“New Intimacies, Old Desires: Law, Culture and Queer Politics in Neoliberal Times” edited by Oishik Sircar and Jain Diplika— Celebrating Who We Are and How We Got There

new-intimacies

Sircar, Oishik and Dipika, Jain, editors. “New Intimacies, Old Desires: Law, Culture and Queer Politics in Neoliberal Times”, Zubaan Books, 2016.

Celebrating Who We Are and How We Got There

Amos Lassen

There is no question that in the last fifteen years there has been a major change in the rights of LGBT people. As these new rights were being won and secured, however, there has been “crony capitalism, violent consequences of the war on terror, the hyper-juridification of politics, the financialization of social movements, and the medicalization of non-heteronormative identities and practices”. We are left to question how we can understand these new rights against a backdrop like this.

The selections in “New Intimacies, Old Desires” answer this. We get an analysis of laws, state policies, and cultures of activism that explain what has happened in this age of neoliberalism and the modern period that, in effect, celebrates the liberated sexual citizen and we see something of a reproduction of that old colonial hope of civilizing the native. Looking carefully at race, religion, and class, the selections are a “critique of global queer politics and its engagements, confrontations, and negotiations with modernity and its investments in liberalism, legalism, and militarism—all with the objective of queering the ethics of global politics”.

 

“SCREAM QUEENS” A Horror Comedy Series

scream-queens

-“SCREAM QUEENS”

A Horror Comedy Series

Amos Lassen

There have been a string of murders at Wallace University and the members of Kappa Kappa Tau sorority find themselves being run by Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts) . Then Dean Cathy Munsch announces that sorority pledging must be open to all students, and not just the elite students, causes unrest and sets the stage for a killer dressed as the devil to begin claiming victims, one episode at a time. “Scream Queens” brings together black comedy and slasher movies to give us a contemporary look at the wonderful mysteries of yore. Every character has a motive for murder and also could easily become the next victim.

scream1

Ian Brennen, Brad Falchuck and Ryan Murphy who brings us “American Horror Story” are a the helm of this new campy mystery series that is a comedy version of the “other” series and is intentionally ridiculous as it satirizes horror films.

scream2

Chanel Oberlin is a rich, spoiled brat and head of the Kappa sorority and got to that position because of the untimely death of the previous president. Her back is covered by Chanel #2 (Ariana Grande), Chanel #3 (Billie Lourd), and Chanel #5 (Abigail Breslin). She cannot even be bothered with learning these girls’ real names and she is determined to not only rule the school, but become a successful television journalist. This will not be easy for her since the dean is her greatest adversary. Her boyfriend, Chad Radwell (Glen Powell) decides he can’t be with her if she’s loses her popularity because of the dean’s decision and the serial killer has begun his killing spree concentrating on the girls in and around the sorority. Nothing fazes Chanel, nor makes her care about others. She is what she is.

scream3

The series has quite a large cast and while Roberts and Curtis are the stars in the spotlight, others steal it for with some wonderful moments. Nick Jonas has a wonderfully memorable bedroom scene. There are others including national sorority president Gigi Caldwell (Nasim Pedrad), security guard Denise Hemphill (Niecy Nash), and “white mammy” Ms. Bean (Jan Hoag) are all excellent.

scream4

The series is not to be taken seriously and is necessary to remember that if you want to really enjoy what is going on. As the mystery unfolds, people die in gory, hilarious ways.

“JACK GOES HOME”— Learning the Facts

jack-goes-home

“Jack Goes Home”

Learning the Facts

Amos Lassen

Thomas Dekker’s new film, “Jack Goes Home” begins with Rory Culkin as Jack Duncan, a magazine editor looking forward to the birth of his child with his pregnant fiancée (Britt Robertson). However, he learns that a car crash has claimed the life of his father. His mother survived but we see by his reaction to this that there is something in his past that is plagues him.

jack1

He goes to his hometown, where he meets again his old friend Shanda (Daveigh Chase) and a mysterious young neighbor (Louis Hunter). He also reconnects with his mother (Lin Shaye) whose mental state in the wake of the tragedy makes her seem more likely to erupt in rage than in sorrow. When Jack goes up to the attic, he finds a videotape revealing a brother Jack had forgotten and an audiocassette left by his father with cryptic messages and intimations of child abuse. Shanda tells him that she had always thought that Jack’s childhood home was haunted. Soon Jack begins to lose his hold on sanity.

Something about sleepwalking begins to happen and that along with family secrets coming to the fore do not add up.bJack’s mother Teresa suffers multiple physical and emotional wounds and Jack returns to his home in Denver, Colorado to take care for her during her recuperation. It is then that he begins uncovering long-buried secrets about his childhood kept from him by his parents.

jack2

Culkin manages to carry the film with a considerable amount of ease. He has been able to give Jack endearing qualities that cause us to easily empathize with his plight.

Nothing about the film is subtle and nothing is left to the imagination. Dekker emphasizes the themes of depravity, sexual abuse and depression.  The story is about loss and homecoming and in Jack we see man’s ability to teeter at sanity’s end.

jack3

Jack is the one who seems to be unraveling. Teresa approaches each day with a certain calmness, while Jack turns to best friend Shanda for support before he finds himself haunted by nightly sleepwalking fits and clues that lead to buried pasts, all of which suggest his life is nothing as believed.

Jack is haunted by outreaching arms and bloody creatures, beaten by his mother, kissed by his male neighbor, ruined by bad news from his wife and the real issue here is his discovery of gruesome family secrets. The horrors of each night are taken away by each day’s light yet the demons in Jack’s head are never restrained enough to follow.

jack4

“Jack Goes Home” is filled with emotional ravaging and even though it does not all come together, this is a fascinating film that could have been a much greater one.

“GROWING UP COY”— A Landmark Civil Rights Case

growing-up-coy

“Growing Up Coy”

A Landmark Civil Rights Case

Amos Lassen

Coy was born biologically a boy but began to identify as a girl when she was 18 months old by wearing dresses, having long hair, and loving the color pink. She was one of triplets and has two sisters. Her father, Jeremy Mathis is a former Marine, and her mother, Kathryn, is a freelance portrait photographer.

growing2

During kindergarten, the Mathis parents notified the school in the Fountain-Fort Carson School district that Coy had identified as a girl and should be treated as one. However, when she was in first grade, they received a letter stating that Coy could not use the girl’s bathroom and that the best solution would be to have her use staff bathrooms or a gender-neutral one in the school’s health office.

growing1

This outraged and upset Coy’s father and mother who took her out of school and began their own home schooling program. After thinking things through, they decided to have Michael D. Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, handle their fight for her rights. Silverman met them in Colorado and decided to use the case as a critical test of how state anti-discrimination laws are applied to transgender students.

growing-up-coy-1024x731-1

This film, directed by Eric Juhola looks at the efforts of a six-year-old trans girl and her brave parents to defend her rights. Silverman shares that there are 17 states and the District of Columbia offering some form of legal safeguards for transgender people.

c11

The film is a fascinating portrait of how parents, support their trans-gender male-born six-year-old within the family, then against public opinion when Coy goes to elementary school and they request Coy’s use of the girls’ bathroom. Today this is quite an important and hot issue but Juhola met the family in 2012 with his attorney friend Michael Silverman of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund as they prepared to file a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division against the school system. The news had just begun to shift back then.

coy5

Kathryn, because of her profession, has lots of pictures of their large blonde brood: older sister eight-year-old Dakota, younger autistic sister three-year-old Auri, and the six-year-old triplets: Lily with cerebral palsy, their only male child, Max, and Coy. The photos show Coby as an unhappy little boy until by 18-months-old his parents give into his demands to wear his sisters’ clothing and wish for their anatomy. They consulted a psychologist specializing in nonconforming gender identity and send Coy off to kindergarten in the suburbs of Colorado Springs, an area known for evangelical mega-churches and for proselytizing at the nearby Air Force Academy. Anti-government and anti-Planned Parenthood billboards are all over the landscape in the foothills of the Rockies. The lawyer warns that their legal strategy has to include a media plan for educating the public.

c33

The film is strongest at showing the personal stress from what follows but unlike reality TV stars who want to be famous, this became a media nightmare for the family. After their announcement in Denver, local, national, even international press surrounded their house and their phone never stopped ringing. TV news clips emphasize they were depicted in salacious promotion and headlines. The father is a media relations major at Colorado State, so maybe that helped at handling press conferences and balancing the media’s need for access to their child with Coy’s fatigue at rationalizing his choices as other children acted out their resentments. During all of this, the parents struggled to continue home schooling their kids until the school agreed to accept them on their terms. Their ten-year marriage also began to wear down in front of the camera.

coy6

Since the Mathis’s victory in 2013, it became a model for other states and the recent directive of the Federal Departments of Education and Justice establishing trans students access to bathrooms of their choosing, we could only hope that the family moves to a more fluidly accepting place where personal choices don’t have to be defined by a binary litigious system.

“YOUNG MEN”— A Dance Film

young3

“Young Men”

A Dance Film

Amos Lassen

“Young Men” is a feature length dance film without dialogue shot on location in Northern France featuring dancers from BalletBoyz Dance Company. It is based on the hugely successful stage production that premiered at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 2014 and is choreographed by Iván Pérez with a commissioned score by singer songwriter Keaton Henson. Artistic Directors Michael Nunn and William Trevitt (who were formerly leading dancers with The Royal Ballet) realized the production. Since they formed their own company in 2001 they have built a reputation for bringing dance to the screen in a variety of innovative ways and have won many awards.

young-men1

“Young Men” is about a group of young soldiers who are barely old enough to fight and they experience the brutality of warfare. The film was shot on location in Northern France. The setting is the First World War and the ballet  follows a young solider and his squadron’s experience of basic training, combat, and this ultimately leads to the destruction of modern warfare, and the devastation of the entire European continent. The ballet is carefully choreographed and not a word is spoken. The music score is by Keaton Henson, an acclaimed British recording artist and is performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra.

young5

“How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS” by David France— Stopping AIDS

how-to-survive-a-plague

France, David. “How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS”, Knopf, 2016.

Stopping AIDS

Amos Lassen

Inspired by the documentary film of the same name, this is the definitive history of the successful battle to halt the AIDS epidemic. It is the story of the grassroots movement of activists, many of whom were in a life-or-death struggle and seized upon scientific research to help develop the drugs that turned HIV from a mostly fatal disease to a manageable one. We meet a small group of men and women who were ignored by public officials, religious leaders, and the nation at large, and who faced shame and hatred yet chose to fight for their right to live by educating themselves and demanding to become full partners in the race for effective treatments. Because of them, sixteen million people are alive today. This is a beautiful, brutally human, intimate true story.

We become dramatically part of the founding of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), and see the rise of an underground drug market instead of prohibitively expensive (and sometimes toxic) AZT. We read as “these activists learn to become their own researchers, lobbyists, drug smugglers, and clinicians, establishing their own newspapers, research journals, and laboratories, and as they go on to force reform in the nation’s disease-fighting agencies”. These are our heroes.

David France brings to life the extraordinary characters (the closeted Wall Street trader-turned-activist, the high school dropout who found purpose battling pharmaceutical giants in New York, the South African physician who helped establish the first officially recognized buyers’ club at the height of the epidemic, and the public relations executive fighting to save his own life for the sake of his young daughter). This is an epic and detailed study of one of the most important moments in the history of American civil rights. This is a book that causes you to weep at the same time that it presents hope for the future. Writer France traces the lives of the people behind the scenes and shows their struggles in stirring detail. We cheer with them and share their frustrations especially those that are related the political establishments that ignored the terrible tragedy of the AIDS epidemic.

This was America during the 1980s and 1990s and the book is a history, a memoir, a study of public health, and a call-to-action. France brings an update to Randy Shilts’ “And the Band Played On” (1987). We meet the activists who refused to die without a fight and who were vital in arresting the epidemic.  We cannot let the AIDS epidemic fade into history. It was a terrible time for all of us but it also united us as we faced the terror and confusion of those dark days. France’s storytelling is intimate and monumental and the story of illness and death but also of resilience. Courage, anger, joy, compassion and kindness come together in an unforgettable story that changed the way we lived forever.

THE ANATOMY OF MONSTERS”—A Gritty Serial Killer Romance

the-anatomy-of-monsters

“The Anatomy of Monsters”

A Gritty Serial Killer Romance

Amos Lassen

Director Byron C. Miller’s “The Anatomy of Monsters” begins slowly and  subtly and builds to quite a finale. But that does not mean that it is boring. Exploring sociopathic psyches, the film follows aspiring serial killer Andrew (Jesse Lee Keeter) as he abducts a young woman named Sarah (Tabitha Bastien) and he hopes to slaughter her. Shortly after getting her into the hotel room where he intends to commit the deed, however, Andrew discovers that Sarah has some murderous secrets of her own.

the-anatomy1

As Sarah begins to recount unexpectedly falling in love with Nick (Conner Marx), it’s immediately apparent that the story isn’t going to end well. Thanks to powerful performances from both Bastien and Marx, the chemistry between the couple feels very real and makes their doomed relationship all the more affecting. We see Nick as a lovable goofball who understandably captures the affection of Sarah, who we see not as a villain but as a typical twenty-something woman. She isn’t pure evil; she simply has sociopathic tendencies that she sadly cannot fight off.

a2

The film is dark, disturbing and unpredictable. What unfolds is a diabolical game of cat and mouse, and a soul bearing confession of love and death. It is a kind of anomaly. It’s a low budget movie with quality of performances and strong dialogue putting it above average fright films of this kind.

a3

Andrew picks up Sarah at a bar, takes her back to a hotel room, handcuffs her, and then finds out she is also a homicidal maniac. The rest of the film is these two talking about how they became the monsters they are. Their stories are told in flashbacks (mostly Sarah’s). The film is never too frightening or chilling and we connect emotionally with the sociopaths. We wonder is this is what happens when the hunter becomes the hunted.

a4

As Andrew begins to kill Sarah, he wavers. What follows is the girl offering up some advice on how to get away with murder and a telling of her life story – from killing childhood pets to moving on to bigger prey. Most of our female sociopath’s story is interesting and engaging. She talks extensively about being careful but in one kill, while she crawled all over a guy’s car before killing him not leaving leave behind hairs and/or clothing fibers.

a6

This is mostly a one-room film with lots of talking, so there’s not a lot going on otherwise (minus a few flashbacks) but the story is fairly well rounded and shown in a way that makes sense. The thriller shows a lot of ambition and guts as it lets the strong script and decently talented actors carry the film rather than effects and gimmicks.

a

What the film does so well is pace the story in such a way that it unfolds slowly, but with each layer let loose, it leads to one fascinating revelation after another about these two people in this hotel room. These are two complex individuals and as they tell each other their stories as to how they both ended up in this room. We get to know the monsters underneath both of their seemingly harmless exteriors. This turns into a tale of who is the bigger monster, the woman or the man, as both reveal sides of monstrosity and humanity that usually isn’t seen in horror films, especially of the lower budget variety.

“EGG AND STONE”— A Chinese Coming of Age Drama

egg-and-stone-poster

“EGG AND STONE”

A Chinese Coming of Age Drama

Amos Lassen

Director Huang Ji in her autobiographical feature debut takes audiences to the village where she grew up in China’s rural Hunan province. Her parents moved to the city to work, so she at 14-years-old must now live with her aunt and uncle. She is left to deal with her fears and her desires as well as her sexual awakening.

Director Huang Ji’s has visual sophistication and cinema polish. She most certainly also knows how to tell a story. We meet Honggui (Honngui Yao) sitting on her bed as menstrual blood runs down her leg and this sets the scene for what is to follow.

egg1

We see from this opening that we’re going to see a purposely-constructed work of feminist thought and new womanhood as our hero deals with her internal struggles. It is not until later that we learn that she was left with her aunt and uncle with her parents move to the city to find employment. She feels ignored and alienated by her extended family and the only vale she is in her outward appearance. She has been told in Buddhist parables about menstruation is a form of sin. Her environment was one of isolation and her only escape is her spending time with a local boy who gave her a stone-carved stamp that she uses to make art out of her menstrual blood, demonstrating ambivalence and confusion about her role as a woman. The way she lives shows the ongoing statement of gender relegation in modern China where a woman is only as valuable as the healthy baby boy she’s able to conceive. Honggui’s aunt and uncle eventually exploit her for her ability to procreate.

egg-and-stone

 This is an intensely personal and emotional film about sexual abuse. Director Huang Ji spotlights contemporary Chinese gender inequity. Honggui was only supposed to stay with her aunt and uncle for two years, but she has spent the last seven in their Hunan village. Her aunt clearly resents her continued presence, but her uncle is suspiciously fine with it. The fourteen year-old gets pregnant and this puts her in a precarious position within a society that is very judgmental. However, if she has a boy, it becomes a marketable commodity.

Honggui’s life is profoundly complicated by two social dynamics, the illegal urban migration caused by extreme rural poverty and China’s cultural preference for boys over girls. Of course, the Party is not eager to discuss any of this, particularly in light of their only slightly relaxed One Child policy.

This is a profoundly political film that was shot in shot on location in the same provincial town where director Huang Ji herself was sexually abused by her uncle. There are not any of the trademarks of Western movies that deal with the subject of sexual violence against children. There is just a shy young girl who desperately tries to survive her intense life. 

Honggui hardly speaks to her uncle and aunt, and her only solace is a teenage boy about her age who gives her rides around town but their puppy love doesn’t last because the boy, who works in a nearby mine, soon leaves town to find a better job in the city. All the while Honggui struggles alone in the dark when she realizes her period is hopelessly late.

egg2

Huang has said that she wants to convey through Honggui’s non-communicative and extremely shy character how ‘left-behind’ children often have no one to turn to and are left utterly silenced and alone. The film has many shots and stills to capture the mood of the main character’s hushed suffocation in her dingy room and surroundings. The many frames of the sealed window inside Honggui’s dark room reflect the insular world of a deeply frightened and troubled child and we a sense of helplessness and desperation of neglect and sexual violation.

“A QUEER COUNTRY”— A Look at LGBT Israel

a-queer-country-poster“A QUEER COUNTRY”

A Look at LGBT Israel

Amos Lassen

Having lived and loved in Israel for many years, I was anxious to see “A Queer Country” since I had been so involved in the gay liberation movement there. For those who look at Israel from the outside in, they do not see the conflicts and divisions that are part of Israel life. Many are unaware of the problems and conflicts of secular vs. religious Jews but it is very much there yet Tel Aviv manages to have one of the largest gay pride celebrations in the world. I can remember back to the 80s when gays were closed and the only place to meet was in public parks at night. It was not until so many of us were tired of being arrested that we met the police head on and carrying 2 by 4s. We had had enough and that was the start of the end of police harassment. I am very proud that I played a part in that.

a-queer-country

Lisa Morgenthau is a British filmmaker and her documentary, “A Queer Country” is a look at Israel from an LGBT perspective. Unlike Michael Lucas’ earlier film this is not a travelogue meant to bring gay people to Israel.

This film begins with issues and starts contrasting the largely secular and open Tel Aviv with the more closed-minded Jerusalem where gay issues are far more political and difference is hardly tolerated.

We hear from gay Israelis who have faced difficulties because Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities rarely accept LGBT people, and who have had to find new ways to honor the beliefs of the closed world that they are no longer apart of. The film also addresses the horrible and unfounded accusations of “pinkwashing” that have been leveled against Israel by both gays and straight people. These are specific allegations that the Foreign Ministry has promoted the country’s acceptance of LGBT people to try and deflect criticism from allegations of human rights abuses against Palestinians. There is one person who I think of being so bitter by this and feels that Israel is covering up some terrible secrets but I know and she knows that are a lesbian she could not live in the Palestinian state she yearns for. She considers herself to be an intellectual and indeed has a following of others who think like her yet not of them would ever leave America to live there.

a-queer-country-post

With these and various other issues, the film avoids pushing an agenda and lets the voices of a variety of people be heard and we see that things are much more complicated than they appear at first. With “pinkwashing” and its cynical attempt to gloss over the fact not all minorities enjoy the benefits LGBT people do, we see the promotion of positive stories that we might not otherwise see.

Many participants have something about how Tel Aviv is a gay haven and it’s straight-friendly but then we forget that in 2009 there was a shooting at a gay center that killed two and injured 15 others We cannot forget the fatal stabbing by an Ultra-Orthodox Jew during the 2015 Pride March in Jerusalem. He claimed to be angry that the city allowed the celebration to happen.

a-queer2

I think that the movie is powerfully interesting when it looks at the country that was set up to be a secular, plural society, but that plurality has come to mean finding ways for some very different and who sometimes hold extreme views to live alongside one another.

The movie makes no conclusions; that is for us after we watch the movie carefully and experience Israel as she is. instead presenting a variety of thoughts and opinions. We don’t get the perspective of LGBT Arabs in Israel yet the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is looked at as to how it relates to LGBT people. However, it does so almost entirely through the eyes of Israel and some may claim that the movie is one-sided. The documentary does include does a good job of having a diverse group of interviewees from within the Israeli Jewish community. For example, we meet a strict orthodox ‘psychologist’ who thinks everything gay is wrong, we meet gay Jews conflicted about their status compared to Palestinians, a trans man and his family on a kibbutz where they’re trying to live their lives in a way they feel honors God eve though others may disagree. If there is an overall theme here, it is Israelis who try very hard to be both Jewish and gay.

a-queer3

This goes a bit deeper than just issues facing the gay population. For those who are not aware, what is going on is not just about LGBT issues when we see that religious bodies have complete control over marriage in the country and this means that it is just not just gay people who can’t marry, but also many of those who fall in love with people outside their own religion or denomination.

I have to say that the film held my interest from the very first frame but then I am an Israeli-America who worked so hard that it would be better in Israel for the gay community. We see that the issue of being gay in Israel is quite complex beneath the surface.

a-queer4

Israel may be the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East but LGBT people still face difficulties that are both relatable and very specific to living in that country.

“The Other in Jewish Thought and History: Constructions of Jewish Culture and Identity” edited by Lawrence Silberstein and Robert L. Cohn— Defining Others and Ourselves

the-other

Silberstein, Lawrence J. and Robert L. Cohn, editors. “The Other in Jewish Thought and History: Constructions of Jewish Culture and Identity”, (New Perspectives on Jewish Studies), NYU Press, 1994.

Defining Others and Ourselves

Amos Lassen

Granted this is not a new book but it is still relevant today due to the way it looks at cultural boundaries and group identity are often forged in relation to the Other. In every society there are conceptions of otherness and these often reflect a group’s fears and vulnerabilities and result in deep-rooted traditions of inclusion and exclusion that permeate the culture’s literature, religion, and politics. Here we see the ways that Jews have traditionally defined other groups and, in turn, themselves. The contributors are a distinguished international scholars who explore the discursive processes through which Jewish identity and culture have been constructed, disseminated, and perpetuated.

Some of the topics addressed are: Others in the biblical world; the construction of gender in Roman-period Judaism; the Other as woman in the Greco-Roman world; the gentile as Other in rabbinic law; the feminine as Other in kabbalah; the reproduction of the Other in the Passover Haggadah; the Palestinian Arab as Other in Israeli politics and literature; the Other in Levinas and Derrida; Blacks as Other in American Jewish literature; the Jewish body image as symbol of Otherness; and women as Other in Israeli cinema.

Contributors to this interdisciplinary volume are: Jonathan Boyarin (New School for Social Research), Robert L. Cohn (Lafayette College), Gerald Cromer (Bar-Ilan University), Trude Dothan (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Elizabeth Fifer (Lehigh University), Steven D. Fraade (Yale University), Sander L. Gilman (Cornell University), Hannan Hever (Tel Aviv University), Ross S. Kraemer (University of Pennsylvania), Orly Lubin (Tel Aviv University), Peter Machinist (Harvard University), Jacob Meskin (Williams College), Adi Ophir (Tel Aviv University), Ilan Peleg (Lafayette College), Miriam Peskowitz (University of Florida), Laurence J. Silberstein (Lehigh University), Naomi Sokoloff (University of Washington), and Elliot R. Wolfson (New York University).