Monthly Archives: March 2017

“The Trial That Never Ends: Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ in Retrospect” edited by Richard J. Golsan and Susan Misemer— Revisiting the Banality of Evil

Golsan, Richard J. and Susan Misemer, editors. “The Trial That Never Ends: Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ in Retrospect”, (German and European Studies)” University of Toronto Press, 2017.

Revisiting The Banality of Evil

Amos Lassen

About four years ago, I saw the excellent German film “Hannah Arendt” and it greatly rekindled my interest in the philosopher. As a graduate student I was lucky enough to have studied with Arendt one summer, and I have never lost the respect I have for even through the repercussions that followed her opinions about Adolf Eichmann and his trial. I may not have agreed with some of what she said but she remained one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century. I, once again, immersed myself in what she had written and what others had to say about her and decided to teach a course that I called, “Meeting Hannah Arendt” and found myself giving my opinions all over the Boston area.

Now, the University of Toronto has published “The Trial that Never Ends: Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ in Retrospect” giving me so much more to think about. Here was a Jewish woman who with a few sentences managed to cause uproar in academic circles and in the Jewish community. The years following this were not kind to her but it is fascinating to see here that her opinions are once again being discussed and argued about. There is a renewed interest on the Eichmann trial and in the nature of his crimes and in the writings of Hannah Arendt. One of the places where these are being looked at seriously is the State of Israel and it is fascinating to know that among Israeli youth, Arendt is being adopted as a seer and a visionary. In Israel, the Holocaust is a difficult topic, especially with the youth who do not want to be reminded of and identified with it. If you think about that, you will understand why.

The essays in this volume re-evaluate the legacy of Hannah Arendt’s famous book and the issues she raised, specifically the “banality of evil”, the possibility of justice in the aftermath of monstrous crimes, the right of Israel to kidnap and judge Eichmann, and the agency and role of victims. The contributors include new writing by Deborah Lipstadt, Bettina Stangneth, and Shoshana Felman and there are new areas that open for historical, legal, philosophical, and psychological speculation. Some of the contributors look at Arendt’s own ambivalent attitudes towards race and critically interpret the nature of the crimes Eichmann committed with regard to the recent newly discovered Nazi documents. Every word here seems to have purposely chosen so that what we read is interesting but also scholarly, readable and provocative, like Arendt herself. To date, this is the most “comprehensive and definitive account of the true historical and philosophic meaning of Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’”. Here we see that Arendt’s study was more than just an attempt to deal with the horrors of the past; it was also a prophetic look at “the evils that lurked ahead for the Jewish people, the state of Israel and indeed for civilization itself.”

 

“Wish Meal by Tim Whitsel— Evolutions

Whitsel, Tim. “Wish Meal” Airlie Press, 2016.

Evolutions

Amos Lassen

“Wish Meal” poetically follows a man’s evolution from El Dorado pilgrim and prodigal son to a stay-at-home father to the family he that he has created in the Pacific Northwest. Whitsel shares events, places, good times and bad times.

There is a sense of desperation in the poetry here but it is desperation with a sense of hope. Whitsel writes that when things are bad, he has the desire to make things good and that there is hope to repair what is broken in life. Looking at physical location and time, the poet is on a pilgrimage where anything can happen and does. This is Whitsel’s memoir poetically presented and we are taken back in time to Whitsel’s youth and easier times and move forward toward both introspection and retrospection. There is music here and it is in the background of every poem as we read of a poet who is trying to find his way through the mysteries of life. We become aware of the sensuality of time as each moment holds something special. As James Joyce says in the first sentence of his short story, “Eveline”, “everything changes” and changes affects everyone differently. As Whitsel tries to find “the way”, we see that dogma that was once so important disappears as we move from childhood in Indiana to adulthood in Oregon.

We go into the metaphysics of life— not just Whitsel’s but our own. We search with him for the meaning of life and see what being human is all about. Here is the arc of life geographically rendered and as generations meld, brokenness is mended and a full person emerges and it is this brokenness that allows this to happen, lyrically and beautifully. The poems are divided into four sections— “Wishmeal”, “On the Banks of the Wabash”, “Ferment” and “Furrow and Drift, with each representing a different period in the poet’s life. I purposely did not give lines from the poems because I felt that taking them out of context would not show the lyricism and cadence of the writing and this is something that each reader should discover for him/herself.

 

“THE SCENT OF RAIN IN THE BALKANS”— Be on the Lookout for This

“The Scent of Rain in the Balkans” (“Miris kise na Balkanu”)

Be on the Lookout for This

Amos Lassen

We will finally get a chance to see the new miniseries “The Scent of Rain in the Balkans”. It is based upon the novel of the same title and it is the the story of the Sephardic family Salom in Sarajevo, in the period between 2 World Wars. The Salom family is made up of Father Leon, Mother Estera, their five daughters and one son.

When in June 1914 Sarajevo is getting ready to welcome the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Salom family is occupied with the engagement of their daughter Buka and Daniel Papo, a young Sephardi working in the office of the Sarajevo Jewish Community. Although she is not in love with Daniel, Buka accepts his advances because she feels “it’s time to get married”, which is also a consequence of constant meddling of the three aunts Salom who keep tirelessly repeating that it is time for her to extend her family.

“WORLD’S APART”— Love in Greece

“Worlds Apart” (“Enas Allos Kosmos”)

Love in Greece

Amos Lassen

Greece has been in socioeconomic turmoil along with Southern Europe and in “World’s Apart”, we look at three different generations during which three Greeks have chance encounters with strangers in three interconnected narratives set in Greece. Daphne (Niki Vakali) is a young Greek woman who falls in love with Farris (Tawfeek Barhom), a Syrian refugee after he rescues her from an assault. Their relationship, though, is forbidden by her domineering, anti-immigrant father, Antonis (Minas Chatzisavvas). Giorgios (Christopher Papakaliatis) is a salesman for a struggling company, who meets Elise (Andrea Osvart), from Scandinavia at a hotel bar and they end up sleeping together.

Their affair becomes more than just a one-night stand, though, when they gradually develop feelings for one another. To make things even more complicated, Elise is the efficiency expert in charge of laying off the employees at the company that Giorgios works at. In the third story, Maria (Maria Kavoyianni) is a housewife in an unhappy marriage who meets a friendly stranger, Sebastian, a retired professor from Germany, in front of a supermarket. They agree to meet once a week at the same day and time in front of the supermarket and begin a friendship that becomes a sweet romance.

Director Christopher Papakaliatis combines light and dark elements to give us an humanistic and unpretentious look at love. He knows how to tell compelling stories with complex characters and does so without stereotyping, caricature and melodrama. Each character is a living and breathing human being and we feel the chemistry between each of the couples. Beneath the film’s surface, though, there are sociopolitical and socioeconomic commentaries that give us a lot to think about in this very timely film. We feel as if we are actually part of what we see on the screen. The three stories are presented consecutively with Papakaliatis using little tricks (like the religious procession of Good Friday) in order to show time (and create a sad atmosphere). In the end the three stories come together.

This is a Greece that is larger then life and we never lose the sense of location. The three stories have different styles—the first is romantic and affectionate but with a sense of darkness, the second is more humorous and sexy while also being restrained and the third story is powerful, loving and has a sense of privacy. Some may see this as problematic but I enjoy the different in tone in each story. When the stories come together, we might think that this is a bit too violent but seeing the lack of cohesion make the entire movie all the more interesting for me.

“MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI”— The Legendary Actor

“Mifune: The Last Samurai”

The Legendary Actor

Amos Lassen

In his new film, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki, explores the movie career of Toshiro Mifune, who made 16 remarkable films with director Akira Kurosawa during the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema (includingRashomon”, “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo”).  These films thrilled audiences and influenced filmmaking around the world and inspired moviemakers. Mifune’s performances are characterized by their raw, mesmeric power. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about this documentary. Nonetheless, this is still an entertaining film but could have been so much more.

We get a chronological overview of Mifune’s life and career and there is a naturally heavy emphasis on his long-running collaboration with Akira Kurosawa, We learn of Mifune’s youth working in his father’s photography studio, his somewhat insubordinate military service during World War II, and his love of drink and cards. While these details are interesting, they are never integrated into a broader psychological portrait of Mifune who remains just as mysterious after watching Okazaki’s film as he was before. The interviews with those who knew and worked with him do not give much information and the interviewees do not speak about his work ethic and only speak in generalities about his character. Director Okazaki deals with Mifune’s major life events— his 20-year estrangement from his wife following a scandalous affair with a young actress and the couple’s subsequent reconciliation in the last years of their life, but does so only on the surface.

The film is more perceptive when it looks into the background of some of the actor’s best-known roles. Martin Scorsese, for example, says that Mifune studied the movement of lions for his feral performance as the bandit in “Rashomon”. Okazaki takes an extended look at Mifune’s famous death from “Throne of Blood”, a dangerous scene for which Kurosawa hired a bunch of barely trained college students to fire real arrows at the him and this shows the director’s commitment to Mifune. After all, Mifune was the man who made the director a star.

Mifune made 16 films with Kurosawa, beginning in 1948 with “Drunken Angel” through 1965 when the two men made “Red Beard” together and it was then that their working together ended. Okazaki does not give us a clear reason why the collaboration stopped. Scorcese says that perhaps they had just used each other up. The documentary does capture the impact this falling out had on Mifune, who became consumed by the demands of his own production company and turned to well-paid but often inferior international productions to finance his lifestyle.

The dynamic between between Mifune and Kurosawa animates the documentary and give it a sense of purpose making us forget the other shortcomings of the documentary. Okazaki seems to have a great deal of information including interviews, research, film clips, and archival stills, but he simply doesn’t seem to know what he wants to say with them.

The documentary’s focus is on the actor’s iconic roles, his contribution to world cinema and his legacy as one of the greatest film actors of all time. We see his discovery as an actor and then places him into the history of Japanese cinema, a place of esteem and high respect. While Mifune is the primary focus of the documentary, Akira Kurosawa’s story runs parallel to it. Their collaboration was so intense that the story of one cannot be told without the story of the other. Their relationship dominates a fair section of the film as behind the scenes stories are told about their biggest hits. Mifune’s peers speak about their time with him and the effect he had on all their lives. In between the anecdotes, Scorsese and Spielberg speak to their own experiences with the man and how his and Kurosawa’s films helped shape Hollywood’s own approach to cinema.

While it is very enjoyable and educational to hear the stories and see the film clips from Mifune’s filmography, the documentary does not go anywhere beyond the standard talking head format, and there is really not much attention paid to his life outside of cinema, until toward the end when he was of poor health. His film were such an important part of his life so in order to know the man, we must also know his movies and sometimes this kind of film is all one needs to celebrate such a great talent. This is definitely a film for fans and a terrific primer to introduce young filmmakers to Mifune.

Keanu Reeves, is the narrator and he starts with two sections that set the stage for Mifune’s career. The first stage reminds us of the long popularity in Japan of “chanbara” or sword-fighting movies and this is where going well back into the silent era.  The second stage is when the industry was nationalized to make war propaganda films.  This is where Kurosawa got his start with Mifune. After the war, what was left of the film industry was one of the few places people could still find work.  Despite no great passion for it, Mifune fell into acting and Kurosawa recognized his natural talents and created and built building roles around him thus letting him have far more leeway than he granted most of his cast and crew. The results have spoken for themselves over and over again.

 

“TORREY PINES”— Gender Dysphoria and Mental Health

“Torrey Pines”

Gender Dysphoria and Mental Health

Amos Lassen

Torrey Pines is a stop-motion animated feature film by director Clyde Petersen. It is based on his true story and is a queer punk coming-of-age tale that is set in Southern California in the early 1990’s. Peterson was raised by a schizophrenic single mother and his life story is seen in a series of baffling and hallucinated events. Peterson’s mother was fueled by hallucinations of political conspiracy and family dysfunction and when he is twelve-years-old, Petersen is kidnapped and taken on a cross-country adventure that will forever alter what he thought was his family.

This is a 60-minute stop-motion film that deals with such issues as gender dysphoria and mental health. As a young child Peterson was called Whitney; as a girl on the edge of puberty, she felt that that she did not want breasts and to get periods. He mother takes her off on a trip across the US, which seems like a great adventure. They visited everywhere from the Grand Canyon to the White House. However, there was a problem in that Whitney’s mother also believes there are aliens and reptile people. “Torrey Pines” is a movie with no dialogue–– visuals and narrative tell the story. This means that the film sometimes relies on the audience to fill in the gaps even when we are not sure of what is happening. It works extremely well for the movie since we have, two people who are both experiencing the fact that the external world doesn’t match what they believe in their minds. One of two is dealing with the fact their gender isn’t what is written on the birth certificate; the other person just might be having a complete schizophrenic breakdown. These are embedded into the story and we see Whitney’s

gender dysphoria as part of her growing realization of her world (something she’s particularly aware of when she sees things such as her mother with no clothes on). Likewise, her mother’s mental health issues are seen through the eyes of a child who doesn’t fully comprehend what’s going on.

The style of the movie is captivating and the  stop-motion, at first, looks rather child-like, like a kid’s pictures cut out and animated in a very simple style. However, it’s much more complex with a multi-plane camera used so that we see it in a way designed to look as flat as a child’s painting, it manages to be sculptural and three-dimensional at the same time.

There are scenes that are beautiful and ugly, simple and complex at the same time and those of us who are willing to be pulled in to a child’s view of the world are totally drawn into the humor and how ideas are expressed. Others may not like it all. You must really let yourself give into the film to understand and enjoy it.

I found it to be a fascinating experience, especially because it deals with some important issues and vibrantly does so giving us a child’s view of gender dysphoria and mental health issues in the family.

“AFTER LOUIE”— AIDS and Generational Changes

“After Louie”
AIDS and Generational Changes
Amos Lassen

Director Vincent Gagliostro’s “After Louie” is about Sam (Alan Cumming), an artist who is working on a documentary about his friend, William who died during the AIDS crisis. However, it was heartbreaking for him to learn that there are not many people interested in this project. Then he meets young Braeden (Zachary Booth) and thinks that he is probably a hustler and Sam pays him for a sexual escapade. What he did not know was that Braeden has a boyfriend yet he and Sam continue to get together on a fairly regular basis. This causes them to challenge what each thought about the other and Sam becomes quite angry that the younger generation doesn’t seem to care about the AIDS crisis and the battle against straight society that culture he and his friends are so wrapped up in. Braeden shows him that his generation has a very different experience in the world and regarding HIV and that while Sam’s generation’s battles helped change things for gay people, they cannot understand what it was like to watch so many people die in a society that didn’t care and in many cases attacked them.


All of the characters have flaws but the film (that could easily have become a “preactfest”) is really interested in more complex ideas than just the impact of AIDS on the generation that survived how it is difficult it is to compromise the tremendous number of gay men that died with the way young people think about AIDS today. “After Louie” tries to be fair to the lives of younger gay people, for whom AIDS/HIV never completely went away, but who have a very different relationship to it.

Because LGBT history is not fully taught in schools, gay people who grew up in the 90s and beyond see the AIDS epidemic as a slightly tangential issue. They do not feel it is about them or that it affects their lives. They do not understand that the freedoms that they have today, in many cases, have come into being because of the number of people that died and that the disease was a unifying factor for both LGBT people but for the greater society as well. This is a film that is very aware of the generational changes and that we are now living in and it now a very different world for gay people.


Sam is not just angry about his— he is also very angry about how he felt he was fighting for queer culture and against the heterosexual norms, but that culture is now something very different. With same sex marriage and the many LGBT freedoms, queer life is much more heteronormative. In a sense, the LGBT community had conformed to the very society that it once fought against. Was that fight for LGBT rights about finding a new LGBT lifestyle or was it that our community simply gave straight society “the bird”? Perhaps, it was both.
Braeden, to a certain degree is living the life Sam was fighting for. He has a boyfriend and he is able to have sex with whoever he wants, whenever he wants, and without society trying to stop him. However, Sam has difficulty understanding this because he still feels the anger and confrontation that his generation had. Ultimately he’s now alone and cannot accept that a younger man would be interested in him (or any older male) if money were not involved (even though there is a hint that this is just a defense mechanism). Perhaps Sam understands that his generation did an important job that is now finished and/or at least drastically changed and he cannot move on from that. Maybe the gay world has just become satisfied and complacent as it ignores the lessons from the past as it is pulled a heteronormative lifestyle. We reach no conclusions in the film but we are given a great deal to think about. It well could be that both sides are probably at least partly true.


Alan Cumming is excellent as Sam who is world-weary and going back to that time when his life was horrific but also vivid and vital; starkly different from the way he lives today. Zachary Booth is wonderful as the young man who challenges Sam’s assumptions. In him we see that what may seem shallow on the surface can often be more complex than it seems.
I know that I often get angry about the way the younger generation thinks about AIDS and for that I am thankful that someone finally made an entertaining and thoughtful movie about it. Through Louie we get a very thoughtful look at this.

“HEAVY WEIGHT” — Lust in the Ring

“Heavy Weight”

Lust in the Ring

Amos Lassen

When a talented new arrival begins using the local boxing club, Paris, a skilled fighter, is forced into an unexpected struggle with himself. Jonny Ruff’s short film deals with vulnerability in a hyper-masculine world that doesn’t allow for it.

The film stars Chuku Modu, Dean Christie, Karl Reay, and Eddy Elsey.

 

“An Asian Minor: The True Story of Ganymede” by Felice Picano— Meet Ganymede Anew

Picano, Felice. “An Asian Minor: The True Story of Ganymede”, Lethe Reprint, 2017, originally published 1981.

Meet Ganymede Anew

Amos Lassen

Felice Picano’s novella about Ganymede was originally published in 1981 and has long been out-of-print. It tells the life story of Ganymede unapologetically and with the in its ribald details of Greek gods in disguise as they try to seduce “the most beautiful youth in the Ancient world”. thirteen-year-old boy who discovers that he is “the most beautiful mortal ever born.”

Picano sees Ganymede as a young man who was given immortality at age fourteen, who has aged mentally with the earth and sees and knows the world. Ganymede relates the true story of his life because he sees that others are intent on making him “a symbolic victim of an old pervert’s lust; and contrarily, by others saying that the perversion is fine.” He wants everyone to know the truth that t his human rights had not been violated and that he is not an unwilling victim who was raped and abducted without his permission. Ganymede, being the nice guy that he is also tells us in the prologue that he wants to give us modern guys some ideas on how to find the right kind of sugar daddy.

We see that Ganymede is sneaky and cheeky but he has good reason for that; he is the most beautiful young man to ever have lived. He learns that being so beautiful is both a blessing and a curse. His father shows proudly exhibits him off as one of the wonders of Troy but Ganymede is exiled because his father does not want the gods misbehaving as they try to win him over. This is where his adventures begin and he rejects both Apollo and Hermes because he does not want to settle for a minor god when he knows that he can do better. It took humbling him so that he could fulfill his dreams. humbled that he gets the chance to fulfill his destiny.

Ganymede tells his story as if he was living in the world of today. His language is contemporary and filled with idioms. He tells us what really went on in his life and corrects the “mistakes” that others have made telling his story. Here he claims that he knew nothing about the powers that were given to him at birth. He also is not aware of his perfect beauty until others tell him about it and he realizes that he can use it for his own advantage. We see that he is searching for his destiny and that it was just not handed to him. He is a very smart kid who is unwilling to settle for anything or anyone when he can have the very best. This is a read that is just fun. Ganymede goes wit to wit against the biggest gods remaining always convinced that there is always one better than the god he is with. You will never read mythology the same way again.

“THE SON OF JOSEPH”— Looking for Father

“The Son of Joseph” (“Le fils de Joseph”)

Looking for Father

Amos Lassen

Eugene Green’s “Son of Joseph” is about the world of a troubled teen, Victor (Victor Ezenfis) who is not happy living with his single mother, Marie, (Natacha Régnier) and her insistence that he has no father. One afternoon, home alone, Vincent goes through the cabinets at home and he finds a document that connects him Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric), a hotshot book publisher who left Marie for the sake of philandering in the literary world.

Vincent has been intensively studying the violent father-son gesture in Italian master Caravaggio’s 1603 painting “Sacrifice of Abraham”, of which a wall-sized replica of which hangs in the teen’s bedroom thus letting us know that he will use what he has learned to find his father.

Vincent manages to copy the key to Pormenor’s office in a chic Parisian hotel and hides under the sofa to eavesdrop on him. He soon realizes that Oscar isn’t the father any boy would dream of. This discovery together with Vincent’s odd obsession with the Caravaggio in which Abraham holds a knife against his son Isaac’s throat, results in the boy doing the opposite and handcuffing and gagging his father (who still doesn’t know his identity). However, Vincent’s indecisiveness involves choices between good and bad and when he finally puts the blade against Oscar’s neck, he runs away from what he’s done without fully achieving his goal.

 

In one of the first scenes, Vincent and a buddy talk about a profitable sperm-selling operation, we see that is not a comedy. The film’s main exchange of ideas and emotions comes between Vincent and the adult Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione) who is Oscar’s ne’er-do-well brother. They meet by chance and become friends by looking at the world together in the parks, streets and museums of summertime Paris. A visit to the Louvre acquaints Vincent with two religious masterpieces: Philippe de Champaigne’s “The Dead Christ” and “Joseph the Carpenter” by Georges de la Tour. The latter painting makes the entire meaning of the film clear especially when Vincent casually remarks that Joseph isn’t little Jesus’ real father but Joseph (the movie character) suggests that he became a real father through the presence of his son.

“The Son of Joseph” is filled with talk about God, Biblical art, life, parenthood, filialness and relationships, but this is not handled seriously and there are more serious ideas at center of the film. There’s a reason the two main adult characters are called Joseph and Marie, and it seems that director Green gently plays around with the expectations of the viewers. In the film’s Biblically inspired chapters that have names such as The Sacrifice of Abraham, The Flight to Egypt and The Golden Calf, we get a (satirical look at the ridiculously self-obsessed publishing world. There is the combination of highbrow and lowbrow elements all through the film.

In one scene, Oscar shows up for some afternoon fun with his assistant and as illicit deeds take place above the camera (with the sound communicating everything we need to know) all we can do is see and admire the decorative construction of the furniture.

This principle of elimination informs every scene here, from a literary cocktail party that Vincent crashes to a dinner date between Marie and Joseph, that shows a blatant disregard for naturalistic ambiance. Green outlines his character’s feelings and motivations in dialogue and makes sure that there is no interruption of sentiments. Yet, a sense of psychological complexity and mystery remains.

Green shares his views on parenthood and the evolution of the family construct. He has a wry sense of humor and although the film is concerned with Biblical art and filial relations, this is handled lightheartedly. When Vincent discovers that his father is a vile egomaniac, he decides to get his revenge and cultivates a plan heavily influenced by Caravaggio’s painting.

Green combines formal precision with garrulous personalities to give a dreamlike impression of reality. Each character talks directly to the soul of the viewer making it impossible to escape the romance and joy on the screen. Green’s thoughts about life, love and misplaced paternity are great fun. Victor’s plan to covertly observe his dad is complicated when he’s mistaken for a prodigious young novelist by a pretentious book critic Violette (Maria de Medeiros), who ushers him awkwardly into the champagne gossip circuit of the Parisian literary scene, a great target for satire.