Monthly Archives: April 2018

“FEMALE TROUBLE”—Tasty Tastelessness—–“There’s nothing divine about this earthly piece of trash.”

“Female Trouble”

Tasty Tastelessness—–“There’s nothing divine about this earthly piece of trash.”

Amos Lassen

Wow!!!—“Female Trouble: was made in 1974, 44 years ago and while I was living in Israel. I had never seen it although I did meet Divine when she went on tour and came to Tel Aviv. Now I finally got a chance to see “Female Trouble” on the gloriously restored Blu ray from the Criterion Collection.

Glamour has never been more grotesque than in this film that “injects the Hollywood melodrama with anarchic decadence.” Divine, engulfs the screen with charisma as Dawn Davenport, the living embodiment of the film’s lurid mantra, “Crime is beauty,” who moves from a teenage nightmare hell-bent on getting cha-cha heels for Christmas to a fame monster whose egomaniacal impulses land her in the electric chair. The film was shot in director John Waters’ native Baltimore on 16 mm, with a cast drawn from his beloved troupe of regulars, the Dreamlanders (including Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Edith Massey, and Cookie Mueller) and it provides perverse pleasures that never fail to satisfy.

The Criterion Collection has pulled out all the stops for this brand-new Director-Approved Special Edition – which includes a new digital restoration, Audio Commentary from John Waters, new and archival interviews, deleted scenes, rare footage and much more. As we watch, it is only natural to wonder where do these people come from and where do they go when the sun goes down?

  • The DVD Special Features include:

Audio commentary from 2004 featuring Waters

New conversation between Waters and critic Michael Musto

New and archival interviews with cast and crewmembers Mink Stole, Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio, Susan Lowe, Mary Vivian Pearce, and more

Deleted scenes and alternate takes

Rare on-set footage and More!

PLUS: An essay by film critic Ed Halterhate you and I hate Christmas!” screeches Dawn Davenport at her hapless parents after she fails to find her beloved cha-cha heels under the brightly decorated tree on Christmas morning. And so off she goes to begin a life of crime and debauchery.

“Body to Job” by Christopher Zeischegg— An Adult Film Career

Zeischegg, Christopher (Danny Wylde). “Body to Job”, Rare Bird Books, 2018.

An Adult Film Career

Amos Lassen

Former porn star, Christopher Zeischegg (aka Danny Wylde) has written a wonderful memoir of his adult film career and the life that came after he exited the movies. While this is not the first memoir by an ex-porn star I have read, it is by far the best and I suspect that this is because Zeischegg took the time to hone his writing in two other novels (reviewed here). Zeischegg writes about youthful naiveté, sex worker love, pro-porn activism, disenchantment, and violence and he does so as a man who knows how to write. I first must tell you that the book is quite explicit in the way it looks at vulnerability, longing, terror, and life. It is also unforgettable.

I have always thought that those who become porn stars are condemned to be jaded for the rest of their lives and I am glad that this is not true, especially for Chris Zeischegg who shows us how we remain human in spite of, and because of, our experiences. The read here is a journey that takes us through periods of “lust, numbness, love, and the feeling that comes from ‘somewhere just as deep as love”. Zeischegg emphasizes that a porn star begins as a person and ends as a person.

Knowing the quality of the author’s writing, I decided that I would read the entire book in one sitting and if you can do the same, I recommend doing so. For one thing, we get an excellent deconstruction of the sex trade and of the stigma of the sex worker the and bisexual male stigma. We immediately sense the author’s vulnerability and confidence.

I have always believed that to work in the sex trade is to live a life that is very dark and it is so here but with the author lighting up that world so that we can what the darkness hides.

Zeischegg came to the world of porn where (and I quote this because it is beautifully written) “the dark, rapey landscape of homophobic, sexist porn culture where intimacy is ill-advised and the human heart aches eternal.” We meet a man whose desires are pushed aside in a world where sex is work and not an expression of love. Sex was a mean to survive financially; it was a paycheck that changed it from an emotion to a routine. Christopher was a crossover performer (bisexual porn performer) who found no place in either gay and straight groups and we are with him as he moves from paying john to girlfriend to boyfriend and to performer on screen. I immediately saw that there was nonsense of direction but there was almost non-stop movement. He experienced a life of fluid sexuality that was as naked as he was.

I think what surprised me most about Christopher Zeischegg is that he is not only a fine writer but he has a sense of awareness about who he is and the world in which he leaves, In a way this invalidates how we usually think of porn stars (although I have to hand to Stormy Daniels especially if she is able to bring down the President). As I mentioned earlier, this is not the first book that I have read by

Zeischegg so I already knew that I liked his writing. What really drew me to this book is his honesty about his life and about who he is. He has the ability to bring together fact, fiction, poetry, art, violence, love, humor and magical realism and he does so with style and grace (not a word commonly used on porn stars). Zeischegg sees the sex industry as just another option for the smart, educated, and aimless until he realizes differently.

When I first read Chris Zeischegg I knew that he is special. His voice is fresh and original and I knew that there were stories that would come out that would surprise us by their quality. I love that he can make the personal become universal and global.

We see the raw humanity behind porn where I doubt we consider that reality even exists. Porn is a fantasy world that thrives almost entirely on what is not real. Zeischegg shares that dark word with fearlessness. I do not usually read porn (although there are a couple of writers that write what I call literary porn that I am always ready to read). This too is porn or at the very least very bold. But what we have here is so beautifully written and so sincere that I am okay saying that it is XXX but I am willing to call it porn.

There are shocks and revelations aplenty here and there is sorrow, boredom, desperation, happiness and craziness. Here is one little story that I love. “Of course, there were all the practical reasons for doing porn: money, validation, trying to get through school, etc. But in regards to my desire to write, porn gave me material to explore. I didn’t need to go out and research something. I was living it. The research was my life.”

The book blurs the line between memoir and fiction making the reader guess what is real and what isn’t and this was fun for me. Even though I do not give stars or ratings to the books that I review, I am making an exception by giving this book five big fat shiny stars and totally recommend it.

“The Performance Cortex: How Neuroscience Is Redefining Athletic Genius” by Zach Schonbrun— How We Understand Athletic Genius

Schonbrun, Zach. “The Performance Cortex: How Neuroscience Is Redefining Athletic Genius”, Dutton, 2018.

How We Understand Athletic Genius

Amos Lassen

“The Performance Cortex” explains athletic genius and gives us a new perspective on the science of elite sporting performance. We have all heard these questions: “Why couldn’t Michael Jordan, master athlete that he was, hit a baseball? Why can’t modern robotics come close to replicating the dexterity of a five-year-old? Why do good quarterbacks always seem to know where their receivers are?” yet we have never really had them answered except by speculation.

Writer Zach Schonbrun had done extensive research to look at what actually drives human movement and its spectacular potential. He traces the fascinating history of motor research and gives details of how new investigations in the brain help to explain the extraordinary skills of talented performers like Stephen Curry, Tom Brady, Serena Williams, and Lionel Messi. He also looks at musical virtuosos, dancers, rock climbers, racecar drivers, and more.

We know that movement (regardless of how much) requires extraordinary computation that many of us have taken for granted until now. “The Performance Cortex” takes us into a new way of thinking about the athletic gifts that we strain to see. Now we are looking at the brain. What is so intriguing is that the athletes themselves seem to have no idea how they do much of what they do, because it occurs beneath their conscious awareness. Schonbrun reveals the latest science on how elite athletic feats are actually accomplished. Letting us understand the genius behind sports. He tells us that the next wave of athletic training will look at the relationship between the mind and the body, and the neuroscience that seeks to explore and exploit this interaction to create better athletes. 

We see that despite the emphasis that we putt on hard work and grit, most professional athletes are not elite only because of the extra training hours or their particular body build. Mental analytics is the next frontier in sports and new companies are already exploring new ways to conquer it. “The more we understand the brain’s impact on the way our bodies move, the more obvious it is that sports and neuroscience cannot be separated. Soon, scanning draft prospects’ brains with an EEG will become as much of a standard as a yearly physical.” We certainly have seen the opposite of this with respect to Aaron Hernandez and the new theories as to why he went from a star to a murderer and taking his own life.

 The book not only challenges how we understand athletic genius, but, it fundamentally changes how we see the intersection of athleticism, the brain, and the future of sports.

“The Luck of Friendship: The Letters of Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin” edited by Peggy Fox and Thomas Keith— An Unlikely Friendship

Laughlin, James and Tennessee Williams. “The Luck of Friendship: The Letters of Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin”, edited by Peggy Fox and Thomas Keith, W.W. Norton, 2018.

An Unlikely Friendship

Amos Lassen

“The Luck of Friendship” chronicles the unlikely friendship between Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin. That friendship began in December 1942 when the two men met and bonded at a Lincoln Kirstein mixer. Each of them loved Hart Crane’s poetry and out of that meeting a strong friendship began and continued for many years. James Laughlin was the founder of a small publishing company called New Directions, which he had launched seven years earlier as a sophomore at Harvard. Tennessee Williams was a young playwright who a week later sent a letter to Jay (how he always addressed Laughlin in writing) hoping to arrange a meeting to discuss his poetry. From that point on their friendship went on for 41 years during which Williams experienced “critical acclaim and rejection, commercial success and failure, manic highs, bouts of depression, and serious and not-so-serious liaisons.” Williams thought of Laughlin as his “literary conscience,” and called him such and New Directions serves to this day as Williams’ publisher of everything that he wrote. Through their letters, we get a look into the literary history of the mid-twentieth century and the struggles of a great playwright who was supported in his endeavors by his publisher and friend.

However, because Tennessee and Laughlin were both travelers, their lives rarely crossed, so their bond lived in their correspondence. I knew Tennessee fairly well but in reading these letters I see a different man that the one I knew. The letters show him to be a practical and dedicated man of the theatre, an artist who was not willing to compromise and a loving and loyal friend.

James Laughlin was the first person to publish Tennessee Williams and as far as we know, he was the only major collaborator with whom Williams did not fall out. Together the two men were able to put Tennessee into print keeping both the words and the independent publishing house alive. Both men expressed themselves beautifully in prose and through their letters, they give us a deep and intimate look into their lives.

Here we see the sane Tennessee Williams minus the drugs and infused with a great sense of idealism, seriousness and humor. The writing is at times poetic, at times campy and filled with gossip. It seems to have been impossible for Williams to write a letter without grace to Laughlin. We immediately sense the moving friendship between the two men while at the same time seeing how much each depended on the other but not symbiotically. They were both titans in the world of letters and literature and we are very lucky to have this volume.

Let me just add a word about the two editors here. Peggy L. Fox, is the former president and publisher of New Directions and she was Tennessee Williams’ last editor as well as co-literary executioner of James Laughlin. Thomas Keith began his association with James Laughlin, Peggy L. Fox, and New Directions in 1987 and has edited the Tennessee Williams titles for New Directions since 2002. Both of these literary personages are well equipped to edit these letters.

“Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016” by Frank Bidart— Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize

Bidart, Frank. “Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.

WINNER OF THE 2018 PULITZER PRIZE IN POETRY AND THE 2017 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR POETRY

Amos Lassen

The collected works of one of contemporary poetry’s most original voices, Frank Bidart has the ability to turn the body into language and dares to go into the dark places of the human psyche. This new Pulitzer Prize winning volume, “Half-Light” contains a all of Bidart’s previous books, and a new collection, “Thirst”. On “Thirst”, Bidart examines his life before he moves on to do something new. It is here that he sees himself as one who is still searching for who he is and on of the “queers of the universe.” Throughout the entire collection, Bidart is a visionary with revelations and both unguarded and intimate. He is an unresolved conflict that is constantly renewed who is eternally restless.

Here is a collection of fifty years of poetry that gives voice to what goes on inside of both real and imagined people. It some senses it is autobiographical.

Bidart has the ability to transform a poem into “a vocalized (albeit anguished) performance of consciousness and moral interrogation, an occasion for metaphysical speculation that is oracular and sublime.” Then there are Bidart’s thoughts on

homophobia, doubt, and a parent’s confusing love can shape a gay child. Bidart gives us an invocation of love even where that love no longer exists and thoughts on friendship and mortality.

Bidart is intense and this comes out of need, desire and his own art as a poet. He shows us what it means to be human.

“ALL GENDERS WRAP”— How to Wear Tefillin

“All Genders Wrap”

How to Wear Tefillin

Amos Lassen

“All Genders Wrap” will feature 10 diverse Jews—including trans and non-binary people and tefillin,a prayer object typically worn by Orthodox Jews that can be a strange thing to learn how to properly wear. Tefillin consists of a set of small, black boxes with tiny Torah scrolls inside and leather straps, Tefillin is customarily only worn by men—but ,as of late, that is changing.

Rachel Putterman is a 52-year-old woman who enrolled in Rabbinical school, she couldn’t quite get the hang of how to put on Tefillin. She turned to YouTube only to discover low-quality videos solely featuring men.

She realized that in the videos that that there was nobody that looked like her and she felt this to be a glaring gap. So, Putterman, who formerly worked as a public interest lawyer, decided to start an IndieGoGo campaign to create an educational video featuring people of all genders. The project will aptly be titled “All Genders Wrap”.

Putterman is directing “All Genders Wrap”, a film that is being produced by fellow Hebrew College rabbinical student Gita Karasov. The video will include 10 diverse Jews (including men, women, trans, and non-binary people) of different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Putterman says that she wanted to make a statement to counter what is seen on YouTube and that there are people of all genders engaged in practice of using tefillin. In addition to featuring diverse Jews, the video will also talk about other differences in Tefillin practice. Jews from Spain, Bulgaria and north Africa, for example wrap Tefillin according to Sephardic rather than Ashkenazic customs. One who is left-handed wraps on the left arm instead of the right.

Putterman believes that the film will be on interest to within a small subset of the Jewish community: those that are interested in laying tefillin but not the Orthodox. Many non-Orthodox synagogues now encourage both men and women to use Tefillin.

The personal stories of the 10 diverse Jews will in the video. Putterman feels that there is something profoundly satisfying “about this visual imagery of non-cisgender men wearing this stuff, and not just wearing it but engaged in the practice.”

Personally, I hated wrapping Tefillin when I was forced to do so and it was until very much later that I decided on my own that I wanted this to be part of the way I live.

 

“ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN: THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON”— Twenty-Six Episodes

“ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN: THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON”

Twenty-Six Episodes

Amos Lassen

I was living out of the country when “Laugh In” was at its prime and so I only got what friends would send me and I don’t remember even having seen an entire episode all the way through. I have made up for that now with the Time Life “Laugh In” series and I am glad to report that now available for the very first time at retail prices is The 7-disc fourth season set that features 26 complete, remastered episodes from the Emmy® and Golden Globe®-Winning series with guest stars that include Truman Capote, Art Carney, Johnny Carson, Wilt Chamberlain, Carol Channing, Tim Conway, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jr., Rich Little, Debbie Reynolds, Don Rickles, Rod Serling, Orson Welles, Joey Bishop, William F. Buckley, Phyllis Diller, David Frost, Andy Griffith, Peter Lawford, Rich Little, Bob Newhart, Vincent Price, Carl Reiner, Flip Wilson and many more! Our “Laugh In” regular cast is made up of Dan Rowan, Dick Martin, Lily Tomlin, Ruth Buzzi, Arte Johnson, Gary Owens, Alan Sues, Ann Elder, Dennis Allen, Barbara Sharma, Goldie Hawn and Johnny Brown. 

The ’60s gave us “in-crowds,” “be-ins” and “love-ins,” and “Laugh In” that was broadcast from beautiful downtown Burbank. Straight man Dan Rowan and wisecracking co-host Dick Martin led a gaggle of goofballs through a rapid-fire assault of one-liners, skits, bits and non sequiturs that left viewers in hysterics and disbelief. Most of these comic moments could not be done today because someone would find them offensive when they are really just for fun. Anything and anyone in the public eye was a target. Back then there was no political correctness.

Imagine if you can: Don Rickles impersonating Arlene Francis? A boxing match between Sammy Davis Jr. and Wilt Chamberlain? “Laugh-In” writers produced 26 rip-roaring, laugh-a-minute episodes included here.

We also have the long-running classic sketches of “Cocktail Party,” “Joke Wall,” “The Farkle Family” and “Gladys and Tyrone. 

The set also includes two new-to-retail, specially produced bonus features: interviews with Lily Tomlin and Arte Johnson.

“THE NOBLEMEN’— An All Boys’ Boarding School

“The Noblemen”

An All Boys’ Boarding School

Amos Lassen

Boarding schools have wonderful traditions and exclusive boarding schools have wonderfully exclusive traditions. You can guess by the title of this review that we are talking about an exclusive school. The boys that come here continue to practice the traditions and codes that are now age-old.

It is winter in a prestigious all boys’ boarding school, where children continue to practice age-old rituals and codes bound by years of hierarchy of the popular norm.

We meet Shay (Ali Haji) who is picked at constantly, by Arjun (Mohammed Ali Mir), the tall athletic sports captain and his best friend Baadal (Shaan Groverr). Shay and Pia, the spunky daughter of the new Junior School Principal, are cast as Bassanio and Portia in the Founders Day production of Merchant of Venice. Murali (Kunal Kapoor), the charismatic drama teacher unknowingly adds salt to Baadal’s wounds by casting him as Shay’s understudy. Indignant, Baadal vows to get Shay’s part at any cost and turns to his buddy Arjun for help. Events take a sinister turn when Shay walks in on Arjun, Baadal and their cronies on a debauched night.

The school is in India but it is obviously a remnant of British colonial days and the children are still expected to practice the age-old rituals and codes which should have been done away with years ago. Here in this very formal atmosphere, there is a hierarchal system which allows the senior boys to use the younger sons as their slaves.

14-year-old-Shay is labeled a sissy because he hates sports and prefers drama class. He is devoted to his invalid mother who he is allowed to call via Skype once a week, and who has promised that she will be well enough to finally visit him on Founders Day at the end of the term. Shay’s only two friends are Ganesh (Hardik Thakkar) who is the butt of everyone’s jokes because he is so overweight, and Pia, the only female pupil in the school.

When Shay and Pia are given the leading roles in the Founders Day production of Merchant of Venice, it really upsets Baadal who wants to follow in the footsteps of his father who is a Bollywood movie star and this would have been the perfect part to show off his talent.  Equally important is the fact that enlists Arjun (he wants to be with Pia and he sees this as a perfect opportunity for him to get close to her.

When Baadeal’s clumsy attempt to bribe Mr. Murli, the drama teacher fails, he gets Arjun to ‘persuade’ Shay to give up the part.  Despite all the brutal force they apply to get him to agree, Shay stubbornly refuses as he wants to be able to perform for his mother.What we have is a relentless battle of brawn against wit, and even Ganesh gets drawn into it in such a way that it almost costs him his life, but it isn’t until Mr. Murli becomes aware of the situation and gets involved, and tries to help, that it really gets out of control. 

Once Mr. Murli goes public with the story and Shay is now outed and humiliated by being labeled a rat by almost the entire school, he seeks his own bloody revenge ala “The Merchant of Venice”.

“The Noblemen” reminds us that there still exist schools with this kind of insidious regime where bullying is commonplace and that are also breeding grounds for homophobia. The biggest offense that any of these boys can have is being gay, and the brutal punishment administered to Shay just reinforced his long-held fears about the consequences even more. This kind of activity can contribute to making someone so ashamed of their own sexuality that they will take extreme measures.

“The Noblemen” is the feature-directing debut of filmmaker Vandana Kataria. 

“VENUS”— A New Look at Transgender

“Venus”

A New Look at Transgender

Amos Lassen

Director Eisha Manjara’s “Venus” is a story of family values in the East and how they can never keep up with the West. Sid (Debargo Sanyal) is a transgender woman living in Montreal dealing with a traditional family. Things get even more complicated when it is revealed that Sid has a 14-year-old son. Here is a look at gender and identity politics that is welcoming on all sides of the issue.

Sid is an independent, professional, feisty, and sassy trans woman who chooses to live life on her own terms. In the process, she manages to overcome all odds: societal, familial, and personal and to assert her freedom to be able to live as she chooses. We see Sid and her intimate relationships, as the reality of transitioning and surgery weighs heavily.

The film begins with Sid being chased by a young Ralph (Jamie Myers) who comes out to her as her biological son. Sid apparently dated Ralph’s mother Kirsten many years ago. Sid is now finally taking the leap and transitioning Ralph shows up to claim the privileges of paternity.

Sid is frustrated by Ralph’s appearance in her life and she has a bit of denial and suspicious reticence. Ralph is escaping the neglect of his own household, where his mother’s new husband, Max (Peter Miller), continues to be the cause of his strained mother-son relationship. At the same time, Sid has been trying to move beyond Daniel (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who has left her emotionally distraught.

Ralph and Sid somehow find comfort together. The coming together is not without problems but the solace that the two have found is heartwarming. But we later find intrigue and secrets between families, Sid’s overbearing mother (Zena Daruwalla) and father (Gordon Warnecke) have something to say as Sid continues to work through the emotional entanglements that tie her to Daniel.

The film is filled with Punjabi family charm and a love story that has room for personal reflections. Venus is both charming and hilarious and one trans person’s story that looks to explore life beyond the stereotypes, beyond the usual coming out and unexpected parenthood. The Ralph-Sid relationship is an emotional highlight but the real angst is left for Daniel and Sid to live through.

We begin to dig deeper for inner strength and transcending the boundaries that we set for ourselves. Sid is forced to entertain the curious and very persistent Ralph while at the same time navigating fraught relationships with her traditional Punjabi parents.

“Venus” also presents us with the hopeful idea that if a kid can embrace one’s gender identity (“My dad’s transgender. That is so cool,” remarks Ralph during one his first encounters with Sid), anyone can”).

“Venus” is not only about gender and what that means in today’s world, but the clash of culture and generations and this provides a lot of laughs in that neither mother nor son understand each other.  What really takes this movie to another level is the pitch-perfect performance of Sanyal which is an absolute joy to watch. He avoids all the clichés of over-playing his character and he gives her dignity and a presence that lights up the screen.

“MAPPLETHORPE”— A Biopic

“MAPPLETHORPE”

A Biopic

Amos Lassen

We are finally getting Ondi Timoner’s biopic about Robert Mapplethorpe and I have been lucky enough to see and share some of the first photos about it.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s (Matt Smith) portraits, images of calla lilies, and chronicles of New York City’s underground BDSM scene are touchstones of 20th-century photography even now, nearly thirty years after his death from complications of HIV/AIDS in 1989.

“Mapplethorpe” revisits the photographer’s legacy, beginning at the moment just before he takes up residence in the Chelsea Hotel. There, Mapplethorpe begins to build a portfolio of images—and, at the same time, to explore his attraction to men which he had suppressed. But it is the artist’s relentless ambition that threatens to tear apart the relationships he cherishes the most.

“From the early ’70s until his untimely death at age 42, the film explores the intersection of his art and his sexuality, his struggle for mainstream recognition, and, looming above it all, the specter of the emerging AIDS crisis.” The film is “a nuanced portrait of an artist at the height of his craft and of the self-destructive impulses that threaten to undermine it all.”