Monthly Archives: July 2017

“Oh, Bob! I Thought It Was Curtains! Survival and Transcendence in a Homophobic” by Rob Lawrence Russo— Finding Oneself

Russo, Rob Lawrence, “Oh, Bob! I Thought It Was Curtains! Survival and Transcendence in a Homophobic”, Booklocker.com, 2017.

Finding Oneself

Amos Lassen

In his teens and well into his twenties, Rob Lawrence Russo doubted that he would ever be a happy, independent, financially solvent adult. He had been raised by a hateful father and a passive-aggressive mother so that when Rob entered adulthood he was emotionally fragile, not knowing who he really was or what career path was best for him.

Psychologically, Rob spent years coming to terms with his homosexuality and the homophobic world that he lived in. His mother who once told him she would kill a son who was gay and he was surrounded by anti-gay rhetoric from religious leaders, politicians and even from some mental health professionals. Somehow he has not only survived and now he shares his story with us in “Oh, Bob! I Thought It Was Curtains,” and hopefully it will provide a bit of sanity to anyone who is or has been the product of a traumatic childhood. It is also a good book for queer youth who are attempting to find their way. Rob’s personal narrative can help others avoid some of the mistakes that his parents made.

We get a fine picture of Russo who is now older and worldlier as he looks back on his life from a gay man’s viewpoint. The book is a collection of well written remembrances that captures the past and his personal experiences as a gay man living at a time when AIDS first struck the gay community.

“Gravity” by Leana Lieberman— Veys Mir, an Orthodox Jewish Lesbian

Lieberman, Leana. “Gravity”, Orca Books, 2008.

Veys Mir, An Orthodox Jewish Lesbian

Amos Lassen

Fifteen-year-old Ellie Gold is an orthodox Jewish teenager living in Toronto in the late eighties. Ellie has no doubts about her strict religious upbringing but then she falls in love with another girl at her grandmother’s cottage. She is very aware that homosexuality clashes with Jewish observance, and so she feels forced to either alter her sexuality or leave her community. Meanwhile, Ellie’s mother, Chana, becomes convinced she has a messianic role to play, and her sister, Neshama, is rebelling against the restrictions of her faith. Ellie is afraid there is no way to be both gay and Jewish, but her mother and sister offer alternative concepts of God that help Ellie find a place for herself as a queer Jew.

Ellie’s conflict comes from the angst she feels when she reminds herself that Judaism says that she is an abomination, yet God and His commandments are supposed to be good. Neshama says God is just an idea made up by stupid men who say women can’t love other women. And we get to the question of God. When Ellie meets Lindsay, she is faced with denying her sexuality or abandoning her community. While she looks for help from others, her decisions are all her own.

Ellie is terrified of being caught due to the mixed messages her religion sends about homosexuality. In her family the Torah is everything, so there’s no way she can talk to her parents about what’s going with her. Neshama, her older sister, however is sick of the sexism and restrictions placed on them by their faith and is letting it go. Ellie doesn’t want to stop being religious, she just wants to figure out how to make it work for her without being like those hypocrites who pick and choose which scriptures should be followed literally and which are out of date.

Her attraction to Lindsay comes from the fact that Lindsay is how Ellie wants to be. Ellie actually stalks Lindsay for several weeks before making contact. It was weird to see Ellie, a religious girl, behaving in such a way. I had the feeling that Lindsay was using Ellie so that she would feel loved and wanted because she did not get that at home but we come to see that genuine feelings are shared by the two girls. Lieberman does an excellent job writing about Orthodox Judaism.

This is a book about both coming out and coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation while trying to find one’s identity in a closed community. Ellie has to learn that she has the power to make her own decisions and choices and that there isn’t always some authority to tell her what the right thing to do is.

Lieberman shows that there is a place for all kinds and types of people including Ellie, in society and religion.

 

“In the Province of the Gods” by Kenny Fries— A Journey of Self-Discovery

Fries, Kenny, “In the Province of the Gods”, (Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies), University of Wisconsin Press, 2017.

A Journey of Self-Discovery

Amos Lassen

Kenny Fries embarks on a journey of profound self-discovery as a disabled foreigner in Japan and Japan is known as a society that is historically hostile to difference. As he visits gardens, experiences Noh and butoh, meets artists and scholars, he also discovers disabled gods, one-eyed samurai, blind chanting priests, and A-bomb survivors. When he is diagnosed as HIV positive, all of what he assumed about Japan, the body, and mortality are shaken, and he must find a way to live on new terms.

This is an intense look at a man who is trying to keep himself alive. Everything is at stake here—health, affection, culture, trauma, language and we are surprised to discover what thrives in the midst of suffering. We see that the best and surest way “to discover the self is to look out at the world, and second, that the best way to teach others about something is to tell them not ‘what it is,’ but what it means to you”. Fries’s prose is full of compassion and curiosity, and what he learns about himself is as fascinating and compelling as what he learns about Japan. Having read other works by Fries in the past, I knew that he is a wonderful writer and he tackles issues of cultural and physical difference, sexuality, love, loss, mortality, and the ephemeral nature of beauty and art with aplomb here.  This is also a love letter to Japan and we see that Japan embraced him at a time when he needed acceptance the most. However, the real message of book is that it gives us a “profound sense of what it means to be truly alive.”

 

“Never Mind the Goldbergs” by Matthue Roth— A Punk-Rock Orthodox Jew

Roth, Matthue. “Never Mind The Goldbergs”, Push, 2006.

A Punk-Rock Orthodox Jew

Amos Lassen

Hava is a seventeen-year-old Orthodox Jew who has opinions about everything around her and who is very unorthodox in that she has spiked hair, loves punk culture, and punctuates her colorful, rebellious language with four-letter words (though she is reverently careful to refer to the Supreme Being as “G-d”). Her best friends are her confidant Ian, who is gay and not Jewish, and her platonic soul mate Moishe, who makes offbeat films and practices a kind of countercultural Orthodox Judaism. After a successful stint in a play, Hava is offered a lead role in a Hollywood sitcom about a caricatured American modern Orthodox Jewish family. She is immediately taken into a world of make-believe and pretense, and spends the summer trying to sort out what is real and what isn’t and what her religion means to her. Frequent visits from Ian and Moishe help to ground her, but most of her time is spent in states of boredom, confusion, alienation, and often pointless rebellion. Hava shares her story in a vivid, funny, and distinguishable voice. Writer Matthue Roth gives his readers an irreverent, insider look into two cultures and at a character trying to define herself.

Roth also gives honest insights into religion as he meticulously details Orthodox Jewish rituals and life. For those of us who have lived like this, the book is totally relatable, and for those who come from a very different background will find it to be a fascinating glimpse into a culture they previously knew little about. Roth looks at religion that is humorous, reverent, irreverent and deeply sincere all at the same time. We see Hollywood life through the eyes of a devout Jewish girl raised in New York in an almost satirical fashion, yet it is right on and makes everything even funnier and keeps the pages turning quickly.

Hava attempts to find a balance between her religion and her work and tries to make good choices for herself. She never does something just to stand out and get attention, nor does she try to fit in and conform. She simply is who she is. She is a flawed, realistic character, and that’s what makes this book work.

“AutoFellatio: A Memoir” by James Maker— Everything Changes

Maker, James. “AutoFellatio: A Memoir”, Inkandescent, 2017.

Everything Changes

Amos Lassen

James Maker is a very funny guy who gives us pearls of wisdom in his memoir, “AutoFellatio” which I understand is a remastered version of an earlier edition. Maker fronted such bands as Raymonde and RPLA in the 80s and 90s (both of which I am totally unfamiliar). This memoir will have you scratching your head trying to determine if what is written here is true or not. “We follow our hero from Bermondsey enfant terrible to Valencian grande dame, a scenic journey that stops off variously at Morrissey confidant, dominatrix, singer, songwriter and occasional actor, and is literally littered with memorable bons mots and hilarious anecdotes that make you feel like you’ve hit the wedding-reception jackpot of being unexpectedly seated next to the groom’s flamboyant uncle”. (Maker says it so much better than I could ever). As for the title, forget trying to figure out if it means what you think it does and whether Maker can do so.

The book (unfortunately only available on Kindle in the U.S.) is filled loaded with wonderful one-liners and Maker’s observations on “life, music and the meaning of good hair.” It is a quick read but one that will keep you laughing. It is also totally relatable.

 

“MEMORIES OF A PENITENT HEART”— Unresolved Family Drama

“Memories of a Penitent Heart”

Unresolved Family Drama

Amos Lassen

Twenty-five years after Miguel died of AIDS, his niece tracks down his estranged lover and when she does she reopens unresolved family drama. “Memories of a Penitent Heart” is about woman trying to investigate what truly happened to her uncle Miguel, a homosexual Puerto Rican who died in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Working backwards through a network of friends, family photos, and newspapers, filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo uncovers a story of heartbreaking tragedy, of loss and pain and fanaticism. Miguel was a happy man who changed his name to Michael once he moved to New York City in order to distance himself from his religious (and ethnic) family. Robert, now known as Father Aquin, was his steadfast lover of thirteen years who, despite bearing the brunt of Miguel’s family’s homophobia, never lost his faith. Miguel’s mother is renowned in her family for her purity and holiness, reviled by those closest to her because she threw her son Miguel aside because of what she considered to be his sinning.

The characters here represent near-universal archetypes: the gay martyr, the abusive family member, the religious zealot. Perhaps that’s part of the film’s power. But there is also the power of static images. Director Aldorondo fills her frames with geometric stills of photographs, mementos, and letters thus making the audience her partners and collaborators in her search. This is why the film feels so immediate and essential.

Aldarondo’s investigation leads her to Robert who is now a Pasadena, California, priest known as Father Aquin. She also meets many of his friends, all of whom describe a lifestyle of drugs, partying, leather-bar cruising, and joyous, infectious love that Miguel had to defend to his disapproving mother. He felt trapped between a desire for modern American freedom and a devotion to old-world religious beliefs. It’s here that Aldarondo discovers piercing revelations about her uncle, mother, grandmother, and grandfather Jorge who also had romantic desires like his son.

There’s irony in the way that faith, such a destructive force in Miguel’s family relationships, turns out to be vital for Robert in processing his partner’s demise. We see that two opposing truths can exist at the same time.

Aldarondo gives us gorgeous shots of Puerto Rican shops and sidewalks and she emphasizes comments from her speakers (heard on the phone, or in old recordings) by juxtaposing them with relevant imagery. She moves deeply into the deep traumatic pain caused by loss, secrets, and the denial of one’s true self. As she does we see the importance of loving who you have while you can for once they are gone so is the opportunity to do so.

Miguel’s grandmother insisted he died cancer, although it was almost certainly of AIDS (even though Miguel himself was never tested, due to his beliefs about how people with the disease were being treated and stigmatized). Miguel was gay and moved from Puerto Rico to New York to become an actor, leaving behind his Catholic upbringing so that he could live authentically as himself, regardless what his family thought. Miguel became involved in a relationship with a man called Robert. Finding Robert became Cecilia’s route into the story, as due to the strained relationship between Robert and Miguel’s family, they don’t know what happened to him or even his surname.

Cecilia set out to discover what happened to Robert and get his side of the story, and along the way she uncovers family secrets, unresolved anger, frustrations, different ways of remembering things and a death made even more tragic due to the homophobia and the fear and tensions surrounding it. “The film offers some fascinating insights into a time when AIDS upended nearly every gay person’s lives, often made worse by families that couldn’t accept their gay relatives, and a system that often seemed to actively despise the victims”.

When discussing Cecilia’s very religious grandmother, the film shows how in her mind her actions were absolutely the right thing to do, no matter what the result was and that is still true today. She did not deliberately set out to do evil; –she genuinely believed she was saving her son’s soul. That helps underline the tragedy of the fact that for Miguel’s mother, it seemed more important that she could claim her son repented of his homosexuality before he died, than to deal with the fact that he’d been taken from her in the first place.

It’s impossible to say whether Miguel really did repent, whether he just said he did, or whether Cecilia’s grandmother said he did to comfort herself and others. There is heartbreak in that someone who’d done so much to be true to himself was denied by his mother.

Cecilia’s mother (and Miguel’s sister) still seems to be trapped between who she is now, and the ghosts of her thoughts and attitudes at the time. There is still anger at Miguel, but it feels like she’s not entirely sure why. Here is a documentary that brings a very human side to the AIDS epidemic, showing how one family can illuminate how it was for many victims, and how a tragedy was often compounded by families who had never really accepted their relative’s sexuality. As Cecilia digs further and discovers secrets about her grandfather and others, it continues to underline just how sad and difficult it can be when we can’t accept who we are along with the pressures and pain that family can cause when that happens.

There is no resolution in the film because those that could resolve issues are no longer here. There is, however, the possibility of forgiveness in some quarters but even that can reveal that people may not wish to deal as fully with their past as they think they do.

This is a very powerful look at a family tragedy illuminates both a particular time in gay history, and how far the pain family members can cause one another can go, even when in their own minds they believe they are doing the right thing. The film is a heart-breaking and compelling documentary is a passionate memoir to the Uncle that Cecilia Aldarondo could barely remember from her childhood.  

We lost so many wonderful men and women in our community through this very dark passage of our history, and it is so essential that their stories are told too.   In this film Aldarando planned to look at just one of them but actually honors them all— their memories are now filled with honesty and compassion.

“AND THEN SHE ARRIVED”— Changing Direction

“AND THEN SHE ARRIVED”

Changing Direction

Amos Lassen

 Dan Freilich (age 30), is a handsome but very easy-going nerd who is quite sure his future is organized  for the next 50 years. The plan is that soon he will marry Tamar, his high school sweetheart.  That’s all you need, isn’t it?   Apparently not. Dan meets Meirav Levi (age 27), a waitress from Jerusalem, and discovers that feeling  of butterflies fluttering in your stomach.

From here on in, the plot thickens.  Dan and Tamar break up but not everything goes smoothly with Meirav. Then Dan decides not to give up and fights  to win Meirav’s love.

“Drama Queens and Devilish Schemes” by Kevin Klehr— A Short But Sweet Review

Klehr, Kevin. “Drama Queens and Devilish Schemes”, (Actors and Angels Book 3), Ninestar, 2017.

A Short but Sweet Review

Amos Lassen

Book Three in Kevin Klehr’s “Actors and Angels” series is out and it is great fun. However, I have a bit of a problem reviewing it because anything I might say could ruin the read for others. Therefore I will be very careful with my plot synopsis but very rabid in telling you that you really need to read this. It seems to me that it has been a very long time since we have had anything new in gay fiction that when we do it often goes by unnoticed.

Klehr takes us back to our drama queens and we learn that Adam is dead but his husband Wade who is still alive and has begun to have sex with loser after loser. Guy is his guardian angel but he is more into alcohol than he is into helping Wade. Adam, though dead, suspects that his death was the result of foul play. Moving to the afterlife, the devil gets Adam to produce a drama for the sinners on earth with the caveat that if it is not entertaining, the devil will see to it that Guy’s parents will spend eternity in the Underworld. While preparing the dramatic spectacle, Adam comes to understand the meanings of friendship and infidelity and that he was the

victim of a double murder. You might want to read that sentence again, scratch your head and ask yourself what this all means. The only way you are going to find out is to read the book and enjoy every page.

“TORRENTE”— The Four Film Action-Comedy Series By Santiago Segura

“Torrente”

The Four Film Action-Comedy Series By Santiago Segura

Amos Lassen

“Torrente” is a popular Spanish action/comedy series that is made up of four films by writer-director-star Santiago Segura that is coming our way on DVD in September. All four films are about the misadventures of José Luis Torrente, a lazy, vulgar, gross and corrupt former police officer in Madrid and the film series is the most successful movie franchise in Spanish film history. 

The four individual films are “Torrente: The Dumb Arm of the Law” (1998), “Torrente 2: Mission in Marbella” (2001), “Torrente 3: The Protector” (2005) and “Torrente 4: Lethal Crisis” (2011). Each film was written and directed by and stars Segura as Torrente, an ex-cop who refuses to accept his expulsion from the police corps, allowing him to still “patrol” each night in his beat-up car in order to “fight” whom he considers to be the “bad guys.” However, Torrente usually refuses to confront real criminals because he is a coward. Nonetheless, there are plenty of innocent bystanders for him to wreak havoc upon! He is reprehensive and alluring at the same time.

“Torrente 1: The Dumb Arm of the Law” is the premiere film of the series introduces the outrageous and offensive José Luis Torrente, a former policeman who fights against the Mafia in Madrid whether the government wants him to or not!

“Torrente 2: Mission in Marbella” shows us the offensive Torrente starts as a private eye in Marbella. Soon he falls into the middle of a villain’s missile plot to destroy the city and his uncle’s blackmail operation. 

“Torrente 3: The Protector” is about when Torrente, , is hired to guard a beautiful and powerful politician. Unable to behave in any way, he lives up to his employers’ expectations.

  “Torrente 4: Lethal Crisis” takes us to Torrente who is in jail for a crime he did not commit and he is committed to clearing his name while at the same time offending everyone around him.

Torrente is unlike any other tough cop that you’ve seen in a movie and I doubt that you will ever be able to forget him.

“EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY PEOPLE”— The Folk and Traditional Arts in America

 

“EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY PEOPLE”

The Folk and Traditional Arts in America

Amos Lassen

I doubt that many of us are aware of the National Heritage Foundation and that is the subject of this documentary by Alan Govenar. It is one of the programs that falls under the National Endowment for the Humanities and was begun in 1982 to provide fellowships to musicians, dancers, quilters, woodcarvers and others who are involved in the shaping of the folk and traditional arts in this country. This film demonstrates the importance of those arts in shaping the history and fabric of America..

Govenar began documenting the artists more than 35 years ago and his project includes two 52-part radio series for NPR and three books that gave him the opportunity to explore in great detail the intersection of disparate cultures. Many of these cultures were brought here by immigrants over hundreds of years. The film gives insights into how cultures endure, and how cultural expressions evolve but at the same time remain true to their roots in our 21st century connected world. We see here that each of the artists has exceptional talent, ingenuity and perseverance that he shares with others and his country. Artists range “from Bill Monroe and B.B. King to Passamaquoddy basket weavers and Peking Opera singers; from Appalachia and the mountains of New Mexico to the inner city neighborhoods of New York, the suburbs of Dallas, and the isolated Native American reservations of Northern California”.

Just to give you an idea of what we are talking about here is an extensive list of just some of the artists you will see in the film:

Sheila Kay Adams – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Ballads, Musician, Singer, Storyteller

Rahim Alhaj – Culture Iraqi; Tradition: Composer, Oud Player

Loren Bommelyn – Culture: Native American Tolowa; Tradition: Artisan, Dancer, Musician

Laverne Brackens – Culture: African American; Tradition: Artisan, Quilter

Charles Carrillo – Culture: Hispanic; Tradition Santero

Clifton Chenier – Culture: African American, Creole; Tradition: Accordionist, Musician, Zydeco

Sidiki Conde – Culture: Guinean; Tradition: Dancer, Drummer, Musician

Sonia Domsch – Culture: Czech; Tradition: Artisan, Lace Maker

Qi Shu Fang – Culture: Asian, Chinese; Tradition: Peking Opera Performer, Musician

“Queen” Ida Guillory – Culture: African American, Creole; Tradition: Zydeco, Accordionist

John Lee Hooker – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Guitarist, Musician, Singer

Wanda Jackson – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Gospel, Musician, Rockabilly, Singer

Dolly Jacobs – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Circus Aerialist

Flory Jagoda – Culture: Jewish; Tradition: Sephardic Musician

“Flaco” Jiménez – Culture: Mexican; Tradition: Accordionist, Conjunto, Musician

Genoa Keawe – Culture: Native Hawaiian; Tradition: Musician, Singer, Ukulele Player

B.B. King – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Guitarist, Musician, Singer

Narciso Martinez – Culture: Mexican; Tradition: Accordionist, Conjunto, Musician

Lydia Mendoza – Culture: Mexican; Tradition: Musician, Singer

Norma Miller – Culture: African American; Tradition: Dancer, Lindy Hop

Bill Monroe – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Bluegrass, Mandolin Player, Musician, Singer

Alex Moore – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Musician, Pianist, Singer

Chum Ngek – Culture: Asian, Cambodian; Tradition: Musician

Clarissa Rizal – Culture:Native American Tlingit; Tradition: Ceremonial Regalia Maker

Earl Scruggs – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Banjo Player, Bluegrass, Musician

Dan Sheehy – Folklorist & Former Director of NEA Folk & Traditional Arts; Mariachi Musician

Koko Taylor – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Musician, Singer

Mike Vlahovich – Culture: Croatian; Tradition: Shipwright

Albertina Walker – Culture: African American; Tradition: Gospel, Musician, Singer