Monthly Archives: February 2018

“THE ICE KING”— Gay Olympic Skater John Curry

“The Ice King”

Gay Olympic Skater John Curry

Amos Lassen

Director James Erskine explores the life and career of John Curry in “The Ice King, a new documentary. Curry earned his status as an international sports celebrity through the early 1970s as a revolutionary character in figure skating, transforming the sport from a simple display of physical prowess into an art form. He won Olympic, World, European and British Championship medals, permanently changing the worldwide public’s perception of the sport. Yet Erskine’s primary inspiration comes from author Bill Jones’ 2014 book, “Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry”.

“The Ice King” is a long overdue evaluation of his Curry’s artistry. The documentary examines how his ambition to be a ballet dancer was thwarted by his overbearing father and he turned to ice dancing which was acceptable to his father because it was classed as a sport.

Curry’s oppressive childhood was unleashed and given free rein when he was allowed to dance albeit on ice and away from his father’s influence. It enabled Curry to also covertly embrace his suppressed homosexuality.  Director James Erskine has uncovered some remarkable and rare footage of the British skaters artistry that was rewarded when he won gold at the 1976 winter Olympics. He was already the European champion and had won the World Championship too and was deservedly called The Ice King. But this was the 70’s and a far less enlightened time and all that the journalists were really interested in at the press conference was whether he was going to come out and admit his homosexuality.

His sexuality was an issue that would dog him throughout his life and what comes out of this documentary is just what an utterly tortured soul he was. His genius included mood swings, loneliness and depression and eventually injury that forced him to retire from competitive ice dancing and performing shows on ice instead. The footage of these shows performed by his own company of skaters are utterly captivating. This footage is nearly all-home movie super 8 shot by members of the audience and it seems incredible that that these shows were never professionally filmed.

What the documentary emphasizes is Curry’s dedication to perfectionism at any cost and in his case it was a huge financial cost that meant he had no choice but to perform as he was the draw for an audience. Yet regardless of the cost he generously insisted on paying everyone equally. It was a move that inevitably led his company to massive debt and bankruptcy forcing him to continue to perform even though by then his years of skating meant he was constantly in pain.

John Curry might not be a name immediately recognizable to younger sporting fans, but after a successful competitive career on the ice – topped off with a gold medal during the 1976 Winter Olympics – he blazed a trail in the world of ice dancing. His innovations are still unparalleled and the cross-pollination of modern dance and ballet are now the norm in figure skating.

A gay man relatively open about his sexuality in an era before that was accepted, Curry had traveled the globe and packed in a lifetime’s worth of exploits when he met his untimely, AIDS-related end at the age of 44.

The real strength of “The Ice King” comes from the wealth of videos, photos and private letters shown throughout. The editing is superb, and the effort it must have taken to curate these images must have been huge, with some of the videos being the only known recordings of Curry’s routines. This archive of footage, pictures and private writings gives the audience a very intimate look into the life of a very public figure.

Erskine believes and hopes that John Curry’s professional success might serve in a demonstrative capacity for sportspeople moving ahead, even now, 24 years after his death from an AIDS-related heart attack.

“MY OWN PRIVATE HELL”—A Sailor, a Landlady, Two Gangsters and a Rabbit

“My Own Private Hell” (“Inferninho”)

A sailor, a landlady, Two gangsters and a Rabbit

Amos Lassen

Brazilian directors Guto Parente and Pedro Diógenes take us to The Little Hell Club that is run by the steely and uncompromising Deusimar. She is getting older and feels unlovely yet she provides a warm and dark space for those that society has cast out. One day a handsome sailor comes in and soon he and Deusimar fall in love and dream of a better life. However, things are complicated by government contractors who are determined to buy the club and shut it down. On top of that, the sailor doesn’t pay his debts and puts both himself and the club in deep financial trouble. Deusimar faces a decision of giving up her place and experiencing the unknown. “My Own Private Hell” combines the heartbreak with the absurd.

 

“My Own Private Hell” (is the cooperative collaboration between a Brazilian film collective and a theatre group. Initially designed as a play, the project became a potential TV series before becoming a low-budget feature. It is set entirely in a dingy bar in a Brazilian coastal city and focuses on the rag-tag group of outsiders who work and drink at the ‘Inferninho’. Deusimar (Yuri Yamamoto) is a Campari-drinking transvestite who lives in the bar’s back room and the basement a space of acceptance for people of all sexualities, fetishes and aspirations. The audience comes into the close-knit community. We first hear Luizianne (Samya De Lavor) singing passionately in front of a sparkly purple foil curtain. The bar singer’s audience love her and we see that among them are sitting people dressed as Mickey Mouse, Marilyn Monroe and superheroes. Caixa-Preta (Tatiana Amorim) looks on wistfully from the side, and waiter, “Coelho” or Rabbit (co-writer and actor, Rafael Martins) stares admirably at the wannabe diva from beneath his pink floppy ears.

As Luizianne sings along to the soft music, a sailor (Jarbas Demick Lopes) enters the bar and catches Deusimar’s eye. He says that he is looking for a place to stay and he quickly falls for the bar owner’s charms. They settle down together, but Deusimar wants him to show her the world, whilst he wants to stop traveling. When a government-appointed agent makes a generous offer to buy the bar (planning to knock it down for the car park of a new ‘Virtual Entertainment Centre’), Deusimar is eager to accept and leave immediately, but her new boyfriend shoots her down. As the outside world infiltrates Inferninho, the lure of the beyond becomes unavoidable, and Deusimar can’t help but question whether the only home she has ever known is really a safe haven, or if it is a self-imposed prison.

From the handheld camerawork to the theatrical blocking and slightly hesitant pacing, the film is a labor of love. The characters may not conform to mainstream standards of beauty, but, their kitsch attire matches the grungy cinematography.

The eccentric family of misfits are profoundly connected through the bar. Their bonds are shaken after Deusimar speaks about selling it, but they must prove their intimacy can survive regardless of their future.

What is lacking  in production values, is made up in its affectionate portrayal of a free-spirited community. The melodramatic plot and theatrical stylings might put off some viewers but it is their loss. I find this to be a deeply felt exploration of a place that is rapidly disappearing in today’s corporate culture.

“THE HAPPY PRINCE”— The Last Days of Oscar Wilde

“The Happy Prince”

The Last Days of Oscar Wilde

Amos Lassen

“The Happy Prince” is passion project from writer-director-star Rupert Everett that depicts the final years in the life of renowned writer Oscar Wilde. Everett details the tragic final few years of Wilde’s life after his release from prison. During this time, in which the disgraced writer traveled around Europe under a series of assumed names, his health and wealth diminished, yet his wit and creativity never lagged. Everett is wonderful as the fallen star and brings him the screen with grace, depth and dignity.

Introductory title cards explain the essential circumstances of Wilde’s social ruin, following his 1895 conviction for “gross indecency with men.” We flash immediately back to gentler times in the Wilde household, as he puts his sons to bed with a reading of his own children’s story about a gilded statue who comes to know the gravity of human suffering and is something of a metaphor for Wilde’s own sad existence. The fable is repeated, more wistfully, to Jean (Benjamin Voisin) and Leon (Matteo Salamone), the Parisian street urchins whom Wilde takes under his withered wing in his last days.

“The Happy Prince” looks at the love triangle between Wilde, the teasing, manipulative Bosie (Colin Morgan) and Wilde’s more tenderly devoted literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), which alternately intensifies and dissipates.

Everett plays Wilde with exactly the right kind of poignantly ruined magnificence sharing his disgraced exile-agony in Naples and Paris after being released from prison as the result of his indiscreet affair with “Bosie”  whose enraged, reactionary father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had provoked Wilde’s catastrophic libel action following an accusation of his “posing as a somdomite”.

The film is expertly interspersed with flashbacks to Wilde’s great days and to his initial wary optimism on first arriving in France on the boat train. But we also see him living and dying in squalor and illness, succumbing to the delayed shock of his prison nightmare, jeered at and spat on by the expatriate Brits who recognized him. Once out of prison, Wilde horrified his friends by resuming the destructive relationship with Bosie, which causes the termination of the tiny allowance from his humiliated ex-wife Constance and endangers Bosie’s own income, leaving them nothing to live on. It’s the beginning of the end. Everett takes us through the moment-by-moment horror of humiliation and poverty, which Wilde brazens out with gallows humor and wit as best he can.

Everett shows Wilde with a portrait of Queen Victoria by his deathbed. He died one year before her, and the film hints that Wilde’s vindictive treatment was part of the ugly sense of shame and mortification at Romantic and aesthetic indulgence.

“ELIAN”— The Final Word

“Elián”

The Final Word

Amos Lassen

 In November, 1998, two Florida men out fishing in the Straits of Florida outside of Miami noticed an inner tube floating on the water. As they neared it with their boat, they saw there was a child floating in it but that was also little movement. Sam Ciancio dove into the water, grabbed the boy and handed him to his cousin Donato Dalrymple on the boat. They sped back to Miami with Dalrymple calling his wife urging her to call 911 and have an ambulance meet them at the dock.

The boy was Elián Gonzalez and his mother had drowned in an attempt to get from Havana to Miami. She and her boyfriend had picked up Elián in the middle of the night at the home of her ex-husband Juan Miguel Gonzalez and told Elián they were going to visit his uncles. What she really wanted for her son was the kind of freedom she felt could not be found in their native Cuba. Her husband was a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro and would not think of leaving Cuba.

The Gonzalez family took Elián in with open arms. His survival was called a Thanksgiving miracle and he was the subject of network and cable news headlines. Everyone thought that this would be the end of the story with the happy ending of the boy adjusting to a new life in the United States with his 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis who clearly adored him, and he adored her.

But this was not the end of the story. The boy’s father wanted him back but the Gonzalez clan in Miami dug in their heels. The boy’s mother clearly wished him to be raised in America and she had died trying to make that happen; her wishes should be respected. The economy of Cuba was reeling after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Castro needed a symbol for his impoverished country to rally around and he found one in Elian. He began making demands of the United States that the boy be returned to Cuba, and exhorted his people to take to the streets in protest and they did, by the hundreds of thousands.

The US Government, under President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno reached the decision that the boy belonged with his father, regardless of ideology but Elián had become a cause célèbre among the exiled Cuban community in Miami, who were vehemently anti-Castro. It soon became clear that the Miami Gonzalez family wouldn’t budge; the boy would stay with them. Castro was equally determined that the boy must return to Cuba.

In the middle of the night, armed INS agents broke down the door to the Gonzalez home where Elián was staying. Agents armed with automatic weapons broke into the bedroom of the boy who was being held by Dalrymple who had become a close friend of the family. The terrified child was grabbed away from the terrified Dalrymple and driven away, and riots broke out in Miami. The boy was soon safely home with his father while the angry Cubans voted overwhelmingly Republican in the next election that fall thus paving the way for the Presidency of George W. Bush.

The documentary run covers both sides of the Elián issue with fairly even hands. Most of the main players, including Marisleysis, Dalrymple, Juan Miguel and Elián himself, are interviewed. So are the peripheral players, like Jorge Mas Santos of the Cuban American National Foundation, who was extremely anti-Castro in those days but following the events of 1999 but changed tactics and would later be instrumental in helping former President Obama begin opening relations with Cuba after the death of Castro.

There are some complexities to the incident that still remain a sore spot with Cuban-Americans today. Many view it as a triumph for master manipulator Castro who played the American government.

Elián himself gets the final word, however. He is today about the same age his cousin Marisleysis was when this all happened. He is pro-Castro almost to obsessive lengths; he even goes so far as to say that if he had a religion, he would worship Fidel as God. Of course, we wonder if that has been indoctrination or hero worship from a kid who last everything. Even though many years have passed, the wounds are still fresh in the Cuban community. One gets the sense that the American government mishandled the situation and that it will be many years before the Elián Gonzalez affair can be reviewed dispassionately and without prejudice and it’s possible that it never will. This is a comprehensive documentary that covers the subject more than adequately but I’m not sure it is as objective as it claims to be. I felt that the Miami Gonzalez family came out looking better than the Cuban side but that could be my own prejudices surfacing. It is important to note that some of the crucial details have been left out and I have no idea why.

Elian was the only survivor of a group of 13 Cubans to make it to the U.S. when he was found clinging to an inner tube off the coast of Fort Lauderdale in late 1999. Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell’s documentary “Elián” is composed of archival footage from the period between November 1999 and April 2000. that saw a little boy from Cuba caught between a rock and a hard place. It draws reasoned associations between the putative agendas of the Cuban exile community looking to keep Elián in Miami and the Cuban government seeking his return.

Raúl Esparza narrates the film and he announces that Elián’s story is one of warring ideologies. That theme speaks loudly enough for itself through the film’s objective correlations. The film rushes through the easing of restrictions against Cuba during the Obama administration and the death of Castro, letting the footage of interviews with Elián and the Cuban press speak nebulously about him.

The Elián who Golden and McDonnell interview in Cuba has already claimed his side. Elián doesn’t pretend to know which it is, as it has the decency to recognize that only Elián has the right to define it for himself.

In 1999, only Elian dominated the media and his situation was a cause célèbre. The boy’s future became a full-scale battle with each side involving their respective governments. Now, Elián  himself tells his version of all those messy events to first time filmmakers and it is compelling viewing as it strives faithfully to recount every step of this multi-layered story as bi-partisan as possible.  Elián sits above the controversy and is careful not to proportion blame for the appalling way that people fought over his future and simply used him as a pawn in their own game.

We can however see now in hindsight from all the archival footage and from present-day interviews that nearly everyone involved was very self-absorbed and behaved badly. The irony of it all was that the one person who consistently maintained that a child’s place was with his parents, was Castro himself. The story has a happy end for Elián’  which is the most important thing. You do not want to miss seeing this film.

“SOUTHERN PRIDE”— Pride events in Trump’s America

“Southern Pride”

Pride events in Trump’s America

Amos Lassen

Director Malcolm Ingram who brought us his fine documentary “Small Town Gay Bar” now brings us a companion piece to that fine film. We return to Mississippi where we gain fascinating insight into LGTBQ rights in a post-Trump landscape. Lynn Koval, a headstrong bar owner and a team of friends (and her own Republican-voting sister), try against all odds to organize a Pride march in her local town. Meanwhile, at the same time in another part of the state, organizers of a Black Pride celebration are simultaneously striving to make a difference, despite the numerous setbacks that stand in their way. Here is the emotional story of triumph over adversity that looks at the themes of leadership, struggle, division, community and race relations and offer a sense of hope in a world that can too often appear to have none.

“DEAR FREDDY”— A Heroic Gay Jewish Sportsman Who Ended Up in Auschwitz

“DEAR FREDDY”

A Heroic Gay Jewish Sportsman Who Ended Up in Auschwitz

Amos Lassen

Rubi Gat’s powerful documentary, “Dear Freddy” tells the life of Freddy Hirsch who was born in Germany but lived in Prague before World War II as an openly gay male.

We can understand how rare that was. He was a sportsman who promoted sport and remained active even when the Nazis tried to exclude Jews from any sporting facilities. He was also a spokesperson who fearlessly negotiated with the SS at Theresienstadt ghetto, when he was moved to Auschwitz and where he set up a day-care centre for 600 children. Through rare photographs, archive footage and witness testimony, we get an extraordinary story and a celebration of a heroic figure that died fighting for the betterment of others.

“LOVE, SCOTT”— The Year After

“Love, Scott”

The Year After

Amos Lassen

Laura Marie Wayne’s documentary “Love, Scott” is a sensitive and richly moving portrait of a young man left paralyzed after a homophobic attack. One horrific  night, after leaving a bar in his hometown of Nova Scotia, musician Scott Jones was viciously targeted for an attack that left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Although it appeared to be a homophobic hate crime, the assault was not treated as such in the courts or by the media.

As Scott rebuilds his life, he is forced to make some kind of sense of the way the incident was reported, while at the same time struggling to make peace with his attacker. The documentary covers the year following this life-changing ordeal and looks at the impact of the attack on Scott’s life, both physically and mentally. The documentary is a tender, heartbreaking and inspiring testament to Scott and his strength and resilience.

“QUEERAMA”— A Century of Gay Rights and Desires on Film

“QUEERAMA”

A Century of Gay Rights and Desires on Film

Amos Lassen

I was very lucky to get a chance to see a screening of director Daisy Asquith’s documentary, “Queerama”. While it is basically a reflection on the shifting status of LGBTQ people within the United Kingdom field of pop culture landscape, it can also be seen as quite universal. The film is a summation of the societal changes regarding in the LGBT community in the last century or so. It is a loosely structured montage of archival footage that spans decades yet it really does not have a whole lot new to say. However, the empathy and energy by which these images and ideas are edited together into a single piece make the film an entertaining and often poignant tribute to the progress made, as well as an implicit acknowledgement of the progress that still must be made.

There is no formal narration but rather a pop soundtrack. As well introducing new subjects for the film to explore (be it gay night life, or the threat of physical assault faced by the openly queer) and providing the odd piece of statistical data or historical context regarding British LGBTQ life, there is a lot to see here.

It’s easy to laugh at the old-fashioned voiceover and its naïve insights on homosexuality, “Queerama” also looks at the harmful consequences of the widespread ignorance implied in these decades-old clips. Much of the film sees an intriguing push and pull between the hardships faced by members of the LGBTQ community, and the love and exuberance found even in tough times such as the segment on HIV/AIDS.

Structurally the film is loose but there are also moments where the film seems at a loss for how best to use its 70-minute runtime and sometimes retreads familiar points with another batch of footage. The fluid sense of style keeps it watchable even when it isn’t so revelatory. The pop culture excerpts that are usually explicit in their queerness, but sometimes implicit are the film’s most exciting and richly supported insights.

We see that queerness has always been a part of British life, persisting in neighborhoods, films and TV shows whether noticed or not. This is a must-see for any movie buff that is into celebrating British LGBTQ history in the cinema.  Asquith created her fascinating film with the help of British Film National Archive and the documentary covers a century of gay experience including “persecution and prosecution, injustice, love and desire, identity, secrets, forbidden encounters, sexual liberation, and pride.”   We are guided through the relationships, desires, fears and expressions of gay men and women against the backdrop of a time of incredible change.

“STUDIO 54”— Home of 70s Hedonism

“Studio 54”

Home of 70s Hedonism

Amos Lassen

Studio 54 was the epicenter of 70s hedonism. It not only redefined the nightclub, but it came to symbolize an entire era. Its co-owners, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell were two friends from Brooklyn who seemed to come out of nowhere to suddenly preside over a new kind of New York society. Now, some 39 years after it opened, we have a feature documentary tells the real story behind the greatest club of all time

Director Matt Tyrnauer shares the tales of hedonism on the dance floor at Manhattan’s legendary discotheque have already been told dozens of times in dozens of ways and the film finds life from the same-old clips showing crowds of beautiful and sweaty dancers inside and irate customers being refused entry at the door. Ian Schrader gives us the definitive look at Studio 54 and the people it attracted. For a dance club that lasted for a mere 33 months, “54” managed to help change the nature of pop music and the views of a countercultural society while mainstreaming underground black, gay, lesbian, transgendered communities by tying them to the allure of celebrity and the unapologetic abandon of a theatrical nightclub.

Tyrnauer takes us through behind the scenes footage, fabulous photographs, great songs and interviews not only with the patrons but also with the artisans who helped build the place. The story of Studio 54 is widened in ways that do justice to both its historical importance and the resonance it continues to have.

“Somewhere Over Lorain Road” by Bud Gundy— Looking for Answers

Gundy, Bud. “Somewhere Over Lorain Road”, Bold Strokes Books, 2018.

Looking for Answers

Amos Lassen

It does not happen often but every once in a while a book comes along that grabs me in the first paragraph and does not let go even when I have finished reading it. Bud Gundy’s “Somewhere Over Lorain Road” is such a book. I was totally mesmerized by everything about the book.

For more than forty years, the three Esker sons have been haunted by allegations that their father was suspected of murdering three little boys were murdered in 1975. It was not easy to live wit this and the family was torn apart to the point that the Esker sons faced difficult destinies and Don Esker was so ashamed that he stopped speaking. However, years later Don comes home to take of his father who is in his last few months of life. He sees that his father searches for peace which can only be attained by having his name cleared of the murders and Don knows that if he can find who really was the murderer he will not only clear his father’s name but he will be able to heal the family and himself.

Years later, Don returns to the family home in North Homestead, Ohio, to help care for his dying father in his final months. His dad longs for the peace that will only come with clearing his name. If Don can find the killer, he can heal his family—and himself.

Bruce joins Don in the hunt for the truth and the two men become involved romantically. Bruce knows that he will have to force Don to face the truth once it is found. Gundy takes on a journey of suspense that includes neighbors, the law and sibling rivalry and we soon realize that we have become part of what we are reading.

Hidden secrets and a lot of pain are uncovered during Don’s search to clear his dying father’s name. This is a look at family, love and what keeps us together or pushes us apart that kept me reading until I closed the covers.

Not only is this a well-constructed mystery but we also learn a great deal about growing up gay in closeted Midwestern America. As the family struggles with forgiveness and acceptance so does the reader. The characters are wonderfully and fully created and the plot is totally compelling.