Monthly Archives: March 2015

“Protest on the Page: Essays on Print and the Culture of Dissent” edited by James L. Braughman, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen and James P. Dansky— Using Print

protest on the page

Braughman, James L., Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen and James P. Danky, (editors). “Protest on the Page: Essays on Print and the Culture of Dissent”, (The History of Print and Digital Culture), University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.

Using Print

Amos Lassen

Throughout history print has been used as a way to challenge ideas and conventions in this country. When those who wanted change, they went about printing, articulating and disseminating their ideas to others via the printed word. Looking at history, we see that protest always begins on the margins of society and print is the way to reach a larger audience In this collection of essays, scholars in different disciplines examine protest in print since 1865 in the United States. They look at the different kinds of dissidents who used print to spread their ideas whether those who called for change were anarchists, vegetarians or what-have-yous. Not surprisingly, we fins evangelicals and comic book readers calling for change as well as military men and feminists. One of the beautiful aspects of living in America is the right to protest.

We see that the medium of print has never been a neutral medium and it has always been important and instrumental in shaping protest and those who see the need of it.

This is fascinating journalistic history and there are new aspects of it included here. This is an alternative history of protest with excellent essays, opinions and facts. If we examine social change and its history we are quick to see that it has always depended on publications from the fringes of society and culture and print has always been an important player in change. It will be interesting to see how that will hold up in the age of the Internet when reaching others is just a click away. Here we also get a look at how movement politics have worked in our history. This book does not praise the free press in a democratic government but rather shows us the journalism of “visionary movements” and of people unhappy with the status quo. Dissent is not only part of our heritage but part of who we are. Rather than looking at the big newspapers, we see the smaller presses and read of the influences they have had. Here print culture means “media, journalism, and non-mainstream movements, groups, and ideas.”

“CUCUMBER AND BANANA”— The Return to Manchester

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“Cucumber & Banana”

The Return to Manchester

Amos Lassen

 Henry (Vincent Franklin) is a successful, 40-something gay man living in Manchester with his partner Lance (Cyril Nri). Something happens and in two days his entire life goes haywire when a simple inquiry about potential plagiarism results in a colleague’s suicide and he gets suspended from work without pay. Then he barely considers Lance’s suggestion that they should get married, which ends up with a disastrous threesome and the couple breaking up. Henry moves on to live with a very much younger guy, Freddie (Freddie Fox)

Henry goes to live in what is essentially a squat with the much younger Freddie (Freddie Fox) and Dean (Fisayo Akinade). Both of these young men are drawn to a slum because it is somewhat faux-bohemian in nature. Henry lusts after Freddie, who he knows has a reputation for sleeping with an endless string of men and women, whether singly or in groups. Freddie tells Henry bluntly that they will never have sex, but Freddie does not give up hope. Or at least he hopes they’ll have everything sex can bring except actual intercourse, as despite nine-years with Lance and many men before that, Henry has never actually had penetrative sex with a man. Various stories surround this major plot and these include Henry’s adventures with other teen boys and then he would sell the stories on the Internet, Lance’s affair with Daniel (James Murray), who one moment is insisting he’s just about the straightest person on the planet but the next is giving Lance signals that even the most brazen gay man would not do.

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Some of the series is really good but there are a lot of problems including the director’s attempt to take on all of modern sexuality—from young boys in their teens to old men who are past their prime but who still go for the young guys with their youth and good looks. These are the guys who thinks that there is always another guy who is better than the one they are with.

It is hard to identify with any of the characters and this is major fault of the series. Henry is an interesting person but he is also very selfish and this seems to be true for many of the characters. The guys that seem to be nice turn out to be imbeciles, exploited or stalkers. The stories are good but the characters are just unfortunate. When Davies did “Queer as Folk” he used the idea of a person not like the others (Stuart) and who would give “his own unvarnished, blistering, self-centered version of the truth.” Here a lot of the characters do that and this is why we do not see them as nice people.

Nowhere does the program show that people are being gay is good, but being critical isn’t the same as being homophobic. The series has a bit of misanthropy about it, “often giving off the sense that everyone and everything is beyond hope, and some have mistaken that for internalized homophobia.” As we near the end, things begin to change but it seems a bit late. The central idea appears to be that we can only expect short moments of genuine happiness in between people being selfish, thoughtless and unpleasant to one another and this is because all men, regardless of age, think with their penises and misery soon follows.

Nonetheless, there is a lot to like about “Cucumber.” It’s complex and ambitious and really tries to engage with gay life in a way that’s rarely been seen – even if it remains a little more sex-fixated than many men would like to believe they are.

There are times where the characters start to seem more like a complex series of traits and interactions than people and we feel that the series is judging modern culture. In “Banana”, a separate series we see eight individual tales of which some are brilliant.

On DVD “Cucumber” and “Banana” are split into two separate sets of discs. However, as each episode of “Banana” relates to a character in the same episode of “Cucumber”, it’s really best to watch them together, but that can be tricky here. They do still work separately but it isn’t quite the same experience.

There are some good special features though, including an interesting history of Manchester’s Canal Street gay district and an interview with Russell T. Davies. The series is ambitious and always interesting if not always factual.

Special features list the following; ‘Screwdriver’ Short Film,   ‘The History Of Canal Street’ Featurette,   Russell T Davies Interview,   ‘Julie and Vince on…’ Conversations,   ‘Behind The Scenes’ Featurettes for each episode,    “Banana” Cast & Crew Interviews.

“NASTY BABY”— Creating Life

nasty baby

“Nasty Baby”

Creating Life

Amos Lassen

Freddy (Sebastian Silva) and Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) are a Manhattan gay couple who try to have a baby with their best friend, Polly (Kristen Wiig) but instead end up in the middle of a dilemma that totally shakes up the three of them and puts their relationships to a test. “Nasty Baby” is a film that appears on the surface to be deceptively simple comedy, but one that poses some very disturbing questions about morality as it heads into the third act that is quite polarizing.

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The first two-thirds of the film is nice comedy that takes a look at the evolving American family but then we are still not sure what that is. There is the argument that a gay couple does not have the tools for child-rearing but even before that, they have to fight really hard to have a child in the first place. Then we have the issue of three parents and we see the conflicts that might come out of pairing three people with different agendas, however there is a moral that when people are devoted to each other, there’s nothing they won’t do to protect the one they love and we see that tested violently here.

The actors here are much better than wonderful. Silva who wrote, directed and stars in the film loves his material and we sense his passion. On the screen we cannot help buy like him. Adebimpe, his spouse, is all highly likeable and he destroys any of the gay stereotypes that Hollywood gives us. He is gay but that is just who he is. The same is true for Mo who is much more macho . who subverts all the gay stereotypes Hollywood bombards us with, being a man’s man who just happens to be gay, and has a kind streak a mile long. Wiig plays the part of someone like herself and she mixes humor with sarcasm wonderfully. She also shows great compassion and love. I found myself wanting to be friends with almost everyone in the movie– the older, mysterious gay man who lives downstairs (Mark Morgolis), Silva’s straight brother, his assistant (Alla Shawkat) and even the crazy homeless guy who lives down the street (Reg E. Cathey). They all come across as very real.

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Freddy is a Brooklyn artist who just wants to have a child with his African-American boyfriend, Mo (Tunde Adebimpe), using their best gal friend Polly (Wiig) as the surrogate. Months go by without Polly getting pregnant and with time running out, the only other reliable candidate is Mo, who seems unsure about the whole deal. Of course the pregnancy is very important but there are also other issues. Mo’s family is not crazy about the idea and Freddy’s new show is not doing very well. Then there is the neighborhood crazy guy who at first seems quite harmless but who also runs a leaf blower all hours of the day and also accosts Polly on the street. Freddy wants to deal with him and when this happens things change.

 It seems that the film is largely improvisational and Wiig is the one who anchors the production. The movie becomes quite dark and the ending feels like a much different movie than the beginning. This is quite a film.

“CHANCE”— An Unlikely Love

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“Chance”

An Unlikely Love

Amos Lassen

Jake Graf’s “Chance” is the story of an unlikely love relationship between two people who, while nice guys, are very different and who share heartbreak. Clifford plays a man who becomes deeply depressed over the loss of his wife and the performance is beautifully sensitive. We see him as he goes through his daily routines and barely saying a word. The fact that there is very little dialogue in the film makes it that much more interesting and it certainly underscores the hopelessness and isolation of the characters.

The camera does amazing things with beautiful wide shots and tight close-ups. These emphasize both the loneliness and the companionship of the characters.

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 Clifford Hume’s portrayal of a man lost in a deep depression after the death of his wife is touching and absolutely spot-on: His daily struggles are shown in a tender yet unflinching light and Chance‘s minimal dialogue serves to underscore those feelings of hopelessness and isolation. Tight close-ups and beautifully framed wide shots in a park underline masterfully the loneliness and, later, the growing companionship the main characters find in one another. The director brings great passion to the screen as well as a wonderful eye for detail and when mixing that with great performances by Lewis Hancox, Abs and Clifford Hume, we get an almost perfect film.

“BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN: THE OPERA”— Another Look

brokeback mountain the opera

“Brokeback Mountain The Opera”

Another Look

Amos Lassen

 “Brokeback Mountain: The Opera” has a libretto by the creator of the original short story it’s based on, Annie Proulx. Originally written to be performed by the New York City Opera’s program that creates new works around ideas and stories that are familiar to a younger, less elite audience, General Director Gerard Mortier who moved from New York to the Teatro Real in Madrid, took it with him.

At first it seems very odd to watch big, husky cowboys singing operatically but once we get used to it, we are pulled in to the story that we all know so well—Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar meet when they are hired to look after sheep one summer on Brokeback Mountain. Initially Jack finds it hard to connect with the quiet Ennis, but soon they bond and an intense love affair ensues.

Brokeback Mountain, opera, 2014

At first, Ennis thinks that the sexual and emotional connection between him and Jack will stay on the mountain and he will go home and marry Alma. Jack also married. But then four years later the two men reconnect and from then on meet in secret. Jack wants something more and believes that they can find a way to be together even if they are living in Wyoming of the 60s. Ennis totally disagrees.

It takes about 15 minutes to realize the power of the story and then it becomes totally absorbing. Author Annie Proulx says in one of the extras that the opera adds psychological depth to the story. In the film we did not learn a great deal about the men’s wives and in the opera we see that what happened was not just about the effects of repression, homophobia on the men but on their wives as well. We also become very aware of what the men’s’ hidden lives means to their women.

borkeback

I have always been a fan of classical opera but have not cared much for the contemporary operas that I have seen but I totally enjoyed this even though some of the score (composed by Charles Wuorinen) seems to hit us from all angles with its feelings and ideas. The mountain, for example, is presented as being eerily dark.

I’ll fully admit that I’m not always a big opera fan, as I often find it rather over the top and hyperbolic (although there are some brilliant pieces out there), but I thought Brokeback Mountain was really good. There are moments when Charles Wuorinen’s score feels like it’s bashing you over the head with the ideas and feelings it wants to convey, particularly the eerie darkness of the mountain itself, which is an almost constant theme through the 130 minute piece. However largely it’s extremely well done with the score acting as a strong support to bring out the themes of the story. The opera does wonderfully at taking the love of the two men for each other very seriously and it also shows how homophobia affects that love. Daniel Okulitch and Tom Randle are great as Ennis and Jack, and the staging is very effective.

“REBELS OF THE NEON GOD” (“Qing Shao Nian Nuo Zha”)— Disconnected Despair and Urban Decay

rebels of the neon god poster

“REBELS OF THE NEON GOD” (“Qing Shao Nian Nuo Zha”)

Disconnected Despair and Urban Decay

Amos Lassen

Director Tsai Ming-liang brings us the story of Hsiao Kang who quits school and heads for downtown Taipei where he falls in with Ah Tze, a pretty hood. Their relationships are a confused mixture of hero-worship and rivalry that soon lead to trouble. The young people here aren’t interested in reacting to life or interacting with those around them. They don’t want to do anything although there are a few short scenes in which they do seem to care. Things go wrong, actions don’t work out, attempts to actually be involved end up in not going the way that these kids think they should go.

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The subject of the film (as I said in the title of this review) is the disconnected despair that results from urban decay. We get quite a look at loneliness in the city through the use of humor and pathos. By following three troublemaking teenage boys and the people closest to them, we see an epic story of the repetitiveness of the boys’ routines. We follow them into video arcades that are filled with countless youth, obviously in the same state of mind and their condition seems to be part of a national epidemic.

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The focus is on the gradual, inevitable social withdrawal of Hsaio Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a young slacker who still lives with his discontented parents. Seemingly friendless at the start of the film, he retreats further into his insular world as the movie progresses. Each attempt that he makes to reach out to another causing emotional isolation that is total. He is representative of antisocial behavior. The way he behaves seems to be less than social deviancy than of a person who reacts to his surroundings in the way the world has conditioned him to do so.

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There is a loose structure to the plot allowing us to add our own thoughts to what we see on the screen and, all in all, this is quite an impressive look at something that affects so many. It is no wonder that this has become a cult film.

The film opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Quad Cinema in New York City on April 10 and at the Nuart in Los Angeles on June 12.

“DOPE”— Coming of Age, Post Hip Hop

dope

“Dope”

Coming of Age, Post Hip Hop

Amos Lassen

Malcolm, a high school senior, is a nerd and he is living in a rough part of Inglewood, California that is known as “The Bottoms.” There are gangsters and drug dealers everywhere and Malcolm is trying to deal with college applications, the SAT and college interviews. One evening he is invited to an underground party that takes him on adventure that could change his life forever.

A coming of age comedy/drama for the post hip hop generation. Malcolm is a geek, carefully surviving life in The Bottoms, a tough neighborhood in Inglewood, CA filled gangsters and drugs dealers, while juggling his senior year of college applications, interviews and the SAT. His dream is to attend Harvard. A chance invitation to a big underground party leads Malcolm and his friends into a, only in Los Angeles, gritty adventure filed with offbeat characters and bad choices. If Malcolm can persevere, he’ll go from being a geek, to being dope, to ultimately being himself.

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Malcolm and two best friends Jib and Diggy, despite living among poor people love BMX biking, classic ‘90s hip-hop culture, getting good grades at school, playing in their own punk band, and being all-round geeks. These activities are regarded by others as those for just white people. Because of this, going to school means being picked on and bullied.

Dom is their great tormentor and one day he tells Malcolm that he must be the go-between between himself and Nakia, the girl he wants for his very own but who does not seem to be interested. Dom thinks that perhaps if someone innocent like Malcolm delivers his messages to her, she will be more likely to pay attention to him. He is right about that but there is a snag in that—Nakia and Malcolm become interested in each other.

 Both Nakia and Malcolm get invitations to Dom’s birthday celebration at club and a drug deal there goes bad that causes a gunfight between gangs. Malcolm helps Nakia to a safe place but what he does not know is that Dom stuck a stash of Ecstasy tablets into his backpack. Malcolm ends up in jail and charged with possession and there are also those who want to get the drugs from him because they are the rightful owner. Instead of going to interview that he was supposed to be at that would get him a place at Harvard, Malcolm and his friends are on the run.

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 The film moves quickly as it wonderfully captures the energy and the way that street-wise urban kids live.Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa brings together a relatively unknown multi-racial cast of actors, rappers, dancers and models to give us a compelling glimpse of “an edgier underground online life that most of us are unaware even exists and a slice of life of a neighborhood that we would probably never visit.” This is set to a wonderful soundtrack that is a fine representation of hip hop culture and this is a comedy.

 “Dope” is unique and fresh, edgy and subversive. Shameik Moore is Malcolm and he gives a fine performance that is supported by his friends played by Tony Revolori as Jib and Kiersey Clemons as Diggy. Biting social commentary comes together with good filmmaking to give us a film that is near perfection and it makes no difference who you are and what kind of music you like, this is a film about being oneself and not allowing stereotypes to become the rule.

 

“ALIVE” (“VIVANT”)— The First Solo Jump

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“Vivant!” (“Alive!”)

The First Solo Jump

Amos Lassen

I love that there are always new ideas for movies and while I did not think I would be interested in a film about guys taking their first solo parachute jump, I was wrong. I love this little film about the week of training undergone by five HIV+ men leading up to their first solo parachute jump and the way it documents the development of unlikely friendships that came into being in such a disparate group.

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The focus is spread quite evenly between the interpersonal relationships of the five men and on the quite intense training for the parachute jump. As we can imagine, the training is both physically and mentally demanding, and we see these men visibly struggle to deal with and use all the information needed to make a successful jump.

As the day for the jump gets closer, the group witnesses a near-catastrophic problem in the air and we in the audience share in the very real feeling that there is a great more danger than they had considered and watching this is fascinating. As time moves closer to the actual jump, the film changes its focus to the friendships between the guys. As the relationships become stronger, the conversations become more intimate and personal—something we would not expect from a group of people who had been strangers.

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The five offer very different viewpoints on the relationships they have with significant others and sexual partners. We get the context as we hear stories of their first loves, first kisses and some less-enjoyable situations they have found themselves in. Some of the stories are quite difficult to hear and so I can imagine how difficult they were to tell but hearing gives a much deeper understanding of the situation these men face everyday.

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We see wide aerial shots interspersed with close-ups, drawing contrasts between the adrenaline rush of the jump and the quieter moments of introspection and intimacy. The overall story is beautifully related, as are the men’s stories of loneliness and, conversely, fear of intimacy and they provide unique and very personal insights.

“Covenant & Conversation: Volume III: Leviticus, The Book of Holiness” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks— Commenting on Torah

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Sacks, Jonathan. “Covenant & Conversation: Volume III: Leviticus, The Book of Holiness” , Koren, 2015.

Commenting on Torah

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings us the third volume in his “Covenant and Conversation” series of essays on the weekly Torah portion. Rabbi Sacks brings together Jewish tradition, Western philosophy and literature in various essays on each portion of the week in the book of Leviticus. In this way we get an understanding of the human condition and the sovereignty of God. The writing is often poetic and always concise and to the point. Each portion has several commentaries from differing points of view and they allow to deeply and to see the Torah differently each time. Bringing together insights from some of the great Torah scholars and periods in history as well as from modern Bible scholars, philosophers, historians, and Rabbi Sacks himself, we can use what we read and apply it to our modern lives.

Whenever I read a collection of commentaries, I like to pick one or two and concentrate on what the author has to say but I had a hard time with this volume. Each and every commentary is so full of ideas I had a hard time trying to find that one to use. We often find Leviticus difficult because it so far away from our modern ideas yet I often find the seeds of modern law in what is written here. Sure it is difficult to find a way to make animal sacrifices relevant to the world today and Leviticus spends a lot of time with purity and defilement and these really have nothing to do with the contemporary world.

Not much happens in Leviticus. The narrative that exists is shocking and we are not sure how to react when Aaron’s sons are killed on the day that the tabernacle is consecrated. Some of the commands we read are irrational as are some of the moral laws we find here. Many think that Leviticus is outdated while I maintain it is a blueprint for how to live a good and holy life. Many are mistaken by thinking the book has admonitions against homosexuality but this is a case of misunderstanding the text.

What we must remember and Rabbi Sacks carefully explains that Leviticus is the middle book of the five books of Moses and it is the most important in that biblical literature often works as a reflection of what has been said in other books and the real climax of the Torah comes here. We also receive here the purest voices in the Torah—the priests and the sages and we are summoned like they were summoned by God to heed his commands.

We learn here why love needs law and vice versa. We learn of the acts that bring lovers together even when one of them is mortal and the other is divine. This is a book about losing our ways and sinning, of not always doing the right thing yet always being aware and seeking to be closer to our maker and allowing our maker to become close to us. I find that the beauty of Leviticus comes not from what is on the surface but from what we hear when we read the text. It is difficult to understand the writing at just one reading—it requires thought and reflection. In several of the Torah study classes that I am in, I often hear a groan when we are to begin the third book but I am always happy to see it come because it means that I will have to open my mind.

Rabbi Sacks gives us five commentaries on each weekly portion. I love that—many times I have difficulty finding just one commentary (from myself, that is) so here I get a chance to see five of the thousands that have been written and each of the five leads me in another direction. For me this is the true beauty of study—there is always something new to find, to learn and to think about.

“John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage” by Ze’ev Maghen— Why Being Jewish

john lennon

Maghen, Ze’ev. “ John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage”, The Toby Press, 2014.

Why Being Jewish …

Amos Lassen

As you scratch your head and try to figure out what the title to this book means, I say to you to not be dismayed—it is not what you think… or is it? This is one of the funniest books I have ever read and it is a “wise polemic on behalf of being Jewish…” It is both heretical and irreverent and it will open your mind and make you think as you question your sanity. What could be more fun than that?

The book is subtitled, “Why I Love Being Jewish” and the author is a Philadelphia born Israeli citizen who is a professor at Israel’s Bar Ilan University where he chairs the department of Middle East Studies. The book is a philosophical study as it takes us through Jewish history and we see that we are all related. We see why we think of ourselves as special and he states that Judaism is neither a religion nor a philosophy. It is the product as well as a producer of passion that is based upon love. So what does John Lennon have to do with this? Dr. Maghen says that he does not want to live in a world where there is no heaven or hell or no countries or no religion and this is what Lennon’s “Imagine” is about.

The book is both original and fresh and important and every Jew should read it even if he has rejected his religion or adheres to traditional Orthodoxy. It is written as a rant that pulls you in as it look at the question why we should be Jewish and that being Jewish should be the center of our identity. Let’s face there are many more glamorous religions that are modern and progressive and besides who needs the label of religion anyway? We do not really have the tools to deal with these issues, so we don’t. In most cases we stay Jewish because that is what we have always been.

The fact that the author includes “A Philosophical Rampage” in the title can scare readers away but don’t let it. (Philip Roth is always rampaging about something and we read and love him). This rampage is fun and thought provoking and you will laugh as you think.

“The book is a thrilling and stimulating read, even if you don’t agree with everything the author believes in*. The book is not written as a field manual but as a partner/opponent in a typically Jewish debate (way beyond a philosophical discussion, although a bit short of a fistfight)”.

This next paragraph I am borrowing from the review that appeared in “The Forward” because it says what I want to but does so in a much better way.
“… you should especially read it if you are Jewish and 1) young; 2) think being Jewish is a bore; 3) Don’t, but can’t explain why it isn’t; 4) believe that social justice everywhere is a Jewish cause; 5) believe that saving the rain forests is a Jewish cause; 6) pride yourself on caring equally about Israelis and Palestinians; 7) deplore Israel for its narrow nationalism; 8) can’t imagine living there; 9) are troubled by the tribal aspects of Jewish identity; 10) are put off by the irrationality of many of the commandments of Judaism; 11) practice Buddhist or Hindu meditation; 12) count Mahatma Gandhi among your heroes; 13) regard the God of your fathers as a character in a children’s story”.

All right you are saying… so what is this book about? That is for you to discover.