Author Archives: Amos

“BIG SONIA”— A Diva

“Big Sonia”

A Diva

Amos Lassen

Sonia Warshawski who is over ninety-years-old is a Holocaust survivor and a diva that has just been served an eviction notice for her popular tailor shop in suburban Kansas City. Sonia’s trauma comes to the surface as she struggles with the concept of retirement. Sonia loves red lipsticks and clothing with animal prints and she is a vibrant force and a diligent worker who runs a six-day-a-week tailor shop by herself. For Sonia, the importance of keeping busy is no simple response to widowhood or means of fending off the loneliness of old age. A particular darkness has haunted her most of her life from her memories of the years she spent as a prisoner at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. As the only Holocaust survivor in the Kansas City area to speak publicly about her experiences, she has turned those memories into a form of action that is both enlightening and therapeutic.

Her granddaughter, Leah Warshawski, directed the documentary with Todd Soliday and their approach is clear-eyed and measured as they observe Sonia in at work and during her visits with students and prisoners as a motivational speaker. We get glimpses of the tattooed number on Sonia’s arm as she goes through her days.

Sonia acknowledges her emotional damage as well as her refusal to be bowed by it. At 13, in the Polish city of Miedzyrzec, she watched from an attic window as neighbors were rounded up for the camps. Soon her family would be found in their hiding places. She never again saw her father or brother. At 17, she witnessed her mother entering the gas chamber. Years later, she heard the history-erasing claims of Holocaust deniers and this galvanized her to counter their propaganda with her truth.

We see the effect of that truth on the faces of those listening to her quiet, impassioned words. In a program addressing bullying and aimed at reducing recidivism, incarcerated men appear shaken to the core when they hear what happened to her family.

But with her husband, who was also a Holocaust survivor, Sonia created a family. Warshawski’s access to Sonia’s children takes the film into the wartime experience as an emotional inheritance for the second generation. Sonia’s son, Morrie, recalls a sadness in the household and his awareness that he and his siblings weren’t as “natural and free” as other kids.

The filmmakers, like Sonia herself, acknowledge the ongoing struggle that’s essential to surviving such trauma. There’s hard-fought clarity when Sonia says that she leaves the matter of forgiveness to a higher power. Since we are losing the last of the Holocaust survivors, we see the urgency when Sonia insists on remembering.

“BYE BYE GERMANY”— Coming to America

“Bye Bye Germany” (“Es war einmal in Deutschland”)

Coming to America

Amos Lassen

The characters in Sam Garbarski’s “Bye Bye Germany”, live in a displaced persons camp near Frankfurt in 1946. David (Moritz Bleibtreu) is a Jewish peddler who was a successful wheeler and dealer before and during his time at a concentration camp. While he’s grateful for his liberty, he would enjoy it more with a lot of cash, and so he begins a scheme where he and his friends sell linens to local Germans at an outrageous markup. It’s a simple scam without guilt, since these very people were the same ones who favored David and his friends’ journey to the gas chamber, or at least pretended to be about what was really going on in their own country.

Over the course of the film, the characters have to examine their own pasts, what has happened to them and to their country, and wonder whether Germany is even their country anymore.

David recruits the other characters to join him in his scheme. The idea, of course, is to make enough money to leave Germany and head for America. And so this likeable group, filled with energy and audacity starts churning out curtains that are “made in Paris” and selling them to their German customers using a series of cynically comical methods, and rather visionary ones too in terms of marketing. 

Alongside these comical incidents, there is another plotline that is more solemn. Over the course of a series of interrogations, a young German Jew who emigrated to the United States shortly after 1933 (Antje Traue), who has come back to Germany to join the post-war effort, tries to establish, on the orders of the allied forces, whether or not David collaborated or not from his concentration camp, to survive there. Each plotline leads to a big twist of fate, which could be seen as positive or tragic, before David concludes by sparing a thought for the Jews who, like him, made the inexplicable choice to stay behind.

“F(L)AG FOOTBALL”— Upending Stereotypes

“F(l)ag Football”

Upending Stereotypes

Amos Lassen

When I was growing up there was that misconception of gay men as limp-wristed and effeminate that are not into sports. The truth is that there are all sorts of gay men; some are indeed more in touch with their feminine side but there are others who are macho and who love sports. Come to think of it, I know some limp-wristed straight men that hate sports too.

The National Gay Flag Football League grew out of pick-up games that gay men put together to play football. Many found playing football in any sort of competitive manner to be uncomfortable for them while others wanted to use it as a means of meeting new people with similar interests. Then something unexpected happened in that the teams of predominantly gay players began to bond. This started in New York City and the idea of gay leagues began to catch on in cities around the country. Eventually, the National Gay Flag Football League came into being.

The idea of competitive tournament of gay teams around the country culminating in a championship game was the idea of sportswriter Cyd Ziegler who is himself an ultra-competitive football player. His team, the New York Warriors, became the dominant team winning three Gay Bowl championships in a row. However, in Gay Bowl IX however, they were beat by the Los Angeles Motion (led by Cyd Ziegler who had moved out to Los Angeles.

The Warriors, led by team captain Wade Davis (a former NFL player) were eager to regain the title that they’d lost. The Motion had two of the best quarterbacks in the league with MVP Drew Boulton and Christophe Faubert and they were just as motivated to repeat. The dark horse of Gay Bowl X was the host team, the Phoenix Hellraisers, led by quarterback Joey Jacinto with this very strong arm and Jared Garduno, the heart and soul of the team.

“F(l)ag Football”, the documentary follows the three teams as they prepare for the weekend event. We hear from the players, many of whom found the acceptance here that they couldn’t find in the gay bar and club scene. Some of the players talk openly about their coming out and some of those stories are heartbreaking. Davis tells us that his extremely religious mother, whom he had been especially close to as a child, washed her hands of him. Los Angeles captain Brenton Metzler talks humorously of how his sister, a lesbian wishing to deflect her parents’ attention away from herself, outed him against his wishes.

We are all aware of the clichés about football and how it builds character and forges bonds not unlike those forged by soldiers. We begin to realize that the men we meet here these just gay men; they’re men period. The only difference between them and straight men is that they prefer men as romantic and sexual partners.

The most exciting part of “F(l)ag Football” arrives at the end, when two bitter rivals face each other. But the most insightful scene comes in the middle of this documentary, when the gay New York Warriors take on a straight team from Long Island.

The Long Island players aren’t told that most of the Warriors are gay, and excerpts shown from the game show intense competition. When one Long Islander learns of the opposing players’ sexuality, he reacts with a shrug and with praise for their skills. That’s how it should be— we should judge people on their abilities and without preconceptions. Not everyone is there yet. Director Seth Greenleaf gives us some optimistic moments as we follow the teams as they train for the yearly Gay Bowl flag football tournament. (The game, a variation on touch football, places a premium on speed; players are downed not by tackles, but when an opponent pulls a marker from the ball carrier’s belt.)

Along the way, we explore the conflict between traditional views of masculinity, especially in sports (and in the N.F.L. in particular), and stereotypes of homosexuality. It’s an interesting mix. The film gains momentum, however, as the athletes experience hope, disappointment, pain and joy during the final contest. We see that on the field and off, we are all so much alike.

Throughout the film the players make it clear that there is nothing sexual for them about playing the game; it’s all about the competition and the game itself. These men are as tough as nails regardless of their sexuality but since the point of this film is to try to change perceptions of gay men then to a certain extent their sexuality has to be part of the equation. What we really see are talented, hard working and masculine football players who happen to be gay. Their sexuality is part of who they are but it isn’t the only thing that defines them.

The film asks all the right questions that we hear in the football vs. homosexuality debate, while revealing a lesser-seen part of the gay community. The players are capable of divorcing sex with contact sports. They may even be able to understand better than their straight counterparts that the reason why they play sports is secondary to winning and primarily to find brotherhood with their teammates.

These guys are all jocks. We hear the “F” word many times and they speak in sentences filled with clichéd “macho-isms”. Many of these athletes were raised with the casual homophobia and systemic heterosexism that even they write off. Player Wade Davis says, “We’ve created this nationwide narrative that gay men aren’t as tough,” but when confronted by a straight man, \ “We can go outside right now and I’ll run through you like a Mack truck, and you tell me if gay guys aren’t as tough as straight guys.”

Opposite this, these men have found that looking for the bonds they seek in the traditional gay scene can be problematic, sometimes promoting unhealthy lifestyle choices that are often image-obsessed and ruthlessly judgmental.

As a sociological study, the film is fascinating. We see that there are gay men out there creating alternatives such as the National Gay Football League. We see that “Advocacy and activism come in many ways other than just marches.

“BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY”— A Beauty with Skills

“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story”

A Beauty With Skills

Amos Lassen

Hedy Lamarr was just 16 when she became a natural born star. She was the first woman who simulated an orgasm in cinema. “Ecstasy” introduced her to the world. But Lamarr wanted to be seen as a clever woman, so she devised a secret communication system to help the Allies beat the Nazis. In “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” we see that a person is not to be defined by labels.

After the success of her debut film, Lamarr realized it would be hard to continue living in Austria. In 1937, she transferred to London and found an American film agent who took her to Hollywood. There the US press allowed her to be beautiful. But in the US, she lived a tough life because was a slave to her looks. She had six husbands and an adopted son who she abandoned years later. Her dalliances included Howard Hughes and John F. Kennedy. Hughes shared with her a love for science but according to her he was the worst lover she has ever had. Hughes represented all she could get in life. She had the benefit of beauty, she attracted wealthy and remarkable men but she would have to conceal that she was intelligent too.

“Bombshellis based on the tapes of an interview Lamarr gave to Forbes 25 years ago revealing how she became a Hollywood tragedy. By the age of 75, she had to cope with the consequences of several blotched plastic surgeries. She was retired and reclusive. She struggled hard to escape the Hollywood label by inventing a system of communication which became a constituent part of wi-fi, Bluetooth and GPS technologies. She thought that the only possible way the Allies could send messages without been intercepted by the Germans was if they changed radio frequencies multiple times. Hedy worked with a pianist that helped her to build a box to communicate. She gave her patent to the United States Navy and received no credit for her invention. She lived in poverty in her final years.

Lamarr is the perfect example of how destructive ageism and strict beauty requirements can be. Her pictures as an old woman are quite terrifying.

Composer George Antheil worked together with Lamarr on some of the most disruptive technology of the last two centuries. As soon as Lamarr reached Hollywood, she ardently embraced anti-Nazi causes. However, when America, her beloved adopted nation, entered the war, Lamarr believed she had better ways to support the war effort than selling war bonds.

She had always had an inventor’s mind and thanks to her first of six husbands, she knew a little something about torpedoes. Decades ahead of her time, Lamarr developed a “frequency-hopping” method of guiding torpedoes through submerged waters and signal-jamming interference. Antheil helped her refine this into a deployable technology but the U.S. Navy just didn’t get it. As a result, they put the technology that would eventually become they cornerstone of wi-fi and Blue Tooth communications systems in storage.

 

Director and writer Alexandra Dean’s approach is straightforward all the way and the film, like Lamarr, is classy.

“KEEP THE CHANGE”— A Love Story

“Keep The Change”

A Love Story

Amos Lassen

Keep the Change”, directed and written by Rachel Israel is about the challenges a couple has with building face-to-face personal relationships in and out of their private worlds.

After being court-mandated punishment for making one of his trademark inappropriate jokes to a police officer, 30-year-old David (Brandon Polansky)is ordered to attend Connections, a New York City organization for autistic men and women. Wearing a blazer and dark sunglasses, David feels out of place in this community of strangers who he sees as “weirdos.” Yet we also see that David is tricking himself into believing he’s somehow superior. Things take an unexpected turn for David when he’s forced to work on a Brooklyn Bridge project with fellow Connections member Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), who claims that she has autism and a “learning disability,” and who’s prone to expressing herself via streams of colloquialisms. David’s aggravation turns to love, however, after he and Sarah spend time together, and she confesses that she finds him “really smoking hot and so sexy.” Love soon blossoms via clumsy bear-hug kisses and bedroom sex. However, their budding relationship isn’t without its ups and downs.

The film follows David and Sarah’s affair with a sweetness while at the same time using comedy that comes out of their conditions and which often leads them to say inapt or peculiar things at random moments. The film doesn’t mock their idiosyncrasies; it celebrates them in all their forms. That extends to the raft of acquaintances David meets while at Connections, who in most cases are (like David and Sarah) are played by autistic amateur actors who are all the more charming for being so unaffected.

Uninhibited and yet often innocent and unaware, Elisofon is an endearingly, while Polansky captures a moving sense of David’s desire to be “normal” (something at least partially acquired from his parents) and his simultaneous yearning to be understood and accepted.

The film is a subtle political statement about autism but it is not a polemic statement. We see the bond that David and Sarah share as totally normal and perfectly weird.

 

“The Practices of Hope: Literary Criticism in Disenchanted Times” by Christopher Castiglia— A Positive Approach to Literary Criticism

Castiglia, Christopher. “The Practices of Hope: Literary Criticism in Disenchanted Times”, NYU Press, 2017.

A Positive Approach to Literary Criticism

Amos Lassen

Christopher Castiglia in “The Practices of Hope” pushes us to an alternative approach that to literary criticism and offers hopeful reading, “a combination of idealism and imagination that retains its analytic edge yet moves beyond nay-saying to articulate the values that shape our scholarship and creates the possible worlds that animate genuine social critique”. He does this by looking at a variety of critics from the Great Depression to the Vietnam War to demonstrate that criticism simultaneously denounced the social conditions of the Cold War United States and proposed ideal worlds as more democratic alternatives.  The work is organized around topics that critics have eschewed in my cases—nation, liberalism, humanism, symbolism—that were part of criticism’s “usable past” and uses them to generate an alternative critique, a practice of hope.

His argument is that scholars “no longer practice the open embrace of imaginative idealism that the founders of American Studies used as a method of ‘critical hope.’” He studies mid-century criticism that is accepted as the foundation of the discipline and then gives us a way to avoid this. Castiglia diagnoses our current situation and shows what we could be doing instead.

“Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World” edited by Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington— We Are All Fans

Gray, Jonathan, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington, editors. “Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World”, NYU Press, second edition, 2017.

We Are All Fans

Amos Lassen

We are all fans. Whether we follow our favorite celebrities on Twitter, attend fan conventions such as Comic Con, or simply wait with bated breath for the next episode of our favorite television drama—each of us is a fan. What is so interesting is that fandom is not unusual, but rather a universal subculture,. What we read here demonstrates that understanding fans-(whether of toys, TV shows, celebrities, comics, music, film, or politicians) is important and “vital to an understanding of media audiences, use, engagement, and participatory culture in a digital age.”  

This second edition of the book includes eighteen new, original essays covering topics such as activism directed at racism in sports fandom, fan/producer interactions at Comic Con, the impact of new technologies on fandom, and the politics and legality of fan fiction. We have diverse approaches to fandom that help us understand modern life as it is in today’s world.

The essays “push the boundaries of fan studies in bold directions.” Fandom is more prevalent than I had ever considered and has become part of the way we live today. This is the perfect book for understanding that.

“YOUNG TORLESS”— At Boarding School

 

Young Torless (“Der junge Törless”)

At Boarding School

Amos Lassen

“Young Torless” takes us back in cinema time to 1966 when it was originally released and I do not know how it is that I missed this film until now.

At a boarding school in the pre-war Austro-Hungarian Empire, a pair of students torture one of their fellow classmates, Basini, who has been caught stealing money from one of the two. The two decide that rather than turn Basini in to the school authorities, they will punish him themselves and proceed to torture, degrade, and humiliate the boy, with ever-increasing sadistic delight. As each day passes, the two boys are able to justify harsher treatment. Torless is a passive member of the group who observes rather than participates and frustrates the tormentors by dryly analyzing their behavior.

The film opens at a railway station in Neudorf in the early 1900s as eight adolescent students arrive to attend military academy there. One of them, Törless, soon starts to notice the callous cruelty of both his peers and his instructors but says nothing about it. One student, Basini, falls into debt to another, Reiting, who makes up a repayment system that requires the debtor’s total obedience while the money is outstanding. Basini resists at first, and steals money to release himself. His crime is suspected, though, and he gives into Reiting’s system, virtually becoming his slave.

Meanwhile, Törless and another student, Beineberg, become fascinated by a local prostitute and go to meet her. Törless, innocent, homesick and quite possibly gay, watches bemusedly as Beineberg caresses her. When they return to the academy Reiting identifies Basini as a thief and the three discuss the punishment to be inflicted on the hapless student.

The following day Reiting whips Basini’s hands and sprays him with boiling water, before the pair slip away to look at pornographic postcards. They are spied leaving the attic, and Beineberg decides to use the threat of expulsion to manipulate and torture Basini. As the tension increases, Törless starts to fear that he himself may be the next victim of the bullies. He is fascinated and appalled by Basini’s inability to defend himself, and when the former invites the bullied boy to a meeting in the attic, Basini assumes it is to have another abusive punishment administered however in the conversation that we hear afterwards, it is heavily implied that Reiting sexually abused Basini.

Basini later begs Törless to defend him, but Törless refuses. Things come to a head when Basini nearly meets death when lynched by a mob of students. Törless, no longer interested in torture, decides he should leave the academy and his teachers and administrators consequently think he is unstable.

The film illustrates the inevitable conflict between the poles of naked, brutal sadism and the dilemma of standing by and remaining silent while cruelty takes place. Each multifaceted character is imbued with passion for evildoing, hypocrisy, bravado, avarice, lust and all deadly sins. Every boy in the school is a potential Nazi work-in-progress. Their youthful handsomeness and arrogance accentuate their hidden agendas with each other and the masks they wear to the outside world when the circumstances warrant. Matthieu Carrière gives a fine performance as an innocent caught behind the barbed wire walls of his own soul and he accepts responsibility for his lack of action against the evildoing around him and learns to question authority when it is almost too late.

Volker Schlöndorff directed and adapted the film a novel by Robert Musil’s 1906 novel. It is a study of sadism and masochism among students and is a parable of fascism and its origins. That sadism makes the film sometimes difficult to watch at times but it is also what makes the film so entrancing.

It is a moody, disaffected piece filled with allegorical significance and social commentary. Most viewers will take away the discomforting symbolic parallels between the sadistic torments inflicted upon poor Basini by the two brutes who apparently dictate the dorm’s social hierarchy, and the similarity atrocities committed on an immeasurably larger scale by Hitler’s soldiers as the Nazis came to power. The savage physical cruelty goes unchecked in the boarding school that serves as a microcosm of the times.

“NOW MORE THAN EVER: THE HISTORY OF CHICAGO”— 50 Years

“Now More Than Ever: The History Of Chicago”

50 Years

Amos Lassen

Directed and edited by Peter Pardini, “Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago” is a look at one of American music’s most popular and enduring bands from their groundbreaking blend of jazz, rock, and pop that made them big in the 1970s to becoming one of the most vital and popular touring acts for nearly thirty years. We see the many highs and lows the band went through from death of founding guitarist/vocalist Terry Kath in early 1978 to the many changes the band had to endure and keep up with trends. The result is a fun and adventurous film about one of the most popular bands in American music.

From the time that the band was formed in the ‘60s to being inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2016, Chicago has sold more than 100 million albums with a lot of hit singles from the 1970s and the 1980s. From the 1990s and into the 21st Century, they’ve become a popular live staple playing 100 shows a year and they on despite line-up changes and such. The core of the group are its four remaining original members in vocalist/keyboardist Robert Lamm, trumpeter Lee Loughnane, trombonist James Pankow, and woodwind player Walter Parazaider. The four along with original drummer Danny Seraphine talk about the band’s history through the many trials and tribulations they endured as it began in 1967 in Chicago with those five men and a guitarist/vocalist in Terry Kath as they were part of an early version of the band but then changed its name at the time to the Chicago Transit Authority that included bassist/vocalist Peter Cetera.

The classic original lineup of Cetera, Kath, Lamm, Loughnane, Pankow, Parazaider, and Seraphine had numerous hits starting with their 1969 debut album as they were guided by manager/producer James William Guercio (who declined to be interviewed for the film along with Cetera and other former members in guitarist/vocalist Donnie Dacus and vocalist/keyboardist Bill Champlin). There are many stories the band talk about including the legendary story of Jimi Hendrix telling the band that Kath is a better guitarist than he is along with other events that happened on the road.

Pardini uses a lot of archival footage of the band through from the 1970s as it showcases their rise to stardom and we see that the band members love life on the road. Kath’s death remains something that haunts the band to this day yet they keep going in his honor. We learn that Seraphine’s departure from relates to not just his own frustrations of trying to keep up with current technology but also his focus on the business side of the band. Both Seraphine and the band admitted that the way they parted wasn’t in the best of terms though both were able to reconcile as Seraphine did get to play with the band for the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2016. We see many aspects of the band’s rich history as told by the band as well as longtime fan and actor Joe Mantegna who recalls moments of the band’s early history.

There are some very interesting accounts here about what overwhelming success can mean. The founding members who are all up there in years now, seem genuinely moved that their efforts have been so appreciated by so many for so long, and as is shown The band still sounds fantastic, even with a revolving door of personnel changes.

Special Features and Extras include:

 

  • Featurettes
  • Dialogue (1080p; 37:14) is an addendum of sorts to the main documentary providing more background information on the band courtesy of some longer interview segments.

 

  • The New Guys (1080p; 25:46) focuses on newer band members.

 

  • Deleted Scenes
  • New Music and Paris (720p; 2:22)

 

  • Only the Beginning (720p; 2:15)

 

  • Concert – Two Weeks in May (1080p; 34:13) was filmed over 12 days in 2013.

 

  • Stories
  • Robert Lamm – Becoming a Musician (1080p; 2:04)

 

  • Private Planes Continued (1080p; 3:32)

 

  • Jimmy Pankow – Helicopters in NYC (1080p; 4:14)

 

  • Going on SNL in 1979 (1080p; 1:42)

 

  • The Writing of Making a Man out of Me (1080p; 3:32)

 

  • Hall of Fame Rehearsal (1080p; 1:40)

“SLEEPING GIANT”— The Ugly Side of Adolescence

“SLEEPING GIANT”

The Ugly Side of Adolescence

Amos Lassen

Over the course of an emotionally tumultuous summer, a trio of teenage boys hang out constantly, but unease is quickly building. They go skateboarding and cliff diving. They drink, smoke weed and set off fireworks with little regard for their safety, but eventually their personality differences cause major rifts. Adam (Jackson Martin) comes from a well-off family, but his world is thrown out of alignment when he learns that his dad is cheating on his mom and by the arrival of a girl he has a crush on. Nate (Nick Serino) is a troubled kid living with his grandmother. He constantly teases his friends in the meanest possible ways, not caring what anyone thinks of him. Riley (Reece Moffett) is sweet natured and has come to stay with cousin Nate following a family tragedy, and he’s torn between wanting Adam’s seemingly idyllic life and Nate’s devil-may-care attitude and being his own person.

The film is a near-perfect depiction of the most awkward part of adolescence: the point where you realize your friends can betray you and let you down. This is an observation of friendships made of convenience. We get an idea that Adam, Nate and Riley would never be friends in a larger community, but in a smaller area with less to do, they have little choice. They make the most of things while they can, but after a few weeks together they appear to be going through the motions because there aren’t other options. Adam will slowly realize his dark side. Nate will double down on his nastiness. Riley will slip up and do bad things, but by the end he’ll be the most heroic and likable of the bunch. They’re teens that think they know everything about their world until they’re forced into dealing with adult problems and then they lash out from fear.

Most young men wouldn’t admit this was their childhood, but in the parts of their memory they don’t often like to access, they know it to be true. If they weren’t one of these main characters, they knew them. That’s not to say that Adam, Nate and Riley are archetypes.

The three leads all give fully realized and shockingly mature performances. The first half of the film sets up the teens as individuals and a unit; the second half employs a number of shocking, necessary and earned twists. It builds to a pair of scenes (a breakdown at family board game night and a dangerous dare between friends).

Director Andrew Cividino wastes little time with extended character introductions. Although there are moments of humor, loyalty, and tenderness in the film, the raw power comes from exposing the ugly side of adolescence as it explores the tenuous relationship between the three teenage boys. The film is, by turns, subtle, vicious, and heartbreaking. It leaves the viewer feeling sad, hollow, and grateful that being a teen happens only once in life.