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Music and macho

Fatih Akin in Turkey, Valentino in a tie
By GERALD PEARY  |  August 23, 2006

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BEYOND THE ROCKS: The silver screen sizzles when Rudy kisses Gloria.
Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul, August 24-30 at the MFA, is a valiant effort by German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin to match what Wim Wenders did with Cuban music in Buena Vista Social Club: put the fabulously myriad sounds of Turkish music on the international map. Akin sends German rocker Alexander Hacke, an avid amateur musicologist, through Turkey with a tape recorder, He films Hacke’s encounters with a bevy of musicians, from druggy guys on the streets to Turkey’s reigning superstars, Sezen Aksu and Orhan Gencebay. The documentary starts slowly, with Western-looking indie bands tuning up for hipster numbers that would sound normal at the Middle East in Central Square. But it gets exciting with some improbably baggy-pants Turkish rap featuring a dude whose lyrics fly by like the babble of an auctioneer. There’s a visit with some acrobatically awesome breakdancers, and a trip down memory lane with Eric Koray, Turkey’s first great rock star, who now, middle-aged, draws young audiences as a kind of forever-cool Istanbul Neil Young.

The rappers explain that they’re anti-gangstah. Their lyrics are political, oppositional. That’s even more true of the music of the Kurds, which was banned by the rightist Turkish government until 1980. Hacke goes into an 18th-century mosque with empyrean acoustics to record Aynur, a lovely, full-throated Kurd chanteuse. Is that enough? How about a divine jam-session night of beer drinking and virtuoso clarinet and violin playing in a sweaty Gypsy bar? Or, East meets West, Canada’s extraordinary Brenna MacCrimmon sitting in with local players to sing hurtful, impassioned numbers whose sound falls somewhere between Grecian rembediko and Jewish klezmer. Turkey rocks!

Even in silent-movie days, audiences pondered who was or wasn’t homosexual. How many caught on about Ramon Novarro, the manly lead in Ben-Hur (1925), who in 1968 was murdered by two gay hustlers he’d invited into his North Hollywood home? Many of the rumors back then centered on Rudolph Valentino, the great Italian ladies man who was somehow too pretty on screen. As the macho lover in The Sheik (1922) and The Son of the Sheik (1926), Rudy was dolled up with eyeshadow and lip gloss. Was that his choice or the call of exuberant Hollywood make-up artists? ”I am no powder puff!” was his famous anguished response to the gossip about his hetero manhood, gossip that cut him deeply.

There’s nothing swishy about Valentino in Beyond the Rocks (1922), in which the unbridled, often bare-chested stud of the desert is subtle and restrained in coat and knotted tie. He’s a British nobleman who pines for a young woman who’s already married to a rich old bloke. The gal is Gloria Swanson, and this was a rare time in the 1920s when a Hollywood studio (here Paramount) paired two stars as romantic leads, something that would be done regularly in the screwball-comedy 1930s. Valentino and Swanson are a bit of an odd coupling, though the silver screen doth sizzle when Rudolph swoops down and kisses Gloria’s hand and, even better, puts molten lips to her bare shoulder.

Directed by Sam Wood, Beyond the Rocks was a film thought lost for three-quarters of a century. In 2000, a nitrate 35mm print was discovered in Holland and beautifully restored by the Nederlands Filmmuseum. You can now purchase a DVD with English intertitles, and a Martin Scorsese introduction, from Milestone Film & Video. Or you can watch it this Wednesday, August 30, in the MFA’s Calderwood Courtyard, with live music by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton.

Related: Auf der Anderen Seite|The Edge of Heaven, Akin talks Turkey, Crossing over, More more >
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