Monthly Archives: July 2018

“ZAMA”— Impotence and Colonialism


Impotence and Colonialism

Amos Lassen

Tall and lean, fond of his powdered wig and many-sided hats, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is tall and thin and comes across as a man of power and importance and he dresses the part with a powdered wig and fancy hats. However, we understand that his is not who he seems to be. He is a full-blooded Spaniard, and an assistant magistrate on a long administrative posting in Asunción, Paraguay. He serves the king of a colonial power he’s never set foot in. In reality, he is a functionary who serves no function, he files the occasional incident report and spends most of the film in thought or waiting. We see him for the first time as he looks out on open water and trying to look important but then he understands that no one is even looking his way.

Zama’s personality is as confused as his identity; he straddles multiple nations without quite belonging to any of them. He is both an embodiment and a critique of colonialism and the slavery and racism. He’s also an unlucky fool. All that he really wants is to be transferred to bigger, whiter, more cosmopolitan environs, but his co-workers constantly outmaneuver him.

We can also see this film as a comedy that is built on the minor workplace humiliations of a pencil pusher in the 1790s. Zama requests a transfer recommendation, and his mercurial boss changes the subject; Zama is directed to censure his younger co-worker (Juan Minujin), who’s subsequently promoted and begins sleeping with the only woman he is interested in (Lola Dueñas). Zama has a strong sense of dislocation but Zama can sense a happy future for himself. The film uses image and sound to posit Zama’s revolt as an inevitability without ever speaking a word about it.

Zama is a company man that is somewhat oblivious to the maneuvering in his midst and never figures out how to behave. If he learns anything over the course of this film, it’s that concepts as foundational as identity and possession can be illusory: Zama’s furniture belongs to the Spanish crown, and his ostensible subjects reject or ignore his every demand.

The 1956 novel Zama by Antonio di Benedetto is the basis for this film about a man driven by the corrupt system to insanity. Zama cannot get a transfer to a more desirable location such as Lerma where his wife and child reside. Beyond the settlement where he is located is the jungle and primitive masked warriors and a fabled notorious brigand named Vicuna (Matheus Nachtergaele). Zama seems just as much lost in an hallucination as living a full life in the unpleasant colony. There is this constant menace, malaria, intense heat, settlers who go crazy and many officials of the crown who come and go. The setting is a place where no one is stable nor can be trusted.

There are some wonderful scenes. Zama is called to meet the Governor inside his ornate office where he is informed that once again his request for a transfer is rejected. He’s also informed that a fellow functionary (Juan Minujin) he despises has been sent to Lerma. He’s further humiliated when a llama clings to him, making him feel like one of the animals. This humiliation takes him out of character to volunteer to join the soldiers searching in the jungle for the dangerous bandit. It is through Zama’s mental breakdown that director Lucrecia Martel brilliantly gives us a rebuke of colonialism.

“A Queer Way Out: The Politics of Queer Emigration from Israel” by Hila Amit— Queer Resistance to Zionism

Amit, Hila. “A Queer Way Out: The Politics of Queer Emigration from Israel”, SUNY Press, 2018.

Queer Resistance to Zionism

Amos Lassen

Hila Amit’s “A Queer Way Out” greatly interests me in that I am one of those who left Israel but I do not fit her formula that “queer Israeli emigrants interact in a intentionally unheroic type of resistance to Zionism.” I do not believe that leaving Israel is an abandonment of Zionist ideas. According to Amit, “

the very language of Zionism prizes the idea that of immigration to Israel (aliyah, actually ascending) whereas stigmatizing emigration from Israel (yerida, descending).” There is no question about Zionism favoring immigration to Israel but I am just not sure that leaving the country is regarded so negatively, although I do remember a time when emigration was a “dirty” word.

Hila Amit explores the stories of queer Israeli emigrants. She looks at the reasons for leaving Israel as well as the feelings of those who left and who are no longer a part of Israel. She shows that both sexual orientation and left-wing political association play important roles in determining to leave the country but I must say that sexual orientation as a reason by itself is not nearly the reason that it once was before the year 2000. Today there s a large and vibrant LGBT community in the country but basically centered in Tel Aviv. We especially saw the power of the community when it led a countrywide strike as a protest to the country’s new surrogacy law. It is estimated that 100,000 people participated in the strike.

Amit attempts to show that emigration itself is not just a political act but one that “pioneers a intentionally unheroic type of resistance to Zionist ideology.” The study “explores the activities of (as well as the discourse used by) queer Israeli emigrants, before, during, and after departure.” The research here investigates the connections between the Israeli collective and its outcasts, and between social exclusion and departure. Amit argues that queer Israeli emigrants, in their decision to depart, undermine Zionist ideology, and therefore change the obvious paths of resistance to Zionism. By being away from the physical territory of Israel, “they avoid the Zionist demand to perform as strong, masculine Sabras.” She goes on to add that

“emigration is subversive in that it symbolizes a refusal to answer Zionism in the currency of heroism and active resistance.” Amit claims that the decision to leave comes from one acknowledging his own vulnerability and “the recognition that they can no longer tolerate the hardship of life offered to them in Israel.” By one’s announcing of personal vulnerability the system is weakened. “In their passivity and unheroic behavior, emigrants threaten to undermine the entire Zionist project.”

It all sounds very nice and Amit has indeed done excellent research.. However, I agree with very little here and I am sure that my group of Israeli gay friends living in America will have a greet deal to say about what is written here. Yes perhaps my American Zionism is different than what my Israeli Zionism would be (and still is) but even living somewhere else, my Zionist feelings are very, very strong. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating read.

“THAT SUMMER”— The Prequel to “Grey Gardens”


The Prequel to “Grey Gardens”

Amos Lassen

During the summer of 1972, photographer Peter Beard and socialite Lee Radziwill, the younger sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, discussed making a film about the changes being caused by the rapid development occurring in East Hampton, Long Island and the history of Radziwill’s family. Upon arriving with their crew, they soon realized that the real story was already with Edith Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, Radziwill’s aunt and cousin who were living in squalor and l isolation in the dilapidated mansion known as Grey Gardens. For unknown and/or unexplained reasons, the project was left unfinished but two of the members of the film crew, documentarians Albert and David Maysles, were so fascinated by the Beales that they returned later and made “Grey Gardens” in 1975. This documentary made cult figures out of the Beales and was responsible for the documentary “The Beales of Grey Gardens” (2006), a 2006 stage musical and a 2009 HBO movie staring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore playing the two women. Some four reels of 16mm footage from that original abandoned shoot were never shown and for years were thought to be lost. Having been recently discovered, that film is what makes up the new documentary, “That Summer”.

We wonder how could a blue-blooded mother and daughter have gone from high-society debutantes to feeding cats and raccoons in the attic? This is what makes Göran Olsson’s “That Summer” important. We see how the Maysles brothers came to decide on make their original documentary. Lee Radziwill, hired them to help film a documentary about her father, John Vernou “Black Jack” Bouvier III. To tell his story, she deigned to interview his sister, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, and niece, Edith Bouvier Beale, who were known as Big and Little Edie. But as I said, that film was not made but Maysles soon turned their fascination with the women into their own next project. The new footage in “That Summer” shows the Beales amid their cousins’ attempts to save the Grey Gardens estate from its fallen state.

It is immediately striking how much less flighty and flirtatiously Little Edie is. In the other documentaries, we see that she had an intense crush on David Maysles, and that probably was why she welcomed his camera into her home but that is far less prominent in “That Summer.” Here Little Edie seems more conspicuously embarrassed by what her life has become. We see as much a lack of patience for her cousin Lee as she has for her mother and she thinks about what will happen to her if she spends one more winter in the Hamptons. We see Razdiwill as a helpful lifeline (but then the footage here was commissioned by her).

“That Summer” fills in the gap of the period when the Beales then became famous in the media for being the poor relatives of Jackie O. Aristotle Onassis and Radziwill paid for renovations of the mansion and helped with other bills. We see visits from the county health inspectors who threaten to evict the women, reporters and a lawyer who came to their defense, and contractors hired to make plumbing and roof repairs. Radziwill’s children, Prince Anthony and Princess Anna Christina, also show up and feed bread to the raccoons. There are also wonderful new things for us to see here.

We actually see the known, but never seen background to the women’s story. The film’s introduction shows Beard leafing through a book of his photographs of Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger and others, plus African wildlife, without explanation. Eventually it becomes clear that this is all set up for how Beard and Radziwill got together and came up with the idea for the project in the Hamptons. The voice-over narration recalls the experience of meeting and filming the Beales.

When Beard, Radziwill and the crew arrived at Grey Gardens, there had been no real visitors there in more than five years and the house and grounds had fallen into such disrepair that county authorities were threatening to evict the Beales. The presence of the film crew and past bad experiences with the local authorities upset the Beales. Edith was much crueler towards everyone other than Radziwill—at one point, she talks about how the many cats they have (including one she claims bears a resemblance to Ted Kennedy) get rid of all the vermin and snaps to her daughter “The only vermin here is you, Edie.” For Little Edie, there are moments in which a certain melancholia about her life comes through.

The footage in “That Summer” is more empathetic towards its subjects but they and their quirks are regarded by Radziwill with obvious love and affection and no small amount of admiration for the way that they have chosen to live life on their own unusual terms. Little Edie indeed publicly trashed Radziwill in later years.

“That Summer” is basically a prequel of sorts to a key Seventies movie that fills in a little of the back-story of a couple of its most notable characters.

“Candy” by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg— A Satire on Sex

Southern, Terry and Mason Hoffenberg. “Candy”, Grove Press, 1958, 60th Anniversary Reprint, 2018.

A Satire on Sex

Amos Lassen

The 60th anniversary edition of Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s classic satirical novel, “Candy” has now been reissued with a new introduction by bestselling author and actor B. J. Novak

 Southern and Hoffenberg wrote the novel by mailing chapters back and forth, as a satire of Voltaire’s “Candide” and a parody of smutty novels. It was published in France by Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, which published little dirty books along with literary classics such as the controversial novels “Lolita,” “The Ginger Man” and “Naked Lunch.” “Candy” became a best seller when it was published in America in 1964.

Southern is a first-rate writer and major satirist. He allows us to see ourselves as we are and to see sex as “fulfillment rather than affliction”. He also lets us see that the funniest event in the history of mankind was the division of the sexes. “Candy” is without a doubt a sexploitation-filled novel. William Styron said that “Candy” was “Wickedly funny to read and morally bracing as only good satire can be.”

Candy Christian is a very cute but naïve college girl (presumably eighteen years of age, although that is never specified) who suffers from sophomoric idealism and misplaced empathy. She has been given a A+ on a paper she wrote entitled “Contemporary Human Love” in which she wrote, “To give of oneself – fully – is not merely a duty prescribed by an outmoded superstition, it is a beautiful and thrilling privilege.” Candy then innocently gives herself “fully” to those that “truly need” her. The ridiculous silliness of Candy’s predilections are totally entertaining.

Candy is struck with the Leftist ideology of giving back something to others and what she has to give is her body. Her encounters run the weird gamut of hunchback, uncle, fake spiritual guru, etc. She realizes that giving herself this way isn’t quite what she thought it would be, since she derives considerably more pleasure than she thought from giving. But she is also charmingly naive.

At first the book seems to be soft-core pornography; but after continuing on, I realized that it is a mockery; a satire of a satire. Any resemblance between “Candide” and “Candy” is totally intentional.

“Trinity” by Louisa Hall— A Novel About the Father of the Atomic Bomb

Hall, Louisa. “Trinity”, Ecco, 2018.

A Novel About the Father of the Atomic Bomb

Amos Lassen

Robert Oppenheimer was a brilliant scientist, a champion of liberal causes, and a complex and often contradictory character. He loyally protected his Communist friends, only to betray them later. He lied about love affairs and he defended the use of the atomic bomb that he helped create but that lobbied against nuclear proliferation.

Through narratives that cross time and space, a set seven characters speak about the life of Oppenheimer. We hear about a secret service agent who followed him in San Francisco, the young lover of a colleague in Los Alamos, a woman fleeing McCarthyism who knew him on St. John. As these men and women come into contact with Oppenheimer, they have something to say about his legacy while at the same time reveal deep and unsettling truths about their own lives.

Louisa Hall has written an explosive story about the ability of the human mind to believe what it wants, about public and private tragedy, and about power and guilt. She brings science with literature together with fiction and biography to ask questions about really knowing someone, and about the secrets that we keep from both the world and from ourselves.

We have both real and fictional characters whose lives revolve around the testing of the first atomic bomb. We see the ways in which we betray others and while betraying ourselves. It has already been seventy-five years since the Manhattan Project was begun and we still see Oppenheimer as both a mystery and an icon.

“Trinity” is told through seven separate and sometimes conflicting “testimonials” and together they give us a fictional portrait of Oppenheimer that captures his elusiveness and contradictory qualities that have made Oppenheimer such a complicated and controversial person.

There is no single narrative; it is replaced “ a chorus of voices—characters who encounter Oppenheimer in Los Alamos and beyond and through their memories—sometimes marginal, sometimes central we get a look at an enigmatic man, learn his secret love affairs and his shift from nuclear pioneer to lobbyist against nuclear proliferation.

 Looking at Oppenheimer, we see how difficult it is to understand the people we care for, or the people to whom we decide to give power.  Oppenheimer gave a long statement that summarized the entire course of his life yet he seems to have been uncertain as to why acted in the ways that he did.  He seems to have had trouble understanding himself. He seems to have had a desire for people to understand him in his full complexity and this might be surprising for some of us. To be honest, I never had actually read anything about Oppenheimer and he just did not interest men Yet, I was totally pulled into this book and did not want to stop reading. 

“MAN MADE”— Four Men

“Man Made”

Four Men

Amos Lassen

T Cooper, an author and filmmaker, has a new documentary that follows four men as they prepare to compete in Trans Fit Con, the only bodybuilding competition in the US  specifically for the trans community.  The contest rules simply state that everyone must identify as trans and as such they allow contestants to enter regardless at what point they are in their physical transition.


Mason is the most serious of the four and he has a strict diet regime. He is married but has still never been naked in front of his wife.

Rese was homeless when filming started. His mother who is raising his five-year-old son kicked him out. During the filming,  he met and married a new partner, who is also trans, and they have moved to Baltimore together.  

Dominic is a rapper from St Paul,  has a fiancé Thea, and at the start of filming and with her support, he was about to undergo a double mastectomy.  He is also on a journey to identify to find his biological mother who had given him up for adoption and who can reveal his true ethnicity at last.  Dominic is the one who is most relaxed with his a real body-builder physique and pokes fun at the stomach he cannot quite get rid of.

Kennie is just about to start his transitioning journey.  His lesbian girlfriend, DJ, is fully supportive of his choices but feels that this will probably signal the end of their relationship  As the testosterone shots begin taking effect, Kennie’s sex drive increases. As his body changes, DJ becomes less attractive to him.

Cooper also gives brief bios of the other men who are taking part in the competition in Atlanta. or so men taking part and discusses issues they all face like the decision to wear a packer (a fake penis) to pad the front of their speedos.

The men proudly express that their bodies are at last matching their true gender but the fact that they are going one step further to be ultra-masculine as bodybuilders is not just for their own satisfaction, but so that society can really see them as who they really are.

The film is really more about how transitioning can affect the man’s personal relationships and if they can adjust sufficiently to meet their needs.

 “Man Made”  destroys stereotypes about body builders as it challenges the ideals of “traditional masculinity” inherent in the sport, showing how  for four transgender men, bodybuilding is about presenting one’s true identity to the world rather than a drug-enhanced self-improvement model. The social complexities of the issues raised by each man are narrowed in order to focus purely on the human effect – the reaction of each individual and their wider families. The film is at its best when it sidesteps the entire bodybuilding premise altogether, and focuses on the personal stories that have led each subject to this moment.

Director T Cooper has managed to find the inherent humanity in the bodybuilding sub-culture through a diverse mix of men who destroy stereotypes.

“BELIEVER”— Mormonism and Homophobia


Mormonism and Homophobia

Amos Lassen

The worldwide popularity of the band Imagine Dragons means that millions of people will soon become very aware of the homophobia that is part of the Mormon church and the high suicide rate of LGBTQ youth who practice Mormonism. thanks to this documentary shining a light on it. Homophobia in certain religions has been overlooked, and in news reports, is frequently concentrated squarely on Christianity and Islam without speaking about homophobia in other religions.

This documentary follows Dan Reynolds, the Imagine Dragons vocalist, who has come to a crossroads in regards to his Mormonism, and the religion’s treatment of LGBTQ individuals. With high suicide rates in Utah among young people likely attributed to this stance, Reynolds (along with openly gay singer Tyler Glenn, a former member of the church) creates the LoveLoud festival, in order to raise awareness of the issue, and hopefully “change hearts and minds in the process.”

We see the emotional torment placed upon those who have had to reconcile their sexuality with their religious beliefs, as well as those who have been excommunicated for simply expressing that being gay is not a sinful crime. But these moments make awkward bedfellows with a documentary that is predominantly aimed at Imagine Dragons fans. The message about sexuality is secondary to celebrations of the band’s success.

The band’s popularity is helping awareness on the issue (and is fundamental in getting this documentary made), but it too frequently becomes the focus, obscuring the emotionally hard-hitting interviews that should be consistently front and centre.

Although Reynolds is central to the documentary due to his star power, it’s hard not to wish that the documentary primarily focused on the festival’s co-founder Tyler Glenn. The former singer of Neon Trees, Glenn was excommunicated from the church following coming out as gay, and still struggles to grapple with his religious beliefs and sexuality and has even recorded an album about it, “Excommunicate” and it upset many in the Mormon community. He’s the emotional centre of the film, and the audience surrogate for LGBTQ viewers. The best moments are the ones where Tyler tearfully confesses about his inner conflicts.

“Believer” is a necessary and important documentary and we can hope that it continues to raise awareness of the cause, and all subsequent LoveLoud festivals will further combat prejudice and change minds in the Mormon community.


“JUST FRIENDS” (“Gewoon Vrienden”)


Amos Lassen

There is something very sweet about “Just Friends” but that is about all it is—just a sweet little film and very basically the boy-gets-boy, boy-loses-boy story is quite usual. In one scene, for example, two very fit and muscular gay boys are in a diner, and a puny little homophobic kid starts calling them faggots. While one of the boys to deal with this, the other runs away. The ‘boys’ are in their mid-20s and still live with their mothers who have a great deal to say about their sons. The mothers are racists but do not have problems with their sons being gay.

Director, Ellen Smit tries hard and she and her writer had the chance to make a substantial film about race and homosexuality but something happened and we get more of a thwarted lovers story.









“Reinventing Marvin”


Amos Lassen

Director Anne Fontaine skillfully shares the moving journey and quest for identity of a young boy who is very different from his oppressive milieu. We are taken on an existential journey that starts as “a radical experience of exile” because “the poor, sad, gay child is totally out of place, is a stranger in his own home, within his own family.” The boy is Marvin Bijoux (played at age 14 by Jules Porier and then by Finnegan Oldfield as a young man) who has an immense amount in common with the adolescent protagonist of Edouard Louis’s shocking autobiographical novel and one of my favorite books of late, ‘The End of Eddy’, the bestseller from 2014 that was the trigger for the script written by Anne Fontaine and Pierre Trividic. They have deviated from the original by imagining his escape into a world that is larger than the small village he was born in.

Marvin lives in the Vosges Mountains, in a very humble social class where culture is non-existent and human interactions are rare and brusque when they occur. Marvin eats chips for dinner before switching on the television; his father (Grégory Gadebois) is constantly tinkering about while mostly thinking about his next drink, and Marvin, a delicate, sensitive and shy adolescent lives in a universe of “brutes” and who has been nicknamed “the skeleton” by his mother (Catherine Salée). Marvin shares a room with his younger brother and his older stepbrother. He is subjected to violent homophobic harassment at school, which makes him question his sexual identity even more when he finds out that his family is also asking questions of their own (“Why does he embarrass us like this with his faggot ways?”) and that for his father, homosexuality is “something degenerate, like a kind of mental illness.” 

Marvin, nonetheless, finds a way out in the form of an improvisation course at school and the well-meaning support of the school principal (Catherine Mouchet). Selected in an audition for the theatre course at Epinal High School, he leaves his family and goes to boarding school. This is a turning point that will be followed by three other propitious meetings a few years later: with Abel (Vincent Macaigne), professor at the centre for  dramatic arts in Nancy who takes him under his protective wing and introduces him to Paris, followed by Roland (Charles Berling) who opens the doors to a wealthy artistic world in which Marvin feels out of place but also where he meets a certain Isabelle Huppert who (in her own way) helps him to take his story to the stage. It is a performance where Marvin’s family is positively crucified, which has consequences on the life of the young man who has succeeded in creating a new identity by artistically expressing his own unease, while at the same time being fully aware of where he comes from.

Sophisticated editing alternates between the different eras of Marvin’s journey. Flash forwards, voice offs and texts written by the young man that explain past events. The actors give exceptional performances in a story of an “ugly duckling” and his “guardian angels”. But this is no fairy tale; it is a masterful and moving film that hits close to home for many.

If you have read “The End of Eddy” you know that it is a gut-wrenching account of growing up poor and gay in rural France. The book is so delicately diaristic, having been written by Louis when he was just 19, and before he became a literary superstar. Writer-director Anne Fontaine bypasses any attempt at faithfulness to her source material, cutting it into a million pieces and re-assembling the work like a postmodern collage. Fontaine’s cinematic histrionics are beautiful to watch but it is also as if the soul of Louis’s work has been diluted by the filmmaker’s need to reinvent not Marvin, but the literary lineage that makes the project so striking in the first place. Because of the film’s playing with temporality and style, the simplicity and of Louis’s prose is lost. We’re certainly not allowed to spend enough time with the film’s Marvin and suffer with him and this is what made “The End of Eddy” so real. made possible. Nonetheless this remains a gorgeous film in its own right.

The film is a frenzied back and forth between Marvin’s miserable (and realistically shot) childhood and his glamorous adulthood There is great visual pleasure in Fontaine’s mishandling of the material and since I have already twice reviewed the book, it is time to review the film as a film and not as a comparative. Fontaine aestheticizes the never-ending pain of childhood in which the queer child’s now-adult body is often only clothed by the theatrical lighting. We know it is not always like or even if it is ever like that.

What we do see is a coming of age and self-acceptance that is beautiful in its own right.

“Baby You’re Gonna Be Mine: Stories” by Kevin Wilson— Grief, Adolescence, and What It Means to Be a Family

Wilson, Kevin. “Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine: Stories”, Ecco, 2018.

Grief, Adolescence, and What It Means to Be a Family

Amos Lassen

“Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mineis Kevin Wilson’s first story collection in almost ten years and in it, he combines quirkiness and emotional complexity as he explores the relationship between parents and children. These stories here build on each other and are filled with wit, heart, imagination and humor. Each story is expansively empathetic for the strangest aspects of the human condition. There is no moralizing and no sensationalizing as we are swept up in the feeling of wonder at where karma takes us. The dark humor stays with us as we realize that the foibles of the world are created by people just like us. We also discover a sense of longing for times that were and for family life as crazy as it might be.

Let’s have a look at a few of the stories. In one we meet a child who wants to get dressed up for Halloween like his dead brother. He wants his friends at school to know what his brother looked like but his mother, of course, will not allow it. “Wildfire Johnny” is the story of a man who discovers a magic razor that allows him to travel back in time and he knows that he can fix all mistakes he has made or tragedies that have happened if he uses it to slit his own throat. In “Scroll Through the Weapons”, a couple is taking care of their almost feral and underfed nieces and nephews who live in utter squalor, while the kids’ parents deal with hospitalization and jail time from an injury one gave the other. “Signal to the Faithful” follows a boy on a road trip with his priest. This is the story of a frightened and ashamed altar boy who has fainting spells during mass and the priest who wants to help him overcome them. And the title story, “Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine,” is about a narcissistic rock star that moves back home during a bad time for him and goes to work as a landscaper.

Several of the stories are completely implausible, but believable. We become very aware of Wilson’s ability to write about emotional complexity, lost romance, religion, marriage, and between parents and children. The characters in the stories struggle with goodness. Wilson brings us emotional truths in the small moments that surround crises. There are ten stories that build on each other in strange and remarkable ways and we see Wilson, once again, as a wonderful storyteller.