Monthly Archives: October 2020

“LISTENNG IN”— Eavesdropping

“LISTENNG IN”

Eavesdropping

Amos Lassen

In just eleven minutes, director Omer Sterenberg tells the story of a soldier in an Israel Defense Forces intelligence unit eavesdropping on a gay Palestinian couple. The complicated relationship between the two fascinates the soldier, and forces him to confront his own sexual identity.

As two men are talking on the phone, their conversation is being monitored by a young IDF soldier tasked with their surveillance. When their erotic bond becomes apparent, the soldier faces a moral dilemma. The film is a powerful look at conscience, the police state and the human voice.

The young soldier listens in on the conversations of Palestinians and he hears one gay couple’s conversations that fascinate him more and more. He realizes that he doesn’t know whether he should follow his feelings.

 

“THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF WOLFBOY”— A Modern Fairy Tale


“THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF WOLFBOY”

A Modern Fairy Tale

Amos Lassen

“The  True Adventures of Wolfboy” is the first feature by Czech-born director Martin Krejcí  and is the story of an outsider child desperate to fit in. Its message, the importance of embracing differences, is a valuable one for its most likely younger audience. 

Jaeden Martell is Paul, a 13-year-old afflicted with hypertrichosis; a rare condition which sees his entire face and body covered in hair. He lives alone with his father, Denny (Chris Messina). His mother abandoned them when he was born. Paul is tormented by bullies and self-loathing.  The film opens with the father taking his son to a fairground for his birthday so that Paul could reveal himself to the world in a dignified manner, in the hope that this will help him overcome his fears. This is an optimistic plan but it goes awry. Later that night, Paul discovers a package seemingly from his mother, with a map and an address in another city and he runs away from home to find her. 

Unfortunately we do not have a backstory and do not know how father and son have coped thus far. Therefore, we see as having just come to life. Adventures follow for Paul. A shady carnival impresario Mr. Silk (John Turturro), briefly turns the boy into an attraction, a transgender girl, Artisana (Sophie Giannamore) and Rose (Eve Hewson) come into the picture as does an eye-patched delinquent. Artisana and Rose join Paul in the search for his mother with Silk, Denny and the police in pursuit. 

While the plot is somewhat familiar (the youngsters rob convenience stores to fuel their road trip, the detective is always one step behind), there is a tone is of whimsy. Director Krejčíengages viewers in a world of harsh reality and vigorous imagination as it tells the story of a boy who fights the feelings of rejection he has felt his whole life.The narrative is structured as a seven-chapter fairy tale, as we witness the hero’s journey. Set in the poor American suburbs, this is not the typical middle-class teenage film with the commonplace message that it’s important to love yourself. The film explores identities both in the sense of the characters it depicts and the genres it encompasses – that step away from the norm. It’s a magical story set in a gritty environment, featuring heroic characters who are filled with frustration.

The film tackles social topics of this particular economic milieu (which is not often represented on screen), such as discrimination and the problems of growing up. The fact that these situations are approached honestly, amusingly and emotionally makes this film an important one to see.

“Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Boroczyk”— A Marginalized Maverick

“Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Boroczyk”

A Marginalized Maverick

Amos Lassen

“Love Express” is a documentary about the marginalized maverick filmmaker Walerian Boroczyk that sees him as a misunderstood genius. Born in Poland, Boroczyk began as an artist, trained alongside that Polish master Andrzej Wajda. In the documentary, he tells a story about their teacher proclaiming to the class that Boroczyk was the only one with talent. From there, he went into making bizarre, experimental animated shorts, which inspired Terry Gilliam. Gilliam explains that, while it’s difficult to explain exactly what happens in a Boroczyk film, they are nonetheless highly affecting.

The documentary then loos at his move into feature films with the bizarre “Goto, Island of Love” (1969), and “Immoral Tales” (1973) and “The Beast” (1975). He was pigeonholed as an “erotic” director and his work became more surface, with more meddling by others. Everything slid downhill toward “Emmanuelle 5” (1987). He died in 2006.

Director Kuba Mikurda brings in interviewees, filmmakers and experts (mostly male) from all over the world, from Neil Jordan to Patrice Leconte, who worked as an assistant to Boroczyk. Mikurda’s subjects  watch clips and comment on them in real time. However, the movie lacks a discussion about the role of women in erotic films. Regardless, this is a primer and a nice selection of clips from a career that still needs more analysis.

Borowczyk was a writer/director of unparalleled sensuality, unequalled in the 1970s for his work on sexual freedom, but  who was later labelled as an erotic filmmaker. His career was short but impactful. By interviewing long-time collaborators, peers and fans of his work, Kuba Mikurda gives us rare insight into the director’s art which poses questions on society’s relationship with love and hate and the boundaries of artistic freedom and the film is a celebration of Borowczyk’s enigmatic and often controversial career.

“Love Express” follows a fairly conventional (documentary-film) formula: it’s constructed from archive footage of Borowczyk at work and in interview, as well as contemporary interviews from those who knew him or his work. Long-time collaborator Noël Véry – who acted as a camera operator in many of Borowczyk’s films and was one of the people closest to him  leads and stays with us throughout the movie.

Borowczyk was an animator – an identity which he never truly shed – manipulating and fetishizing objects and a live-action director (manipulating and fetishizing his actors as he once did his animations). He was considered by many to be a pornographer. Throughout the film’s five chapters (each detailing particularly important years and movies) we hear from a mix of people, all with varying interests in Borowczyk’s work. The interviews themselves are incredibly well-conducted; informative, absorbing, well-shot and with excellent sound quality. Visual flourishes  to illustrate the voiced opinion, in addition to keeping the viewer entertained. The real success of the documentary is that it brings to lightthe unique and often misunderstood talent of one of cinema’s most infamous and enigmatic filmmakers. I knew very little about Borowczyk or his process going into this movie but by the end, I left feeling enlightened and determined to find his older works.

A lot of time is devoted to “Emmanuelle 5.” Although he’s credited as the director he walked off the set a few days into filming. Reportedly the only footage of his is Love Express, the film within the film from which this film takes its name.

“AGGIE”— A Champion of Art and Life for All

“AGGIE”

A Champion of Art and Life for All

Amos Lassen

Agnes Gund is a philanthropist art collector who is President Emerita for the Museum of Modern Art. She champions artists while they’re living, visits them in their studios to better understand what moves their creations. Gund recently sold a famous Roy Lichtenstein original for $162 million, which she used to create “Art for Justice”, a foundation dedicated to penal reform with the aim of ending mass incarceration. She’s been called the “last good rich person” by the New York Times.

Gund, now in her eighties, often needs to be talked into speaking. We meet the younger Gund who shows her public persona. Today she has slowed down considerably. The film doesn’t spend much time talking about how Gund’s acts of philanthropy have changed the lives of individuals who are neither artists nor curators. Nor does it look at how Gund chooses the administrators for her charitable work, or her vetting process. Her largesse requires to ensure proper use and disbursement. There is a bit of focus on how art itself is invariably an act of political resistance and criticism but this is not the documentary’s purpose. We see several historical anecdotes showing how art inspired Gund to become curious about the larger world outside her relatively narrow experience but perhaps the aim of “Aggie” is simply to shame other wealthy collectors into parting with their personal collections in the pursuit of the kinds of social reform that our government needs. This is really  a hagiography of a human being who is seen as the kindest, the most generous and the best.

Filmmaker Catherine Gund pays tribute to her mother’s impact on the modern art world in “Aggie”. Even though she’s a millionaire art collector, Agnes Gund does not like being in the spotlight and her daughter is very aware of this. In an early scene, she asks Agnes to share her thoughts on being the subject of a film: “I really hope not too many people will see it,” she says.

There are no surprises here. The director grounds the film visually with a cascade of works of modern art so that we see what her mother  and others are talking about and this  is one of the most compelling things about the film. While it is about Aggie  it’s also about so much more: the artists she champions, the curatorial politics around decisions to purchase modern art from them and her charitable fund that promotes nationwide criminal justice reform. By the end of the movie, it feels more like a daughter’s loving tribute to her mother than anything else.

Agnes “Aggie” Gund’s life has been rather impressive.  By serving as a longtime president of the Museum of Modern Art, she has an important name in the art industry and she’s not afraid of using her name when it comes to important causes.

“The Turncoat: A Novel” by Siegfried Lenz— A German Postwar Classic

Lenz, Siegfried. “The Turncoat: A Novel”, (translated by John Cullen), Other Press, 2020.

A German Postwar Classic

Amos Lassen

During the last summer before the end of World War II, Walter Proska is posted to a small unit with the job of keeping the safety of a railway line deep in the forest on the border with Ukraine and Byelorussia.

He and a few other men must also submit to the increasingly absurd and inhuman orders of their superior. As time passes, the soldiers isolate themselves and are haunted by madness and the desire for death. An encounter with a young Polish partisan, Wanda, makes Proska further doubt the validity of his oath of allegiance, and he wants to answer the questions that obsess him— which is more important, conscience or duty? Is it possible to take any action without becoming guilty in some way? Where is Wanda, this woman from the resistance that he cannot forget?

Written in 1951, The Turncoat was rejected the author’s publisher who felt that the story of a German soldier defecting to the Soviet side would not be welcome in the context of the Cold War. The manuscript was then forgotten for nearly seventy years before being rediscovered after the author’s death.

The book explores Lenz’s experiences in the German army and looks at loyalty owed to one’s country and family. We seechallenges we face in America with the rise of authoritarianism and white supremacy. Walter’s love and adventure story changes how we see the literature of war as it brings together realism and imagination. We read of the intricacies of the human heart and its conflicts. Here is the cruelty and chaos of war and the story of a soldier who runs from evil.

“Nationalist tendencies are on the rise all over the globe and the desire for strong leaders and simple answers to complex questions” is gaining ground. Here areissues that are highly urgent today and Lenz succeeds in dealing with questions of guilt and responsibility on a deeply human level. He tells this through his characters and we relate to and understand them.

 

“The Last Interview: A Novel” by Eshkol Nevo— When the Public Persona Cracks

Nevo, Eshkol. “The Last Interview: A Novel”, Translated by Sondra Silverston, Other Press, 2020.

When the Public Persona Cracks

Amos Lassen

A writer attempts to answer a set of interview questions sent to him by a website editor. At first, they seem to be usual: “Did you always know you would be a writer? How autobiographical are your books? Have you written any stories you would never publish?” Usually the answers he gives as measured, calculated and cautious. This time, however,  he finds he cannot tell anything but the truth.

Every question opens a door to a hidden room of his life and each answer reveals that at the heart of every truth, there is a lie—and vice versa. We see just how tenuous the lines are between work and life, love and hate, fact and fiction. As we explore the author’s identity, Eshkol Nevo’s “The Last Interview” gives us “a nuanced, thought-provoking portrait of a country at odds with itself.”

We read of the dramatic consequences of Israel’s wrong turns and disavowals and its betrayal of what “the promised land” was originally meant to be. By building a wall to keep Palestinians out of sight, Israel has done more than damage to its calling itself a democratic country and has also affected the sense of purpose and integrity of its citizens. Nevo shows  a literary confidence that allows him to view human nature and its habitus with ease and in-depth insight. We read of the paradoxes of love, friendship, parenthood, narcissism, professional success or failure, and the compromises that  mirror Israel’s situation.

Nevo pushes the boundaries of fiction and challenges the reader to reconsider their conceptions of the relationship between truth and fiction. The book is astory of loss, love, and friendship and a meditation on the borders between reality and fiction. Nevo writes about his reflectionson what bothers the human heart— love, truth, friendship, loss. We, in turn, consider how long we will be here in the world.

What emerges is that the subject of the novel, the author’s professional life is a combination of international book tours and teaching seminars for promising writers. He has lost touch with himself and, perhaps, with reality. His personal life is a mess and he is depressed. He has only two close friends: one who is terminally ill and the other has disappeared. He and his wife have grown apart and his marriage is in danger. His oldest daughter, has left home to go to a boarding school and he feels estranged from her. He has been looking at the people around him as possible characters rather than people. He can no longer distinguish between what they are and what he wants them to be. He fictionalizes stories about the people in his life and loses track of what is real and what is made up. He now has writer’s block and the only thing he can write is this series of answers to questions. 

Like the narrator who cannot distinguish between fact and fiction, neither is the reader able to do so. We never know if Nevo is writing about a fictional author or about himself. The narrator states that he is falsifying things when convenient so that even if we assume that the narrator is Nevo himself, much of what he writes is fiction. — which is what one would expect from an author who can no longer distinguish between fact and fiction. He eventually finds a resolution to his problems but the readers, do not. We are left to think about what is real here.  

“The Most Precious of Cargoes: A Novel” by Jean-Claude Grumberg— A Woodcutter and His Wife

Grumberg, Jean-Claude. “The Most Precious of Cargoes: A Tale”, Harper Via, 2020.

A Woodcutter and His Wife

Amos Lassen

Jean-Claude Grumberg’s “The Most Precious of Cargoes” is set during the height of World War II and is the powerful story about a woodcutter and his wife, who finds a mysterious parcel thrown from a passing train. The woodcutter is very poor and as war rages around him and his wife, he finds it difficult to put food on the table. Nonetheless, every night, his wife prays for a child.

A Jewish father rides on a train holding his twin babies. His wife  can no longer provide enough milk to feed both children. In hopes of saving them both, he wraps his daughter in a shawl and throws her into the forest.

While searching for food, the woodcutter’s wife finds a bundle, a baby girl wrapped in a shawl. Although she knows harboring this baby could bring death to her door, she takes the child home. This is a story about family and redemption which reminds us that humanity can be found in the most inhumane of places. It is. Beautifully written novelette about what it means to love a child and how to sustain it.

There has been so much written about the Holocaust that it is very difficult to write something new to write about about yet writer Grumberg, through the use of a fable format, manages to do so. He deals with the horrors of the time at the same time he explores the love of a child.He also avoids any use of the word “Holocaust” but we are aware of its hovering above every sentence. The story is both heartbreaking and life-affirming and cements the importance of humanity above all else. What we read is out of the realm of our imaginations, or is it? There were certainly actual happenings like this that took place when desperation ruled. While we may not want to believe that a father would toss his child from a moving train, we can understand why he did so and we are pained by it. Likewise, we find joy when the child is found and rescued.

Here is a story of good and evil and light and darkness in which we recognize the great risk to the woodcutters wife and her husband when she decides to raise the baby as her own. The reader is left to think about the ending and with that I will stop except to say that this story is very different from anything that I’ve ever read. I attribute that to the lyrical prose. We are reminded that love and loss and pain and hope are emotions that are always within us.

 

“Summer of the Cicadas” by Catherine Chelsea— The Coming of the Magicicadas

Chelsea, Catherine. “Summer of the Cicadas”, Red Hen Press, 2020.

The Coming of the Magicicadas

Amos Lassen

Welcome to Mayberry, West Virginia where we meet Jess, a disgraced former cop. Jess has lost everything and everyone she cared for and is now a void emotionally. Mayberry is filled with Magicicadas, a periodical insect that emerges in eastern America every 17 years. A situation arises and Jess is deputized. In the past she had been a good cop but she had made some wrong choices but is now needed to help with how the swarm of the Magicicadas is affecting the residents of Mayberry. As we read about Jess we realize that she is strong even after suffering tremendous loss. We are with her as she heals
from the loss of her family, killed in a car crash two years before the story begins. Jess is also dealing with her feelings for her sister’s best friend, Natasha, a town council member. After the swarm is finally removed, she must also face the two-year anniversary of her family’s death and Natasha’s romance with a local editor and a loss that changes everything.

Author Chelsea Catherine uses gorgeous prose to write about the cicadas who overtake and own Mayberry and the results of this. Her descriptions of nature are stunning and she creates a world for us just as she has creates very real characters. I can only imagine how difficult it was to bring the story of the cicadas together with Jess’s personal story of loss. We see the author’s ability to understand how everything comes together including terror and love.

The analogies to what we are dealing today as we face the Covid-19 pandemic jump off the page yet the novel was written before what we face now. There are some books that become more than just reads, rather reading them becomes an experience. That is just how I felt with “Summer of the Cicadas”.

“Darker Than Night: An Anthology of Horror” by Various Authors— Behold the Night

Various Authors. “Darker Than Night: An Anthology of Horror”, Archer, 2020.

Behold the Night

Amos Lassen

I can’t think of a better time to read a collection of horror stories than in late October when we are all stuck at home. Horror is always present in our lives and a good scare can be cathartic and in this “Darker Than Night” does not disappoint. Our imaginations are already running wild as we think about what we will do once Covid-19 is over and we are ready for a change or a scare.

Archer Publishing brings together eleven authors who indeed know how to use our imaginations to open us to different worlds with fine narratives. I could go into a little about each story here but instead I will look at just a few to give you an idea of what to expect. I especially love the idea that the internet becomes part of the modern horror tale in “The Sunflowers” by Ollister Wade as does technology in Michele D. Ring’s, “An Exercise in Empathy”. A good backstory often enchants as it does in “The Dark of Bryn Awel”. I usually do not name a favorite story but I have to say that H.L. Sudler’s “Sandman” kept me reading as quickly as I could.

I do have a problem reviewing horror stories because of their very nature. Their purpose is to instill fear and play with our minds for a while and to summarize them or write about the ruins whatever suspense they engender within us. Suffice it to say that each story here does just that. Horror has been with us from the time that someone first put pen to paper and the beauty of the story comes from how it makes us feel. To say anymore would not be fair to the writers or readers. As we go into darkness, our imaginations take over and that is just what you have to do when you read this collection. Forget the outside world and enter a new one for a while and enjoy the escape.

Other stories are by John Adams, Andrew Phoenix, Danny Baird,, James R. Lynch, David Helms, Eric Andrews-Katz, Caleb Howell and Rhidian Brenig Jones.

“TO DECADENCE WITH LOVE, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING!”— Two Drag Queens

“TO DECADENCE WITH LOVE, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING!”

Two Drag Queens

Amos Lassen

 “To Decadence with Love” looks at “the lives of two drag queen extraordinaire, Laveau Contraire and Franky as they prepare for a weekend of New Orleans’ queer celebration of identity, Southern Decadence. While getting a behind-the-scenes view of “gender fuckery art,” we see Southern artists challenging social norms and the boundaries of self-expression all while being a part of a rich community of artists. Both a display of the diversity New Orleans is known for and a lesson on knowing your worth, this film provides a personal perspective not only from the performer’s point of view but also that of the production side as Laveau strives to create more opportunities for BIPOC performance artists. From drag queens to burlesque performers and everything in between, To Decadence with Love, Thanks for Everything! is a lively portrayal of the diversity and utter freedom that comes with being yourself, jam-packed into a weekend in the lives of Decadence performers.” – Elizabeth Myles