“THE DEJA VUERS”— Unexpected Directions

“The Déjà Vuers”

Unexpected Directions

Amos Lassen

We have all experienced déjà vu before and never really understood what it is and why it happens. Chris Esper’s new film, “The Déjà Vuers” does not explain that but then it is something that can not really be explained.

Chuck (Kris Salvi) notices Morgan (Christie Devine), a woman he has never before met, on a park bench and what makes that interesting is that is exactly what he dreamt the night before. He tries to speak to her but at first, she is not the least bit interested and tries to get rid of him yet she is amazed at what he knows about her. The fact that is eating exactly the same fruit salad she ate in Chuck’s dream. The two begin a strange conversation that comes to Chris asking her to have sex with him. Suddenly they are joined by Elias (Craig Capone) a man who says that he is an ancestor of Morgan’s and that he has returned to the present to stop her from sleeping with Chuck.

Just as this plot sounds strange so is the film strange. It seems that Elias has really come from the past because he wants ice cream. As I watched I could not help but wonder where this story was going and why and then I realized that I was actually enjoying the film even though I really did not understand what I was watching.

Logically, there is nothing to understand here but neither does the concept of déjà vu. Everything happens in the same location and with a small cast yet we are not bored and the film is over before we really realize that we do not have a notion about what went on. It destroys the notion that it is impossible to enjoy something without understanding the time and the context. You definitely should want to have a look at “The Déjà Vuers” and then try to think it out.

“KINNARI”— To Enlightenment

“Kinnari”

To Enlightenment

Amos Lassen

I stand in awe of people who know how to use time to the best advantage and here I am speaking specifically of Christopher Di Nunzio’s short film (4 plus minutes), Kinnari. He manages in less than five minutes to do what others have spent thousands of pages trying to write about. We meet a man who is searching for a way to leave life but then….

If you stop for a second and reflect upon what you know about the end of life, you realize that you know nothing about it. We do know that death is a fact of life but that about says it all. It is a state of non-being and in that case being cannot possibly know it.

In this powerful sort film we get a meditation of the journey that leads the ultimate destination and the boundaries between it and life. (It is here that I am grateful for my degree in philosophy in that we get the chance to opine on something we know nothing about). Is that destination indeed “the great nothingness”? What does one think of during his final moments? Does he look back at his life in retrospect or does he simply walk toward this destination? What we see here is “a dream-like trek to enlightenment”; “an adventure of self-discovery”.

David (David Graziano) faces the end and comes to a moment of rediscovery with Kinnari (Jamie Joshi). In Buddhism, Kinnari is a tern describing a half-human and half-horse or half-bird hybrid, in Buddhist mythology and who is the archetypical lover. David sees her as a “goddess” and with her experiences a landscape that is surreal (which I suppose can also be said of death). . In a manner befitting to such consecrated figures, David moves with Kinnari through a surreal landscape. As Kinnari pulls David into this surreal realm, it becomes abstract and complex as he follows her up stairs that seem to never end. We become very aware of honest and intimacy when we realize the depth of what we see here. We feel haunted yet tempted and perhaps we are seeing something of David’s soul (as in T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” who measured out his life…).

Images are flashed before us and we are to put them together and decide whether they are omens, nightmarish, memorable or what. I wonder whether I am seeing intellectualism or opinion and struck by the beauty on the screen. There are questions posed and we are to formulate the answers— which I have yet to begin to tackle as I am still stunned by what I have seen. I ask myself if I really saw this and so I watch it again and again, my mouth open and my mind racing. How I do I review this? I can’t, all I can do is describe…. (and yes, if this was a review it would be five stars). Chris Di Nuncio did what many others have unsuccessfully tried— he caught me at a loss for words and as I reread this I realize that perhaps I really said nothing.

“MR. PIG”— A Father/Daughter Road Trip

“Mr. Pig”

A Father/Daughter Road Trip

Amos Lassen

“Mr. Pig” is a beautiful road movie from director Diego Luna in which California pig farmer Ambrose (Danny Glover) and daughter Eunice (Maya Rudolph) travel down every predictable road imaginable without properly exploring their history. Ambrose is a dying man who loses his farm and hits the open road in search of a proper home for his valuable hog Howie. The film takes us down memory lane as we get quite an honest look at the reality of getting old. Early on, Ambrose visits a pig-holding warehouse and is so horrified that he almost has a panic attack and from this we see his state of mind. We see the mechanics of emotion in human relationships with our parents (and with animals) and ultimately explore compassion when it comes to our own mortality and a basic understanding that humans and animals should all die with dignity.

Unfortunately the film meanders a bit too much. I see where this could have been a brilliant short film about man trying to unburden all that he has within. He and his daughter are estranged probably because of something to do with Ambrose’s pig farm and we hear Eunice over the telephone asking her father when he will be coming to visit her, something he probably never thought about doing. However now Ambrose is broke and destitute with banks looking to foreclose on the ranch and his hope is to sell off his favorite hog to a family friend for $50,000. He talks to the pig like a lifelong companion, treating him with the concern and care he probably has never shown to his own daughter. Eubanks has a code when it comes to his animals; they should be treated with respect and given free range to roam. This code causes the deal to fail just as fast as his fading health.

Eunice comes to the ranch and finds her father on the verge of death and so she begins a journey with him to find a suitable home for the hog.  This is a chance to make amends with the father who has barely been in her life, and perhaps help ease some of the guilt he’s carrying over his absence. We see a lot of sadness and it will undoubtedly be tough for some to sit through. What few laughs there are come from the stubborn, oversized hog, while Glover and Rudolph trade in mutual sadness. “Mr. Pig” is an odd story of family reconciliation, one that isn’t afraid to work our emotions.

The film does not suffer from sentimentality the slowness of the pace, like Ambrose’s unreliable wagon, threatens to stall multiple times. It is difficult to say that I enjoyed the movie because reality is not always enjoyable but it has a lot to say about the later years of life and family and for that alone it is worthwhile to see. The performances are quite good and Howie, the hog, will steal your heart.

“BEST AND MOST BEAUTIFUL THINGS”— Celebrating Outcasts

“Best and Most Beautiful Things”

Celebrating Outcasts

Amos Lassen

Michelle Smith is a twenty-years-old precocious blind woman who chases love and freedom in quite a provocative fringe community. Michelle Smith lives in Bangor, Maine and she can see but only essentially when she’s nose-to-nose with the subject. She also has Asperser’s syndrome, a high-functioning variety of autism. Her mind can fixate on a subject almost the exclusion of all else.

The documentary covers a period from her senior year at the Perkins School for the Blind, a high school in Watertown, Massachusetts until shortly after graduation. Michelle knows that unemployment amongst the blind is right around 75%. With school and its structured environment ending, she wants to be independent so that she can develop as an individual and as a woman.

Michelle lives with her mom, Julie, who is divorced from Michelle’s dad, Mike. The two seem cordial enough to one another but on-camera there’s a fair amount of bitterness and the divorce is described as “contentious.” Her parents are supportive but are worried about their daughter who sometimes can’t see the big picture.

Michelle received an offer for an internship with someone who worked on the “Rugrats” show in Los and if it works out it would be perfect for her. For the disabled, life is rough and it is heartbreaking to watch her dream fall apart.

Michelle is a something of a nerd who is into anime and Darla and collects dolls. Then she gets into the BDSM scene and finds a boyfriend who is also part of that kink. They adopt a dominant/submissive relationship as well as a Daddy/Little Girl relationship even though they are both young themselves. Like most young dominants the boyfriend comes off as a bit self-aggrandizing but they seem genuinely fond of each other and Michelle is delighted when she receives a flogger as a Christmas gift.

Director and filmmaker Garrett Zevgetis makes an effort to give us an idea of what Michelle sees by focusing the camera in an almost super near-sighted setting from time to time. What, for me, the film does is challenge our ideas of what “normal” is. We get a look at the uphill battles people with disabilities face in a world often not designed to accommodate them and also a lively, engaging portrait of a young woman with ordinary hopes and dreams: Michelle is an explicit challenge to our ideas of what “normal” is, particularly as it concerns her autism and how it shapes how she interacts with other people. Zevgetis finds an intriguing way to replicate Michelle’s experience of the world when it comes to her sight: she can see some things if she holds stuff very close to her face, so the filmmaker sometimes engages in extreme close-ups that reduce the frame of vision down to the smallest perspective. Nonetheless Michelle’s eye on the world and the possibilities open to her is enormous; we can see from the moment it is broached that she may be getting her hopes up in an unrealistic way. But as young people we all did that. Regardless of our capabilities, we all want and need the same things out of life, Michelle may be, in the words of the film’s tagline, “not your average outcast,” but she’s not so unusual at all.

Director Garrett Zevgetis’ self-described mission in making this film was to tell Michelle’s story without focusing on her disabilities and in this way have us ponder our own concepts of normalcy.

Michelle is bright, outgoing, vivacious, and determined not to be held her back. However, she also can become overwrought and argumentative and retreats into herself when she feels her disabilities are dominating her life.

Michelle’s desire is to rise above her circumstances and this is what propels her to find ways to experience life on her own. She skates at a roller rink, goes to bars, becomes involved in a sexual role-playing community, and spends a week in Los Angeles. Her confidence and self-esteem develop, allowing her to overcome the reservations expressed by family and a former teacher.

Even though Zevgetis emphasizes Michelle’s personality and accomplishments, her disabilities are an integral a part of her story. By the time the film is over, we realize that all we have done is observe her. The film’s strongest aspect, though, chronicles how someone like Michelle, even with her obvious talents and abilities, can be made to feel like an outcast and pushed into a life of dependence by conventional thinking that focuses on what she can’t do rather than on her abilities.

Early into the film, Michelle Smith says while standing in her bedroom, “This is my life.” By that, she means not just the dozens of dolls and playthings lining her walls, but also herself. Michelle remains in front of the camera and talks about her tribulations.

The film’s title is drawn from the Helen Keller quote “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” We really do not understand Michelle as anything more than a symbol for perseverance even thought I really wanted that to happen.

“The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates: A Novel” by Joseph Bacharach— A Fable for Our Times

Bacharach, Joseph. “The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates: A Novel”, Liveright, 2017.

A Fable for Our Times

Amos Lassen

I imagine that by now everyone understands that our Biblical ancestors were indeed members of dysfunctional families and in many cases they were the cause of the dysfunction. Abraham leads the pack as an unworthy and unacceptable father figure but he is really all we have (or at least know about). We ask questions abut the patriarchs and the matriarchs and their offspring knowing that these are existential questions that cannot be answered. Now imagine taking those stories and those characters and taking them out of their Biblical locations and contexts and moving them to modern day Manhattan. Joseph Bacharach takes those wonderful Bible stories and moves the ancestors into the modern world which is about as crazy as Canaan, Ur, etc. were.

Isabel Giordani (now that is a Jewish name for you) runs away from New York City and a failed relationship and goes to Pittsburgh to take a job at a nonprofit (that is not doing well) Future Cities Institute and she pushes herself into the aimless lives of Isaac Mayer and his father, Abbie, an architect turned crooked real estate developer. We understand that Abbie says that he has had a vision that was unexpected but that he decided to pursue. This very vision gets Abbie’s family involved in

the political and familial machinations of Fayette County, Pennsylvania. It is through this that writer Bacharach looks at those regular and troublesome themes of the perpetually fraught themes of love, family, God, and real estate (This is obviously not about that real estate spoken of in the Bible and for which we are looking for the deed). Now most of you have probably been able to guess where I am going with this and that it is sure to be irreverent. What you do not expect is the tenderness we find here and it surprised me too when I actually wept instead of blaspheming. This is a profane yet wise, funny yet tragic, sacred yet unholy look at who we are (and I loved it).

I love that we get all kinds of Jews (both straight and gay and maybe others as well) here and we meet Pennsylvania thugs (mostly straight) as we read of the aforementioned themes. Now I had to wonder how and why Abbie left Manhattan for Pittsburgh. It seems to have had something to do with Abbie’s wide, Sarah (notice the names) learning that her husband’s girlfriend was pregnant with his child. Sarah thought it would be good to get Abbie out of the city and move to Pittsburg near where his sister, Veronica lives. Abbie gets into the construction business and is soon working with shady characters on corrupt deals.

It was not until some 30 years later that Isobel comes to the area and she decides to look for Abbie after having been doing her own personal research on him for years. She works her way into the family through Isaac and we become aware that both Sarah and Abbie have secrets. (Now I ask you, what kind of Jew has secrets?).

Some may think this book to be strange; I found it lovingly weird and most of you know that I love my Bible stories. I enjoy satire and sarcasm when done correctly and while it does not always work here, it does most of the time. If we can have a little fun at the expense of religion than it is all good. It should be tasteful which it is not here but a could read, and this is, I can overlook mistakes and failure (although those are not the correct words). It is the originality and prose of the author that drew me in and after having read just one of his books, I am a fan. He manages to combine intellectuality, wit, lyricism, sarcasm and satire with his knowledge of the Bible to give us this read. I have read a lot of Biblical satires and so far the only that comes close to Bacharach is Edward Falzon. I am not here to advertise him but feel read to read my review of his book here.

This is not a book that everyone will like—it helps that the reader is also a bit weird but if you can let yourself go and read just for pleasure, I think you will understand what I have been trying to say.

“Games of Make Believe” by Julie Ann Wambach— The Arizona Princes

Wambach, Julie Ann. “Games of Make-Believe”, Brookside Press , 2016.

The Arizona Princes

Amos Lassen

“Games of Make-Believe” is set in the early Phoenix, Arizona, a place that experienced great population growth and by the 1990s it was seven-and-a-half times what it was in 1960. In those thirty years, Arizona witnessed not only cultural changes but also a tremendous building boom. There was a huge influx population wise and people came from all over the United States. Our story centers on a family dealing with the new concept of “blended family” even before the term really existed. Bella met a “prosperous gentleman”, Hal Prince, who convinces her to marry him and she realizes that by doing so she will have quite an exciting future. From this writer Julie Ann Wambach gives us a series of twenty-eight stories that are about the Princes of Arizona and the dysfunctional stepfamily that struggles to understand and make sense of their lives at a time when everything around them is changing.

Renata is Bella’s new husband’s daughter and she wants nothing to do with her stepmother or two stepsisters. If it is even possible to bring this people together, no one really knows how to do so. At the center of the family discord is the daughter who Bella’s husband brings into the marriage. Renata immediately rejects her new stepmother and two stepsisters. No one knows how to unify this group. Bella, as a child, survived abuse and now tries to assume a new identity so that she can better fit into her husband’s world. She uses the approach of being the boss and while she is able to convince others that she is in charge, she cannot convince herself. She tries everything from pop psychology to religion but she is almost all alone since her husband is always taking care of business.

As a girl Bella was called Susan and her twin sister was Millie. They, along with their triplet brothers are raised by Hannah, their stepmother when their father is away tending to business. We never really know what his business is but it is safe to assume that he travels to do it. When he dies, it becomes even harder for the children and eventually they begin to leave the family to start their own lives. Susan is the last to go and does so when she married a classmate from school who helped her stay in touch with Millie with his becoming the address to which she could mail letters. However he was a drinker and aside from drinking and fathering two daughters there was not a whole lot from him. Susan, eventually becomes Bella and moves from Utah to Arizona.

Susan/Bella is a loving mother and a good-enough person, but she is just not convincing as any more than that. She really does not have much going for her and she is not prepared for where her life takes her. She is the spine of the stories in this collection and everything that happens is a result of her marriage and her move to a new city.

The book is quite simply a modern fable about dealing with events for which one is not prepared for. deal with events for which she is unprepared. From an abusive childhood and a bad marriage, Bella worked hard to save herself.

 Her faith is strong and she has a positive outlook on life. She met a man who is bright and cares about her and who tries to fit into her life and into the lives of her daughters. His daughter becomes the problem because she has no idea of what is important on life. Their story is a story of struggle, confusion, faith and love as two families try to come together to try to create a new family. The struggle here is holding a marriage together against the odds in a contemporary and non-traditional union. In a situation like this we become very aware that a marriage includes more than just a husband and wife as it now must consider newborns in the family or the coming together of a stepmother and stepmother with their children from different marriages.

I enjoyed reading about the Mormons as well but by large I found it fun to read a different version of the Cinderella story.

“Marbled, Swirled, and Layered: 150 Recipes and Variations for Artful Bars, Cookies, Pies, Cakes, and More” by Irwin Lin— Lin, AJ and Deserts

Lin, Irvin. “Marbled, Swirled, and Layered: 150 Recipes and Variations for Artful Bars, Cookies, Pies, Cakes, and More”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

Lin, AJ and Deserts

Amos Lassen

Some of you undoubtedly are wondering why I am reviewing a cookbook on my site that is mostly concerned with books and movies for the LGBT community. Have patience and you will soon understand. And yes, there is something common between a delicious desert and a gay man.

Irvin Lin is the creator of the popular blog “Eat the Love” and now he has written this book that shows how to create flavor combinations that look as fantastic as they taste. Recipes range from easy brownies and bars to muffins and morning buns to cakes and tarts, cinnamon spiral icebox cookies, pistachio‑swirl brownies, triple‑chocolate pie, multicolored “Neapolitan” layer cake, and many more. He offers variations to suit any taste (more than 150 recipes total) plus baking and decorating tips. Lin explains baking basics and shares supplementary information on ingredients, techniques, and food science.

Food, its taste and presentation had always been important to gay men. Food and gay culture have always been intermingled.

Irvin Lin gives us his own personal narrative when giving recipes and among these are. his feelings about Obama finally coming out in support of same-sex marriage, Maurice Sendak’s death, Amendment One passing that banned same-sex marriage in the constitution of North Carolina and his boyfriend, AJ.

In his introduction, he tells his readers to experiment with recipes this is a book that was designed for experimentation with a core recipe and alternatives.

Lin lives in San Francisco and he mentions it often just as he writes about his original hometown, St. Louis, and his Asian-American heritage and coffee shops and bakeries that he loves.

“Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud” by Barry W. Holtz— A Beloved Jewish Hero

Holtz, Barry W. “Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud”, (Jewish Lives), Yale University Press , 2017.

A Beloved Jewish Hero

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Akiva was born in the land of Israel sometime around the year 50 of the Common Era. He is considered by many, still today, as the greatest rabbi of his time and has had an important influence of Judaism through the ages. For many Jewish youth, he is seen as a mythical yet very real person and I still remember how we waited from week-to-week to learn more about him. For us as kids Akiva was “the man”.

We know from traditional sources that Akiva had come from poverty and with no education in the traditions of the Jews. He began to study and learn Torah only as an adult. After the razing of Jerusalem in 70 C. E., Rabbi Akiva helped to find the correct direction for Judaism to take and it was his mind and his character that gained him respect as a mystic, a legalist, a theologian, and an interpreter. I would have loved to study with him as he was a man who disputed with his colleagues in dramatic fashion yet remained admired and beloved by his peers. Because he demanded to teach Torah publicly, he was murdered by Roman authorities and then became the prime example of Jewish martyrdom. Until recently the only biographies of Rabbi Akiva that we had were quite old.

There have been biographies of Akiva written yet the first new one we have since 2003 was “Akiva” by Reuven Hammer and now this. I suppose the reason for the fact that there has been so little done about him is the lack of information but now we have two fine biographies. Here, writer Barry Holtz was used the most modern historical and literary scholarship to untangle the ancient sources and give the reader a clear look at Rabbi Akiva, the man who became a Talmudic hero. Because of modern scholarship, we see Akiva as never before in the context of the time in which he lived and his story is also the story of those scholars who followed him opening the secrets of rabbinic texts.

 

 

 

 

 

“Gay & Lesbian Ghost Stories” by Antonio R. Garcez— True Stories

Garcez, Antonio R. “Gay & Lesbian Ghost Stories”, Red Rabbit Press, 2016.

True Stories

Amos Lassen

Yes, dear readers the title of this review is true stories and it is bout ghostly encounters that are often described as mystical phenomena and seemingly primarily belong to the worlds of heterosexuals. Author Antonio R. Garcez tells us that

“anthropological research has referenced revealing scientific evidence that homosexuals, throughout virtually all levels of human culture, have often been highly respected sources of intuitive power, wisdom, social status, and spiritual strength and guidance to their communities”. He then set out to interview. LGBT individuals from across the United States, who have had contact with loved ones and other encounters with spirits. This is what he found.

The stories that have been shared with author Garcez are diverse and deal with such themes as loss, redemption, fear, fate and haunted terror. These stories range from the emotionally touching to the malevolent and vengeful. They are loaded with surprising candor and seem to prove that love is stronger than death. As we read these stories, we wonder if one day we will face similar experiences. 

In his introduction, writer Garcez plainly says, “…we, gay and lesbian people, have been given a very unique and precious gift.  A gift that, if developed, allows us to see, communicate and experience the paranormal from childhood.”  Now if that doesn’t gain your interest than nothing will.

The stories are arranged alphabetically by state but to share any of them would be to ruin a fascinating read that just might cause you to believe in ghosts.

“The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East” by Guy Laron— When It All Changed

Laron, Guy. “The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East”, Yale University Press, 2017.

When It All Changed

Amos Lassen

There are some dates that become part of us and that we remember our entire lives. Just as most mothers remember the dates they gave birth to their children, we tend to associate actions with dates. November 22, 1963 and September 11, 2001 are dates we cannot hide from and every year when they come around, we remember all to well what they represent. June 5, 1967 is one of those dates for me—it was two days after I moved to live in Israel to help build a Jewish nation. We are all so idealistic then and that idealism followed me as I was inducted quickly into the Israel Defense Forces and prepared to head to battle— military training would come on the road. Little did we know then that this was the war that would change everything and we are still feeling those changes today, fifty years later.

We will be seeing a lot of literature being published for the 50 anniversary and I have looked at several but decided to concentrate on this one by Guy Laron because of the way it examines the Six-Day War, its causes, and its enduring consequences against its global context.

It took just one week to redraw the map of the Middle East but what is fascinating is that with all that has been written about this war, very little explains why this conflict began. Some believe

that the war was simply the result of regional friction that would show the crucial roles played by American and Soviet policies facing a global economic crisis, and restoring Syria’s (overlooked) centrality to events leading up to the hostilities. Laron says that this is not the case at all. He takes an interdisciplinary approach and has done much important research in order to significantly reassess the war that was responsible for the downfall of Arab nationalism, the growth of Islamic extremism, and the non-ending animosity between Jews and Palestinians. Laron looks at the “trigger-happy generals” behind the war.

What makes this different from other books about the war is that Laron uses sources that up until now have not been used. This was a war in the Middle East but whose events were not confined to that the Middle East. Some of these sources come from the United States, the former Soviet Union and sources related to the Warsaw pact. When these are all taken together, we see a detailed narrative that is both military and political. Laron explains it all from the origins of the conflict to the outcome and the changes that came with it. We see how important it is to understand the war politically as well as militarily because politics played such a huge role in all of the dynamics.