Monthly Archives: September 2017

“Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell” by David Yaffe— A Blonde with a Guitar

Yaffe, David, “Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell” , Sarah Crichton Books, 2017.

A Blonde With a Guitar

Amos Lassen

When I lived in Israel, I once went to a small concert by a new female singer back then. Her name was Yehudit Ravitz and her career was just beginning. This had to be in the mid 1980s. Sitting next to me was a blonde with very red lips and I knew that I recognized her but could not remember from where. Much later in the concert Ravitz welcomed Joni Mitchell to Israel. Joni Mitchell was the kindest person I had ever met or so I felt that night. We spoke openly and then we were gone in our separate directions.

In “Reckless Daughter”, music critic David Yaffe shares the story of how the blond girl with the guitar became a superstar of folk music in the 1960s. Joni was a key figure in the Laurel Canyon music scene of the 1970s, and the songwriter who spoke resonantly to, and for, audiences across the country. She was

a free-spirited Canadian artist who never wanted to be a pop star. She would say that she was “a painter derailed by circumstances”. She went on to become a talented self-taught musician and a brilliant bandleader, releasing album after album, each distinctly experimental, challenging, and revealing. It is not only her music that is captivating, her lyrics are also captivating and filled with poetic perceptive language and naked emotion. Her words come from her life experiences, her loves, complaints, and prophecies. She wonderfully balances narrative and musical complexity and she has become an object of admiration in the music world for such greats as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and is beloved by such groundbreaking jazz musicians as Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock. She has influenced generations of singer-songwriters who would follow her.

This is quite an intimate look at Joni Mitchell. Author Jaffe uses in-person interviews with Mitchell, her childhood friends, and a cast of famous characters, to tell the backstory behind the famous songs. We are taken back to her youth in Canada, her bout with polio at age nine, and her early marriage and the child she gave up for adoption. We read about the love affairs that inspired masterpieces and we see why Mitchell has so enthralled her listeners, her lovers, and her friends. “Reckless Daughter” is both the story of an artist and the study an era that has left an indelible mark on not just American music but on music everywhere.

I sat down to read this at 2:00 in the afternoon yesterday and read straight through the night, mesmerized by the words just as I have been mesmerized by the lyrics to “The Blonde in the Bleachers” (my personal Joni favorite) and to those of “Ladies of the Canyon”.

“Joni Mitchell is an artist in every aspect of the word. David Yaffe knows the music and poetry and he knows Joni Mitchell. We are so lucky that he shares that with us. It seems that he has interviewed everyone important in Mitchell’s life to give us the definitive statement on the life and work of an artist who cannot be defined. He has something to say about Joni’s music, her poetry and her intellect and he understands all of it. I see now that is not enough to love her songs, we must also love the person behind them.

“Come to My Brother” by Christopher Zeischegg— David and Daniel

Zeischegg, Christopher. “Come to My Brother”, UNK, Inc.,2017.

David and Daniel

Amos Lassen

I do not often start my reviews with superlatives but this time I am going to make an exception and say “Wow” about Christopher Zeischegg’s “Come to My Brother”. I just closed the covers of one of the first books in a long time that has mesmerized me. Zeischegg has created two characters in David and Daniel that are going to be with me for a very long time.

David and Daniel grew up together in Northern California and became friends, then brothers who started a band and then became lovers. However, some four years earlier Daniel disappeared. Now he has returned but as something supernatural. Now David divides himself between going to film school and his career as a fetish porn actor. By chance, he and Daniel are reunited. David never really understood what happened to Daniel and why he disappeared that night at the cabin in the woods and he soon learns that this reunion was not by coincidence and that Daniel has changed tremendously.

David splits his time between film school and a job in fetish porn. Life is good until a chance encounter reunites him with Daniel, a former friend and lover. It’s been four years since Daniel disappeared after a dare-fueled encounter with a cabin in the woods. David’s about to learn that their reunion was something more than chance and that Daniel has changed. He now has fangs and quite a story about the past four years. He gives David a chance at a whole new “life” (for lack of a better word). Naturally I am assuming that you see that Daniel has become a vampire. (I thought to myself that I am so tired of reading about gay vampires that I know I am going to hate this book). Yet this is a story that is about so much more than gay vampires—- it is a story about friendship, love and loss, porn and sex and the vampire theme is there as a way to look at life from the outside in. I have always thought that the reason gay men love vampire stories is because like the bloodsuckers, we are outsiders who yearn to be part of the society that excludes us. What I really find amazing and totally fascinating here is the way Zeischegg brings together aspects of horror with life in the real world thus making this supernatural story read as if it is really happening. It is not easy to write about the paranormal while at the same time writing about the human world.

Here is a novel that is a new kind of coming-of-age story yet it retains the angst that is so much a part of that process. We read about comfortable life only to have the true horror emerge out of it and it is there with emotion, violence and love. What is surprising is that the world of the vampire and the world of humanity have a great deal in common.

Usually in novels of this kind, there is a great deal of wild sex that is described in detail but you will not find that here. What you do find is a look at the relationships that make up our lives and how we try to find our place in society. I found a great deal of relevance to the way we live now and many of you might see yourself once or twice here. I have always considered good literature to be an art form that makes us think; think not only about what we have read but how it fits into our lives. This book does just that. I am sure that I will be thinking about it for a very long time.

*I did not mention the AKA Danny Wylde but those of you who know will recognize who that is.

“HANS RICHTER: Everything Turns – Everything Revolves”— Redefining Art

“HANS RICHTER: Everything Turns – Everything Revolves”

Redefining Art

Amos Lassen

Hans Richter was a Dadaist, a radical provocateur, a surrealist painter, a pioneering filmmaker and a visionary educator but above all else, he was a major force in redefining art in the 20th Century. However, he remains largely unknown and often misunderstood and undervalued. He made great contributions to creating a new social art that forever changed the act of self-expression. This film explores just that through taking us on a journey through the century as we see Richter’s struggles to establish film as a unique art form.

Richter collaborated with his many friends (including Marcel Duchamp, Sergei Eisenstein, Tristan Tzara, Mies Van Der Rohe and Hans Arp) and he was part of the leading edge of the European Avant Garde. He established film as an art form in the 1920s with his experimental films “Rhythmus 21” and “Ghosts Before Breakfast”. With these, he liberated film from the theatrical conventions of script and actors. After being forced out of Europe by the Nazis in 1941, Richter escaped to the U.S. Here he became a prophet of modernism and was followed by young American artist/filmmakers, who would become the New American Cinema movement.

Now 25 years after his death, Hans Richter remains misunderstood and undervalued for his contributions to creating a new social art that forever changed the act of self-expression. With this film, Dave Davidson hopes to change that.

Those who disagreed with Richter claimed that he was nothing more than a witness to history or even a person who used his friends’ good names to get ahead. Here we see him as a visionary who was committed to creating communal art that held social significance.

As a young man, he was at a creative mind who dared to rebel against the European aristocracy during World War I. During the years between the wars, Richter collaborated with luminaries such as Sergei Eisenstein and Mies van der Rohe while making his own seminal experimental films. His radical political ideas and passion for the Avant Garde caused him to be exiled from Germany and labeled as a ‘degenerate artist’ by the Nazis.

In 1940, just as he was to be arrested by police in Switzerland, Richter escaped Europe and came to New York with little money and a limited command of English. He soon was able to get a teaching position at the newly formed Institute of Film Techniques at The City College of New York. For the next 17 years, Richter became an influential figure to generations of American filmmakers. He made them aware of documentary, experimental and European films unlike anything they had ever seen. He became an inspiration to filmmakers such as Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick who illustrate Richter’s lasting imprint. The film has captured Richter’s energy as a radical artist. He was at the epicenter of major art movements of the 20th Century and out of them, he strove to create a new social art.

The DVD contains the bonus shorts of “Rhythmus 21” (1921) and “Ghosts Before Breakfast” (1928).

“CENTRAL PARK: The People’s Place”— A Loving Portrait

“CENTRAL PARK: The People’s Place”

A Loving Portrait

Amos Lassen

Central Park is often referred to as New York’s collective backyard. It is the first truly public park and Martin L. Birnbaum paints a lovely tribute portrait to the green space among the cement towers that surround it. The film is “a biographyof a living place that continues to evolve as the city changes”. The documentary takes us to its creation as the first truly public park, its psychological and sociological significance, artistic design, and role as an urban oasis as the world becomes increasingly aware of the importance of green spaces.

We see nature’s seasonal changes with beautiful photography. Central Park is home to birdwatchers, sunbathers, children and their playtimes, musicians giving impromptu concerts and big events like Shakespeare in the Park and the New York City Marathon. It is safe to say that the name Central Park is a reflection of its centrality to the life of the city.

I remember my first trip to New York sometime back in the 1950s and my parents made sure that one of the places we went was to Central Park. It was important that we see the greenery in the city and not take it for granted as it is in New Orleans where I am originally from and where there are many green parks all year long. We see here Central Park’s democratic birth and diversity of people, activities, history, landscapes and values.  We also see the role Central Park plays in the lives of New Yorkers both as a communal backyard and as being of psycho-sociological importance as a green spot in an urban environment. We see and hear interviews with a cross-section of people who use the Park daily to those who are professionally connected to the park like Betsy Barlow Rogers, Art Historian and Founder, Central Park Conservancy; Morrison H. Heckscher, Lawrence A. Fleischman Chairman of the American Wing, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Francis Morrone, Historian/Writer; Edward Hallowell, MD Child & Adult Psychiatrist; and Douglas Blonsky, President & CEO, Central Park Conservancy. We also hear from the gardeners, the soil scientists and the volunteers.

With its 843 acres of green space, Central Park plays a unique role in the city and is a perfect place for picnics, strolling, dog-walking, outdoor concerts, Shakespeare under the stars, and a place for quiet contemplation, outdoor painting, and performing all kinds of music. Central Park has appeared in many famous movies and during the annual New York City Marathon, it represents the spirit of New York around the world. Many will be surprised to hear the unlikely story of Central Park’s creation and how it became the prototype for other parks in the U.S.

The idea for this film began years ago when Director Martin L. Birnbaum began photographing its seasons over the years thus creating a visual poem.  As he met other park lovers, the film grew into a 90-minute documentary with beautiful cinematography and original music. “Central Park: The People’s Place” looks art the collective and individual experiences of Central Park as it rejoices in the diversity and splendor of an American experiment in social democracy.

Douglas Blonsky, President & CEO, Central Park Conservancy, describes the evolving story of the park and the experiences it offers, “It is a series of these travels through the park, all these wonderful little destinations, that’s what we want to highlight.”

Interviews with: Morrison H. Heckscher, Lawrence A. Fleischman Chairman of the American Wing, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Francis Morrone, Historian/Writer; Edward Hallowell, MD Child & Adult Psychiatrist; and other experts, provide a range of perspectives on the social and historical sides of the park’s story.

 

“MUHI: GENERALLY TEMPORARY”— Transcending Identity, Religion and the Israel/Palestine Conflict

“Muhi: Generally Temporary”

Transcending Identity, Religion and the Israel/Palestine Conflict

Amos Lassen

Muhi is a young boy from Gaza who for the last seven years has been living in Tel HaShomer Hospital in near Tel Aviv, Israel. He lives in medical and political limbo at Tel HaShomer Hospital, east of Tel Aviv, Israel because of a rare disease that has caused his limbs to be amputated. During four years, co-director Israeli photojournalist Rina Castelnuovo-Hollander, with American videographer Tamir Elterman, have intimately followed Mubi and his devoted and self-sacrificing grandfather Abu Naim.  Even Mubi’s name has become symbolic of the border that his suspicious father, heartbroken mother, siblings, and cousins can rarely cross from faction-torn Gaza. While his family calls him Muhammad; his affectionate Israeli caretakers have nicknamed him Muhi and include him in their Jewish observances.  

The film plays with emotions. Here is a disabled child overcoming adversity with infectiously good spirits while his isolation, dependence and adaptation are used as a prism through which we see the ironies, prejudices, difficulties and tensions of humanitarianism when first world medical care is just 43 miles from third-world conditions. This care is impacted by the bitter strife between Palestinians themselves and between Palestinians and Israelis

We see Muhi is as a migrant for medical care because of the limited facilities in Gaza. His dedicated grandfather’s life finds him in a Middle East limbo full of cultural contradictions and heartrending juxtapositions. While his family can only rarely get through the checkpoints to visit (and are not convinced the extreme treatment of limb amputation was necessary), his grandfather Abu Naim tries to maintain his grandson’s Arabic language and Islamic education. The caring Israelis, including his advocate and long-time peace activist Buma Inbar whose son was killed in war and who give him the Hebrew nickname “Muhi” and celebrates Jewish holidays with him.

When his grandfather finally gets a permit to work, the hospital, unfortunately, misses the opportunity to hire him as a translator or liaison for the many Arab patients and families and condescendingly employ him as a janitor. The prosthetic arms and legs, that give Muhammed the mobility to attend a rare bi-lingual school are not available in Gaza and will keep him waiting as he will need new ones as he grows. This is the kind of film that stays with us long after the screen goes dark and the lights come on.

“HUMOR ME”— A Happy Ending

“HUMOR ME”

A Happy Ending

Amos Lassen

Nate (Elliot Gould) is a playwright suffering from writer’s block and is unable to complete his latest play. He has been fired by his producer/agent C.C., Nate and also gets dumped by his wife Nirit who has found herself a billionaire who is able to give her the life to which she wants to become accustomed. Nate’s problem here is that Nirit who has been supporting him. Nonetheless, she leaves and takes their son Gabe with her leaving Nate with no job, no wife and no home. He has only one option and that is to go to New Jersey and stay with his dad Bob (Jemaine Clement) in a retirement community.

Nate’s father only keeps diet cream soda in the house and expects his son to earn his keep by doing chores makes Nate uncomfortable to say the least and soon we have comedic situations as we watch Nate refuse to become an adult. At the same time, Bob refuses to coddle or cater to his son. Eventually, things work themselves out in this sweet film filled with heart and humor.

Elliott Gould is perfect as Bob and his comedic timing is perfection. Going toe-to-toe with Gould is Jemaine Clement who, as Nate, brings his own often droll and sometimes hapless comic sensibilities to the role and shines with exasperation at every turn. The real fun happens when Gould and Clement share the screen. Writer/Director Sam Hoffman has found a great supporting cast that includes Priscilla Lopez, Annie Potts, Bebe Neuwirth, Willie C. Carpenter and Ingrid Michaelson.

“LET YOURSELF GO”— Life Changes

“Let Yourself Go” (“Lasciati andare”)

Life Changes

Amos Lassen

A psychoanalyst named Elia (Toni Servillo) goes to the gym and meets a personal trainer who changes his life. Servillo lives and works in the Roman ghetto, a beautiful neighborhood in the historic city centre of Rome. He is separated from his wife Giovanna (Carla Signoris) but they still share a house with a very thin wall separating their respective bedrooms Dr. Elia Venezia lives a methodical and rather self-centered existence which only gets lively when his patients get weird.

Then, one day his blood sugar levels force him to go to the doctor, who tells him to shape up fast, puts him on a diet and prescribes exercise. Right after this, a Spanish personal trainer by the name of Claudia (Veronica Echegui), comes to his office and drags him into a swirling vortex of mishaps that breathe life back into his dull life.

Filmmaker Francesco Amato will undoubtedly be compared to Woody Allen based on this film yet he manages to find his own Italian way to Jewish comedy. The film takes a few minutes to warm up, with a few overly cold and intellectual jokes, after which Servillo and the others start to win over the audience, ending up in pure slapstick mode with the entrance on the scene of Luca Marinelli who plays a low-life robber who has escaped from prison to recover his spoils and turns to the psychoanalyst to have himself hypnotized so that he can remember where he buried the jewels. This is quite the JewishItalian screwball comedy.

Claudia challenges the doctor’s masculinity, social status, and general sense of well being. She leads him on a merry chase around Rome that changes his life. There’s smart, fast-paced dialogue and the performances are excellent all around.

“A QUEER COUNTRY”—- Israel from the LGBT Perspective

“A Queer Country”

Israel from the LGBT Perspective

Amos Lassen

I spent many years of my life living in Israel and can vouch that it is a complicated country to say the least and I am actually surprised that I stayed there as long as I did. I arrived in Israel long before gay liberation and along with many of my gay friends, lived a closeted life. We did set up the first gay liberation organization and I do not think that any of us thought it would get to where it is today. There is no such thing as pinkwashing in Israel and I am emphatic on that. Looking at Israel from the outside, it’s difficult not to see the divisions and conflicts; especially the secular versus conservative religion. Yet nowadays and against that backdrop, Tel Aviv holds one of the biggest gay pride parades on the planet.

British filmmaker Lisa Morgenthau’s documentary, “A Queer Country” looks at Israel from an LGBT perspective. We meet some of the more interesting and thought-provoking issues queer people in Israel face. The film contrasts the largely secular and open Tel Aviv with the more staid and religious Jerusalem, where gay issues are far more political and difference less tolerated.

We meet those who’ve faced difficulties due to the fact Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities rarely accept LGBT people, and who have therefore had to find new ways to hold on to their beliefs outside of the world they were once part of. The film also addresses the accusations of pinkwashing that have been leveled against Israel. This is the allegation that the Foreign Ministry has promoted Israel’s acceptance of LGBT people to try and deflect criticism from allegations of human rights abuses against Palestinians.

We hear from a variety of people who show that things are often far more complicated than they first appear. With pinkwashing, we face whether it is a cynical attempt to gloss over the fact that not all minorities enjoy the benefits LGBT people do, or is it a legitimate way of promoting a nation that often finds it difficult to get positive stories on the international stage? I believe it is neither and does not exist.

In the early part of the film many participants talk about how Tel Aviv is a gay haven yet it was also the scene of a 2009 shooting at a gay centre that killed two and injured 15 others, while in 2015 Jerusalem Pride saw a fatal stabbing by an Ultra-Orthodox Jew angry the city had allowed the celebration. Some of the most interesting parts of the film are when it looks at the dichotomy of a country set up to be a secular, plural society, but where that plurality means they have to try and find ways for some very different and sometimes extreme views to live alongside one another.

“A Queer Country” does not come to conclusions. It presents a variety of thoughts and opinions. However, there is nothing about LGBT Arabs in Israel, as while the movie engages with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how that relates to LGBT people, it does so almost exclusively from one side of the issue. This means that some people, perhaps unfairly, will find the film is to be one-sided. Nonetheless, the film does a good job of including a diverse array of interviewees from within the Israeli Jewish community. We hear from a strict orthodox psychologist who thinks that everything that is gay is wrong. We also hear from gay Jews who are conflicted about their status compared to Palestinians, to a trans man and his family on a kibbutz where they’re trying to live their lives in a way that they feel honors God, although there are others who might disagree.

The one theme that comes up over and over is that of people trying to find synthesis between being gay and Jewish, something many people, and perhaps Israel as a nation, is still trying to deal with. This is an issue that seems to go beyond just LGBT issues, such as when one person talks about the fact religious bodies have complete control over marriage in the country and we understand that it’s not just gay people who can’t marry but also many of those who fall in love with people outside of Judaism.

The film helps puts context on issues that are often presented in rather one-dimensional ways. It shows that, as is so often is the way, things are more complex than they first appear, and that while Israel may be the most gay-friendly country in the Middle-East, LGBT people still face difficulties that are both relatable and very specific to living there, and that even within Israel there is division about how their status relates to other groups.

“GARDEN OF STARS”— AIDS, The Stillborn & The Brothers Grimm

“Garden Of Stars”

AIDS, the Stillborn & The Brothers Grimm

Amos Lassen

The Alter Sankt-Matthäus-Kirchhof is in the Schoneberg section of Berlin. It is famous as the burial site of the Brothers Grimm. However, this film is isn’t about them but about a man whose life has become linked to the cemetery.

Ichgola Androgyn is a gay drag queen who used to be involved in experimental art and various other slightly hippy-like pursuits. Almost accidentally he got involved with the cemetery, which he helped change it from Victorian institution to something more welcoming that is designed as much for the living as the dead.

He began his association with the graveyard during the AIDS crisis, when it almost became the ‘gay cemetery’ due to the number of young men being buried there. The cemetery now includes a beautiful AIDS memorial. Ichgola also helped found the ‘Garden Of Stars’, a place to bury stillborn children. Ichgola specializes in this work— he organizes the funerals for these babies, and makes sure that the Garden is both a place of sadness and solace, covered with bright colors and flowers. He also gives tours of Alter Sankt-Matthäus-Kirchhof and helps to run a small café in the cemetery’s ground.

This film is Ichgola’s story and it introduces us to him and his ideas. He’s an interesting man, who manages to mix the seemingly contradictory qualities of being a bit of a bohemian dreamer with practicality.

We see how his sexuality influences everything about him while not taking over his personality or mean that everything he does is ‘Gay’ with a capital G. Ichgola’s life in the cemetery is undoubtedly informed by growing up gay before it was accepted and getting involved in a more free-thinking culture outside the mainstream. This allowed him to look at a graveyard that was stuck in a time and see what it could be. What he has created respects the past, while looking to the future and makes us realize that death is part of life.

We see some moving moments and get an interesting look at a gay man “whose freethinking life and attitudes have been translated into a new and potentially better way to handle death”.

“THE GENIUS AND THE OPERA SINGER”— Mother and Daughter

“The Genius and the Opera Singer”

Mother and Daughter

Amos Lassen

“The Genius and the Opera Singer” is a documentary that is set in a claustrophobic penthouse apartment in New York’s West Village. Ruth and her daughter Jessica have shared this apartment for more than fifty years and we see the emotional territory of a parental relationship stuck somewhere between the past and the present. Once an aspiring opera singer, Ruth is now 92-years-old and housebound. She relies on her 55-year-old daughter, Jessica and her sometimes live-in partner, Robert. Jessica is intelligent, high-strung, and confrontational and she feels that her life has perhaps not unfolded quite as she’d planned. This is because her mother spent her formative years neglecting her in favor of pursing glamour. Ruth has been found to be officially ‘incompetent’ by the city of New York and therefore not allowed to live independently.

Vanessa Stockley’s film depicts one of the most uncomfortable, grueling, and revealing mother-daughter relationships ever seen on film. In the very first scene, we see Jessica bringing her dog, Miss Angelina Jolie, into a branch of the New York Police Department to yell at an officer and reignite a grudge match that has been going since the pooch pooped on the station floor. We immediately see that Jessica has an addiction for confrontation. After this, we go into the rent-controlled apartment where we see Jessica’s temperamental social skills in full force. Jessica scored a legal victory by getting Ruth freed from her care facility where she had been sent by the city. Jessica explains how authorities had declared Ruth “incompetent” and forced her into a nursing home—a decision of which neither mother nor daughter approved. Ruth is a former opera singer of modest success (or no success, in Jessica’s mind), and she hangs unto the memories and beauty of her youth. Jessica is bitter that she, a genius and child prodigy (or underachiever, in Ruth’s estimation), never had the opportunity to fulfill her potential because of her mother being totally into herself.

We watch as over the course of a few days, mother and daughter provoke one another to assign blame for their dissatisfied lives. They bring out the worst in each other and they both know the right buttons to push to get the other going. Jessica who fought to preserve her mother’s sanity; now seems intent to destroy it now that they’re back under the same roof.

This is not an enjoyable movie to watch but we are amazed at the amount of courage director Stockley has to even have attempted to make this film. As I watched with a sense of disgust, I was also stunned by what I saw. The arguing goes on and on and it is mean-spirited. However, the footage is powerful and not all of the things that mother and do together and terrible. We see the devotion that connects the subjects as Jessica tends to her mother because she acknowledges her responsibility to the woman who raised her. There is obvious manipulation in Jessica’s nursing, but there is also care and family ties that keep them together.