Category Archives: Uncategorized

“THE REFLECTING SKIN”— A Dark American Dream

“THE REFLECTING SKIN”

 A Dark American Dream

Amos Lassen

“The Reflecting Skin” was an instant cult classic when it premiered to sold out screenings at Cannes in 1990 and it is a darkly humorous, nightmarish vision of the American dream. 

Mysterious deaths plague a small prairie town in 1950s Idaho and eight year-old Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) believes that Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), the reclusive English widow living next door, is a vampire who steals the souls of his neighborhood friends one by one. When his older brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) returns home from military service and falls in love with the widow, Seth is totally distressed and worried that Cameron could  be her next victim? 

“The Reflecting Skin” is not an average vampire movie. if it is a vampire movie. Most people easily label it a psychological horror film but it  is not a film that is easily pigeonholed. It appears to be a film about the trauma of growing up and more importantly, growing up with a dysfunctional family that is haunted by their past. The plot is told in a series of twisted events.

The film was the directorial debut of Philip Ridley, a British painter-illustrator-novelist and it was celebrated as one of the unique films of its year and received a good deal of favorable reviews. Seth’s mother, Ruth (Sheila Moore), is an unhappy woman who obsessively cleans her home, trying to get rid of the smell of petrol, which Seth’s father (Duncan Fraser) carries with him because of working at a small gas station nearby. Ruth doesn’t think much of her youngest son but speaks highly of her oldest Cameron, a soldier back from his military duty in the Pacific. Dad, on the other hand, is a loving father, who, unfortunately, has a shameful dark secret. At one point, he tells Seth a story about vampires and the prairie boy becomes convinced that a pale, young widowed neighbor named Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), is, in fact, a bloodsucker. Seth’s slow descent into madness is intensified by some truly horrific events that unfold shortly after. For Seth, the world of childhood is dark and twisted: His friends are molested and murdered, his tormented father douses himself in gasoline and then sets himself on fire before his eyes and his half-crazy mother abuses him. Meanwhile, his beloved brother returning from World War II is suffering from radiation sickness and doesn’t know it. Life is not good for Seth.

 “The Reflecting Skin” is part horror story, and part coming of age tale. It is a true American Gothic,  shot from the point of view of the impressionable Seth and crammed with twisted religious symbolism. Ridley is said to have conceived of the idea for the film when he was reading “Alice in Wonderland and studying the paintings by Andrew Wyeth. The influence of Lewis Carroll is evident with its hyper-imaginative child roaming about what appears to be a dark fairy tale; meanwhile Wyeth is even more apparent in the overall aesthetic. The Reflecting Skin is many things, and one of the most beautiful and most intriguing films of the 1990’s due to the stunning cinematography from the legendary Dick Pope. The breathtakingly blue skies, shots of golden wheat fields and beautiful landscapes are a strong contrast to the bleak story.

I was also amazed at how each of the five main characters are painstakingly detailed and drawn – from learning about Dolphin’s husband’s suicide, and her ongoing fascination with destruction  to understanding why Seth’s mother is clearly unbalanced, and likely clinically depressed to the father’s secret past and to hints that Cameron is psychologically and physically wounded and scarred from his time spent overseas.

Death is visible everywhere, from the dead bodies piling up, to the black Cadillac that roams the countryside abducting the young boys, a rather obvious, symbol of death as well. Cameron asks Seth, ”Why aren’t you off playing with your friends?” To which Seth responds quite matter-of-factly, “All my friends are dead.”

The film is pessimistic and offers absolutely no hope or any sort of happiness for anyone. Ridley fills each frame with metaphors that boil just below the surface, but what it all means is left for the viewer to decide. In the final reel, Seth is seen running as fast as he can through the golden fields. It soon becomes evident that no matter how fast he runs, he has nowhere to go. You can’t escape death, and in the end, we are all just rotting away. And in the end, Dolphin, who is seen almost always wearing black is found dead, cloaked in white – as if, dying was the release she needed to break free from the horrors of her everyday existence. Perhaps we are all vampires, sucking the life out of from one another, day to day.

. BONUS FEATURES

  • Angels & Atom Bombs: The Making of The Reflecting Skin(running time: 44 minutes)
  • Commentary with writer/director Philip Ridley
  • Booklet with introduction by Philip Ridley and new essay by Travis Crawford and Heather Hyche

About Film Movement

Founded in 2002 as one of the first-ever subscription film services with its DVD-of-the-Month club, Film Movement is now a North American distributor of award-winning independent and foreign films based in New York City. It has released more than 250 feature films and shorts culled from prestigious film festivals worldwide.  Film Movement’s theatrical releases include American independent films, documentaries, and foreign art house titles. Its catalog includes titles by directors such as Hirokazu Kore-eda, Maren Ade, Jessica Hausner, Andrei Konchalovsky, Andrzej Wajda, Diane Kurys, Ciro Guerra and Melanie Laurent. In 2015, Film Movement launched its reissue label Film Movement Classics, featuring new restorations released theatrically as well as on Blu-ray and DVD, including films by such noted directors as Eric Rohmer, Peter Greenaway, Bille August, Marleen Gorris, Takeshi Kitano, Arturo Ripstein, King Hu, Sergio Corbucci and Ettore Scola. For more information, please visit www.filmmovement.com. Visit www.filmmovementplus.com for more information about Film Movement Plus, the new subscription streaming service from Film Movement.

“CONFLICT OF WINGS”— The People vs. The Royal Air Force

“CONFLICT OF WINGS”

The People vs. The Royal Air Force

Amos Lassen

“In rural Norfolk, villagers are spurred to action when it is announced that the nearby RAF station is taking over the Island of Children, a much-loved and untouched bird sanctuary, for rocket practice.”

“Conflict of Wings” is about a battle between a local population against the powers that be. The RAF intends to commandeer a small island in the Norfolk Broads to use as a firing range. The locals are up in arms and begin protesting  but  someone discovers an ancient act whereby Henry VIII had given the land to the church in gratitude for the town helping to end a long forgotten rebellion.

We learn that Vampire jets that are based at the local RAF base have been equipped with new rocket firing apparatus and the firing range is required to train the pilots using the new systems. Whilst the residents’ about Henry VIII claims are being investigated, the RAF decides to carry on with the exercise. The residents get into boats and ‘occupy’ the island so they can stop the exercise. When they occupy the island, someone accidentally damages the telephone link from an RAF spotter on the island to the control center.

As the residents invade, he attempts to warn the commander to abort the exercise, but cannot make contact. Low cloud cover means that the approaching aircraft don’t see the ground until the last seconds. The occupiers wave and shout frantically and just as the order to fire is about to be made, the lead pilot sees the danger and aborts the exercise just as the rockets are about to be released.

The humor is droll at best and typically British. The local inhabitants, led by native daughter Muriel Pavlow and an assortment of colorful character actors lead the fight to save the marsh and this  leads to conflict with her boyfriend, airman John Gregson, as well as the base commander Kieron Moore.

Combining comedy and drama is difficult and here it doesn’t really work.  What had been funny back then is no longer funny. There is almost a sub-genre of British comedies about colorful locals rising up in which in all instances, the enemy are incompetent bureaucrats or buffoons. Here the air force is shown as capable, concerned but committed to their responsibilities. Periodically Kieron Moore is required to look out into mid-space and give a speech about the need for military preparedness, with appropriate references to just past crises in Korea and Malaysia. Decent people having to make difficult choices may be more representative of real life but it is less satisfying on the movie screen. Here the shifting between comic efforts and near tragic efforts by the local population has the result of an uneven and ultimately unsatisfying cinema experience.

Here is rural England and its inhabitants preserved on screen. It is evocative of another time and place with no stand out performances (John Gregson is standard Jon Gregson – not to my taste, Muriel Pavlow doesn’t get a chance to act much and so on), no stand out dialogue, no great plot but it does have a sense of time and place and a unique plot.

“WILDLAND”– Second Chances in the Flames


“WILDLAND”

Second Chances in the Flames

Amos Lassen

Alex Jablonski and Kahlil Hudson’s documentary, ”Wildland” shows us the harsh realities of wildland as it tracks the experiences of a wildland firefighting crew. We get a personal look into a dangerous and provocative career. The men are led by coordinator Ed Floate and base manager Sean Hendrix and they are to become the newest Grayback Forestry team through selection, training, and the summer fire season.

The men at Grayback are a mysterious and captivating bunch of misfits. Many have served time in prison or are on parole, and each member of the team has different motivations for choosing such a risky job. Most are just looking for a second chance. Aidan, is a particularly intriguing character. Early on in the film, he asks Floate if there are more hero stories than horror stories. “Fighting fire is just long hours of hard, boring work punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” the boss replies curtly. Floate’s response catches the young man off guard, revealing some unspoken motivations.

Aidan and his close friend Charlie left their studies and bible school together and set out across the country to Grayback headquarters in Oregon. The two live in a campsite in the woods and bathe in the river and they  seem to care to live a non-materialistic lifestyle. Aidan does have one item he’s fond of, however: a paperback version of Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine”.

Some of the men on the crew have children, wives, and other jobs  while Aidan and Charlie have a great deal of energy about them. They are young and happy to be living in the wildlands but they are ultimately alone, responsible only for themselves and their own roles on the crew. At one point, Aidan reminisces on what drew him to this lifestyle. He says that he needed some “grit” in his life, something he felt it was impossible to have this in his comfortable life of privilege.

 

Aidan certainly gets what he hopes for as there is a lot of grit with this job. The work is physically exhausting. The men go up and down mountain ridges for 12, sometimes 14 hours at a time. The crew spends the majority of the film training and then going into active fire zones to create firelines and dig trenches on the outskirts of the zone to stop the fire from spreading. It’s grueling work and it also involves handling the soil with bare hands to ensure they’ve dug deep enough. That does not yet include  contact with  fire. Aidan and Charlie grow restless as the summer stretches on until they and the others finally have their first direct encounter with wildfire.

The film is shot in a murky, yellow haze as a fire rages through the Monterey forests. The crew works tirelessly creating lines and hosing flames. Throughout, the camera stays in the thick of it all, allowing the audience to be immersed in the smoke and heat.  We see just how much Floate’s insight rings true for Aidan, Charlie, and the rest of the men— the work is  long and hard work with high stakes. The men never see a true victory against the fire but continue to steadily fight against it.

Directors  Jablonski and Hudson try to emphasize just how intense this job is, even if doesn’t appear in the headline-making hero stories the men might have desired. This is a thoughtful tribute to an underappreciated group. The men at Grayback are looking for a second chance at life and are desperate to remake their lives and hope that like the phoenix, they will find it in the flames.

“An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” by Hank Green— In the Spotlight

Green, Hank. “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing”, Dutton, 2019.

In the Spotlight

Amos Lassen

Hank Green’s “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” is the story of  twenty-three-years old April who becomes an overnight celebrity before she realizes that May she’s part of something bigger and weirder than anyone could have possibly imagined. As she roams Manhattan at 3 A.M., she comes upon a giant statue and she is delighted with its appearance and workmanship. It looks like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing samurai armor. April and her best friend, Andy, make a video with it and Andy uploads to YouTube. The following morning, April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. It seems that there are are Carls in several cities around the world and April becomes their first documentarian thus becoming  the center of an international media spotlight.

April sees this as the opportunity to make her mark on the world, but she now has to deal with the consequences of her new particular brand of fame has on her relationships, her safety, and her own identity. We and the rest of the world want to know all what the Carls are what they want from us.

Writer Green uses big themes here (“how the social internet is changing fame, rhetoric, and radicalization; how our culture deals with fear and uncertainty; and how vilification and adoration spring for the same dehumanization that follows a life in the public eye).”

After discovering the first of many robot-like statues appearing across the globe, April finds herself as the spokesperson for these robots (known as “Carls”) and her life quickly spins out of control.

The book is part science fiction, part thriller and part reflection. It is also a journey that takes a hard look at “the power of fame and our willingness to separate a person from the brand.” Green’s understands that the power and limits of social media is incomparable. We read about cyberfame through a mysterious and fun plotline. April is a flawed bisexual character who has direction and commitment issues, coupled as well as generosity of spirit.”

“Bitwise: A Life in Code” by David Auerbach— Shaping Understanding

Auerbach, David, “Bitwise: A Life in Code”, Vintage Paperback, 2019.

Shaping Understanding

Amos Lassen

David Auerbach’s “Bitwise: A Life in Code” is both a memoir and a polemic on how computers and algorithms shape our understanding of the world and of who we are’ 
Computer lan­guages and codes captured technologist David Auerbach’s imagination. Now with a philoso­pher’s sense of inquiry, Auerbach recounts his childhood spent drawing ferns with the pro­gramming language Logo on the Apple IIe, his adventures in early text-based video games, his education as an engineer, and “his contribu­tions to instant messaging technology devel­oped for Microsoft and the servers powering Google’s data stores.” Auerbach has been a lifelong student of the systems that shape our lives (from the psy­chiatric taxonomy of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual” to how Facebook tracks and profiles its users). Here he reflects on how he has experienced the algorithms that taxonomize human speech, knowledge, and behavior and that compel us to do the same. 

 This is also a memoir of a life spent with code into which Auerbach has woven an eye-opening and searing examina­tion of the inescapable ways in which algo­rithms have both standardized and coarsened our lives. As we engineer ever more intricate technology to translate our experiences and narrow the gap that divides us from the ma­chine, Auerbach argues that we willingly erase our nuances and our idiosyncrasies—those things that make us human. 

Auerbach combines memoir, technical primer and social history  and then suggests that we need to be bitwise (understand the world through the lens of computers) as well as worldwide but we cannot do so without guides.
He explains what makes coding deeply fascinating, and is tamped full, like a scientist’s experiment in sphere-packing, of history, fact, and anecdote.”  Auerbach explains how his knowledge of coding “helped form him as a person, at the same time showing how coding has influenced aspects of culture such as personality tests and child-rearing.” .

Bitwise isn’t so much a continuous narrative of a life as a set of reflections on not just his life but the data-trolling business that increasingly conditions our choices as individuals. This is also a visual book, with many pictures and charts and spell outs of segments of computer code. If you’re not a programmer yourself, some of the code passages fall flat but the overall effect still moves forward, and I sense that Auerbach is taking the reader seriously.

The book is filled with occasional, and on the edge, insights into our new and rapidly emerging digital world, its opportunities and its pitfalls.

“AKIO JISSOJI: THE BUDDHIST TRILOGY”— 3-DISC LIMITED EDITION

“Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy”

3-Disc Limited Edition

Amos Lassen

During his career, Akio Jissôji created a rich and diverse body of work during his fifty years in Japan s film and television industries. He is best-known for his science-fiction: the 1960s TV series Ultraman and 1998 s box-office success Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis. For others, it is his 1990s adaptations of horror and mystery novelist Edogawa Rampo. There are also his New Wave films for the Art Theatre Guild and three of them comprise this set— “This Transient Life”, “Mandara” and “Poem”. Taken together, they are known as The Buddhist Trilogy.

“This Transient Life” is among the Art Theatre Guild s most successful and most controversial productions. It is about a brother and sister from a rich family who defy the expectations placed on them: he has little interest in further education or his father’s business and obsesses  over Buddhist statues; she continually refuses a string of suitors and the prospect of marriage. Their closeness, and isolation, gives way to an incestuous relationship which brings about disaster.

“Mandara” is Jissôji’s first color feature and focuses on a cult who recruit through rape and hope to achieve true ecstasy through sexual release. It is radically stylized and experimental.

“Poem” is in black and white, returns to black and white and is centered on the austere existence of a young houseboy who becomes helplessly embroiled in the schemes of two brothers and continues the trilogy’s s exploration of faith in a post-industrial world.

LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS

  High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of This Transient Life, Mandara and Poem

  Original uncompressed LPCM mono 1.0 audio on all three films

  Newly translated optional English subtitles

  Introductions to all three films by David Desser, author of Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave

  Scene-select commentaries on all three films by Desser

  Theatrical trailer for Mandara

  Theatrical trailer for Poem

  Limited edition packaging, fully illustrated by maarko phntm

  Illustrated 80-page perfect-bound collector s book featuring new writings on the film by Anton Bitel and Tom Mes

 

 

 

“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead— Two Boys in Florida

Whitehead, Colson. “The Nickel Boys: A Novel”, Doubleday, 2019.

Two Boys in Florida

Amos Lassen

“The Nickel Boys” is the follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning and New York Times bestseller “The Underground Railroad.” Colson Whitehead brilliantly looks at  American history through the story of two boys sentenced to reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Elwood Curtis was abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to attend the local black college, however, for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, it took just one innocent mistake to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, where the mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”

But this quite far from the truth. In reality, the Nickel Academy is a hell house of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Elwood Is stunned to find himself in such a vicious place. He really tries to hold onto Dr. King’s statement “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend, “Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to find ways to avoid trouble.”

There is tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism and this leads to a decision whose repercussions will be with them throughout time. decades. The boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy. The book is based on the real story of a real school for boys that closed in Florida in 2011 after 111 years in existence. It was  Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Academy is the kind of institution that purports to rebrand bad boys into good young men. In theory it should be a good place for Elwood, a young black man who, although he had planned to attend a nearby college, was caught unknowingly riding in a stolen car. The happenings inside Nickel Academy do not match its public image, and Elwood learns that, no matter how idealistic or optimistic he is, his life is taking a very bad turn. Turner does not share Elwood’s idealism but helps him to survive Nickel Academy. This is a story about of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and filled with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

“Color Me In” by Natasha Diaz— Meanings

Diaz, Natasha. “Color Me In”, Delacorte Press, 2019.

Meanings

Amos Lassen

Natasha Díaz used her own experience to write this coming of age novel. I is about the meaning of friendship, “young romance and racism and religious intolerance that can both strain a family to the breaking point and strengthen its bonds.”

Neveah Levitz grew up in an affluent suburb of New York City and never thought much about her biracial roots. Her mom is black and her father is Caucasian and Jewish. When her parents’ marriage falters, Neveah she relocates to her mom’s family home in Harlem and is forced to find out  something about blood pressure.  She wants to get to know her extended family, but one of her cousins feels that Nevaeh, who often “passes as white, is too privileged, pampered, and selfish to relate to the injustices they face on a daily basis as African Americans. In the midst of attempting to blend their families, Nevaeh’s dad decides that she should have a belated bat mitzvah instead of a sweet sixteen and this guarantees social humiliation at her very fancy private school. As this happens, Neveah does what she’s always done when things become complicated—she says nothing.

Things changed after she learned about a
secret from her mom’s past and she is feeling the pangs of first love. finds herself falling in love. This is when she sees the prejudice her family faces that she begins to realize she has a voice. She also has to make choices and decisions.  It is so very important that each of us know our background.

change. Nevaeh learns that identity is both beautiful and complicated. As we read, we find ourselves looking at things differently.

Nevaeh’s parent’s separation and she is struggling to find her place in this new reality. She wants to fit in with her mother’s very religious Baptist family who live in Harlem, but she has never the chance or desire to explore her Black identity. Slowly with the help of her extended family, the friends she makes and getting to know her mother better through her old journal, she begins to express herself through oral poetry. She is also initially hesitant to understand her Jewish identity but that that also changes because of the influence of the Rabbi Sarah. Nevaeh is a realistic teenager with faults, who doesn’t know everything, makes mistakes and can’t even understand why she is wrong. Ultimately she owns up her mistakes and tries to correct them as she strives to be better. 

The other characters in the book have their own plotlines. They all influence Nevaeh in her growth, but they have lives and their own issues that are independent of her.

Diaz’s prose shows us the power of Nevaeh, a young woman torn between two worlds, not knowing who she is or where she fits in. She fights against privilege that comes with her skin. It’s filled with strong female characters who challenge Nevaeh’s sense of normalcy. learns about her Jewish faith from her father’s side, and her Baptist faith from her mother’s side, she also catches a glimpse into the reasons behind her parents’ crumbling marriage as she reads through her mother’s old journal. 

 

“Silence of the Chagos” by Shenaz Patei— Based on a True Story

Patei, Shenaz. “Silence of the Chagos”, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Restless Books, 2019.

Based on a True Story

Amos Lassen

So many books profess that are about cultural identity but few of them ring true. Cultural identity involves the meaning of home and the eternal quest for justice. Shenaz Patel approaches this by using the lives of uprooted Chagossian activists as he shows us the tragic example of 20th century political oppression.

Daily, in the afternoon, Charlesia wearing a red headscarf walks remembering what was “back there”. She remembers Diego Garcia, one of the small islands forming the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean and how with no explanation, no advance warning, and only an hour to pack their belongings, Chagossians were deported to Mauritius. Officials tell her that the island is “closed” and none of them will ever be allowed to go back, there is no going back for any of them. Charlesia yearns for life on Diego Garcia, where during the day, she worked  on a coconut plantation and at nights she danced to sega music. As she struggles to deal with her life on Mauritius, she meets  Désiré, a young man born on the one-way journey to Mauritius. Désiré has never set foot on Diego Garcia, but as Charlesia shares the story of his people, he learns of the home he never knew and about the ruined future of his people.

Joren Molter brings forth “painful nostalgia, lingering memories and the eternal incomprehension of these expelled from a string of lost islands.” 

The story is told in two voices by Charlesia and Désiré. We learn that Chagos. The Chagos are an archipelago that would have been hidden in the depths of the Indian Ocean, if Americans not built a military base to bombard other countries. What really stands out are the two characters and the relationship between political expediency and its all-too-human consequences, between the abstract needs of international security and the concrete needs of the individual, and above all between the rich and the poor.”

The book is about two main characters who have been uprooted from their land and are lost in the world… it tells about the suffering of a people, the Chagossians, who were brutally forced to quit their islands, one of which is being used as a US military base. 

“Mary McCarthy: A Life” by Carol Gelderman— An Extraordinary Woman

Gelderman, Carol. “Mary McCarthy: A Life”, St. Martin’s, 1988.

An Extraordinary Woman

Amos Lassen

 I am a bit ashamed to say that I never read Carol Gelderman’s wonderful study of Mary McCarthy and there is reason for that especially since McCarthy was Hannah Arendt’s best friend and Carol Gelderman was one an important professor in my graduate studies.

For half a century, Mary McCarthy was at the center of the literary and intellectual life of America. This book, written with her cooperation, but not authorized, traces for the first time her extraordinary career.

Written while the subject was still alive, and with her cooperation, this is an engrossing biography of a woman whose name always comes up in any discussion of mid-20th century writers and intellectuals.

 

Mary McCarthy was both known as and actually was a brilliant writer, thinker, and supporter of leftist causes. She was outspokenness and this  often brought her unfavorable attention (the whole Lillian Hellman/Dick Cavett episode is examined). Gelderman gives us  a sympathetic yet balanced treatment of the criticism and controversies in her personal and literary life. There was much more to Mary McCarthy than her most famous work, “The Group.”

 Carol Gelderman was McCarthy’s first “official” biographer, and what surprised me was the inclusion of small details that were absent in later efforts such as McCarthy’s friendship with Montgomery Clift, and, after he sublet her house one summer who up as a character in “A Charmed Life?”).