“The Inexplicable Logic of My Life” by Benjamin Aire Saenz— Growing Up

Saenz, Benjamin Aire. “The Inexplicable Logic of My Life”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

Growing Up

Amos Lassen

When we think about the emotions that we deal with as we grow up, he think of grief, joy, rage, faith, doubt and love and this is what we find in this new young adult novel by Benjamin Saenz. Sal’s adoptive gay father, Vincente, and the fact that he has been raised in a Mexican American family have never been a problem for him. Now he is a senior in high school and he has begun questioning everything realizing that he really does not know himself at all. He’s mad at the world and at himself. His grandmother who has always been there for him is slowly dying of cancer and he wonders if he will be the same person after she goes.

His friends Sam and Fito both have fully dysfunctional families and we see that Sal’s family is the most normal-looking one, even though his mother died and his father seems to be very lonely.

Everyone expects Sally and his best friend Samantha to form a couple but the more we learn about them, the more we realize that they are stronger together as friends. Samantha finds a dad in Vicente, and their friend, Fito finds his way into their family as well, both kids having suffered major personal losses.

Sal struggles about what’s next for him in life; he doesn’t want to go to college right away, he’s not ready for that kind of change. He has to come to terms with losing his mom so young instead of convincing himself that since he doesn’t really remember her he doesn’t feel a loss. He believes that his love for Vicente and his grandmother and their love for him is enough but he has to learn that love is infinite, loss is inevitable, and we can’t ever be our best person if we let fear tell us what to do.

Using the themes of grief and loss and identity, all of us will find something to identify with here.

 

 

“GARBO TALKS”— Searching for Garbo

“Garbo Talks”

Searching for Garbo

Amos Lassen

A dying mother’s (Anne Bancroft) last wish is to meet Greta Garbo and this costs her son (Ron Silver) his job, his marriage and his dignity. Estelle Rolfe (Anne Bancroft) who just happens to be “THE” Jewish mother has an inoperable brain tumor and whose dying wish is to meet Greta Garbo, the legendary recluse. The woman’s son, Gilbert (Ron Silver), who never has been able to assert himself about anything in his life, promises to find Garbo and bring her to his mother’s bedside.

Estelle is an aggressively eccentric woman who wears space shoes, tells off construction workers in their own language, espouses all liberal arguments and is so regularly arrested, on behalf of one good cause and another, that she is known at many jail houses. His mother puts a further strain on Gilbert’s already difficult marriage to Lisa (Carrie Fisher), a homesick, snippy Californian.

Mist of the film is about Gilbert’s adventures in and around New York in his search for the actress, who has been in retirement for more than forty years. His wife goes back to California after learning that Gilbert has stopped working and they are living on their savings. ”Are you serious?” she screams at him. ”My father says that’s like spitting on God!”

”Garbo Talks” contains three unusual monologues, two of which are delivered by Mr. Silver and Miss Bancroft. The third – and best – is delivered by Steven Hill who, as Gilbert’s father, finds real pathos in a long speech in which he explains why he originally fell in love with Estelle and then why, just as inevitably, he fell out of love and divorced her.

Estelle is one of those patented movie heroines who is supposed to be a wild and color­ful character and one critic described her as Auntie Mame crossed with Isadora Duncan and Alice Kramden. Gilbert tries everything to find Garbo but unfortunately the movie bogs down hopelessly while he’s searching. He disguises himself as a delivery boy, he walks the beach outside Garbo’s summer home, he coaxes inside in­formation out of paparazzi. With this kind of buildup we expect Garbo’s entrance tor be spectacular. Unfortunately, it’s not. In fact, it is anti-climatic. (Wait!!!! So Garbo appears?) That scene is one of tear-jerking desperation something the film otherwise successfully avoids.

The plot is built around Estelle, and the role fits Anne Bancroft like a glove. The movie manages to milk the maximum out of her performance — one of the best in her impressive career. While we’re almost constantly thinking about her, we only encounter her at climactic junctures in the plot.

Estelle is an aging divorcée who worships Greta Garbo and rails against the injustices and indignities of modern life. When she discovers she has only a short time to live and decides she wants to meet Garbo before she dies. Gilbert is a likable if low-key nebbish is determined to honor her request by setting out to do the impossible and bring Garbo to his mother’s hospital bed before it’s too late. His quest takes him through Manhattan and Fire Island in search of Garbo and director Sidney Lumet shows off New York in every way possible.

The film asks quite a supporting cast. Carrie Fisher is Gilbert’s West Coast wife and a hilarious version of the Jewish American princess; Catherine Hicks is Gilbert’s more sympathetic office mate; Howard Da Silva is a sleazy, semiretired photographer who chases after celebrities; and Hermione Gingold as a proud if befuddled veteran actress. Harvey Fierstein is a lonely gay guy on Fire Island.

I really wanted to love this movie but it didn’t happen. Gilbert, however, does evolve a bit and his quest to find Garbo gave him the confidence to divorce Lisa and find someone better suited to him.

As for Garbo, you will just have to find out for yourselves.

“DOORS CUT DOWN”— An Appetite for Sex

“Doors Cut Down”

An Appetite for Sex

Amos Lassen

Young Guillermo (Israel Rodríguez), a 16-year-old schoolboy has an insatiable appetite for sex.  He is very mature about what he wants and is able to manipulate older guys into giving it to him.  Every day after school is out he sneaks off to the Mall to find a new sexual partner (who he lures into the restrooms to have a quickie before going back home for dinner).

He is always so horny that he hits on every available man that comes his way including his private tutor (Juan Carlos Rubio) who his parents have hired for him to improve his English. When his father comes home unexpectedly and catches them in the act , the poor tutor is banished and Guillermo and his father never speak of it again.

But then Guillermo gets his best catch ever when he picks up Asier (Pablo Puyol), the hot local car mechanic he has been watching for sometime. However, Mall security guys have become suspicious of Guillermo’s daily lengthy visits to the restrooms, and so they break down the bathroom door and interrupt him as he is giving his all.

Spanish director Antonio Hens brings us this movie that we wish were a full feature as it takes punches at homophobia in society . It is such fun to watch a young teen get what he wants with no judgment. It is also a satire on those mall restrooms that we all love so much.

“HANGING OUT”— A Gay Web Series from the Philippines

“Hanging Out”

A Gay Web Series from the Philippines

Amos Lassen

In case you have forgotten, the Philippines is one of Asia’s most gay-friendly nations, although she still has some to go. Despite that, it’s only just produced its first web series, “Hanging Out” and the two first episodes are ready. We meet introverted David, a young gay man who decides to have a one-night stand. However, things turn out rather differently to how he expected.

Director Petersen Vargas says he likes to make honest movies about gay life as it really is. In the Philippines, the LGBT community does not have the made it a point to make films about gay people the representation that’s needed to really empower the community so a small step like having a web series focused entirely on gay life is a step in the direction of better visibility. Have a look.

“THERE ARE JEWS HERE”— Untold Stories

“There Are Jews Here”

Untold Stories

Amos Lassen

“There Are Jews Here” is a feature documentary that takes us to places where most never imagined Jews existed and shares the untold stories of four once thriving American Jewish communities that are now barely holding on. After Hurricane Katrina, I was evacuated to a place known as Pine Bluff, Arkansas and there I met what was left of a once thriving Jewish community and it was such a contrast to other Jewish communities I had visited. Most of us are unaware of the roughly one million Jews scattered across far-flung communities. For them, Jewish identity is a challenge; if they don’t personally uphold their communities and live affirmative Jewish lives, they and their legacies could be lost forever.There Are Jews Here” brings us stories that explore Jewish/religious identity, the value of Jewish continuity, and the relevance of faith and community in the 21st century. The movie allows us to visit four such communities— Laredo, Texas, Butte, Latrobe, Pennsylvania and Dothan, Alabama. This is something of a warning that their histories, synagogues, cemeteries, and sacred possessions (i.e. Torahs, prayer books, memorial plaques, etc.) could vanish without a trace.

Producer and director Brad Lichtenstein discovered a new world in making this film, a world where identity is a daily challenge. If the Jews in these small towns do not personally uphold their communities and live affirmative Jewish lives, they and their legacies could be lost forever. We see that wherever we go, even to small towns, we hear the same prayers, songs and traditions. By telling the stories of people whose devotion to Judaism and the Jewish community is still story, we see the unsettling truths about changing Jewish demographics without despairing for the Jewish future. Many small-town Jewish communities face dwindling Jewish populations and attempt to plan for their futures. This is what I saw in Pine Bluff— a small group of Jews managed to keep their traditions and their temple alive until about two years ago when they could no longer do so. The reasons come from many different issues—- Along the way, the film touches upon related topics the declining role of Jewish merchants in small-town America, the impact of intermarriage on Jewish life, and the way small communities cope with the absence of regular clergy.

Looking at one individual or family in each of the four towns, we get a narrative and into a significant reality of early twenty-first century Jewish life in America and the gradual disappearance of many small-town Jewish communities. There are both joys and challenges.

 Many of the ways that Jewish life in small towns differs from the large cities in which the vast majority of American Jews live.  Parents worry how their children can have a strong Jewish education without the resources of a large community and it is very hard for  congregations survive and thrive, even without trained clergy and to  provide for their members’ current needs while facing an uncertain future. Jewish life.

I doubt that we think of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Dothan, Alabama, Butte, Montana and Laredo, Texas when we think about Jewish communities and we are

surprised that there actually is Jewish life in those places. There are many tender moments here and it is amazing to see heartbreak on the faces of real Jewish people, fighting to keep tiny communities alive for a few more years. We see synagogues that can hold hundreds with a half-dozen people in the seats, a student rabbi brought in for Yom Kippur and a meeting where the last few congregants decide to wait to disband and close down their congregation until after one last bar mitzvah.

For these communities, aging congregants and dwindling interest are more than peripheral issues—they’re existential threats. The towns must define themselves in contrast with big city life somewhere else.

Nancy Oyer, president of the Butte congregation, fights back tears as her migraines keep her from leading her handful of friends and neighbors in her typically guitar-heavy service. The Balk family drive 45 minutes into Latrobe every Saturday morning, making up 6 of the 10 needed for a minyan. Susie, who converted when she married still feels like a bit of an outsider; when the family does havdalah.

For some communities, the Jews seem to be perfectly suited to outsider status. There is also hope, however small. The Balk family watches as their eldest daughter has the final bat mitzvah in their little synagogue and even though the building will be gone, the memory of it will remain with her and with the archivist who comes by to preserve. The film closes with the Torah from the Latrobe synagogue being used on Simchat Torah at a community on the Jersey shore.

“MALI BLUES”— Music and Muslims

“Mali Blues”

Music and Muslims

Amos Lassen

Lutz Gregor’s documentary, “Mali Blues” shows how Mali’s music defines the country’s cultural identity. Radical Islamists threaten the musicians and together with the stars of Malian Global Pop – Fatoumata Diawara, Bassekou Kouyaté, Master Soumy and Ahmed Ag Kaedi, we take a musical journey to Mali’s agitated heart wondering if their music reconciles the country.

“Mali Blues” follows singer Fatoumata Diawara as she prepares to return to her homeland for the first time in years. Now Islamic fundamentalists controversially ban music in the Northern part of Mali for several months beginning in 2012. (Diawara first fled the country many years prior to escape an arranged marriage.) The importance of the movie’s message is seen through ongoing interviews with Diawara and an assortment of other local musicians. However, it seems that Gregor seemingly only has enough material here for a 20 minute short and the film has been disastrously padded with a series of quite boring musical performances from a variety of talented musicians.

The title of the film refers to a band of musicians of Malian descent, who combat the imposition of Sharia law in Mali by fighting for peace and freedom of speech with their fiery lyrics and performances. Among the assembly are young rapper Master Soumy alongside Fatoumata Diawara, who some may recognize from her role in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu. Though there are a few memorable visual setups outside of the concert scenes, which take us from Bamako in the south west of the region to Timbuktu in the north. The director e knows his greatest asset is simply letting the dynamic performers have their say, spoken or sung and he does not shy away from commentary on the West’s part in the rise of Islamic radicalism in the country.

The West African country of Mali is widely recognized as the birthplace of the blues that were later carried by the transatlantic slave trade to America’s cotton fields. Yet despite centuries of rich tradition, the music and musicians of Mali are today in life-threatening danger with radical Islamists introducing Sharia law in Mali with dance and secular music being increasingly prohibited. Musical instruments are destroyed, and musicians are forced to flee to protect themselves and their families. We follow four musicians: Fatoumata Diawara (Fatou), a rising star on the global pop scene who was memorably featured in Abderrahmane Sissako’s acclaimed drama Timbuktu; Bassekou Kouyaté, a celebrated ngoni player and traditional griot; Master Soumy, a street rapper; and Ahmed Ag Kaedi, leader of the Tuareg band Amanar and guitar virtuoso. Though each takes a different artistic approach, they all refuse to accept hatred, suspicion, violence or fundamentalism, and create music to unite, comfort, and inspire peace instead.

There is a scene in which Fatou heroically denounces female circumcision and this serves to advocate music’s potential in affecting real-life practices. The documentary would be a fascinating look at the music of if we can overlook the unnecessary scenes.

“LOVESONG”— Two Friends and a Trip

“Lovesong”

Two Friends and a Trip

Amos Lassen

The relationship between two friends deepens during an impromptu road trip. Sarah (Riley Keough)’s husband (Cary Joji Fukunaga) is away on a business trip that seems to continuously get extended for inexplicable reasons. As they communicate via Skype, we see that there is no emotional connection between them and that Sarah is frustrated with her husband’s indifference. indifference from her husband. She is exasperated from raising their three-year-old daughter Jessie (Jessie Ok Gray) on her own and wants to know when her husband is going to be able to help out on the home front.

Mindy (Jena Malone) is Sarah’s best friend and as soon as she sees Sarah, she knows that she needs to do two things: help entertain Jessie and get Sarah to lose the stress and cheer up. There is an unspoken language that exists between the two young women and it makes no difference how long they have been apart, they have an incredibly powerful connection.

Sarah, Mindy and Jessie take off on a road trip and this is just what Sarah needed. Mindy establishes a great report with Jessie, so she is able to take some of the parental pressure off of Sarah and she is able to get Sarah to have a drink that allows her to loosen up. The alcohol also allows the two women to realize that their friendship is more than platonic. We see a flirtatious chemistry that is more than just mere curiosity.

Of course, Sarah is married and the mother of a young daughter and she is timid and insecure. She sees Mindy as a promiscuous party girl who cannot settle down into a monogamous relationship. Sarah cannot bring herself to utter aloud how she feels and Mindy knows that. Mindy decides the time to leave has come and she gets on a bus to New York and this causes loneliness for Sarah.

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Three years pass before they see each other again and Sarah is separated from her husband. Mindy is days away from being married and the chemistry between the women is still there. Sarah and Mindy are unable to verbally communicate with each other. They hurt each other by not saying what they feel. They are constantly frustrated with each other and walk away. It is certainly clear that Mindy makes Sarah feel like she is whole again, young and fun again. Both women pay allegiance to societal norms and there seems to be a wall between them that keeps them apart. They both seem to accept that it is their roles as women to be married (to men) and have children. Their having a romantic life together is only a dream yet their will continue to tear them apart again and again.

Since neither women is a good verbal communicator, the film focuses on their non-verbal communication. Riley Keough and Jena Malone beautifully channel their characters’ recessed and repressed desires and their emotions are seem by their facial expressions and body postures.

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With Sarah and Mindy, director Kim is also able to capture a societal trend in which women seem to pair up with their opposite. We can assume that when they were younger, their differences were even more profound. Sarah probably became friends with Mindy in the hopes that she could become more outgoing, maybe even more sexually empowered. Mindy probably saw Sarah as a grounding force, someone to keep her out of danger. The maturity that Mindy shows when she realizes that she should help Sarah out with Jessie is probably something that she learned from Sarah. They have learned from each other over the many years of their friendship and co-opted aspects of each other’s personalities.

The focus here is on the carefully moderated relationship of the two women with expressions replacing dialogue that would estrange them further than social expectations. Keough is mesmerizing as the hopelessly melancholy Sarah and she walks away with the film in her pocket. (She is, incidentally, the granddaughter of Elvis Presley).

Sarah and Mindy’s friendship is a complex and this beautiful film lets us into it.

“ALL THE SINS OF THE PAST”— Searching for Enlightenment

“All The Sins of the Past”

Searching for Enlightenment

Amos Lassen

Documentary film makers Christopher M. Allport, Greg Wilson and Paul Petersen searched the “rainbow nation” of South Africa to find enlightenment about the people’s plight of HIV/ AIDS, under-nourishment and abject poverty. The epidemic widespread, the virus mutates and replicates like wild-fire, causing mass-suffering and affects three different generations— the most famous urban slum-township of Soweto (still dealing with Apartheid), to abject poverty and disease of the dimly lit, tin shacks in Durban and to the affluent, white Afrikaners of Johannesburg. Tough questions are asked of both the well-off and the suffering and we see that this is just beginning to scratch the surface of the multitude of social issues that plague the once-divided nation. 

“All the Sins of the Past” opens our eyes and shocks us and while intellectually we understand the suffering of the third-world actually seeing is something all together different. We see exclusive interviews with suffering people, tribal leaders, and democratic leaders and come to understand that the real source of the problem has to do with witchcraft and tribal culture leaders withholding education from their own people. This stops the people from gaining an understanding of the most basic health care needs and discouraging social evolution in today’s constantly changing world.

“FAUDA”— Picked Up By Netfix

“Fauda”

Picked Up By Netflix

Netflix has picked up “Fauda,” the nail-biting Israeli television series about a deep-cover unit of the Israeli Defense Forces. The streaming site will begin airing the drama’s first season, which played to critical acclaim on Israeli satellite network YES last year, on Dec. 2.

Netflix has also purchased rights to “Fauda’s” second season, which is in production.

“Fauda” follows a close-knit unit of mista’arvim, the commando unit of the Israel army whose soldiers are trained in the language, dress and mannerisms of Palestinians, and whose undercover work is hailed in Israel for scuppering terror attacks and guiding military operations.

The show was the most-watched in YES history and also earned a best drama statue at the 2015 Israeli version of the Emmys.

The series was created by Avi Issacharoff, a journalist and Arab affairs specialist, and actor Lior Raz, and directed by Assaf Bernstein. The show broke barriers in Israel by giving its Arab characters equal screen time and equally complex backstories as its Jewish characters. The terrorists, in this show, are as much fathers and brothers as they are combatants, and are drawn with equal complexity as the Jewish soldiers. Neither side, the show insists, is innocent.

With both Arabic and Hebrew dialogue, the show also found its way into Palestinian audiences’ hearts, and its plot twists, hostage negotiations and close-combat battle scenes were rehashed on Arabic social media at a level never before seen for Israeli television.

The Netflix deal was brokered by Hadas Mozes Lictenstein from ADD Content Agency and Danna Stern from Yes DBS Satellite. According to the deal, Fauda will be dubbed a Netflix Original Series — the first-ever Israeli series to receive such a label.

The show will be aired in its original languages of Arabic and Hebrew, with English subtitles.

Issacharoff and Raz were on hand in Los Angeles for a screening and premiere party on Nov. 28.

“The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping: A Novel” by Aharon Applefeld— A New Life and a New Place

Applefeld, Aharon. “The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping: A Novel”, (translated by Jeffrey M. Green), Schocken, 2017.

A New Life and a New Place

Amos Lassen

Erwin is a Holocaust survivor who does not remember his trip across Europe after the war probably because he slept through it and other survivors carried him as they were headed to refugee camps in Naples, Italy where they had no idea what the future held. Once in Naples, Erwin had to struggle to stay awake and when he did manage to do so, he became one of a group of boys who were being trained by a representative from what was then Palestine. The idea was to get them ready for their new home in the Middle East.

The members of the club were held in a detention camp in Israel and from there were assigned to a kibbutz where they learn how to work the land and speak their new language. Even in this new environment, a part of Erwin desperately clings to the past. He has memories of his parents, to his mother tongue and of the Ukrainian city where he was born—and he knows that “despite what he is being told, who he was is just as important as who he is now becoming”.

After being wounded by snipers, he has to spend months recovering from surgeries and he has to learn how to use his legs as if he is walking for the first time. It was not enough to exercise his body, he also uses his recovery to also exercise his mind

and works at learning Hebrew by copying Biblical passages (I did the same—it must be a trick that Hebrew teachers used on their students. Erwin was able to learn that way; I simply discovered that the Hebrew of the Bible was a different than the Hebrew spoken when I lived in Israel) as well as attempting to write in his new language (as well as his mother tongue) in hopes that he could succeed as a writer, something his father wanted so badly to do but was unable to achieve. He is encouraged to write by his friends and fellow survivors and by his mother

who visits him in his dreams. When he tries to walk again with crutches, we see that he will succeed just as he will succeed with his writing. Erwin joins Aharon Applefeld’s gallery of memorable characters that reflect the mind of modern Israel.

I have always loved Applefeld’s use of metaphor and find it amazing that he is able to be so universal while writing from such a small country. Through Erwin we see humanity and understand that it was his painful experiences and self-determination that lead him to become the writer and the person that he becomes. We also see through him what becoming a writer entails and that the values of the past are as important as the present. Prose (in this case Applefeld’s) comes from personal experience that can become universal and we understand that struggle is struggle wherever it takes place. to create dazzling, masterly fiction with a universal resonance. It is Erwin’s (and Applefeld’s) own experiences in attempting to find an identity that makes up this novel of redemption and regaining what was lost to history. We see and, in effect, become part of the process of becoming… (a writer). The details of the past often become the issued of the present and here it is Erwin’s being a survivor and a refugee that act as catalysts for who he is to become. What I find so amazing here is that when I moved to Israel, I did so with the idea of building a nation and never thought of myself as a refugee but I suppose that is exactly what I was. Like Erwin, I searched and longer for an identity that would tie me to the land and to the people. The difference is the Holocaust here and it was such an important part of Erwin’s past that he had to find a way to transfer that memory into “translucent prose”.

There is great sensitivity in that prose and we really understand the difficulties of responding to post-Holocaust living. The prose is powerful that it is sure to be not easily forgotten just as the Holocaust stands in our past.