“49 PULSES”— We Can Never Allow Ourselves to Forget

“49 Pulses”

We Can Never Allow Ourselves to Forget

Amos Lassen

When I first heard about this film, I was not sure that I really wanted to see it. What happened in Orlando at Pulse was difficult and although I never wanted to forget it, I was not sure I wanted to see it again.

On June 12, 2016, a gunman walked into a crowded nightclub in Orlando, Florida and shot 102 people, murdering 49 of them. At 2:00 AM, the Pulse nightclub was winding down its weekly Latino night. The building was dark, crowded, and loud. Patrons were making plans to leave when a gunman, who began firing in every direction, ambushed them. Customers tried to escape, but the killer followed them. For the next three hours, he terrorized victims while playing hide and seek with the police.

Filmmaker Charlie Minn tries to answer several questions that remain unanswered about the tragedy of that night and these include why the perpetrator chose Pulse nightclub and why it took over three hours for police to stop him. Through his interviews with the survivors, police, family members, and city officials, Minn pieces together how one of the largest mass shooting in American history took place.

Minn says that he made the in order to honor the victims. “I am fully aware of the sensitivity surrounding the tragedy and would never make such a movie unless it was to pay tribute to the victims by telling their stories of humanity and heroism.”

“For the Love of Samuel” by R.P. Andrews— An Erotic Romance

Andrews, R.P. “For The Love of Samuel”, ADS, 2018.

An Erotic Romance

Amos Lassen

It is 2012 and Billy Veleber in a 51-year-old New Yorker and a gay male who is growing older and hating it. His ex, Mitch, a meth head is out of the picture, Then there was Gus, who is an aging gay male like Billy but who is no longer in the picture. Billy is given the chance to return to the days of his youth through magic and he jumps at the chance. Not if I would tell you how this comes about, I would spoil the read for you so just bear with me.

Billy gets the chance to become 21, through the magical dog tag of a long dead Civil War soldier, Samuel Evans. Now as a young man, he lives Manhattan and relocates to Fort Lauderdale where no one knows anything about him. It is there that he meets Dare who becomes the love of his life and together they pursue a “get rich quick” scheme that pulls them together but that also has the power to break them apart. There is a “small” problem in that Billy is not who he seems to be to Dare.

I am not a big reader of gay erotica (or erotica of any kind) but when I do read it, I usually rely on recommendations. This was not the case here as I was already familiar with R.P. Andrews’ writing having reviewed him in the past.

I have always thought that if erotica is to read true, there must be a story into which the sex scenes fit and that is what “Samuel” has. We gain some background about the Civil War. I read that Andrews is a Civil War buff and so I am sure that he did his research well in order to write this book. He learned that dog tags (an important part of this story) came into being with the Civil War and this gave him the chance to give some historical background to his story. Andrews discovered that Walt Whitman

had been a volunteer nurse at the Armory Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he cared for injured and dying Union soldiers during the war and he very nicely uses that as part of his story. We not only get hot erotica but a bit of gay history (although disguised).

There have been countless stories about the quest for youth and everlasting life making it difficult to find a new way to approach it and write about it. Here is where Andrew succeeds. He takes the facts that he has learned and converts them into fantasy and he gives us a very sexy story. It seems that there were certain dog tags that contained the life force of their long dead owners and when the tags were transferred to a new owner, the person returned to the age Samuel was when he lost his life.

When the story opens, we see that Billy is beset by bad luck. Gus who was his lover at that time had a stroke leaving him almost helpless and ending his wonderful career as a neurosurgeon. Billy’s work was lost to bankruptcy and Billy had to find a new job.

Desperate Billy heads to Chicago hoping to find a job and comfortable surroundings for Gus. He also has the idea of resurrecting his romance with Mitch who has become a victim of the meth epidemic happening among gay men. From there it was off to Florida and a new life as a new person.

We meet some very hot men who have some very hot sex but the reader must be ready to read fast because the novel is fast paced. I actually heard, and thoroughly enjoyed the audio version that made it all seem very real (and very sexy). However, it is not only the sex that keeps the story moving. Writer Andrews tells a good story in wonderful prose and we are very aware of how much he studied the Civil War to be able to write this.

There are a lot of characters and the story changes directions a few times keeping us alert. This is one of those books that will stay with me for quite a while.

“GUYS READING POEMS”— A Visual Feast

“Guys Reading Poems”

A Visual Feast

Amos Lassen

Hunter Lee Hughes’ “Guys Reading Poems” resembles a silent film with its use of visual storytelling without dialogue. Throughout the film, the characters speak only a handful of words to one another and the poems interspersed throughout function much like songs in a musical film, occasionally moving the story along but more often establishing mood and tone. “Guys Reading Poems” is an experimental art film that was shot in black and white with limited dialogue. The characters are unnamed and are referred to by their roles in the film.

Patricia Velasquez is the Mother, and Alexander Dreymon is the Father. When the Father has to leave Los Angeles for a project in New York, he leaves their child with the Mother, who finds herself unable to cope with the burdens of parenting. Luke Judy plays their son. The film is structurally non-linear and poetry is used to connect the scenes. We get the feeling that the director is trying out new things and thus requires some patience from the audience. What seems random at first will eventually be explained; the elements are here but require time to cohere.

At first it seems that there is no story at all but with patience all comes together. But until that point, the film has wonderful visual style that relates a great deal without the characters speaking much at all. Every moment in the film looks is visually gorgeous,

The film tells the story of a boy whose unstable mother imprisons him in a puppet box and builds an art installation around him, In order to deal with this, the boy imagines a group of young men who read poetry to him, and these recitations echo through scenes of his past, his future, and his fantasies.  In effect, we get a complex jigsaw puzzle charting the reverberations of a traumatic childhood, through which the resulting psychological fallout — fear and grief, anger and sorrow — is seen through the masterful language of the poems and by Hughes’ haunting black-and-white visuals. There is a lot of emotional content and we soon realize that “Guys Reading Poems” is both drama and fantasy, which means that it is also neither. It is one the line between realism and artistic conceit but that is not a negative statement.

The storytelling is elegantly simple, and almost entirely visual. He have a prologue that shows the courtship of father and mother and the rift that develops between them later — as well as the conflict it creates in their child.

Director Hughes has taken tremendous risks and achieves tremendous rewards from them. Some 32 works make up most of the spoken poems in the film. These poems become a comfortable presence and give voice to the soul of the story. It’s largely due to them that the film’s elevated stylization has such an authentic emotional connection thus allowing both plot and purpose to be revealed like petals on a flower.

The poems includes works by Blake, Whitman, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Yeats, and West Hollywood poet laureate (and my friend) Steven Reigns, among many others but it is the visual poetry achieved by Hughes and cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah. The film “revels in its black-and-whiteness, evoking a noir sensibility that pays homage to its cinematic heritage and makes every frame feel like a deeply embedded memory.”  The actors must communicate complex relationships mostly without the aid of dialogue, and they succeed admirably. At the center is young Luke Judy as the boy, moving and endearing in a performance as refreshingly natural as any of his adult co-stars. Since the movie is called “Guys Reading Poems,” the true stars of the show are the ensemble of young men who fill those title roles. Their soulful delivery provides the heart of the film and gives weight to what might otherwise be nothing but a succession of pretty vignettes. Each of them provides a differing perspective, standing in for various aspects of the young protagonist’s psyche as he makes sense of his experience and each of them are gorgeous examples of the male aesthetic.

The emphasis on maleness, along with an underlying current of unrequited yearning for masculine affection (established with the departure of the boy’s beloved father), suggests a gay subtext. This tale of a boy locked away in childhood provides an allegory for a life shaped in the closet; the isolation from family and society, the longing and resentment, the combination of loneliness and self-sufficiency are relevant themes within the LGBT community, and all are intricately woven into every second of the film although not overtly yet vivid nonetheless. This is what makes the film an addition to the canon of queer cinema.

By channeling the pain of the damaged youth into a unique filmic meditation, Hughes has created a touchstone for anyone who struggles to reconcile psychic scars within their own life and a movie that illuminates the path to transcendence. “Guys Reading Poems” is unequivocally an art film, and as such will mot be a box office hit. It is a much-appreciated effort and should be seen. It is one of the most beautiful movies that we shall see all year.  It is not our regular gay indie film with an overt, LGBTQ-themed plot line. We are presented with life’s most perplexing questions – “what is love, is there any real meaning for humanity, can art transcend its ethical boundaries – under the guise of a performative reality that is as mind-bending as the film’s literary puzzle.”

We see how much the caregivers in our lives can aid or hinder our growth and how our childhood scars carry on with us well into adulthood. The film gives us the ability to grasp the many facets of imagination in the context of the human psyche and leaves the viewer with the question of when art stops and brutality begins. It is at this point that the director reminds us that his film is a fascinating puzzle that is meant to be and cherished, rather than understood.

“A LETTER TO HARVEY MILK”— Leslea Newman’s Novella is Now a Musical

A new musical with a soaring score and humorously heartfelt lyrics has arrived in New York City. A Letter to Harvey Milk is a tale of friendship and loss, which explores the grip of the past and the hard-won acceptance set in motion by the most unexpected people.

San Francisco. 1986. When Harry, an amiable but intensely lonely retired kosher butcher and widower, decides on impulse to take a writing class at the local senior center, he finds an unexpected alliance with Barbara, a young lesbian writing teacher.

Harry fulfills a writing assignment to compose a letter to someone from his past who’s dead. He writes not to his late wife Frannie, but to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay political leader in California. Barbara is stunned. Harry’s letter evokes life-changing revelations and helps to forge an unlikely bond, one that neither could have foreseen. This inspiring new musical will remind you to show your Gratitude Now to those around you, before it is too late.

A LETTER TO HARVEY MILK
Lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz
Additional Lyrics by Cheryl Stern
Music by Laura I. Kramer
Book by Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern, Laura I. Kramer and Jerry James
Based on the short story “A Letter to Harvey Milk” by Lesléa Newman

Starring Adam Heller,Julia Knitel and Cheryl Stern
with Michael Bartoli,Jeremy Greenbaum, Aury Krebs, CJ Pawlikowski

Musical Direction by Jeffrey Lodin
Directed by Evan Pappas

“THE LAST GOLDFISH”— An Autobiographical Documentary

“THE LAST GOLDFISH”

An Autobiographical Documentary

Amos Lassen

Director Su Goldfish as an adult discovered that she had siblings she’d never met. Her film spans the globe from Australia to Trinidad and to Germany and is an astounding revelation not only of one woman’s discovery of her family history before and after Nazism but also the story of her reconnection to her Jewish heritage. Goldfish faces universal questions such as whether it is possible to separate oneself from one’s past and what it means to try.

Goldfish was born in Trinidad and still wonders how her European parents ended up on this tropical island. They had no family in Trinidad. When Manfred, her father, refused to talk about his past she became determined to learn about the past. She learned that her father is a German Jew who fled the horrors of Kristallnacht to the only place that would let him in without a visa, but what about the rest of the family? The story is told through a personal archive of photos and home movies. We see the inter-generational impact of loss and displacement on refugees and their families and we are reminded that similar traumas are happening once again in the current wave of refugees.

 

“The Last Goldfish” is an adventure that takes us on a journey through memory and amnesia that reveals the complexity of ordinary lives and the “deep need we have to know who we are and where we come from”. Seeing this film makes us understand that the results of displacement are deep wounds and it takes a great deal of work to put the pieces back together.

Su didn’t realize she was white when she was a child growing up in Trinidad. As an adult, she found a new family in Sydney’s LGBT community, learns she is Jewish and that she has half-siblings on the other side of the world. Her search for her lost family echoes through all those touched by forced migration.

“THE SOULTANGLER”— Mind-Bending

“THE SOULTANGLER”

Mind-Bending

Amos Lassen 

Insane genius Dr. Anton Lupesky has developed a drug that allows users to inhabit corpses and transform into rabid maniacs. Reporter Kim Castle wants to stop the carnage and save our species from annihilation. This is outsider filmmaking is a dream-like wasteland filled with severed heads, evil beasties, and hooded slashers. Filmed in basements and garages, director Pat Bishow’s earnest devotion to storytelling in the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft elevates the film so that it is beyond kitsch. This is the first time the film is available on DVD and Blu ray.

The first 50 minutes may turn a lot of people off, but I was never bored and was laughing out loud more than I wasn’t. The awful acting from obvious friends and family of the director, the terrible editing, the hilariously bad music and the awful sound mixing all point to how not to make a movie, yet this is totally still entertaining

The final 40 minutes are truly amazing and the effects-work is excellent. There is plenty of violence and gore. The filming took place in a Long Island basement that’s crudely decorated like a mad scientist’s lab and as the mad doctor is pretending to look around the laboratory a zombie comes out of a meat locker, dripping goo and dragging fifteen foot long intestines. He attacks the hero, wrapping his intestines around his neck like a lasso chokes him.

Special features include: 

– Transferred from the original 1″ master tapes!

– Unseen 62 minute alternate director’s cut!

– Commentary track with director Pat Bishow!

– Behind the scenes footage!

– Trailers for THE SOULTANGLER and DEAD OF NIGHT TOWN!

– Music video for “Wow” by Hypnolovewheel!

– Liner notes by Bleeding Skull’s Zack Carlson!

– Reversible cover art!

“Hasidism: A New History” by David Baile, David Assaf and Benjamin Brown, et al.— A Comprehensive History

Biale, David, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellmab, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, Marcin Wodainski. “Hasidism: A New History”, with an afterword by Arthur Green, Princeton University Press, 2017.

A Comprehensive History

Amos Lassen

I have always been fascinated by and curious about Hasidim. Being from New Orleans, I did not have much access to Hasidic Jews since back then there were none so I what I knew about them, I learned at weekly religious school and it was not until after I graduated from college and moved to Israel that I was able to know a Hasid on a one-to-one basis. Of course, I could not ask questions and so I began to read. Now, with the publication of “Hasidism: A New History”, I have everything I ever wanted to know.

Hasidism is a pietistic movement that shaped modern Judaism and here we get a combination of intellectual, religious, and social history as well as perspectives on the movement’s leaders as well as its followers. We see that Hasidism is a product of modernity that forged its identity as a radical alternative to the secular world.

Hasidism originated in southeastern Poland, in mystical circles that were centered on the figure of Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, but it was only after his death in 1760 that it began to spread as a movement. Some have stated that Hasidism stop being a creative movement after the eighteenth century but we see here that the golden age of the movement was in the nineteenth century, when it conquered new territory, gained a mass following, and became a mainstay of Jewish Orthodoxy. Eastern European Hasidism was severely hurt by World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Holocaust. Then following World War II, the movement entered a second golden age and really grew. Today, it is once again experiencing a renaissance in Israel, the United States, and other countries around the world. In this book we get the work of an international team of scholars with information for anyone seeking to understand the movement. This is a very readable comprehensive history that kept me mesmerized as I read.

We get a new understanding of many of the myths about Hasidism as well as new insights that place the movement at the center of European Jewish history and as a movement that shaped history and not just a marginal group of Jews. The collective wisdom we get here from eight of the modern sages of Judaism give us a complete portrait of Hasidism.

Because of their unique dress, Hasidic Jews are highly visible. They are also the fastest growing of all the world’s Jewish subcultures. Along with that they are also among the least understood and enigmatic of Jewish communities. We learn what brought the movement into being and how it survived. I decided that instead of reading it at first from cover to cover, I looked for the answers to the many questions that I had and they were all answered here.

This is the first real comprehensive history of Hasidism that spans the entire movement from its beginnings to the present. There are more than 800 pages and not one is wasted. What is interested is that the work is truly collaborative.

This will be a ready resource and primer for the next generation of pious and doubtful inquirers into the history of Hasidism, especially for outsiders. It is written with inclusivity and invites us to understand. I can imagine that the religious insider might find this to be too broad and too historical but then they are supposed to know all of this anyway. The purpose of the book or so it seems to me is to give a thorough and even-handed history of the movement.

“RAZZIA”— Five Separate Narratives That Become One

“Razzia”

Five Separate Narratives That Collide Into One

Amos Lassen

 

Director Nabil Ayouch in “Razzia” brings a potent and fascinating mosaic of a film about dreams, and the trials and struggles of everyday life in Morocco. The film opens with the Berber proverb, “Happy is he who can act according to his desires.” This can be interpreted as a perfect synthesis of the intentions of a filmmaker with a prodigious sensitivity to human nature. Five different stories span two time periods to show the unsettling and potentially explosive frustration experienced by those trying to make their own paths in a conservative society.

“Razzia” begins in 1982 in the Atlas mountains, in a tiny village where much-loved teacher Abdallah (Amine Ennaji) must obey the directives of the state and stop teaching in Berber, the only language that his pupils understand. Soon, defeated Abdallah leaves this place, and with it his romance with the widow Yto (Nezha Tebbaï). We then move forward to Casablanca in 2015 where the beautiful Salima (Maryam Touzani, who co-wrote the script alongside Ayouch), is dressed immodestly as she takes a dip in the ocean after running into a protest against the reform of inheritance laws. The demonstrators carried signs declaring “Sharia rules” or “men and women are not the same”. It is here that we see everyday scene with its deep contradictions.

While Salima might appear to be an independent woman, her husband is firmly established in the modernity that befits economic privilege. Salima is torn over whether or not to have an abortion, and seeks the advice of Yto (now played by Saâdia Ladib), whose house she goes to dance accompanied by Elyas, her son. Elyas (Abdellah Didane) works as a bartender for Joe (Arieh Worhalter), a Jew living an outwardly quiet life, soothed by his memories of the classic film “Casablanca” but he is realizing that his existence is becoming ever more circumscribed, particularly in matters of love, by religious barriers.

Hakim (Abdelilah Rachid), on the other hand, faces different obstacles. His family and neighbors in the city’s working-class Medina district stand in the way of his dreams of becoming a rock star like Freddie Mercury. Meanwhile, the charmed life of well-off teenager Inès (Dounia Binebine) hides a profound loneliness, as she faces the confusion of growing up in an environment where TV images collide with the country’s traditions. All of these cases of individual psychological tension feed into a latent sense of rising pressure, while disturbances break out across the city in the middle of the night.

We see contemporary Morocco and the hubbub of Casablanca as both stinging and affectionate and in need of a reawakening, for perseverance and for renewal and a warning against the dangers posed by escalating conflict and contradiction.

Director Ayouch does an excellent job of immediately luring the viewer into the dense narrative, and it’s clear, too, that his initial emphasis on the timelines perpetuates the promising atmosphere with the scenes involving an ’80s school teacher standing as an early highlight. There are a few ongoing highlights throughout the running time that include a recurring subplot involving a gay aspiring musician with a Queen obsession. However, there are too many rushed storylines does not work as smoothly as it should.

“The Dry Bones Haggadah” by Yaakov Kirschen— Make the Seder Fun

Kirschen, Yaakov. “The Dry Bones Passover Haggadah”, Maggid, 2018.

Make the Seder Fun

Amos Lassen

 Yaakov Kirschen has published his Dry Bones cartoons in “The Jerusalem Post” for over forty years and he is syndicated in newspapers around the world. Now he takes the wit from his drawings and turns it into a Haggadah that features an engaging, user-friendly layout, contemporary design, and modern English translation.

Kirschen’s wit and artistry are on every page as is his love of Judaism and this is a wonderful way to brighten every Seder. He combines tradition with modernity. All of the original Hebrew text is present

alongside innovative cartoons. We read the Haggadah as a unifying experience and most of us look forward to doing so every year. This Haggadah is, in effect, the graphic history of the Jewish people. The story is presented in a light way but the original intention of reading the exodus is there in full. Because we live in such a diverse world today, we want everyone who comes to the Seder to feel included and that is exactly what this Haggadah does.

Each page contains Dry Bones cartoons, many featuring the beloved character of Uncle Shuldig. Kirschen tells us that the structure here is based on the Talmud with the main text appearing in the middle of the page and surrounded by commentary. However, with this Haggadah we get relevant and contemporary wit there is based on the 3000-year-old story of the Jews leaving Egypt. The layout is clear and easy to follow, even when sitting beside someone with a different Haggadah. The cartoons keep both youngsters kids and adults laughing and engaged throughout the night and we share and enjoy as one group. The size is perfect and it makes a wonderful gift as well.

“Out of Egypt” by Andre Aciman— Quite a Family

Aciman, Andre. “Out of Egypt: A Memoir”, Picador, 2007.

Quite a Family

Amos Lassen

“Out of Egypt” is the book that made me a Andre Aciman fan and I am so happy now that others have been introduced to him via the film adaptation of “Call Me By Your Name”. Now only does Aciman always have a good story to tell but he tells each of them in gorgeous prose. Perhaps his best story is that one his family that we meet in “Out of Egypt”. This is a memoir that looks at the Aciman clan from their arrival to Alexandria, Egypt to its defeated departure three generations later. We meet some wonderful characters— Uncle Vili, a proud daredevil, soldier, salesman, and spy; two grandmothers, the Princess and the Saint, who were able to gossip in six languages; Aunt Flora, the German refugee who warns that Jews lose everything “at least twice in their lives” to name a few as a start. We also meet Andre, a boy who, even as he longs for a wider world, does not want to be taken out of Egypt.

Andre was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt but considered his nationality to be French. His family were Sephardic Jews who had wandered from Italy to Turkey and then settled in Egypt. His father owned a woolen mill and his parents were very wealthy, as were the other members of the larger family who lived with them or gathered regularly for elegant meals and special occasions. They had no common language and only a few of them learned Arabic. They hid their Jewishness when Nasser was in power as this a time of high Arab nationalism, intense anti-Semitism and then war. Eventually they went to Paris, leaving behind much of their wealth but little of their culture. Aciman gives us a very rich and captivating portrait of a Jewish family that experienced many adventures and as many disappointments. Here Aciman redeems the social life, customs, and history of a community that barely exists today amid an inhospitable milieu, due to political turmoil in close and remote lands. While this is something of a nostalgic account of that family, it is also a look at a community that was but is no more. The Acimans came to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1905, long before young Andre‚ was born. There they lived in splendor as Aciman’s great-aunts and –uncles made and lost fortunes, despised the Arab natives, and survived two world wars. The family rose to, and fell from, the heights of government and European-Egyptian society, and by the late 1960s the entire clan had either died, emigrated, or been expelled from their adoptive home.

Aciman begins his memoir with a visit to Great-uncle Vili, the first of the family to emigrate. Vili was in his 80s then and had become a genteel and gentile Englishman: Because of his service to the British during WW II (even while remaining faithful to Italian Fascism), he was granted a country estate in Surrey, where he lived out his life as Dr. H.M. Spingarn. Vili’s sister Esther, Aciman’s grandmother and one of the last to leave Egypt and she was a European grande dame who dined at Alexandria’s Sporting Club, fingered produce in the market, and bargained mercilessly with the local merchants. She smuggled money out of Egypt for years before she was expelled along with her sister Elsa and Aciman and his parents. Aciman paints quite a portrait of a bygone time without idealizing his colorful ancestors. Much of their interest is, in fact, in their pettiness, spitefulness, and bigotry. “They were simultaneously assimilated, anti-Semitic, and practicing Jews; masters of their Egyptian servants and “Dogs of the Arabs.” Aciman’s father was an unrepentant philanderer and his deaf mother was a source of shame. We see Aciman, himself, as an as observer of the family’s deterioration.

I loved reading of a time when Jews lived in peace with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in Alexandria. Aciman does not mention anti-Jewish sentiments until after the Suez War. Aciman, like many “Egyptian” Jews preferred to hold European nationalities and in some cases some were French or Italian without ever having been in these countries. Europeans had their own courts in Egypt and did not fall under Egyptian Laws. For Aciman, life became unbearable after the waves of Nationalization in the early 60’s.

This is an Alexandria that no longer exists not just for Egyptian Jews. The population explosion in Egypt has transformed Alexandria beyond recognition but Aciman’s beautiful writing of Alexandria brings it back. Affluent Egyptian Jews who left Egypt in the fifties and sixties are not immediately thought of as refugees and there is little discussion on their issues of identity and affiliation in Egypt and elsewhere. Aciman shares some very funny moments and shows us that life can be amusing even with its dysfunction.