Category Archives: GLBT documentary

“THE END OF CRUISING”— Finding Each Other

the end of cruising


”The End of Cruising”

Finding Each Other

Amos Lassen

Let me start off my saying that I am a huge Todd Verow fan even when he makes gritty and realistic movies. I think that is because he dares to go where others will not. This new documentary is typical Verow—bold and graphic and it is meant only for mature viewers.Today we live in an age of technology that has changed the way we meet each other or shall I say, cruise each other. In fact I am not sure that the word cruising even exists anymore. I remember the good old days in New Orleans when people cruised each other on the street and it was not strange at all to meet someone while mailing a letter or just strolling down the street.

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“The End of Cruising” is a stimulating anthology documentary of 22 short films that celebrate the pleasures gay men had finding places for anonymous sexual activity. Eloquent voice-over narrators tells their stories longingly and with fond memories of how the simple act of cruising played such an important part in the way they grew sexually. They reflect on the experience of having private sex in public places – from furtive, but knowing glances on the street to anonymous assignations in toilets, parks and on beaches. Verow’s films are always intense and that is why he has never been shy about showing and celebrating transgressive sexuality—we have seen it before in some of his other films.

Today if someone wants to have sex all he has to do is log on to the Internet, connect to a site and there it is. The bar scene has died quickly but it was once very different. In this film, Verow remembers a time when cruising areas provided instant gratification. There were public toilets, woods, highway rest areas, parks and cruising could be subtle or wild. Verow has taken the testimonies, most of which are anonymous and gives them to us in voiceovers by different narrators. This is quite a cinematic experience and very exciting and I am sure we will all remember how it once was.

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It is a bygone time but memories will come back to us and no doubt this will be nostalgic for many. We have now won the right to be who we are but Todd Verow tells us that “When you win something, we always lose another.” In most Western countries, gays can now live their sexuality freely, without having to hide. They can live their love, consider getting married, or just have sex while online for just a few moments. Now instead of seeing people face to face we exchange electronic photos and impersonality reigns.

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“The End of Cruising” reminds us that all is not necessarily great. In the old days we risked being arrested and having our names in the newspaper. So there was a price to pay as well. We get here a whirlwind ride through a time that was and probably never will be again so it is definitely worth remembering.

“FIRST COMES LOVE”— Getting Pregnant

first comes love

“First Comes Love”

Getting Pregnant

Amos Lassen

Filmmaker Nina Davenport was single and forty-one years old when she decided to have a baby on her own. She disregarded the odds that were against her including the high cost of living in New York City, She enlisted her friend Amy as a birth partner and asked her gay friend Eric to be a sperm donor. Of course she wrestled with the idea of what it means to create a new life and how it would affect her hopes for a future relationship.

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This is an autobiographical movie and it looks at the various issues Nina faces as her biological clock ticks down. She goes through the dating scene looking for a husband and father for the child that she wants to have and ultimately decides on in vitro and she does by convincing one of her friends to donate his sperm. We see that she is surrounded by friends and family as she moves toward her goal of motherhood. Just as they indeed give her real support, there are also those who feel skeptical about what she is doing. In fact, her father outright rejects the idea. Ultimately she has her child and she and her son seem to have that “I told you so” attitude.

There are some very interesting aspects of the film such as when Nine re-examines her childhood and her relationship with her parents but there is also a good deal of self-obsession here.

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What we really see is how the modern family is being re-imagined in the early twenty-first century. I felt, at times, as if I was watching a case study of the filmmaker. She is candid about the trials that women go through to get pregnant, give birth and then deal with raising the child and we do get a new appreciation for mothers.

“WHEN MY SORROW DIED: The Legend of Armen Ra & the Theremin”— His Journey

when my sorrow died

“When My Sorrow Died: The Legend of Armen Ra & the Theremin”

His Journey

Amos Lassen

Just who is Theremin master Armen Ra? He is eccentric and enigmatic and he takes us with him on his journey that mixes together concert performances, candid interviews and archival material as well as music that has the ability to make everything look beautiful. His creativity is life defining and soul saving and it is the core of this biographical look at the man. This is a candid look at some of the key moments in his Ra’s personal growth and we see just how much of an enigma he is as he talks with an off-camera interviewer. We learn of a life lived as an outsider, initially by society’s design then ultimately on his own terms.

Ra was born into a minority in Iran where the threat of persecution was always present. He suffered from violent bullying at his new American high school and while it was painful it helped define his self-worth. His acceptance among the LGBT community of New York City was reaffirming but substance abuse stifled his growth. It was not until he managed to reach a degree of sobriety that he became one of the greatest living proponents of the ethereal electronic instrument.

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Ra’s fine features and feminine curves made him a drag superstar and Robert Nazar Arjoyan’s camera captures all his charms, both physical and intellectual. Often appearing to be at one with the lushly glamorous set design against which he is framed (and which he personally compiled for the film), the enigmatic musician lays bare periods of drug and alcohol consumption. His fateful take on how the theremin came into his life and set about redefining his very existence is deeply affecting.

Interspersed with Ra’s recollections is intimately staged concert footage that captures the prowess and precision required to be a master of the seven octave theremin, the only instrument played by not touching it and the first electronic musical device invented.

“When My Sorrow Died” is a look at the emergence of a man in the guise of an artist, of a life made richer by reconciliation with one’s demons. Arjoyan’s detailed, heartfelt ode to a musical genius is also a look at a unique individual searching for and ultimately finding a path to acceptance and understanding. Armen Ra’s journey and talent deserves a film that transcends the concert film genre and Arjoyan delivers on that with graceful style. 

“FOUCAULT AGAINST HIMSELF”— The Genius

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“Foucault Against Himself”

The Genius

Amos Lassen

Michel Foucault was one of the great minds of the 20th century and he is also my personal hero. He wrote about whatever he wanted and he did so brilliantly. He covered madness, sexuality, pleasure, the classics, law and penal institutions—he was a renaissance man at a time when there was no renaissance. I had the pleasure of studying with him in Paris the year before his death to AIDS and for me it was akin to sitting at the feet of a great mind and an unpredictable mind at that. He said, “Don’t ask me who I am, and don’t tell me to remain the same.” The extent of his thought and his mind were astonishing and he has left his mark as Foucaldian philosophy is still being studied widely.

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Foucault was able to bridge the roles of the intellectual and the activist—he attained the highest honors of the French academy and used his position to attack the very power that gave him a platform. This documentary comes to us from director François Caillat and is divided into four chapters: Foucault’s critique of psychiatry, his work on the history of sexuality, the growth of his radicalism arising from his research into the French penal system, the nature of knowledge and underlying structures of human behavior, and his immersion in American counter-cultural movements; particularly the resistance to certain social structures that he found among sexual minority communities in San Francisco.

We hear from leading philosophers, sociologists and historians among them is Leo Bersani, who first invited Foucault to speak at UC Berkeley – as well as footage of Foucault himself and French and American archival material depicting events that profoundly influenced him.

Foucault profoundly opposed the notion of small fiefdoms of knowledge. His approach was eclectic (a philosopher writing extensively about history and surveying prisoners on their living conditions, to give two examples) and wide-ranging. Philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman calls him an intellectual “nomad… crossing the territorial boundaries of knowledge.”

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Certain themes or threads can be found in Foucault’s writings—the critique of institutional power and the celebration of resistance – but his work is also filled with fragmentary thoughts and contradictions. We must thank him for his idea that “Knowledge is Power”.

The film beautifully captures the energy and the intellect of Michel Foucault and it introduces us to the key ideas and elements of his philosophy. It also acknowledges and celebrations the many contradictions within his writings.

“REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG”— Writer/Philosopher/Political Activist/Filmmaker

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“Regarding Susan Sontag”

Writer/Philosopher/Political Activist/Filmmaker

Amos Lassen

“Regarding Susan Sontag” is an intimate and fascinating look at and into the life of Sontag, one of the most influential and provocative thinkers of the 20th century. She was a woman of passion and she was outspoken as one of the most important literary, political and feminist icons of her generation. This documentary explores her life through archival materials, accounts from friends, family, colleagues, and lovers, as well as her own words and it is narrated by actress Patricia Clarkson. Before she died at age 71, Sontag was a cultural critic and writer whose works on photography, war, illness, and terrorism are still very relevant today.

Director Nancy Kates is undoubtedly in awe of Sontag despite what we learn here—that she was a self-centered and pretentious egotist. She was a very handsome woman who knew how to promote herself and pose seductively and provocatively for photographs. She was a powerful speaker and had no patience for “anything or anybody that offended her highly tuned sensitivity and she was regarded as a snob by many because of this.” She hated being the subject of criticism and openly disagreed with those who had something unkind to say about her or her work.

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She influenced how many Americans look at and feel about their culture and because she was famous she felt she could do what she wanted. Sontag abandoned her first husband, Peter Rieff (who had been her sociology instructor at the University of Chicago) and her son so that she could be free to move to London to accept a fellowship at Oxford University. She had already been mixing with those that she felt were her intellectual equal (or higher), people who were at the forefront of their fields.

She published her first novel, “The Benefactor” in 1963 and even though she did not have a large fiction output, she considered herself to be first and foremost a novelist. However, Gore Vidal said that she was one of the world’s worst writers and that “her intelligence is greater than her talent”. Shortly after leaving her husband she began a series of love affairs with several famous women, most of whom seemed to be in the closet or in denial about their sexuality. Even though she continued to have affairs with both men and women, the film focuses on her lesbian affairs.

On a personal level, she was never very open which is in contrast to being vocal about many controversial and socially/political topics. She constantly pushed her opinions forward in her writings and in public debates. She probably felt like her life partner, Annie Leibovitz, that there was no need for labels. As Sontag neared death she asked her sister to name anything she regretted and would had liked to have changed and she replied that she had never been honest with her about the things that were really important to her.

“SHE’S BEAUTIFUL WHEN SHE’S ANGRY”— The Women’s Movement

she's beautiful when she's angry

“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry”

The Women’s Movement

Amos Lassen

Here is a film that looks at the women who founded, NOW,  the women’s movement that existed from 1966 to 1977. It might be surprising to some to see that the movement began with ladies wearing hats and gloves but these eventually gave way to the more radical factions of women’s liberation. It brought together intellectual women and organizations like W.I.T.C.H (Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell!).  The film tells the stories of women who fought for equal rights and as they did a universal revolution began.

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There is no romanticism here and what we see are the beginnings of a movement that began with quarrels and controversy as the issues of race, sexual preference and leadership dominated the early days. The women here were both brilliant and outrageous and went by the idea that “the personal is political”. They brought a revolution and it took place in the bedroom, in the workplace and in all areas of life. The FBI called the women threatening and while their names may not appear in history books, they changed the world.

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While this film is a comprehensive history, it is also a call to action. The younger generation has no idea what it was once like in this country when job postings were segregated by gender, when woman-centric health information and health services were hardly available to women and when women with careers were often denounced. The film gives us a peek at what life was like for women before the mid-1960s and helps us understand the origins of the concept of gender equality that seems to be taken somewhat for granted today. It reminds us that what women won in the past is again at jeopardy that many of us take for granted. We are also reminded that much of what was won decades ago is once again in jeopardy. We see clips from mass marches, meetings, poetry readings, and consciousness-raising sessions. Mary Dore, the director and her staff interviewed many women who became the face of feminism and we see and hear these women’s reflections upon how the movement developed, what issues and what actions galvanized the activism of the time. The women  are passionate, profound, clever and sometimes very funny.


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What many do not know is that the feminist movement was quite complicated and messy with internal political and geographical divisions as well as divisions by race and class. There was homophobia from without and from within. All of this is exposed here and examined.  We are also reminded of the core struggles and the successes and failures of the movement. There were women “in the trenches” in cities such as Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and here we see them as they looked back then and how they look today. Many of the heroes of the movement have gone unsung yet alongside the big names such as Friedan, Abzug and Steinem, they made a difference.

beautiful4 “She’s Beautiful When She is Angry is such a terrific documentary and so skillfully introduces the core ideas, struggles, and successes/failures of the women’s movement during the late 60s and early 70s. What I especially love about this film is the way it underscores the key role of those in the “trenches” – the many local organizers in cities like Boston, NY, Chicago, LA, and SF/Berkeley. They are pictured “back then” as well as now, in recent interviews that allow for the rare kind of reflection that a younger audience so greatly appreciates. And these interviews make clear that it was the superb organizing work of “unsung heroes” (in addition to the important leadership of people like Friedan, Abzug, and Steinem) that catapulted this movement to become one of the key social justice forces of the past century.”   

This documentary covers a large area and it is a pleasure to watch. We see the actual people who were personally involved with archival material and we also see and hear current conversations with the very same folks. The film could easily be subtitles, “How to Start a Movement”. It is a celebration o diversity, intelligence, fortitude and creativity and it is inspirational for those who take up the movement today.

 The film opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in NYC December 5, 2014 and at the Landmark Nuart Theatre in LA on December 12.

 

“TO RUSSIA WITH LOVE”— Russia’s Anti-Gay Laws During the Winter Olympics

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“To Russia With Love”

 Russia’s Anti-Gay Laws During the Winter Olympics

Amos Lassen

“To Russia with Love” looks at the impact of Russia’s anti-gay laws as the world’s media converges on Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. LGBT athletes and activists had to decide whether to risk their own safety  by speaking out against Russia’s anti-gay laws.

Cameras follow the experience of  Johnny Weir, the outspoken figure skater and commentator who caused controversy before the Olympics for seeming to refuse to speak out against what was happening in Russia (while simultaneously preparing to make this doc), tennis legend and official US Olympic delegate Billie Jean King, as well as several openly gay Olympic hopefuls and Russian LGBT activity.

The doc premieres in the US at 8pm on Wednesday October 29th, 2014 on EPIX.

“(A)SEXUAL”— No Sex Please

asexual poster

“(A)SEXUAL”

No Sex Please

Amos Lassen

Let’s face it—we live in a sex-obsessed world and because of that there are many stereotypes and misconceptions, and a lack of social or scientific research  about asexuals; people who experience no sexual attraction. They are struggling to claim their identity. This documentary, “(A)sexual”, looks at the two words “No thanks” as a legitimate sexual preference. We have a community that challenges current paradigms and understandings of human sexuality.  Over the last few years we have seen a huge growth in enlightenment and understanding of human sexuality and sexual preference.  There have been huge strides in technology and these have resulted in people being able to find communities with similar taste and attractions and this has opened our minds on morality, sexuality, and personal relationships. David Jay is a good-looking young man in his 20’s who told his parents that the was asexual and then he built a network of support and information about others who feel the same way.

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The definition of an asexual person is one who is not sexually attracted to either the opposite sex or their same gender.  Most of the people who express themselves as such have no desire to go along with society’s expectations of them and have no sexual intercourse at all. The film looks at the  usual assumptions that are thrown around about this group of people and then invalidates them.  There is no proof that they were abused as children or that they are impotent, inexperienced, scared, just out of a bad relationship or just physically incapable.  David Jay tells us that asexuality is not a choice one makes as it is in one’s make up just like being gay is.

 David Jay’s story is fascinating and I do not think that I have ever been so challenged by a movie as I was watching his story. I have never really thought about the impact of a sexual relationship in creating intimacy in a relationship or about the challenges that are faced with sex and the electricity and energy it creates and it becomes clear that our behavioral attributes are part of relationships.

His group is called  AVEN (Asexual Visibility Education Network) and it was started in San Francisco to give the group some visibility, and they chose to participate in the Gay Pride March.   Dan Savage the witty Sex Therapist says that perhaps LGBT should be changed to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgendered, Genderqueer, Questioning Women, etc., etc. and now a group wants to add asexual. Neither to Savage or to me does this makes any sense at all. Why would asexuals want to join the Pride march, one that celebrates all the freedoms that gay people have fought hard just to be able to have the sex they want when what they want is the right not to have any sex at all?

A problem I had here was that throughout the film there were constant comparisons of asexuality with homosexuality and the only thing that they share in common is that they are both considered to be deviant from what  society considers as its  norm (whatever that means). Then there is the problem of understanding romance without sexual intimacy.

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 David Jay explains that he has devised a strategy for evaluating and building relationships known as ‘the three Ts': time (the amount of time you dedicate to a person), touch (physical or verbal expressions of feelings) and talk (clearly communicating expectations for the relationship). Then it kind of made sense— an asexual can date, fall in love and even marry (as they did during this film) without wanting to have sex with their partner.

 At the end of the film David is interviewed two years later.  AVEN is still growing strong, but David has had a major re-think.  It’s not that he wants to have sex BUT now aged 29 he has come to the conclusion that the fulfilling relationship that he so craves with one person can only be complete and reach intimacy if he has sex.   Including this last interview and seeing this very earnest young man struggle with reality of his beliefs didn’t make us doubt how sincere he is but it certainly is confusing. left me more than confused than him.   

“BEAUTIFUL BY NIGHT”– Older drag performers in San Francisco— A New Documentary

“Beautiful By Night”

Older drag performers in San Francisco

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 “Beautiful By Night” by James Hosking is a 30-minute documentary that focuses on  three older drag entertainers at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. It’s an intimate look at Olivia Hart, Collette LeGrande, and Donna Personna.

Starting out with how they transform themselves from middle-aged men into lip-syncing divas, it then follows them to Aunt Charlie’s for their evening performance. It’s a great look at people who are still holding to the drag ideas of the past, before the sharp and rather arch performers of today took over. It’s a perhaps more ramshackle style but it has warmth.

http://vimeo.com/106252146 

“THE MAN I AM”— Five Israeli Transgender Men

the man I am

“THE MAN I AM”

Five Israeli Transgender Men

Amos Lassen

“The Man I Am” is a documentary from Israel about five Israeli trans men who were born and raised female but now after quite a long

process of change, live their lives as men. The film explores their personal stories and issues, revealing the difficulties and confronting the conservative approach of Israeli society and Judaism whose restrictive values are often in opposition to the concept of transgender. The film provides the audience with an understanding of their unique world and helps in identifying with their strong aim of  “becoming who you really are against all odds”. “The Man I Am” is the first Israeli “trans” film that has been created with the Israeli transgender community. It was directed by Shiri Shahar and runs 44 minutes.