Author Archives: Amos

“GRIMSEY”— After Breaking Up

“Grimsey”

After Breaking Up

Amos Lassen

After breaking up with Norberto who ran away to Iceland, Bruno wants to find him. Arnau, a local tour guide in Reykjavik, helps in his search. Their trip will become a grieving process until they reach the remote island of Grimsey.

The film is set in the gorgeously austere Icelandic landscape, embodying the end of the relationship. This is truly a romantic story and as Bruno searched for Norberto, he also searches within himself.

“Grimsey” is the feature debut of both directors, Richard Garcia and Raul Portero who also star in the film.

The power of the film is in bucking some LGBT stereotypes by telling a universal story without seeking the normalization of his characters.

“BOY UNDONE”— Memory Plays Tricks

 

“BOY UNDONE”

Memory Plays Tricks

Amos Lassen

Coming to us on DVD at the end of May is “Boy Undone”, the story of two young men who spend the night together after meeting the previous evening in a notorious gay club. The next day, however, the host wakes to find the boy he picked up bewildered and confused, unable remember his name or anything about his past.

There was no identification of any kind nor were there any clues to who he might be and so the boys begin to search for the truth among fragments of memories that may or may not prove reliable. This is a chilling homoerotic thriller that shows you want an intense film can be.

“FROM BAGHDAD TO THE BAY”— Meet Ghazwan Alsharif

“From Baghdad to The Bay”

Meet Ghazwan Alsharif

Amos Lassen

Erin Palmquist took ten years to make “From “Baghdad to the Bay”. It is the story of Ghazwan Alsharif, an Iraqi refugee and former translator for the U.S. military.  After years of service helping the American invading forces, he was wrongfully accused of espionage and tortured by the military police in Iraq for some 75 days before being rescued by an American Colonel who he had served and who personally vouched for him.

When the Iraqi militia learned of the work he had done with the United States Forces, they threatened his family and then bombed his home.  His parents who had initially encouraged him to help the Americans liberate the country now ostracized him for refusing to give up his war work.

Despite the American Government’s avowed aim to help re-settle Iraqis who had risked their lives working with the Armed Forces, the reality of actually being allowed to immigrate to safe haven in America involves a long and rough procedure with no guarantee of success.  Alsharif was one of the lucky ones who managed to be awarded a place in an International Refugee scheme that enabled him to get to San Francisco.

Over the years Palmquist and her crew regularly returned to visit Alsharif and see how he was adjusting to his new life especially with what he had to go through and being forced to give up his own home and culture purely to survive.  He was not only cut off by his entire family back in Iraq, but his divorced wife now living in London rarely allowed him even phone contact with their son.

Alsharif was to finally able to come out as a gay man, but when his photograph with other gay men appeared on Facebook, his brothers called from Iraq to demand that they are taken down.  In 2012 when he lent his support to the group campaigning to stop Iraqis being killed back home just for being gay, his family contacted him again to tell him to stop doing so.  An American Arab explained that the family could be totally excluded from Iraq society if it was known they had a gay son, which may seem severe but is really nothing in comparison with the knowledge that this could easily cost Alsharif his very life.

Alsharif is a very affable man and loves his work as a his work as a chef. He has a new group of friends, American citizenship, and a gratitude for his freedom which almost makes up for the loneliness he feels that he will never escape.   

“FOLLOWERS”— The Horrors of Social Media

“Followers”

The Horrors of Social Media

Amos Lassen

2.3 billion people use social media every day, and the average person has 5.54 social media accounts. 83% of stalking incidents start online. So, what will you do when your “friends” turn your future into terror? This is the premise at the heart of “Followers”. Thirty-something Brooke Marie (Amanda Delaney) is a fitness vlogger, brand ambassador, yoga enthusiast, and YouTube personality with a million-strong following. Brooke has recently found love (via the Internet) with a fellow YouTube personality and fitness guru, Caleb (Justin Maina). They record nearly every moment of their relationship, from Caleb jumping into bed to wake Brooke to Brooke’s seeking revenge with a bucket of ice water. So, what are two fit, young vloggers to do to celebrate their one-year anniversary? Well, camping, of course.

In a concurrent story, documentarians Nick (Nishant Gogna) and Jake (Sean Michael Gloria) are looking to shed some light on the exposure inherent in social media, and how free we have become with our personal information online. They have selected a random, local YouTube celebrity to follow in order to take their online ‘Likes’ into the real-world and meet their star face-to-face, thereby proving that everything you give away online can lead to your real-time locations. Most of us know this but ignore it.

Caleb and Brooke have gone camping to celebrate a year together and they are without Wi-Fi. They drink some champagne and wine to celebrate, before retiring to their tent for sexual fun. Somewhat predictably, Brooke awakens in the middle of the black night to footsteps around their camp and she wonders what is lurking in the woods. And yes, I am stopping my summary here.

“Followers” is a curious, multi-faceted film that never quite plays out as horror and actually feels more like a solid social commentary. The commentary is largely directed at our technological world, especially social media. Some of the film’s most benign lines give a sharp-witted view of our modern world. It is a clever and insightful view of social media from, ironically, behind yet another lens. As a world of voyeurs, we have become numb to the ramifications of our own interactions: we simply continue to blindly follow an electronic trend that leaves us open and vulnerable. It is important to understand the mindset of the film since the ensemble cast’s acting furthers the film’s underlying message; while the actual story here takes a back-seat.

As Brooke and Caleb, Delany and Maina have a solid, believable chemistry on-screen: they appear to truly enjoy being in one another’s company and even their awkward, tension-filled moments feel sincere. Director Ryan Justice paid careful attention to casting two personalities that jive in a realistic sense besides depicting their individual tropes well.

“Followers” fails completely at offering up much in the way of horror but it succeeds smartly as social commentary. It has a bizarre, twist ending that seems to inject a religious commentary into the mix.

Shot entirely on hand-held cameras, “Followers” says a lot with very little, and for this, you cannot help but find a certain level of appreciation for Director Justice’s talents.

“The Annotated Joseph and His Friend: The Story of America’s First Gay Novel” by Bayard Taylor and edited and annotated by L.A. Fields— Rediscovering a Lost Classic

Taylor, Bayard. “The Annotated Joseph and His Friend: The Story of America’s First Gay Novel” edited by L.A. Fields, Lethe Press; Annotated edition , 2018.

Rediscovering a Lost Classic

Amos Lassen

There is some discussion as to whether Bayard Taylor wrote the first American gay novel. L.A. Fields says that this is indeed the first, a nineteenth century book “Joseph and His Friend” that is often unknown to contemporary readers of queer fiction. Author and researcher L.A. Fields wants to change that with her new book, “The Annotated Joseph and His Friend: The Story of America’s First Gay Novel”. She supplies notes to each chapter that move from the private life of the man who inspired the story (Fitz-Greene Halleck), through the secrets of its author (Taylor), noting especially his private love for and public rivalry with poet Walt Whitman. The notes expand on Whitman’s unique position in gay and American history: especially on the coming-out letters Whitman called ”avowals” from such people as Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. There are notes about Whitman’s witnessing of the Civil War, the Lincoln presidency, and his lover’s attendance at Ford’s Theater the night of Lincoln’s assassination; as well as Whitman’s own understanding and defense for writing honestly about the love of men. This study combines Taylor’s original 1870 novel with American history, contemporary anecdote, and curiosities from a more secret history. A new topic is positioned behind every chapter, providing the background that shows just how important this novel was at the time, how rare it is now, and how daring it’s always been to tell the truth. I do have the odd sense of wondering if it was so important to its time, why do we not know more about it or at least heard of its existence. I am not arguing either for or against the book’s standing but I am curious as to why I had not heard of it except in passing at a very scholarly seminar on early American LGBT literature.

Nonetheless, it is very good that we now have this to refer to and as an annotated edition. We must congratulated writer L.A. Fields on her effort. However, if this is such an important book, I cannot help but wonder why it was not picked up by a major publishing house.

“Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable” by Eviatar Zerubavel— A Look at Dominant Culture Norms

Zerubavel, Eviatar. “Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

A Look at Dominant Cultural Norms

Amos Lassen

How much attention do we pay to the words we use when we speak about the subjects of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, social status, and more. Have you noticed that this kind of speech is filled with unspoken assumptions—- think about why we say, for example, “male nurse” or “working mom” or my favorite, “white trash”. These are word choices that we make without realizing we are doing so and we do so every day.

Eviatar Zerubavel in this book describes how the words we use–such as when we mark “the best female basketball player” but leave her male counterpart unmarked provide telling clues about the things many of us take for granted. By using terms such as “women’s history” or “Black History Month,” we are also reinforcing the apparent normality of the history of white men. “When we mark something as being special or somehow noticeable, that which goes unmarked such as maleness, whiteness, straightness, and able-bodiedness is assumed to be ordinary by default.” Zerubavel shows how we tacitly normalize certain identities, practices, and ideas in order to maintain their cultural dominance including the power to dictate what others take for granted.

“Taken for Granted” shows us what we implicitly assume to be normal and in the process disturbs the very notion of normality. Zerubavel shows us how we think and speak and that we consider some things simply unremarkable and comfortably normal. But others are remarkable and uncomfortably abnormal. We often act on these assumptions and we do so lucidly, without guilt tripping. In this way we can live together–with greater justice and understanding.

I was reminded when I lived in Israel for many years and had a conversation with several Israelis about how Americans love to add labels—– she is so pretty for an Italian girl and he is such a good cook for a gay man.

Zerubavel has the gift of the ability to see things about the way we human beings behave and think that we are for the most part unaware of. He is also able to convey what he can see in a way that becomes instantly clear to us. I am totally fascinated by all of this and find this to be an interesting and remarkable read. Zerubavel shows us how to see our world differently. By linking semiotics, social theory, and contemporary issues with great facility, we gain wonderful insights into how we speak and what we say. This is a little book about a very big idea.

“SODOM’S CAT”— Make Love First

“SODOM’S CAT”

Make Love First

Amos Lassen

“Sodom’s Cat” runs just over 30 minutes. It was shot back in 2016 and has been touring film festivals for more than one year, earning praise from both audience and critics.

The film follows the lives of five young men from Taipei who meet for a group-sex party after contacting each other through a dating app. The film is about so much more than just explicit gay sex, it looks at the psychological and emotional consequences of contemporary hookup culture.

“Sodom’s Cat” was an immediate critical smash at the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival and it was shortlisted for the prestigious Iris Prize Award. The film was directed by Huang Ting-Chun who says he was heavily influenced by the French gay film “Paris 05:59”His goal for “Sodom Cat” is to examine casual gay sex and relationships that are still considered taboo in Taiwanese culture.

“This is a film that is about love through sex,” Ting-Chun says. “Though it is X-rated, it is the emotions behind our current sex culture that I want to explore.”

Dating apps and online dating have been a feature of many LGBT stories of late. These apps and online forums have revolutionized the way LGBT people meet for dating, romance or just “no strings” fun.

This film asks what it must be like to be a part of this world, and yet feel strangely distant from it. Sun is a young man who attends a sex party that was with four other men organized via a dating app. While the others seem to be enjoying themselves, Sun is unaroused despite the others’ best efforts turn him on.

Challenging contemporary ideas of what it means to be gay and sexually active and depicting gay sex with great frankness and honesty, “Sodom’s Cat” is a controversial film.

“THE RABBI”— Unspoken Desires

“The Rabbi”

Unspoken Desires

Amos Lassen

Israel has produced excellent LGBT cinema in the last 15 years but while many aspects of life in Israel have been explored, including its politics, the country’s fraught relationship with its neighbors and military conscription, it isn’t often we see Judaism in a gay drama. Uriya Hertz’s  short film “The Rabbi” introduces us to Michael (Gur Yaari), a charismatic and much-admired Rabbi at a Jerusalem Yeshiva. A revealing confession by Gadi, his favorite student, shakes the rabbi’s familiar and secure world.

Michael finds that he must confront his own sublimated desires. This subtle, understated drama is more about those things which go unsaid than full-blown arguments. A dinner scene, where Gadi joins the Rabbi’s family for supper, fizzes with pent-up energy and emotion.

“In a Whirl of Delusion” by J.R. Greenwell— Becoming the Queen

Greenwell, J.R. “In a Whirl of Delusion”, Chelsea Station Editions, 2018.

Becoming the Queen

Amos Lassen  

Chester Davis narrates J.R. Greenwell’s comical take on Southern drag queen pageants. Chester finds himself in bed with Zac Efron and Ryan Reynolds. However, he is really hallucinating as the result of a concussion. Such is the stuff of dreams and wishes.

Next we go back a year in time to find twenty-one year old Chester escaping from the Morning Glory Trailer Park where he was living with his abusive, homophobic grandmother outside of Birmingham, Alabama. It was there that Chester became Daphne DeLight, the name her prefers being known by. Now we already have a drag queen and a trailer park and there should give you ideas where this book is going and it is certainly not the Vatican or the White House.

Daphne has her heart set on winning the title of Miss Gay Drag Queen Alabama and she has strong supporters at Club Diva. They help Daphne hone her craft and pursue her dream to be queen. Sam and Mike, a gay couple are the first two characters to offer Daphne a helping hand and we learn from overhearing them that Daphne has developmental issues and is extremely socially awkward. Sam doesn’t really care for the term retarded and prefers to think of Daphne as “challenged, slow, low IQ, autistic, whatever the term. She can barely even read, for God’s sakes.” Writer J.R. Greenwell gives us a Daphne who is a babe in the woods who needs almost everything explained to her (Bless her heart). Daphne interprets language literally and I suspect that you non-Southerners might be at a disadvantage here and might just have to wait for a translation from one of Daphne’s mentors (Bless their hearts).

Sam compares Daphne to a young Elizabeth Taylor but then feels compelled to add: “Well, thinner, blonder, and younger…you do have blue eyes. Not violet, but blue. Close enough.” (Take that for what its worth but remember that Liz Taylor did have some successful roles as a Southern woman). What is fun about drag queens is playing with stereotypes and Greenwell does that just great here (Although Daphne is her own stereotype, Bless her heart). By the end of the book, Greenwell reveals the cause of Daphne’s concussion as well as what has caused her social and academic difficulties.

Now you should know that a book about a drag queen has to be campy and this one certainly has its share of camp and in good, clean fun. I am sure that it is Daphne’s/Chester’s naiveté that opens the door for camp that is experienced on the road to the throne.

I actually felt that I was involved in helping Daphne win the crown and let me tell you, the Alabama drag world is a rough place to be. The would be ladies (Bless their hearts) show no compassion for competition even when it is as slow as Daphne.

This is no drag “Gone With the Wind” and I am not sure it is even literature. I am sure, however, that it is a fun read and was perfect for me to read today when everything is rainy and overcast in Boston. Besides there is some kind of butch race or marathon going on outside in the rain.

“Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century” by James Loeffler— The Forgotten Jewish Roots of International Human Rights

Loeffler, James. “Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century”, Yale UP, 2018.

The Forgotten Jewish Roots of International Human Rights

Amos Lassen

James Loeffler gives us an original look at the forgotten Jewish political roots of contemporary international human rights, told through the moving stories of five key activists.

2018 marks the seventieth anniversary of two important events in twentieth-century history: the birth of the State of Israel and the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The two are tied together in the ongoing debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global anti-Semitism, and American foreign policy. However, the surprising connections between Zionism and the origins of international human rights are completely unknown today. In “Rooted Cosmopolitans”, James Loeffler explores this controversial history through the stories of five remarkable Jewish founders of international human rights. He follows them from the prewar shtetls of eastern Europe to the postwar United Nations, a journey that includes the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, the founding of Amnesty International, and the UN resolution of 1975 labeling Zionism as racism.

The five men we follow are:

Peter Berenson, British lawyer, Jewidh youth activist and Holocaust rescuer turned Catholic convert and founder of Amnesty International.

Professor Hersch Lauterpacht, Polish Zionist and founding father of international human rights law and key drafter of the Israeli Declaration of Independence

Dr. Joseph Robinson, leader of the interwar Lithuanian Jewry and legal pioneer behind the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials and the International Refugee Convention

Jacob Blaustein, American Jewish leader and chief human rights booster in postwar American foreign policiy

Rabbi Maurice Perlzweig, British Zionist leader turned UN human rights activist

Here is a book that challenges long-held assumptions about the history of human rights and offers a surprising new perspective on the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are several surprises here and they alone are worth the cost of the book but there is also so much more. I was totally surprised in that I consider myself knowledgeable in Jewish and Israeli history, yet I knew nothing about the five men at the core of the book. I was also somewhat shocked at what the book has to say about Hannah Arendt who, while I do not always agree with her, I have always been stunned by her knowledge and discourse. I believe her to be one of the great mines of the twentieth century.

We see and better understand the complex aspirations for global justice. Here is reshaped Jewish and human rights history. Loeffler’s research reconstructs the forgotten role of Jewish leaders in creating the architecture of human rights and gives us a nuanced account of the common origin of Zionism and human rights organizations “and of their increasingly tortured relationship.”

The book challenges orthodoxies both on the right and on the left and it can transform popular understandings of this critical period of history. Loeffler rewrites our received narratives about human rights and Zionism.