Book Review: INCONGRUOUS ENTERTAINMENT by Steven Cohan

incongruous entertainment steven cohanIn Incongruous Entertainment Cohan directly takes on the fascinating paradoxes presented by studio-era, “classic” Hollywood musicals: how can they be considered both wholesome family fare and longtime objects of gay fetishization? Mainstream yet niche? Canonized yet marginalized? Primarily interested in those glossy MGM musicals of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s both major (Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis) and much more minor (I Love Melvin, Esther Williams’s whole filmography), Cohan’s strategy in making sense of the “incongruity” of these mass “entertainments” is via that ever-amorphous concept of “camp.” What is interesting is that Cohan is interested in demonstrating that camp readings do not just apply to a consideration of the long-acknowledged relationship gay men have had with these films, but, rather counterintuitively, are also the source of their reputations for wholesome family-friendly fare.

Beyond my simple cinephilic interest in the films themselves (which was the reason I took this volume up in the first place), what is of particular value to me is Cohan’s deft overview of “camp as a historical practice,” which considers Sontag’s foundational 1964 short essay “Notes on Camp,” Esther Newton’s equally crucial ethnographic study Mother Camp (1979), Andrew Ross’s essay “Uses of Camp” (1988) as well as The Politics and Poetics of Camp, a collection edited by Moe Meyer (1994). Cohan notes how “the general currency of camp as a recognizable term” is its ability “for audiences to describe their pleasure in films so old they are bad and so bad they are good” (6). However, this has resulted in “the gradual erasure of [camp’s] materiality as a queer practice,” a dynamic Meyer attempts to recuperate by positing “the camp trace” which gives “an unthreatening ‘queer aura’” which in turn gives “special value straight tastes within the domain of heterosexuality (6, 7). [Personal Note: The concept of a “camp trace” seems an extremely productive and generative way of approaching the nuances of camp practice which I plan to investigate more fully.]

Cohan also takes pain to carefully historicize the term, noting how “from the 1920s through the 1960s, camp was the code and custom for the closet,” allowing homosexual men to necessarily pass as straight within the dominant culture while at the same time allowing for “a distinctly queer idiom through which to articulate their censored, usually precarious cultural location” (9). This inherent incongruity not only “defined camp as a practice,” but also constitutes “a style and strategy inexplicable from passing,” a dynamic which Cohan see as fundamental to the films, histories, and other cultural artifacts he subsequently considers (17).

judy garland get happy summer stock

Judy Garland and the chorus boys in the immortal “Get Happy” sequence from “Summer Stock”

Despite the deep theoretical engagement noted above, I appreciate how overall Cohan never loses sight of the fact that these films—and a camp sensibility in general—generally pivot upon pleasure, humor, and, in his own words, “fun, though not with the intent of trivializing” (11). Thankfully, this recognition is reflected in his writing and even analytical style (how many times have I sighed over theoretical readings of topics like “pleasure” and found the objects of scrutiny hopelessly wrung of any such thing? Too many).

gene Kelly and Jerry anchors aweigh

Gene Kelly and Jerry the Mouse dancing together in “Anchors Aweigh”

Each chapter centers a different facet of Cohan’s overarching thesis, ranging from the groups of “sissy” chorus boys always seeming to accompany glamorous female stars during their musical numbers, Judy Garland’s eternal but polyvalent persona and star appeal, the ambiguous “camp masculinity” of Gene Kelly, the non-heterosexual figures crucial to the storied “Freed Unit,” etc, etc. I was also particularly interested in his final chapters which consider the intricacies of nostalgia inherent in the That’s Entertainment! series, as well as the much more daunting task of making some kind of sense of Judy Garland internet tribute websites and message boards and the complexities that go along with the legacy of a beloved—and incredibly complicated figure. Certainly a diverse range of topics, but all, in the end, demonstrating how viewers are required to constantly “negotiate the incongruous cultural dualisms” deliberately embedded within these films, and the importance of considering camp when doing so.

Works Cited

Cohan, Steven. Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Book Review: EMINENT OUTLAWS by Christopher Bram

eminent outlaws bramEntertaining, informative, and endlessly readable, which compensates for a perhaps inevitable thinness. As a survey/overview it likely won’t yield a whole lot–aside from the choice bits of tasteful gossip–to a reader already somewhat aware of the terrain it covers, which is perhaps is why I had more or less the opposite reaction of many here who thought it ran out of steam as it went along; I happen to be know much more about the authors covered early in the book (Baldwin, Vidal, Capote), but not as much about more recent authors, so for me the latter half was more compelling. The highlight, I think, is Bram’s astute analysis and defense of Christopher Isherwood‘s oeuvre, who still remains rather underrated despite a recent recognition of interest in his work (I admit to being startled to find out how many of his novels I had never even heard of). 

Bram’s style is very approachable and lucid, and it’s like listening to a literate and culturally knowledgeable friend hold forth on books, art, and history. I personally was hoping for something more along the lines of Shari Benstock’s magisterial Women of the Left Bank, a more dense undertaking that combines literary analysis with historical scholarship, but I don’t hold my personal expectations against Bram. Because this is clearly intended to be accessible cultural scholarship, and on that level it overall succeeds admirably. And if it gets people, myself included, to pick up the work of more of these authors, well then, all the better. 

[A version of this review was originally posted on Goodreads.]

Works Cited

Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: U of Texas, 1987. Print.

Bram, Christopher. Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America. New York: Twelve, 2012. Print.

Book Review: CELIBACIES by Benjamin Kahan

celibaciesIn truth less a “book review” proper than a note to “return later.” Nonetheless:

I wish I currently had time to more fully investigate Benjamin Kahan’s fascinating study Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life, which provocatively “historicizes celibacy as a sexuality,” and, furthermore,  argues that celibacy constitutes “a coherent sexual identity rather than a ‘closeting’ screen for another identity” (1,2). I was only able to read the Introduction before deciding that the subject matter was quickly taking me too far afield from the scope of my immediate research, but what I did read I found quite compelling.

In his introduction Kahan lays out his argument for “The Expressive Hypothesis”–a clever reconfiguration of Foucault–and he insists that “like Foucault, who resists seeing ‘defenses, censorships, [and] denials’ in merely negative terms,” he “understand celibacy as an organization of pleasure rather than a failure, renunciation, or even ascesis of pleasure (though I also read it in these terms)” (4).

What initially caught my attention about this study was the possibility that it would help clarify why there are a number of artists and cultural figures from this era that seem to most productively be regarded as “queer” or at least within the context of queerness, but whose (lack of) sexual activity–at least as far as can be ascertained from the historical record–must inevitably be contended with before applying such a sexually-inflected label.

joseph cornell portrait

Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell and Florine Stettheimer were at the forefront of my mind when taking up this book, but Kahan presents an impressive list of modernist “figures who were sexually recalcitrant, indifferent, alienated, unattached, lonely, and lifelong or periodic celibates,” with a partial list including Flaubert, Dickinson, Proust, Rilke, Kafka, Ferber, Borges, Welty, etc, as well as a number of figures I aim to consider within this space at some point, such as Langston Hughes, E.M. Forster, Baron Corvo, Edith Sitwell, and others (and this doesn’t even get into the artists who took up celibacy as a major theme in their work).

Kahan very deliberately avoids eliding celibacy under the category of “queer,” and implicitly he makes it quite clear that this is not an argument for the inclusion of “C” to the ever-expanding umbrella abbreviation for the LGBT[etc] community. At the same time, while Kahan’s argumentation certainly upsets the binary between “normal/queer binaries,” that process of subversion inevitably aligns it with the general impulse behind queer theorization.

Frankly, I am surprised this is the first major study of its kind. Fascinating and important work which I look forward to returning to.

Celibacies is available for purchase through the Duke University Press website.

Works Cited

Kahan, Benjamin. Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life. Durham: Duke UP, 2013.