“WHEN MY SORROW DIED: The Legend of Armen Ra & the Theremin”— His Journey

when my sorrow died

“When My Sorrow Died: The Legend of Armen Ra & the Theremin”

His Journey

Amos Lassen

Just who is Theremin master Armen Ra? He is eccentric and enigmatic and he takes us with him on his journey that mixes together concert performances, candid interviews and archival material as well as music that has the ability to make everything look beautiful. His creativity is life defining and soul saving and it is the core of this biographical look at the man. This is a candid look at some of the key moments in his Ra’s personal growth and we see just how much of an enigma he is as he talks with an off-camera interviewer. We learn of a life lived as an outsider, initially by society’s design then ultimately on his own terms.

Ra was born into a minority in Iran where the threat of persecution was always present. He suffered from violent bullying at his new American high school and while it was painful it helped define his self-worth. His acceptance among the LGBT community of New York City was reaffirming but substance abuse stifled his growth. It was not until he managed to reach a degree of sobriety that he became one of the greatest living proponents of the ethereal electronic instrument.

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Ra’s fine features and feminine curves made him a drag superstar and Robert Nazar Arjoyan’s camera captures all his charms, both physical and intellectual. Often appearing to be at one with the lushly glamorous set design against which he is framed (and which he personally compiled for the film), the enigmatic musician lays bare periods of drug and alcohol consumption. His fateful take on how the theremin came into his life and set about redefining his very existence is deeply affecting.

Interspersed with Ra’s recollections is intimately staged concert footage that captures the prowess and precision required to be a master of the seven octave theremin, the only instrument played by not touching it and the first electronic musical device invented.

“When My Sorrow Died” is a look at the emergence of a man in the guise of an artist, of a life made richer by reconciliation with one’s demons. Arjoyan’s detailed, heartfelt ode to a musical genius is also a look at a unique individual searching for and ultimately finding a path to acceptance and understanding. Armen Ra’s journey and talent deserves a film that transcends the concert film genre and Arjoyan delivers on that with graceful style. 

“FOUCAULT AGAINST HIMSELF”— The Genius

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“Foucault Against Himself”

The Genius

Amos Lassen

Michel Foucault was one of the great minds of the 20th century and he is also my personal hero. He wrote about whatever he wanted and he did so brilliantly. He covered madness, sexuality, pleasure, the classics, law and penal institutions—he was a renaissance man at a time when there was no renaissance. I had the pleasure of studying with him in Paris the year before his death to AIDS and for me it was akin to sitting at the feet of a great mind and an unpredictable mind at that. He said, “Don’t ask me who I am, and don’t tell me to remain the same.” The extent of his thought and his mind were astonishing and he has left his mark as Foucaldian philosophy is still being studied widely.

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Foucault was able to bridge the roles of the intellectual and the activist—he attained the highest honors of the French academy and used his position to attack the very power that gave him a platform. This documentary comes to us from director François Caillat and is divided into four chapters: Foucault’s critique of psychiatry, his work on the history of sexuality, the growth of his radicalism arising from his research into the French penal system, the nature of knowledge and underlying structures of human behavior, and his immersion in American counter-cultural movements; particularly the resistance to certain social structures that he found among sexual minority communities in San Francisco.

We hear from leading philosophers, sociologists and historians among them is Leo Bersani, who first invited Foucault to speak at UC Berkeley – as well as footage of Foucault himself and French and American archival material depicting events that profoundly influenced him.

Foucault profoundly opposed the notion of small fiefdoms of knowledge. His approach was eclectic (a philosopher writing extensively about history and surveying prisoners on their living conditions, to give two examples) and wide-ranging. Philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman calls him an intellectual “nomad… crossing the territorial boundaries of knowledge.”

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Certain themes or threads can be found in Foucault’s writings—the critique of institutional power and the celebration of resistance – but his work is also filled with fragmentary thoughts and contradictions. We must thank him for his idea that “Knowledge is Power”.

The film beautifully captures the energy and the intellect of Michel Foucault and it introduces us to the key ideas and elements of his philosophy. It also acknowledges and celebrations the many contradictions within his writings.

“WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL”— The Catskills and Comedy

when comedy went to school

“When Comedy Went to School”

The Catskills and Comedy

Amos Lassen

Modern stand-up comedy began in the Catskill Mountains where many Jewish-American comedians got their starts. The 1950s were not an exciting decade but it did bring us some of the best stand-up comedy that America has ever had. It was the golden age of comedy and most of the comedians were Jewish—Jackie Mason, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl and Jerry Stiller all came into being comically at this time. Most of the comedians that we see here are Jewish. The great Catskill hotels back then included Grossingers, Kutschers, the Concord and Laurel in the Pines among others. They were all in upstate New York and close to each other. Woody Allen got his start here as did the others already mentioned. This is not just Jewish humor we see but American Jewish humor. We see interviews with some of the greats and we see part of their acts. Now with the advent of the internet, Jewish humor is everyone’s humor and that adds to the appeal of the film.

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 There is a great tradition in American comedy of Jewish performers, men and women who conquered the funny business with exceptional wit, timing, and stage presence, triumphing over prejudice and intense competition to become legendary names. For comedians such as Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, and Jackie Mason, it all began in the Catskill Mountains, a sprawling landscape of natural beauty that developed into a beloved tourist destination during the 20th century. The documentary “When Comedy Went to School” delves into the story of resort life, where Jewish families gathered to feast, mingle, and enjoy up and coming comedians hungry for the spotlight.

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 Directed by Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank, “When Comedy Went to School” is a love letter to an era of talent and recreation, where Catskill resorts were the primary destination for any New Yorker desperate to escape the blistering heat of the summer. The documentary looks at the growth of the area as a getaway for the Jewish population, a community pushed away by discrimination common in the 1930s and ‘40s. The Catskills offered a welcome remoteness from the cruelty of the world, and provided an atmosphere for the growth of a sense of unity and home. There was plenty of food and the amenities were great but it was the nightlife was people remember with love.

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Robert Klein is the host of this documentary that shows the tremendous talent that was and that came out of the Catskills. It was there that Jerry Lewis received his first laugh as a five-year-old boy. He went on to slapstick waiter bits as a teenager, cleaning up on tips as audiences loved his special brand of humor. Sid Caesar was nothing less than a king during this time period, graduating from Vaudeville to the Catskill stages, where his jokes and playfulness with the audience made him a crowd favorite. Buddy Hackett, Jerry Stiller, Rodney Dangerfield, and Jackie Mason were all there and each contributed to the discovery of what they could do and to whom and when.There are no great revelations in this film and there are really no surprises.This is a low-budget film and it seems a bit unfinished and unprofessional but these all make it endearing.

The DVD extras include 5 Shorts (“Newsreel” • “She’s More to be Pitied” • “Friar’s Club Roundtable” • “Mrs. Schwartz Comes Back” • “The Future of the Catskills”).

“Missing Person” by Patrick Modiano— Searching for Identity

missing person

Modiano, Patrick. “Missing Person” (“Verba Mundi”), translated by Daniel Weissbort, David RGodine , 2004.

Searching for Identity

Amos Lassen

Patrick Modiano brings us a man in pursuit of the identity he lost in the murky days of the Paris Occupation that is here referred to as, the black hole of French memory. For ten years Guy Roland has lived without a past. His current life and name were given to him by his recently retired boss, Hutte, who welcomed him, a onetime client, into his detective agency. Guy uses Hutte’s files as well as his directories, yearbooks, and papers of all kinds going back half a century but he has few leads. Could he really be the young man remembered by some as a South American attaché? Maybe he was someone else—maybe he is disappeared scion of a prominent local family. He interviews strangers and is half-clues tantalize him until, finally, he finds something that leads him through the maze of his own repressed experience.

At first I thought I was reading a detective thriller but I realized that this book has another level. It is also a meditation on the nature of self and as that it is haunting. It is not just the story that pulls the reader in; it is also the lush prose of Modiano that has been beautifully translated by Daniel Weissbort, draws his readers into the intoxication of a rare literary experience.

Some thirty years ago, this book won the Prix Goncourt (before it was translated into English). It was then described as an “elliptical, engrossing rumination on the essence of identity and the search for self. It is set in postwar Paris and follows an amnesiac now known as Guy Roland. When his boss retired, Roland set out to find his past. He conducted this most personal of investigations and began to suspect that he might have used multiple identities and these caused him to live a mysteriously compartmentalized existence. He might even have been fleeing the German occupation when his memory was wiped away. Is it through Roland’s explorations that we understand the author’s observation that we all live in a world where “the sand keeps the traces of our footsteps only a few moments.” The human is driven to preserve those footsteps for as long as he breathes.

Modiano’s uses the subjects of mystery and horror, indicating them without outwardly talking about them and as he does he opens the doors to the past. What makes the book so wonderful is that it is so vague. Europe becomes a maze and Roland walks around inside of it. There are no points of references and no orientation but there is a sense of confidence.

 The first few lines had me hooked and I found it hard to understand that this book was originally published in 1978 (in French) yet it is still very relevant today. The idea is simple—a detective, suffering from amnesia, sets out to recover his identity, following a variety of strange leads. “I am nothing. Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the café terrace, waiting for the rain to stop; the shower had started when Hutte left me.” In just three words, the first sentence has us asking questions.

Patrick Modiano is the first important French novelist to investigate the memory of Vichy and the recovery of life in a post War France. The concept is totally implausible— Modiano is less interested in the mechanism of Guy’s search for self than in what that search will reveal. The detective will follow a number of clues, each time finding somebody who will give him a tiny part of his story, but not the whole of it. Almost all his informants seem glad to talk with him; they invite him to their homes and give him boxes of souvenirs to go away with. This, even as Guy himself is having to pose as someone else to gain their confidence, trying on one possible role after another, as he gradually works out who he must be. And, as he does so, he begins to have flashes of memory of his own.

 Modiano has said publicly that many of his novels use memory to explore the experience of his father, who was Jewish but survived the occupation. That does not appear to be the specific theme here, although references to “those years of night” crop up increasingly among the protagonist’s informants. Whatever interpretation one chooses to give to the book shows that the reader has been impressed with what he read and to me that is one of the qualities of literature—it makes us think.

“The Search Warrant” by Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano— Identity and Memory

the search warrant

Modiano, Patrick. “The Search Warrant”, Random House UK, 2000.

Winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature

Amos Lassen

When a Nobel laureate in literature is announced, most of us have not ever heard of him before and a mad rush to read whatever we can find so that we may judge if a recipient is really deserving—for some reason we seem to think that our opinion is as important as the Nobel judges.

The Nobel Prizes are awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy, academics and thinkers who have been appointed to lifetime memberships. The Academy elects, from within its own members, The Nobel Committee for Literature, which invites distinguished academy members, previous laureates and other qualified nominators from around the world to nominate authors for the prize. From the nominations they receive, the committee selects a short list of candidates. The final choice is made by the full 18 members of the Swedish Academy, who review the life’s work of the nominees chosen by the Nobel Committee for Literature.

The Nobel Prize in Literature has been the subject of considerable controversy over the years. The prize has been criticized for ignoring some seminal authors such as Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Leo Tolstoy, while being bestowed upon other authors who have since languished in apparent obscurity.

The sheer scope of the Nobel Prize presents an obvious challenge; with literature from across the globe open for consideration, it would be difficult for the Academy to recognize each highly acclaimed author from each literary tradition around the world. This breadth of consideration, as well as the relative opacity of the process, keeps critics and odds makers guessing each year as to what direction the Academy might take.

 The 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to French author Patrick Modiano  for “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

Modiano, 69, is the author of more than two dozen books and several screenplays. The 11th Literature laureate born in France, Modiano is also the recipient of the Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française, the Prix Goncourt, the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature.

“The Search Warrant” is set in December 1988 and has a bit of a back-story. While researching documents dating back to the Nazi Occupation of Paris, Modiano came upon an old notice in the New Year’s Eve edition of Paris Soir, 1941, placed there by the parents of a young Jewish girl, Dora Bruder, who had escaped from the convent that was hiding her during this period. Fascinated by what happened to the young girl who chose to run away on a very cold winter’s night and at the height of German reprisals, Modiano set off on a quest to find out all he could about her. However besides a mention of her name in the list of Jews deported to Auschwitz, the details of her existence remain an impenetrable unknown. What little he discovers in official documents and through remaining family members, becomes a meditation on the immense losses of the period—lost people, lost stories, and lost history. Through this young girl, Modiano delivers an account of the ten-year investigation that took him back to the sights and sounds of Paris under the Occupation and the paranoia of the Petain regime as he tries to find connections to her.

Through his investigation, Modiano looks for Dora, and for his own father who was also hiding in Paris of that time. The idea of tracing the movements of a single person, who at first is anonymous but through the skill of Modiano becomes a real person with whom the reader can sympathize, makes one as sad as if a close relative had been unjustly killed. This is most certainly not an easy read and plodding through the text might just be an accurate description of what there is here. As we plod, Modiano brings us into his story and we are soon swallowed by it while loss of memory reigns within the author’s words. Secrets remained secrets despite the collusion of history and time. We see that memories are fallible and often inadequate to capture the past and we therefore have to rely upon decaying documents and unclear memories of others to get to the truth. I must stay that I was stunned by the book and even though I read it in translation the words and language are gorgeous.

“JFK: THE PRIVATE PRESIDENT”— Those Moments

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“JFK: THE PRIVATE PRESIDENT”

Those Moments

Amos Lassen

 

Kathrin Seelmann-Eggebert brings us a new and personal documentary about John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It begins in January 1961 when Kennedy entered the White House and an entire new generation of politics began and they were youthful, colorful and some even say, sexy. There was a new dynamism in America and it came out of the Kennedy White House. Kennedy did not stay there long but while he was president he was a pop star. He led us through the terrible period of the Cold War and he taught us to be adults—the younger generations everywhere welcomed the change. Kennedy’s own wife saw him as magical—a King Arthur reigning over Camelot.

But everything was far from perfect for Kennedy. He was a womanizer and had many affairs. He was also not a well man taking up to twelve medicines a day.

Features of this film include hearing from Robert Kennedy Jr. and Matthew Maxwell Kennedy, the sons of the president’s brother, Robert and from close friend Harry Belafonte,

his closest adviser Ted Sorensen, and Sergei Nikitich Khrushchev, the son of the former Russian leader. He remains legendary but certainly more human than we have ever seen him before. Included also is rare footage from the Kennedy private archives.

 

“BLACKBIRD”—Struggling with Sexuality in a Small Baptist Town

blackbird

“Blackbird”

Struggling with Sexuality in a Small Baptist Town

Amos Lassen

Growing up gay in the South is rough—let me tell you, I know because I did it. But as hard as that is, it is even harder in a small southern town. Randy has even more problems—his parents are religious and he is also worried about what Jesus will think of him. It seems that his friends at school are more comfortable with Randy’s sexuality than he is and his father who has moved out of the family home wants Ricky to accept himself as he is. Randy’s main problem is that he is his mother’s son and like her, he loves drama. To make matters even worse, his mother’s youngest child was abducted some five years before the film starts and there have been no leads on his disappearance.

As Randy struggles to come to terms with his sexual identity he has bold and intense wet dreams about a football jock which and these distress him even more. When he was cast in the school’s all male production of “Romeo and Juliet”, things really begin to fall apart. Then while working on a student film, his co-star Marshall obviously wants to be more than just friends and Randy has to stop screaming that he isn’t gay even when he does not believe it.

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Patrik Ian Polk wrote and directed this film and he treats the character of Randy with understanding and compassion. He wrote the screenplay based upon Larry Duplechan’s 1986 novel of the same name and changed the location to Hattiesburg, Mississippi his own home town to make it all more relatable to a contemporary audience. Julian Walker, the young lead actor is an openly gay man and was a local theater student who auditioned for the part and does a fine job in the role. The actress Mo’Nique is Randy’s mother in this, her first movie role after her Oscar win for “Precious” and she is just great except for a couple of time when she seems to go over the top but she could have toned down her performance as the mother as it often went a little too over the top at times. Isaiah Washington is sublime as Ricky’s understanding father (and if you remember he lost his job on television for a homophobic remark about this costar on “Grey’s Anatomy”.

Though everyone who has ever met Randy seems to know that he is gay but his God-fearing Christian upbringing keeps him from acknowledging his sexuality. As the film moves forward, Randy’s existential struggle becomes all the more real. Prayer does not make his recurring wet dreams subside and Randy’s mom begins to blame the disappearance of her younger daughter on Randy’s apparent queerness. All the while, Randy’s friends want to help him come out of the closet. But Randy wonders what Jesus would do.

“Blackbird carefully balances its religious conviction with an agenda to open the minds of socially conservative Christians. In the melodramatic universe that we see here, there is plenty of room for gays in Christian congregations and conservative small Southern towns. The film is more about accepting one’s self, than having others accept you. Randy’s mother is the only person who does not accept him for who he is, but that is only because her mind is filled with the loss of her daughter. What we see is that it is Randy’s staunch moral conservatism that is the only thing that is holding him back from fully realizing his sexuality.

The film perhaps might seem a bit too positive, but that is only because it takes full advantage of functioning in a purely fictional universe.

“HAPPY END”— A Friend’s Last Wishes

happy end poster

“Happy End”

A Friend’s Last Wishes

Amos Lassen

Petra Clever’s  “Happy End” is road trip movie about two lesbians who are determined to fulfill a friend’s last wishes regardless of the consequences. Lucca (Sinha Gierke) is in the middle of her A-level exams and is hoping for a career as an exclusive lawyer but she is mistakenly accused of criminal damage and sentenced to community service in a hospice. While there she meets Valerie (Verena Wustkamp) who is finding a way to carry out the last wishes of her now dead friend, Herman. However, Herma’s son, who is only interested in his mother’s inheritance, wants to stop her from doing so. Valerie kidnaps Herma’s ashes and she and Lucca begin a journey that changes Lucca and her ideals and values. Together the two women travel across the country to bring Herma’s ashes to the place where she wanted to rest eternally even though her family is opposed. Lucca finds Valerie’s confidence and individuality to be charming and she begins to reconsider the future that her conservative father has planned for her. The women not only become fast friends but chemistry grows between them as they travel.

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This is Clever’s first feature film and some of you may see hints of “Thelma and Louise” in it. So we see this as a romantic film that inspires and shows us the power of women who do what they want. It is filled with good performances, lush cinematography and love.

“OUT SMART”— Coming Out as Being Intelligent

out smart poster

“Out Smart”

 Come Out as Being Intelligent

Amos Lassen

 Out Smart uses the premise of seeing a young man having to come out as intelligent. It’s  to make the point that many people’s reactions are absolutely predicated on the idea that being gay is a bad thing (as well as to subtly position those who have a problem with gay people as being intrinsically dumb).

Director Dawn Cobalt comments, ‘When I first came out, it was the scariest thing I ever had to do. And I realized that, as I kept meeting new people, I would forever be coming out. I would also forever be coming out to people from my past who didn’t know me as out. They would wonder, “Why didn’t she just tell me?” So this film is very special to me.

out smart‘I had to make this film to express that experience – and add humor to a very tough confession to make to anyone. Everyone is different in his or her own way and society tries to decide what is normal and what is not. We have all been in a situation where you want to tell people something that is out of the “norm” and hope that they still accept and love you.’

 

“Visualizing Atrocity: Arendt, Evil, and the Optics of Thoughtlessness” by Valerie Hartouni— Reassessing Hannah Arendt

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Hartouni, Valerie. “Visualizing Atrocity: Arendt, Evil, and the Optics of Thoughtlessness”, (Critical Cultural Communication), NYU Press, 2012.

Reassessing Hannah Arendt

Amos Lassen

Using Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial (it is a polarizing and provocative account) as the place from which to look at some of the stories and myths that have influenced the way we think about genocide and totalitarianism, author Valerie Hartouni reevaluates what we know. What she explores is tied to by the atrocities that were seen with the liberation of the concentration camps and the role played by the postwar trails of Nazi officials; the perpetrators of mass murder.

During the Nuremberg trials in 1945 certain practices for looking at the atrocities as part of the fabric of historical facts were established and these were reinforced during the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann. These practices have come to mean a certain visual language and practice that today circumscribes” the moral and political fields and powerfully assists in contemporary myth making about how we know genocide and what is permitted to count as such’. Arendt gave us the theory of the “banality of evil” and it disrupts this visual rhetoric. Our attention is directed beyond Eichmann and goes to a world that has come to be based upon practices and processes. In this way life is enhanced.

Here is a book that brings together political judgment and visual culture says Judith Butler. Yet this new look also raises questions about justice and morality that we see in the genocidal nature of our time.

We get an analysis of what in involved in the way Arendt saw Eichmann as well as a look at the crime he committed, the crime of bureaucracy and the issue of thoughtlessness. Hartouni shows clearly how the political and normative justice intersect and come together.