“MELO”— A Doomed Love Triangle

“Mélo”

A Doomed Love Triangle

Amos Lassen

Master director Alain Resnais adapted “Melo” from Henri Bernstein s classic play about a doomed love triangle in 1920s Paris. Pierre (Pierre Arditi) and Marcel (André Dussollier) are both celebrated concert violinists and lifelong friends, despite their differing temperaments. Pierre is modest, sensitive and content with his lot; Marcel is hungry, driven, and pursues a solo career that takes him to the four corners of the world. After spending years apart, the two friends reunite when Pierre invites Marcel to his home for dinner. It is then that Marcel first meets Pierre’s wife Romaine (Sabine Azéma)  and thus begins a passionate affair that can only end in tragedy. “Melo” is a hidden gem in Resnais celebrated body of work waiting to be rediscovered.

The film is set behind a proscenium arch and has a classical music background and boasts excellent nuanced performances from the three leads..

Marcel has a dinner-date with his old friend from their days at the music conservatory, Pierre, a contented second-rate orchestra musician who lives in a suburban cottage, in Montrouge just outside Paris, this led to Pierre’s falling in love with Marcel’s attractive pianist wife Romaine after she’s captivated over hearing him tell his life story. She chases after the wealthy, suave and talented violinist and they have a passionate affair. When Marcel goes on a tour, the tormented woman commits suicide when her plans to poison her good-natured husband are interrupted by a nosy doctor. The last act has Pierre calling on Marcel and the two dance around the death of Romaine, with a depressed Pierre reaching out to somehow forgive his friend who will still not admit he cheated with his best friend’s wife. Pierre’s purpose of the meeting after many years of not seeing his friend is to retain his wife’s good name, whom he still loves despite later learning of her disloyalty, as he will not allow for any mention of the illicit affair.

This is an elegant and well-crafted drama that wrestles with broad ideas of love, honesty and drama. We see pain from among the Brahms’ sonatas, and melodramatics that were dated long ago. I am a great fan of Alain Resnais whose famous films quite often revolve around doomed love affairs. “Mélo” is a story of adultery where the cards are all shown, a melodrama that shares all its secrets and displays the consequences of each.

Set in 1926, we meet longtime friends who both play the violin professionally and who did not expect the love affair to happen. The seduction of Marcel is one of many great scenes in “Mélo” and one where Azema truly shines. She plays every trick: she is knowing and open, but also coy and demure; shameless, yet protective. She invites, then denies, and then accepts Marcel’s advances when he finally propositions her as if it were his own idea. What begins as a lark quickly becomes heavy, however, and when Marcel is due to go on tour, large promises are made. Romaine vows to end her marriage with Pierre before Marcel gets back, a task easier said than done when Pierre grows gravely ill. It is here that Resnais, who also wrote the screenplay, gets tricky, letting the melodrama veer into more pulpy territory, making suggestions of what the true cause of Pierre’s illness is with just a few well-placed–and ultimately unexplained–hints. He even plays with the paradigm of good woman and bad, making Romaine the reluctant femme fatale in contrast to her more virtuous cousin (Fanny Ardant).

Resnais plays up the theatrical origins of “Mélo” by shooting long portions of the scenes as single, uncut takes, and dividing them with the image of a red curtain, a filmic fade-in/fade-out.  The opening credits are printed in a playbook, the pages being turned on screen. Amazingly, though, the film does not become overly stagey. Even as the actors talk, he moves the camera around them, never settling longer than makes sense on a single shot, choosing when to stand still, pan, or cut based on the emotional tenor of the script. His control of the film is remarkable. Each moment appears spontaneous, but the spontaneity that only careful planning can inspire.

As the film  progresses, the secrets grow more pronounced, and the thrill of romance gives way to rash decisions and great despair. Sabine Azema as Romaine is the driving force throughout, but both male actors are excellent as the men driven to distraction by desire for  her. All the performances are compellingly physical despite all the scenes being confined to a single space.

SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS 

  Brand new 2K restoration of the film

  High Definition Blu-Ray (1080p) presentation

  Original 2.0 Stereo soundtrack

  Optional English subtitles

  Newly-filmed introduction by critic Jonathan Romney

  Archive interview with director Alain Resnais

  Archive interview with producer Marin Karmitz

  Archive interviews with actors Pierre Arditi and André Dussolier

  Archive interview with script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot

  Archive interview with set designer Jacques Saulnier

  Theatrical Trailer

  Reversible sleeve featuring original artwork

  FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Bilge Ebiri

 

“THE IGUANA WITH A TONGUE OF FIRE”— Murder in Dublin

“The Iguana With The Tongue Of Fire”

Murder in Dublin

Amos Lassen

“The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire” is an  excessive giallo film with a rogues gallery of perverse characters; violent, fetishized murders, and one of the genre s most nonsensical, red-herring laden plots (which sees almost every incidental character hinted at potentially being the killer). Set in Dublin, the film opens audaciously with an acid-throwing, razor-wielding maniac brutally murdering a woman in her own home. The victim’s mangled corpse is discovered in a limousine owned by Swiss Ambassador Sobiesky (Anton Diffring) and a police investigation is launched, When the murders continue and the ambassador claims diplomatic immunity, tough ex-cop John Norton (Luigi Pistilli) is brought in to find the killer…

This is a lurid over-the-top film directed by  Riccardo Freda. It is trashy and filled with slashes and begins with the horrible mutilated, acid-splashed and razored body of a young Dutch woman being found in the boot of a Rolls Royce. Her murder is seen just after the credits, at the hands of a killer wearing dark glasses. The discovery sparks an investigation, which is hampered by Ambassador Sobieski’s diplomatic immunity. However, along with the Ambassador there  are many shifty looking characters littering the embassy, including his opium addicted wife (Valentina Cortese); the sweaty chauffeur, Mandel (Renato Romano), who needs to wear dark glasses because of his conjunctivitis; the Ambassador’s beautiful daughter Helene (Dagmar Lassander) and his smarmy son Marc (Werner Pochat). 

Another body turns up connected to the steely-eyed Ambassador. His mistress, a flame-haired nightclub singer (Dominique Boschero), is found slashed to death just after he was seen leaving her backstage dressing room. it is here that the frustration from their lack of progress causes the police bring in the unofficial help of ex-Inspector John Norton. Norton had been kicked off the force after his incompetence led to a man he was violently interrogating grabbing his gun and blowing his brains out (a moment lovingly shown in slo-mo several times). When not at home with his teenage daughter and amateur sleuth mother, Norton gets stuck into the case by getting stuck into the Ambassador’s daughter.

However, despite Norton’s best efforts, more of the Sobieski clan – and their friends and associates – end up at the wrong end of the iguana’s tongue of fire …

The film has many red herrings, from almost everyone owning a pair of dark glasses (like the one the killer wore during the first murder) to one of the characters protesting his innocence by producing a receipt from ‘Swastika Laundry’.

Director Freda seems to revel in gore to a level not usually seen in the giallo. The gore effects are wholly unconvincing but those who love sleaze should enjoy them— we see throats slashed emitting geysers of blood and a mannequin has acid thrown at her face. An exciting and improbable ending and confrontation with the killer comes at the end of the film.

SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS

  New 2K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative

  High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation

  Uncompressed mono 1.0 LPCM audio

  Original English and Italian soundtracks, titles and credits

  Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack

  Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack

  New audio commentary by giallo connoisseurs Adrian J. Smith and David Flint

  Of Chameleons and Iguanas, a newly filmed video appreciation by the cultural critic and academic Richard Dyer

  Considering Cipriani, a new appreciation of the composer Stelvio Cipriani and his score to The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire by DJ and soundtrack collector Lovely Jon

  The Cutting Game, a new interview with Iguana s assistant editor Bruno Micheli

  The Red Queen of Hearts, a career-spanning interview with the actress Dagmar Lassander

  Original Italian and international theatrical trailers

  Image gallery

  Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys

  Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Andreas Ehrenreich

“AT THE DRIVE-IN”— Facing the Future

“At The Drive-In”

Facing the Future

Amos Lassen

Alexander Monelli’s documentary “At the Drive-In” captures the essence and atmosphere of a drive-in movie theater and those who bring it to life. His original plan to look at the drive-in industry changed when he met the crew of the Mahoning Drive-In in Lehighton, Pennsylvania. The long-standing establishment, like most theaters has been trying to stay fresh and relevant and played first-run movies for as long as they could. Things became challenging for Jeff and his team at the advent of digital projection when distributors were phasing out 35mm prints. Jeff was faced with the dilemma in that he realized that he could not afford to buy  a digital projector and  along with Matt and Virgil, decided to program retro film screenings, which would allow them to obtain 35mm film prints. However, what he could not know was whether crowds would come.

 

The staff of the Mahoning Drive-In work for free and choose to make this a part of their lives because they love movies and appreciate old slasher films and comedies, which can’t often be screened in mainstream theaters. “At the Drive-In” is the story on the Mahoning community who refer to themselves as a family.

The film is both a celebration and a eulogy but it’s without a doubt something every film lover should see. It is not just a documentary about a theater — it’s a story about friendship, family, life and passion. The Mahoning Drive-In Theater sits at the gateway to the Poconos about a half-hour drive off the Pennsylvania Turnpike and has been in operation since 1949.  The theater ran first-run movies up until about 2014 when movie studios began eliminating 35 mm presentations and offering their films exclusively in a digital format.

This mean that a digital projector was a requited purchase putting the owner, Jeff, into a quandary.  Audience turnout was low and acquiring a digital projector was out of the question. Two film enthusiasts Matt and Virgil, were able to convince Jeff to focus exclusively on retro movies that could be shown in all their 35 mm glory. This gives a new angle to the story in that aside from the story of this theater, this is the story of the blossoming friendship between Jeff, Matt and Virgil as they work to keep the theater operating amid very real financial concerns.  While Jeff, Matt and Virgil are the key figures in this story, we also learn about other film aficionados who volunteer their time to work at the theater simply for their love of the theater — or in one woman’s case, love for Jeff.

We meet some of the fans who frequent the theater.  Some live close by, but one enthusiast comes all the way from Hartford, CT to watch movies and volunteer behind the counter.  Additionally, Monelli introduces us to personalities and characters who are bound by their love of movies and their love for The Mahoning Drive-In Theater.

The film captures what makes a theater like The Mahoning Drive-In Theater so special.  Watching this, we get a true sense of the devotion that these people have for movies and particularly this theater. 

SPECIAL FEATURES

  Over 17 minutes of deleted scenes

  Cast Commentary #1: Featuring Director Alexander Monelli, Mahoning Drive-in owners Jeff Mattox, Matt McClanahan, Virgil Cardamone and cast.

  Cast Commentary #2: Featuring Director Alexander Monelli, Mahoning Drive-in owner Jeff Mattox and cast.

  Director Commentary #3: Featuring Director Alexander Monelli and special guest Robert Humanick

  Q&A from a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, NY (30 mins)

  Original Theatrical Trailer

“THE GARDEN LEFT BEHIND”— The Struggle to Be Authentic

“The Garden Left Behind”

The Struggle To Be Authentic

Amos Lassen

“The Garden Left Behind” spotlights one woman’s struggle to live an authentic life. Tina (Carlie Guevara) and her grandmother Eliana (Miriam Cruz) are undocumented Mexican immigrants living in New York City.  Tina is a transgender woman and works to bring in money to pay their bills and Eliana stays home.  Of course, there are some risks that come with living as undocumented immigrants.  Tina is in the process of starting her medical transition.  This requires multiple visits with Dr. Cleary (Ed Asner) in order to secure a letter to begin hormone replacement therapy.

Like any grandmother, Eliana worries about her granddaughter; she’s still struggling with the transition process but she need not worry since Tina has no problem making friends within the trans community.  This includes her close friend, Carol (Tamara Williams). We see how expensive it is to transition.  The camera beautifully captures the shock in Tina’s eyes seeing the first bill.  If she weren’t an undocumented immigrant, it is possible that Tina could afford decent medical insurance.  She goes as far as thinking of selling her car if it means having the money to afford living. 

The film doesn’t ignore the threats trans women–especially trans woman of color–deal with on a daily basis.  One of the core plot points in the film has to deal with two cops violently beating Rosie, a trans woman from Queens.  This leads to rallies and other protests.  Tina isn’t without her own worries. 

The film takes care in making sure that trans actors are cast in transgender roles.  Trans actress Carlie Guevara delivers a remarkable performance in her first role.   She reflects the reality for many transgender women and the film reflects what life is like for minorities within the transgender community. 

Quite basically, this is the story of Tina and Eliana as they deal with Tina’s transition and struggle as undocumented immigrants. Aa an undocumented  transgender woman Tina has limited options for finding work, so she drives a cab whilst her grandmother stays home and keeps house.  Each week Tina sees a psychiatrist so that she can be evaluated  to start the medical part of her transitioning.  This takes time and an impatient Tina can’t stand that her future is to be decided by an elderly white man.

Tina is friendly with a tight knit band of girls in the trans community, who not only offer her support, but persuade her to become politically active when one of their numbers is beaten up by the Police.  She also has a boyfriend who is only around when it suits him and disappears completely when Tina gets the go ahead to start the official transitioning.

Alves has involved 50 transgender actors and filmmakers in the process and it is his goal to highlight the many obstacles that a trans person must overcome. In Tina’s case it is the expense.  We also see the levels of acceptance of trans people.  It takes so much more strength and courage for them to simply deal with the routine of their day to day lives.

 

“TERRA FORMAS”—An Intergalactic Epic

“Terra Formars”

An Intergalactic Epic

Amos Lassen

Director Takashi Miike brings us an intergalactic epic in which a team of space explorers find themselves up against a horde of oversized anthropomorphic cockroaches. (Yes, you read that correctly).

In the mid-21st century, humankind has been forced to look to colonizing other planets as a means of combating overcrowding on Earth and their first stop, Mars has a population of cockroaches. They were introduced on Mars some 500 years prior to help prepare the way for human colonization. A manned mission sets out to the red planet with the aim of clearing away the bugs. Upon arrival, however, they discover that the roaches have evolved to huge, vicious creatures capable of wielding weapons. The film on the popular Manga series of the same name and is an action-packed space adventure brought to life by one of Japan’s most celebrated contemporary filmmakers.

However, the high concept sci-fi adventure quickly descends into a repetitive series of violent scuffles and bizarre mutations as a ragtag team of outcasts head to Mars to battle an army of giant anthropomorphic cockroaches. Set in 2599, Earth is facing a serious overpopulation crisis. Fronted by the mysterious Dr Honda (Oguri Shun), a crew of convicts, outcasts and reprobates are hired to participate in a dangerous exploratory mission to Mars. However, two years ago the six members of the BUGS 1 mission all died shortly after arrival. 

Now the expendable crew of BUGS 2 has been sent to investigate, only to discover the cockroaches have mutated into hulking 7-foot beasts with a penchant for decapitation. The crew learn they have each been injected with an experimental serum that temporarily mutates them into different insects, giving them use of their various defense and attacking characteristics. However, the sheer size and number of the cockroach “Terra Formars” means the battle is far from won.

Once the high-concept premise has been put in place, there is little plot to “Terra Formars” beyond scientific infomercials into the various insect characteristics adopted by each character. and occasional flashbacks or expository monologues detailing how each character got to be on this apparent suicide mission. 

Ito Hideaki and Takei Emi play Shokichi and Nanao, siblings both accused of murder, only for Nanao to become the first victim of the alien bugs, infusing Shokichi with a vengeful determination. Other crew members include a pair of yakuza, a serial killer, the head of a child prostitution ring, and a hapless kickboxer. Kikuchi Rinko cameos as a corrupt ex-cop along for the ride while Kane Kosugi also appears as a former terrorist. Needless to say, the nefarious powers-that-be back home ensure not all is as it seems and by the end, characters have been double crossed, romantic yearnings declared and newfound friendships formed.

 Even though the film is lacking in substance, individual action sequences or imaginative mutations work on their own. I also had a great time watching it.

SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS

  High-Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation

  Original uncompressed Stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD MA options

  Newly-translated English subtitles

  The Making of Terra Formars – feature-length documentary on the film s production featuring a host of cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage

  Extended cast interviews

  Footage from the 2016 Japanese premiere

  Outtakes

  Image Gallery

  Theatrical and teaser trailers

  Reversible sleeve featuring two artwork options

  FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Fully illustrated collector s booklet with new writing on the film by Tom Mes

“Typically Jewish” by Nancy Kalikow Maxwell— What Does Typically Jewish Mean?


Maxwell, Nancy Kalikow. “Typically Jewish”, Jewish Publication Society, 2016.

What Does Typically Jewish Mean?

Amos Lassen

Looking at Judaism as a way of life, Nancy Kalikow Maxwell explores what it means to be Jewish and she does so by asking questions— many of which have several possible answers. The answers she manages to come up with are those from rabbis, researchers, and her assembled Jury on Jewishness (Jewish friends she dragged into conversation) and we learn a lot and have fun doing so. Ion eight chapters (see below), we get some kinds of answers and even though we may never know whether Jews prefer deity to deli (or vice versa), we have a lot of fun thinking about it. Even though Rabbi Mordechai of Lechovitz prohibited worry, we do tend to spend a great deal of time worrying. Right now I am worrying about what my next sentence will be.

Here are a few of my gleanings:

 “Kvell-worthy fact: About 75 percent of American Jews give to charity versus 63 percent of Americans as a whole.”

“Since reciting Kaddish brought secular Jews to synagogue, the rabbis, aware of their captive audience, moved the prayer to the end of the service.”

“Who’s Jewish? About a quarter of Nobel Prize winners, an estimated 80 percent of comedians at one point, and the winner of Nazi Germany’s Most Perfect Aryan Child Contest.”

We learn how answer questions Jewishly which could mean that we never get close to the question or that we start a rant about Rabbi so and so from Eastern Europe and listen to 25o of his cute little stories which have little or nothing to do with the story.

So we learn how Jews think (or don’t think) as well as how they feel, act, love, schmooze and live. They’ll also schmooze as they use the book’s “Typically Jewish, Atypically Fun” discussion guide.

The. Book is witty and wise as it examines members of the tribe. Over time and almost everywhere in the world, the globe, Jews have built a vast library of books about every topic of interest to the Jewish people. Here is another book to be added to those libraries. There is a bit of everyone in this book and I believe that each Jew will find himself somewhere in it.

The book is a  comprehensive explanation of the complexities and conundrums but note that it is not definitive since no topic has all the answers

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments    
Introduction: Why Is This Book Different from All Other Books?    
1. Worrying    
2. Kvelling    
3. Dying    
4. Noshing    
5. Laughing    
6. Detecting    
7. Dwelling    
8. Joining    
Conclusion: What It Means to Be Typically Jewish    
Appendix: Typically Jewish, Atypically Fun Discussion Guide    
Notes

“A Rainbow Thread: Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969” by Noam Sienna— An Infinite Rainbow

Sienna, Noam. “A Rainbow Thread: Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969”, Print-O-Craft, 2019.

An Infinite Rainbow

Amos Lassen

I first heard of “A Rainbow Thread” via a friend who told me he had just ordered a copy and while my friend gave me no details aside from this book Jewish and gay, I went ahead and wrote to the publisher to get a review copy. When the book arrived I was first astounded by the 425 page length and then by the tremendous amount of research that it must have taken to compile such a book. Writer Noam Sienna tells us that the book maintains a balancing act between “LGBTQ Jewish history as an infinite rainbow, with no beginning or end, and with no clear boundaries between its different facets” (great analogy and the fact that there is “a thread: a continuity that links our lives, our joys, and our struggles today to an ancestral heritage in the past and to our inheritors in the future.” Sienna does not see history as a march toward a universal goal. Rather he sees it as processes that are made up of  connections, interruptions, and innovations. While we cannot push who we are on those who came before us but we also cannot ignore their history that has become some of our behaviors and shared practices; traditions  that take stories to other places and times, and that are often relevant in our lives today.

I can imagine Sienna going through the history of the Jews looking for examples to back his thesis and to find so much (that many of us never thought about— my adult life has been consumed by my wanting to find a way to preserve the LGBT Jewish literary canon so that the wealth of information it holds can be shared by everyone. Yet with all the work that I have done in the past, I did not come across many of the selections in this anthology.

Sienna explains how to encounter primary historical documents as a way of imagining new futures. He uses classical midrashim as two texts and lets us reread them through queer eyes thus expanding our ideas on what Jewishness is today. We see that Jewish sexuality and gender in practice was not as restricted by boundaries of gender, sex, nationality, or religion as we might have thought. Sienna is not pushing any kind of gay agenda but rather pointing out that we must rethink Judaism. In doing so, we question assumptions about how Jews have understood sexuality and gender throughout our long history as a people during which Jewish identity is often imagined as existing in spite of, or in opposition to,—the world of Jewish tradition. We are encouraged to read and reread, reimagine and revise what today’s Judaism can mean. process of constantly rereading, reimagining, and revising our understanding of what Judaism has meant, and what it can mean for us today.

What is contained in the book spans two millennia, five continents and translations from fifteen different languages. “A Rainbow Thread” is, in effect, queer Jewish history that includes poetry, drama, commentary, law and memoir. Like so many others, I have doubted that there is a place for me in Judaism and I thought I was forging a new path when I remain determined to be an active practicing Jew. I have since learned differently and now have a way to prove it— with this book. I am overwhelmed by the amount of information in “A Rainbow Thread” and I find myself lingering over each text included here and wondering why I had never read it before. We are done sitting on Judaism’s margins and we can now pitch our tents where we want. It may not be easy to do so but remember that it was once impossible to do so. I am in awe of what I see here and can’t wait to use it as a teaching tool.

“Creation: The Story of Begininngs” by Yonatan Grossman— Hidden Meanings

Grossman, Yonatan. “Creation: The Story of Beginnings”, Maggid, 2019.

Hidden Meanings

Amos Lassen

I always look forward to reading the Book of Genesis because there is so much think about especially in the first eleven chapters. In “Creation: The Story of Beginnings”, Jonathan Grossman shows us hidden meanings of the first eleven chapters by taking us through an insightful and creative literary analysis that brings together theology, psychology, and philosophy and from this we get a fresh and renewed understanding of the texts. extracting a fresh and refreshing understanding of the biblical text. Grossman draws his conclusions from the words of the sages and the great medieval commentators which he combines by using contemporary literary tools. We go back to the very beginning and we see  how human initiative goes hand in hand with both sin and progress.

When we consider what those early chapters contain—“the creation of physical reality, the beginning of humanity and man’s encounter with God, the first social interactions and the start of civilization”, we realize that these is a lot more here than we thought. The very idea of a promise of a perfect, utopian world is broken and we are taken into deep shame and disappointment with the beginning of sin. What is so fascinating is that at the same time, we get the ideas of all that is to come afterwards. 

We see that in order to truly study these chapters, we must look at theology, psychology, philosophy and religious experience. What we see is the story of a lost world due to the sins of humankind and a world rebuilt. We read of the beginning of being and the nature of humanity’s purpose in this world. We also read of conflict ad failure.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are very different in style and design than the rest of the book. They are an independent unit using genealogy as a key component. Rabbi Grossman looks at how Genesis fits into the history of the Near East and then at the nature of God and human. In those first eleven chapters, we see that God is very active with the creation and the beginning of time. This was a complex process and through these elven chapters, we see it come into being. I must say that some of my questions about Genesis were answered but they were quickly replaced by more questions. I believe the attempt to answer questions is a catalyst for study and that it is perfectly fine to not get answers to every question. This is what we are left to strive for. My father once told me that when there are no more questions, it is time to leave this life.

“RABBI DR. JONATHAN GROSSMAN is an associate professor in the Department of Bible, Bar-Ilan University, and the Department of Bible, Herzog College, Alon Shevut. He earned his MA in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University and his PhD in Bible from Bar-Ilan University, and has taught at Midreshet Migdal Oz. Among his previous books are Esther: The Outer Narrative and the Hidden Reading (2011), Ruth: Bridges and Boundaries (2015), Text and Subtext: On Exploring Biblical Narrative Design (2015), and Abram to Abraham: A Literary Analysis of the Abraham Narrative (2016).”

“HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH”— Existence

“HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH”

Existence

Amos Lassen

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is the story of a transgender East German named Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell). As a young boy, she meets Luther Robinson, an American soldier, in East Berlin, her home. The two fall in love, and decide to marry, which will allow her to leave East Germany. There is a bit of a problem here in that according to German law, a marriage must legally be between a man and a woman, so the two lovers decide that she will have a sex-change operation, which doesn’t entirely succeed, leaving her with a small lump of flesh between her legs; the “Angry Inch”.

A year after getting married and moving to America, Hedwig’s husband leaves her for another man, and the Berlin Wall falls, making her efforts seem for nothing. Hedwig decides to start up a rock band, in which she includes a young boy Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt). The two initially seem to fall in love, before Tommy leaves her and steals all of their material to transform himself into an international rock star.

Hedwig follows him on tour, telling her story to unsuspecting people at diners and cafes that she meets along the way, but  she is never able to interact with him. Years later, working the streets, she runs into Tommy by coincidence, and the two seemingly reconcile.

In a bravura performance, Mitchell plays the androgynous would-be rock star who performs as a woman but hasn’t entirely lost her manhood (“the angry inch”.

We first meet the bitter and catty Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) performing in the first of a series of dumpy chain seafood restaurants with her pan-Slavic band, The Angry Inch. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is the story of an individual who feels incomplete both physically and emotionally. The sting of multiple romantic betrayals leads her down a dark path where she eventually must find a wholeness from within herself. The audience riding along on this trip is allowed to sit close enough to the action to feel like they’re riding shotgun inside of Hedwig’s head. At this short range, all of her anger, alienation, loneliness, and humor strike hard. There is so much more I can say but I won’t. This is a movie that must be seen and when you do see it, you will realize that it is very special.

“Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent” by Paul Mendes-Flohr— The Life of a Thinker

Mendes-Flohr, Paul. “Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent”,  (Jewish Lives), Yale University Press, 2019.

The Life of a Thinker

Amos Lassen

For a very long time, Martin Buber (1878-1965) has symbolized the Jew as an intellectual.  Now we have the newest biography has been written by Paul Mendes-Flohr, a scholar and intellectual himself and who is a Buber scholar . This is first biography written in English in the last thirty years and Mendes-Flohr is the man to write it. He has organized his book around several key moments of Buber’s life— his abandonment by his mother when he was just three years old and the trauma that was a result of that and led Buber to see the fragility of human relations and the need to nurture them with what he would call a “dialogical attentiveness.”

Buber wrote many philosophical and theological discourses and is most famous  for “I and Thou”. Buber contributed greatly to  religious and Jewish thought, philosophical anthropology, biblical studies, political theory, and Zionism. Mendes-Flohr situates Buber’s life and legacy in the intellectual and cultural life of German Jewry as well as in the broader European intellectual life of the first half of the twentieth century.

Buber was a hugely complicated man: philosopher, activist, who remained committed to a search for a modern Judaism that would remain in touch with the beauty, complexity, and tragedy of everyday life. His life was many-sided and he deserves a great biography and that is what he gets  while at the same time giving is a look at the rich intellectual and cultural life of German Jewry.

Martin Buber is considered to be the seminal modern Jewish thinker so it is only fitting that Jewish scholar Paul Mendes-Flohr has written the first major biography in English in three decades of him. Mendes-Flohr shows that the trauma of being abandoned by his mother left quite an enduring mark on Buber left an enduring mark on Buber’s inner life.

As I review this, I cannot help thinking about how I will structure a review written by a scholar about a scholar and I do not really feel up to the job. Nonetheless, I want to try and I am finding it unavoidable to stay away from Buber as an existential philosopher since that is how I see myself. Buber is best known for his religious philosophy of dialogue that he outlined in his 1923 essay “I and Thou,” and for his critiques of mainstream Zionism.

In “I and Thou” Buber describes two kinds of relationships, the “I-It”, and the “I-Thou”. The I-It relationship is one based on detachment from others and involves a utilitarian approach, in which one uses another as an object. In contrast, in an I-Thou relationship, each person fully and equally turns toward the other with openness and ethical engagement. This kind of relationship is characterized by dialogue and by “total presentness.” In an I-Thou relationship, each participant is concerned for the other person. Rereading that, most of you will say that this is very clear. The honor of the other–and not just in utile purposes is what matters.

The ethical response of the I-Thou relationship is central to Buber’s understanding of God. Buber sees God as the “Eternal Thou” and the only Thou which can never become an It. In other words, while relationships with other people will inevitably have utilitarian elements, in a genuine relationship with God, God cannot be used as a means towards an end. What this says to me is quite simple— God is. It is relationship with God serves as the foundation for our I-Thou relationships with all others, and every I-Thou relationship (be it with a person or thing) involves a meeting with God. God, therefore, is the unifying context, the meeting place, for all meaningful human experience. According to Buber, one encounters God through one’s encounters with other human beings and the world.

When we see the world in this way, revelation occurs. “God speaks to man in the things and beings he sends him in life,” Buber wrote. “Man answers through his dealings with these things and beings.” Now you may wonder what happens when one does not believe in God and I leave that to you to decide. Buber understands the religious experience of the biblical writers also aided his understanding of the works of the Hasidic masters. In many of the teachings Buber collected, God is portrayed as immanent–an immediate and felt presence. God can be found in every encounter, in each experience, and in every aspect of the world. It is Buber’s focus on experiential existence that gives him the title of an existentialist thinker.

Buber was an ardent Zionist in his early adulthood in Germany and became editor of the leading Zionist newspaper, “Die Welt”, in 1901. However, he later broke with the movement because of the  ignoring the needs of the Palestinian Arabs who lived in the Land of Israel.  He became active in a group called Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace), which was founded in 1925 to advocate the creation of a bi-national state.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, Buber founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, which played a prominent role in German Jewish life at a time when Jews were increasingly excluded from secular schools, professions and cultural institutions.

Even with his ambivalence about Zionism, Buber moved to Israel in 1938 and became a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He remained an advocate for Arab rights and believed the Israeli government should allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel after the Israeli War of Independence in 1948.

I have always been interested in Buber’s feelings about the Eichmann trial and Mendez-Flohr tells us that from the beginning of the trial, Buber questioned the trial’s participants and intent. He felt Eichmann should be tried by an international court, since the Jews should not see themselves as judges but as accusers. When Eichmann’s verdict was pronounced by the Jerusalem district court, Buber telephoned prime minister David Ben Gurion to speak with him about the verdict and the ethical and political consequences. Ben Gurion went to Buber’s home where they spoke for two hours and Ben Gurion informed him that he could not intervene in the decision of the court and besides he did not want to. Buber did not want Eichmann executed but felt he should be sentenced to life in prison to be a symbol of the Nazi Holocaust and not just an ordinary criminal.

Much of what you read here will be new and surprising and I enjoyed that all the way through. Written by a scholar, this is a biography for all of us and I recommend it highly. I may not know Buber any better but I now know where to go to learn more.