Monthly Archives: January 2014

“The Medici Boy” by John L’Heureux— Art, Politics and Passion

the medici boy

L’Heureux, John. “The Medici Boy”,  Astor + Blue Editions, 2013.

Art, Politics and Passion

Amos Lassen

Art, politics and passion come together in “The Medici Boy”. We go back in history to the Italy of Donatello. We find ourselves in Donatello’s workshop and meet Luca Mattei, his assistant who is the narrator of the story. Donatello is working on his bronze statue of David and Goliath and lusts for his male model, Agnolo, who is exceptionally good-looking but works as a hustler as well as a model. However, as pretty as the boy is, not all is pretty here. Agnolo is murdered and suspicion is on Donatella. Luca wants to save his life and will do whatever necessary even if it means the life of the master sculptor’s friend and great patron of art, Cosimo de’ Medici. Here is a novel that is written on three different tiers that intersect at times—it is a history of Luca and his family, a history of and a look at society in Florence and a history of Donatello and other artists during the Renaissance. Reading this is like having access to a period of history, obsession and desire. We learn about the mercantile economy, the social lives of gay men and prostitutes, the history of the Medicis, the plague and the creation of art. It is as if we are in Donatello’s bottega and surrounded by the people of Florence. Written with irony and gorgeous detail, this is a fascinating read.

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“Far from Happy” by Jeni Decker— Leaving Home and Coming Home

FarFromHappy

Decker, Jeni. “Far from Happy”, Dreamspinner Press, 2014.

Leaving Home and Coming Home

Amos Lassen

Jackson Fouchet left home when he was nineteen—there was no particular question why he did so aside from leaving the confines on New Orleans. He wanted to find himself and what could be a better place to do than New York City? (Do not answer that question). To have money, he sells sex as he comes-of-age and deals with his sexuality. He has had to deal with his own inner turmoil, the realities of politics and his family.

It did not take long for Jackson to realize what New York was all about and whatever naiveté that was part of him, it was gone quickly.  He was mugged twice and then robbed while trying to score pot and then beaten severely. Then he just happened to meet a hustler who got him an invitation to meet Mr. B, a man with connections to the mob and the owner of many clubs on Times Square. The mayor of the city wants them cleaned up and he has his campaign aimed at The Deuce. And here begins Jackson spiral downward. As Times Square is cleaned up, new places must be found to conduct business.

For twenty years, Jackson worked the streets. There came a time for Jackson to head home—-New Orleans does that to people (I know—I was raised and schooled there). His sister was ill and the city beckoned him home. But sometimes it is hard to go home and even harder to stay here (and this I have also experienced and that is why I am no longer but always a New Orleanian in my heart—I have been an Israeli, an Arkansas and now I am a Bostonian but I know who I really am). There is some graphic sex here and it is a good story. However, I must add that if you really want to know what it was like at Times Square, check out Mykola Dementiuk, a man who writes of the place and the era from first hand knowledge. Frankly I could have done without all of the sex but that is what Times Square was all about.

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“Music Box” by John C. Houser—Speaking Up

MusicBox

Houser, John C. “Music Box”, Dreamspinner Press, 2014.

Speaking Up

Amos Lassen

I am sure that all of you are aware of the rise of bullying in this country and it is good to see that writers are now using it as a theme in their stories. Bullies chase Jonah Winfield and when he gets to the front step of Avakian Music, the owner, Davoud Avakian, steps out and offers Jonah safety at his shop, The Music Box. The fact that Jonah is gay does not matter to Davoud but it certainly matters to some of the students at Jonah’s school. He is teased and tormented daily and when it turns to violence, Mr. Gaston, Jonah’s music and favorite teacher steps in. He wants to take the bullies to the principal.

There is a problem, however, and it is about money. There are budget cuts coming at the school and Gaston’s job is already on the line. He wants to speak up for Jonah but he knows it might cost him his job. He also cannot force Jonah to do something. He must gain Jonah’s confidence because only through cooperation will he be able to gain Jonah’s confidence and preserve the haven he has found at the Music Box.  There is a bit of a problem at the Music Box as well, however. The store has been in Davoud’s family for generations and now Gaston and Davoud must find a way to make it profitable as it hinges on bankruptcy. This is a story that shows how everyone can lose if things do not improve and it is so good to have a story that is based on reality. It is well written and I really enjoyed the character development.

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“Firelight of a Different Colour: The Life and Times of Leslie Cheung” By Nigel Collett— The Life and Death of a Star

firelight of a different color

Collett, Nigel. “Firelight of a Different Colour: The Life and Times of Leslie Cheung”, Signal 8 Press, 2014.

The Life and Death of a Star

Amos Lassen

Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing committed suicide by throwing himself to his death from the terrace of Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel in 2003 when he was the greatest star of his generation. He was truly loved by his fans and he was a wonderful entertainer. His death was a shock across Asia and in Asian populations worldwide. He had never hidden his sexual preference for men but it did not matter to his fans that loved him and in fact, still love him. The fact that he was gay was not discussed. Here is a book that traces Leslie Cheung’s story from his birth in 1950 until his death when Hong Kong was being devastated by the SARS epidemic.

It took a while for Cheung to gain initial success but he became a megastar in music and on film for almost twenty years and many feel that he represented the unique spirit that is Hong Kong. He was and is considered a man who traversed the arts and even in death he continues to amaze and inspire others.

This is a heavily researched look at Cheung and Nigel Collett has done a lot of work to bring us this new biography. He could not come-out in Hong Kong but he and his partner, Daffy Tong despite the way the media would not leave him alone. And this is more than a book about Leslie Cheung— it is also about having to hide one’s identity because of the traditional culture.

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“SIX MILLION AND ONE”— A Film of Passion

six million and one

“Six Million and One”

A Film of Passion

Amos Lassen

David Fisher, an Israeli director was nominated for the 2012 Ophir (the Israeli Oscar) for his documentary “Six Million and One”. The film follows Fisher and three siblings as they visit and explore the concentration camps in Europe where their father, Joseph Fisher, was imprisoned during the Holocaust and World War II. After their father died, his children found his memoir and learned for the first time about his time there and his struggle for survival and ultimate liberation. This is quite an intense film especially the audio tour of Gusen, the exploration of the tunnels where Joseph was forced to build Nazi planes and the chamber orchestra and chorus performing in the middle of the forest. Joseph Fisher’s incredible story is portrayed with a sincere intensity, reflected in the deeply personal reactions of his children. They actually experience a sense of group therapy siblings on their journey.

This is a film that is only indirectly about the Holocaust. It is really about how Fisher and his brothers Gideon and Ronel and his sister Estee deal with learning about the experiences of their father, Joseph, who survived the Holocaust while interning at two concentration camps, Gusen and Gunskirchen in Austria. It was David’s idea that they travel to Gusen and it was an emotional journey as each of them reacts to the horrors that Joseph went through in his/her own way.

 David Fisher merely follows his siblings along as they gradually open up with their thoughts and feelings. Among his siblings, he’s the only one who willingly goes on the journey and who read his father’s memoir. The footage of them having discussions in the car and particularly, in the tunnels where Joseph worked are not only engrossing but they are also thought provoking. They each certainly have a lot of emotional baggage that they’ve bottled up inside and their journey serves as a form of catharsis in a way albeit one without any concrete closure.  It is interesting to see how the new Israeli reacts knowing that they are ready to go to war at a moment’s notice and fight to the death, something many feel that the victims of the Holocaust did not do.

This grapples with the repercussions and impact decades later on the next generation.  The father died about 12 years ago in Israel and while David and his siblings knew generally that their parents were Holocaust survivors, they were surprised to discover that Joseph Fisher had handwritten a detailed memoir. But only David could bring himself to read about his father’s harrowing experiences and against-all-odds survival. After the native Hungarian was rounded up in May 1944 at age 17, Joseph avoided extermination at Auschwitz by being selected for the work camp at Mauthausen, and then endured slave labor at Gusen and a death march to Gunskirchen concentration camp, which was liberated by Americans in 1945.

Joseph Fisher saw death all around him and all of the time he was held by the Nazis. David was the only one in the beginning who dared to follow his father’s steps and he found in the archives of Mauthausen his father’s arrival number and transfer dates. Today most of what was the Gusen camp is now a housing development. The Gusen Commemoration Committee conducts an “audio-walk” tour of where camp buildings were, including the crematorium that was virtually at the residents’ front doors.

A year later, when David convinces three of his siblings to leave their families in Israel to return to Europe with him with him. We see their reaction when they recoil at even hearing German spoken, and become very angry at the lack of physical evidence preserved. He finally convinced them to come along because the Austrian government had just agreed to open up the last remains of Gusen, the rarely seen tunnels where the Nazis hid airplane construction to successfully avoid Allied bombing and whose dire forced labor conditions were a separate count in the Nuremberg indictments. Their tour guide cites statistics that Jewish prisoners usually only lasted a week, and is incredulous that their father survived to explicitly describe the starvation and backbreaking digging.

After Gusen, David insists they continue to follow their father’s footsteps to Gunskirchen. They are very much aware that picnicking by a memorial in what is now a pretty forest is a stark contrast to the descriptions in their father’s memoir and in the frank interviews the director conducted in the United States with elderly veterans of the 71st infantry division who liberated the camp. Not only do these men still have nightmares of the concentration camp they were horrified to come upon, but are still consumed with guilt that their spontaneous efforts to help the survivors are now known to have been counter-productive in saving the sick and starving.

The Fisher siblings struggle with how their father managed to survive—as the “one” of the title—under these extreme conditions. For all their issues with him looming over their lives, his legacy includes the warm qualities that keep these affectionate siblings close together with humor, honesty, and dedication to family.

The Holocaust is an inexhaustible event — there will probably never be an end to the stories of the lives affected by it. This movie is an actual account of people linked by family to its present-day effects. To watch four Jews who can’t avoid the repercussions of the Holocaust yet refuse to become victims to it makes for a fascinating film.

 For David, this journey is one of healing, but for the three siblings whom he compels to join him, it’s a hurtful and unnecessary confrontation of pain better left buried, so the present can be enjoyed. The acts of remembering and forgetting are inextricably knotted throughout Fisher’s visits to the locations where Joseph toiled, which is also interrupted by a conversation with American military veterans still coping with post-traumatic stress from their camp-liberation experiences. Fisher’s use of POV shots overlaid with narrated readings from his father’s diary poignantly captures his desire to consciously inhabit scarred spaces that today—as evidenced by the sight of a family returning home to what was once the camp commander’s house—have been transformed into everyday locales stripped of their historical significance. All the while, Fisher and his kin’s incessant, contentious bickering exposes the ongoing difficulty of reconciling with inherited trauma.

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“THE OYLER HO– USE: RICHARD NEUTRA’S DESERT RETREAT”— A “Modest” Family Home

the oyler house

“The Oyler House: Richard Neutra’s Desert Retreat”

A “Modest” Family Home

Amos Lassen

It was in 1959 that Joe Oyler a government employee in Lone Pine, California asked architect Richard Neutra to design, for him, a modest family home. When Neutra agreed a friendship began that was active until 1970 when Neutra died. This film is the story of that house and the beautiful desert that surrounds it. We see interviews with Kelly Lunch, the present owner of the house, with Richard Oyler, with Neutra’s sons and with real estate agent Crosby Doe.

oyler1

In 1959, a working-class government employee in the tiny desert town of Lone Pine, California, asked world-famous modern architect Richard Neutra to design his modest family home. To his surprise, Neutra agreed. Thus began an unlikely friendship that would last until Neutra’s death in 1970. The Oyler House: Richard Neutra’s Desert Retreat tells the story of this house and its stunning desert setting through interviews with Richard Oyler, actress Kelly Lynch, who currently owns the house, Neutra’s two sons, and well-known LA real estate agent Crosby Doe.

Neutra is considered to be the father of California Modern Architecture. He was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1949 and he was then ranked second to Frank Lloyd Wright as American great architects. This film shows how Neutra became the friend of a modest family living in a small town and how the setting for the house that he built was inspired by the desert where it was to be which he compared to the glory of the Gobi Desert.

oyler2

 The Oyler House as it is known is a post & beam-style home and its exotic surroundings shine through beautiful cinematography.  The house and the desert are the stars of the film and the cinematography is gorgeous.

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“PEOPLE OF A FEATHER”— Inuit Culture

people of a feather

“People of a Feather”  

Inuit Culture

Amos Lassen

Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay, Canada is the home of the Inuit, People of a Feather. This film is made up of footage from seven winters in the Arctic which bring together present, past and future. This is also the home of the Eider Duck that produces the warmest feathers in the world, Eider Down. Because of the warmth provided by the down, both the duck and the Inuit are able to survive the very cold Arctic winters (and I complain about Boston!). Now the people are facing challenges with the changing sea ice and ocean currents that have disrupted them and are caused by the huge hydroelectric dams that provide power to New York and the east coast of North America. This is a film that calls us to action to find a way to implement energy solutions that work with Mother Nature.

Joel Heath is a Vancouver biologist who spent seven winters on the Belcher Islands to make this documentary and the result, even though it carriers an important ecological message, is beautiful photography that seems mystical. We see the marine-life and the beauty of the life of the residents.

people1

The main subject is the eider duck who aside from producing the warm down is a barometer for northern environmental shifts. Heath uses both modern and staged historical sequences that show the Inuit way of life (reenacted with the community) and we learn that the islands’ people still gather eiderdown to make their parkas. They gently remove it from the nests, always leaving some behind. We also learn that the ducks are dying off en masse, mostly because of Quebec hydroelectric dams that are shooting relatively warm freshwater into the salty bay. He shows us the profound changes to the ocean currents and sea-ice formation through time-lapse imagery as a haunting soundtrack plays. We also hear local hunters talk about how their centuries-old ways of hunting and fishing are being affected.

Director Heath is able to make the statistics more human by showing the pride and strength of the Sanikiluaq community. The film sometimes seems a bit anthropological, but we get to know a people that the world barely knows exist. Extended families now get together in front of TV sets in houses instead of igloos, and the tiny town even has its own rap band. Yet as much as this people’s culture has changed, its strong values have not and therefore humanity’s touch on the environment should be as light as a feather.

The documentary pulls us in with poignant mystical images of eider flocks in the skies in a majestic and awesome stream of life. We see them diving deep in the cold waters for clams and sea urchins; and witness an Inuit hunter paddling his boat amid large hunks of floating white ice. Here there are traditions of gathering eider eggs to eat and down for clothing along with hunting and field dressing a seal are now in jeopardy of being lost.

people 2

Heath traces the cause of the problems including fewer open pools where the ducks can dive for clams and other food sources. Hydroelectric projects near Hudson Bay provide power but also to many cities in North America, but these companies also cause runoff from rivers stored behind the dams in the winter months. This messes up ocean currents and has a dire effect on sea ice ecosystems in the bay.

Heath gives us an up-close look at the fears of one Inuit community over their survival. Here we graphically see the impact of hydroelectric dam operations on the Arctic environment and the Inuit culture.

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“THE LAST ELVIS”— Obsessed with Elvis

the last elvis

“The Last Elvis” (“El último Elvis”)

Obsessed with Elvis

Amos Lassen

Carlos Gutierrez is obsessed with Elvis and that means every day, 24 hours a day and because of it he is estranged from reality. He even eats peanut butter and banana sandwiches. He embarrasses his family and they have moved away from him. We see him when he suffers painful moments. An automobile accident brings him to his daughter, which just happens to be on the same day that Lisa Marie’s mother tries to get custody of her daughter. This parallels our hero’s own personal battle to connect with his own daughter.

elvis1

This is not so much a movie about Elvis or an Elvis impersonator but about hero worship and this film is a look at how one man has decided that he cannot face living as himself. Carlos Guiterrez (John McInerney) is an Argentine Elvis impersonator who refuses to be referred to by his real name anymore. He works in a factory during the day and tries to be something of a father to his estranged daughter, whose mother doesn’t trust him. He’s preparing to make a big move but when an accident brings his daughter into his temporary custody, his is forced to rethink his priorities.

McInerney is actually an Elvis impersonator and he is good. He sings passionately and his voice is magnificent. However, the real heart of this film lies in his performance off the stage. He struts with a cockiness and is full of himself in the confident belief that he is indeed the King. McInerney’s performance is quiet, subtle and devastating. His demons constantly battle beneath the surface as he allows his fantasy to take over. Throughout much of the film McInerney does not speak but Gutierrez’s frequent silences are impregnated with a deep sadness and rich melancholy.

Director Armando Bo does a wonderful job of bringing this to the screen. We meet Gutierrez for the first time, in character as Elvis, as he emerges from the shadows, totally confident. But backstage, following his show we see the real Gutierrez looking pallid and tired. When he is not Elvis he becomes invisible.

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It is not clear whether he lost his sense of self through his Elvis obsession or if he had already become disillusioned with his life and consciously chose to take on a different persona. It probably is a combination of the two. We certainly see Gutierrez as a lost soul who has all but given up on his own life.

His daughter brings him salvation—-he is a loving father even if he is aloof but as he spends more time with her, we see that there is a chance that he will put his Elvis persona aside. The film gives us a great deal to think about with the philosophical questions that it poses. As we watch Guiterrez we think about our own egos and self-esteem in the hope of learning where these come from. Guiterrez seems to be both determined and calculated but we never see him as a foolish character. He gains dignity because he was gifted with music; he is a really good singer. He does not become victim to his own delusion because he is just a man whose talents are incorrectly directed but in a way that has something to say about culture and celebrity in today’s culture. The film seems to be heading toward reconciliation at the end but then there is the decision to go to Memphis. We wonder if he is real and if he is crazy. Regardless this is a fantasy film that pulls us in.

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“And Every Single One Was Someone” by Phil Chernofsky— A Book of One Word

and every single one

Chernofsky, Phil. “And Every Single One Was Someone”, Geffen Publishing, 2014.

A Book of One Word

Amos Lassen

I must admit that the article in the New York Times was influential in my getting a copy of this book. The idea for it came about when Phil Chernovsky, a math and Jewish studies teacher in a Jewish day school wanted to find a way to have his students relate to the Holocaust. It is very difficult for all of us to take in the murder of 6,000,000 people. In fact, it is difficult to imagine 6,000,000 of anything. It was from this that this book evolved—a book of only one word but that word—“Jew”—is printed 6,000,000 times. This is not a book to be read; rather it is for libraries and presentations on the Holocaust and it is really an attempt to show what 6,000,000 looks like.

There is no plot and no character development and if there were characters this is the end of the road. The book contains 1,250 pages and each page has 40 columns of 120 lines or 4,800 Jews per page and any one of them could be one of us. On the cover is the talit, the prayer shawl that is sometimes used to wrap the dead; to serve as a shroud. The original plan of the publisher was to print 6,000,000 copies. Each copy is 2.76 inches wide and they would fill 261 miles of bookshelves or about 2 miles less than Israel from north to south.

and everyone1

In his review, Chris Roberts wrote:

“Repetition drives inextricably…

Toward the larger whole…

And strips each Jew…

Of his or her infinitely…

More important singularity…

One victim is the start of inhumanity…

The last one is its end”…

We cannot allow ourselves to ever forget that we are one and that one word is sometimes enough. The idea for the book and the way it is laid out is brilliant and the idea of “every single one” reminds us of the victims that are remembered and those that are left out of the 6,000,000 knowing that not only Jews were exterminated.

Of course there are always naysayers and if you go to the Amazon.com page of the book you will find this insensitive review by someone named Christina Parent:

“What a stupid idea., January 26, 2014

This book is so dense with difficult terminology, and there are no chapters, not recommended for the faint of heart or those easily disturbed by graphic images”.

I certainly hope that she is being sarcastic otherwise she should be totally embarrassed by such an insensitive remark that only shows that she did not see the book and has a sick sense of humanity. I do not see the Holocaust as a vehicle for sarcasm.

 

“The House of Pure Being” by Michael Murphy—- Reflections

the house of pure being

Murphy, Michael. “The House of Pure Being”, Liberties Press, 2014.

Reflections

Amos Lassen

Michael Murphy has had several important people in his life and he shares them with us. But more important is the affection he feels for his partner Terry with whom he enters into a civil partnership. Their joining together comes at the end of the book and it is joyous. We do not get many stories about the gay Irish—I suppose the country has been too involved in internal and religious war so when we do hear something we gobble it up. In the case of this book, we have gorgeous prose which engages us immediately.

Murphy discusses problems here—putting his mother into a nursing home, being diagnosed with prostate cancer and the effect it has on him as well as pain and the guilt he feels about his mother. It is a wonderful read that is highly recommended.

Here is a little something about the author:

 “MICHAEL MURPHY was born and raised in Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Ireland. On completion of his Arts Degree in French and English from University College Dublin, Michael was offered a scholarship to the Centre Européen Universitaire de Nancy in France where he studied Psychoanalysis and the Human Sciences. He is now a psychoanalyst with a busy practice in Dublin, Ireland. He is also an award-winning senior television producer/director and newscaster with Ireland’s national broadcaster. In 1990, he wrote Reading the Poems for Desmond Egan – the Poet and his work. In 2009, his highly acclaimed memoir At Five in the Afternoon, chronicling his battle with Prostate Cancer, was published and 2013 saw the release of his first collection of poetry The Republic of Love. Michael lives in Dublin with his partner of twenty-four years, Terry O’Sullivan”.

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