Monthly Archives: April 2018

“all of it is you.: poetry” by Nico Tortorella— Exploring “All of It”

 

Tortorella, Nico. “all of it is you.: poetry”, Crown Archetype, 2018

Exploring “All of It”

Amos Lassen

In all fairness, I must admit that until I heard about this book, I had no idea who Nico Tortorella but after reading the poem that he wrote about his penis, I knew he has to be an OK guy. However, I am not sure that a career as a “penis poet” will give him a comfortable style of living.

This is Tortorella’s debut poetry collection and in it we hear his voice that is filled with curiosity, awe and love. Nico is an actor, an advocate and a podcaster who lives with no boundaries. He takes us on a sensuous journey into who we are and how we deal with the world around us. He lets us know that the connections that we make in life are important to the understanding of who we are. His poems are provocative and filled with emotion and they hit us hard. While this is a debut collection, I cannot believe that Tortorella is a debut poet. Every word, every verse is important and he knows what he is doing here and his poems are both raw and real.

In his poetry, Tortorella looks at his own identity, gender, addiction and sex. Yes, he writes about his penis but he also writes about menstruation. It seems that to him, nothing is out-of-bounds. His interest in human sexuality is well felt here.

“Baby Blue” by Pol Koutsakis— What the Blind See

Koutsakis, Pol, “Baby Blue”, (Stratos Gazis Series), translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, Bitter Lemon, 2018.

What the Blind See

Amos Lassen

Stratos Gazis says that he is not hates a hit man. He would rather be known as a conscientious fixer. People are willing to pay handsomely to get “things fixed”. This noir story is about blue-eyed orphan Emma, a teenaged beauty “with a talent for card tricks of exceptional sophistication” Emma has been blind since she was 18 years old and she and her adoptive father, a former investigative reporter live in Athens where they earn money by performing Chaplinesque sketches. When the ex-journalist is brutally murdered, Angelino, a well-connected Athenian underworld figure, takes Emma in and hires Stratos to find her father’s killers. At the same time, Costas Dragas, a top homicide cop and Gazis’s best friend, has taken on investigating the murders of pedophiles and has gone to war with the media. The two cases intersect and very powerful corporate interests are behind the murders. As we read we are taken into the “underbelly of the media, politics, the justice system and financial interests and we learn just how dangerously interconnected these areas of contemporary life are.

Stratos is not sure whether this job is for him, but something about Emma makes him accept it. that forces him to accept. This is also sociopolitical novel that chastises faces, facts and situations. Koutsakis has a sarcastic and cynical sense of humor and does not hesitate to use it on what needs to be fixed in society.

While this is a crime novel, it is also a study of Greek society. The crime scene is a social critique of Greek police, the judiciary and the political system in an explicit and allegorical way. Athens, has been hurting her citizens who have hurt her— people trapped in labels and identities and stereotypes, who do not understand their share of state responsibility and eventually will pay for this. Koutsakis connects the places and the senses as he describes the feelings of his characters. To tell you anymore would ruin the read and so I will stop here but first I must recommend this exciting story that is sure to become part of modern European literature.

“Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey into the Syrian Jihad” by Asne Seierstad— Father Knows Best

Seierstad, Asne. “Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey into the Syrian Jihad”, translated by Sean Kinsella, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

Father Knows Best

Amos Lassen

“Two Sisters” is the story of a family divided by faith. Sadiq are two Somali immigrants who have moved to Norway and are raising their family there. One day their teenage daughters, Leila and Ayan vanished and the parents learn that they are on their way to Syria to fight for the Islamic State.

This is an account of their journey, of their having left the secular democracy of Norway to the frontlines of embattled Syria and how their father tries to find and save them. Author Asne Seierstad looks at “radicalization in human terms, using instant messages and other primary sources to reconstruct a family’s crisis from the inside.” Sadiq risks his life in going to war-torn Syria to rescue his daughters and he is determined that they do not become a part of and disappear into ISIS even though both daughters married ISIS fighters. It is hard to believe that this is nonfiction and I found it impossible to look up from the pages while reading. Not only is this a thrilling read but it also has something to tell us in its lessons about belief, extremism, and the meaning of devotion.

The research and the writing re flawless just as the story is unbelievable (but true).” We cannot help but wonder how two teenaged sisters could leave their comfortable homes and lives in Norway to become the wives of ISIS terrorists in Syria The ultimate question that Seierstad asks and attempts to answer is “what leads ordinary people to become terrorists?”

We are not told what attracted the girls to Islamic radicalism or why they chose to leave Norway so we have to try to figure that out from the rest of the story. In more general terms, the book looks at the overall process of radicalization and the atmosphere that allows it to happen.

The activities of ISIS and the other Islamist rebels in Syria that we read about here are terrifying. What is strange is that even amid all of the chaos that was going on in Syria, the girls claimed to being happy and leading happy lives with their new husbands.

Of course, this is a one-sided look at the girls’ story since they refused to be interviewed so we only hear from Sadiq’s side. Nonetheless, this is a story that makes you sit up and take notice of the radicalization of today’s youth in the Muslim world (and out of it as well).

“Queer Voices from the Locker Room” edited by Cu-Hullan Tsuyoshi and Paul Chamness Miller— Autobiographical Sketches of LGBT Athletes

McGivern, Cu-Hullan Tsuyoshi and Paul Chamness Miller. “Queer Voices from the Locker Room”, Information Age, 2017.

Autobiographical Sketches of LGBT Athletes

Amos Lassen

The editors collected these autobiographical sketches in order to give LGBT athletes and their allies a space to have a voice and share the experiences that have been important in their identity as an athletic member of the LGBT+ community. Based on the narratives collected, the book is organized around themes that illustrate various perspectives and the power that sport can play in 1) finding one’s true identity, 2) bridging communities, and 3) challenging gender norm stereotypes. The hope is that what is included here will help change the expectations of what it means to be a successful athlete and promote greater inclusivity of LGBT athletes. We look forward to a non‐discriminating sporting environment that allows LGBT+ athletes to focus on their given sport without any distractions, and enable these athletes to live an authentic life without having to hide their true identity.

CONTENTS

From Playing Field to Locker Room: Challenging Homophobia in Athletics, Cu-Hullan Tsuyoshi McGivern and Paul Chamness Miller.

SECTION I: IDENTITY AND SELF-PERCEPTION.

The Two Sides of “Run, Faggot, Run!” Gerald Walton. Chronicles Inside and Outside of the Softball Dugout, Oscar Espinoza Parra

It Was a Good Day if I Wasn’t Called a Queer, a Faggot, or a Sissy: Reflections of a Male Figure Skater Turned Scholar, William Bridel.

Gay Rights in the Locker Room, Frank Hernandez.

Which Came First? Reflections on the Complexities of Being an Athlete and a Lesbian, Vicki A. Vescio. The Voices of Love, J. Franklin.

SECTION II: COMMUNITY AND SUPPORT.

My (Athletic) Life, Nancy Goldberger.

The Bi-Cultural Volleyball Diaries: A Tale of Teamwork in Two Countries, Dominic Abordo.

Locker Room, Sexuality, and (Queering) Sports: A Testimonial, Wagner Xavier De Camargo.

Out of the Closet and Coaching, Nick Clark.

Evolution of an Ally, Robert Greim. No Marta, Just Ugly Betty: Soccer in Southern Brazil, Claudia Samuel Kessler.

SECTION III: CHALLENGING STEREOTYPES AND GENDER NORMS.

A Sissy Speaks to Gym Teachers: How I was Formed and Deformed by Toxic Masculinity, Jeff Sapp.

Learning Masculinity: Experiences of a Gay Boxer, Benjamin R. Weiss.

No One Talks to Me in the Locker Room, Chaz Barracks.

Just Keep Swimming: Intersection of Non-Binary and Athlete, G Ryan.

Cut Both Ways: On Being Simultaneously Out and Not Out in Ballet, Asher Taylor-Dawson.

Conclusion. Weaving the Stories Together, Paul Chamness Miller and Cu-Hullan Tsuyoshi McGivern.

Biographies.

“WE THE ANIMALS”— Manny, Joel and Jonah

“We the Animals”

Manny, Joel and Jonah

Amos Lassen

Jeremiah Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser have adapted Justin Torres’ novel. “We the Animals” is about growing up in a working-class family in upstate New York for the big screen. The story is told from the point of view of Jonah (Evan Rosado), who forms a unit with his two brothers Joel and Manny. They are often tangled together on the bed they share, Jonah is, right from the outset, starting to pull away from the other pair, enjoying a secret that’s all his own— a diary full of illustrations that is under the bed.

He writes in it at night, once his brothers are asleep and it is an outlet for emotions that he could never share with them or his Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raúl Castillo). Theirs is a household where emotions rule, sometimes to the family’s detriment and emotions also dominate the film. We are soon immersed in Jonah’s mindset and family life. We feel his and his brothers’ joy as their father instructs them to “shake it like you’re rich”, but that is matched by the outright panic experienced by Jonah later in the film when a swimming lesson goes wrong.

The story “has the dreamy flow of childhood remembered, but though the honeyed tones of the magic hour are often used, there’s never a glossing over the toughness of life being faced by these free-range kids, who are frequently left to fend for themselves.” Director Zagar proves himself a director who is willing to take a risk to tell his stories.

Manny, Joel and Jonah rush through childhood and push against the volatile love of their parents. As Manny and Joel grow into versions of their father and Ma dreams of escape, Jonah embraces an imagined world all his own.

We do not hear the name of the young boy at the center of “We the Animals” until just before it ends this is because we see Jonah form an identity of his own first. At the start of the film, the nine-year-old  simply refers to himself as “me,” listing himself amongst his slightly older brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), as well as his “Ma” and “Paps”) in such a way that you assume the family is so close they must always be acknowledged together. Still, as “We the Animals” moves forward, we realize how far apart they can be at times or how Jonah must distance himself to discover who he really is.

Jonah clearly gravitates towards remembrances of how his family will huddle together for warmth, but also cannot shake when Paps gives his mom a black eye, a result of a volatile relationship that sets an example for their sons, and lacking the comprehension to understand right and wrong causing the primal physicality to mean more of a give and take. Jonah is in touch with the emotions furiously stirring within himself, particularly when he and his brothers meet a boy around their age named Dustin, who impresses them with explicit VHS-taped sex hotline ads he grabbed off the TV while he was in Philadelphia. While Manny and Joel are transfixed by the topless women, Jonah staring at the split-second shot of two men making out.

This moment doesn’t last long in “We the Animals” but it leaves an impression the viewer and on Jonah, planting a seed for all the other things he may need to question. In “We the Animals” we see Paps moving in and out of the house to the mixed emotions of Ma, but every moment in the film is made to feel like a formative one for Jonah, ultimately leaving an audience as fulfilled as he is when he finally finds his sense of self.

“GREASER’S PALACE”— An Original, Bizarre, Unforgettable Film

“GREASER’S PALACE”

An Original, Bizarre, Unforgettable Film

Amos Lassen

“Greaser’s Palace” takes the story of Christ’s suffering and places it in the Old West (you might want to reread that sentence). We meet a zoot-suited drifter who performs miracles and attracts a large following, but all he really wants is to sing and dance. After finally getting to play The Palace, a saloon run by the ruthless Seaweedhead Greaser, he soon learns that he’s got more miracles to do.

Robert Downey Sr. directed this farce. He was a major cult filmmaker in the late ’60s and early ’70s thanks to irreverent, provocative social satires such as films like “Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace” but time has not been good to him and he had some twenty years of flops and naturally this affected his critical reputation. . Now with the video reissue of “Greaser’s Palace”, his surrealistic 1972 comic western and religious parable, there are hopes that his reputation will be regained. The film stars Allan Arbus as a Zoot-suited Christ figure who parachutes into a frontier town run by tyrannical saloon proprietor Albert Henderson. Arbus who really just wants to sing and dance, soon finds himself healing the sick, resurrecting the dead, tap-dancing on water, and fending off the advances of frontier little person and his transvestite “wife.” The film is actually a ramshackle collection of skits built around the flimsiest possible premise. Its outrageousness feels like facile adolescent shock for its own sake. “Greaser” is filled with random violence, slapstick, silly names, toilet humor, and various other signifiers of lowest-common-denominator satire. I do not see any chance of Downey’s reputation being improved by this. It is well-acted and handsomely filmed but totally boring. For a film that aims to shock and offend, its juxtaposition of show business and divinity now seems downright old-fashioned but it does have a perverse appeal even though as a comedy, it’s unwatchable.

Jessy (Arbus) claims he is headed for Jerusalem to become a singer/dancer. From this point on there are jaw-dropping surprises: a woman who bears the indignity of wound after fatal wound in scenes unrelated to the main plot, the Father and Holy Ghost (a man with a sheet draped over his head, and a cowboy hat propped on top) wander through the film as the Ghost complains that the Father hogs the spotlight, bad guy Greaser (who kills his son “Lamy Homo” repeatedly) finds that Jessy resurrects him but is so constipated that he keeps a mariachi band nearby to mask his screams of pain when he goes to the outhouse.

These things might sound entertaining when lumped into a single paragraph, but the calmer (yet sometimes confusing) scenes between the surprises never seem to end. Fortunately, there’s enough going on that you won’t fall asleep. Occasionally a cameo will grab your attention, such as that of a young Robert Downey Jr. as the kid who is murdered early in the film, or Hervé “Tattoo” Villechaize as the very hungry midget. This just may well be the weirdest film you ever see about the life of Christ, but it may also be the one to which you pay the most attention and if you can, wait for the ending.

The messiah is a dandy with a New York Jewish accent named in a pink brimmed hat and zoot-suit who is en route to Jerusalem. This should tell you something early on— this irreverent offbeat slapstick comedy is so silly, witless and tiresome that it is an embarrassment. This is Downey’s most ambitious movie and his most costly and it was his biggest flop, turning off even his most ardent fans.

Jessy becomes involved with the eccentric residents of a frontier tumbleweed town run by the evil, brutal and greedy tyrant Seaweedhead Greaser (who is a land baron and owner of the dance-hall called Grease’s Palace that also acts as a church. Jessy’s healing powers lead him on a strange trip he never planned, as he now has a gathering of loyal followers hoping for miracles. When Jessy gets a chance to perform at Greaser’s Palace, his singing and dancing doesn’t excite the locals, but when blood starts flowing from his palms they go wild and he wins the audience over. Later Jessy’s sent out to the desert by the Holy Father (Woody Chambliss) and gets crucified by a dying woman he brings back to life (who is supposed to be his mother).

Some of the weird characters include Greaser’s daughter Cholera (Luana Anders), the star singer/exotic dancer at the saloon; the Holy Ghost (Ronald Nealy) who pleasures himself by putting out his cigar on a hairy chest; a topless Indian scout (Toni Basil) riding around town, that gives us gratuitous breast shots; the crippled weirdo Vernon (James Antonio) who is healed by Jessy and now crawls; and the interactions of a sexually aggressive dwarf (Herve Villechaize) and his bearded transvestite wife (Stan Gottlieb). The slight plot is built around a collection of skits that are meant to shock and are violent and perverse. It is, however, beautifully filmed and the acting is fine.

“GENDERBENDE”— Five Young People

“Genderbende”

Five Young People

Amos Lassen

“Genderbende” is about five young people who feel neither male nor female and position themselves somewhere in between. They all have their own struggles, but together they create a compelling story about acceptance. This highly emotional drama causes us to empathize very quickly with the characters who are all very brave and sweet.

The film follows the very personal stories of Dutch individuals who are not comfortable with standard gender “binarism”. They are not afraid to tell us their feelings or open their hearts to us as we follow them through their daily lives. They do not respond to labels like transgender or queer and say that they “just feel what they feel as society is harsh on them” since they do not comply to mainstream heteronormative standards.

 The film is directed by Sophie Dros who introduces us to five gender-fluid people, Lisa, Anne, Dennis, Lashawn and Selm, who are proud to be who they are. “Genderbende” plays with the curiosity, interest and incomprehension of anything outside the mainstream gender norm and asks the questions, “Isn’t everyone’s gender actually ‘fluid’? Wouldn’t it be liberating if we could break the narrow-mindedness about gender?” The five characters make us question our sometimes-rigid society and offer a moment of thought as to how male or female we are? Isn’t life about celebrating the individual and not the gender of that individual?

Gender benders subvert dual gender images and refuse to be classified by the traditional categories of male and female. Each of the five protagonists in the documentary has already taken the first step out of this convention and all are about to discover their own identity outside the norm (the norm being society). They are met with reactions that vary from total non-understanding to interest and open aversion and they waver between defiance, doubt and enthusiasm about every step that follows. Each of them manages to come a little closer to themselves. Even when the world around them – despite its curiosity – isn’t always ready to follow.

The film creates enough space to let the five different stories unfold on the narrative and visual level. While the football-playing twins Lisa and Anne seem impressively at ease with themselves, Dennis, Selm and Lashawn have to deal with the fact that other peoples’ perception of them differs from how they perceive themselves. They share these desires and contradictions with us. “Genderbende” celebrates them and their fight for a society in which gender no longer means only two juxtaposed ideals but an individual and unique construction that encompasses both.

“BLACK DIVAZ”— Six Fabulous Indigenous Drag Queens

“Black Divaz”

Six Fabulous Indigenous Drag Queens

Amos Lassen

Adrian Russell Wills was commissioned to make the documentary, “Black Divaz” as part of the 40-th anniversary celebration of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Over the course of an hour, we meet six fabulous indigenous Drag Queens as they prepare to participate in the very first Miss First Nations Drag Queen competition.

This group of men and one transwoman, from across Australia came to Darwin during Pride week lugging oversized luggage filled with outrageous costumes and enormous colorful wigs and exotic names (Nova Gina, Isla Fuk Yah, Crystal Love, Josie Baker, Jojo and Shaniqua). They are met by the two co-hosts Miss Ellaneous and Marzi Panne who are determined to make the whole event one big unforgettable party.

As each of the contestants bares their souls on camera sharing their life experiences, we learn that represent a community and cultures that are so neglected and overlooked by the rest of the LGBT community.  They are not bitter and understand that the struggle for acceptance exists in their own communities and  they also relate as well as that as they struggle for understanding and acceptance.  

Wills has captured a beautiful and affectionate portrait of the camaraderie among the talent who care more about the ‘sisterhood’ than just winning a crown.  On the final night of the competition each of them ends up with a winner’s sash of some kind and this is the perfect ending. When they are dressed up and performing onstage, we see their professionalism which at the same time comes over as both natural and authentic and these are the two qualities that are often forgotten elsewhere in a world too obsessed with “the over-glossiness (and dare we say fakeness?)  of Drag.”

“BEYOND THE OPPOSITE SEX”— Rene and Jamie

“Beyond The Opposite Sex”

Rene and Jamie

Amos Lassen

“Sex is about who you want to sleep with; gender is about who you want to sleep as,” says Dr. Bruce Hensel, co-director and executive producer of a new documentary, “Beyond the Opposite Sex”. Rene and Jamie, are two very different people who went through very different journeys since their l gender affirmation surgeries. Rene was biologically born a female and feels very strongly about wanting to be a heterosexual male who wants to be with women. Jamie was biologically born a male, was married with a woman and had a daughter as a male, left and was with men as a woman, and eventually entered into a relationship with another woman and becoming an established songwriter in Nashville. Even with their different journeys, Hensel believes that there is one fundamental thing in both of their stories: “they’re about who these people feel they are on the inside and not about who they want to sleep with.”

Rene and Jamie’s stories began in an earlier Hensel documentary in 2004, “The Opposite Sex.” Until that film no documentary had ever followed a transgender person from the moment of making the decision through the surgery before. The producer set about finding the right protagonists of his film by contacting all the surgeons in the world who did gender affirmation surgeries. After looking at 100 five-minute homemade tapes of possible candidates, Hensel and his team eventually chose Rene and Jamie. They felt that they would be open and brave, and allow a deep approach into their stories. They also were interesting and somewhat charismatic people (and quite brave).

After completing “The Opposite Sex”, Hensel and his team kept in touch with Rene and Jamie. “Beyond the Opposite Sex” picks up their stories fourteen years later and we see that their surgeries were far from the end of their journeys. Over the past fourteen years, the world has changed. When Hensel first pitched “The Opposite Sex”, very few people were aware of gender affirmation surgeries. In pitching the newer film it seemed that everybody had a teenager in school who had a number of friends who were going through it yet the prejudice is still there. I find this amazing. Furthermore, within various groups there are different attitudes. “There are some transgenders who don’t want all the surgeries; there are some who do. Also, Jamie and Rene feel very strongly that once they completed their surgery, they were not transgender – they are now a man and a woman. There are people who challenge that, and we see that in the movie. There are also people who feel that they have to be militant about it, while others feel like they just want to live their lives.

Medical advancements have continued over the years, but surgeries still remain strenuous. In the film, we see that Rene has been through nine surgeries and we understand that the physical transition from female to male is very difficult. There is still no way to create a completely natural penis. It’s much more difficult than the transition from male to female. There is no question that there will continue to be advances, many transgenders are choosing to not yet go through with the final surgery for that reason.”

This is a film that humanizes a subject that remains unfamiliar to many people to this day. Any good movie is not about an issue, it is about people that help illuminate an issue, have a social impact and can help change the path. A desire to help and effect change is also what attracts director Hensel, who is a three-time Emmy winning journalist, a doctor, and a broadcasting personality.

Rene is back at school and studying online for a Ph.D. and has a new girlfriend who has no issues with him being a trans man.His mother and siblings who put him through hell when he first started his journey are now fully supportive. His only barrier to full acceptance is with his girlfriend’s family with whom he has not shared his history with yet. 

Jaime, on the other hand, lives with Lisa her girlfriend in a very rural part of her State where they fear that all the neighbors, would want to run them out of town if they knew they were gay.  Jaime accepts that she is not the most feminine of women, which is a point of contention she has with Lisa who would like her to make more of an effort with her appearance.  She is extremely self-assured and insists that she is not a transwoman but just a woman.

Life has not worked out for either Rene or Jaime as they expected but finally becoming their true gender has certainly given them the peace and happiness they never had before.  Aside from one meeting with students to talk about his journey, neither he nor Jaime have expressed any desire for acting as advocates for future generations of trans men and women. Some might find this surprising but I must say that I found in my own case that when I reached a certain age, I just wanted to live out my days quietly.

The one main fault of the film is that it panders too much to society’s obsession with genitalia and sexual performance, and therefore something of a disservice to Jaime, Rene and their partners by making such an issue about this.  It would have been fine just to avoid it altogether.

The concept of doing a follow up on the original films was a great decision and it’s refreshing to see two extraordinary people happy that they got through their personal agonies and hells.  Any addition like this to the continuing dialogue about the journey of the trans community is a good thing.

“AFTER FOREVER”— A Look at Older Gay Men

“AFTER FOREVER”

A Look at Older Gay Men

Amos Lassen

“After Forever” is a new Amazon’s micro-series that looks at the nature of commitment and its boundaries and how one faces life after the death of an intimate partner. Brian (Kevin Spiritas) has to deal with the death of his partner and husband Jason (Mitchell Anderson). He is having a very hard time despite the fact that he seems to have everything. seems to have everything has to deal with the sudden loss of his husband Jason (Mitchell Anderson) to cancer. “After Forever” looks at life after 50–and after “’til death do us part.”

The story moves between flashback and flash-forward as it looks at the final days of Jason’s illness, and then Brian getting back into life. Brian has a really good, a great group of friends, and an 8-year-old sort-of nephew to care for but the shadow of Jason looms large over his life. He must decide whether he should he start dating again and/or have sex He has no answers.

The series is composed of eight episodes each of only ten minutes. The shortness of the episodes prevents the series from getting too upsetting and this topic can certainly cause that. There is quite a cast for this show. Aside from the two lead actors, we have Michael Urie, Anita Gillette, Colleen Zenk , Peter Kim and a group of veteran Broadway performers that bring credibility and sincerity to the proceedings. Jennifer Pepperman directed with an eye on New York locations.

There has not been a lot done about the older members of the LGBT community and queer film and TV sometimes draw criticism for focusing too much on the issues of young people. “After Forever” does something totally new by focusing on and examining aging, post AIDS same-sex couples in long-term relationships. Neither life nor marriage end at 50 and while this particular story is sad, it does make us think.