces on that fateful day. Fredzia Marmur of Lodz exclaims, “Oh that was me!”. “That’s me!” she repeats – as if to convince herself. Elsie Ragusin of Orlando, Florida yells,“Oh my goodness. That’s me over there.” “Can this be true?” “I remember this moment very well. I do…” says Svenn Martinsen who recognizes himself by his haircut and tipped cap. He also remembers the children he was trying to smuggle to freedom on that ship, and how he couldn’t get to them before the SS.


This is a heartbreaking and spine-tingling documentary and the moments of recognition are wonderful. There is such joy and grief in these older faces watching their younger selves. That alone makes this an important film.

“Meant to Be: A Memoir” by Rabbi Marvin Hier— Quite a Life

meant to be

Hier, Marvin. “Meant to Be: A Memoir”, Toby Press, 2016.

Quite a Life

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Marvin Hier has led quite a life and he shares it with us in his newly published memoir, “Meant to Be”. He shows how instinct, nerve and chance come together bringing the result of remarkable achievements and that everything in life is, indeed, meant to be.

Rabbi Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. He was raised as a yeshiva boy from New York’s Lower East Side and is now one of the world’s most influential Jews. With style, grace and wit, he shares are about “things that happened to him or to others, stories that he has handy for any occasion, stories from the Bible that move his soul, stories that help him land a big donor or a movie star, and, his favorite type, stories that make him laugh”. Hier says that the reason Jews have survived nearly three thousand five hundred years of persecution and turmoil is because we can laugh even when terrible things are happening around us, even when circumstances are the worst imaginable.

His first meeting with Frank Sinatra was in the late-1970s. At the time, his plans for a Holocaust museum were just an idea. Sinatra offered to help, because he felt a kinship with the Jewish community and he called himself only an “honorary member of the Jewish tribe”. Sinatra reached out to his Jewish neighbor, Danny Schwartz and asked him to bring along his “Jewish telephone directory.” This is one of the many stories in the book that leads to a series of other events and meetings that invariably brought about good things. Most of the stories are connected to people — Hollywood stars, world leaders or major donors and quirky characters including funny rabbis and even janitors.

Perhaps the strangest story is the one about Hier’s mission to honor the victims of the Holocaust. It started simply enough during a family outing to the La Brea Tar Pits in the summer of 1977. Hier overheard little girl asking a tour guide if dinosaurs would come back to earth one day. When the guide answered here that the earth’s changing climate conditions prevented dinosaurs from returning, something stuck with Heir. He thought about “human creatures, whose time on earth is dependent as much on political conditions as environmental ones.” He wondered if a political climate can ever return a Hitler to power. He also wondered about those who go to visit La Brea are learn about the fossil there actually know anything about what happened in this world in 1930s and ’40s. What America needed, he surmised was a major Holocaust education center like Israel’s Yad Vashem to teach the story of the murder of six million Jews. What wasn’t there one?

One Shabbat, he retold the story and his idea of a Holocaust center with his lifelong partner, his wife, Malkie who encouraged him to find a way to develop one. That dinner was the beginning of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance, both of which have made Heir a universal name.

Hier’s career began as a successful pulpit rabbi in Canada for ten years then to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. He had no inkling that he would be involved with fighting anti-Semitism or become involved with the Holocaust. His life included starting a yeshiva for post-high school students of all backgrounds and denominations and contribute so that “the unbroken chain of Torah study that had sustained Jews over the centuries” would continue. He managed to form a relationship with Yeshiva University of New York, one of the oldest Jewish educational institutions in America and thus gave his new yeshiva instant credibility. With help, he bought an empty building on Pico Boulevard and began his new life in Los Angeles immersed in Jewish education.

It’s while Hier was building his new yeshiva that he made that visit to the Tar Pits that led him to think about building a Holocaust center. From then on, Jewish education and Holocaust remembrance became his two consuming passions. Just two months after the yeshiva opened in late 1977, the Simon Wiesenthal Center opened inside the yeshiva’s west wing. Heir convinced Wiesenthal, the pursuer of Nazi war criminals, to agree to have his name on the center. The Wiesenthal name helped put Hier’s Holocaust center on the map much like the way his association with Yeshiva University did for his yeshiva. As they both took off at the same time Heir’s life as an international leader around Holocaust remembrance and fighting anti-Semitism, and as a local leader in Orthodox Jewish education in Los Angeles, first with the yeshiva and then with its successor high school, Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA), which he led until 2005.  We see Hier’s two sides— the storyteller who wants to change the world and dreams about keeping the memory and lesson of the Holocaust alive and the yeshiva boy who stays loyal to his Jewish roots and dreams of keeping the flame of Torah alive with the Jews of his community.

The yeshiva boy drives the storyteller in a way that always comes back to help the Jewish people and it is the yeshiva boy that feeds his faith that, in the end, everything will come out for the good. Heir tells us that , “I have always held firm to that deceptively simple idea [of faith]. I have always believed that no matter how many people try to extinguish the flame of the Jewish people, they will never succeed, because the irrevocable covenant God made with Abraham will always produce unexpected helpers and new circumstances to rekindle it”. He also says that he has always believed in miracles, both ancient as in the splitting of the Red Sea and modern as in the creation of the State of Israel.

Looking at the Holocaust and showing how Jews died and how Jews are hated does not teach Jews how to live. Jewish education does that. The covenant of Abraham demands that every Jew stand guard, engage with the world, and contribute to it, despite challenges and that is exactly what Rabbi Heir has done.

As time passed, Heir realized that it is not enough to teach the world about the Holocaust. He felt that he needed to make the Holocaust more relevant, more universal and decided to broaden the scope of the museum to promote the value of tolerance. Hier and his team raised money for a new place that would join the events that took place between 1933 and 1945 to post-Holocaust history that is filled with examples of atrocities as a result racism and hatred. We wanted both to teach the story of the Holocaust and to apply its lessons to the present and this came about the Museum of Tolerance.

Wiesenthal felt that Jews needed friends and allies to conquer hatred and so non-Jews are also part of the museum. In 1993 the then mayor of Jerusalem, the late Teddy Kollek changed Hier’s life once again by asking him to build a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem and it is scheduled to open in 2017. While this is Heir’s memoir it also a memoir about all those who have helped him to achieve his goals.

Ben is the new Spartacus Ambassador

spartacus header


Ben is the new Spartacus Ambassador

The international travel guide for gay and bisexual men: the Spartacus International Gay Guide, now in its 45 year, offers tourists not only a worldwide list of bars, hotels, saunas, beaches and self-help groups but also provides an overview of the applicable laws on homosexuality around the world.

For the 26-year-old Ben the classic among the gay travel guides already had a special significance for him as teenager: when he discovered and bought his first copy of the Spartacus in his home town of Villingen-Schwenningen it was an important step in his coming-out.

Today he is the face on the new edition of the Spartacus. Ben travels a lot and enjoys being on the move. Even the love of his life: his Irish partner, he met on Mykonos. Those who travel around so much in the world are also often asked for travel tips from their circle of friends. “With friends I sometimes feel like I am myself an international gay guide,” says Ben. “Spartacus suits me.”The Spartacus International Gay Guide 2016 is published by Bruno Gmünder and offers on 970 pages around 21,000 useful listings: from bars and hotels as well as saunas to trendy shops in over 135 countries. All the tips, where gay and bisexual men can feel at home on their travels were researched and updated.

“THE PERFECT CRIME”— Leopold, Loeb, Morality and Capital Punishment

the perfect crime

“The Perfect Crime”

Leopold, Loeb, Morality and Capital Punishment

Amos Lassen

“The Perfect Crime” is a documentary about Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two wealthy college students who murdered a 14-year-old boy in 1924 to prove they were smart enough to get away with it. Their trial, with famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Cook County Prosecutor Robert Crowe debated the death penalty and thousands of commentators weighed in from the sidelines setting off a national debate about morality and capital punishment.

When Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb confessed to the brutal murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, the story made headlines across the country. The unlikely killers not only admitted their guilt, but also bragged that they had committed the crime simply for the thrill of it. The sensational case unfolded during the summer of 1924. The question of motive would be turned over and over again, and what first seemed like a simple matter of evil gradually would give way to a complex assessment of the murderers’ minds, and a searing indictment of the forces that had shaped them.


The naked body of Bobby Franks was discovered in a drainage pipe in a remote area southeast of Chicago in the spring of 1924. Police had few clues. There was -only a pair of eyeglasses found near the body and a cruel ransom note sent to Frank’s parents after Bobby was already dead.

Investigators soon traced the glasses to 19-year old Nathan Leopold, a bookish and socially awkward birdwatcher who planned to apply to Harvard Law School. When questioned by police, Leopold said he had no knowledge of the crime. On the night of the murder he had been with his friend Richard Loeb. The police in turn questioned 18-year old Richard Loeb, the handsome son of a wealthy Sears and Roebuck vice president; he corroborated Leopold’s story.

However, it did not take long for investigators to find evidence discrediting the boys’ alibi and to match the lettering on the ransom note to Nathan Leopold’s typewriter. Ultimately, the boys admitted their guilt, and in a very strange turn of events, they took police on an eerie and macabre tour of Chicago, coldly describing how they planned and executed the murder step by step. They lured the boy into a car they had rented under an assumed name and bludgeoned him to death. This was all part of an elaborate scheme that the two had devised to get away with “the perfect crime”. Richard Loeb was a fan of true crime and pulp detective fiction. He came up with the plan and recruited Leopold to help. Nathan Leopold wanted more than just friendship from Richard naturally agreed to cooperate but only after Loeb consented to provide sexual favors in exchange for Nathan’s assistance. Their justification came from them declaring themselves Nietzschean supermen, superior beings who stood above the pedestrian morals of right and wrong.


Robert Crowe, the State’s Attorney in charge of prosecuting the case, immediately demanded the death penalty for the cold-blooded murders. Clarence Darrow, who had been hired by the families to defend Leopold and Loeb faced a nearly impossible task — to save the lives of two remorseless killers who had brazenly and publicly admitted their guilt. Darrow was a staunch opponent of capital punishment and saw the high-profile case as an opportunity to take a stand against what he saw as an inhumane and primitive punishment.

As preparations for the court case began, the boys’ seemingly unfathomable crime brought about a rash of national worry over the perils of modern life. Commentators worried that the Roaring Twenties had unleashed an amoral anarchism among America’s youth. From the pulpit, pastors condemned the “godless philosophy” of Nietzsche and preached about the turning away from religion that America was experiencing then. Even higher education shared the blame as a contributing factor to the moral decay and dangerous precociousness of juveniles like Leopold and Loeb.

As Darrow prepared his defense, he engaged the nation’s top psychologists and doctors, who examined Leopold and Loeb at length and determined they suffered from a plethora of ills and problems ranging from dysfunctional endocrine glands to psychological imbalances. Using the results of these tests, Darrow decided to use a bold courtroom strategy to save the boys’ lives. He changed their plea to guilty and this did away with the risky prospect of a jury trial and moved the court proceedings directly to the sentencing phase. Darrow then presented the medical and psychological reports he had gathered as mitigating circumstances, hoping the evidence would convince the judge to send the boys to prison rather than to death.


In an epic closing argument, Darrow’s closing argument went on for three days and he spoke extemporaneously and implored the judge to spare the boy’s lives and used the very public platform of the sensational court case to make an impassioned argument against the death penalty. Newspapers, which had been following the courtroom proceedings throughout the summer, published transcripts of Darrow’s closing argument word for word, and the eloquence of his plea reportedly brought many in the courtroom to tears including Richard Loeb.

After deliberating for over a week, the judge sentenced Leopold and Loeb to life, plus 99 years and cited their young ages as the determining factor in his ruling. Darrow had successfully kept his clients from the gallows and they were still defiant and unremorseful when they were sent to Joliet Prison to begin their terms.

The case would continue to fascinate the public for years to come — spawning books and movies including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and “Strangers on a Train” and Myer Levin’s fictionalized account “Compulsion” and the movie with the same name (and there were others). Richard Loeb was killed in prison in 1936, murdered by a fellow inmate who claimed Loeb had made unwanted sexual advances on him.


It was a time of unease for middle-aged Middle Americans. They were worried about their sons and daughters and what were regarded as weird music and scanty clothing as well as the way the super-rich were getting away with everything.

The headlines told of the strange case of teenagers, convicted killers, who got off easy through their lawyer’s novel defense and that the boys were victims of affluent parents who hadn’t taught them right from wrong.


Sounds like today, but it was actually 1924, when two 19-year-olds, both from wealthy Jewish families in Chicago, committed a horrendous crime but avoided death thanks to a novel defense by their famous lawyer. Both Leopold and Loeb, raised by governesses in the lap of luxury, came to visualize themselves as incarnations of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Ubermenschen” and as supermen they were too brilliant and exceptional to be bound by neither law nor morality.

Bobby Franks was a second cousin of Loeb. They brought him into their car, first killing him with a chisel and pouring acid over his face and body to obscure distinguishing marks and then finally stuffing the corpse into a culvert. After confessing, Leopold compared his deed to an entomologist dissecting an insect for further study. At the trial, the two defendants, elegantly dressed, were unrepentant, smiling and smirking. The death penalty seemed inevitable and at one point in the trial when the prosecution hinted that the defendants had sexually molested Franks before killing him, the judge, John Caverly, ordered all female reporters to leave the court room so as not to soil their delicate ears even with the word “moron” or “sex moron” was frequently substituted for “homosexual” at the time.


Desperate, the parents of Leopold and Loeb hired Clarence Darrow, the country’s top criminal lawyer and an ardent opponent of the death penalty, to defend their sons and to spare them from hanging.Surprisingly, in an era of rampant anti-Semitism fueled by the Ku Klux Klan and Henry Ford, the defendants’ Jewishness, accompanied by their arrogance, was rarely mentioned in reports of the trial. Cathleen O’Connell, the producer and director of this documentary, has stated that she and her staff spent much time checking coverage of the trial in the general and Jewish media and found hardly any allusions to the defendants’ ethnicity and religion.

However, she did come across one article in the Chicago Tribune quoting a Jewish “spokesman” as observing that Loeb and Leopold’s crime was due to their neglect of Judaism. One explanation for this might be that their victim, was Jewish himself, even though his parents had converted to Christian Science. What made research difficult for the documentary was the absence of any newsreel coverage of the trial, and the judge, believing the testimony would be too salacious for the general public, aborted any radio broadcasts of the trial. Nathan Leopold was granted parole in 1958 and died in 1971.

I cannot help comparing this case to that of Ethan Couch in June, 2013. Couch, an inebriated 16-year-old Texan, was speeding and driving illegally on a restricted license when he slammed into a group of people standing on the side of the road. Four died; nine were injured, including two of Couch’s passengers, who were seriously hurt.


The case became a topic of national conversation because, despite the severity of his crime, he got off with a slap on the wrist thanks to a unique defense: “affluenza.” A psychologist testified that Couch didn’t understand the consequences of his actions because his parents taught him wealth buys privilege. Somehow, despite killing four people and testing positive for alcohol and drugs, he was sentenced to just rehab and probation. (Couch has again been in the news for fleeing the country; he was found in Puerto Vallarta Mexico with his mother and the two were partying. He’s currently at a juvenile facility in Texas.)

The very light sentence proved his parents correct in a way: wealth has its privileges, such as the ability to hire powerful lawyers who dream up creative defenses. The names Leopold and Loeb live on, but for most people, what they did has become part of history.

The film is part of the PBS American Experience series.

“CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR”— A Mysterious Sleeping Sickness

cemetery of splendor

“Cemetery of Splendour” (“Rak ti Khon Kaen”)

A Mysterious Sleeping Sickness

Amos Lassen

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Cemetery of Splendour” is set in a very small area of Thailand, Khon Kaen where a sleeping sickness is affecting soldiers. Many have been laid up in a makeshift hospital and are never awake. Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), a middle-aged housewife with an American husband and one leg shorter than the other, turns up at the hospital to volunteer, recalling immediately that this former school is the one she herself used to attend. She’s quick to befriend Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a medium and possible FBI agent able to tap into what the slumbering inmates are dreaming, and makes one soldier, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), into the son she never had, remarking even at the outset that she feels like the two of them are synchronizing. Itt is somehow able to stay awake for relatively longer periods of them than anyone else.


Not only is the plot of this film unconventional, it looks at a subject that has not been explored before (at least to my knowledge). It is filmed in which the shots are steady, with no movement and that go on for a relatively long periods of time (minutes wise). For example, we see Jenjira rubbing alcohol on Itt’s chest for about two minutes during which the camera does not move. The camera did move once when Jenjira began to fall into her own dream and then again at the end of the film and as far as I can tell those are the only two times. (at least that is how I saw it). As to what this movie means, I believe it is open to interpretation. I found that when it was over, I was not sure what I had seen and then I began to think about it and I had several ideas but because I saw it alone I had no one to discuss it with.


Aside from what I have already stated, very little happens aside from Jenjira feeling some affection for Itt who often falls asleep in mid-conversation. The soldier are being treated with a new technique that uses a hypnotic looking neon light therapy, that claims to ease the suffering of the patients, affecting their dreams in a positive way. There are a lot of conversations that seem to be about nothing in particular—just simple realities of life. The second half of the film is surrealistic as Jenjira falls into a dream-like journey of her own and it seems to me that this journey is a symbolic representation of sleep and the world of dreaming.


Jen’s psychic friend Keng offers to help her talk to Itt while he is asleep and Jen goes through a sort of spiritual awakening as the events of the movie become increasingly strange. We suddenly see people sitting on chairs at a park, then getting up and switching chairs with other people like a game of musical chairs. What is really interesting is that everyone who sees it will have a different understanding of it.

When Keng talks to Jenjira via Itt, she leads her into a lightly forested area where Keng speaks of Itt’s former life, mentioning royalty and prince’s chambers. While they walk through this area, we see proverbs hanging on trees that provide great wisdom; one saying something along the lines of “when you offend you want forgiveness, but if you are offended you forget how to forgive.” I wonder if the film is trying to tell me that while asleep, it is possible to get into other spiritual dimensions, or dreams, and within them great wisdom can be found. I ask myself if I am who I think I am?


Is Jenjira dreaming? Or is what we are seeing the dream of one of the sleeping soldiers? We learn that Jenjira is disabled and has one leg that is ten centimeters shorter than the other. I can only wonder if this is symbolic of the uneven and often unfair nature of some dreams, and often sleep. Someone else may see something totally different.

I would not say that this is an easy film to watch but it certainly is an experience. It requires patience and there is really no story. What we do see are symbolic interpretations of the nature of sleep and dreaming, an elderly woman exploring romance, spirituality and the nature of life itself. Even with the slow pacing and the unmoving camera I was still mesmerized by this film and sucked into its symbolic imagery.


The film is totally serene and meditative putting the viewer into a hushed reverie similar the characters on screen. The film’s tender gaze is on all the myriad things one specific place was, is, and yet may be, gently and often imperceptibly shifting between past and present, legend and modernity, wakefulness and reverie. Regardless of what might lie beneath, there’s a peculiar joy achieved by peeling away the different layers.

Hospital life unfolds at a leisurely pace: bodies are washed, anti-snoring machines from America are installed, and seminars on meditation are given. The only interruptions come from the chicken and its offspring that wander in from time to time and the sound of the digger ripping through the earth outside. Weerasethakul captured the languorous ebb and flow of life in shots structured and strung together based on rhythm and instinct rather than any overt narrative concerns, each and every one is perfectly framed. The quiet routine is flecked with gentle humor and even the occasional touch of bawdiness.

c6Yet other forces soon impinge on the everyday calm. When Jen comes across two beautiful young women hawking clothes, they casually reveal themselves to be centuries-old dead Laotian goddesses. They mention in passing that an ancient cemetery lies beneath the hospital, with the kings and warriors buried there draining the sleeping soldiers of their energy so they can keep fighting their age-old wars. As Jen, Keng, and Itt grow closer, their thoughts, dreams, and eventually even bodies gradually merge, led by and suffused with all the layers of reality this place contains. This idea of progressive convergence is amplified by the deliberately hazy spatial relationships between each location, as school, lake, park, city, and temple all flow together and form a borderless dreamscape equally unburdened by temporal continuity. The neon lights by the soldiers’ beds soon cast their glow across the entire town.

Weerasethakul’s films are known for y their great tenderness, rigor, and desire to merge the straightforward with the cryptic. “Cemetery of Splendour” is one of the purest, most focused expressions of these concerns. The film seems to be making a typically indirect statement as to what film itself should be: a darkened auditorium that feels limitless, the audience standing up together to gaze at the screen, an unstoppable flow of beautifully unfathomable images and cinema is the stuff dreams are made of.

“THE SCANDALOUS FOUR”— Two Secret Affairs

the scandalous four

“The Scandalous Four”

Two Secret Affairs

Amos Lassen

Penelope is forced to marry Jonathan but there is no attraction between the two. As a matter of fact, Jonathan is more interested in spending time with the butler than with his wife. Penelope finds a way of reuniting with the love of her life and manages to hire him as the gardener. “The Scandalous Affair” is about two secret affairs in one household that soon lead to major scandalous situations.


The story begins at the start of a loveless marriage of convenience. We immediately see the obvious lack of connection between the bride and groom and this creates a painful awkwardness to which we become witness. The themes of repression and denial which were once so prevalent in the social mores are the themes of the film. The characters were entirely believable and each takes an unusual journey. We look with nostalgia as an escape from our current worries and trials.


 We have seen many movies about the redeeming power of love but the great sense of creative energy here is what makes this film work so well. We see the transformational combination of truth and love and how this really works. This is a chamber film with a small number of people who experience changes in their lives. We see their internal changes after they have accepted their differences, which by the outside world would be considered intolerable and scandalous.


The story unfolds in a way that gives insight into each individual’s struggles and dilemmas, creating a feeling of genuine care and interest for the destiny of these quirky and brave characters. We get a testimony to the free spirit that resides in all of us regardless of our gender, class or the age that we live in. Christianne Van Wijk has written a fine screenplay and Jennifer Ussi has directed quite a memorable movie.


we are twisted


Glitter Rock

Amos Lassen

For about ten years, glam rock heroes ”Twisted Sister” packed bars in New York before their eventual rise to the top. This the first film that focuses on Twisted Sister’s pre-fame and the band’s subsequent struggles. The band is truly unique in that their overnight success actually took ten years and director Andrew Horn lets us experience everything Twisted Sister went through to do it. The band is made up of ferocious and funny musicians.


As a bar band staple, Twisted Sister would play four to five nights a week and ran through multiple sets each night as they played to packed crowds. While record labels refused to touch them despite their live reputation, the band kept on pushing and refused to give up. Dee Snider was the band’s front man and he eventually took over the writing process and helped the band find success as an established and original act. He has remained steadfast that Twisted Sister exists only as himself, Jay Jay French, Mark ‘The Animal’ Mendoza now comprise the band and there have been multiple lineup changes in the past. The end of the band comes with drum legend and fellow New York native Mike Portnoy who takes over for A.J. Pero who was the original drummer but he died quite suddenly this year.


Filmmaker Horn recounts the band’s earliest days, before they would become one of the biggest heavy metal bands of the 1980s. When Twisted Sister got their big break in 1983, its aggressive sound helped sell millions of records. The band’s over-the-top live shows drew sellout crowds and its music videos defined early MTV.


Known as “the band that killed disco”, there were no overnight successes. The documentary is the never-before-told story of the 10 grueling years leading up to the band’s breakout success and this is recounted directly by its members, managers and biggest fans.


Twisted Sister recently announced it will embark on a 40th anniversary farewell tour in 2016, fittingly titled “Forty and F— It.” The unexpected death of longtime drummer A.J. Pero changes things a bit. This quintessential rock is a film that obviously speaks to Twisted’s legion of fans, but will allow a whole new audience to experience the ’70s NYC suburban rock club scene in all its sweaty, grimy, glittery glory, and what it took to become its undisputed masters.”


In the mid-1970s, Twisted Sister claimed glitter rock for their own, cross-dressing their way to headlining every club within 100 miles of New York City, from New Jersey bowling alleys to Long Island beach bars. With gigs six nights a week, they were the most successful live bar band of suburban New York, selling out 5,000-seat shows fueled by their no-holds-barred stage presence and aggressive metal set lists. But by the early ‘80s, they found themselves hugely popular with local audiences but without a national following or a record deal. When Twisted Sister finally got their big break in 1983, they’d go on to become one of the biggest glam rock bands of the decade, their over-the-top live shows drawing sell-out crowds and their music videos defining an early MTV network. This! is the mesmerizing, never-before-told story of the ten grueling years leading up to the band’s legendary career.

“Lust and Wonder: A Memoir” by Augusten Burroughs— In Love

lust and wonder

Burroughs, Augusten. “Lust & Wonder: A Memoir”, St. Martins Press, 2016.

In Love

Amos Lassen

Many authors have looked at the meaning of love in their works and everyday there are new books published on that theme. Here is Augusten Burroughs attempt to deal with love and he not only explores what it means to be in love but also what it means to be in lust and what it means to try to understand it all in this memoir.

It seems just yesterday that I first read “Running with Scissors” and got my first taste of Augusten Burroughs but it was actually 2003 and about a dozen books ago. His childhood is behind him (as much as one can put his childhood behind him) and now he is looking for love and relationship (and feel free to send him my number). As he travels the journey toward love, he gets involved in relationships that do not work. He shares this with us in his unique snarky and brutally honest way. I really love that Burroughs is man enough to admit that in searching for love, he is also searching for who he is.

The beauty of Burroughs is his vulnerability, honesty and humor. He is afraid to say what he feels. If you have read him then you know that his past was difficult and because of that he continues to question the choices he has made.

Having read of that he has published, I must say that this is his most intimate memoir in which he really discusses his personal life in all of its honesty and all of Burroughs trademark irreverence. This is certainly the most mature book that he has written and it so interesting to read what a boy has to sat about his own adulthood. His choices in life and his personal responsibility take center stage here and they propel the book forward. He also shows that he made some wrong choices in the past but he can deal with those as he goes on to make better and more mature decisions. Burroughs has developed quite a style in his writings and he manages to use opposites a great deal. I have already remarked about his snarkiness but he is also insightful and raw yet funny and witty.

In this memoir, Burroughs brings us up to date on his life and we see him here as a man who shares the truths of his inner being with us. He hides nothing. When I first began reading Augusten Burroughs I found myself languishing on his every word so reading him took a good deal longer than other writers. I still do not know why I do that but I can guess it is because I feel that every word is deliberately chosen. I can’t scan or skim Burroughs—every word is important to me and I want to believe that every word is important to him. The words come together to give pictures of the author’s thought and I am afraid I might miss something if I skip a word.

Burroughs writes with such honesty and lack of embarrassment that he makes me want to live that way but unfortunately I am not in a position to do so. Now I know it is not easy for someone to share his failures at love and it takes a brave person to admit that he was fooling himself in the area of love. He goes a step further and shares what he thinks and how he deals with the facts of his life and what happens when he faces the (actual) facts. We learn of three relationships and how Burroughs learned something from the first two so that the third will work and work for a long time. The beginning of the book is heavy reading because we read of the struggles that have recurred after he thought he had vanquished them.

The story is a conventional one. We read of Burroughs as he develops his professional life, failing and then succeeding at relationships. What makes this special is that Burroughs brings his unique sensibility to them. There’s a touch of sadness throughout as he realizes the uncertainty of never knowing whether a relationship is succeeding. He is able to deal with his past and it is his past that protects him from being defeated by his own destructive behavior. The real focus here is on relationships. The first was with Mitch that just never got going; the second one with Dennis lasted ten years and the way we read it we see the partnership but we do not see romance. Then there is THE relationship with Christopher that led to marriage. We also learn a bit more about his relationship with George that we read about in “Dry”.

The Augusten Burroughs who wrote this book is the Augusten Burroughs of “Running with Scissors” with his caustic wit, brutal honesty, and his neuroses. He lets us into soul and even though we may have not gone through the same experiences, we can empathize with him because we, like him, are human and know that this takes a little narcissism and a lot of struggling to find the relationships that we hope will complete us.

The ending leaves us feeling positive and with hope that this relationship will succeed and that we will also succeed in what we attempt. There is some advice that Augusten gives us and I thought I would leave you a few tidbits: Ask for a straw when you have something to drink, do not ask your partner what bothers him about you and observe your future partner’s dog to learn how he will treat you.