Monthly Archives: May 2014

Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter – Richard Barrios (Oxford University Press)

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Love them or hate them, movie musicals are a part of the popular cultural landscape and have been since the earliest days of talkies. And they’re part of gay culture, which is why I had high hopes for this title. I was looking for something that put musicals in context with American culture, exploring why some remain popular while others have faded away–and something that wasn’t too dry, with a bit of dish. Barrios’s book, Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter, proved to be the perfect way to spend a plane ride.

One of the reasons movie musicals matter is their longevity. You can’t get rid of them. Barrios takes us from the beginnings of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer through Hugh Jackman’s Les Miserables, visiting such venerable standards as Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard Of Oz, Cabaret, and Annie Get Your Gun while bitchslapping Lucille Ball’s Mame and, yes, The Sound of Music. He explores why late-sixties dinosaurs like Hello Dolly and Gigi and Paint Your Wagon were typical of a bloated, festering period in musicals, and he studies the interrelationship between musicals and gay culture.

Barrios knows his subject well and argues convincingly that musicals reflect far more than simply the tenor of their times. Their importance to film and culture is inestimable, both those we have seen so much we’ve internalized, and those we need to seek out. I’m glad I had a pen when I read this so that I could make some notes on musicals to find. One sadly lost to legal complexities is the Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge production of George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, directed by Otto Preminger in 1958. It should have been a contender, but due to poor choices involving racism and poor luck including a fire that shut down production, it opened to mixed reviews, played once on network television and disappeared, lost in a lawsuit with the Gershwin estate. Hissy, lossy DVD bootlegs remain, only hinting at the grandeur it could have in its remixed, remastered glory.

Barrios’s book is chock full of stories of musicals that should have been, could have been, or were but we’ve never heard of them. I find in order to understand Maurice Chevalier in some context other than the neutered grandfather of Gigi, I should try to find musicals like Love Me Tonight from his rakish Thirties period, in which he picked up Jeanette McDonald as he winked at conventions of the times. Barrios’s style is clear and easy to read, aided by a fine sense of humor and clear boundaries of what he considers good musicals and what he thinks are stinkers.

If you are in the least interested in movie musicals, this is for you. It’s smart without being overly intellectual and has a clear point as well as an interesting voice that gets it there. Recommended.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea – Dan Lopez (Chelsea Station Editions)

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The sea has been an object of meditation as long as people have been around to reflect on it. Its power to provide focus, to rejuvenate, to put one’s land problems in perspective is unmistakable. Sometimes you will find answers lurking beneath its surface and other times all you’ll see are more questions, but each person comes to it looking for different reasons. Different lives. Different possibilities. The five stories that comprise Dan Lopez’s Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea exemplify the variety of searches brought to the shoreline.

Five stories? Yes. And they aren’t even that long. The entire book is under fifty pages. But I submit to you that more is packed into those pages than most of the two or three hundred page books I’ve read. None of the pieces are particularly oriented toward plot. They are character sketches–or rather sketches of characters in the throes of decision making.

The stories are all-of-a-piece yet separate. One finds many differences between the ex-soldier wondering why he can’t seem to find normalcy in “Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea” and the architect of “Volumes Set Against a Twilight Sky,” who discovers his dead lover’s hatred of him in an old diary, yet Lopez finds the disconnects in both their lives and submerges them in the sea (the former finds himself drawn to the ocean with a friend, and the latter takes a cruise). And both men do find answers, of a sort. The second story in particular has a satisfactory ending that not only solves the character’s problem but also makes a point about how dead lovers can be lionized so thoroughly that we forget their very real faults.

I was also moved by “Coast of Indiana,” which sees Cam and Peter taking an exploratory trip to a place Peter may or may not want to go to school. Cam has a few responsibilities to leave behind, but nothing he feels he can’t drop. It’s up to Peter, who seems not to want to decide for himself but would rather let Cam’s inability to act decide for them both. The interplay between these characters is wonderful. Not much is spoken or admitted, but their desires and patterns are all the plainer for it.

The aforementioned brevity of this book actually works in its favor. The characters and situations are all so bleak and disconnected that even as you discover their differences, you see their similarities. And, taken as a whole, they all sound the same note–a beautiful, sonorous note to be sure, but if the collection had been any longer, I’d have been looking for a wider variance in mood and tone.

Still, these stories are unique and powerful in their simplicity, and I found this to be an impressive collection I couldn’t stop thinking about once finished.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Taking a Break for Saints and Sinners

IMG_0754After tomorrow’s review, Out in Print will be taking a short break. I’ll be in New Orleans for the annual Saints and Sinners literary conference attending Master Classes and panels, and–in my case–reading at Ron Suresha’s Bear event Saturday night at the Phoenix and also reading Sunday at 11:30 a.m. at the Hotel Monteleone as part of the conference’s Reading Series. Tomorrow’s look at Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea, is our last post until we resume on Monday, May 26th. I’d tell you what I’m reviewing then, but I won’t know until I start reading it on the plane. Until then, Duncan will share his bone with you.

Or not.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Thief Taker – William Holden (Bold Strokes Books)

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Full disclosure: William Holden was the co-founder of Out in Print, leaving last year to devote more time to his own writing. And we’re definitely lucky he did, for his horror and erotica are among the most imaginative currently in both genres. He also writes historicals like The Thief Taker, a sequel to his first book in this series, Secret Societies. Taking place in 18th century London and Paris, these books titillate as well as thrill, soaked in the grimy atmosphere of these cities like a beggar’s piss-stained undergarments (don’t worry–Bill would heartily approve of that comparison).

Having been imprisoned for sodomy and prostitution in London, Thomas Newton escapes to Paris to heal not only his body, but his heart. His mentor, Mother Clap, was also pilloried and killed for running the house at which he worked and his only love, Christopher, was killed. However, his reputation precedes him, and he’s again clapped in prison. This time he is rescued by an old acquaintance, Pierre Baptiste, who teams up with Newton as they return to London to hunt down and kill the person responsible for Mother Clap’s death and the beginnings of his own misery. And who is this person? Newton’s own father, a moneyed and respected member of the House of Lords.

The problem with sequels is their ability to stand alone, and here’s where many authors run into difficulty. Enough has to be carried over to link the books together but not so much as to make the current volume obscure and unintelligible. With a story populated by as many characters as Newton’s, some references are bound to be lost or forgotten. Most of those instances in The Thief Taker are relatively unimportant and can be ridden over with ease unless you’re the kind of stickler for details who has to know these things.

Rather than concentrate on these niggling details, the wise reader will wallow in the atmosphere and the perfectly understandable plot, which races along like a runaway carriage. But it’s not breathless. Holden pauses in the chase and search long enough to catch you up and let you indulge in some of Newton’s innumerable sexual dalliances. And this is where you can truly wallow, for Holden holds nothing back in his sex scenes. All senses are used (and some used up), and this being a historical novel, his characters are more heady than hygienic. You can smell and taste the tang in the air, especially the prison sex–which, apparently, was too much for some Goodreads readers. However, it’s period, totally appropriate, and lends a verisimilitude that cleaner encounters would destroy.

And then there are the characters. Thomas Newton is a constantly changing being. Cowed and malleable at the beginning of Secret Societies, we see him growing and getting smarter by the end of the book until here in The Thief Taker, he’s nearly as savvy as his benefactor, Pierre. And Pierre is no slouch, either.

So you can either start with Secret Societies and move on to this little gem or start here and pick up the earlier installment to backfill your need for more. Because Holden makes quite certain you will want more. I’m curious to see if he turns this into a trilogy. Its ending would make that difficult, but if anyone could do it, he could.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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