Monthly Archives: September 2019

“The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America” by Nicholas Buccola— A Clash of Opinion About Race

Buccola, Nicholas. “The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

A Clash of Opinion About Race

Amos Lassen

The clash of opinions about race in America between James Baldwin, civil rights firebrand and William F. Buckley, the father of modern conservatism still today illuminate America’s racial divide.

On February 18, 1965, a huge crowd filled the Cambridge Union in Cambridge, England, to watch a historic televised debate between James Baldwin, the leading literary voice of the civil rights movement, and William F. Buckley Jr., a fierce critic of the movement and America’s most influential conservative intellectual. The topic to be discussed was “the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro,” and this is a debate that has never been forgotten. Nicholas Buccola’s “The Fire Is upon Us” is the first book to tell the full story of the event and to share the radically different paths that led Baldwin and Buckley to it, the controversies that followed, and how the debate and the clash between the men continues to show America’s racial divide today.

Both men were born in New York City, 15 months apart Baldwin, born and raged in Harlem and the privileged Buckley were total opposites, yet they both rose to the height of American intellectual life during the civil rights movement. By the time they met in Cambridge, Buckley considered Baldwin to be an “eloquent menace.” Baldwin saw Buckley as a deluded reactionary whose popularity  showed “the sickness of the American soul.” The debate was to be an epic confrontation that put Baldwin’s call for a moral revolution in race relations against Buckley’s elitism and his implicit commitment to white supremacy. What we have here is the story of race and the American dream revealing the deep roots and lasting legacy of a conflict that continues to haunt us and our politics.

“Nicholas Buccola follows the men’s journeys with in great and he gives us tremendous insights into race and America. His study of two lauded American thinkers on opposite sides of the political spectrum shows the enormous race and class divisions in 1960s America, many of which still exist today. We get deep and thoughtful portraits of Baldwin and Buckley and of American culture, politics, and history.

This is the  backstory to that famous debate and a clash of antiracist and racist ideas―over the meaning of the American dream. Here are two important voices with two different visions of America.  Buccola reminds us of the American dilemma of race in the context of the early sixties, as well as today. We are taken back in time to better understand how we got to where we are today. The author’s thesis is indeed controversial and provocative

 

The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home” by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor— An Intriguing and Terrifying Old Woman

Fink, Joseph and Jeffrey Cranor. “The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home”, Harper Perennial, 2019.

An Intriguing and Terrifying Old Woman

Amos Lassen

 Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are the authors of the New York Times bestselling novel “Welcome to Night Vale” and the creators of the #1 international podcast of the same name. Now they have a new book,  “The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home” to add to the Night Vale series.

 “Welcome to Night Vale” is a community radio show for the fictional town of Night Vale, a friendly desert community somewhere in the Southwest and where ghosts, angels, aliens, and government conspiracies are all natural and commonplace parts of everyday life. The radio show reports on the strange events within.  The podcast covers news, announcements, and advertisements but it is very weird.  

In the town of Night Vale, there’s a faceless old woman who secretly lives in everyone’s home, but no one knows how she got there or where she came from.  We go back centuries in time to read of an initially blissful and then tragic childhood on a Mediterranean Estate in the early nineteenth century. The woman was involved in the criminal underworld of Europe and in a nautical adventure with a mysterious organization of smugglers. She plotted revenge on the ones who betrayed her and her spirit has travelled the world for years before settling in modern-day Night Vale.

Today in Night Vale,  The Faceless Old Woman guides, haunts, and sabotages a man named Craig. In the end, her current day dealings with Craig and her history from nineteenth century Europe come together in an unexpected and horrifying way.

The reader is soon involved with what is written on the page and is tricked into embracing the surreal in order to underscore and emphasize the real as affirmation of emotional truths that don’t conform to neat Night Vale. The story explores the coming together of Night Vale, a strange little town with the real world. We sense terror between the lines of the authors’ prose.

We are taken on “a hypnotic travelogue that shimmers and changes as you read. A friendly (but terrifying) and comic (but dark) and glittering (but bleak) story of misfit family life that unfolds along the side streets, back alleys and spring-loaded trap doors of the small town home you’ll realize you’ve always missed living in. When it says ‘welcome,’ it’s mandatory. You belong here.” Night Vale comes to life on the pages and as I said before, it is weird and surreal as well as  an “ existential meditation on the nature of time, reality, and the glow cloud that watches over us.”  Night Vale “feels more like home than home” making us want to live there regardless of the strange happenings.

 

“FELIZ ANO TIJUANA”— A Simple and Powerful Film

“FELIZ ANO TIJUANA”

A Simple and Powerful Film

Amos Lassen

Watching “Feliz Ano Tijuana” is like watching a couple days in our main character’s life. Forced to stay in Tijuana after missing his flight, a college professor runs into one of his former students and a hooker. This unleashes many of his emotions and as we watch we feel sad, happy, confused, curious and uncomfortable. This works so well because this is just what our main character is feeling. In a sense, we become the professor. During many scenes we see and know little more than he does. This is especially true of an uncomfortable and shocking scene that takes place in the bathroom. The film moves from fast paced comedy to dark places that make us feel discomforted. The transitions between these places are smooth and work well since they revolve around what the character is feeling. When he is partying very hard, the film is quite funny, but in a scene where he is becoming very paranoid the movie becomes almost painful to watch.

 

The film begins light. We see the professor getting a hotel room that is very different from what he expected. Yet even with the humor, we sense that something to make him and us uncomfortable is going to come. He is an outsider in this room as he will mostly remain for the rest of the film.

I understand that the film was shot without a script and this adds to it feeling so natural and real. Each line and look from the characters seems to happen as if no one knows what is going to happen next thus creating a feeling of uncertainty and spontaneity that is hard to resist and it pulls us deeper and deeper into the psyche of its main character.

As the professor, Alejandro, Luis Deveze is the soul of the film. It combines elements from different genres while telling the story of a guy whose plans to stay quietly in a hotel room in the border town during end-of-calendar celebrations are seen abruptly changed when invited to a party that ends up moving to the streets. It has drama, comedy, romance and a bit of ‘thriller’, but in reality, it’s like everyday life, where we go through many different situations and emotions. Deveze was inspired by an experience of his own life for the plot, although the film did not have a script or written dialogues. We and Alejandro go through the feelings of insecurities and fears that went to extremes.

The film is a love letter for Tijuana, which is still considered by some to be a dangerous city, but which shows a festive and friendly face here. The intention of the film was to tell a story based on an emotional level and little by little, elements of Tijuana’s culture and circumstances were added. Unlike other films, this is a total experience unlike any movie you have seen before. Andrew van Baal directed this new look at film and how we respond to it.

“FAMILY”— Getting Rid of Relatives

“FAMILY”

Getting Rid of Relatives

Amos Lassen

 “Family” directed by Veronica Kedar is a family horror film with stylized cinematography and Hitchcockian references. The lead (played by Kedar herself) murders her screwed-up family members, one by one. This a film from Israel and it is important to know that there is a cult of family in Israel. There is little tolerance for single people who are pressured to get married and procreate, or at least procreate (sperm-bank babies are popular here). There are very few married couples without children and those that do exist elicit sympathy and advice.

If there had been a perfect world, Lily Brooke would have a father who cared about her, a mother who was not addicted to pills, a sister who really cared for her and who had a conscience and a brother who had strange masturbatory practices (that included her being naked). But things did not work out that way. One day Lilly finds herself in her living room, looking at four dead bodies. She goes to her therapist after hours, to confess and to try to understand what happened that day. However, the therapist was not at home make sense of this confusing day. But Lily’s therapist isn’t home and the only person there was the therapist’s teenage, judgmental and insensitive daughter. Lilly needs attention and she isn’t going to get it there.  

Of course, it’s important to understand genre conventions of this beautiful stylized film – had it been drama and not horror, the film would have dealt with the violence and responsibility for it very differently. But as it stands now, the murders in the film feel liberating, whereas the family oppression is all too real

Israeli filmmaker, Veronica Kedar, writes, directs, and stars in this film about a fractured family. It explores why Lily would all of a sudden kill her entire family. The plot is non-linear and this is a great technique to keep us guessing and imbue the film with a sense of mystery.  

The film begins with a gruesome murder scene and from there it follows a structure similar to a session of therapy. It becomes a psychological puzzle that’s filled with twists and turns as it centers around a family portrait contest where a picturesque look at a perfect family is taken just moments before they all die.  This shows us that people can hide who they are and the lies that photos can tell. Lily takes family portraits of the family now that are all brutally murdered and then the non-linear plot takes us through time to chronicle Lily’s various experiences with her family and just how she began to resent them so much. Lily begins this film as a monster, but she slowly receives her humanity as her life goes on and by the end it’s hard to not be on her side.

Kedar wonderfully shares the nuances of family trauma and dysfunction and she does so viscerally and beautifully. But this is also a look at a fractured family tat is upsetting and quite jarring. The film is “nominated for three Israeli Academy Awards.

“ALL MALE, ALL NUDE: JOHNSONS”— All Male and All Nude, Indeed

“ALL MALE, ALL NUDE: JOHNSONS”

All Male and All Nude, Indeed

Amos Lassen

Director Gerald McCullouch’s documentary “ALL MALE, ALL NUDE: JOHNSONS” is something of a  sequel to “All Male, All Nude”. It takes us into the world of male strippers at Johnsons in Wilton Manors, Florida, America’s Second Gayest City per capita. Matt Colunga who has been in the male adult entertainment business for 23 years followed his dream and created the club.

Director Gerald McCullouch has spent over 10 years uncovering the world of male stripping with this second Cinéma Vérité feature length documentary.

We meet several of the dancers includingn26-year-old Alexander, who spends his days dressed as Spider-Man and who creates early memories for children at kids’ parties. He spends his nights stripping down to his G-String for gay men. Other strippers are single fathers and young men putting themselves through college with the money thy make stripping. The men who compose the heart of Johnsons are diverse, unique and captivating.

What I really like about this film is that to enjoy it requires no thought—I found it to be totally relaxing with a cast that is fun to look at and even dream about

“MR. TOILET: The World’s #2 Man”— Meet Jack Sim

“MR. TOILET: The World’s #2 Man”

Meet Jack Sim

Amos Lassen

Jack Sim is a man who is obsessed with toilets and a crusader for global sanitation. He was born in the Singapore slums and  knows firsthand the problems of not having a proper toilet. He has dedicated his life to a crisis no one dares talk about: Poop. We learn here that not having a place “to go” isn’t just an inconvenience; it’s a problem that impacts 2.4 billion people worldwide. In India alone, some 200,000 children die each year from lack of safe sanitation and women are regularly raped because they have to defecate in public spaces. Sims is full of jokes and he uses humor as his weapon to fight an uphill battle against bathroom taboos. He founded the World Toilet Organization and spent the last 13 years lobbying 193 countries to raise awareness for proper sanitation. He says that he is “Turning poop culture into pop culture is the fastest way to solve the sanitation crisis”. He has successfully lobbied the United Nations to create World Toilet Day (November 19), the first International day of celebration for the toilet.

Now he is in the middle of his biggest challenge yet, securing 6 million toilets for the “Clean India” initiative. With few resources and no help from the government, his epic project and reputation are in jeopardy. Jack’s once supportive staff begins to doubt him; and when his family bonds start to fray over his obsessive dedication, Mr. Toilet realizes there is a price to pay for being the world’s #2 man.

“MR.TOILET: The World’s #2 Man” is a documentary film directed, produced and written by Lily Zepeda and produced and written by Tchavdar Georgiev. It will open at Laemmle Monica in Los Angeles on November 8 and at Village East Cinema in New York on November 22. Other cities will follow. 

Here are some toilet facts to think about:

ALMOST 40% OF THE WORLD’S POPULATION DOES NOT HAVE ACCESS TO SAFE SANITATION

MORE PEOPLE HAVE A CELL PHONE THAN THEY DO A TOILET

ALMOST 1 MILLION CHILDREN DIE EVERY YEAR FROM DIARRHEA DUE TO LACK OF SANITATION; THAT’S 2,000 CHILDREN A DAY

OVER THE PAST 200 YEARS, TOILETS HAVE ADDED 20 YEARS TO THE LIFESPAN OF HUMANS

IN 2013 MATT DAMON STAGED A FAKE PRESS CONFERENCE ON YOUTUBE FOR WORLD TOILET DAY TO ANNOUNCE HIS “TOILET STRIKE” IN AN EFFORT TO RAISE AWARENESS FOR SANITATION

1/5 GIRLS IN INDIA DROP OUT OF SCHOOL WHEN THEY START HAVING PERIODS DUE TO THE LACK OF SAFE, PRIVATE TOILETS.

WORLD TOILET DAY IS SINGAPORE’S FIRST UN RESOLUTION TO BE ADOPTED

JACK SIM WAS NAMED ONE OF THE HEROES OF THE ENVIRONMENT FOR 2008 BY TIME MAGAZINE

“COPA 181”— Revisiting the Gay Sauna

“COPA 181”

Revisiting the Gay Sauna

Amos Lassen

There was a time when a town’s bathhouse was the site for many different occasions including business deals, mortgages, loans and what have you. Usually situated on a major square in town, it was a place everyone knew of and to which many people frequented. Plumbing changed and people had bathrooms in their homes but public bathhouses continued to flourish although not so much in this county where bathhouses were thought to be havens for gay sex, which in some cases they were.

“Copa 181” is set in a gay sauna much like the old Continental Baths in New York City. Here there was no pretense; it was a place where groups of strangers came looking for anonymous sex and/or company for a few hours. Copa 181, located in Rio in a corner of the Copacabana neighborhood in Rio was also a site for high drama. There we meet Tana, a hardware shopkeeper and his wife Eros who stops by every once in a while. She is an opera singer who finds acceptance for her incredible gift at the bathhouse. Joining them are a men ready to pay for the muscle-bound escorts. There is Leo who is happy with his trans girlfriend Kika but only within the physical confines of the sauna. Kika is a housecleaner by day and an entertainer by night and she dreams of becoming. Star and often feels that she already is. Everyone at Copa 181 comes “under the joint spell of the sex and escape from mundane reality the bathhouse offers”.

Watching this film will also pull you under that same spell.  Director Dannon Lacerda uses the theme of chosen family but this time at a sauna. Speaking of drama, just wait until you see what  happens between Tana, Eros and Kiki.

“THE ROAD TO LOVE” [“Tarik el Hob”]— How Gay Films Were Once Made

“THE ROAD TO LOVE” [“Tarik el Hob”]

How Gay Films Were Once Made

Amos Lassen

Karim (Karim Tarek) lives in a seventh-floor walk-up with his doting girlfriend, Sihem (Sihem Benamoune) and. he decides to make a documentary about homosexuality in the Arab world for his class at the Sorbonne.

He tries to track down some gay Muslim men to interview, first by hanging around in front of a gay tea shop, then by placing an advertisement in a newspaper. All of Karim’s respondents make advances toward him. They are seemingly provoked by his slight frame and large, expressive eyes. He is disturbed at first, but before long he begins to feel flattered by all the attention. He strikes up a friendship with Farid (Riyad Echahi), a serious young flight attendant who puts him in touch with gay Muslims in Paris and elsewhere while at the same time feeling his own crush on Karim. As Karim spends more and more time with Farid, Sihem becomes more and more anxious.

The film is crudely shot with what seems to be an amateur video camera and has few stylistic compensations. Karim uncovers the complicated and often contradictory attitudes toward homosexuality in Islam.

Homosexual relationships, he finds, are tolerated in many Muslim cultures as an outlet for pent-up desires that must otherwise wait until marriage. There was even one relatively modern culture, centered in the Siwa oasis in Egypt, where marriage ceremonies between men were performed, but these marriages were dissolved when the time for grown-up, reproductive marriage arrived. Only passive homosexuality, Farid explains to Karim, is considered truly shameful. Sex, in other words, is power, in which a sense of domination counts for everything. Karim begins to wonder if he is using his film as an unconsciously way to reveal his preference for men. When he goes with Farid to Marrakesh for the weekend, we see that this could be happening.

During the second half of the film, director Lange gives us a significant amount of information about the whole history of homosexuality in the Arab world. The film was originally released in 2001 and we really see the caution with which LGBTQ films were once made.

“COUSINS” (“PRIMOS”)— Bonding


“COUSINS” (“PRIMOS”)

Bonding

Amos Lassen

There is nothing like a sweet film to boost spirits and that is exactly what “Cousins” is— a sweet movie. Lucas (Paulo Sousa) lives with his aunt Lourdes (Juliana Zancanaro) in a quiet country town. Lourdes is a religious woman and Lucas helps her proselytize by playing biblical songs on his keyboard. Aunt and nephew live a quiet life but all that changes when Lourdes tells Lucas that another named Mario (Thiago Cazado) is coming to stay with them.

Mario has just been released from jail and now he and Lucas are going to share a bedroom. There are personality clashes between the two cousins but then an unexpected attraction begins bonding them together.

When I used the word “sweet” in my first sentence, I was speaking not only about the romance between Lucas and Mario but also about the simplicity of the plot. There is no real drama and no twists and turns. What we see are portrayals of two young men who fall in love while living among Christian values and Catholic customs.

The two lead actors have amazing chemistry and we feel the love that they feel for each other. Of course Lourdes with her Catholic upbringing and devotion to her religion. The ending might leave you a bit dissatisfied but I found it an interesting way to tie everything together.

“Philosophers: Their Lives and Works” by DK— The World’s Great Philosophers

“Philosophers: Their Lives and Works”, DK, 2019.

The World’s Great Philosophers

Amos Lassen

I must recommend DK’s “Philosophers: Their Lives and Works” because it is such a beautiful book. It brings together some of the great philosophers of all time from Confucius and Plato to Karl Marx and Noam Chomsky and gives us beautiful portraits and biographies.  Each philosopher is introduced with his portrait and the biographies give us the ideas, friendships, loves, and rivalries that inspired the great thinkers and influenced their work. We also get revealing insights into what drove them to question the meaning of life and think up new ways of understanding the world and the history of ideas. Illustrations include not only portraits but also photographs and paintings, their homes, friends, studies, and their personal belongings, pages from original manuscripts, first editions, and correspondence. This is an easy way to see the key ideas, themes, and working methods of each featured individual. Their ideas are set within a wider historical and cultural context. Taken as a whole, the book shows the development of ideas across the centuries in both the East and West, from ancient Chinese philosophy to the work of contemporary thinkers. Not only do we read about philosophies but we also get a look at  the personal lives, loves, and influences of the great philosophers.