“Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day’ by Peter Ackroyd— A New Look at London

Ackroyd, Peter. “Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day’, Chatto & Windus. 2017.

A New Look at London

Amos Lassen

Peter Ackroyd is an eminent chronicler of London. In “Queer City”, he gives us a look at London through the history and experiences of its gay population. In London under the Romans, for example, the penis was worshipped and homosexuality was considered admirable. The city had many “lupanaria” (‘wolf dens’ or public pleasure houses), “fornices” (brothels) and “thermiae” (hot baths). Under the Emperor Constantine’s rule cane the first laws against queer practices, probably because of the influence of bishops and clergy, monks and missionaries. His rule was accompanied by the first laws. Following that were periods that alternated permissiveness and censure (from the notorious Normans, whose military might depended on masculine loyalty, and the fashionable female transvestism of the 1620s) and as London moved toward the 19th century there were executions for sodomy in the early 1800s and then what was known as the ‘’”gay plague” in the 1980s.

Ackroyd takes us through the London of history and does so by celebrating its diversity and thrills on one hand and reminding us of its very real terrors, dangers and risks on the other. He maintains that it is perhaps this endless sexual fluidity and resilience that epitomize London.

Some have referred to this as a” nimble, uproarious pocket history of sex in his beloved metropolis”. It is Ackroyd’s encyclopedic knowledge of London, and his poet’s instinct for its strange drives and urges that makes this such a fascinating read.

The chapter headings are evocative or salacious and totally encapsulate what was London and the queer experience. We know that there have always been gay people but we really do not know much about gay life in earlier periods. Ackroyd changes that about London with this book. He gives us some wonderful and fascinating revelations about London’s secret gay past dating all the way back to the Roman age. Here are just a few:

After Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 and 54 BC during the Gallic Wars, Roman men raped defeated British soldiers with vegetables. to Ackroyd says that “The defeated were sometimes penetrated by radishes; that may not sound too painful but in fact the long white icicle radish has always been grown in southern England to a length of just under six inches.”

Restoration “boy player” actor Edward Kynaston was rumored to have an “arse [that] knows its own buggerer,” meanwhile the poet Earl of Rochester once bragged about an argument he had with his mistress about “whether the boy f*cked you, or I the boy.”

Male rape was common throughout London’s history. Ackroyd writes about the case of Captain Edward Rigby, who was prosecuted in 1698 after asking a naive 19-year-old man named William Minton, “Should I f*ck you?” When Minton replied, “How can that be?” Rigby proceeded to demonstrate and was quickly arrested.

In 1822, the Bishop of Clogher went after and solicited a soldier, John Moverley for sex. He was arrested, posted bail, and then fled to France and ended up living incognito in Edinburgh until he died 21 years later.

Ackroyd shares that in the 16th century, gay men were referred to as “the loathsome Ganymede,” lesbians were called “rubsters,” and people had some pretty bizarre ideas about how these people behaved. He tells us that in 1709, a man named Ned Ward wrote about “sodomitical wretches” (gay men) who referred to one another as “sisters” and “husbands,” and who “speak, walk, tattle, curtsy, cry and scold…[like] lewd women.”

Of course, in reading about London we want to know about the royals. Ackroyd’s writes about all the allegedly gay monarchs, including William Rufus, Edward II, Richard II, James I, and William III and how and what they called their “favorites” (a.k.a. male tricks). 

If you want to be enlightened about gay London, here it is and it is great fun.

 

“That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority” by Leon Rosselson— A Personal Exploration of Judaism

Rosselson, Leon. “That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority”, PM Press, 2017. 

A Personal Exploration of Judaism

Amos Lassen

“That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority” is a moving, deeply personal exploration by Leon Rosselson, a brilliant poet and songwriter, of his Jewish heritage. There are no clichés or platitudes, just a look at himself and his faith with brutal honesty. In order to give credence to what he says, Rosselson digs deeply into his family’s history and his own emotional and artistic development. While short, there is a very powerful account.

Today we are born with our Jewish identity but we know that it was not always that way. There have been times in our history when being Jewish required time and work. Yes, I was born Jewish but I was not born a Zionist, for example and I was born to keep a kosher home. Becoming a Zionist came from being active in Zionist youth groups while keeping kosher was a decision I made for myself. I choose to be reminded every time I go grocery shopping or sit down to eat that I am a Jew.

Rosselson’s book is his search for answers. He is neither religious or a Zionist and we see that as he searches, he argues with himself. Like so many of those others who come from Jewish families, Leon Rosselson is descended from antecedents who fled pogroms in eastern Europe. He then questions what being a Jew means and asks if it is adherence to Judaism as a religion, an ethnicity, a citizen of Israel, or someone who eats chopped liver and “chicken soup with kneidlach”? He describes clearly and with historical insight how any concept of “Jewishness” can involve all of those things and more. He has decided to pick and choose from this tradition and history and build on what he considers to be the progressive, humane, and universalist values of that Jewish background.

Rosselson is a strong supporter of Palestinian rights, seeing in the victimization of Palestinians by the state of Israel parallels with historical Jewish persecution. Does that make him any the less Jewish? He tells us that he shares with the growing number of Jews in the Diaspora who place solidarity with the oppressed above demands of tribalism and with those in Israel who dare to stand against the powers that be. He shares a lot more here and I think many of you will feel that you are reading about yourselves as you read this. Whether or not I agree (or you) is insignificant— this is his journey and a powerful one it is.

 

“THE BRIDGE”— Season 3 on DVD

“The Bridge”

Season 3 on DVD

Amos Lassen

Since it was initially released in 2011, “The Bridge” has been captivating audiences all over the world. It stars Sofia Helin as the socially awkward but brilliant police investigator Saga Norén. The production values have been regaled as a masterpiece and a masterclass of tone, plot and characterization.” 

It all begins when a famous Danish gender activist and owner of Copenhagen’s first gender-neutral preschool is found murdered. Saga is assigned to the case and the murder sparks the beginning of a series of spectacular crimes reaching back into Saga’s own past. With her career at risk, and the question of personal responsibility haunting her, it looks as if she might be pulled from the case. When her mother unexpectedly re-enters her life, Saga must also cope with unforeseen and unwanted demands. The rest is for you to discover by watching.

“120 BEATS PER MINUTE” — ACT UP, France

“120 BEATS PER MINUTE” (“120 battements par minute”)

ACT UP, France

Amos Lassen

For those of you who don’t know (just as I didn’t), 120 beats per minute is the rhythm of house music. It also refers to the desperate race against AIDS, a disease that is killing them people one by one (a resting heart should normally beat 60 to 100 times a minute) refers It is also the name of a new film that just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival that has people talking and movie critics looking for superlatives.

Director Robin Campillo’s “120 Beats Per Minute”, is a tribute to the AIDS activist group ACT UP. For whatever reason it still takes a film about gay people, by a gay director, to show candid male nudity and men making love with men. This is a tightly focused, sensitive and deeply moving drama about gay activists as they struggle to live life to the fullest even as they battle disease and indifference.

Campillo draws on his own experience as an ACT UP member to share the direct-action group that did much to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic in early 1990s France, at the height of the crisis. While this is a powerful ensemble movie, it is also a painful reminder that many in the political and pharmaceutical establishment did not consider what happened to the gay community to be anyone’s business aside from the gay community itself. The establishment felt that ACT UP’s transgressive, confrontational tactics were a parallel to the deadly revolutionary uprisings that shook Paris in 1848. Viewers might think that 1968 was a more obvious parallel with the difference that tremendous numbers of people were dying daily.

Here we see the urgency of fusing the intimate and the political. While sickness and death haunt the movie, “120 Beats” is also a celebration of love and friendship, and of the various forums (nightclubs, gay pride parades, ACT UP assemblies) that gave strength to the vulnerable gay community.

The wonderful mostly male cast has several standout performances by Arnaud Valois and Argentinian actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart. Even though director Campillo creditably stays away from “maudlin sentimentality”, it is almost impossible to watch this without crying. This is a film about tragedy and loss, but we see that the fight goes on. There are moments of inspiration, perception and ecstasy as the casts keep the tensions and camaraderie working throughout the film.

It begins with a probe of various politics and motivations of the ACT UP whose members demonstrate at a conference, with the resulting aggression and violence that show the fault lines between militancy and protest, inadequacy and action. Soon afterwards, they meet to debate their methods.

We immediacy become aware of film’s overall urgency. Campillo shows simply that large numbers of young gay men were ill and that many were dying. The necessity for these people to come together to form some resistance comes into its own in such circumstances. Most of their efforts are spent on public awareness and there is one excellent scene that shows the activists infiltrating a school with leaflets. The male teacher in one class vainly attempts to collect up the contraband, while a female teacher next door asks the children to sit quietly and listen to the important message. We are shocked and startled by the pervasive ignorance of the general population to what was happening.

We watch the story of Nathan (Valois), a handsome, taciturn newcomer who falls for Sean (Biscayart), a rebellious extrovert. Their intimacy becomes the film’s emotional centre, as the group increases its attempts to pressure large pharmaceutical companies for help with medical treatment.

The scenes where members of the movement confront Antoine Reinartz gives a beautiful and complex performance as ACT UP’s divisive chairman, Thibault. There are many other superb performances, some interesting visuals and several instances of witty dialogue and we remember a time when we had to literally fight for our lives. This is such an important film, especially for the younger gay community that came into being after the worst of AIDS had been dealt with and we cannot allow ourselves to forget what was happening right in front of our eyes.     

“Condo Heartbreak Disco” by William Kostiuk— Saving Toronto

Kostiuk, William. “Condo Heartbreak Disco”, Koyama, 2017.

Saving Toronto

Amos Lassen

Like in so many cities, Toronto’s neighborhoods are being taken over by skyscrapers and communities are being replaced by condo buildings. Gentrification seems to be taking over so many big cities in the United States and Canada. Rents are getting higher and higher and cheaper living spaces are becoming harder to find. Neighborhoods, and art scenes are being razed to be replaced by expensive condos and apartments.

Eric Kostiuk Williams’ “Condo Heartbreak Disco” is a comic look at gentrification in Toronto, Canada, but it is actually true for any gentrified city. Williams gives us two surreal protagonist superheroes in Komi, a gender fluid shape shifter and the Willendorf Braid, a twenty-first century rendition of the Venus of Willendorf. They are at times both helpful and horrible as they take us guide us through the past, present and future and show us what is happening in the new corporate world of today and of the future. They are surrounded by the symptoms of gentrification and Komio speculates that the of today parents are modern day soldiers of fascist futuristic ideals. Speed has replaced all that had been.

Komio spots a young photographer who takes pictures of neighborhood people and posts them online where is work is found by real estate developers, who map his street art to locate future spots of new developments. This is exactly the opposite of what the photographer intended. Our two heroes team up with an activist and they learn that they are being evicted in order to make way for a new housing development. There are those who seek out to the developers and it is really difficult to stop what will eventually reconstruct the city. May of the buildings to be torn down were built with the idea that they would remain empty. They were constructed as investments in order to keep prices up.

Here is the true absurdity of the capitalist transformation of cities; they seem to change before our eyes and we have no voice to say anything about it We become fully aware of how we are shaped by how we live. Here it is up to Komio and The Willendorf Braid to save the city. Their motivation is quite clear—- revenge and personal guidance.

 

 

“House of Names” by Colm Toibin— Clytemnestra, A Retelling

Toibin, Colm. “House of Names: A Novel”, 2017.

Clytemnestra, A Retelling

Amos Lassen

Colm Tóibín retells the story of Clytemnestra and her children. Clytemnestra’s narrates the story of her own life in ancient Mycenae, the legendary Greek city from which her husband King Agamemnon left when he set sail with his army for Troy. She now rules Mycenae now, along with her new lover Aegisthus, and together they plot the bloody murder of Agamemnon on the day of his return after being away for nine years at war.

Clytemnestra has been judged, despised and cursed by the gods and she tells what led her to behave as she did. Her husband, Agamemnon deceived her eldest daughter Iphigeneia with a promise of marriage to Achilles but then sacrificed her because he was told that this would make the winds blow in his favor and take him to Troy. Clytemnestra then seduced and collaborated with the prisoner Aegisthus, who shared her bed and they waited until Agamemnon came back with a lover and she finally achieved her vengeance for his stunning betrayal because of his quest for victory that was greater than his love for his child.

Toibin takes the ancient legend and retells in with a modern sensibility and language giving it new life, so that we not only believe Clytemnestra’s thirst for revenge, but cheer it. He inhabits the mind of one of Greek myth’s most powerful villains and shows the love, lust, and pain she feels. The story is told in fours part and it is filled with drama leading up to her own murder by her son, Orestes. This is also Orestes’ story, too. We read of his capture by the forces of his mother’s lover Aegisthus and his escape and his exile. Her daughter Electra watches over her mother and Aegisthus with anger and slow calculation and with the return of her brother, she has the fates of both of them in her hands.

Clytemnsestra is a captivating and terrifying figure whose broken heart forces her into a ruthless lust for power. In reading about Clytemnestra, we see corruption causes resentment and how resentment breeds violence. A husband’s vanity and a wife’s rage, dissolves bonds and families. Here is a family that implodes while the gods leave it alone to deal with its problems. In his retelling, Tóibín presents the universal themes of failure, loss, loneliness, and repression. Even though the original is centuries old, the story is very contemporary. A powerful woman is caught between the demands of her ambition and the constraints on her gender, hatred and vengeance. Metaphorically, this is a story of family relationships, authority, trust, power and how women are blamed women when men are violent. Toibin’s prose is gorgeous and it makes no difference how we might feel about the original story, the author’s language takes embraces us.

 

“Film Hawk”— The Life of Bob Hawk

“Film Hawk”

The Life of Bob Hawk

Amos Lassen

“Film Hawk” is based on the life of Bob Hawk who for more than 40 years has championed emerging filmmakers. His triumphs include Kevin Smith (CLERKS) and Ed Burns (THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN) as well as such Queer Cinema icons as Rob Epstein (THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK), Barbara Hammer (NITRATE KISSES), and Kimberly Reed (PRODIGAL SONS). This documentary traces Hawk’s early years as a young gay child of a Methodist minister to his current career as a consultant on some of the most influential independent films of our time. Even though Hawk has produced many films and has of late directed a short film, he is best known as a film consultant. Kevin Smith’s heartfelt reminiscences give us the emotional backbone of the doc. Their relationship is very special, but plenty of other filmmakers also attest to Hawk, the man.

JJ Garvine and Tai Parquet directed this documentary but Hawk set up the boundaries as to where they could go. Hawk is also unusually candid discussing his past struggles with suicidal depression. He remains an elusive figure who is not drawn into the spotlight.

The film opens with an affecting scene of Kevin Smith recalling Hawk’s crucial role in the biggest make-or-break moment in his career. Smith remembers the disappointment of bringing “Clerks” to the Independent Feature Film Market where it played to 12 people, one of whom was Hawk, who considered it as the “undiscovered gem of the marketplace,” and brought it to the attention of influential tastemakers like Village Voice critic Amy Taubin and others. Here is where the film’s history began.

When Hawk was still living in San Francisco in the ’70s,he saw a five-hour cut of Epstein’s “Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives” and offered pages of handwritten notes that helped whittle the landmark film down to a little over two hours. When Epstein made “The Times of Harvey Milk” in 1984, Hawk correctly predicted that it would win the Oscar for best documentary feature. Hawk would later move closer his East Coast home and continue to consult with unproven filmmakers. However, I was disappointed that the film never gets close enough to Hawk.

Hawk at 80 years old has been a consultant Bob Hawk has been a fixture the Sundance Film Festival, and the indie community, for decades. He is as always an enthusiastic figure and a champion and mentor to many. This documentary is bit rough-around-the-edges portrait of an instrumental figure who still struggles to make ends meet as he devotes time and expertise to nurture creativity among those he cares about. We see his early influences on queer cinema before hitting the depths of depression and nearly taking his own life in the Nineties. Since then, Hawk has given up on fame and fortune in order to pursue projects that matter to him and his efforts have paid off big time for many of his friends and clients.

One thing that is very evident as you watch this documentary is how emotional people get when they speak about Bob. The overall narrative arc throughout this movie is that Robert Hawk gives a voice to those that haven’t had the opportunity, funds, or presence in the mainstream world.

“THE NEST”— Bruno and Brother

“The Nest”-

Bruno and Brother

Amos Lassen

Directors Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon’s “The Nest” introduces us to Bruno (Nicolas Vargas) who has left the military and travels to Porto Alegre (Brazil) to find his estranged older brother Leo. What he finds instead is a vibrant queer community that happily embraces him, inviting him into their social scene. Through these unconventional new friends, Bruno finds a “new family” and a new space where he is free to explore his sexuality. Now that he is way from home, he’s found himself, and he and his lost brother become closer than ever. “The Nest” is both a look at the queer, punk underground of Brazil and a unique coming-of-age drama. Originally made for Brazilian television, this is four-part miniseries that is now screening as a feature-length work.

Porto Alegre is in the south of Brazil, and Bruno, a 19-year-old AWOL army soldier stalks the streets, nightclubs, and gay hang-outs searching for his older brother, Leo. Years ago, Leo ran away from home, escaping his homophobic parents (who remain unaware of both Bruno’s search for his older brother and of Bruno’s own sexuality, which remains hidden behind his silent and stoic personality).

Bruno meets and becomes friends with Stella (Sophia Starosta), a bartender who worked with Leo. Stella is skeptical of Bruno’s desire to find his brother since Leo has shared stories with her about the pain inflicted upon him by their parents. The world that Bruno finds in Porto Alegre is wonderfully intoxicating, making it as easy for viewers to succumb to as it is for Bruno. We see gender there approached with a mixed-up blend of traditions taken from femininity, masculinity, and everything in between. We are all aware that the concept of family is a big one in queer culture and “The Nest is never just about the blood family that Bruno goes in search for, or the one he discovers on the streets of Porto Alegre. It explores the significance of each as Bruno attempts to not just find his blood relative, but begins to build a life with his new friends. The film tells the story of two gay brothers, dynamic that is uncommon in film.

With its open-ended conclusion amid the naked, blasting fluorescents of a discotheque dance floor, there is certainly possibility for more of The Nest . It is a world of ravishing details and intricate characters, where even minor side-characters have a world of history behind them. It is a world that I embraced and would care to dive further into. This is a surprising and sumptuous experience. Below are summaries of the four episodes that make up the film (should you see it as a miniseries);

Episode 1 : Bruno arrives at Porto Alegre, in search of his brother. The boy meets Madam Marlene’s “gang” and discovers the city with them.

Episode 2 : Bruno has to postpone his search for his brother for a few hours, since he and his two new friends are suddenly invited for breakfast by Leon, a nice, yet a bit weird, French old man.

Episode 3 : Guided by Stella, Bruno goes to a nearby beach to discover an important part of his missing brother’s past. There, he finds out that it’s not a bed of roses when you are determined to be yourself.

Episode 4 : It’s Bruno’s last Day before he returns to the army. He has doubts about going back. He’s running out of time to find his brother.

“THE CULT” (“A SIETA”)— A Look at the Future

“THE CULT” (“A SIETA”)

A Look at the Future

Amos Lassen

André Antonio’s “The Cult” takes us into the future to the year 2040 when Earth is abandoned for interplanetary colonization and only the disaffected remain. Those who are too bored to travel are immunized from the need to sleep and they lounge languidly in ornate interiors, whiling away the hours with hookups. This first feature is filled with vibrant ambiance and lush cinematography.

Recife in 2040 is a deserted city after the population to emigrated to the space colonies. One of the former residents decides, one day, to return to the city and the house where he was born. While there he spends his time reading, walking the deserted streets and getting sexually involved with several men. One day he discovers the cult, The Seita” that populates the underworld of the city.

The idea of the film is to give us a look at an imaginary of a future not so far away. We see what happens when the population of the city abandons the planet and what is left in Recife are ghosts of a past memory. It is as if they are resistance if it makes the viewer and they make us think about how things once were. We see that this future is not only disheartening because of the apparent extinction of much of city life, but also because of the very collapse of its structures, which became decadent signs of a once prosperous past.

When the main character returns from the space colonies where a large part of a population lives, he sees abandoned resources and land degradation, and that these have led to a life of social decay. He happens to be an extremely arrogant young man who regains his old house with fine and elaborate porcelain, velvet curtains, art and books. He becomes engaged in frivolous dialogues with the men he attracts to his house and with whom he enjoys sex but without any kind of empathy beyond the frivolity necessary to show himself and attract them, one after another. He has no concern for his “victims” and feels that these men are only there to fulfill his carnal need.

People disappear all the time and despite their apparent tranquility, we realize that there is great discomfort by the police that are still in Recife. The buildings are empty and the human life of the city seems to reside only in ruins where they deal with fear, shame, fear or uncertainty.

There are casual encounters, of circumstance, and the shadow of the cult sect rules the decaying and ruined city. Everyone lives quietly in their uncertainty. They have fun at night in a club and the life that once prevailed is now their only comfort but it makes them distance themselves from an older population who harbor the weight of any responsibility. The viewer reflects on the presumption of the screenwriter and director in this “wannabe” intellectual and metaphorical film but that is actually quite banal.

“I LOVE YOU BOTH”— Twins

“I LOVE YOU BOTH”

Twins

Amos Lassen

Fraternal twin siblings and roommates Donny and Krystal (Doug and Kristin Archibald) are suffering malaise. Krystal is just getting over a messy break-up and hates working at her father’s office. Donny is hoping that his career as a pianist will begin soon and in the meantime he takes babysitting jobs. As they become more and more frustrated by the outside world, the closer the two siblings become. Things change when they meet Andy (Lucas Neff), a sweet, good-natured artist and designer that they are both struck by. Andy seems to like both of them and this causes problem between the once inseparable twins.

This is the debut feature for director/star/co-writer Doug Archibald as well as the big screen-acting debut of co-star, co-writer, and sibling Kristin. The chemistry between the leads is obviously natural and they share a witty rapport that makes the film move forward at a quick pace. 

The twins have been codependent since birth and they are best friends who share almost every aspect of their lives together. They each meet Andy at the same birthday party and they are both attracted to him, wanting to spend more time together and undoubtedly determine if Andy is straight (for Krystal) or gay ( or Donny).

A short time later, Andy invites Donny and Krystal to join him at a friend’s party.  During the party, the twins discover Andy is actually bisexual thus leaving him up for grabs for both of them.  As a result, Krystal and Donny both start dating Andy, each wanting to pursue their individual feelings, yet careful not to harm the other.

This romantic crisis is filled with humor and the film has a lot to smile about. After Krystal sabotages her own date with Andy, Donny and Andy start growing closer together.  Krystal attempts to let go, despite the fact that Andy may have actually preferred her.  Things come to a head when Andy and Donny decide to take a weekend getaway and invite Krystal to come along.  As Donny prepares for a night out, Andy and Krystal head out for a drink.  Alone, Andy shares his feelings for Krystal, leaving her torn between a relationship she desperately wants and the possibility of harming her brother to have that relationship.

Labels are extremely double-edged. On one hand, they can provide much needed representation for marginalized minorities, groups and communities, (such as Blacks, LGBT or a specific nationality). On the other hand, labels generate an expectation, and easily disappoint when certain criteria are not met. This is what we look at in this film. The focus of the film is not the romance, rather the focus is on the relationship between the twins. is the central pillar about the movie. This is a movie about fraternal love.