Author Archives: Amos

“THE WATCHERS”— Followed and Watched

“The Watchers”

Followed and Watched

Amos Lassen

John Porter (Jeff Moffitt) lives a nice and everything seems fine until he suspects that someone is following him and watching his every move. He wants to find out who these “watchers” are and why they’re following him.  Director Sy Cody White creates a world of paranoia and doubt in just thirty minutes and he makes us feel for John Porter who finds himself suddenly part of a world where nothing is what it seems to be. The very first line in the film, “Have you ever felt like you were being followed?”, sets the tone and soon the viewer senses the same feeling of paranoia as does Porter.

Because Porter is so precise and ordered, the fact that his marriage is ending is reason to be distraught. He does not take defeat easily and leaves message after message for his wife, Marcy it seems, John leaves message after message for Marcy, hoping to keep reconciliation as a possible outcome. His messages and phone calls go unanswered and unacknowledged and he is concerned about his young daughter Sarah.

He tries to concentrate on work, but is unable to and he ignores whatever advice and counsel that his offer. He even tries to keep his home neat and tidy, hoping and ready for Marcy and Sarah’s return, but the chances of that happening are not likely. Everything gets that much worse when he feels that he is being followed by some very strange and mysterious individuals. These strangers simply stare and then appear everywhere but with no explanation as to who they are, what they want and what they plan to do.

John’s psychiatrist, Dr. Orwell (Timothy J. Cox), listens but doubts what John has to say and thinks that all of his problems are caused by stress and that the failure of his marriage is what his causing him to feel the way that he does. As John tries to uncover the truth, he meets twists and turns yet there are some things that he does not see but that the audience does if it is paying close attention. The pace of the movie is swift and we never lose focus as we watch. Moffit as John turns in an amazing performance and he is well supported by the rest of the cast. Timothy Cox, as usual is excellent as the doctor. Even though the doctor assumes that it is stress that causes Porter him to become delusional, there is the possibility that this is not the real reason but that is for you to think about.

“1945”— A Bitter Homecoming in Hungary

 

“1945”

A Bitter Homecoming in Hungary

Amos Lassen

The plains of Hungary are the setting for “1945”, a film about two Orthodox Jews, an elderly father (Ivan Angelus) and his adult son (Marcell Nagy), who return to their village at the end of World War II. As the story unfolds, the elders of the village that now has no Jews are upset as the pair approach because the village’s residents have stolen and plundered the Jews’ homes, businesses and valuables, and are worried about these now being reclaimed. Tension mounts as the father and son approach, by horse and wagon, as a planned wedding is underway and is unexpectedly cancelled when a tragedy intervenes.

Director Ferenc Török worked for ten years to adapt the story for the screen. Shot in black and white, the film is the portrayal of a special day in the life of a small Hungarian village at the end of the Second World War as it deals with a past that is best forgotten and a threatening future. 

The presence of the two Jews sires fear in those who profited from their persecution. The comparison with the growing sense of nationalism in contemporary Hungary is clear to see as here victims who are portrayed as dangerous invaders by those in power. While for some nations, 1945 was the year of liberation from Nazi-fascism, other states in Eastern Europe simply went from being dominated by one foreign power to being dominated by another, turning a prosperous future into terrible misfortune: the final shot showing the black smoke from the train in the middle of the countryside is in this respect symbolic; what should have been a cause for celebration (a wedding) that turns into tragedy, in which no one is free from blame, from the parish priest to the mayor, from masters to servants. It is no accident that the only positive characters end up leaving the village. 

The small village is a microcosm of Hungarian society and the camera observes the victims discretely, always from the sidelines or from the other side of windows or bars. The narration is painful but necessary not only to understand what happened in the past but also for what’s happening now. There is the sense of a threatening future and that certain tragedies aren’t accidental but the result of the dissemination of demented ideas of the likes of nationalism and racism. In substance this is an honest film that commits itself to portraying Hungary in the immediate post-war period, showing that the fear of that which is foreign never pays off.

As the two men disembark from the tiny train station, local whispers spread. Shopkeepers and housewives peer through their curtains fearfully; the town clerk and the sheriff quickly prepare themselves for a conflict.

The source of the conflict is also deeper than one might initially assume. This is a provincial European town that, like so many others under Nazi occupation, closed ranks on its non-Gentile population. Its policemen, town officials and even parish priests conveniently ignored the mass deportation of their Jewish neighbors, often in exchange for silverware, trinkets and homes.

The film takes place over the course of one day as these lost neighbors return home. We see a claustrophobic view of moral degeneration that becomes apparent when the town shows its defensive anger. The townspeople never expected their former neighbors to come back.

As the two returning Jewish men embark on an untold mission, carrying trunks and walking silently across the city, panic ensues. The townspeople wonder if they will demand their property or seek vengeance? Town clerk Istvan (Peter Rudolf) is particularly vigilant. He is a prominent and well-off citizen who bristles at the thought that any of his previously owned possessions might have to be returned. As the degree of Istvan’s own culpability in wartime events becomes clear, he begins to backslide into paranoid rage. Torok uses intimate and unsparing close-ups on Rudolf’s wide-set face and those of the film’s characters. He juggles the topography of this small town and the faces reminiscent of early westerns.

It just so happens that the day of the strangers’ visit coincides with the wedding of Istvan’s son. As the father and son travel with quiet dignity to their intended location, the sense of panic around the town reaches its peak. The locals seem so concerned with holding on to their ill-gotten gains that they never pause to consider a different possibility. The film focuses on deceit and lies and their caustic nature that breaks apart a cover István’s managed to maintain during the war.

Suspicions raise fears of reclamation and István finds not all participants of his scheme have been able to expunge guilt. As he’s eventually told face-to-face, the whole town knows the degree to which he wrangled a fine house and local drugstore from the Jews and so the question director Török poses is whether the pair’s arrival is for justice, or something simpler since their arrival isn’t with a police escort.

The film’s strongest material is in the themes of corruption that corrode almost every citizen. We learn that teenage daughters nervously shake, wives take drugs, brides cheat on their fiancés, and the men seek refuge by the bottle. We get an eerie glimpse into the central lifespan of a lie after its been seeded, and nears the end of its power.

“FURIOUS DESIRES”— Passion and Yearning

 

“Furious Desires”

Passion and Yearning

Amos Lassen

A new collection of gay themed shorts is a series of films that looks at the different forms of desire.

The many forms of desire are on display in this new short films. “Daytime Doorman” looks at the burgeoning desire between Marcelo and his sexy doorman Marcio. “Xavier” is about the beginnings of desire, when Nicholas begins to notice his son, Xavier, only pays attention to certain types of boys. “The Other Side” is about the frustrations of unfulfilled desire when the object of your lust is literally beyond one’s reach. “The Tigers Fight” looks at what happens when one man, unbound by the ancient traditions, decides to subvert what is expected of him to declare his desire for his best friend. “Loris Is Fine” is about the lengths two young lovers will go to prove that their love is beyond desire.

“KUNTERGRAU”: Seasons 1 & 2— A Popular German Web Series

“Kuntergrau: Seasons 1&2”

A Popular German Web Series

Amos Lassen

In Kuntergrau, a very popular German web series, coming out is part of the past while sex and love is mundane. A group of five gay friends between 17 and 24 deals with everyday problems and experiences the meaning of love, sex, and friendship. It has been said that “Kuntergrau” is continental Europe’s most popular gay-themed web series. It’s produced on a voluntary basis as part of the youth work of Europe’s oldest LGBT youth center: the “Anyway” youth center in Cologne, Germany.

The series is made by young gay people aged between 15 and 27 in their spare time, including film students as well as media-interested gay men who all have one goal – to show the world what being gay in 2017 means to them. They’ve produced two seasons of the show so far. The first five episodes debuted in 2016, with four more premiering in 2017 – that may only be 9 episodes but they represent two hours of fascinating of entertainment.

The series is about “Leopold (Age 17) who does not want to identify himself through his sexuality, Noah (Age 24), whose BDSM fetish challenges his ex-boyfriend, Jan (Age 20), to a point where their relationship begins to break. Along with them is promiscuous Marcel (Age 21), who works as a banker and has to live with his HIV infection. Last but not least, Lukas (Age 19) moves from the country to the big city to get away from his controlling parents – unsuccessfully. The stories of these five men become intertwined and what results is a story that encapsulates what it means to be a young gay man in a big city.”

“SIEGE”— Fear and Mourning

 “SIEGE”(“Matzor”)

Fear and Mourning

Amos Lassen

Tamar (Gila Almagor) lost her husband in the 1967 Six Day War, and now wants to put her pain behind her and find new love. However, her late husband’s friends and family expect that her to remain in mourning for the rest of her life in order to keep his memory alive. Unlike most films made in Israel shortly after the Six Day War 1967 war, “Siege” was not a look at the euphoria of victory, but rather captured feelings of fear and mourning.

“Siege” was originally released in 1969 and is, as far as I know, the first Israeli film to be digitally restored because it is such a unique film. “Siege should receive much more attention in Israeli culture. It was one of the first films to deal with war and mourning from a female perspective.”  

Shot in black and white, it tells the story of a young Israeli widow and her attempts to find some semblance of normalcy following the death of her husband during the Six-Day War. Gila Almagor as Tamar lends texture to the political dimension of this film by director Gilberto Tofano who examines women’s emancipation in a country stifled by social conventions.

The film was made two years after the Six-Day War, at a time when the country was riding high on a sense of euphoria. It served as a reminder to the entire country that even though Israel won the war, it lost lives, with women also sacrificed as collateral. “Siege” expresses the idea that there is no winner in war. There are victims on both sides of the conflict.

Wider Israeli society at the time put war widows under constant supervision. They were expected to submit to the rules of society. To fail to do so was to be very badly seen indeed. A war widow was required to live alone, carry sorrow in her heart, and take care of your children. Some were forced to leave the country in a bid to rebuild their lives and live without fear of reprisal. Today, women are freer, more independent. This film is an important testimony to how things once were.

Director Tofano decided to splice the film with documentary images and this was a first in the history of Israeli film. This narrative style is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard and the New Wave directors. By calling into question the weight of convention that rests on widows’ shoulders in Israel, he took a bold chance.

The film also stars Yehoram Gaon as Tamar’s husband’s friend and Dan Ben Amotz as her lover. All three actors are icons of Israeli cinema. “Siege” had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, 1969 and at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival the restored film was shown. It was the Israeli entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 42nd Academy Awards. 

”Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times” by Eyal Press— Acts of Dissent by Regular People

Press, Eyal.” Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times”, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux  2012.

Acts of Dissent by Regular People

Amos Lassen

We have all wondered what impels ordinary people to defy authority and convention. In “Beautiful Souls” by Eyal Press, we read dramatic stories of unlikely resisters and see that the boldest acts of dissent are often carried out not only by radicals seeking to overthrow the system but also by true believers who hold on to their convictions. Drawing on groundbreaking research by moral psychologists and neuroscientists, Press examines the choices and dilemmas we all face when our principles collide with the loyalties we harbor and the duties we are expected to fulfill.

Press explores the nature of moral courage and the capacity to transcend conventional moral standards. The book begins with references to the psychological factors involved in the process of resisting evil authority. We become immediately aware of “the author’s bias toward a social psychological view of evil results in an overemphasis upon situational ethics as opposed to a more nuanced developmental model to explain the dynamics of becoming a rescuer or a resister”. Readers who are sympathetic toward the view that ordinary people can become monsters under the right environmental conditions will find themselves completely comfortable with Press’s narrative. On the other hand, those who see the evil doers of the world (like Adolf Eichmann) and the people who support them as individuals who obtain sadistic gratification from their murderous activities will be deeply troubled by what is here. “This becomes evident early on when Press minimizes Daniel Goldhagen’s position that much of the genocide of the Holocaust was voluntary in nature (“willing executioners”) and that the killing was undertaken with “exuberant joy.”

Press has the ability to bring to light the ideals and beliefs of individuals who exhibited unparalleled moral courage and ethical maturity at great risk to their lives. Gentile rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, a Serb saving Croats during the Bosnian war, Israeli soldiers refusing to serve in the West Bank, a financial industry whistleblower are each eloquently portrayed. 

The book can serve as an excellent starting point for in-depth discussions of moral dilemmas and the nature of ethical decision-making under extreme stress. The stories in the book are framed by research and “big ideas” and we get a realistic look at how hard it is to go against society pressure, to say no to the way things are or to authority.

“The Submmission” by Amy Waldman— Building a Memorial

Waldman, Amy. “The Submission”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux  2011.

Building a Memorial

Amos Lassen

A jury chooses a memorial for the victims of a devastating terrorist attack on Manhattan and learns that the anonymous designer is an American Muslim, an enigmatic architect named Mohammad Khan. His selection, as we can imagine, reverberates across a divided and traumatized country and through individual lives. Claire Burwell, the sole widow on the jury, becomes Khan’s fiercest defender. But when the news of his selection becomes public, she comes under pressure from outraged family members and collides with journalists, opportunistic politicians, and even Khan himself. This is a story of clashing convictions and emotions as well as a satire of political ideals.

We look at the notions of who is an American and what American identity is or should be in a post-September 11 and while this is not a Jewish novel with only a few Jewish characters but it is the themes rather than the characters, the themes hold Jewish interest.

We follow the contest to create a memorial at the site of the Twin Towers. The protagonists are the members of the committee that will decide on the winner;  this group includes the families of survivors, artists, and the chairman, a Jew who has held various political positions.  The committee makes a decision without knowing the winner’s  identity and it is revealed that the winning design is by a secular Muslim named Mohammed, whose parents tell him that they gave him this name both because it was his pious Muslim grandfather’s name and because it was a “statement of faith in America that we never thought for a moment that your name would hold you back in any way.”  The question of how America reacts to a Muslim architect is what this novel is all about. We also get specific details on New York, the Bangladeshi immigrant community, and identity politics.

Waldman does a wonderful job of identifying points of view relevant to a potential competition to design a memorial to the 9/11 attacks. She uses them to put in motion a plausible scenario of how such a competition might take place and how the many stakeholders in such a memorial might act during the competition. Their interactions tell us a lot about who we are as a nation and how we make public decisions. We gain insight on a public policy topic that continues to be near the center of American political discourse.

“Are We Screwed?: How a New Generation is Fighting to Survive Climate Change” by Geoff Dembicki— A Roadmap for Radical Resistance

Dembicki, Geoff. “Are We Screwed?: How a New Generation is Fighting to Survive Climate Change”,  Bloomsbury USA , 2017

A Roadmap for Radical Resistance

Amos Lassen

Geoff Dembicki in “Are We Screwed?” tells us that we, the millennial generation, might not only experience “the doomsday impacts of climate change” but that “we will be most screwed” by it.

We are also the last generation that is able to do something about the changes that will come. Dembicki went to Silicon Valley, Canada’s tar sands, Washington, DC, Wall Street and the Paris climate talks to find out if he should have hope or despair and what he learned surprised him. There are millions of people his age who want to radically change the world, and they are at the forefront of resistance to the politicians and CEOs who are steering our planet towards disaster.

This is a firsthand account of this movement, and the shift in generational values behind it, through the stories of young people fighting for their survival. It begins with a student who abandons society to live in the rainforest and ends with a Muslim feminist inciting a political revolution. We also meet a Brooklyn artist who is terrifying the oil industry, a Norwegian scientist running across the melting Arctic and an indigenous filmmaker who challenges the worldview of Mark Zuckerberg.

Dembicki argues for a safer and more equitable future and says that it is more achievable than we’ve been led to believe. His book changes how we view the biggest existential challenge of our time and he helps to redefine the generation that is now battling against the odds to solve it. In formulating his manifesto against the way things are now, he uses the stories of individuals who are fighting against

climate change and analyzes and critiques many organizations that claim to be effecting change. He states quite plainly that Millennials do care about the future, so much so, that they are willing to fight for it. They will not allow themselves to “be screwed” even though the man running this country denies that climate change is happening. Taking action now can prevent disastrous events and he issues a challenge for us to take arms to prevent what seems sure to happen if we do not.

Today, younger voters are energized by policy positions but ultimately disappointed by elected leaders. If they keep up the battle, there is a chance to win this war. Young people must stand up for their rights but they also must know what to ask for. We have not yet been “screwed” and we will not be, Dembicki tells us, if we all to work together to create a sustainable existence.

“A Place Called Winter” by Gale Patrick— The Shock of Discovery

Gale, Patrick. “A Place Called Winter”, Grand Central, 2016.

The Shock of Discovery

Amos Lassen

Harry Cane has followed convention at every step. He comes from a family of privilege but he lives a muted life and even when he becomes involved in an illicit, dangerous affair with another man and the only thing that worries him is the shock of discovery and the threat of arrest that costs him everything. He is forced to leave his wife and child and immigrates to the prairies of Canada which are beginning the colonization process.

Harry ends up in a place called Winter which is remote and far away in lifestyle from the kind of life that he maintained in Edwardian England. It is there that the real Harry comes out and he finds his inner strength and capacity for love while dealing with

the threat of war, madness and an evil man. Writer Patrick Gale shares Harry’s journey of self-discovery that is brutal. This is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love. I understand that the story is loosely based on real events.

Harry has to go changes in life and forge a new life on the Canadian frontier. He begins by becoming friendly with a brother and sister on a section of land and Harry came to love Paul, the brother.

Writer Gale builds his main character, Harry, through the exploration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the story moves slowly at first, the pace picks up as we move forward as we get an in-depth look at the human condition.

Harry Cane held no malice and bitterness despite the emotional jolts he suffered. He was, quite simply, a victim of his time, certain in his belief that he deserved whatever hardship and misery came his way.

Bias and ethnicity and two of the themes of the novel and as we read, it is hard not to be sympathetic to Harry.

 

“WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME”— To Be Herself

“Whitney : Can I Be Me”

To Be Herself

Amos Lassen

We have heard this story many times. A young girl from the hood who has a gorgeous voice is on a very quick rise from church singe to megastar and one of the most successful female recording artists of all time. Along the way, she struggles to overcome controlling family members, music executives, world-wide fame and substance addiction. But there is something more in this story and that is the failure to find a workable balance between the two most important people in her life – her closest friend, confidante and one-time alleged lover Robyn Crawford and her recording artist husband Bobby Brown.

Director Nick Broomfield explores these elements subtly and without putting everything in the face of the viewer. There are no explosive revelations, no interviews with key players like Cissy Houston, Crawford or Brown and there is no emphasis on one singular tragic moment that has already been well-documented and mediated.  Broomfield lets Whitney do the one thing she always wanted to do in life—the chance to just be herself.

Through the use of talking head interviews with many of the other people who closely surrounded Houston and siblings and the use of archival and never-before-seen footage of Houston taken by co-director Rudi Dolezal during her last successful “My Love is Your Love tour” in 1999, Broomfield gives us Whitney Houston’s story from one climactic downfall to the next.

The story begins at her end; an accidental drowning in her hotel suite at the famed Beverly Hilton whilst under the influence of drugs and alcohol.  It then quickly moves to Houston during her last successful tour in 1999 as she emotionally sings her greatest hit “I Will Always Love You” . This then becomes the central thread through which this story is told. Every time we see a happy moment, we cannot help but be saddened by the tragedy that lurks under the surface.

From her early life as a teenage gospel singer under the guidance of her mother Cissy to her discovery by Clive Davis, we see the shy, insecure and self-doubting artist who became greater than herself. One friend says that she changed history for black women and she paid a price to do so.

With her second album, that price became inescapable when media speculation looked at her private life and she was forced to conceal her relationship with childhood best friend and creative director Robyn Crawford.  The film alludes to a more intimate relationship with Crawford but neither the family nor Crawford herself has ever publicly confirmed any romantic attachment and Crawford has never spoken publically about her personal relationship with Houston and Houston’s family have tried to diminish Crawford’s place Whitney’s life.

Crawford’s close relationship with Houston was also a problem for her husband Bobby Brown.  The two hated each other despite Houston maintaining close relationships with them both and they constantly battled over her affections and attentions. By 1999, Crawford had had enough and resigned due to irreconcilable differences.

Crawford’s departure during Houston’s last successful tour was a major loss for Houston and a contributing factor in her tragic downfall. With her safe harbor gone, Houston was left in the care of family and associates who are presented to us as self-serving enablers.

Broomfield and his co-director Rudi Dolezi, have tried really hard not to sensationalize her life story, which is almost impossible to do with all of the traumas and dramas that Houston was involved in.  They do, however, focus on the facts and try to dispel many of rumors that followed Houston for most of her adult life. 

Houston’s childhood was full of conflicting standards. Drugs were prevalent at home and even she experimented with them with her two older brothers. On the other hand her mother Cissy Houston, a famous gospel singer was fiercely religious and did not seem to worry about what was going on under her roof.  That very hypocrisy was raised later on when the subject of Houston’s closeted bisexuality was discussed as Cissy could never accept it, even if her daughter’s dependence on drugs was not a problem for her at the time.

Record Label mogul Clive Davis was looking for a voice like hers that he could produce to make pop music that would make her the first ever African/American to crossover to the mainstream charts.  He, therefore, controlled her music choices very carefully and instantly made her a major success and her debut album was the biggest seller one from a female artist.  Houston was therefore happy enough to go along with Davis, but occasionally she would rebel and that’s what the title of this movie tells us.

Everything was going great when Houston went to the Soul Train Awards one night and her changed for ever. Firstly the mainly African/American music business audience booed every time her name was mentioned because they believed she had turned her back on her black roots and sold out.  This was also the night she first met Bobby Brown. 

Some people claim she never ever really recovered from her community’s reaction that night, and this may have propelled her a little faster than ever into Brown’s arms. Brown was the bad-boy of hip hop who was much younger than her and he gave Houston some street-credit and in return, she gave him money, fame and everything else.

There was, however, one major obstacle in the way of the couple’s new relationship which would eventually lead to marriage and parenthood— Robyn Crawford who had been with Houston from day one and served as her Creative Director, Mentor, Best Friend and probably her lover too.  They were as close as two people could possibly be and since she was Houston’s gatekeeper, everyone had to go through Crawford to get to the singer.  The moment Brown was on the scene and Houston insisted that Crawford carry on as before, there was a battle between the two of them to be the keeper of Houston’s heart.

In the footage we see here Brown looks like he was auditioning for ‘boys behaving badly’,  and though no blame is apportioned to him for Houston’s downfall when she became so reliant on the drugs again, it was clear (according to what we see and hear here) that he was a very bad and powerful influence on her.  

By the time of Houston’s last major Tour in 1999, she had become a mere shadow of herself and she struggled to find the energy to get through her performances. She was aided and abetted by her retinue who talked openly of taking drugs with her even though they could see her rapid decline which ended in her death when she was only 48 years old.  It’s just over five years since Whitney Houston died and we are regularly reminded of the date on-screen.