Monthly Archives: October 2018

“The Book of Revelation: A Biography” by Timothy Beal— The New Testament’s Most Mystifying and Incendiary Book

Beal, Timothy. “The Book of Revelation: A Biography”, (Lives of Great Religious Books 29), Princeton University Press, 2018.

The New Testament’s Most Mystifying and Incendiary Book

Amos Lassen

From the time that I realized was Jewish and not really privy to the holy books of other religions, I have found the Book of Revelation to be an enigma and great fun. Of course we did not have a copy in our home as all religions books that were not Jewish had no place . As I matured, I was able to sneak glances at friends’ homes and at the library. I was particularly mesmerized by The Great Whore of Babylon and the other stories of destruction.

“Few biblical books have been as revered and reviled as Revelation.” There are those that hail it as hail it as the pinnacle of prophetic vision and the cornerstone of the biblical canon. There are those that see it as the key to understanding all that is— the past, present, and future. Others deride it and denounce it as the work of a disturbed individual whose terrible dreams of inhumane violence should never have been allowed into the Bible. Timothy Beal gives us a concise cultural history of Revelation and the apocalyptic imaginations it has brought about.

We go back the book’s composition during the Christian persecutions of first-century Rome and then look at the book’s influence today in popular culture, media, and visual art. Beal looks at the often-contradictory lives of this sometimes horrifying and often inspiring biblical vision. We see how such figures like Augustine and Hildegard of Bingen made Revelation central to their own mystical worldviews. We explore how and how the vivid works of art it inspired have kept the book popular even as it was denounced by later church leaders like Martin Luther. “Revelation” has been attributed to a mysterious prophet who was known only as John and the voice that we hear in the book is unlike any other in the Bible. Beal shows how the book is “a multimedia constellation of stories and images that mutate and evolve as they take hold in new contexts, and how Revelation is reinvented in the hearts and minds of each new generation.” I have friends whose parents totally denounce Revelation while the children, adult sons, believe every word.

Beal traces how Revelation continues to inspire new diagrams of history, new fantasies of rapture, and new nightmares of being left behind. I must say that I believe that my mouth stayed open as I read this and as I questioned how could anyone believe this? Then I remember that Moses spoke to a burning bush and we believe that. We see the diverse uses of Revelation that go beyond the theological and ecclesiological.

“Death Checks In”, (A Detective Heath Barrington Mystery #3) by David S. Pederson— Away for a Weekend

Pederson, David S. “Death Checks In”, (A Detective Heath Barrington Mystery #3), Bold Strokes Books, 2018.

Away for a Weekend

Amos Lassen

Detective Heath Barrington and his partner, Alan Keyes, looked forward to being away together in Chicago on a weekend of romance in which they leave Wisconsin behind. Instead they find murder. A missing tie leads them to the body of the very peculiar Victor Blount, and Heath has an urge to investigate. There are clue everywhere but no one understands heir meanings. It is clear that these clues mean something and as Alan and Heath continue to work on the case, they find suspects, friends and a hostile detective by the name of Marty. Alan and Heath have no cooperation and are out of their neighborhood and jurisdiction.

The guys were really intent on being sightseers for the weekend but all that changed with their unplanned and involuntary involvement in a murder.

This is a classic murder mystery; an old-fashioned style mystery ala Agatha Christie. The Chicago police believe this to be a random crime, but Heath is convinced it is premeditated murder and this is what gets him involved in the case.

The pace is very slow until the murder mystery kicks in and then the story moves along nicely. I would have liked some more character development. Since I am not a mystery reader, I hoped that the characters would keep me reading and they did to a certain extent. We do not get much about Heath and Alan’s relationship and their was something missing in their dialogue.

“Shadowboxer” by Jessica Webb— Between Past and Present

Webb, Jessica. “Shadowboxer”, Bold Strokes Books, 2018.

Between Past and Present

Amos Lassen

Jordan McAddie has not had it easy. She went through a tough childhood and then had a career as a boxer. She is a loner simply because she does not think that she has anything to offer in a relationship. She really wants to make a difference with youth so she becomes a social worker and helps street kids find their way. But then someone is targeting her kids and luring them to an underground political group whose actions protests are becoming increasingly more provocative and dangerous. 

Ali Clarke, Jordan’s first love and first broken heart, walks back into her life and becomes involved with the youth boxing program and Jordan becomes torn between past and present. More than anything, she is dedicated to keeping her kids safe but once again she finds herself fighting her old fear that she would never be good enough. At the same time, she wants to believe that there might be a chance of a future with Ali.

Jordan has used her winnings from her boxing career to start and run a boxing gym for kids who are in and out of the system. However, when a corporate wants to invest in something that reflects social responsibility, her gym is chosen as the recipient. It just so happens that the person representing the company is Ali. Suddenly, a strange and unusual symbol starts makes an appearance and it seems to involve the kids that come to Jordan’s gym.

Jordan is a well-drawn and powerful character in this story and everything revolves around her. Do not let the title fool you. Jordan was once a boxer but this story takes place after that career ended and is really about social workers and the work that they do. (Hopefully they work harder than the supposed social worker I have helping me with housing here).

The major characters in the book are a cross-section of what one might find in the world of social work. Helen is a militant social worker who harbors ill feelings for those who waste the resources she has to offer. There is Rachel, a cop who often has to find a delicate balance between the duties of her job and helping out the kids who can’t find their places in society and there is Madi, a survivor of the system who is fighting to find her place.

This could have been a very heavy story and we all know how depressing it is to read about kids who need help. Jessica Webb chooses a different way of writing and it is effective and filled with hope.

“Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling” by Lionel Trilling and edited by Adam Kirsch— Diverse Complexity

Trilling, Lionel. “Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling” edited by Adam Kirsch, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

Diverse Complexity

Amos Lassen

There was a time in my life when, as a graduate student, when each day began and ended with the words of Lionel Trilling. I would read something about him every morning and would do the same before I went to sleep. He was everyman’s intellectual and we cared about what he had to say.

In the mid-twentieth century, Lionel Trilling was America’s most respected literary critic. His essays inspired readers to think about how literature shapes our politics, our culture, and our selves. Trilling’s New York intellectual peers saw him as reserved and circumspect. But in his selected letters, we see Trilling revealed in all his variousness and complexity. We read of his courtship of Diana Trilling, who became an eminent intellectual in her own right; his alternately affectionate and contentious rapport with former students such as Allen Ginsberg and Norman Podhoretz; the complicated politics of Partisan Review and other fabled magazines of the period; and Trilling’s relationships with other leading writers of the period, including Saul Bellow, Edmund Wilson, and Norman Mailer.

Taken as a whole, Trilling’s letters add up to an intimate portrait of a great critic, and of America’s intellectual journey from the political passions of the 1930s to the cultural conflicts of the 1960s and beyond. Trilling was a great critic’s who quarreled with himself and others, as we discover in his correspondence.

The letters to Allen Ginsberg are wonderful and we can only imagine what kind of relationship they had. The letters are not just letters, each is something of an essay about something. We get intimate glimpses of Trilling’s continuous self-appraisal. Trilling’s letters are “a captivating portrait of a man wrestling with roles essential to his sense of himself: as a teacher, a liberal, a Jew and a critic.” The letters offer persuasive testimony that the contradictions Trilling discovered within himself acted as a basis for his achievement, with a result that was far from sterile or perfect.

Of course, a lot has to do with the letters that Adam Kirsch selected to be included here. They shed light not just on Trilling but on American intellectual culture from the 1920s to the 1970s. It is amazing to reach the conclusion of about the son of Jewish immigrants came to play such a central role in American literary life. Trilling shows us that hard work pays off. The book contains a generous sampling of letters that show Trilling’s rich intellectual life as America’s leading critic as well as his staunchly even temperament and his many second thoughts. His mind was restless and meticulous at the same time. He feared easy answers and labels and he chose his words carefully.

“Muck: A Novel” by Dror Brustein— A Tale of Jerusalem

Burstein, Dror. “Muck: A Novel”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

A Tale of Jerusalem

Amos Lassen

Two poets in Jerusalem have no idea that their lives are going to change forever. Jeremiah is struggling and wondering that his becoming a writer is just a waste of time. He had just been criticized by the great critic, Broch. Mattaniah is just the opposite; he is ready to give what it takes to be a successful writer but (there is always a “but”) he has a secret that no one should ever know. Mattaniah’s late father was king of Judah.

Jeremiah despairs and as he does he has a vision that Jerusalem is doomed and therefore Mattaniah will not only be forced to ascend to the throne but will thereafter witness his people slaughtered and exiled. Jeremiah worries over telling this to his friend and wonders if this could be a false prophecy. He knows what can happen by imposing beliefs upon someone else and to paint a bleak picture of the future is surely not satisfying. How can he tell a friend and rival that his future is bleak? What grudges and biases can come out of this? Then there is the question of whether vocalizing a prediction gives it credence. If it does come true, what becomes of Jeremiah? As Dror Bernstein asks, is he “a seer, or just a schmuck?”

By now you might have guessed that this is a retelling of the story of Jeremiah that also looks at “the dispute between poetry and power, between faith and practicality, between haves and have-nots.” It is a brilliant, comedic and subversive. There are not many who can get away with retelling stories that are centuries old and part of religion but Burstein does so wonderfully.

If you have read any Philip Roth, you see the influence immediately; the satire is very strong This is also suspense and a story that is relevant to the modern nation of Israel. Once again what Jeremiah has to say is not paid attention to. There is brilliance in bringing together historical allusion with realism and ancient events are reset in modern times. There is no limit to the amount of innovation here but we see that the author had a great time writing this book that is filled with puns and illusions. The story is both strange and strangely apocalyptic as it dissects “the joys, horrors, and paradoxes of trying to live a moral life in the modern world—let alone in ancient/modern Israel.” 

“MIDAQ ALLEY”— Conflict and Passion

“MIDAQ ALLEY”

Conflict and Passion

Amos Lassen

 ”Midaq Alley” was made in Mexico in 1994 and adapted from a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature. The locale was shifted from Cairo in the 1940’s to a busy street in Mexico City in the 1990’s. It tells overlapping stories of the local people.

The first of the stories centers on Rutilio (Ernesto Gomez Cruz), the married middle-aged owner of the local cantina, whose decision to try homosexuality prompts Chava (Juan Manuel Bernal), his only son, to assault Rutilio’s young partner, outrage his father and flee, hoping to realize his dream of life in the United States.

The second story focuses on Alma (Ms. Hayek), whose budding love affair with the young barber Abel (Bruno Bichir) is interrupted when Abel responds to his desperate friend Chava’s plea to join him in an attempt to cross the border. The idealistic Abel leaves, though not before pledging his love for Alma and telling her to wait for him to return to marry her. Before he is long gone, Alma’s mother tries to marry her off to a much older man, but Alma is interested in Jose Luis (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), a dashing and wealthy scoundrel who turns her into one of his high-class cocaine-using prostitutes kept in a lavish brothel.

The third episode revolves around Susanita (Margarita Sanz), the very plain spinster who is the landlady of the premises that are home to Rutilio and his family, Alma and her mother and Abel. Susanita is desperate for romance and thinks she has found love with the much younger Guicho (Luis Felipe Tovar), Rutilio’s thieving waiter, who thinks he has found an easy mark.

“Midaq Alley” is one of the classics of Mexican Cinema and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD with a new digital restoration from Film Movement Classics. It includes a behind-the-scenes featurette and a newly written essay. Director Jorge Fons, follows a group of overlapping characters through four distinct episodes. The film is the winner of more awards than any other film in the history of Mexican Cinema. It is probably best known as the breakout performance for telenovela star Salma Hayek, who soon found international stardom. 

In the final chapter (or the fourth chapter) all the stories are resolved.

“GOD KNOWS WHERE I AM”— An Old Farmhouse

“God Knows Where I Am”

An Old Farmhouse

Amos Lassen

“God Knows Where I Am” is the story of Linda Bishop who was homeless due to her schizophrenia, and then dismissed from a mental facility when she refuses to cooperate. Jedd and Todd Wider’s stark documentary was made possible because Linda Bishop, left behind a notebook in which she wrote daily her thoughts as she slowly died of starvation in a farmhouse in New Hampshire. Her schizophrenia had alienated her from her daughter, sister, and friends. She died there during the winter of 2007/8, but her body was not found until a prospective buyer came to look at the farm in May. The film examines how this could happen in America, the land of wealth and neighborly concern. Through interviews with her loved ones and old family photos and home movies, we learn of Linda’s painful journey from her happy youth and later motherhood to psychological breakdown when she thought the Chinese Mafia were trailing her. She was estranged from her family and made homeless, she wanders around, eventually being sent by a judge to a psychiatric facility. Given a safe home and regular food, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and psychosis. Unfortunately, she refused to take her medication, and state law allowed her to do so, even though this amounted to suicide. After weeks of non-cooperation from her, the hospital staff dismisses her –in the cold of winter. She walked along a highway until she came upon the abandoned farmhouse where an old apple orchard provided her with food, and the snow gave her drinking water.

Her journal tells us that she is a deeply religious person, quoting Scripture after Scripture. As she eats the last of the apples and grows weaker and weaker after Christmas, she observes that God knows where she is, even if no one else does. Even though she sees the neighbor’s house and the many cars and trucks passing by, she is so out of touch with reality that she does not just get up and walk out to ask for help.

One of the interviewees that we see many times is her sister Joan who lived fairly near the farmhouse. What a heart-wrenching scene when she remarks that she knows of the house where her sister died. She observes that she must have passed it 50 times or more during her travels up and down that highway.

It is the filmmakers’ intention to get us to discuss and act upon the woeful laws that allow such an obviously a mentally ill person to continually turn down medical help. Surely a legal guardian, such as the sister or the judge who admitted her to the hospital, should be able to over-ride such a decision. Mention is made in the film that there are two and a half million people in the nation suffering from schizophrenia, and that half of them, like Linda, deny that they are ill. The film also raises questions about the humanity of the staff at the hospital. Granted, she was troublesomely uncooperative, but how could another human being send this delusional person out into the cold winter knowing that she had no support system?

In a suicide note, revealed early in the documentary, Bishop says her death “is a result of domestic violence/abuse,” but from the outset, it’s clear that this film is less another chapter in the true-crime genre than a more earnest, searching act of tribute to a woman who struggled to assert her independence as her mind began to unravel.

The film uses a diversity of formats and voices in order to situate the viewer inside Bishop’s head. As actress Lori Singer recites Bishop’s journals via voiceover, we see Bishop’s keen eye for beauty and nature.

The directors take a more dynamic approach to discussing Bishop’s mental illness, allowing her family members to discuss the ways in which Bishop wound up hurting and abandoning them without ever demonizing anyone involved in the proceedings.  In the case of Linda Bishop, a state judge essentially released her from all treatment constraints over the objections of her family and mental health caregivers, putting her in a position to make good on their motto. Starting with the discovery of her body, the movie goes backwards and chronicles Bishop’s final days. We learn from Bishop’s friends and family she was once a loving mother and the general life of any party, but her struggles with schizophrenia took a toll on her personal relationships. I found the film to be “a quiet contemplation of human frailty and mortality”, but it also holds obvious policy implications.”

“MASTER”— A Jewel of the Nation

“Master”

A “Jewel of the Nation”

Amos Lassen

Dastan Khalili’s “Master” is the story of Zhou Ting Jue, the man who is Hollywood’s King Fu Master. He trains and heals celebrities with his controversial Qi Gong technique. His clients include Robert Downey, Jr., John Cusack, Robert Horry and the Dalai Lama. His mystical powers have made him famous even though his past remains a mystery. Even his 27-year-old granddaughter, Jun Zhou does not know of it. Khalili explores Qi Gong and as he does he realizes that it is a very recognized aspect of Chinese medicine. He was anxious to learn more about the man who had all of the wonderful stories he had heard. Master Zhou has his critics and his skeptics and Khalili takes those into account as well. In investigating the man we find ourselves on a journey that takes us Chinatown in San Francisco where Zhou was once a poor immigrant to Shanghai where he learned and mastered martial arts and was even taken to prison by the Chinese government. We go to Wu Dang Mountain the place of birth of Qi Gong and to the rural village where Zhou was born and we learn of his life lessons and mental strengths. Zhou was introduced to Qi Gong at a very early age when he was quite ill. His uncle came to visit and taught him the healing powers of the method and it was at this point that Zhou became passionate about it. When his family moved to Shanghai and Zhou saw the practice and culture of Qi Gong, he became eager to learn. His uncle introduced him to the Chinese Kung Fu association in Shanghai. We see his success stories and by and large learn a great deal about Zhou and about Qi Gong. Rather than summarizing the entire plot, I urge you to see this film. It reveals the life lessons and mental strength required to become a Kung Fu master.

“MARCEL PROUST’S ‘TIME REGAINED'”— From Sickbed to Boyhood and Back

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”Time Regained’”

“From Sickbed to Boyhood and Back”

Amos Lassen

Those who have read Marcel Proust’s great work say their lives were changed. Those who haven’t are daunted by the prospect of a 14-volume read. Raoul Ruiz’s elegant and imaginative film is also extremely long and like Proust’s prose, it requires repeated visits to unravel the question of who fits in where and how so-and-so relates to another character.

Ruiz’s “Time Regained” is an almost perversely ambitious adaptation, a two-and-a-half-hour reverie on the sixth and final volume of Marcel Proust’s magnum opus, “Remembrance Of Things Past.” Still more perverse is that Ruiz has designed it as a companion to the novel rather than a fully (or even partially) comprehensible work in its own right. I am afraid, however, that this is a lavish, expensive international production that will leave all those who have not studied Proust unable to figure out what is going on. On the other hand, the film, however quixotic, is an accomplished and impressive achievement, especially in the way Ruiz translates Proust’s narrative digressions into formal flights of fancy. Rather than straighten out the timeline, Ruiz and co-writer Gilles Taurand configure the scenes like narrative ballets, with fragments of time constantly turning in on themselves. All it takes is a single spark of memory for Proust’s alter ego, Marcello Mazzarella, to transport himself to another point in his personal history. His memories have little emotional resonance because there’s no way of knowing how the other characters might have affected him; they just float, ghost-like, floating in and out of the narrative. A couple of characters, however, give strong impressions; Emmanuelle Béart as the withering object of Mazzarella’s childhood infatuation and a badly dubbed John Malkovich as Charlus, an aristocratic baron whose cultured manner hides darker secrets. Ruiz’s has succeeded in finding a cinematic equivalent to Proust’s writing style. I love Proust and read him at least once a year but in the film, for those who are new to him, this might be too difficult to explain. Nonetheless, it is a visual fest and pure beauty to watch. I would love to be at a discussion of the movie with other Proust lovers just to hear their opinions which I am quite sure would be as colorful as the costumes.

Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz has approached Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” from the most challenging vantage point possible. “Time Regained,” is the epic’s sixth and final volume, and it recapitulates and resolves all that has come before. Ruiz’s aspiration is to synthesize the themes and characters of Proust’s monumental work in a single film. When we consider the volumes of Proust, we understand that this is a daunting prospect with a running time of 158 minutes that turns out to be no time at all. Ruiz’s use of surrealistic touches serves him better well as he intermingles past and present, to fuse many different impressions of a single character, or to delve with Proustian fortitude beneath the material’s genteel veneer. The match of filmmaker and material is felicitous as is the stellar cast. When the least glamorous Frenchwoman in a film turns out to be Catherine Deneuve (as the matronly Odette, seen mostly in her dowager days), we know that there is eye candy,

“Time Regained” struggles under the burden of adapting such rarefied material. Removing most of the impressions, sensations, sighs and longings from “Remembrance of Things Past”, what remains are furtive liaisons and lavish social gatherings. Ruiz presents this atmosphere with a knowing wink, and with a prim Marcel (Marcello Mazzarella) who glides through time and space taking mental notes. “Time Regained” begins at the sickbed of the elderly Marcel and goes to his boyhood and back again, with the characters in his life as the only significant figures in this landscape. They too are seen through time, so that Gilberte (Emmanuelle Béart) can be both the little girl who once made a coarse hand gesture that Marcel would never forget, and the fading wife of Robert Saint Loup (Pascal Greggory), who finds her less compelling than his male lovers.

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The film unfolds dreamily with gliding props that suggest one long sleepwalk that fuses all of these impressions together while at the same time rendering them opaque. This is a brave literary adaptation but without much resonance outside its literary context. Ruiz’s visual wit and playful style are put to good use when the masochistic Charlus visits a male bordello for a beating and the oval-framed hole in the wall through which Marcel enterprisingly peeks into the bedroom is a dandy correlative for the writer’s point of view. We see that Marcel is dying in his room, surrounded by faded photographs and plaster figurines. He remembers incidents in his life, while desperately writing “A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu” before the breath literally leaves him. Fact and fiction meld in his mind. Time is shuffled, characters touch as they pass, society remains locked in the warp of a tradition with lack of movement. Marcel is described as “a social butterfly.” He knows everyone, flitting from room to room, watching, listening dressed immaculately in white tie and tails. He absorbs passion, without expressing it; he is a voyeur rather than a voyager.

Excluding the war, which takes place off screen, and the author’s imminent demise, which lingers behind closed doors, nothing much happens. As a comedy of manners, the is exquisite. The seamless etiquette of social behavior has been beautifully recreated. We have magic realism and memory, encompassing the precise detail of upper class life before “the vulgar hordes invade.” Marcel observes the boredom, arrogance and emotional inadequacies of people who dress human weakness in uniform and expect duty to take care of them. As a writer, he does not judge. As a man, he hides behind a facade. When accused of looking lost in a ballroom, he replies, with the arch of an eyebrow, “Lost is of minor importance. The problem is finding oneself.”

Every novel requires a fair amount of pruning for the screen, so the challenge is to streamline the story while preserving it’s meaning. If nothing else, This is Raúl Ruiz’s most ambitious literary adaptation and considered his greatest cinematic achievement.  It is a “gorgeous, meticulously crafted spectacle” (Jack Matthews, New York Daily News).

“LA BOYITA”— Unexpected Changes

“La Boyita”

Unexpected Changes

Amos Lassen

Young Jorgelina (Guadalupe Alonso) feels estranged from her boy-crazy older sister, Luciana (María Clara Merendino) who has entered adolescence and doesn’t want to hand around with little kids anymore. Finding refuge in their Boyita camper-van, Jorgelina travels with her father to the countryside, where her lifelong playmate Mario is undergoing some unexpected changes of his own.

Jorgelina is a little girl who will spend the holidays with his father on a farm. There she makes friends with Mario (Nicolás Treise), and she notices a blood stain on the seat that they occupied . The stain will reveal such secrets for Mario and Jorgelina , which will lead them to a journey of discovery and of sexuality and build a great friendship.

The director, Julia Solomonoff, chose the path of subtlety and let pictures be worth a thousand words. We discover the story slowly and it holds our attention. The two child actors are charming and were the right choices to bring lightness to a film dense. Another highlight is the girl’s father, who is a caring person who is understandable and accountable despite the way he looks.

For many years, 12 -year-old Jorgelina had a deep friendship with her older sister, Luciana, but lately it seemed more and more distant. Suddenly , the guys a topic, the clothes – especially the more scarce – are borne significantly more often, and where the two exchanged earlier about everything , is suddenly knocked on more privacy. Sure, they see white as the daughter of a doctor from his books and observations about what’s in front of him , but really they cannot do it yet . Therefore, Jorgelina also so disappointed when they travel only with their father in the holidays and spend time alone must be on the farm. The story is mainly told from the perspective of Jorgelina with all of her cuteness and naiveté. It is a classic feel-good coming- of-age movie with a sympathetic leading lady and some very cute moments.