“GLEN CAMPBELL… I’LL BE ME”— Campbell and his Music

i'll be me

“Glen Campbell… I’ll Be Me”

Campbell and his Music

Amos Lassen

“Glen Campbell… I’ll Be Me” is the film of his final tour and it documents how Alzheimer’s disease might take a man’s mind, but it can’t take his music. Glenn Campbell worked hard to earn his reputation. He began as a studio musician on a lot of great pop songs. Some of Campbell’s credits, as a member of that Wrecking Crew, include work on records by Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, and as a member of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, to name a few. Here we see and hear Campbell at the dawn of his career.

In 2011, Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. After going public with his illness, he went on the road to perform over 100 concerts for two reasons: for the promotion of his album, “Ghost on the Canvas,” and for something of a farewell tour. This documentary, from director James Keach, follows Campbell, his wife, and three of his children (who are also band members) on the tour and it also follows his medical journey and offers insight into what some of the biggest names in music and the world think of the country music legend.

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Anything we see or hear about Alzheimer’s disease, it’s sure to be devastating and such is the case with Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me. The film begins with Campbell and his fourth (and current) wife, Kim, watching home movies. As the images on their screen change, Campbell recognizes no one—not his past wives, not his own children, not even himself. It is heartbreaking. Then director Keach rolls the opening credits over a highlight reel of Campbell’s life and career. This reminds the viewer of what a living legend Campbell is, and what he stands to lose, at least in terms of memories.

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From here on, the film becomes more a video diary than a documentary, recording Campbell’s life in real-time. This suits the subject matter well, as the story is incredibly intimate. There are appearances by Keith Urban, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Martin, and President Bill Clinton and others who speak to what a figure of consequence Campbell was, but so much more of the film is filled with family and friends who offer both warm memories of Campbell and chilling insight into how this disease is so painful to watch.

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There is a quick course in what Alzheimer’s does— it is a disease that slowly erases memories and (eventually) cripples other mental functions. This gives the film an organic sense of foreboding throughout its run we sense that there is a clock ticking in Campbell’s mind. Keach never exploits this aspect, and there is little melodrama throughout the film (the inclusion of daughter Ashley Campbell singing “Remembering,” with its oft-repeated line, “Daddy don’t you worry, I’ll do the remembering,” is impactful and cuts straight through the heart).

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As an Alzheimer’s patient, Campbell is a fascinating study. Even though he might not remember much from his past, he is mentally wily enough to deny his forgetfulness. He is a consummate showman, even with all of his struggles offstage with his disease, he could still play, pretty much to the end of the tour. He may have needed a teleprompter to help him remember some of the lyrics, but he never needed help with melodies, he never struggled hitting notes, and he could still make his guitar sing.

What made this tour extraordinary was that Glen had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He was told to hang up his guitar and prepare for the inevitable. Instead, Glen and his wife went public with his diagnosis and announced that he and his family would set out on a “Goodbye Tour.” The film documents this amazing journey as he and his family attempt to navigate the wildly unpredictable nature of Glen’s progressing disease using love, laughter and music as their medicine of choice.

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Campbell is a great entertainer and his indelible music have been a part of so many lives for decades that it is fun to be reminded why he is so special.

“A SINNER IN MECCA”— Filming the Hajj

a sinner poster

“A Sinner in Mecca”

Filming the Hajj

Amos Lassen

Parvez Sharma is a gay filmmaker who faced two serious challenges while he made his film, “A Sinner in Mecca” in Saudi Arabia. First, filming is forbidden in the country and second, homosexuality is punishable by death. These were risks he had to assume as he began his Hajj pilgrimage, a journey considered the greatest accomplishment and aspiration within Islam, his religion. The aim of his journey, according to Sharma was to look beyond 21st-century Islam’s crises of religious extremism, commercialism and sectarian battles. His is a personal story as he went through the biggest of jihads— the struggle with the self.

“A Sinner in Mecca”, Sharma’s new documentary, tells his he does what more than 15 million other Muslims do annually — travel to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. However, his story is filled with danger since he could be put to death if discovered. He sees his film as a huge message of defiance for the thousands of gay Muslims who are afraid to make the trip. “I felt I was doing it for them,” the Indian-born director told CBS News. The film has been denounced by the Iranian state media as a “Western conspiracy” to legitimize the “despicable sin of homosexuality,” and when the film was shown in Toronto, security was taken very seriously became Sharma had received so much hate mail and threats on his life. Sharma explains, “The Hajj is the highest calling for any Muslim. For years I felt I really needed to go, so this film is about me coming out as a Muslim. I’m done coming out as a gay man.”

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Sharma shot the film on iPhones and other small cameras since filming is not permitted. Along the way his equipment was seized, footage deleted, and he constantly feared for his freedom and life. But for him it was all about healing the wounds that he has suffered as a Muslim. He sees his film as a call to action to all Muslims to change the things that need to change within 21st Century Islam and he adds, “We’re running out of time.” He expected there to be backlash— he was denounced and had a fatwa imposed on him by “a minor religious figure in South Africa” following the release of his 2007 film A Jihad for Love, which looked at the lives of gay, lesbian and transgender Muslims.

Iranian state media denounced the film as part of a “Western conspiracy” to legitimize the “despicable sin of homosexuality” without even seeing it. “No one had even seen (the film) yet and yet the reaction has been enormous,” said Sharma. The film chronicles his hajj (a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, an act of devotion that assures forgiveness for sins). It’s a film about faith, forgiveness and Sharma’s spiritual reconciliation with his late mother, who didn’t accept his homosexuality.

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“I need to prove that I can be a good Muslim and be gay,” Sharma says in the film as he begins his journey, which includes stops in his birthplace of Saharanpur in northern India. Sharma brought two small cameras and an iPhone into holy sites, where it is forbidden to film. He said some of his footage was erased when his camera was confiscated by Islamic religious police. “I was taking a risk with the entire piece,” said Sharma, who was surprised to be even issued a hajj visa, given his notoriety. “I was definitely one of the most public homosexual Muslims in the world. Everything about me is just a Google search away.”

He is also sharply critical in the documentary of what he calls the “rigid Saudi version of Islam,” Wahhabism. Even the dangers, Sharma says that he never considered not filming his hajj. Documentary filmmakers have a natural instinct to film their most important journey and this is his. He went on his pilgrimage to ask “forgiveness for every wrong he has ever done . There is much more here than just his expression of faith as a devout Muslim. As he experienced the hajj, he felt as if he was making it on behalf of so many gay Muslims who are afraid to go, hundreds of thousands of them. He feels that his presence there was a validation for the worldwide community. But then there is the question as to why gay Muslims would remain in a religion that wants them dead and there seems to be no answer to that. There is also an open question in the film as to who is the real sinner in Mecca when one of Sharma’s fellow pilgrims makes a shocking confession concerning his reason for seeking forgiveness.

Parvez’s own religious convictions remained strong. It was because of this and a deep desire to cleanse himself of his sins that he felt compelled to undertake the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Parvez tells us that his husband doesn’t understand his need to undertake dangerous journeys and we sense an uneasiness between Parvez’s professed goals and these more complex personal motivations, at times making his quest seem inappropriately self-centered. However, there’s no doubt that he changes as the journey progresses, perhaps in ways he didn’t expect, and his inner conflicts make it more compelling. Meanwhile, we see snapshots of the Indian town where he grew up, of a more relaxed Islam, and we hear about the mother who died from cancer unable to forgive him for his sexuality.

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As his journey progresses, other themes begin to emerge, some of them equally challenging. Footage from Mecca is generally only released through approved channels; individuals are not supposed to film what is, for many, an intensely private process. This put Parvez in a difficult ethical position and it’s good to see that he generally refrains from filming the faces of those whose voices are captured in the film, but what he is able to do is illustrate to the wider world some of the ways in which the holy city has changed over the years.

We see him as he emerges from the Grand Mosque into an adjoining shopping mall, where pilgrims are invited to go straight from kissing the Kaaba stone to sipping a Starbucks and this may shock many—air conditioning on the hajj for one thing and the amount of garbage on the streets for another. This could very much add to the controversy about the Saudi government’s management of the holy sites.

The principal focus of the film is on one man’s personal relationship to his faith, and his willingness to be open about his several uncertainties, together with his understanding that it isn’t going to change quickly just for his sake. The film touches on a number of the central conflicts in contemporary Islam (and in religion more widely) but does so in a way that invites reflection. Sharma may not seem like a natural authority, but as he notes, everyone is a sinner when setting out for Mecca.

In “A Jihad for Love”, his first film, Sharma gave voice to Muslims around the world who are struggling to reconcile their religion and their homosexuality, and was condemned as an apostate for it. Now for his second documentary he has defied the bans on photography to turn the lens on himself and fellow pilgrims during the annual hajj. What we see is a mix of the surreal and the grittiness of life.

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Sharma has brought defiance, humility and anguish to his participation in the pilgrimage. He has managed to and capture remarkable footage of one of the world’s largest gatherings; something that is off-limits to non-Muslims. Sharma’s “sense of self-dramatizing indulgence is undercut by the very real dangers and emotional turmoil that shape Sharma’s experience”.

The documentary opens with a horrifying chat-room exchange with a friend in Saudi Arabia followed by the use of animation to illustrate the historical backdrop of what he considers a religion divided, born of peace but “hijacked by a minority.” Sharma is a Sunni who grew up with exposure to Sufi mysticism and he emphasizes his need to separate the Islam he loves from the official Saudi variety.

Sharma was one of an estimated 2.9 million pilgrims who participated in the 2011 hajj, an undertaking that’s required of the faithful at least once in their lives. The images we see are sometimes impressionistic and grainy but they provide a strong sense of the rough conditions that make a week feel much longer: sleeplessness, lack of water and trash-strewn grounds are just the beginning. Nearing the Sacred Mosque, Masjid al-Haram, and its central structure, the Kaaba, there are hellish walks through long tunnels and, finally, a dizzying swarm of humanity. Pushed, shoved, bruised, Sharma feels his faith evaporating.

There are filmed interactions with other pilgrims but they are limited— this is Sharma’s monologue addresses himself and Allah. But he does include audio recordings (with altered voices) of two men who tell harrowing stories —one is a Pakistani who admits that he took part in an honor killing.

Sharma’s footage in the mosque is striking, whether he’s in the crush of that mass of pilgrims or overlooking the praying multitudes from a higher level of the structure. We see also Western commercial intrusions with signage and a shopping mall adjacent to a holy mosque. Sharma’s snide comments on these commercial intrusions are welcome bursts of humor amid the doleful self-questioning that characterizes much of Sharma’s voiceover narration.

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Sharma is filled with guilt over his mother, a poet who never accepted his sexuality, and whose death by cancer he attributes in part to shame. We also see some personal footage of Sharma and his husband’s wedding day and of their life together and this shows great contrast to the secret lives that gay Muslims are forced to live

Sharma now believes that he’s “a better Muslim” after the hajj and this is unclear as to why. What is very evident is his hope for reform amid extremist currents in Islam.

“A GESAR BARD’S TALE”— From Bard to Shaman

a gesar bard's tale

“A GESAR BARD’S TALE”

From Bard to Shaman

Amos Lassen

“A Gesar Bard’s Tale” is feature-length documentary by Donagh Coleman and Lharigtso that chronicles Dawa’s evolution from bard to shaman. We go to Tibet in the immediate aftermath of a severe earthquake, where we meet Dawa, a bard famous for his spirited telling of the epic story of Tibet’s King Gesar. Dawa got work for the Chinese government as a guardian of national cultural heritage. But after the earthquake almost destroyed his village, Dawa saw the Chinese accelerate their local redevelopment project and he began to wonder how the lessons of antiquity could offer guidance for the rapidly changing world that surrounds him.

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Dawa, who rose from a life as an illiterate nomad to become a highly respected holy man and guardian of Tibet’s cultural heritage, and provided spiritual guidance after his community was leveled by natural disaster. As a boy, Dawa’s life consisted of herding yaks and that was all he thought he would ever do. But then when he was just 13, he had a series of visions and his life changed. Somehow he had acquired the ability to tell the story of Tibet’s king, Gesar. Now, at the age of 35, he is paid by the government to be a guardian of national cultural heritage and is regarded as a holy man by his community. When an earthquake reduces his hometown to rubble, redevelopment of the region takes a giant leap forward. In the midst of such seismic shifts, Dawa seeks healing from King Gesar and other divine protectors of the land in order to reconcile the destruction of his community through his traditional role as healer, guide, and shaman.

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Stories like this are difficult for many of us to understand are believe but here we have the story right in front of us. Visually the film is a feast for the eyes and everything about it will make you want to consider making Tibet a vacation spot.

“Wuvable Oaf” by Ed Luce— Searching for Love

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Luce, Ed. “Wuvable Oaf”, Fantagraphics, 2015.

Searching for Love

Amos Lassen

“Wuvable Oaf” is the first-ever published collection of the comic book series by cartoonist Ed Luce. We first meet Oaf, a large, gay, hairy ex-wrestler who lives in San Francisco with his kittens. We follow Oaf as he searches for love and his quest for nabbing Eiffel, the lead singer of the “black metal/queercore/ progressive disco grindcore band Ejaculoid”. This is the story of the courtship of Eiffel and Oaf along with a look at Oaf’s friends, associates, enemies, ex-lovers and the pasts of both men. It is a romantic comedy set against the background of San Francisco’s queer community and music scene. There is great satire on certain aspects of the gay dating scene, online and offline.

Oaf was formerly known as the wrestler Goteblüd and despite his size, he is a gentle kitten lover who makes toys stuffed with his abundant body hair for an adopted boy, and who loves Morrissey The Smiths. When he meets Eiffel, a small but commanding singer, he falls hard and quickly. However, the way to passion for the two lovers is not an easy one to travel on. There are roadblocks of all kinds— enemy bands, family histories and many ex-lovers, including other band members. At the same time Oaf and Eiffel are dealing with their lives there is a parallel drama going on at Oaf’s Home For Wayward Kittens Who are Really Cute & Need Lotsa Love.

Writer/artist Luce’s work knocks down a bit of the “gay comics ghetto” barricades that have separated queer creators in the past from reaching a wider readership. I was not expecting the writing to be so endearing and enchanting but it is as sweet as Oaf. He is constructed of sweetness, shyness, and nervousness and he is therefore totally relatable. What he goes through is what so many others who are involved romantically deal with. We can recognize so much of ourselves here that one cannot help but read and smile at the same time.

“Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men” by Jane Ward— The Complexities of Heterosexuality

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Ward. Jane. “Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men”, (Sexual Cultures), NYU Press, 2015.

The Complexities of Heterosexuality

Amos Lassen

Jane Ward questions whether men can show the same sexual fluidity as women and gives us the example that “a straight white girl can kiss a girl, like it, and still call herself straight—her boyfriend may even encourage her. But can straight white guys experience the same easy sexual fluidity, or would kissing a guy just mean that they are really gay?” Ward’s new book “Not Gay” looks deeply into our world where there is indeed straight guy-on-guy action and these include fraternity and military hazing rituals, where new recruits are made to grab each other’s penises as well as invade others’ anuses with fingers. There are also online personal ads, where straight men seek other straight men to masturbate with and there has always been a “long and clandestine history” of straight men going into public restrooms in order to have sexual encounters with other men.  Jane Ward says that these sexual practices reveal a unique social space where straight white men can—and do—have sex with other straight white men and in doing so, she argues, reaffirms rather than challenges their gender and racial identity.           

Ward goes on to show that sex between straight white men allows them “to leverage whiteness and masculinity to authenticate their heterosexuality in the context of sex with men”. Straight men understand their same-sex sexual practice to be meaningless, accidental, or even necessary and this is what allows them to “perform homosexual contact in heterosexual ways”.  These sex acts reveal the fluidity and complexity that characterizes all human sexual desire and are not “a queer way of being or expressions of a desired but unarticulated gay identity”. Ward’s analysis presents us with a new way to think about heterosexuality—not as the opposite or absence of homosexuality– but as its own unique mode of engaging in homosexual sex, “a mode characterized by pretense, dis-identification and racial and heterosexual privilege”. Ward dares to say this and it is something that most of us have known but have chosen to talk about. We should not just wave this away and it is important to see that sex between contemporary American straight white men is in fact meaningful sex.

“Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian” by Wesley Hill— The Limits of Friendship

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Hill, Wesley. “Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian”, Brazos Press, 2015.

The Limits of Friendship

Amos Lassen

Friendship, by definition, is a singular relationship over which we have control. It is not something we are born into, we can chose those who we want to share it with. We can end friendship whenever we want. While American culture tends to pay more attention to romantic love, marriage, family, and other forms of community, friendship is a genuine love in its own right. Single Christians, particularly those who are gay and celibate, might find that friendship is a form of love to which they are especially called.

Wesley Hill writes about his kind of friendship here and he does so empathetically and with regard to the teachings of his church. He is able to find a rich understanding of friendship as a spiritual vocation and he explains how the church can foster and use friendship as a basic component of Christian discipleship. Hall shows us how to re-imagine friendship as a “robust form of love that is worthy of honor and attention in communities of faith”. Further, Hall issues a call for celibate gay Christians and suggests practical ways for all Christians to cultivate stronger friendships.

Same-sex attraction is a personal issue and not an abstract theological or political issue, but a very personal one. Many experience it at a young age and by the time that they are teens have already done some reading and soul searching about it. Hill writes from the perspective that one is gay as the result of living in a broken world but this can be redeemed by Jesus Christ who both allows us to love and to be loved by others. It is not necessary to eliminate same-sex attraction but our holiness and chastity has to deal with our relationship with God. Hill follows the traditional sexual ethic that sees marriage as being between one man and one woman for life. This means that many gay Christians are called to long-term celibacy, and this poses some hard challenges for the man or woman who embarks on this path.

According to the author, committed spiritual friendships deserve a place of honor within the church in much the same way as we honor the institution of marriage. These do not happen accidentally— that require intentional ways of fostering and nurturing those relationships.

There are questions to be considered when speaking about friendship and Hall sets out to answer them— “Should we think of friendship as based, above all, on personal preference? Should we think of it as preserving its voluntary character and thereby vulnerable at every point to dissolution if one of the friends grows tired of or burdened by the relationship? Should we consider friendship as always freshly chosen but never incurring any substantial obligations or entailing any unbreakable bonds? Or should we instead—pursuing a rather different line of thought—consider friendship more along the lines of how we think of marriage? Should we begin to imagine friendship as more stable, permanent, and binding than we often do? Should we, in short, think of our friends more like siblings we’re stuck with, like it or not, than like our acquaintances? Should we begin to consider at least some of our friends as, in large measure, tantamount to family? And if so, what needs to c change about the way we approach it and seek to maintain it?”

Hill finds no attraction romantically or sexually for women and he questions whether or not he is too love a life of loneliness, caught somewhere between the tension in Christianity and his sexual orientation. He feels eager to cultivate close friendships but is also afraid of not being able to find and sustain them. Thus, when he imagines a life where he is old and alone and has no one to celebrate holidays and special occasions, and/or to share the mundane moments of life, he worries. He faces the questions of where is he to find love, and where is he to give love? If he cannot have a husband or a wife, will he be forever cut off from all relational intimacy?

Hall believes that the answer to that lies in friendship but there are challenges here. There is the assumption by others that every significant male friendship points to hidden homosexuality; then there is the insistence on the ultimate significance of marriage and nuclear family and its assumption that the closest bond we can ever experience must be with that of siblings, spouses, or children; and there is also evolutionary biology and psychology which leaves no room for a relationship that is lived for the good of another. American culture seems to have an obsession with the kind of freedom and autonomy that exists in relationships. Hill goes on to say that if our deepest and most powerful fulfillment is found in personal separateness then friendship becomes something of a liability. He then proposes a kind of spiritual friendship that has roots right in the Christian tradition.

Hill’s book is divided into six chapters in which he explores the cultural background, history, and theology of friendship before focusing on practically living it out. He shares his own experience and his own search for significant spiritual friendship. I find it interesting that he finds his guidance from outside of his church and relies on writers from before the Reformation and/or Roman Catholics. It is this his way of saying that Protestants have put emphasis on marriage and family and let friendship slide?

Roman Catholicism that requires celibacy for its clergy probably has to consider the boundaries of friendship and celibate same-sex relationships. In some cases we have seen where that has lead. Hill sees himself as a celibate gay Christian—a follower of Christ who fully believes that the Bible forbids homosexual behavior, but who cannot deny or destroy his homosexual orientation. He shares experiences that may not have occurred to those who do not feel this way, such as a heterosexual same-sex friend eventually becoming an object of intense romantic attraction. He tells of his own experiences of inadvertently falling in love with one of his own friends and the disruption and heartbreak that this brought to their relationship.

Hill has written an exploration of the place of friendship in the life of the Christian, particularly its importance for those who chose, either because of sexual orientation, or other reasons to live celibate, chaste lives. The idea of a celibate, chaste, single life is scorned today not only because of the myth that one can only live a fulfilled, fully human life within the context of a sexually intimate relationship. Perhaps more fundamentally, if less openly acknowledged, this seems a terrible choice for those who are single, gay or straight, because it is a call to loneliness. What’s worse is that there is no place for sexual satisfaction since in most cases Christianity does not accept either homosexuality or masturbation. I am not convinced by anything here and I just do not understand why anyone would choose to live like Hill has written–it seems to be a terrible waste and a bore.

“Safekeeping: A Novel” by Jessamyn Hope— Love, Loss and Starting Over

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Hope, Jessamyn. “Safekeeping: A Novel”, Fig Tree Books, 2015.

Love, Loss and Starting Over

Amos Lassen

In 1994 Adam, a drug addict from New York City, arrived at a kibbutz in Israel. He carried with a medieval sapphire brooch with him. In order redress a past crime, he must give the priceless heirloom to a woman his grandfather loved when he was a Holocaust refugee on the kibbutz fifty years earlier. However, first, he has to find this mystery woman down and this proves more complicated than expected.

On the kibbutz Adam met other lost souls: Ulya, an ambitious and beautiful Soviet émigrée; Farid, the lovelorn Palestinian farmhand; Claudette, the French Canadian Catholic with OCD; Ofir, the Israeli teenager wounded in a bus bombing; and Ziva, the old Socialist Zionist firebrand who founded the kibbutz. They all come together driven by love, hostility, hope, and fear, their fates become forever entangled and each gets one last shot at redemption.

“Safekeeping” explores a very human question—“How can we expect to find meaning and happiness when we know that nothing lasts?”

This is a haunting, disturbing, moving story that is set on a kibbutz and has very real characters. It depicts complex historical-political realities. Adam’s grandfather Franz lived on kibbutz Sadot Hadar, for a while in 1947. There he met Dagmar, the love of his life. Adam has a brooch that has been in his family for centuries and dates back to medieval time. It belonged to his grandfather whose his last wish was to give it to Dagmar. (Legend has it that this brooch should be given only to one’s great love). However, no one on the kibbutz knows any Dagmar now and no one remembers Dagmar from the past.

The characters, all come from different places, build lives together on the kibbutz. What is really wonderful here is the coming together of past and present and we see each character trying to create a future is inescapably linked to their past. At the center of each story is, the state of Israel itself.

“BEST OF ENEMIES”— Vidal and Buckeley

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“Best of Enemies”

Vidal and Buckley

Amos Lassen

In 1968, two intellectuals participated in a televised series of debates on issues of the day. On one side was the liberal Gore Vidal, renowned author and iconoclast and on the other was the conservative trailblazer William F. Buckley Jr. These “vitriolic and explosive encounters came to define the modern era of public discourse in the media, marking the big bang moment of our contemporary media landscape when spectacle trumped content and argument replaced substance”. “Best of Enemies” looks at the biographies of these two great thinkers as well as at the debates and the question arises, “What has television done to the way we discuss politics in our democracy today?”

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Back then, ABC ranked third among the major networks and decided to try something different for their upcoming coverage of the 1968 presidential conventions and that was to hire ideological enemies William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal to summarize the issues in a nightly debate. For ten debates, the two men insulted each other and attempted character assassinations instead of dealing with the political issues of the day and America tuned in. The end came with Vidal calling Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley threatening to punch Vidal in the face on live TV. Documentarians Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville brings together footage from the debates and gives us the complete context around the media event. This is where the victory of volume and rage over civilized discourse began.

As the two determined men set to do battle, some of their writings are read off-camera by John Lithgow as Vidal and Kelsey Grammer as Buckley. We see archival footage of Vidal’s Italian villa, with him giving a tour of his bathroom and this immediately creates an interesting touch right from the start. Vidal proudly points to photographs hanging over the bathtub that show him with Buckley at the Democratic Convention debate in Chicago in 1968. ABC network was seriously ailing and so the network powers invited Buckley and Vidal to debate live on television to boost their ratings during both national political conventions, starting with the Republicans in Miami Beach.

Aside from the footage of the debates, there are fascinating on-camera interviews with Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky and Dick Cavett. The ninth debate was the one in which Vidal calls Buckley a “pro-or crypto-Nazi” and Buckley looses his cool, uttering the response that was to define him for the rest of his life and beyond: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered. Then Vidal smiles the smile of a winner. It was this moment that brings a series of questions “about television culture, about the craft of insult to trigger a reaction, about the nature of enmity, about the character of time”.

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The late Christopher Hitchens calls the aftermath of the debates, in both lawsuits and magazine articles by both of the men, an “enormous opportunity for the practice of malice.” Reid Buckley, says about his brother Bill that “most of all, he is a revolutionary.” The debates, were and still are in a way about “lifestyle” and “who is the better person.” We learn about how Buckley was at sea, relaxing on a yacht, and ready to wing the debates and Vidal hired a researcher to prepare him before the first debate.

“Primo Levi’s Universe: A Writer’s Journey “ by Sam Magavern— A Renaissance Man

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Magavern, Sam. “Primo Levi’s Universe: A Writer’s Journey “, Palgrave Macmillan,
 2009.

A Renaissance Man

Amos Lassen

Most people know of Primo Levi because of his memoir, “Survival in Auschwitz”, but he was also a scientist, fiction writer, and poet: in short, a true Renaissance man and he did not want to be known exclusively as a Holocaust writer. Using Levi’s own words as a springboard, Sam Magavern uses Levi’s own words to give us the first biography of the many faceted Promo Levi.

Magavern explores all of Levi’s writings (short stories, poems, nonfiction and novels about blue-collar workers and introduces us to a talented writer who had a profound love of humanity, a sharp wit, a passion for his profession as a chemist and a man who was inspired by many different things aside from the Holocaust. In doing this, Magavern brings a fresh, personal sensibility to the way we think about Levi and has written a book that is part life story and part literary biography. In doing so, he does so much for Levi’s reputation as a rational many with essential beliefs. finally doing justice to the man’s calm rationality and essential beliefs.

The book is something of a birthday gift to Levi on what was his 90th birthday and is, in effect, a long essay on Levi and his work. Levi had the misfortune of being a Jew at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Fascist Italy was certainly not a place to speak out in yet he did so and immediately became “unpopular”. He was a small man with a big mind and had been turned down for a career in astrophysics. He became a chemist instead and then something of a pencil pusher. Even though he had been denied the career of his choice, Levi became the master chronicler of hell on earth in brilliant works like “If This Is a Man” and “The Periodic Table”. Levi was inspired by an eclectic group of authors from Dante to Melville, Paul Celan and, above all, Rabelais. He married and fathered two children but he was like a prisoner a home where he lived with both his mother and mother-in-law. He fought depression from a young age and two extramarital affairs did not help and he died in 1987 after falling down a set of stairs. Magavern’s book is a sensitive academic exploration of a man who was complicated, a tortured soul; a man who sought freedom throughout his lifetime.

He suffered with other fellow prisoners doomed to Auschwitz, Primo Levi saw life as he wanted to see it. Writer Sam Magavern looks at Levi in the same way that Levi looked at life and empathizes with him as best he can. He shows what is behind the contradictions in Levi’s life and when he is unable to do so, he lets them stand “as imprints of the atrocity of Auschwitz and of Levi’s own complex personality”.

Magavern sees the body of Levi’s work, as a recounting of his experiences in Auschwitz and the subsequent return to his home in Turin, Italy—one large novel about the development of a life. He further says that making himself a man both as a writer and as a person was Levi’s lifelong project. Primo Levi was “constantly aware of the potential for hubris and naiveté.” Magavern embraces Levi’s mind so much that there were times as I read that I thought that I was reading Levi’s words and Magavern’s.

Having had to experience Auschwitz or as it Levi called it “The Black Hole” was both frightening and humiliating for him. His spirit of humanity was taken from him and his memory about his time in the camp is not always as acute as it should have been. It has been discovered that some of the humiliations that he claimed to have endured were actually happenings of others but they remained in his memory and he was unable to remember what really happened so there were times that he used what happened to others as his own. Does it really matter that Levi changed the victim’s name from another’s to his own? It did not from Levi’s point of view. Magavern says the reason for this is that the fiction writer could not be separated from the witness: Levi labored to shape a truth that would deal the reader the hardest blow.

Levi was taken to when he was 22. Before that he was a shy, fastidious, cerebral boy-man with notions of cultural superiority. At Auschwitz, this same person who had felt contempt for East European Jews, traded Italian lessons for Yiddish lessons and chose as epigraph for his most famous work the Yiddish saying, “Troubles overcome are good to tell.”

Now we ask if Levi’s death from a fall when he was 67 was suicide and more specifically Auschwitz suicide? Magavern tells us that Levi’s periods of depression did not come with the camp but the cruelty of the camp was engraved on him. I guess we will never know.

“TANGERINES”— The Horrors of War

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“TANGERINES”

The Horrors of War

Amos Lassen

Zaza Urushadze’s “Tangerines” was nominated for the Best Foreign Film in 2015 for both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe. It is set in the Apkhazeti region of Georgia in 1992 and it carries a powerful anti-war message. Local Apkhazians are fighting to break free from Georgia. The Estonian village between the mountains has become empty– almost everyone has returned to their homeland, and only two men have stayed: Ivo and Margus. But Margus will leave as soon as he has harvested his crops of tangerines. In a bloody conflict in their miniature village wounded men are left behind, and Ivo is forced to take them in.

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The wounded men are from opposite sides of the war and they portray the message of the horrors of war. Here we see Estonians who find themselves in the middle of someone else’s war. How do they handle it? How do the enemies act under third-party roof?

The horrors of war are quietly and powerfully examined in the film that is simplistic in execution and that comes from an obscure enough location so that the message of the horrors of war is disguised.

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Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Estonian populace was driven out and forced to return to return to their native region. Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) stayed behind alone, helping his neighbor Margus (Elmo Nuganen) valiantly struggle to harvest his crop of tangerines. Two Chechen soldiers pay a surprise visit to Ivo and are almost immediately shot down during a gun battle with Russians outside Margus’ estate.

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Ahmed (Giorgio Nakashidze) is seriously wounded, and Ivo takes him into his home while burying his comrade and doing his best to cover up their vehicle. As the men shove the truck over a cliff, Margus is surprised it doesn’t explode like in the movies—Ivo responds that “Cinema is a big fraud.” Soon after, more explosions kill several Georgians, and Ivo takes in the very badly wounded Nika (Mikhail Meskhi). Ahmed vows to kills Nika as soon as they’re both recovered, leading Ivo to make Ahmed promise that there will be no violence under his roof. As the men recover, their sworn hatred is tempered by the realization that they’re both humans deserving of the right to live. Think about that—humans deserve the right to live.

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Here we see that the film is about brotherhood during wartime after a shootout leaves two men alive. Ivo takes them in; one is Ahmed, a Chechen mercenary, whose intent is to kill the other, Nika, a surviving Georgian. Ivo serves as the pacifist go-between, eventually getting each of the men to agree that neither will seek violence against the other while under Ivo’s roof. Each character eventually understands that their pursuits of violence along national boundaries is but an arbitrary form of hatred that is founded in a dogmatic adherence to militaristic procedure. Religion also comes into the story. Ahmed assures Ivo that his vengeance is “a holy thing,” but the film only postures toward this suggestion by giving us glimpses of characters praying and contemplating their plights without further pursuits of each man’s core beliefs.

Then there is a scene in Ivo and Margus push a jeep from a cliff in order to hide that a recent firefight took place. When the vehicle fails to explode, Margus remarks how, in the movies, cars always explode, leading Ivo to say that “the cinema is one big cheat.” The relationships we have here were forged through isolation and hardship. Previously opposing soldiers see their constituent humanity amid the threats of Chechen outsiders.

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Ivo’s home becomes the catalyst for unity between the men who eventually realize that identity is more about character than rather than nationality and ethnicity. A shootout, however defends honor over creed.

“Tangerines” balances humor and seriousness in deft fashion and the film has emotional force and intelligence to show us the terrible things that happen during wartime and this is a film with a strong message. The cinematography is lush and beautiful, the performances are all around excellent. The beautiful landscapes that we see were filmed in the western Georgia region of Guria.