Monthly Archives: April 2019

“BANJOS, BLURGRASS & SQUIRREL BEHAVIOR”— Bluegrass in San Diego

“Banjos, Bluegrass & Squirrel Barkers”

Bluegrass in San Diego

Amos Lassen

Filmmaker Rick Bowman has a special passion for bluegrass music. Even though he now lives on the west coast, he has family roots in Appalachia, and a long familiarity with the music and the people of the region.

Bowman’s newest film, ”Banjos, Bluegrass & Squirrel Barkers”, looks specifically at the San Diego bluegrass scene, from its inception in the 1960s to the present day. We see a number of prominent artists who got their start there, including Chris Hillman, Alison Brown, Ron Block, and Stuart Duncan, plus the granddaddies of the San Diego set, The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers. That was the group that helped propel the careers of Hillman, along with Bernie Leadon of The Eagles and Kenny Wirtz of Country Gazette.

Even though the film is just completed, it has already won three awards. Bluegrass music has originally thought to come from the mountains of Appalachia but we get quite a surprise here to see that San Diego is the home of the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers. I am not saying anymore about the film so you will have to go and see it yourself but be ready to feel the music.

“NINA”— “A Celebration of Lesbian Sexuality”

“NINA”

“A Celebration of Lesbian Sexuality”

Amos Lassen

Nina (Julia Kijowska) is struggling in her marriage and wants a change. She really wants to is have a child but is unable to conceive. Multiple failed attempts have caused her to be disillusioned, depressed and at a breaking point. An accidental encounter with Magda (Eliza Rycembel) gives her a sense of hope. Young and independent, Magda is young and independent and  catches the eye of Nina’s husband, Wojtek (Andrzej Konopka),  who sees her as a possible solution to their pregnancy problem. Magda does not react and he tries to get to be a surrogate mother. Nina also finds Magda interesting but more out of curiosity than surrogacy. Magda actually brings forward Nina’s repressed desire and as she does, Nina finds herself losing control of her life. Of course, it all comes to a head and each of the three characters must make a decision as to who they will be in the future and what they will leave behind — and at what cost?

“Nina” is the  feature film debut of Polish director Olga Chajdas and it has been winning awards on the festival circuit. Nina and Wojtek’s 20+ year marriage is on the rocks, even though they both seemingly still love each other. They’re stagnating and have hit a dead end because they’ve been unable to conceive. There are also other reasons why their marriage is falling apart. One is these is probably because they come from different backgrounds. Nina’s a high-school French teacher and Wojtek is a mechanic. Nina’s mother (Katarzyna Gniewkowska) is a huge influence – not only is she the headmistress of the school where her daughter teaches, she’s also funded Nina’s IVF treatment that failed and she‘s going to stop the cash flow so now they are desperately seeking a surrogate.

Magda is an airport security worker Magda and has a female flight attendant lover. While her lover is away away, Magda can play, but when she’s back in Warsaw, Magda is grounded. After Nina and her husband’s efforts to find a suitable woman to carry their child, Nina fortuitously backs into Magda’s car. Nina and Wojtek decide that Magda is their last hope of surrogacy and concoct a plan to get her to agree. They don’t know Magda is a lesbian and the big surprise is that so is Nina and Magda has managed to bring her latent sexuality to action.

The cast is excellent throughout but there are several plot problems. Maybe Nina really doesn’t want a child, and she’s felt pressured by her husband, family and Poland’s strict Catholic society. As far as the erotic aspects of the film and some of the scenes are quite sexually charged, Nina and Magda don’t seem like a believable couple. They have nothing in common— Nina is older and a teacher and quite staid while Magda is a free spirit. I doubt they could ever manage a long-term relationship. The two women become lovers so quickly that we learn very little about them.

Writer/director Chajdas’ has said that this film isn’t meant to portray the situation of Polish lesbian life: it’s primarily about love. In Poland civil partnerships are not formally recognized and there is no same-sex marriage. “Nina” is a fine addition to the canon of LGBTQ cinema since it really is about  woman facing a new reality and life and coming out.  

BONUS FEATURE

 Bonus Short Film – Social Butterfly (Directed by Lauren Wolkstein | France, USA | 14 minutes | English & French with English Subtitles) — A 30-year-old American woman (Anna Margaret Hollyman) sneaks into a teenage party in the South of France leading to a surprising encounter.

“MOSES, THE LAWGIVER”— Burt Lancaster Does Moses

“Moses, The Lawgiver”

Burt Lancaster Does Moses

Amos Lassen

The timing for the release of “Moses the Lawgiver” could not have been better. This week Jews around the world are celebrating Passover, the holiday that commemorates the Exodus that was led by Moses. While this is not a perfect film about Moses, it is interesting  to see a different take on the man that Charlton Heston played in DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”.

Either the Hebrew Bible tells us or we assume that Moses was a man of wisdom and strength who raised his staff and crushed an empire. This is his story which is the story of the flight of the Hebrews from Egypt to escape persecution and it is told from the  perspective that highlights Moses’ efforts to persuade the stubborn Pharaoh Merneptah, his adopted cousin, to release to release the Hebrew slaves he was using to build his empire. For a spectacular story, we need a spectacular cast and here it is— g Burt Lancaster as Moses, Anthony Quayle as Aaron, Ingrid Thulin as Miriam , Irene Papas as Zipporah and narrated by Richard Johnson. This is the story of Moses, the Hebrew lawgiver, an extraordinary man who receives a holy calling, and we follow his life from birth, abandonment, slavery and trials in leading the Jews through the Holy Land after taking them out of Egypt.

We see the baby Moses put into the river and his adoption by a Hebrew princess. When Moses’ Hebrew origin is revealed, he’s cast out of Egypt and wanders across the desert. Returning to Egypt, Moses along with his brother Aaron, confront Pharaoh Mernefta, asking him to liberate the Jews but he refuses, causing God to inflict the 7 (sic) plagues on the Egyptians. Finally, Moses climbs Mount Sinai bringing down the holy tablets.

The film was shot on location in Israel and Morocco and the wonderful costumes and props are a visual feast. I am just sorry that the writers chose the reinterpret the story and filling it with unbelievable mistakes. The other problem that I had is despite a great performance by Burt Lancaster, this umpteenth telling of Moses’ story suffers from a lack of direction on the film makers’ part. The plagues and curses which could have been spectacular are done in a mediocre way by special effects guy Mario Bava but the film does wonderfully capture Moses leading his people out of Egypt and into the desert, where they complaining constantly. However, Moses’ faith is never shaken.

The film suffers from trying not to be better than other films on the subject and that is hard to do. There are scenes here that run twice as long as they should. The film is a six hours long, and in need of editing.  There are some very effective scenes, mostly dealing with the pharaoh’s wrath, but there is not enough emotion here to make them compelling viewing. I had a problem with the scene showing young boys and infants being thrown into the Nile and when Moses killed his camel and cooked its flesh. It was alarming to see him eating it.

Director Gianfranco De Bosio keeps God off screen. His words are mediated only through Moses. Even the viewer only hears him speak in Lancaster’s voice. His (miraculous) actions are shown through subjective point of view shots, or meet, shortly afterwards, with a rational explanation.  The closing scenes portray Moses dying twice. Initially Moses seems to have died in his tent in the same ordinary way that his siblings died before him. But then, Moses ascends the mountain overlooking the Promised Land and then lays down to die in the manner described at the end of Deuteronomy.

“The Light Years: A Memoir” by Chris Rush— Coming of Age

Rush, Chris. “The Light Years: A Memoir”, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2019.

Coming-of-Age

Amos Lassen

Chris Rush was born into a prosperous, fiercely Roman Catholic, New Jersey family. However, the family lived behind a shaky facade which falls down during the late 1960s, Chris’  was destined to fracture their precarious facade. older sister Donna introduces him to the charismatic Valentine, who places a tab of acid on twelve-year-old Rush’s tongue, proclaiming: “This is sacrament. You are one of us now.”

After being forced out of an experimental art school, Rush heads to Tucson to make a major drug purchase and, barely a teenager, he disappears into the nascent American counterculture. He looks to the communes of the west to be his next home and he spends his teen years looking for knowledge, for the divine, for home.

In “The Light Years”, we feel Rush’s  prayer for vanished friends and we become part of his odyssey filled with broken and extraordinary people. We feel “the slow slide from the optimism of the 1960s into the darker and more sinister 1970s.” This book is a journey of discovery and reconciliation, as Rush faces his lost childhood and himself.

 Rush shares his colorful childhood and adolescence as he travels across the country and back again, searching for truth, love, UFOs in New Mexico, peace, something that feels like God, and a home. Rush has a great story and he is also a great storyteller, together we get magic. Even with all of the brutality that he suffered in his life, he writes with grace. I feel sure that he was holding back tears as he wrote just as I was holding back tears as I read.

We can’t help but wonder how Rush survived but I also wonder about his parents who allowed him to leave. What about his resilience in becoming the respected, honored artist he has evolved into. He was the middle child of seven of a successful contractor and his complicated wife whose fiercely Catholic lives include raucous parties attended by members of the diocese of Trenton. The father’s work mostly involved construction of churches, but it is his alcoholism that drives the family. Each of the seven goes in a wayward direction, seemingly without any reaction from the parents.
Chris’s story shows deep involvement into the drug culture of the seventies, his being cast adrift while still in his teens and while he is coming to grips with his own sexuality. This tells more about his character than that of those parents who should never have had a child. I found it strange that Chris professes love for his parents and more understanding and acceptance than they are possibly entitled to.

I read this book turning pages as quickly as I could yet not wanting it to end. I loved reading about the family that I loved to hate. In Chris’ deeply Catholic family the booze flew as easy as the money. His mother ignored her children to shop and fill already bursting closets. Though she was aloof and often cruel with her words and was absent for most of his early life.

His father constantly worked and was a detestable especially when he drinks. Once he threatened Chris with a gun and knife. Chris was unaware of his father’s history until later. Chris bounced around different boarding schools, dealing drugs and eventually getting kicked out because he was caught kissing a boy in the woods. He tried to go home many times, but his parent’s house was one of anger, resentment and hostility.
The twists and turns of Chris’ life kept me reading but then, just when I wanted to know a bit more, the story ended. Now that I think about it, I must admit that this was a clever way to end and while I won’t say why, I bet many of you will agree. I believe that it is his ability to hope, dream, love even though he was damaged and scarred kept him from ever being totally lost.

“The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht” translated by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn— A Treasure

Brecht, Bertolt. “The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht”, translated by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn,  Liveright, 2019.

A Treasure

Amos Lassen

I have always loved Bertolt Brecht’s dramas and that is probably because his plays are filled with his poetry. He has long been regarded as the greatest German playwright of the twentieth century.  Brecht was also a poet and George Steiner has stated that Brecht is “that very rare phenomenon, a great poet, for whom poetry is an almost everyday visitation and drawing of breath.” Brecht was a prolific poet having written more than two thousand poems. However, fewer than half were published in his lifetime, and early translations were heavily censored. Now we have two award-winning translators— David Constantine and Tom Kuhn who have heroically translated more than 1,200 poems in this, the most comprehensive English collection of Brecht’s poetry to date. Written between 1913 and 1956, these poems celebrate Brecht’s “love of life, the desire for better and more of it,” and reflect his technical virtuosity. He was driven by bitter and violent politics, as well as by the untrammeled forces of love and erotic desire.

This is a very big book, coming in at 1286 pages and now thanks to the translators, we can discover Brecht the poet and see that his poems give a sense of “the fertility of his pristine, unsentimental language and the breadth of subject and form”.

 Brecht is a great poet, and this book is evidence to support that claim. He wrote bawdy poems, and poems of great beauty. Brecht wrote poetry of protest as well and he protested many things— war, fascism, prostitution, poverty cruelty, and callousness. He was a
theorist, dramatist, polemicist, and a poet. It is through his poems that we really sense his restless mind. Brecht’s poems “are never just the servant of his politics…they exceed his engagement in the particular and necessary cause.” As a poet he is  universal and he is also an intellectual with a soul that he shares with his readers through his writing.

I have been looking for an English translation of “Hannah Cash” for years and I finally found one here and for that alone, I would have found a way to get a copy of this. I was successful and now every day I spend 30 minutes with Brecht’s poetry.

The translators capture the erotic and the political in the poems as well as the humor which is often tongue-in-cheek. There are bold statements here alongside the direct speech and the willful naivete and there’s “a lyrical dynamism and verbal agility that allows its author to dance and skip his way through the potential pitfalls of political rhetoric.”
Many of the poems here have never been collected in English before and this is the most complete collection of Brecht’s poetry ever assembled in English.

“Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity” by Jose Esteban Munoz— A Defining Work

Munoz, Jose Esteban. “Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity”, (Sexual Cultures), NYU Press, reprint, 2009, 2019.

A Defining Work

Amos Lassen

“Cruising Utopia” as first published in  2009 and insisted that ‘queerness must be reimagined as a futurity-bound phenomenon, an insistence on the potentiality of another world that would crack open the pragmatic present.” We saw this and, in fact, still see this as part manifesto, part love-letter to the past and the future. José Esteban Muñoz argues that the here and now is not enough and issued an urgent call for the revivification of the queer political imagination.

This new edition includes two essays that extend and expand the project of “Cruising Utopia”, as well as a new foreword by the current editors of Sexual Cultures, the book series  that writer Munoz co-founded with Ann Pellegrini 20 years ago. This 10th anniversary edition celebrates the lasting impact that  the book has had on the decade of queer of color critique that followed and it introduces a new generation of readers to a future not yet upon us. 

We are all aware that The LGBT agenda for too long has been dominated by pragmatic issues like same-sex marriage and gays in the military. It has been stifled by a myopic focus on the present, which is both short-sighted and assimilationist.

“Cruising Utopia” is here to help  break the present stagnancy by cruising ahead. José Esteban Muñoz draws on the work of Ernst Bloch to recall the queer past for guidance in presaging its future. He also looks at the work of seminal artists and writers such as Andy Warhol, LeRoi Jones, Frank O’Hara, Ray Johnson, Fred Herko, Samuel Delany, and Elizabeth Bishop and contemporary performance and visual artists like Dynasty Handbag, My Barbarian, Luke Dowd, Tony Just, and Kevin McCarty in order to decode and decipher the anticipatory illumination of art and its ability to open windows to the future.

This is a startling repudiation of what the LGBT movement has held dear with Munoz contending that queerness is instead a futurity bound phenomenon, a “not yet here” that critically engages pragmatic presentism. This is a fascinating study of identity and queerness that asks us to look to the future while ignoring the present. We gain “an archive of queer aesthetic practices from the present and the recent past.”

Munoz sees “gay liberation’s activist past and pragmatic present are merely prologue to a queer cultural future” that is a “critical condemnation of the political status quo.” He becomes a radical gay aesthetic through the prisms of literature, photography and performance and dismisses commonplace concerns like same-sex marriage as desires for ‘mere inclusion’ in a ‘corrupt’ mainstream.

Muñoz’s “critical refusal of queer pragmatism and his commitment to the utopian force of the radical attempt—the radical aesthetic, erotic, and philosophical experiment—is indispensable in an historical moment characterized by political surrender and intellectual timidity passing itself off as boldness.”

“Gender Identity: Beyond Pronouns and Bathrooms” by Maria Cook and illustrated by Alexis Cornell— For the Young

 

Cook, Maria. “Gender Identity: Beyond Pronouns and Bathrooms”, illustrated by Alexis Cornell, (Inquire & Investigate), Nomad Press,  2019.

For the Young

Amos Lassen

It is so good that now there are books for everyone. I love that gender identity is being taken seriously enough to be talked about with the young. “Gender Identity” is an “informative and project-filled book for middle graders to explore the meaning and history behind LGBTQ rights movements, including biographies of key figures in gender and gay/lesbian history, the context behind today’s transgender “bathroom wars” and dozens of activities and research ideas for perspectives and further learning.”

Many of us are finally dealing with thinking about gender as being a range instead of being simply male or female. In this new book,  middle school readers learn about the cultural significance of gender identity in the United States and around the world.  The book has been written with editors trained in the sensitivities of today’s gender discussions and is filled with interesting facts, primary sources, a range of text features, and more to engage readers. 

Some of the highlights include: 

  • Introductions to concepts crucial to understanding the basics of gender identity, including how gender identity differs from physical sex and sexual orientation, the importance of gender-specific and gender-neutral pronouns, and more
  • Short biographies of gender activists and other important public figures throughout the text, filled with personal stories to help readers form social-emotional connections to the subject – includingRenee Richards,Chaz Bono, and gender rights pioneers Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, plus early transgender individuals including Lili Elbe and Christine Jorgensen.
  • In-depth information on famous gay/lesbian rights protests and movements, detailing the cultural and legal struggles for gay rights and gender acceptance, from the Compton Cafeteria riots to the Stonewall Riots to the Transgender Day of Remembrance, and more.

Sidebars throughout this book show how books and popular TV shows and movies helped expand gay/lesbian awareness and rights, from the early 1970s shows to the contemporary shows.

Projects and activities encourage teens to form their own, well-informed opinions on the many facets of gender perspectives and issues.

Gender Identity is part of a set of four books called Inquire & Investigate Social Issues of the Twenty-First Century, which explores the social challenges that have faced our world in the past and that continue to drive us to do better in the future. Other titles in this set are “Feminism”, “Immigration Nation”, and “Race Relations”.

About the series and Nomad Press:

Nomad Press books in the Inquire & Investigate series integrate content with participation, encouraging readers to engage in student-directed learning as opposed to teacher-guided instruction. This student-centered approach provides readers with the tools they need to become inquiry-based learners. Combining content with inquiry-based projects stimulates learning and makes it active and alive. As informational texts, our books provide key ideas and details from which readers can make their own inferences. Nomad’s unique approach simultaneously grounds kids in factual knowledge while allowing them the space to be curious, creative, and critical thinkers. 

All books are leveled for Guided Reading level and Lexile and meet Common Core State Standards and National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. All titles are available in paperback, hardcover, and ebook formats

Publishers Weekly
“This addition to the Inquire & Investigate series provides an interactive exploration of gender identity, gendered societal expectations, and LGBTQ rights. Sections explore gender expression in media and place changing views within the broader context of social history. They also name significant events, figures, and legislation pivotal to the LGBTQ movement from the 1930s onward. Cornell’s comic panels feature characters expressing affirming perspectives on gender identity, while Cook provides vocabulary relating to expression, questions for readers to consider, and suggestions for further investigation. A thought-provoking resource.”

From the foreword by: Christine Hallquist, first openly transgender major party gubernatorial nominee in the United States

“Maria Cook has done a brilliant job of capturing the important moments and the key leaders in the transgender movement, as well as providing an understanding of the nuance of language and the issues. For anyone who is transgender, who knows someone who is transgender, or simply wants to learn about the transgender movement, this is the book for you.”

“Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940” by George Chauncey— A Classic Reprinted

Chauncey, George. “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940”, Basic Books, 1994, Reprint 2019.

A Classic Reprinted

Amos Lassen

University of Chicago historian George Chauncey re-creates the prototypical pre-WW II gay community in New York City, which participated actively in the city’s social and cultural life, until restrictive legislation forced it underground. This is not the story we usually hear about New York City. Chauncey takes us on a tour of gay enclaves ranging from the Bowery’s “degenerate resorts,” where effeminate “fairies” openly mingled with working-class heterosexuals, to Harlem’s celebrated drag balls and Broadway’s (plus publishing row’s) “pansy craze.” Chauncey has deftly charted racial and class-divided clusters within the gay community itself  and this has deepened shifting heterosexual attitudes toward gays, as well as transitions in their own self-perceptions.

Even those who do not enjoy reading history will love this book. Chauncey  brilliantly maps out the complex gay world of turn-of-the-century New York City. This book’s new publication is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the uprising at the Stonewall Inn, which is often hailed as the birth of the modern gay and lesbian movement. Yet Chauncey convincingly puts Stonewall in perspective: It hardly marked the beginning of urban gay pride or nightlife. We learn,  as has long been assumed, that many gay male New Yorkers thrived in close, often proud communities decades before the famous riots. Chauncey argues that before WW II the boundaries between homosexual and heterosexual behavior were far looser than they were later, particularly among working-class men. Gay New York reconstructs prewar gay life through police records, newspapers, oral histories, the papers of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, diaries, medical records, and other fascinating primary texts. The material is rich and much of it offers revelations about prewar social mores. New York City was a world of permeable sexual boundaries. Chauncey is a knowledgeable tour guide who leads us through bars, speakeasies, parks, bathhouses, streets, rooming houses, and cafeterias. He provides ample historical context and intriguing interpretive possibilities. He explores not only the mainstream culture’s influence on gay urban life, but vice versa, and argues that homosexuality and heterosexuality are historically specific categories that evolved in the beginning of this century and shaped each other. Chauncey has made a wonderful contribution not only to gay history, but to the study of urban life, class, gender–and heterosexuality.

So many people think gay history, with a few minor exceptions, began only when the Stonewall Riots occurred in 1969, but we know that this is far from the case. George Chauncey sets out to disprove three myths: the myth of invisibility, the myth of isolation, and the myth of internalization.

The myth of invisibility says that the gay world prior to Stonewall was invisible and largely inaccessible. We see here that this was not the case as a vibrant culture around homosexuality was visible throughout the period he studied. He notes that even though his study is limited to New York City, similar advances were occurring in other major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco. The myth of isolation is similar in that it holds there was no gay culture to speak of, no gay-friendly places to hang out, no places where gay business was welcomed. Chauncey demolishes this myth as handily as he demolishes the myth of invisibility.
The myth of internalization holds that the gay and lesbian populations had internalized the messages of hate and shame promulgated by dominant culture, and therefore no move was made to establish a specifically gay culture. Gay people were subject to constant police harassment, but they nevertheless proudly, even exuberantly expressed their sexuality.

Although New York City is the focus of the book, the text is far more wide-ranging. New York is the right place for centering this story as it pertains to the America because it was not until the 1960s that San Francisco came to be known as a gay Mecca. Even today New York is a leading destination for those who wish to come out of the closet but are unable to do so in their provincial home towns. Nevertheless, New York is not the entire story, and Chauncey brings in other details as he feels they are needed. The book is full of facts and statistics, and this attention to detail sometimes makes the book a little dry. Yet it is very interesting and fascinating reading and fills in important gaps about understanding of gay history and corrects commonly held misconceptions.

Chauncey argues “that gay life in New York was less tolerated, less visible to outsiders, and more rigidly segregated in the second third of the century than the first, and that the very severity of the postwar reaction has tended to blind us to the relative tolerance of the prewar years.” He goes on and states “that in important respects the hetero-homosexual binarism, the sexual regime now hegemonic in American culture, is a stunningly recent creation.” Chauncey maps both the physical and social topography of gay culture in New York City and argues “that the construction of male homosexual identities can be understood only in the context of the broader social organization and representation of gender, that relations among men were construed in gendered terms, and that the policing of gay men was part of a more general policing of the gender order.”

“CONFESSIONS OF A GAY POET”— Meet Wade Radford

“Confessions of a Gay Poet”

Meet Wade Radford

Amos Lassen

Several years ago I met Wade Radford on line and learned that he was a young actor and poet. I reviewed some of his work and was impressed but then he disappeared. His reemergence came with this film, “Confessions of a Gay Poet”, a documentary about his life and work as a poet, underground filmmaker and actor. Radford became known for his controversial role in “Twink” as well as other film gay film credits like “Sex Lies and Depravity”, “1 Last Chance at Paradise” and the “Boys Behind Bars” series. He is never afraid to push the envelope just a little more than others. We go behind the scenes with Wade and learn that he has been releasing poetry anthologies and spoken word recordings for the last eight years. This film explores the themes of Wade’s work and introduces the audience to this complex and candid individual. Up until now Radford has hidden behind the mask of his work; but those days are over and he is now out to the world. He is now preparing for his latest anthology release “Disequilibrium” and will be hitting the open road in the hope that he can finally close some of the chapters of love, heartbreak and disillusions that have haunted his most recent works.

His film is an exploration of his life’s journey of love and loss, triumph and tragedy and it is very personal, inspiring and moving. This is a candid, poetic exposé into a complex soul who is an “LGBT Voice, Loud, Proud and Uncensored.”

Those who know Wade Radford known him for his controversial roles in his films. I personally find him delightful and a breath of fresh air.

“ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU CHOU”— A JAPANESE COMING-OF-AGE STORY

 


“ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU CHOU”

A JAPANESE COMING-OF-AGE STORY

Amos Lassen

Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara) is in the 8th grade and worships Lily Chou-Chou, a Björk-like singer whose lush and transcendent music gives him the perfect escape from his brutal surroundings. Yuichi is the moderator of an online chat room dedicated to his pop idol and he also finds solace there. However, he is aware of  his real life nightmare of teenage prostitution, crime and bullying and he hopes that Lily be enough to save him from isolation and despair.

The “kids of today” are at the center of “All About Lilly Chou Chou” and these kids are violent, disaffected, alienated are obsessed with pop culture which has become a major theme in contemporary Japanese cinema. However, few imports have addressed it with the heartbreaking insight of director Shunji Iwai’s “All About Lily Chou-Chou” which has been adapted from Iwai’s Internet novel, an interactive project shaped partly by reader response. The film mimics the aimless, unformed rhythms of adolescent life so precisely and it can be just as off-putting as the average 15-year-old. As the film drifts through time and space so do we. The film comes to us in an elliptical style that requires patience and a willingness to be carried along by its beautiful and dreamy lyricism. More than anything, it captures the “feeling” of being a teenager, specifically one who might be hung up in Lily Chou-Chou, a mysterious singer whose ethereal songs attract a cultish following on the Internet. First seen crouching in an idyllic rice field with Lily’s new album piping through his Discman, we meet Hayato Ichihara who treats her music like the soundtrack to his sad life, taking refuge from the brutal cliques and bullying of junior high school. He is a passive character with few real friends. He hosts a web site, “Lilyphilia” web site where he and other “Lilyholics” meet in anonymous chat-rooms to make connections that are seemingly impossible in person.

Two years earlier, 13-year-old Ichihara took pity on a fellow outcast, the scholarly Shûgo Oshinari, and the two spent their summer vacation in Okinawa, where his new friend nearly drowned. When they returned, Oshinari turned the tables on the school bullies and became the school’s most fearsome gang leader, terrorizing his former tormentors and pimping a quiet girl (Yû Aoi) to older businessmen. The film drifts along without the grounding force of a more purposeful story or hero, and instead uses the prospect that its evocative impressions of adolescent life will carry the day. Iwai’s arty self-consciousness takes some getting used to, but as the film moves toward a devastating third act, it seem becomes the sad, painful remove that governs its young characters’ lives. The kids treat each other with shocking viciousness (and, in Ichihara’s case, even more shocking apathy).  Iwai suggests that the real tragedy is that they’re all in the same boat, living with their common angst. The film looks at their minds.

The film is enigmatic, oblique and meandering and interpreted by its critics who admit that there’s no more to the movie than you thought there was. In this way the movie is maddening. Conveying a simple message in a visual style that is willfully overwrought.

Lily Chou-Chou is a Japanese pop idol who must be real, since she appears in concert, but who we never see. Ironically, then, one of her songs consists of repetitions of “I see you and you see me.” She is idolized by Yuichi (Ichihara) who has a crush on the real-life Yoko (Ayumi Ito), a gifted pianist. Both Yuichi and Yoko are the targets of cliques of school bullies.

For a while, Yuichi has a friend, Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari), a fellow student who turns into a sadist and forces Yuichi to steal money and give it to him. Hoshino has another sideline: He pimps Shiori (Yu Aoi) to prostitute herself with businessmen and makes her give him most of the money. Shiori has a secret crush on Yuichi but is under Hoshino’s control and pathetically confides on the telephone, “Lately, when I think of men I think of customers.” The elements are in place for a powerful story of alienated Japanese teenagers, but writer-director, Iwai  cannot bring himself to make the story accessible to ordinary audiences. He and his cinematographer, Noboru Shinoda, are in love with their lightweight digital camera, and give us jerky hand-held out-of-focus shots.

Some sequences are so incomprehensible they play as complete abstractions. This is a film that few reasonable ticket-buyers will have the patience to endure. It will be appreciated by a handful of highly evolved film watchers who can generate a simultaneous analysis in their minds, but I wonder what is the point, really, in making a film that is unappealing to most moviegoers? The world that comes to the surface of “All About Lily Chou-Chou” is a frightening one of students who drift without values or interests, devoting all the passion of their young lives to creatures who may exist only on the Internet. Shiori has sex with strangers for pay but is too shy to tell Yuichi she likes him. Yuichi’s life has been turned into hell by Hoshino, who seems to act not so much out of hatred as boredom. The film’s teachers and adults care but are hopelessly misinformed about what is really going on.

Iwai has gone to a great deal of trouble to obscure his film. I really enjoyed the film’s look and the many ideas in it.

BONUS FEATURES 

·       Making-of featurette

·       New essay by Deputy Director of the NY Asian Film Festival, Stephen Cremin with prologue by Shunji Iwai