Monthly Archives: September 2017

“THE YOUNG KARL MARX”— The Early Years

“The Young Karl Marx” (“Le jeune Karl Marx”)

The Early Years

Amos Lassen

Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck introduces us to Karl Marx (August Diehl) in 1844, when he is 26 and living in Paris with his wife, Jenny (Vicky Krieps). Jenny is a woman from an aristocratic family who gave up on her fortune to share her life with “this socialist, atheist Jew”, as she lovingly calls him. They are surviving off the little bit of money that Marx makes from writing for philosophical and political journals that are soon going to be shut down by the French government.

At the same time in Manchester, Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) is becoming increasingly bitter because of the working conditions in the factories that his father owns. He distances himself from his own class and becomes involved in circles of European philosophers and thinkers and this leads him to meeting and befriending Marx.

The two will develop a connection and eventually a considerable following made up of many different revolutionary thinkers of the time, including French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet) and German radical activist Wilhelm Weitling (Alexander Scheer), as well as the London-based League of the Just, which they will eventually become the Communist League.

The film is based primarily on the letters that Marx and Engels exchanged and it also gives us the political and social climate of the time, introducing us to important historical personalities and movements that are today partly forgotten, or not in our awareness. We are taken back in time to when strong-willed and thinking men developed connections and moved public opinion. The relationships that we see in the film are just as present and important as the historical struggles.

Aside from the Bible, no other book has shaped the last century more than Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital”. In three volumes, he totally dissected the class system that capitalism was built on and reached out to people all over the world to disrupt this exploitation. The film recounts Marx’s formative years as a young man and a rebel-rouser. Marx and Engels struggled for years to make their writing be understood by all audiences.

August Diehl plays the young Marx as a handsome rebel with a cause who’s ready to pick a fight with anyone who’ll listen. Vicky Krieps as his wife, Jenny; modern and astute in her own right, gives us charming relief while the dialogue struggles and often becomes banal exposition. Within a few years, Marx and Engles accomplished an unprecedented revolution of ideas. They broke with German idealism and placed the understanding of society on a materialistic basis discovering class struggle as the driving force of history and developed socialism from a utopia into a science.

While Stalinism destroyed the Soviet Union, Marxism is more relevant today than ever before. The global financial crisis, outrageous levels of social inequality, growing militarism, and the rise to prominence of extreme right-wing figures such as Donald Trump in the US—all of this has prompted many to turn to Marx to find a way out of the impasse of capitalism. Even Marx’s opponents are forced to take his insights seriously once again.

Director Peck is well aware of the timeliness of his theme. “At a time when the world is in a state of emergency due to the financial crisis, Karl Marx is experiencing unexpected interest today as the world finds itself in a financial crisis. The film sets out to discover the real contribution of Marx as a scientific and political thinker. The collaboration between Marx and Engels is the focus of much of the movie. Peck also looks at the contributions of Marx’s wife, Jenny von Westphalen, and Engels’ wife Mary Burns, an Irish worker. We see how the two men inspire one another and develop a close personal friendship.

One of the main focal points of the film is Engels’ experience in England with his father’s textile business in Manchester where he worked as a clerk and saw the terrible living quarters of the working class. We see that it was Engels who pointed out to Marx the importance of the writings of the classical English economists.

The last third of the film deals with the activities of Marx and Engels in the League of the Just. It shows that even at that time they worked intensively to establish an international party of the working class. The film ends with the music of a Bob Dylan song and a rapid sequence of images of catastrophes, key events, political figures and protests of the past 100 years. It features images of Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba and the Occupy movement, but not of Lenin and Trotsky and the October Revolution. In this way, the film glorifies the type of petty-bourgeois politics that Marx, as the film vividly shows, entirely rejected.

“SUBTE: POLSKA”— A Character Study

“Subte:Polska”

A Character Study

Amos Lassen

“Subte: Polska” looks at the final chapter in the life of a 90-year old Argentine chess player who longs to recapture his past. He spends his days riding the subway lines of Buenos Aires that he helped to build as a young man and as he does, he faces his past.

As a young man, Tadeusz (Héctor Bidonde) left his entire family and the girl he loved behind in Poland in order to fight for the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War. When the war was lost and the rise of fascism made it unsafe for a Jewish communist to return to Europe so he immigrated to Buenos Aires where he helped build the subway tunnels beneath the city. Now nearing the end of his life, he finds himself lost in reverie and desperate to recapture his mental abilities and sexual libido. He has refused the doctor’s pills because he believes that they are responsible for his losing his lucidity and manhood. Since he believes that his next journey will likely be his last, he tries to reconnect with long-lost lovers from his youth and has help to do so from an eccentric circle of caring friends and neighbors.

Alejandro Magnone wrote this humorous character study of a quixotic life that comes full circle in its last chapter. With these memories there are moments of nostalgic lucidity in which Tadeusz reminisces about his role in the Spanish Civil War and the loves he has lost.

Much of the movie is about Tadeusz’s quest to recover his sexual prowess and his obsession with acquiring a penis pump— he thinks he will feel better if he has an erection. He also has something to say about doctors who would rather see him medicated. We see flashbacks to Tadeusz’s adolescent guerrilla days in which Bidonde gives us a character that is both captivating and endearing.

Buenos Aires here seems to be inhabited exclusively by people who are most interested in the life of Tadeusz and more than willing to involve themselves to it.

“SEX AND SINGLE GAYS”— Mature Men Share Sexual Intimacy In Social Groups

 

“Sex & The Silver Gays”

Mature Men Share Sexual Intimacy In Social Groups

Amos Lassen

Each month, New York Prime Timers members participate in “sex parties”. In this film, we learn what it means for them to continue to practice free love despite the advancement of age.

We know that sexual desire doesn’t just evaporate once we get older. On the contrary, with maturity comes wisdom and experience and both of these make men better lovers. This is exactly why the documentary, “Sex & The Silver Gays” is so important.

Filmmakers Charles Lum and Todd Verowtell the idiosyncratic story of the New York City chapter of a national elder gay men’s organization, Primetimers. Among the many elderly activities, the members also actively participate in monthly sex parties. With the film, we are invited us to an intimate gathering that explicitly illustrates their carnal activities and explains who they are, their own shared histories, and what it means to their lives to have and enjoy consensual sexual celebrations together for a long as may be possible.

“THE 90 MINUTE WAR”— Settling Differences Satrically

“The 90 Minute War” (“Milhemet 90 Hadakot”)

Settling Differences

Amos Lassen

Let’s face it—the Middle East is a power keg. For decades there have been failed peace talks and now with the threat of renewed hostilities looming, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority agree to end the crisis once and for all by a winner-take-all soccer match. One game will decide who will remain in the Holy Land and who must go. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the chairman of the Israeli Football Association (Moshe Ivgy) and his Palestinian counterpart (Norman Issa). Every detail of the game becomes a potentially deal-breaking negotiation beginning with the choice of venue to the selection of an impartial referee. As the day of the match draws closer, both men struggle with ambivalence about their place on the world stage while at the same time each pursues every advantage to ensure victory.

In case you have not yet realized it, this film is a politically incorrect mockumentary that reveals the sometimes petty and ridiculous nature of the differences that divide the Middle East.

For a satire to work, it must be based on reality and attack its targets from there. In this case, Eyal Halfon’s “The 90 Minute War” fails. It is based on an existing reality but the film’s basic premise is so far-fetched that the film cannot possibly succeed as a skillful satire. However, this does not mean it is not a good movie. The film completely ignores the question of how the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority came up with such a solution. It seems that director Halfon apparently wanted to push the current desperate impasse to the point of absurdity and he does so without creditability.

The two men charged with organizing the game are unable to settle on a single detail without a negotiation that nearly blows the whole plan to pieces. Eventually they agree to hold the match in Portugal, since that country seems indifferent to the conflict. But then they start squabbling about who will be the referees; and so on.

Because this is an Israeli movie, it pays more attention to deliberations on the Israeli side than on the Palestinian one. I see this as thoughtlessness, irresponsibility and lack of commitment. Halfon has situated the story inside a “mockumentary” and the inevitable conclusion is that this is a film based on a mistake, causing every direction it takes to come out wrong as well. Nonetheless, the film is funny and the actors do fine jobs. It all just could have been so much better.

“Queer and Catholic: A Life of Contradiction by Mark Dowd— Reconciling Sexuality and Faith

Dowd, Mark. “Queer and Catholic: A Life of Contradiction”, Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 2017.

Reconciling Sexuality and Faith

Amos Lassen

Mark Dowd was raised as working class boy from Manchester and in this memoir he explores how to reconcile his sexuality with his Catholicism. He begins in the late 1960s to the present day and what we really see is the changing attitude to same-sex attraction over more than half a century. Dowd has filled his memoir with stories that are funny, deeply moving and spiritually insightful. H shares coming out to his parents by talking in his sleep, training to become a Dominican priest before “eloping from a religious order with an ex friar, and attending the funeral of his father – accompanied by his father!”

Through this we get the opportunity to explore the mind of a sometimes struggling but always-persistent Catholic.

“A Crime in the Family: A World War II Secret Buried in Silence and My Search for the Truth” by Sacha Batthyany— A Memoir of Personal Discovery

Batthyany, Sacha. “A Crime in the Family: A World War II Secret Buried in Silence and My Search for the Truth”, De Capo Press, 2017.

A Memoir of Personal Discovery

Amos Lassen

One night in March of 1945, on the Austrian-Hungarian border, a local countess hosted a party in her mansion, where guests mingled with local Nazi leaders. The war was almost over and the German aristocrats and SS officers who were dancing and drinking knew it was lost. Around midnight, some of the guests were asked to “take care” of 180 Jewish enslaved laborers at the train station. They forced them to strip naked and shot them all before returning to the party. This was yet another of the war’s countless atrocities that was buried in secrecy for decades. Sacha Batthyany started investigating what happened that night at the party that was hosted by his great aunt, Margit.

We might call this a memoir of confrontation as we read the answers to the many questions that Batthyany faced after learning about this party and those answers took him on a journey from the darkness of Nazism to the gulags of Siberia to Budapest during the Cold War and to Argentina where he meets a concentration camp survivor whose past intersects with the author’s family’s past.

As Batthyany searches for the truth, he discovers another crime that hits even closer to home. He is given his grandmother’s journals (that she had asked to have destroyed at her death, a request not honored by her son) and uses that information and his own research to uncover the full details.

He is interested not only in what happened then, but how the experiences and atrocities of WWII and its aftermath continue to impact the generations who came thereafter, in particular his father and himself. He also wonders why no one in his family has ever been curious about these events which involved his relatives.

Originally published in German in 2016, this disturbing memoir confronts the truth and meaning of the horrible crime his family committed during the twilight of WWII.

Batthyány draws from his personal experience as well as diaries, public records, private papers, and interviews conducted with a mixture of determination and anxiety. His journey into the past becomes a journey into his deepest self. All along the way, the pressure of those buried secrets grows stronger and stronger, as does the question of whether and how revelations about what happened in a small Austro-Hungarian town can bring spiritual restoration and solace. We see how poisonous secrets can be.

It is interesting to note that the mass grave of the 180 murdered Jews has not been found.

“Drama Club” by Mikel Gerle— Coming of Age

Gerle, Mikel. “Drama Club: a Memoir”, CreateSpace, 2017.

Coming of Age

Amos Lassen

We have had so many coming of age stories that if there is going to be another one, it must be something special and that is what “Drama Club” is. For a religious young person to deal with his sexuality, it can be extremely difficult and can also be life threatening. We must remember that in terms of acceptance of homosexuality, 1980’s America was quite a different place than it is today.

Mikel Gerle is a fine storyteller who writes about Nebraska, Wyoming, Arizona, Utah, and Idaho, places we rarely hear about in coming of age stories. He shares how it feels to be alone and different during his personal journey through young adulthood. What makes this book special is the writing and use of language. I often felt hypnotized by the beautiful prose that relates how it was to grow up trapped by religion, family and sexuality.

“SCHOOL OF BABEL”— Fitting In

“School of Babel”

Fitting In

Amos Lassen

Julie Bertuccelli’s documentary “School of Babel” takes us to Paris, the city that has taken over as the center of migration from many countries around the world. The children of émigrés to France are placed in a special “reception class” where few speak the same language. They must learn French in order to be allowed to move on to regular school.

Bertuccelli has gathered children from 24 countries to talk about how it is to be a stranger among strangers. The film follows the kids for a year and we see them grow and change. At first, they communicate in rough, pidgin French but, as the year progresses, they become more fluent and articulate in the language as they prepare to move on in the French school system.

When we first meet the kids, they are a disparate collection of youngsters thrown together. Some adjust to their new circumstances better than others and we get to know all of them over the course of the school year. Friendships are made as the kids learn how to communicate in their adopted language.

The immigration issue is one of the most contentious debates in countries all around the world and many of the questions about immigration are evident here. Teacher Brigitte Cervoni welcomes students from around the world into the school La Grange aux Belles in northern France. Her task is tough. She is to provide a transition for immigrant children who spend a year learning French and a core curriculum which will enable them to enter regular classes. The children range in age from 11 to 15 and they come from China, Serbia, Venezuela, Ireland, Guinea, Ukraine, Libya, and other countries.

The students have been encouraged by their parents to do well in school so they will raise the standard of living for their families. Interviews with the parents show us what their kids experienced in life. The most controversial topics discussed in the classroom have to do with religion and the fears about the future. Miss Cervoni demonstrates an ideal equilibrium between being tough on her pupils and being warm and welcoming when it comes to guidance.

The film’s lengthy opening perfectly opens the door for the overall tone as each child shows the class how to write and say hello in their own language. This is a multi-cultural classroom and the only way of communicating with each other at this stage is their minimal French. Despite the enthusiasm and the desire to share traditions and teachings from their homelands, each and every one of these kids has much deeper problems and as the film progresses, we see just how damaged these kids and indeed their families really are. I was reminded of when I moved to Israel and was placed in a class to learn Hebrew. There were some twenty of us from all over the world and only three of us shared English as a common language. I might not have had the baggage like these kinds but I did have to learn the language if I was to survive in the country.

Discovering the reasons why these children are here in the first place is often heart breaking and deeply affecting. They face a struggle between age, culture and class as they try to make a better future for themselves.

“THE DEVIL’S MAGNIFICENT”— Memories

“The Devil’s Magnificent”

Memories

Amos Lassen

Manu (Manuela Guevara) is a 33-year-old trans immigrant living in Paris who decides to return to Chile after 10 years in France. In the last few days she goes over different paths of love and freedom and is moved by her memories in Paris. She is also exhausted by the difficulties of her life there. , Manu, a thirty-three year old trans immigrant, resigns to return to his native Chile after 10 years in France. In the days before she leaves, her platonic friend Daniel proposes marriage so that she can solve her visa issues. Manu strongly considers the offer, but she’s wholly disheartened at the prospect of a life without love, romance, and sex. Then she meets a fellow foreigner who gives her hope for a romantic future.

The film takes us into the world the non-binary. Director Nicolás Videla introduces us to Manu a writer and the screenwriter of this film allowing us to see the intimate thoughts that shape her world in the streets of Paris. It is in Paris where we will enter into the different reflections on love, sex and the reality of living as a non-binary being in the city that is called capital of love.

The wonderful cinematography highlights the city’s beautiful landscapes and locations as well as creates spaces of intimacy, reflection and dynamism through an astute use of the same, as we follow Manu’s comings and goings. The voice of Manuela Guevara transports us through a non-linear story, which resembles the entries of a diary. She shares unordered thoughts, ramblings, reflections and interviews. We soon have a human connection with what we see— the authentic story of a human being, and its vicissitudes touch us deeply.

These are beautifully choreographed dance sequences to the rhythm of different songs that compose the soundtrack by Santiago Jara and Martin Bruce. These moments break the most interesting climaxes of the film— precious moments of emotionality that are not fully explained (I am quite sure that this was the director’s intention).

“The Devil Is Magnificent” is a film full of contrasts and a journey in search of that which was once taken and silenced and that now have found a voice. Everything does not come together but we can overlook that, as this is the way life is.

“THE UNAMERICAN STRUGGLE”— Our Struggle

“The UnAmerican Struggle”

Our Struggles

Amos Lassen

 “The UnAmerican Struggle” is a feature length documentary film that looks at the struggles that immigrants, Jews, Latinos, Muslims, Blacks, women Rights, and transgender and gay and bisexual people face in today’s America following the election of Donald Trump as president.

 The Trump presidency has brought about a resurgence of bigotry in America. Some 62 million Americans elected a presidential candidate whose views are rooted in racism, misogyny, sexism, and xenophobia. Many across this world are unhappy that Donald Trump is now the President of the United States. His words and actions as a candidate, and now his policies as President, have given new life to intolerance and bigotry that now sweeps across this country.

Seventeen experts representing the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Diversity Council, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and local groups, such as Black Lives Matter, have lent their voices to the film to educate viewers about the reality of bigotry in America and the necessary fight ahead to bring this country back to its principles of tolerance and diversity. (I really prefer the word “acceptance” to “tolerance”— to me, to be tolerant is to put a short-term bandage on something).

When bigotry is unchecked, it ushers in greater abuses to civil rights and we have seen this in the attacks on the free press which is the cornerstone of American democracy. The film, directed by Ric Osuna, speaks to the dangers of remaining silent in the face of state-inspired hate and threats to civil rights.

Many of us are stunned to see that our land of inclusion has been transformed into the land of exclusion. We wonder how this could have happened yet we watched it happen right before our own opened eyes. We ask Trump encouraged the Alt-Right or did the Alt-Right encourage Trump? We want to know what is the Alt-Right anyway since it seems to me to be an umbrella term for all sorts of hate groups.

“The UnAmerican Struggle” is a feature-length documentary that examines the resurgence of racism, misogyny, sexism, and xenophobia in America brought about by Donald Trump’s words and actions as a candidate, and now his policies as president.

The film pays close attention to the struggle for equality from the perspective of Immigrants, Latinos, Muslims, Blacks, Women, and Transgender People and others. We see that many want to help us better understand the fight to preserve America’s values of inclusion and civil liberties. Here we gain a counter voice to the spread of bigotry and intolerance in Trump’s America and even though these issues are not new, they still require a more in-depth analysis, reflection, and discussion action if the country is ever to once again feel truly united.

It is important that educational facilities, parents and child advocates began now to educate citizens on ways to bridge the areas of diversity such as culture, skin color, religious and political beliefs that these gaps have caused. There must be safe environments for mutual understanding, civil discourse, and respectful dialogue to take place.

At times, we will need to master the art of “agreeing to disagree” in order to come together and embrace obvious differences. This can be achieved by listening to the views of others, self-education and the harnessing of personal beliefs in order to reflect on someone else’s. We must value diversity and respect human worth.

By learning to appreciate that people are different while recognizing the existing similarities Americans can overcome divisions. It is okay to value individual beliefs and heritages while respecting someone else’s. Without allowing others the freedom of a differing opinion, we will never realize peace

At the basic level of humanity’s existence, everyone is of the same human species. We all experience good and bad times while working for a fulfilled, successful, and happy life. As it stands, the country’s diversity is under attack. The diversity of differences is what makes us unique but the commonalities we share bring us together. This is what is under attack here and the remedies for this are love and acceptance. We need to work on these now!!