“OCCIDENTAL”— A Critique of Xenophobic Ideologies

“Occidental”

A Critique of Xenophobic Ideologies

Amos Lassen

The arrival of a gay couple at a retro-’70s Parisian hotel begins a series of absurd anecdotal actions that involve homophobia, racism, misogyny, terrorist threats, and political manipulations.

French/Algerian filmmaker Neïl Beloufa brings us a deceptive and smart film that recasts today’s mainstream ideologies and fears. It satirically reflects the uneasy context of our contemporary world in a film that is a mixture of genres including neo-noir, comedy of manners, thriller and romance.

The film takes place almost entirely within Hotel Occidental, a retro, ’70s site that functions as a geopolitical microcosm while a mass demonstration rages in the streets of Paris. Inside the hotel, the atmosphere is thick with intrigue and eroticism since the arrival of mysterious, flirty, and handsome “Italian” Giorgio (Paul Hamy) who requests the bridal suite for himself and his male companion Antonio, a Muslim who arouses the suspicion of the hotel manager who thinks the men might be terrorists.

The receptionist may be smitten, but the hotel manager instantly suspects their attitude and alerts the police, despite there being no evidence of any wrongdoing. The cops and hotel staff soon find themselves confronted by a series of absurd actions.

The film shows the complexity of present-day morality using the likes of Coca-Cola and a hidden love story in order to reflect upon French life, politics, and pervasive xenophobia.

But it’s clear from the beginning that the two men aren’t who they say they are and that they don’t come in peace… The hotel’s staff react to the uncertain menace of the two men with fascination, sexual attraction, suspicion, fear and sometimes all of these at once. The hotel’s other guests fly in and out of the action (almost all of which is confined to the hotel’s lobby) without consequence aside from a laugh or two. The creeping sense that something terrible is about to happen gradually swells to the breaking point, but we do not know what that something terrible is.

The film is set almost entirely a blatantly artificial Parisian hotel, with riots happening just outside and focuses on the arrival of two possibly gay, possibly extremist Italians whose presence elicits widely disparate reactions amongst the hotel’s guests and its dysfunctional staff. Beloufa takes a flamboyant and catastrophic approach to his themes of discrimination and literal class warfare.

“SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD”— Scandals Brought to Life

“Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood”

Scandals Brought to Life

Amos Lassen

Scotty Bowers is a Hollywood legend, whose bestselling memoir chronicled his decades spent as sexual procurer to the stars.

He catered to the sexual appetites of celebrities, straight, gay, and whatever for decades. In the 1950s, he ran a gas station in the shadow of the studio lots where he’d fix up his clientele with quickies, threesomes, orgies and whatever they wanted. Then, in 2012, he finally disclosed his secrets in his bestselling memoir “Full Service”. What we see in both the book and this film is a dramatic counter-narrative on Hollywood’s Golden Age. While the studio PR machines were promoting their stars as hetero, wholesome, and monogamous, Bowers was fulfilling their true desires.

The film opens with the book’s publication. Bowers is now turning 90 still has the vigor of someone decades younger. He is an unparalleled raconteur. We get new and different takes on Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, etc., etc., etc. Unlike other sex workers who are often portrayed as sleazy, damaged, or degraded, Bowers defies these stereotypes. He’s fun and loves to please. We follow him over several months as he meets up with old colleagues who corroborate his outlandish tales.

Filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer has long been a student of Hollywood’s secrets and portrayal of Bowers is wonderful as he basks in nostalgia and copes with the tendencies to uncover buried documents as well as some buried life passages.

“The Vampire’s Protégé” by Damian Serbu— Playing the Game

Serbu, Damian. “The Vampire’s Protégé”, Nine Star Press, 2017.

Playing the Game

Amos Lassen

It has been a long time since I have heard from Damian Serbu and the odd thing here is that I just getting ready to drop him a note when I got one from him telling me that he has a new book out. Serbu always gives us an interesting read and even though I am not really a fan of the paranormal, I always look forward to his novels.

Charon is our main character here and he has trouble maintaining any kind of non-sexual relationship and he understands that the only kind of relationship he will ever have is one that takes place in bed. He does not trust others and is lonely, afraid of falling in love because that could possibly hurt him if a relationship ends. This feeling probably comes from his being raised as a foster child and never having experienced true love. Therefore one-night stands serve his purpose well…. until…. he meets a guy who will change his life forever.

I am quite sure that you are waiting for me to tell you that Charon falls in love but you should have already surmised from the book’s title that the change he experiences is more that life long. Charon is offered the chance to play a game with him in which the winner is granted eternal life and riches forever. The winner becomes a vampire. Charon thinks that this is the greatest thing he has ever heard or that could ever happen to him and he quickly embraces the vampire lifestyle. He finds himself willing to do whatever his mentor and maker needs. In fact, he becomes quite “the sexy” vampire who feel that he is above basic vampire laws and eventually becomes evil, doing what he wants. Things are quite different for him now and he is no longer, surrounding himself with sexy and handsome young men. Then he is stalked by a vampire as good-looking as himself who threatens Charon saying that he will expose him and his misdeeds tothe Vampire Council if he does help with an impossible task thus forcing him to make a very difficult decision.

In order to know what happens, you will have to read the book and that is a good thing. I have learned to expect good writing from Damian Serbu and he does not disappoint.

“Personal Midrash” by Daniel Shulman— Finding Personal Meeting in the Torah

Shulman, Daniel. “Personal Midrash: Fresh Insights into the Torah”, Urim 2017.

Finding Personal Meaning in the Torah

Amos Lassen

My personal relation with Judaism is something I rarely feel free to discuss simply because it is personal. When I read the Torah, I always try to look for meanings that will affect me personally and these I am willing to share as I am constantly amazed that something written so long ago still holds relevance today. Daniel Shulman does the same here. He explores the Torah searching for meanings that speak directly to him. We all want to believe that the holy writings are open and accessible to all of us and that we each have the right to approach it.

One does not need to be specifically trained to study Torah. It is always there and can be read by anyone at anytime. Torah scholars are constantly looking for something new and this is not the same as looking for relevance. “The hope is that any Jew may be inspired to likewise seek his or her own voice in interpreting Torah.”

What I love about what Shulman has found here is that it is so readable and teachable and while I may not agree with some of his interpretations, I still admire what he has found. He explores the many layers of Torah and is creative. Even more important is that he finds both answers and questions. We see both his intellect and his humility and understand that the driving force behind his study is curiosity. I learned years ago that the Torah is not black and white and the greatest enjoyment in studying it comes from the grey areas. I see that Shulman’s approach to Torah is the same as mine. Let me explain; about ten years ago I was reintroduced to group Torah and I began to realize that before that there was something missing in my life. I decided to set aside an hour, minimum, a day to read Torah and each week I would work on the portion that was being read in synagogues and temples all over the world. During that period there are no phone calls or outside interference and it was just me and the Torah. Like Shulman, I would I would arrive at a puzzling section and it is there I put my concentration. Sure, it is easy to pick up commentaries written by the great rabbis of the past but I wanted to figure it out for myself and I could usually find something that allowed me to do just that. If questions arise, they are to be looked as well. By doing this, I gained a better understanding and a sense of personal achievement.

Wrestling with Torah is wrestling with life and there are great rewards in doing so. Shulman’s mind is sharp and he captures details that many miss. Because his past with study caused him to be suspended, not once, but twice, from Hebrew school as a youth, he is of course humbled by what he reads.

I believed in Shulman after reading this thoughts on the first Torah portion in the Book of Genesis. I saw how his mind works and I loved his conclusions. He proved to me that anyone delve into Torah. The biggest aid I found in his study is that we can wrestle with Torah.

“A Brief History of Oversharing: One Ginger’s Anthology of Humiliation” by Shawn Hitchens— Irreverent Fun Essays

Hitchins, Shawn. “A Brief History of Oversharing: One Ginger’s Anthology of Humiliation”, ECW, 2017.

Irreverent Fun Essays

Amos Lassen

Comedian Shawn Hitchins explores his irreverent nature in this debut collection of essays. He writes about his younger self, the effeminate ginger-haired kid with a competitive streak. He shares the ups and downs of being a sperm donor to a lesbian couple, his love for actress Shelley Long, his hatred of musical theatre, and the he summer spent in Provincetown working as a drag queen. Nothing is sacred here and he takes on his mother who planned the murder of the family cat, his difficult relationship with his father, becoming an unintentional spokesperson for all redheads, and his first breakup.

Hitchins is “blunt, awkward, emotional and ribald and he totally humiliates himself as we laugh. If you are in need of a laugh, here is where to find one.

We see that is quite okay to laugh at sacred cows and there is something quite beautiful in the bawdiness we read here. Hitchins relies on his emotions and his “dirty mind” to get his ideas across and we eat them up. He gives us a play-by-play on masturbation (something we usually do not discuss with others and while we are shocked at first, by the time it is over, we have laughed ourselves silly. Maybe he does “overshare” but that is fine with me.

If everyone wrote a book like this, I would be quite a jolly reviewer. Reading this made me feel that the air suddenly freshened all around me and I cannot recommend it highly enough. After all, if we cannot laugh at ourselves, why is it that we can laugh at others?

 

 

“EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY PEOPLE”— The Folk and Traditional Arts in America

 

“EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY PEOPLE”

The Folk and Traditional Arts in America

Amos Lassen

I doubt that many of us are aware of the National Heritage Foundation and that is the subject of this documentary by Alan Govenar. It is one of the programs that falls under the National Endowment for the Humanities and was begun in 1982 to provide fellowships to musicians, dancers, quilters, woodcarvers and others who are involved in the shaping of the folk and traditional arts in this country. This film demonstrates the importance of those arts in shaping the history and fabric of America.

“Extraordinary Ordinary People” takes us a journey of folk and traditional arts in America with lots of music performed by those who have been awarded the fellowship and it is great fun. There is more than music here and we meet dancers, musicians, woodcarvers, quilters and others involved in traditional American art. There is a lot of talent here.

The featured artists all live in the United States but come from a variety of cultural backgrounds. The art forms they practice include singing with the Bejing Opera, boat building, wax-flower making, weaving, and performing at Mardi Gras. Through Govenar’s interviews with them, we not only explore their art, but also their history. These individuals have dedicated their lives to uncommon art forms that preserve the traditions of those who came before.

Govenar began documenting the artists more than 35 years ago and his project includes two 52-part radio series for NPR and three books that gave him the opportunity to explore in great detail the intersection of disparate cultures. Many of these cultures were brought here by immigrants over hundreds of years. The film gives insights into how cultures endure, and how cultural expressions evolve but at the same time remain true to their roots in our 21st century connected world. We see here that each of the artists has exceptional talent, ingenuity and perseverance that he shares with others and his country. Artists range “from Bill Monroe and B.B. King to Passamaquoddy basket weavers and Peking Opera singers; from Appalachia and the mountains of New Mexico to the inner city neighborhoods of New York, the suburbs of Dallas, and the isolated Native American reservations of Northern California”.

Just to give you an idea of what we are talking about here is an extensive list of just some of the artists you will see in the film:

Sheila Kay Adams – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Ballads, Musician, Singer, Storyteller

Rahim Alhaj – Culture Iraqi; Tradition: Composer, Oud Player

Loren Bommelyn – Culture: Native American Tolowa; Tradition: Artisan, Dancer, Musician

Laverne Brackens – Culture: African American; Tradition: Artisan, Quilter

Charles Carrillo – Culture: Hispanic; Tradition Santero

Clifton Chenier – Culture: African American, Creole; Tradition: Accordionist, Musician, Zydeco

Sidiki Conde – Culture: Guinean; Tradition: Dancer, Drummer, Musician

Sonia Domsch – Culture: Czech; Tradition: Artisan, Lace Maker

Qi Shu Fang – Culture: Asian, Chinese; Tradition: Peking Opera Performer, Musician

“Queen” Ida Guillory – Culture: African American, Creole; Tradition: Zydeco, Accordionist

John Lee Hooker – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Guitarist, Musician, Singer

Wanda Jackson – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Gospel, Musician, Rockabilly, Singer

Dolly Jacobs – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Circus Aerialist

Flory Jagoda – Culture: Jewish; Tradition: Sephardic Musician

“Flaco” Jiménez – Culture: Mexican; Tradition: Accordionist, Conjunto, Musician

Genoa Keawe – Culture: Native Hawaiian; Tradition: Musician, Singer, Ukulele Player

B.B. King – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Guitarist, Musician, Singer

Narciso Martinez – Culture: Mexican; Tradition: Accordionist, Conjunto, Musician

Lydia Mendoza – Culture: Mexican; Tradition: Musician, Singer

Norma Miller – Culture: African American; Tradition: Dancer, Lindy Hop

Bill Monroe – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Bluegrass, Mandolin Player, Musician, Singer

Alex Moore – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Musician, Pianist, Singer

Chum Ngek – Culture: Asian, Cambodian; Tradition: Musician

Clarissa Rizal – Culture:Native American Tlingit; Tradition: Ceremonial Regalia Maker

Earl Scruggs – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Banjo Player, Bluegrass, Musician

Dan Sheehy – Folklorist & Former Director of NEA Folk & Traditional Arts; Mariachi Musician

Koko Taylor – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Musician, Singer

Mike Vlahovich – Culture: Croatian; Tradition: Shipwright

Albertina Walker – Culture: African American; Tradition: Gospel, Musician, Singer

“A New Kind of Freedom” by Margaret Wilkinson Sexton— Endurance

Sexton, Margaret Wilkinson. “A New Kind of Freedom”, Counterpoint, 2017.

Endurance

Amos Lassen

Margaret Wilkinson Sexton’s “A Kind of Freedom” explores the legacy of racial disparity in the South and does so through a novel in which we meet a family and its history. For me, as a New Orleanian by birth and a person who was raised there and taught in the school system, this is a very meaningful book. We meet a Black family and stay with it for three generations as the members try to make the correct and best choices even though they are often held back “by constraint, peril and disappointment” and by living in a world in which learning is hard work and life is even harder. We have three different and alternating plot lines. The story begins in 1944, when we meet Evelyn, the daughter of a well-to-do family (her mother is Creole, her father a black doctor who has raised himself to respectability), and Renard, a young man from a poor Twelfth Ward neighborhood who works at a restaurant but aspires to study medicine. In their courtship, we see the strictures of a class- and color-driven society “that suffocates ambition and distorts desire”.

Then forty years later, we meet Evelyn’s daughter Jackie, a struggling single mother in the 1980s. She is on love with the father of her child but worries that he will become a drug addict. We then meet Jackie’s son, T.C., in 2010, and he is at a turning point in his life. It is through T.C.’s that we see post-Katrina New Orleans where there is fast cash on the streets and the chances of being arrested or shot are great. T.C., loves growing marijuana and sees doing so as a creative process. Released after a four-month stint for drug charges, T.C. decides to start over but then an old friend convinces him to stake his new beginning on one last deal.

Evelyn grew up with the reality of Jim Crow but now there are newer threats and dangers. The descriptions of New Orleans are wonderful and could be written by someone who grew up and remembers the corner grocery stores where for a nickel one could get a “baloney sandwich” or “make groceries”. She remembers the language that we spoke there and the crawfish boils, wooden markers on city buses requiring “colored riders” to sit behind them and going to the movies to sit in the second balcony, the “Negro balcony”, after going through a separate entrance on the side of the building.

Sexton’s characters face tremendous choices while hoping that is little to hope for. There are few options and coping with this is exhausting. The characters try to gloss over the hurts of the past and endure as best they can.

This is a portrait of a family and their sufferings and we soon are able to identify the character by the prose that describes each of them. For example, the stories of Evelyn and T.C.’s are written distinctly different and one cannot help but wonder if there is more than one author of this book. But then, we catch on and realize that the different prose forms emphasize the different characters. Each character is also vividly portrayed and we get to know them so well that they stay with us even after we have finished the book. We see the omnipresent forces of society that undermine and suppress the success of blacks in New Orleans. I often found myself emotionally exhausted as I read even though Sexton deals with some very important topics with great sensitivity. The fact that she captures seventy years of a family’s history in just 288 pages is a major achievement in itself but also to read about

each generation’s possibilities and deferred dreams coming to fruition is an amazing accomplishment. We see that hard work does not guarantee success and that progress never movies in the ways that we think.

Through the interconnected narratives of three generations of a New Orleans family, we get more that seventy years of history and we still want more. Here is an American family who is able to endure the challenges of an ever-changing society. I love that Sexton’s characters are who we are and their journeys are our journeys. When I taught in the Black schools of New Orleans way back when I learned a lot about New Orleans Black society having first taught in a school that was almost exclusively made up of those who were considered to be “high yellow” and then in a high school in what was then the Desire project and my students were far away from societal acceptance. But those twelve years of teaching in New Orleans were nothing compared to what I read here.

We see here that the choices that we make are our choices are influenced by our familial histories, whether we’re aware or not, and this is just one way of how the present connects to the past, especially with reference to the societal weight of race and class. Through the family narratives in this book, Sexton shows us the complexities of fate and that our desires might be the opposite of practical living and even a shot at upward mobility. When dealing with the emotion of love and the ability to survive, things change. Even with the best intentions, disappointment can follow. “Promise and possibility can sometimes yield to circumstances shaped by the limits to freedom.”

“FANNY’S JOURNEY”— Fleeing the Nazis

“Fanny’s Journey” (“Le voyage de Fanny”)

Fleeing the Nazis

Amos Lassen

After Fanny’s father was arrested by the Nazis, her mother took her and her two sisters to a boarding school in France’s neutral zone. When the Nazis began to close in on that area, hey children were smuggled to another institution just over the Italian border, and just in the nick of time. Unfortunately, they were there for only a short period. With Mussolini’s arrest, the Nazis began to take over Italy and the school’s leader, Madame Forman (Cecile De France)   knew that it time for them to move again.  She forges false papers and then gives all the children an anglicized name and drills them in fake family back-stories before taking them to catch the train to Switzerland. They almost fail at the very start, but Madame Forman creates a rather dramatic diversion for the kids to board undetected.

Teenage Elie (Victor Meutelet) took over as leader but he panicked and deserted them at the first sign of real trouble and thirteen year old Fanny (Leonie Souchaud) takes charge of getting them to Switzerland and safety. and with the war’s constantly changing scenario, this is certainly not going to be easy for one so young.

The film was co-written and directed by Lola Doillon  and based on Fanny Ben Ami’s autobiography. We see the horrors of war seen through the eyes of children.  Most members of the cast are non-professionals yet they give natural and convincing performances.  These are children and it is beautiful to see them grab an odd moment of playtime, when for just a minute or two. By doing so, they are allowed to forget the danger that they could easily be in.

In 1943 and when she had barely turned 13, Fanny and her sisters (and other young Jewish children) were sent to an Italian foster home. The younger children had no understanding of what was going on, or why they had to continue to move from one place to the next. It is an almost impossible to explain to a child why he/she might be persecuted because of their religious beliefs. In one scene, Fanny’s younger sister Georgette (Juliane Lepoureau) asks, “Why can’t we stop being Jews?” This demonstrates the difficulty in grasping the seriousness and precarious state they are in and the reasons why.

With the fall of Mussolini, Madame Forman knew that the children would not be safe in Italy so the time came for them to move to Switzerland and Fanny takes the lead of the group eight young children. She has to dig deep into her strength and keep together the stories that they have made up for them in order to get past German soldiers. At one point, some fellow travelers tell on the group, and they are almost caught by the Nazi soldiers.

When we consider how American immigration policies are being re-imagined, we see how relevant this movie is today. Here is a Holocaust story about children that reminds us that although this is past history, there is the possibility that it can happen again. We must stand tall against threats to freedom

Fanny was a strong, independent teen whose will to survive and get her sisters to safety, led her to lead to Switzerland.  They lived through the war and returned home to France afterward but never found their parents.  Eventually, they went to Israel where Fanny still resides today at 86 years old.

The picturesque scenery is the opposite of the harsh reality of uniformed soldiers and guns and it creates a juxtaposition of light and dark and serenity and war. “Fanny’s Journey” is a somber and strong reminder of what can happen when hate and violence are left unchecked. The innocence of childhood is drastically taken from these kids.  This is a story that needs to be told over and over again because it is as devastating as it is uplifting and serves as a reminder to never forget and never let something like this happen again. 

“MY BROTHER’S SHOES”— The Borders of Fantasy and Reality

“My Brother’s Shoes”

The Borders of Fantasy and Reality

Amos Lassen

Adam Reeves’ “My Brother’s Shoes” is a comedy that borders on fantasy and reality. Dallas (Peter Stringfellow) is a successful executive with a beautiful wife (Gretta Sosine) and a lovely home. He has dreams of having a family and leading a rich, conservative life. Austin (Jacob Ellis), his younger gay brother is always in trouble financially and romantically. He has dreams of winning first place in the local drag queen contest and then using the money to start a new life.

Each brother thinks the other “has it so good” and wishes that they could experience what the other one’s life is really like. Then by a strange twist of fate, they switch places. The world around them sees no difference but Dallas and Austin realize that they have been switched and now Austin must handle the office for Dallas as Dallas spends the day getting ready for the upcoming drag contest (with the help of Austin’s sidekick, Jackie).

After the switch when Austin is in Dallas’s bedroom, he faces a serious dilemma. Dallas promised his wife that they would try to make a baby that night. However, Austin is a gay man and the woman in the bed is his sister-in-law. He can’t say that he is not Dallas and there is no way he will sleep with his sister-in-law. How he deals with this situation is very, very funny.

Austin has some great one-liners and there is depth in some of the scenes but by and large this is a film to laugh with. I applaud the film’s originality.

“Never Break the Chain” by Jason Warburg— Grief and Obsession

Warburg, Jason. “Never Break the Chain’, Wheel Publications, 2017.

Grief and Obsession

Amos Lassen

Set in Malibu among mansions and Hollywood rock clubs, Tim Green is grieving over the loss of his father and this grief becomes an obsessive quest to find his mother who deserted him almost thirty years earlier. The journey takes him deep into the heart of rock and roll. We meet Green at the oceanfront compound of British guitarist Blake Saunders, who’s just hired him to write an authorized biography of his rock band. Green’s efforts to retrace his mother’s steps through Los Angeles’s rock and roll underworld push him toward a cathartic confrontation. Everything he once thought about who he is becomes challenged. This is a novel that is equal parts family drama, literate thriller, and a behind the scenes look at an aging rock band but taken as a whole, this is a story about families both the ones we’re born into, and the ones we create.

We get a lot of references to music here as might be expected from an author who has been a music writer and the music is actually a cast member here. This is a story of excess and success and it does show us who Tim Green really is. It’s through that we learn this. Warburg understands how music can play a major part in people’s lives.