Monthly Archives: September 2018

“EGON SCHIELE: DEATH AND THE MAIDEN”— A Fascinating Biographical Story

“EGON SCHIELE: DEATH AND THE MAIDEN”

A Fascinating Biographical Story

Amos Lassen

 Egon Schiele (Noah Saavedra) was young, brilliant, seductive and is one of the most provocative and scandalous artists in early twentieth century Vienna. His life and work are stimulated by eroticism in a Bohemian era that was quickly coming to a close. His inspiration came from two women — his sister, Gerti (Maresi Riegner), and Wally Neuzil (Valerie Pachner), the woman that he immortalizes in his most famous painting “Death and the Maiden.” The beginning of World War I threatens Schiele’s artistic pursuits and leads to his eventual betrayal of Wally, his muse and one true.

Egon Schiele led a very interesting life. Scriptwriter Hilde Berger and director Dieter Berner unfortunately skim over the two most interesting aspects of Schiele’s life, his trial for pedophilia and his experiences in the First World War, are completely glossed over in favor of a superficial overview of more or less his entire adult life. (There are of course reasons liberal fans of Schiele would want to avoid these issues anyway).

The premise of the film is to follow his life and death in relation to five important young women, the title also referencing his most famous work of art. Scenes therefore alternate between his death from the Spanish flu and his relationships with the women who were important to him at various points in his life. The director uses frames in the beginning of the film with the viewer often looks at scenes through the frame of a mirror or that of an attic roof, which serves as Schiele’s studio.

We see a Black on stage in a cabaret as Death with a White woman, referencing the Death and the Maiden motif of Renaissance art and thus foreshadowing Schiele’s painting “Tod und Mädchen” and also fetishizing miscegenation and that which is symbolized in the act of miscegenation: the death of the European woman. It also serves as a precursor to the relationship between Schiele and French métisse Moa Mandu, played by Larissa Breidbach — a post-European woman — who also appears later in the cabaret.

Mandu fulfills every fantasy of the Black woman: both physically and mentally strong, passionate, and full of wanton sexuality. Right from the outset, she displays the stereotypical character traits that are overpowering for the female director of the variety revue. Schiele and his friends are of course completely taken with Moa’s joie de vivre and she accompanies them on their sojourn in the country, where her dominance over the male characters continues t. She wears male clothing and takes the male active role, pacifying both Schiele and his friends, one of whom she simultaneously takes to bed with Schiele for a threesome. This demonstrates the liberal bourgeois thought that stereotyping of the Other is a “thoughtcrime” when certain character traits are shown negatively light, yet a virtue when those exact same traits are lauded. In other words, stereotyping is only a negative if it does not fit the Leftist agenda. We are all the same and yet the Other is always better. Schiele and his friends within the film display these typical bourgeois sensibilities.

The other girl in Schiele’s life at this point is his sister Gerti, with whom he has an incestuous relationship. It is here, from almost the very beginning of the film, that the director introduces us to sexual deviancy and to the prospect of pedophilia. Gerti serves as Schiele’s nude model at the age of sixteen. We see a naked young girl playing in the bed with her brother. Mandu’s masculinity also develops the feminist aspect of the film and she is very much seen as a free woman, her Otherness frees her from bourgeois constraints and provides a contrast with the character of Gerti in this section. Gerti complains that Egon can do everything and she can do nothing. Yet actually, the women in the film are generally seen as rather free in terms of the ability to determine their own lives. They are victims of the circumstances of their own making, caused by their lust for this artist. Schiele des not invest them with emotion. As stated, there are two parts of Schiele’s life that are very much glossed over.

In the film, as in life, he is arrested for abducting a thirteen-year-old girl, who is very much dismissed as an innocent error of judgment by the director with the girl being seen as a willing accomplice and the relationship was innocent and non-sexual. We know from Schiele’s real life that he was attracted to very young girls and this particular episode ought to have been left more ambiguous, but the filmmakers wish to exonerate him while simultaneously showing us perhaps there is nothing wrong with pedophilia. We see this in the trial scene, where the judge burns one of Schiele’s artworks, a portrait of an underage girl naked from the waist down. This scene is closely foreshadowed by the scene in which Schiele is visited in custody by his girlfriend Wally

While the real Schiele was never convicted of the statutory rape of a minor due to the unreliability and lack of testimony of the alleged victim, he was convicted of being a pornographer. Another aspect of his life that is barely touched upon in the film is Schiele’s avoidance of being drafted during the First World War with his excuse again being his art. The only scene shown of military life is the conscription office, where he makes the excuse to the officer that he has a weak heart. I suspect that Schiele been more of a conservative or traditionalist archetype, no mercy would have been spared in making fun of his lack of courage.

Because the war is not covered, neither is Wally Neuzil’s fate. She is last seen going off to be an army hospital orderly after being left by Schiele in order for him to marry for wealth and stability. A last mention comes of her death in the war. There is irony in that the women in the film are emotionally dependent on Schiele, with the possible exception of his sister, who grows stronger throughout the film — although this could also be attributed to her marriage. The filmmakers were trapped into a somewhat anti-feminist narrative by their contradictions. Indeed, the film leaves us with an exposé of the Leftist mindset and Schiele’s attitude to women shows the liberal view that people are there to be used and abused and discarded when necessary. Schiele is as obsessed with money as he is with his art and covets the bourgeois lifestyle that the filmmakers simultaneously wish to deconstruct. Furthermore, for his trial, he manages to secure the services of an expensive solicitor through Wally. It is wealth that saves him and keeps him afloat. However, in the end the Spanish flu reduces him to poverty and kills him. His sister is forced to pawn her jewelry for medicine, but arrives back with it too late.

The film presents the Leftist obsession with the New, which is glorified for progressive ideals; yet this too deconstructs itself under close analysis. The whole film can be seen as Schiele’s search for the New, but as Schiele himself asserts of art at one point in the film that there can be nothing new. Nonetheless, while he was alive, he moves from one new conquest to the next, always searching for the New and that search ultimately destroys those with whom he comes into contact.

BONUS FEATURES: 

  • Bonus Short Film – Nothing Happens (Directed by Michelle Kranot & Uri Kranot | Denmark & France | 11 minutes) It is freezing cold. Yet people have gathered on the outskirts of the town, waiting for something to happen.
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Interview with Director and Writer
  • Casting and Rehearsal Featurettes

“The Gay Marriage Generation: How the LGBTQ Movement Transformed American Culture” by Peter Hart-Brinson— The Unprecedented Shift Toward Support for Gay Marriage

 Hart-Brinson, Peter. “The Gay Marriage Generation: How the LGBTQ Movement Transformed American Culture”, NYU Press, 2018.

The Unprecedented Shift Toward Support for Gay Marriage

Amos Lassen

While having a conversation with a couple of my gay friends from my generation the other day, the talk moved to the many changes in the way we live and how we are perceived today and we all agree that none of us thought we would ever live to see what we are seeing now in our LGBT community. I believe that is true for most of us including those who have been on the front lines. I realized that I have been something of an activist for about 55 years and that’s a long time to wait for change but we surely got it.

It is hard to know when the attitudes toward gay marriage began to change but they did so rapidly and we see that Peter Hart-Brinson interviewed people from multiple generations to assess the shifting meanings surrounding gay marriage. We have quantitative studies that allow us to track these changing attitudes in a simplistic way, but we really never get to the complexity of the issue. This is where Hart-Brinson breaks through allowing us to understand why resistance to gay marriage remains steadfast, even in the face of growing consensus. We know that change comes slowly particularly with regard to public opinion.

However, regarding same-sex marriage, we have an exception in that public opinion dramatically moved from strong opposition to strong support in a very short period of time. We are really not sure how to explain this. Using insights from historical data, national surveys, and interviews, Hart-Brinson skillfully and convincingly shows the role of generations in effecting change. We now must look at the assumptions we have held as to how social change occurs.

I believe that even twenty years ago, we could not have thought that there would be gay marriage in this country. For those of us who came out before Stonewall and had to deal with many social problems, harassment and even arrest, it was really hard to believe that we now have the same rights as all other citizens and the fact that someone can be convicted of hate crime for treating us unfairly is miraculous. Even the greatest opponents to same-sex marriage began to understand its inevitability.

Through 95 interviews with Americans of to generations along with the analysis of historical facts and public opinion data, Hart-Brinson reaches the conclusion that “a fundamental shift in our understanding of homosexuality sparked the generational change that fueled gay marriage’s unprecedented rise.” We see that the LGBTQ movement’s evolution and tactical responses to oppression caused Americans to rethink what it means to be gay and what gay marriage would mean to society at large. Older generations grew up seeing gays and lesbians in terms of their behavior while younger generations understand them in terms of their identity. As time passed, as the older generation and their ideas slowly passed away and were replaced by a new generational culture that brought gay marriage to all fifty states.

 Through interviews, Hart-Brinson looks at “how different age groups embrace, resist, and create society’s changing ideas about gay marriage. Religion, race, contact with gay people, and the power of love are all topics that weave in and out of these fascinating accounts, sometimes influencing opinions in surprising ways.” It is important to note that the book “captures a wide range of voices from diverse social backgrounds at a critical moment in the culture wars, right before the turn of the tide.” The story of gay marriage’s rapid rise gives us profound insights about ‘how the continuous remaking of the population through birth and death, mixed with our personal, biographical experiences of our shared history and culture, produces a society that is continually in flux and constantly reinventing itself anew.”

Before gay marriage became the law of the land, I had moved to Boston and I was completely amazed at the differences in the way the LGBT community is regarded here as to be compared with the very small and very closet LGBT community of Little Rock, Arkansas where I moved from. I would sometimes have to pinch myself to make sure it was real. Now, it is real for all of us.

 

“KNIFE + HEART” (“Un couteau dans le Coeur”)— Paris, Summer, 1979

“KNIFE + HEART” (“Un couteau dans le Coeur”)

Paris, Summer, 1979

Amos Lassen

Anne (Vanessa Paradis) is a producer of low-cost gay porn. When Lois (Kate Moran), her editor and companion, leaves her, she tries to win her back by shooting a more ambitious film with his long-time accomplice, the flamboyant Archibald. However, one of their actors is found savagely murdered and Anne is dragged into an investigation that will change her life completely. Anne is desperate to go back to her lover but Lois won’t have it.

It is impossible not to notice the group of misfits that make up the cast. There is the playfully charismatic Archie (Nicolas Maury) who hangs around Anne. They and their friends form a family that starts to be decimated at the beginning of the French director’s second feature, a loving, winking homage to underground queer film and Italian giallos. When Lois dumps Anne, one of her porn stars shows up dead, in a pre-credits very gory sequence.

 

This is the first of a series of “grisly yet tasteful” murders that seem to chase Anne and that she will attempt to solve on her own, since in the great tradition of classic 1970s giallos, no one is going to help her. However, director Yann Gonzalez seems to lack the transgressive darkness and out-of-nowhere surprise that made the originals so daring. Nonetheless, his loving attention to detail is so precise and painstaking that it all but minimizes the genre’s trashy sensibility. “Knife + Heart” plays with gay porn and supernatural horror before resolving itself in the kind of throwaway B-movie plot of the 1980s. It is all in fun. For a film seemingly intended as a tribute to the Italian-thriller giallo directors, we must ignore some of the film’s tediousness.

A sexy leather-masked killer stalks the gay community, and succeeds in murdering two of Anne’s stars, a situation she translates into a comic erotic scenario for her new opus “Homocide.” There are many subplots including films within films, leather, nudity, phallic symbols and long knives. On paper, here is the kind of film those of us who love queer cinema have been waiting for. It’s set in the late disco 70s and about a gay porn producer but it does not always work. The film has been called a camp slasher thriller by those who made it but it is neither camp nor very thrilling and is really kind of blah. Anne isn’t very upset by the news that one of her actors has died because she is more concerned with her breakup from Lois. She is far more interested in her art than anything else, actually turning the murder and her subsequent conversations with the police into material for her next film. These little movies within the movie are the best thing about “Knife + Heart”. Anne is a hard person to be sympathetic to because we never really find out what drives her. We never find out why she picked gay porn, how she got into the business, or anything about her passions as a filmmaker. We never know, for instance, why she is making a film about the murders. She really just drinks and mopes about. Paradis does not give her character any life, phoning her way through every step of the performance. Her on-and-off love story with Lois is similarly unfocused and she gives us no reason to care about anything to do with these people.

We would think the presence of a serial killer killing her actors would compel Anne to engage in some introspection, but mostly she just stares blankly ahead. The epilogue simply tacks on a short movie that explains everything else in retrospect. Set before the AIDS crisis, the serial killer seems to be a metaphor for the disease that would later come. This metaphor is somewhat represented by the indifference the policeman have towards the case, that later foreshadows the French government’s failure to act when the crisis was at its apex. The killer’s lack of characterization can be explained away by the idea that he is more of a metaphor than a person. The murders themselves are neither scary nor amusing. It is, as if, the film still hasn’t decided which genre to take. It seems that director Gonzalez uses a murder mystery set in the late-’70s gay porn industry to explore deeper themes of desire, abandon and sexual repression, all of it with plenty of humor and blood.

The whodunit side occupies much of the movie’s second half, with Anne turning into an amateur sleuth who uncovers a trail of bread crumbs involving a former actor and his doppelganger (Khaled Alouach), a blind crow that looks a lot like the one in Game of Thrones, and a series of black-and-white flashbacks that reveal a dark family secret involving a character named Guy (Jonathan Genet) who may or may not be dead. It’s too much to handle at times, and the film’s rhythm dips a little during the closing reels, but the ending adds some needed thematic weight by focusing on how sexual repression of gays can go dangerously out of control. The film is a change of scenery and pace with some bright colors to it. Erotic frisson mixed with sexual imagery and a weird musical score. Vanessa here delivers a great performance. The actor who played the killer was told to keep the mask on all the time on the set so no one would know who he is so as to maintain a kind of killer ambiance. The violence is colorful and vivid. Contrary to what I said before, the film is audacious and beautiful.

“THE ANGEL”— The Spy Who Made Camp David Possible

“THE ANGEL”

The Spy Who Made Camp David Possible

Amos Lassen

Ashraf Marwan realized as early as the late 1960s, that Egypt and the rest of the Arab world had aligned themselves with the wrong super-power. The Soviet Union’s socialist economy would eventually collapse, leaving Israel’s increasingly close ally America standing tall. We now that he was right and looking out for himself and to avoid long-term disaster, Marwan became a one of the most highly placed intelligence sources in the Mossad’s history. We learn of this in Ariel Vromen’s “The Angel”, a Netflix Production. Marwan was Nasser’s not-particularly-beloved son-in-law, but Sadat thought more highly of him (he also appreciated the close alliance between himself and his late predecessor’s family). As a result, Marwan served as his envoy to nearly every Arab leader requiring a little special handling (especially Gaddafi) and was privy to all of Sadat’s war plans. Most of those plans would come across the desk of Mossad chief Zvi Zamir. It was difficult building trust between him and his Mossad handler, Danny Ben Aroya on both sides.

In “The Angel”, we see all the intrigue that was going ongoing on in Cairo, featuring Sadat and Sami Sharaf, Marwan’s sinister former boss during the Nasser regime. There seems to be a constant threat of mistrust between Marwan and the Mossad and it becomes tedious. We would think Zamir would give a lot of rope to a source this highly placed. Yet, the film does a nice job of squaring Marwan’s actions with his patriotic loyalty to Egypt. If I did not know that Marwan died in 2007 (under mysterious circumstances), I would think that the script was trying to protect him.

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Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari is excellent as Ashraf Marwan, even brooding charismatically and he is backed by a fine supporting cast. Israeli-born, LA-based director Vromen keeps the clockwork tightly wound and does a nice job of conveying the era. It is a nicely crafted period espionage drama, but it is not the definitive portrait of the Mossad’s heroic service that we yet to see.

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The film tries to fill in the blanks in the secret life of Ashraf Marwan, who spied for Israel in the lead-up to the October, 1973 war. We know that he was the son-in-law of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and close aid to his successor, Anwar Sadat and that he spied for Israel in the lead up to war and provided warning of the imminent Arab attack. Everything else about Marwan’s clandestine activities cannot be confirmed.

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Zvi Zamir, the Mossad director during the Yom Kippur war, called him “the best source we have ever had.” Simultaneously, Egypt claims he was a double agent, feeding Israeli intelligence exactly what Sadat wanted them to think. After his mysterious death from a balcony fall in 2007, Marwan received a hero’s funeral from his homeland but was eulogized in Israel as well. The movie functions is an entertaining history lesson, with the opening narration explaining the preceding Six-Day War, and the lasting effects of Israel retaking the Sinai Peninsula. Vromen does an excellent job fleshing out both sides of the conflict and keeping things accurate. While more time is spent with the Egyptian characters, like Sadat (Sasson Gabai) and Marwan, the Israeli characters such as Mossad agent Danny Ben Aroya (Toby Kebbell) are given time to gain sympathy for their struggles. the movie only falters when exploring its lead character and that is because of the ambiguous nature of Marwan’s exploits. Vromen takes plenty of liberties, and rightfully so.

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The filmmakers go so far as to connect Marwan’s exploits to the eventual 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty signed by Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin. It’s a poor storytelling decision since the film gives us no reason to believe that the person we’ve been watching would do anything so high minded and selfless. Truth is, we have no idea what was going through his mind and never will, but the filmmaker’s job is to make us believe and here is where the film fails. “The Angel” gives us a protagonist with purely selfish intentions at first. His powerful father-in-law does not respect him and he seeks revenge. Later we see Marwan grapple with his gambling addiction – perhaps money was the most significant factor in him contacting the Mossad. There’s a major shift in the final scenes, when Marwan lays bare his true feelings: He’ll do anything for peace! He just wants to avoid war and conflict at any cost.

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The film is filled with as much plot and background data as one of Marwan’s reports (including an opening voice-over that quickly sums up an entire war), and this approach does unfortunately hold us at an arm’s length since we’re never able to stop long enough to get a true sense of the people behind the pages handed from one man to the next, but that does not make this any the less fascinating. “The Angel” gives a fast-paced, exciting and well-made depiction of everything Marwan did decades earlier to lead to roughly forty years of peace

“I MARRIED JOAN”— Classic TV Collection 4

“I Married Joan”

Classic TV Collection Volume 4

Amos Lassen

Joan (Joan Davis), a scatterbrained housewife, and her staid and settled domestic court judge husband, Bradley Stevens (Jim Backus), were the two main characters of an NBC series that ran for three seasons from 1952-1955. The show was cut from the same mold as the I LOVE LUCY series, with Joan Davis’ comedy antics coming from the physical school of humor. This DVD collection contains 10 hilarious episodes from all 3-seasons.

Television comedy tastes, formats and so on have changed over the years yet some of the comedy bits on “I Married Joan”, particularly the physical comedy, on the show were superior to anything before or since. Joan Davis started out as a child performer in front of live audiences and she perfected her brand of physical comedy long before she became a television star through this program. Jim Backus as her husband was perfectly cast as Judge Stevens, her husband.

This is an overlooked and highly underrated program of the fifties and one of the best sitcoms of all time. Davis brought her great timing and knockabout style of comedy which she mastered so well in her movies of the 30’s and 40’s to the small screen and really made this show work. Joan Davis was, with Lucy, Carole Lombard, and Carol Burnett, one of the great female comedy clowns of all time. She was in many movies, and then this series.

When Lucille Ball was an acclaimed, but not very widely known B picture actress, Joan Davis was winning a lot more acclaim for her own brand of goofy physical humor on radio and on film. When the motion picture studios started cutting down production and leaving people out of work, Davis turned to television. Unfortunately she was a year after Lucy and Desi who put on a very successful situation comedy about a wacky wife with an exasperated husband that we love so well.

When Joan Davis debuted “I Married Joan” in 1952 she was accused of copying Lucy but you will see that this is not true if you watch any of her episodes. But Lucy was there first and got the deserved credit.

“I Married Joan” trailed in the wake of “I Love Lucy”. It ended in 1955 because her TV husband Jim Backus quit the show. The show certainly has a dated feel (it does have an annoying laugh track) but the jokes are still clever and Joan Davis was brilliant. Joan was a ditsy, goofy character long before she made it to television. I have watched each episode several times and find them priceless classics.

“I Married Joan” is a fun sitcom that takes it’s place in my DVD library alongside other great classic shows and we are lucky that we have had there saved. There is broad physical slapstick comedy in just about every show, and there are laugh out-loud moments galore. One innovation of the show was the music in the series is performed by the Roger Wagner Chorale. There is not one note of instrumental music played in the entire series. The famous theme song, once heard, is nearly impossible to forget.

“BOY ERASED”— The Evils of Gay Conversion Camps

“Boy Erased”

The Evils of Gay Conversion Camps

Amos Lassen

In 2018, it is still legal in 36 out of 50 American states to send children to camps to have the gay prayed away. Yet, we know that sexuality cannot be forcibly changed, but there are bigotry-blinded, bible-thumping zealots who believe differently.

Gay teen Jared (Lucas Hedges) has been raised in a world where homosexuality is a choice made by the sinful. Crucially, Jared believes this himself and initially agrees to therapy mandated by his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe). The film opens with Jared already on his way to the camp where is denied the basic liberties of a phone, his journal and physical contact with other camp “inmates”. Camp leader Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also directed the film) has got Jared every hour of the day. In the first of two flashbacks, we learn that Jared’s first experience with sex was being raped by a college roommate. His father is not interested in such minor nuances of consent and sexual assault. As far as he is concerned, if sexuality is a choice, Jared must surely have been asking for it. Coming back to the present, we see an assault continuing but it is psychological with pseudo-psychological exercises and group confessions.

This is actually the second major film of the year to focus on conversion therapy. “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” was the first. It was the Sundance award-winner and opened over the summer to a mediocre box office probably because it offered a somewhat too fair-minded and benign view of the subject to bring about an intense audience response. “Boy Erased” pulls out more emotional stops and without cheap sentiment. The film is based on the memoir of Garrard Conley, which was adapted by Edgerton. (The characters’ names have been changed in the movie version.) It is told in the currently fashionable non-linear style, intercutting the experiences of Jared (Hedges) at the “Love in Action” conversion center with the experiences in high school and college that led him to be there. The family scenes are rendered fairly and delicately. Jared’s father (Crowe) is an Arkansas pastor, and his wife (Kidman) is also a devout Christian. They clearly love their son. The father seems to have some sexual identity issues of his own, though this is one element that might have been highlighted a bit more clearly. The other characters at this center are sharply delineated and well acted. Rock musician Flea oozes menace as one of the harsh group leaders, and the other kids in the program — played by Xavier Dolan, Britton Sear, Jesse Latourette, Troye Sivan and others give texture to the film’s portrait of this kind of indoctrination program. The kids respond in very differently—-some try to fall in line, others resist and there are others who keep their own counsel. There are some disturbing scenes showing the kids abused by the counselors, but there are other moments of surprising tenderness. 

Hedges demonstrated his skill in supporting roles in several other films (especially “Manchester by the Sea), but here he carries the entire show and is excellent. He is alternately frightened, bewildered and defiant. Crowe wonderfully captures the single-mindedness of a religious zealot, along with genuine concern for his son. Kidman’s journey involves her not simply accepting her son but also recognizing her own subjugation in a male-dominated community. When she apologizes to her son for her complicity in bending to her husband and the other men in town, her confession is wrenching as both a gay-positive and feminist statement, timely on both counts without being overstated.

Edgerton’s Sykes as the true villain of the movie. He’s twisted and self-loathing and has an obvious love of violence and control bubbling under the transparent veneer of compassion. As with so many of the most zealous homophobes, we wonder if he has a few secrets hidden in the closet.

Jared’s relationship with his father is more complex and harder to resolve Edgerton’s career as a filmmaker hits a whole new level with this sophomore effort. It is the aim of the film to influence the debate on gay conversion therapy that is still unresolved in many parts of the country and it does that well. It is also a humanistic, emotionally touching drama. It is special for me because I was aware of Love in Action having lived in Arkansas for seven years after Hurricane Katrina. I did not know Gerrard Conley then but I remember hearing about his book before it was published and I devoured it in one sitting. I cannot emphasize how important this film is and we are so lucky that it is as wonderful as it is.

“RAFIKI”— Banned in Kenya

“Rafiki”

Banned in Kenya

Amos Lassen

Wanuri Kahiu’s coming-out drama shows, homophobia and therefore is uncomfortable for the government of the Republic of Kenya, home to a beautiful lesbian coming-out movie. Until very recently, like last week, it had been. I imagine that the warm reception “Rafiki” received in Cannes helped to change the decision but Kenya is a country where same sex relationships are punishable by prison sentences of 14 years, and homophobia is ingrained.

“Rafiki” (which means friend) is set in a Nairobi housing estate, where much of daily life – work and recreation – is conducted outdoors, and privacy is next to impossible. The movie opens with Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) on her skateboard in a neighborhood that is much too confining for her hopes and dreams. She is a serious student who wants to study nursing. She plays soccer with the local boys, and her best friend is Blacksta (Neville Misarti), who imagines that he’ll marry her some day. Kena, however, is set on Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), with the pink and blue dreads and flirty eyes.

Opposites attract even when both are of the same sex. Shy, responsible Kena works in her father’s convenience store, where he barely makes enough to support her, her devoutly Christian mother, and his new, much younger wife. Politically progressive, he’s running for local office with a bare bones, self- financed campaign.

His opponent happens to be Ziki’s dad, who has big business giving money to his campaign. However, political ambitions of her father don’t stop Ziki from going for Kena, and although Kena loves her father more than Ziki cares about her family, she’s too fascinated by Ziki to resist her. When the two finally have sex (which we discretely see from the waist up) we cannot help but notice the fragility of first sexual passion.

The film is based on a prize-winning short story by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko and it is a Its simplistic observation of romantic love in its purest form colliding with political, religious, familial and societal intolerance.

Resident gossip Mama Atim (Muthoni Gathecha), owns the kiosk where her resentful daughter Nduta (Nice Githinju) works the counter, always upset over Blacksta’s attention to Kena. They’re the first to notice when a flirty friendship begins between Kena and Ziki. They seem to be oblivious to the risks of openly showing affection in public, even if Kena is not insensitive to the homophobic slurs from Blacksta’s buddy to a friendless local gay guy.

While Kenya’s anti-gay laws are touched on only through a church sermon, the sense of stifling convention is everywhere. Malicious forces in the neighborhood soon push Kena and Ziki out of their paradise when they become victims of violence. However, it is only afterwards, when the bloodied girls are subjected to mocking indifference from local police while their aggressors go unquestioned, do they understand that a strong sense of festering injustice has begun.

There are many moments of tenderness, mainly between Kena and Ziki but also between Kena and her father who is the least judgmental of the adult characters. John’s apparent desire to be a force of positive change comes up against sad reality when he witnesses the obstacles to his daughter’s happiness.

This is a familiar story but there’s a freshness here and a natural chemistry between the two stars that is refreshing. Director Kahiu paints the local environment vividly and the backdrop is full of colorful characters, that range from homophobic barflies to girls practicing dance routines on the street.

“Rafiki” is the first Kenyan film to be chosen for the Cannes official selection and it is a touching and brave portrayal of the relationship between two young women.

A KID” (“LE FILS DE JEAN”)— Finding Family

“A KID” (“LE FILS DE JEAN”)

Finding Family

Amos Lassen

Thirty-five year-old Parisian divorcee Matthieu (Pierre Deladonchamps) has a six-year-old son he sees on weekends. Dedication to a demanding job in business keeps him from writing crime novels and this is what h really loves. He has only written one, but it has been quite a success.. One day he gets a phone message from Quebec that his father, whom he’s never known, (he didn’t even know he was alive, has died, and left him a package. His father was Jewish (he didn’t know that either) and the internment will be in a couple of days. He flies to Montreal, and from this point on, the film focuses on the few days of Matthieu’s time in Canada and its surprises and revelations. Director Philippe Lioret works quietly and brings us a story filled with many small details that is basically a search for personal identity and fatherhood. We see it as a mystery story.

Matthieu is met at the airport by Pierre (Gabriel Arcand), his late father’s longtime doctor friend, who at first, for a while actually, isn’t very friendly. Matthieu isn’t interested in the funeral, only in meeting the two brothers he’s just learned about. Pierre agrees only if Matthieu doesn’t reveal who he is.

It also turns out the father died while fishing on a lake, probably of a heart attack, and his body has not been recovered. The two brothers (Pierre-Yves Cardinal and Patrick Hivon), decide to search the lake again, and Matthieu gets involved, pretending to be a friend on vacation. Pierre goes too, to prevent revelations. There’s a violent drunken quarrel between the brothers that reveals misunderstandings about inheritance. Later Matthieu, whose identity Pierre has revealed to his own family, gets friendly with Pierre’s daughter and two little granddaughters, and eventually receives another revelation from his wife.

What is surprising is that in Montreal, no one had  knowledge of Matthieu’s existence and doesn’t seem to want to know … but he was called to be informed of the death. This kind of story of the son who finds a father he has never known is not new, but the treatment here makes all the difference. It is much in the unsaid and many surprises of the narrative that keeps interest high. Pierre Deladonchamps is remarkable in this film as well as Gabriel Arcand who  adds up emotions through his character giving tenderness and the sensibility of the story.

This is a warm-hearted, audience-friendly movie that looks at family love and personal identity, taking these issues to emotional depths that profoundly touch the viewer. Pierre gets grumpy at the idea that Mathieu wants to meet the family he never knew existed immediately. They also lost their mother only recently, and will be having a traditional Jewish funeral in two days. Mathieu had never had any idea that he was Jewish. And it turns out that his surname Edel was originally Edelstein.

Les yeux au ciel
photos: Sébastien Raymond.
seb©sebray.com

The funeral will not be an easy affair to organize. This is because Jean, who as far as Pierre can deduce based on his friend’s two previous cardiac episodes, suffered a heart attack while fishing and fell into the lake, meaning his body has yet to be discovered. In Jewish law there can be burial only if there is something to bury. From the woods and looking for the father’s body, , Lioret takes us on a ride through family relations (including Pierre’s own, with his charming wife, daughter and two granddaughters) that occasionally get ugly, are sometimes endearing, but always relatable

“A KID LIKE JAKE”— Childhood Gender Nonconformity

“A KID LIKE JAKE”

Childhood Gender Nonconformity

Amos Lassen

Silas Howard’s “A Kid Like Jake” looks at early childhood gender nonconformity. Alex and Greg Wheeler (Claire Danes and Jim Parsons) are a Brooklyn couple with a young son, Jake (Leo James Davis), who is interested in things considered typically feminine.

 

I always find it interesting to see the ways that things change in the world of movies regarding major events in our society. We can look back at “Philadelphia” perhaps at what is considered the first major Hollywood production about AIDS and at other early films that include gay marriage. Some of what were once thought to be taboo topics are now finding their way to the screen as we have seen during the last ten years regarding transgender issues.

“A Kid Like Jake” is based on screenwriter Daniel Pearle’s successful play that shifts the focus to family and to the way that trans and gender nonconforming people fit into, and influence, wider society. It also deals with gender questioning children in a way that, refreshingly that puts children’s well being first and puts the academic debate to the side.

Jake (Leo James Davis) is four years old and engages with life as a whirl of action and emotion. His stay-at-home mother Alex and psychiatrist father Greg have done their best to give him every opportunity and are keen to get him into a good school. This becomes more complicated when district lines are redrawn, so Jake’s preschool teacher Judy (Octavia Spencer) suggests trying to get him a scholarship. There is a lot of competition for these and being bright is not enough. The couple has never thought about Jake’s gender before, and their gradual recognition that Jake’s relationship with gender is unusual takes them to new places..

What is Jake’s gender and at four, does it really matter? The big questions about identity are largely set aside as Alex and Greg concentrate on what they can do to help their child right now. Ironically, they seem mostly to have been getting it right by not thinking about it – they haven’t tried to enforce rigid gender standards so Jake has a mixture of toys and gets to enjoy the Disney princess paraphernalia that he so loves.

 

Once the subject is raised, both parents become anxious about it, largely out of concern at what the world might have in store for Jake as he gets older. Telling him that he can’t be a princess for Halloween leads to tantrums. Alex fights her own instinct to do whatever will make Jake happiest right away as she tries to urge him into more masculine behavior. Greg wants him to see a psychiatrist who specializes in gender issues, but Alex is appalled by this. As they increasingly turn on one another, she blames Greg’s inability to be a sufficiently manly role model for Jake’s difference.

The film’s strength is in the positioning of trans issues within a wider climate of gender anxiety. As Greg rails against the idea that he needs to play sports to defend his own gender identity, Alex’s mother criticizes her for letting down feminism by abandoning her career as a lawyer for the sake of full-time child rearing; and Alex wrestles with the fear that difficulty in conceiving another child undermines her femininity. In a low moment, she lashes out at Judy for being a lesbian, suggesting that what she sees in Jake is all about politics. Meanwhile, Judy’s mixed-race relationship is a reminder of other one-time taboos that are now seen as less relevant by history.

Young Davis is quite the actor and he brings freshness and naturalism to the role of Jake. Danes is quite good as Alex. She has the rough job of winning over the audience while being quite unpleasant at times. Her chemistry with Parsons makes us root for the couple even as they fight – there always seems to be something between them that’s worth fighting for. Director Silas Howard does an excellent job of standing back and letting his actors do their thing. I love that the story is told in a way that anyone who’s raised a child will be able to relate to. The central subject is presented as part of a much larger conversation about gender roles and how individuals find their way through life in the absence of longstanding traditional rules. This is a sensitive and humane take on what it means to deal with issues like this these days.

“Foucault at the Movies” by Patrice Maniglier and Dork Zabunyan— A Philosopher and Film

Maniglier, Patrice and Dork Zabunyan, “Foucault at the Movies”, translated by Clare O’Farrell, Oxford University Press, 2018.

A Philosopher and Film

Amos Lassen

I do not remember that Michel Foucault was a film bug but that could be just because I did not pay attention; something that is hard to do when dealing with a great mind. I now know that his “work on film, although not extensive, compellingly illustrates the power of bringing his unique vision to bear on the subject and offers valuable insights into other aspects of his thought.” This new volume brings together all of Foucault’s commentary on film, some of it available for the first time in English and with important contemporary analyses and further extensions of this work.

Here we see Foucault’s writings on film “in the context of the rest of his work as well as within a broad historical and philosophical framework.” They show how Foucault’s work directly or indirectly inspired both film critics and directors in different ways and discuss his ideas in relation to significant movements within film theory and practice. Included are film reviews and discussions by Foucault as well as his interviews with the prestigious film magazine “Cahiers du cinema” and other influential journals. We have his dialogues with the noted French feminist writer Hélène Cixous and film directors Werner Schroeter and René Féret. Foucault emphasizes the relationship of film to history, the body, power and politics, knowledge, sexuality, aesthetics, and institutions of internment (all of which are his areas of expertise).

We have Foucault speaking in his own voice and saying that “the art of living” means “that psychology must be killed; that the body must be dismantled; that memory must function without remembering; and that passion is more interesting than love.” It s fascinating that what he has to say about movies increases our understanding of Foucault’s thought. This is quite a stimulating looked at a contribution from Foucault that has been not dealt with.