“WHEN THE BEAT DROPS”— Bucking

“When The Beat Drops”

Bucking

Amos Lassen

When choreographer Jamal Sims learned of the underground dance movement known as ‘bucking’, he decided that it would be the subject of his first documentary as a director. That film is about a group of dancers,  and one special dancer, Big Anthony. Sims learned and explains to us that ‘bucking’ came out of female cheerleading troupes in the South and was taken over by groups of black gay men, who created this dance.  Big Anthony not only spearheaded the movement in the 1990’s in Atlanta, but he was also responsible for creating a network of competitions where the dancers could demonstrate what they do.

‘Bucking’ is flamboyant, outrageous and very showy much the way that vogueing was when it first overtook the black queer crowd in Harlem.  This kind of dancing stayed mainly underground because of the social stigma in the South of men wanting to dance like this.

Big Anthony’s own story is fascinating and touching. He suffered a setback after having been mugged in a grocery store parking lot.  Another dancer is a schoolteacher who lives in fear of being exposed as a bucking dancer and fired from his job.  Flash, another dancer, speaks openly about his struggles with his mother and her crack addition that has caused her to be incarcerated several times. We see the real and painful reality of the dancers once they leave the dance floor. It reminds us of the tough reality of all their lives away from the dance floor.

Sims takes us to the first Big Buck competition.   The standards are very high. Openly gay Sims shares his own passion for dance throughout the whole film and makes this an intriguing and important aspect of contemporary LGBT culture. The documentary uncovers an underground dance movement, bucking, which is predominant in the LGBTQ community, and which centers on a group of dancers in Atlanta, Ga., and one of the pioneers of bucking, identified as Big Anthony. “Just as vogueing was pioneered by members of the ballroom scene, bucking is thriving among displaced troupes of black gay men across the South.” Sims finds a story in the characters of his documentary, which makes this more a narrative feature than a than documentary. What we see is reality.

But this is real life, kids; not fiction. There are other edge of seat moments like when you’re placed in the midst of the first Big Buck competition, where Phi Phi battles it out with a crew from Detroit. Guess who you are rooting for until the very end.

“Beat” also turns into a historical look of the roots of bucking, even though this hyper active film never slows down to the tell the story. Bucking is a style that is fluid, sensual, and thought of as female dance. It was adopted by young, black, gay men in the South and the documentary shows the stigma that the men have internalized for wanting to perform the dance, and because of the social stereotype of the men who participate.

“VIGIL”— A Mysterious Stranger

“Vigil”

A Mysterious Stranger

Amos Lassen

Vincent Ward’s “Vigil” is the story of a stranger who appears in a remote New Zealand farmland at the exact time a farmer accidentally falls to his death. The stranger then grows close to some of the dead man s family, to the point where he and the widow become lovers. However, the widow’s eleven-year-old daughter, Toss (Fiona Kay), who is struggling to come to terms with the death of her father as well as her impending womanhood, believes him to be the devil and begins protecting her family and their homestead.

This movie is as strange as it is compelling with its switches from fantasy to reality. “Vigil” is a powerful coming-of-age tale about a young girl and it was beautifully shot in the back country by a young director. We are taken into the heart of a girl at the edge of womanhood.

The gorgeous New Zealand back-country scenery is amazing and the acting is excellent all around. I see this as a meditation on the transition from child to adult and this is a film that you do not want to miss.

SPECIAL EDITION contents include:

High Definition (Blu-ray) presentation

Original mono audio (uncompressed LPCM)

Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing

Brand-new appreciation by film critic Nick Roddick, recorded exclusively for this release

On-set report from the long-running New Zealand television program Country Calendar

Extract from a 1987 Kaleidoscope television documentary on New Zealand cinema, focusing on Vigil and Vincent Ward

Theatrical trailer

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Carmen Gray

“SMASH PALACE”— Ending a Marriage

“Smash Palace”

Ending a Marriage

Amos Lassen

Australian director Roger Donaldson’s “Smash Palace” is a revealing portrait of splitting up. Al Shaw (Bruno Lawrence), a former Grand Prix racer, married Jacqui (Anna Jemison), a schoolteacher, in Europe and returned to a small New Zealand town to run his father’s car wrecking yard. Their marriage was held together by sex and their daughter, Georgie (Greer Robson). Now after eight years, Jacqui is restless for a change. She wants her husband to sell Smash Palace, the business. Al devotes most of his time and energy to automobiles and lately has been tuning up a sports car for a competition and is renovating another for Ray (Keith Aberdein), his best friend, a policeman (and Jacqui’s lover).

When Jacqui leaves him and takes Georgie with her, Al feels violated. He kidnaps his daughter at gunpoint and takes her into the bush to celebrate her birthday. However, she gets sick and they return to town. Soon Al becomes crazed with jealousy over Jacqui’s sexual affair with Ray and gets back at both of them by holding the policeman hostage and threatening him with death.

Later, after a terrible argument with Jacqui, Al forces himself upon her in their bedroom. But the love she now seeks must include some open space to find out exactly what she is capable of becoming. Jacqui returns to teaching and finds solace in Ray’s arms.

By the end of the film, Al behaves irrationally and has been a straight-talking, direct man who enjoys working with his hands and takes a vast delight in the affections of his wife and the love of his small daughter. He is happy with his work and content to raise a family in peace and quiet. However this does not satisfy Jacqui who is going quietly stir-crazy. She begins an affair with a local cop Al, he husband’s best friend and then leaves him.

Al is jealous and rails against his wife and the cop. But, much more important, he misses his daughter and wants custody. But because he acts in ways that are violent and frightening to his wife (and because her lover is on the police force, which must respond to the domestic emergencies he creates), he works himself into a Catch-22: The more he does to take back his daughter, the closer he is to losing her. Finally, he kidnaps her. He takes her out into the woods where they live together for a time in isolation and happiness but this cannot last. All along the way, this film prefers the unexpected turns of actual human behavior to the predictable plot developments we might have expected, and, at the end, there’s a fascinating twist. 

SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS

High Definition (Blu-ray) presentation

Original mono audio (uncompressed LPCM)

Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing

Commentary by writer-director Roger Donaldson and stunt driver Steve Millen

The Making of Smash Palace, a 51-minute documentary on the film s production featuring interviews with Donaldson, actor Keith Aberdein, filmmaker Geoff Murphy and others

Theatrical trailer

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Ian Barr, a contemporary review by Pauline Kael and the original press book

“BLUE DESERT”— A Futuristic Vision from Brazil

 

“BLUE DESERT” (“Deserto Azul”)

A Futuristic Vision From Brazil

Amos Lassen

I am not even going to pretend to understand this science-fiction stunner directed by Eder Santos. To understand it might take away from sitting back, relaxing and just watching the beauty on the screen.

The movie has a lot in common with the surrealism of Salvador Dalí complete with surrealism’s often existentialist preoccupations.Santos’ vision of the future is at least partly rooted in Brazilian experience.  In the 1950s, Brazil’s government decided to unilaterally move the country into a new future, by deciding to build the country’s “new capital of the future,” Brasilia, in the center of the country which meant back then in the middle of nowhere. Brasilia was a well planned city of wide tree lined parks and boulevards but no people.  A good part of this was filmed in Brasilia and the effect remains of a future that seems to be marked by emptiness, loneliness and a fundamental search for meaning in the midst of an existence. 

We are introduced to a young Brazilian man, simply known as “ele” or “he” (Odilion Esteves) who, contemplating the new, and honestly quite absurd “second moon” explains to us that a second moon was intended to be ‘a gift’ presumably to all humanity just as ‘the statue of Christ‘ was intended to be ‘a gift’ to Rio de Janeiro / Brazil and the statue of Liberty‘ was intended to be a ‘gift’ to New York / the United States, ‘the Eiffel Tower’ was intended to be ‘a gift’ to Paris / France. This second moon was mea t to bring tranquility to humanity. However, he really doesn’t understand why we need tranquility. Ele is young, good-looking, fit, healthy but uneasy. He has everything that would seem to be important (youth, health, intelligence) and the world itself seems to be safe and free of problems such as poverty, war, disease. He however suffers from anxiety and is very lonely. In his world of the future everything seems to be done in a mediated fashion.  He rarely sees actual people, just interacts with them over various video screens.  For much of the movie, he walks in a desert that is beautiful but lonely. He eventually meets an old man who seems to have “found purpose” in his life. He carries a big tank of water-color paint on his back and sprays the desert blue.  Eventually,” he” gets invited by a friend to a party where “he” finally comes into contact with actual people who are similarly isolated through much of their day-to-day lives. He does meet someone prove to be “quite strange.”  He meets someone named Alma (Maria Luisa Mendonça)]who begins to help him find meaning in his life (as does he for her).

In an age with no memory, no truth, no religion and no sports, a young man named Ele, guided by intuitions and dreams, goes off in search of the meaning of life and existence. Revelations and mysterious symbols arise on his path through which he comes to encounter his soul mate in the Blue Desert. With plot points based on Yoko Ono’s first art book, “Grapefruit” (which inspired John Lennon to pen “Imagine”), this is a visually stunning sci-fi tale, set in the distant future against the bold architecture of Brasilia and it offers a dreamy take on new age spirituality and the physical realm.

“IMPOSTER”— Chris Esper Deals With Anxiety

“Imposter”

Chris Esper Deals  with Anxiety

Amos Lassen

Anxiety can and does strike anybody and everybody at some time. Every time I sit down to write a review, I feel a bit anxious realizing that I am writing my opinion about something that someone sweated and cried over and I want to make sure that I do their work justice. While I do not feel that I am threatened, I know that what I say will affect someone, especially the creator of what I am writing about . Reviewers have tremendous powers and they are listened to even by those who do not read reviews because there are enough people who do. In “Imposter”, we see a man at work and sense that he is having a difficult time communicating with his boss and is struggling to write and to speak up and answer his him but he is beset by anxiety.On his way home from work, the man gets on a bus, where he finds many characters who also suffer from the same disorder.

 

The Imposter Syndrome is a psychological pattern that makes people believe that they are fakes and “forces them to doubt their achievements and accomplishments.” Then there is the fear of being exposed as a con or a fake. In a short nine-minutes without dialogue, director Chris Esper shows us what it is. It is a visual representation of anxiety and from what I understand, a very personal film yet one that has something to say to everyone.

 

Esper “wowed” me with this film for several reasons but first and foremost is that he was able to do what he set out to do in less than ten minutes and with no dialogue. Three interconnected vignettes look at anxiety and the idea of the Imposter Syndrome. This theme is expounded upon early on in the form of an overworked man, Mike (Tom Mariano) is overworked and he is bothered by visions of a young boy (Brendan Meehan in a jester outfit who represents the adolescent Mike who just wants to enjoy life and have a good time.) . After his meeting he goes home on the bus gets on a bus. We then meet an follow an artist (Sheetal Kelkar) and her counterpart (Jamie Braddy) and see that both suffer from feelings of embarrassment and feeling that they are on display. We return to the bus and look at the riders and we get their private stories without hearing a word., Esper goes among the populace of the transport. It all ends in tragedy two military veterans (William DeCoff and Adam Masnyk).

Esper not only gives us social commentary but also character study and a look at and meditation on the insecurities that plague so many of us. Just think how many times you wanted to speak up but were much too anxious to do so. The intimacy of the film can also be seen on the larger more epic scale because so many of us relate to what is here. We all harbor feelings of self-doubt and it is important to understand that we are not alone.

“HOTEL SALVATION”— Life, Death and Marijuana

“Hotel Salvation” (“Mukti Bhawan”)

Life, Death and Marijuana

Amos Lassen

In many families, old people are the focus of attention. The very young crowd wants to listen to their stories and the middle-aged generation is tired of their repetitiveness. The generation closest to them wants them to live just a little bit longer for reasons even unknown to them. “Hotel Salvation” is about all of these things and none of them. The focus is death itself and it is embraced here. Dayanand (Lalit Behi) is a stubborn 76-year-old (actually 77) man. He has had visions of his childhood for quite some time and he manipulates them to be visions of his approaching death. He decides to move to Banaras (Kashi) and die in a spiritual spirit by the holy river. His working-class son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) and daughter-in-law Lata (Gitanjali Kulkarni) refuse to follow up on his wishes by questioning the very idea of how can one know that he is about to die. Even after constant persuasion, he remains rigid on his decision. Rajiv, realizing that this might possibly be the last journey in his father’s life accompanies him to the shore of the Ganga and right into Hotel Salvation.

Hotel Salvation is an old lodge on the holy river. Elderly people come here seeking salvation. There is a strict 15-day policy of leaving if death doesn’t come. It does not offer any real salvation in the name of comfort. The food has to be self-prepared and you need to make choices between watching the daily soap, reeling in bed, doing yoga or listening to the loud holy tunes that soothe the soul. Dayanand becomes friendly with a kind lady, who, as it turns out has been living here for a little over 18 years now. She thus has a new name for her soul every 15 days, as if disowning and owning a body. Rajiv is deeply tormented by his father’s will to live in such a place and he is unable to get his office work done and his daughter who is an arranged marriage keeps complaining.

The film is a sharp commentary on all the myths that surround the process of death. The essence of losing oneself before time takes him on a drifting journey to whatever lies ahead and this is explored in the film with a subtle calmness. We aren’t so consumed by the idea of death that when it comes to our loved ones, we try to stop it with chemicals and hospital visits. We do not understand the inevitability of it all. “Hotel Salvation” tells us to celebrate life and death with the same energy and serenity. At its core, is the bond between a father and a son who don’t understand each other even though they have been living under the same roof and the same house for years. Both of them try to hold each other’s hand and walk down the same path but somehow, things get lost.

 

While the film is about last goodbyes, its sole purpose is to find the peace that one’s mind needs and deserves. Bhutani doesn’t propose his characters to be sinners in any way but there are always deeply etched regrets that one lives with all through their life. Director Shubhashish Bhutani gently takes us into the soul of each person in the film. We learn their regrets, their stories, their weirdness and their lives that will be defined by their words and wisdom and nothing else.

The actors are excellent Lalit Behl is wonderful as the man who is in total acceptance of his fate. Adil Hussain is very real as the son who wants to take up the responsibility of everything that surrounds him.

David Huwiler’s cinematography is beautiful. It occasionally points to the not so substantial things in a frame, giving us a sense of belonging and an extra eye in this celebration of life and eventual death. Instead on focusing on decay, the frames mostly take us to the river or the narrow colorful lanes of Banaras for everything to settle in. The film is also beautifully scored by Tajdar Junaid, whose ukulele and use of Indian sounds give the film an extra edge of profundity.

The film sheds a spiritual light on the seemingly dark path to inevitable oblivion.  Bhutani presents a vivid sense of love, regrets, understanding and leaving things behind that we instantly lighten up. The film doesn’t just provide us with salvation, it gives our life and possible death a new meaning–one that should be left to the understanding of the conscience and nothing more than that.

As a non-Hindu looking at this story play out, I did leave with something of a naturalistic theory. I do think there’s a sincerity present that does go beyond simply the naturalistic.  It is clear that while most of the devotees who come to the town to die, do (somewhat surprisingly) do so, there are others (including one woman who becomes a fairly important character in the story) who don’t.  Plus the Hindu priest who gave the incoming Daya “two weeks to die” (or else leave) proves to be a bit more flexible with the devotees coming to the hotel than it would initially seem (he does let some clearly stay longer). 

This is a subtle family comedy-drama that anyone who has spent time with an aging parent can relate to.

“Lilli de Jong: A Novel” by Janet Benton— A Voice from the Past

Benton, Janet. “Lilli de Jong: A Novel”, Anchor Books Reprint, 2018.

A Voice from the Past

Amos Lassen

Writer Janet Benton takes us to Philadelphia in 1883 where we meet twenty-three-year-old Lilli de Jong who is pregnant and alone having been abandoned by her lover and banished from her Quaker home. She gives birth at a charity for wronged women and has planned to give up the baby. However, she bonds with the child and an unexpected future opens up. At the time of the story, unwed mothers dealt with great prejudice, yet Lilli refuses  to give up her baby girl. Instead, she faces moral condemnation and financial ruin as she struggles to keep the two of them alive.  

Lilli writes in her diary as things happen and we are with her as she does. What we see is how cruel life can be in the big city and a look at a time in our history n a mother’s milk is crucial for infant survival. The novel is a depiction of history and a tribute to a woman’s love for her child. Lilly will do whatever she has to in order to keep her child alive. What we see is the way society regard this— with sanctimony, hypocrisies, and pervasive sexism and because of these, women were confined and unequal in the Victorian era and it is not over yet. We are reminded that there are no rules or standards to become a good mother aside from the need for love.

Lilly is simply a wonderful character and that is a result of the work of author Benton who created her. From the moment I met Lilly, she drew me in and the more I read about her the more I loved her. What she does to keep her baby is amazing. The way that Benton weaves in the history as it was is also amazing and it is difficult to believe that society was once the way it was. It was not easy to live in nineteenth-century American society and it was that much more difficult as an unwed mother.

This is story of hardship, redemption, and hope and a look back at history and it forever changes the reader in the way he sees society. It was a time when the views we have today of marriage and sexuality did not exist (and had not even been thought of).

Lilli de Jong’s mother’s death a year ago changed her and her family. Her mother was a woman of strong faith and wise words, whose life was built on the ideal of compassion. Lilli wondered what her mother would think of her situation as she sits with her roommate at the Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants. She knew that had she remained home, she would have been shunned by the family, but she wondered if her mother have shown her the compassion she gave to others.

Lilli became pregnant out of love for Johan who promised himself to her, and she to him and then went looking for a life with a future. As time passes, she does not hear from Johan and her belly begins to swell. She’s thrown out of her home when she can no longer hide her pregnancy.

As we read, we feel what she feels— from the dirt and grime of Philadelphia to the self-loathing that comes by looking into her baby’s eyes, and knowing that whatever act she’s just committed has brought her one day closer to a way out. Lilli has become an object of disgust but she has a strong sense of preservation.

Now something interesting about author Janet Benton that perhaps some of her Jewish writers were able to catch. Benton is Jewish and out of that she created the character of Vera Bernstein who is something of a savior in the story. Benton’s last name would have been Bernstein had it not been for the anti-Semitism when her father was a teen and so the children would not fall victim to the quota system at schools here. Benton comes from a long line of those involved in Jewish communal life and repairing the world. Rereading the book now with knowing this could provide an alternative understanding but that is not really necessary to love this book.

“Beowulf for Cretins: A Love Story” by Ann McMan— Gay in Acdemia

McMan, Ann. “Beowulf for Cretins: A Love Story”, Bywater Books, 2018.

Gay in Academia

Amos Lassen

Ann McMan hits close to home for me in her “Beowulf for Cretins” but I will get to that later. We meet Grace Warner, an English professor and want-to-be novelist who spends her days teaching four sections of “Beowulf for Cretins” to bored and disinterested students at one of New England’s “hidden ivy” colleges. Even though I spent two semesters in graduate courses on “Beowulf”, I must admit by having done so, my life has not been changed in one way. Grace had the misfortune of being dumped by her girlfriend and while flying across the country, she met Abbe who is extremely engaging and equally mysterious. Once the plane landed, Abbe and Grace enjoyed a no strings night of passion.

Upon returning to teaching at St. Albans in New England, she is greeted by the announcement of the appointment of the new president, a woman for the first time in the 165 year history of the school and Grace gets the shock of her life when Abbe… Entering Grace’s life is a dog with neuroses named Grendel and a woman named Ochre.

What a place for a romantic comedy especially when the world of academia that Edward Albee gave us in “Virginia Woolf” was so different, or was it? Writer Ann McMan also introduces us to a cast of characters that are both loveable and a bit off-track and she uses them as a way to look at human behavior in both its sanity and absurdity. I cannot decide which I enjoyed more– McMan’s prose or her story— but then I really do not have to make a choice. It’s great when the style and the plot come together to give a good read. It is, above all else, the writer’s wit that makes this a fascinating read. Bringing comedy, intellect and sensitivity is not an easy job and this also allows for different levels of understanding and interpretation. I could not help but notice that my reviewing colleague Grady Harp had the same to say. There is a bonus and that it is an observation of how we live today and everyone who reads this will find something of themselves here.

“Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein’ by Jamie Bernstein— An Intimate Look

Bernstein, Jamie. “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein”, Harper, 2018.

An Intimate Look at Bernstein

Amos Lassen

Jamie Bernstein is the oldest daughter of composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein and she shares with us offers a rare and intimate look at her father on what would have been his 100th birthday. Bernstein was “chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic, a television star, a humanitarian, a friend of the powerful and influential, and the life of every party.” Leonard Bernstein was an enormous celebrity during one of the headiest periods of American cultural life. To Jamie, he was the man in the scratchy brown bathrobe who smelled of cigarettes; a jokester and compulsive teacher who enthused about Beethoven and the Beatles; the insomniac whose 4 a.m. composing breaks involved feeding the baby. He taught his daughter to love the world in all its beauty and complexity.

As we enter Bernstein’s life, we meet a fantastic set of characters: the Kennedys, Mike Nichols, John Lennon, Richard Avedon, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, and Betty (Lauren) Bacall.

This is an intimate meditation on a complex and sometimes troubled man, the family he raised, and the music he composed. This is both a moving and often hilarious read. It is also a great American story about one of the greatest Americans of the modern age. Jamie Bernstein gives us a picture of the Bernstein family, especially her parents, Lenny and the much-loved Felicia and at the same time she writes about growing up as the child of a legend “—or, for that matter, as anybody’s child.” Her childhood was as fraught as it was charmed and her book is “beautifully written and unflinchingly courageous… expression of love, exasperation, amazement and forgiveness.” Bernstein brought the same magic that he brought to music to his family.

Before you sit down to red, make sure you clear the day because once you begin this book, I doubt you will be taking time to do anything else.

“This Young Monster” by Charlie Fox— A Celebration

Fox, Charlie. “This Young Monster”, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018.

A Celebration

Amos Lassen

“This Young Monster” is a “hallucinatory celebration of artists who raise hell, transform their bodies, anger their elders and show their audience dark, disturbing things.” We look at what it is to be a freak, why it is we wise to think of the present as a terrible time and how the concept of the monster affects our thinking about queerness, disability, children and adolescents.

While Charlie Fox writes about scary and fabulous monsters, but he is really writing about culture. In doing so, he invites his readers to become monsters. In the book we have biographical essays, a “dumb fan letter” to the Beast, a meandering confession from Alice, bombed out after her many years in Wonderland and other writings that are impossible to expect. Thus this is a look at life on the margins, and a thank you to a group of people who “embraced their misfit status to lead beautifully unconventional lives.”

It might take a while to get used to Fox’s writing but once you do, you are in for quite a read that is audacious and original.

The book opens “with a letter addressed to the Beast (of Beauty and the fame, of La Belle et la fame) and closes with a series of diary entries about Arthur Rimbaud.” Another fascinating essay is “Spook House” written as an imaginary screenplay.

Charlie Fox clearly knows his stuff, even if he does insist on writing it as an experimental play script. What this really is, I believe, is a compendium of essays about the art, film, poetry and celebrity of monstrousness.