Sunday, October 28, 2012

Queer Anglo Films, Take #4: My Beautiful Laundrette

After a longer-than-we-intended haitus, Dave and I are back to discuss another film in our Queer Anglo Films series. We're looking at all things queer in British cinema, but today's entry, My Beautiful Laundrette, is perhaps more famous for another reason: the breakthrough performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, which, coupled with his turn in the same year's A Room With a View, showed him to be one of the most versatile actors around. But, as we discuss further, My Beautiful Laundrette is surprisingly complex and layered film, much more so than I recalled before this rewatch.

James: For 25 years, the gays have claimed Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette as one of "their" films. But I'm about to make a statement that will no doubt ruffle some feathers (and in case GLAAD becomes outraged, just remember that they publicly endorsed I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry): it's time to, if not outright give it back, then at least relinquish some of the control. Sure, on its surface, Laundrette acts and feels like a queer film, and it even takes some twists and turns that set it apart from many others in that genre made around the same time. For such a small film, however, My Beautiful Laundrette tackles some heavy themes--including racism, alienation and the class divide in Britain--in addition to the already taboo homosexuality issue. There's a lot to chew on here and not all of it relates to the main couple, a rarity among gay-themed films then AND now.

To me, My Beautiful Laundrette is a film about the divide between the old and the new generation, the working class and the college educated, British and Pakistani traditions, conservatism and radicalism, the immigrant dream and the disillusionment of the new land. Among these, though, the most obvious divide is that between Omar and Johnny. Looking at them, you'd never be able to tell that they were a couple and you'd be hard-pressed to come up with any commonalities in background, temperament, ambition or personality. So why are they 'd together? Like a lot of issues in My Beautiful Laundrette, it's probably a tad more complicated than the surface (opposites attract!) appears. There's an element of power in their relationship that mirrors and inverts what is going on around them culturally speaking. There's a scene in the film where, after a fight, Johnny leaves Omar and the laundrette to go to some party with his punk friends. When Omar goes to bring him back, he doesn't try to woo him back with declarations of love and how lost he be without him. Instead, he, rather cruelly, reiterates his superiority over Johnny, how he, as a Pakistani, is his boss and Johnny must listen to him. The fact that he uses this tactic is curious, but even more curious is the fact that this is what makes Johnny come back. What is it about Omar that makes the usually defiant Johnny submit so willfully? Is it only because he loves him or is he also atoning for his past sins as a radical, anti-immigrant punk? To director Stephen Frears' credit, he only hints at these possible motivations, shading what otherwise could have been a fairly typical love story.

There are a vast amount of topics we could cover with this film, so I'm curious where you want to take this, Dave. What else did you find unusual about the Omar/Johnny relationship?

Dave: I don’t really think that anyone need relinquish anything – as you go on to suggest, the claims to the themes this film deals with are multitudinous, but surely it speaks of the immense, lasting quality of the film that several groups of marginalised people would want to have some sort of ownership over it. At the time of its release, I imagine the homosexual aspect was so revolutionary that it overrode the interests of heterosexual Pakistanis; nowadays, I’d hope they view it with a similar fondness for its depiction of their existence in urban Britain during the ‘80s. A few years ago, I read a novel by Hanif Kureishi, who wrote the screenplay here, and its mixture of racial and sexual complications was strikingly similar. So I think there was a certain underground culture, not merely comprised of gays, who would have appreciated and ‘claimed’ this film as representing their lives. The remarkably blasé depiction of an interracial homosexual relationship always suggested to me that the film was playing to a more general audience who were opposed to the Thatcherite political scene at the time.

But, given the series we’re looking at this as part of, we should indeed focus on the homosexual aspects – while having recognised the value of the other aspects of the film. I’d definitely agree that there’s a strange power dynamic between the two of them. I think that moment speaks of the strange friction in the wider society between Thatcher’s ideals and the general racism of the time – the fact that Pakistani immigrants were the major group flourishing under her rule is a wonderfully ironic fact. Johnny should be the more powerful of the two – and he certainly seems to be the one who takes the initiative in their sexual relationship – but the system has undone him. But I also think that, for Johnny, work isn’t something he particularly values at all. He does want to get his life back ‘on track’ and knows that to do so, he has to work. But, as he suggests when he says, “Just to get us through, Omo,” it’s so that, in some not impossible world where he and Omar can be together, they’ll need money. So he’s happy and willing to do grunt work not because it will bring him money, but because it’ll help the business grow and support them.

I think this optimism is a huge part of what keeps My Beautiful Laundrette feeling so fresh even today. It’s strangely ahead of its time, because it’s not utopian or naïve at all – there is obvious homophobia in the community, from the punks and from the older generation, but from Omar and Johnny’s perspective, these are minor concerns. They constantly tease other people with veiled references to their relationship – “In my experience, it’s always worth waitin’ for Omo” – and then there’s wonderful little moments like Johnny licking Omar’s neck in broad daylight. When Tania leaves, I think it’s because she’s disappointed in herself for expecting such a conventional union as that between her and Omar. (Tania is also part of an aspect we’ve not touched on yet – the marginalisation of females. Where does acceptance of homosexuality leave the already oppressed females?) What do you make of the thin boundaries between Omar and Johnny’s homosexual and homosocial relationships? It’s a dangerous game they play, but it also seems rather fun.

James: I was impressed with the way Omar and Johnny's relationship was presented in Laundrette. Obviously, they couldn't be as open with their homosexuality as two West Hollywood gays can be now. But there were many instances where they felt winkingly defiant towards their oppressors. My favorite is when Omar invites Johnny over to his uncle's house. Tania is at the door greeting them when Omar suddenly reaches for Johnny's face. He reveals that he's only removing an eyelash, laughing at both Johnny's slight wince and Tania's surprise expression. Omar does this with such flourish and, for lack of a better word, swagger, he's almost begging for Tania to say something. Framed in a three shot, we can see that Tania is slowly understanding Johnny and Omar's relationship, even if she doesn't want to come out and admit it. And this is what so great about their relationship: they hint and tease it to nearly everyone in the film but only enough so eyebrows that are raised, not so anyone actually comes out and asks them. They have fun making others squirm, yet they know their limitations. One wrong move could kill their laundrette and any dreams they have for it.

Speaking of Tania, I found her to be one of the most fascinating characters in the entire film. As a woman in Pakistani culture, she is as oppressed, if not more so, than the homosexual Omar. At least he has the luxury of being able to "hide" his "condition" whenever he wants (or needs to). But Tania has a bit of a rebellious streak in her, as evidenced by her going topless outside the window where Omar is trying to have a serious conversation with his uncle. Branching off from what you said, and this may be me reading way too much into the film, I felt like Tania was at first elated that Omar wasn't a "conventional" suitor. Perhaps she felt that having a homosexual as a husband would give her the freedom to break away from the woman's traditional role in Pakistani culture. She clearly wants her independence, and Omar is probably the first guy she has met who may be able to offer it. But, as she sees Omar becoming more and more like an American yuppie, concerned mostly with making a good impression and being a professional, we start to see her rebelliousness act up even more. She starts to see that whatever benefits she thought she would get by marrying Omar may not happen. And she'll be damned if she'll end up like her own mother, an oppressed housewife stuck with a husband who openly has an affair with another (white!) woman.

When you ask where the acceptance of homosexuality leaves oppressed females, my mind quickly went to how homosexuals of each gender are presented "in the media." Even among homosexuals, who are supposed to be all in this together (yes, I just quoted High School Musical), men's issues about coming out, finding relationships, staying in relationships are given far more weight in films and TV than women's. And in terms of exposure, forget about it. Turn on nearly any TV show and you'll see a gay man (the fact that he's often playing the sassy friend to the straight, white female lead is for another conversation). Off the top of my head, I can think of only two American shows that feature a lesbian character at all (Pretty Little Liars and Glee). It may be even worse in film, where gay films about gay men are always the Talk of the Town, while films with lesbians are either straight male fantasies (Johansson and Cruz making out in Vicky Cristina Barcelona) or condescending looks at women who are "turned" straight (The Kids Are All Right). Contrary to what Beyonce claims, men still run the world and we can still feel it in 2012. So it's not just a problem in the world of My Beautiful Laundrette; women are marginalized everyday, even in an "accepting" gay culture.

Dave: I think you're right about to some extent about Tania. She certainly disparages the idea of the family unit, and the silent ghost of her own mother moving around in the background of shots is hardly an ideal to look up to. But the (only?) other model of womanhood around is Rachel - a woman with some nice coats, sure, but also willingly entrapping herself within an affair that can never develop beyond that - and Tania dislikes her because of the pain her mother quietly suffers. "Everything is waiting for you," Rachel tells Tania at one point, but with these options of womanhood, what is waiting for Tania? I didn't really sense any of that elation, because Omar and Johnny's homosexuality is another door shutting on Tania's escape attempt. Finally, she takes her leave in plain sight, on one of the trains winding through the city. Tania definitely reflects the continued neglect of women that you went on to describe - their spaces are still off-screen, undefined, and unexplored. Tania doesn't even leave so much as simply vanish.

So I don't think My Beautiful Laundrette is eschewing presenting the ongoing problems and oppressions in this society, but in such a troubled, politically violent time, the winsome note of optimism it ends on was obviously carefully chosen and hits the right note without being naive or inappropriate. The feeling of an innocent childishness to the moment is clearly fleeting, something that can only exist behind closed doors; so perhaps the playful erotic edge to it is fleeting too, and maybe there's a tinge of sadness as the door closes, with the recognition that the door has to close on this lovely scene. With the faded intellectual glories of Omar's father, the hollow business ventures of Nasser, and the oppressive mutedness of Tania's mother, the purest happiness seems to remain in childhood, and I think the ending captures that bittersweet realisation. My Beautiful Laundrette never makes Jonny's Nazi-punk figures of real terror in the narrative, and I think that more optimistic approach makes the film more distinct because it can express a genuine homosexual entanglement without it being defined by its wrongness. And that's surely an argument for keeping the queer claim on the film.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Rants on The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The long awaited film adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower--written and directed by the novel's author Stephen Chbosky--is a lot like an ABBA greatest hits collection. Sure, you're getting all the highlights of a fantastic career which includes the massive moments like "Dancing Queen" and "The Winner Takes It All" that made them the best pop group of all time. With a greatest hits package, however, you're only getting brief snippets of what made them so special in the first place. The highs may indeed be high, but you're missing all the subtleties and so-called "minor" moments ("As Good As New" or "Disillusion" in ABBA's case) that complete the portrait.

This is the problem that plagues Perks (and most adaptations of beloved books, actually). How do you condense a great novel into 100 minutes while retaining the tone and idiosyncrasies that made the novel work in the first place? Perks introduces a lot of the novel's various subplots but they fail to cohere, sometimes landing with a thud but mostly reeking with the feeling that it could have been handled better. One of my favorite scenes in the book is the Christmas party where the group finds out who their Secret Santas are. Charlie has bought additional gifts for everyone, gifts so thoughtful and spot on, the others realize just how much Charlie absorbs and understands about them. It's a moving moment in a book, one that deepens and solidifies what they all saw in Charlie in the first place. In the movie, though, the moment makes an appearance but doesn't hit the emotional level it could have. A lot of what is ultimately transferred from the novel are the typical, almost pandering, themes that fill most high school dramas ("Why don't I fit in?", "Who am I really?", "I can't wait to live life in the real world," "What is love?", etc.), encapsulated in almost infuriatingly simplistic catchphrases about the sadness and pain of falling in and out of love.

Thanks heavens, then, for Logan Lerman in the role of Charlie. I have heard a lot about Lerman over the past few years, but I've never had the occasion to see him in anything. Obviously, I've been missing out. First of all, his voice sounds exactly like my beloved Zac Efron's, so that was a wonderfully superficial introduction to him. Unlike Zefron in a superficially similar film like Charlie St. Cloud, however, Lerman pushes hard to make his Charlie an awkward kid with genuine social issues instead of a lovable misfit who just can't seem to connect with people. He colors in the broadly-drawn lines of the film with an emotional depth and clarity the rest of Perks lacks. Lerman's warm, expressive face has the ability to suggest both emotional tragedy and comedic lightness, often times simultaneously, without overselling either of them. He captures the opposite-sounding warm melancholic tone that is the film's strongest selling point, only punctuating the fact that 95 percent of the time Charlie is a regular fourteen year old kid with sharp pain.

Without Lerman, I suspect that the emotional impact of Perks of Being a Wallflower would lessen exponentially. One has to wonder if allowing Chbosky to write the screenplay and direct his own property worked against the film. A third party who hasn't lived with this story for nearly two decades might have brought something new to the proceedings instead of relying on voiceovers which, I'm sure, were adapted word-for-word from the novel. Chbosky's vision isn't terrible, and he does manage to make a fine, above-average film. Yet I can't help feeling that this film should have been something more than "above average." B

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

100 Hot Men and a Dame: #67 John Cena

67. John Cena
Occupation: Wrestler
Nationality: American
Age: 35
Best Known For: Rising through the ranks of the WWE, winning countless championships and becoming the company's figurehead: the Hulk Hogan of 2000s, if you will.

You may have noticed on my Twitter feed that I've been going through a wrestling phase of late, so what better time to whip out this conversation with my friend and fellow wrestling-watcher Jakey (follow him on Twitter and read his hilarious blog) about wrestler John Cena.

Dame James: When did you first encounter John and, if it wasn't love at first sight, when did you fall in love with him?

Jakey: I was first introduced to John Cena the way many wrestling fans were -- on an June 2002 episode of WWF Smackdown, he made his debut as an earnest wrestler accepting an open challenge by Kurt Angle, citing his motivation as "ruthless aggression" (a phrase that Vince McMahon had uttered on the previous episode of Monday Night Raw). At the risk of being defensive, I would like to add that I knew this from the top of my head and did not look anything up. I had also seen his picture in Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine when he was in developmental wrestling under the name Prototype.

This all being said, he didn't immediately pique my interest. Obviously he was good-looking -- fresh-faced and impossibly chiseled -- but he didn't strike my fancy the way that another debut that year (Randy Orton) would. The quintessential pretty boy, Orton later worked very hard to destroy that image, maybe even too hard -- his in-ring work spoke for itself, but he has since coated his entire upper body in tattoos.

I think I first felt tingly feelings for Cena when I saw him live for the first time, at a September 2002 taping of Smackdown (which is a somewhat famous episode as it is known for the night that Brock Lesnar broke Hardcore Holly's neck, and when the Billy and Chuck wedding never happened. Nothing like being a 16-year-old gay boy in an audience shouting "FA****!"). While Cena would later segue into his "thug" gimmick, at the time he was a generic babyface, but he would always do a special thing to spice up his outfit: His trunks would always match the local sports team. For example, in North Carolina he would always wear baby blue (ADORABLE). In Minnesota, he wore purple and gold.

This all being said, I really don't think that I became a fan of his until further along in his run. The more I read about him, the more I admired his work ethic, and there were few times in the past decade more facinating than the era in which he was booked as a babyface ("good guy" for those of you not familiar with the lingo), but constantly booed by the audience (often with Cena, the dynamic is that women and children cheer him but men boo him). Honestly, most of the time when I watch him wrestle, it's still the work that impresses me, not the ridiculous musculature.

Your knowledge of wrestling always surprises me, so when did you first come accustomed to Cena?

DJ: In high school, I was a casual watcher of wrestling, meaning I would watch Raw or Smackdown for a couple weeks in a row and then not at all for months. Honestly, I would mainly watch for the hot guys as it was the closest thing to porn I had. I have no idea the exact date I first encountered John Cena, but I believe he was involved in some tournament to get a shot at the WWE Championship. He was the heel (aka the villain) at this point, cheating his way into the match for the belt, which was a huge turn-on for me. I think I've mentioned this before, but I've always had a soft spot for the villains, particularly in cartoons and wrestling. When I was growing up, I was probably the only person who preferred Scar and Jafar over Simba and Aladdin. It was the same with wrestling: growing up, instead of cheering on Hulk Hogan or Bret Hart (barf), I always liked Shawn Michaels, who, at that point, was a vain, self-centered wrestler who had awesome entrance music and the amazing Sensational Sherri as his valet. So, when I saw the gorgeous, incredibly well built Cena being a major asshole, my heart went a-flutter.

It's interesting that you mention Randy Orton because they both appear, to this casual observer, like the face of the company but they represent such wildly different ends of the personality spectrum. Randy is kind of like the dark, dangerous bad boy, with his tatted up body and sarcastic sneer. John, on the other hand, is the golden child, the eternal hero we're supposed to cheer on no matter what. Who would have guessed that back in 2004 or so when he was still a heel?

Confession time: I don't know if I've ever admitted this, but I have a soft spot for attractive wiggers, or white people who dress "black." There's something about it that I've never been able to put my finger on, but a built guy like John Cena wearing throwback jerseys and baggy shorts really turned me on. And how could I forget the freestyle raps! I doubt he does this anymore, but he used to come out and do these dumb little raps to insult whatever wrestler he was in a feud with. They were hit or miss, but the assholian-ness of them really spoke to me.

J: John unfortunately doesn't do the raps anymore, and his promos (save for his most recent battle with C.M. Punk) are often overly scripted and cutesy, especially once WWE switched to a more "PG" feel. That being said, his gangsta-rapping is what saved his career -- he was on a bus doing it for Stephanie McMahon and she brought it to the writers' attention. Before that he was a bland heel with no angle or charisma and was probably going to be released.

I do think I realized his sex appeal once he started doing the "gangsta" gimmick. The white muscle-shirt! the silver chain! His fearlessness on the mike!

What has your opinion been of him as a wrestler?

DJ: I've heard for years of people complaining that John is a limited wrestler because he only knows how to do five moves. Um, what? Have they ever watched him in the ring? I think people confuse using the same moves in every match to not having a large repertoire. Would these same people accuse Ric Flair or Bret Hart, both of whom had well known routines they used in nearly ever single match of their careers, of being limited? Probably not. I won't argue that not-so-good wrestlers can be famous for periods of time; it's the same thing that happens with certain actors who are in high demand for a short period of time. But eventually their lack of talent shows and they fade away. You don't stay at the top for as long as John has without having any ability.

Here's the caveat about Cena's in-ring ability: He's not an aerial wrestler, he's not a great technician in the vein of Malenko, Jericho, Bret Hart, et al. But he understands the showmanship of wrestling. He's 100% genuine every time he goes out there, and he's stayed on top mainly because of his outstanding work ethic. Guy works every house show, is always on the main event, does all the promotional work as well as his own charity work, the latter of which he's humbly modest about it and usually doesn't like it addressed on television. He was much sexier as a heel, but WWE will never turn him heel because he's their top merchandise seller.

DJ: Leave it to the WWE, like Hollywood, to take an angle that worked so well and then completely water it down for the sake of appealing to the kiddies. I understand why they do it, but it's always so disappointing. Hopefully, one day in the future they'll need to reinvigorate his image and they will turn him bad again. You can't stay the good guy forever.

Showmanship is a rare gift that not ever wrestler possesses. Many people who complain about John don't understand how vital it is. You can be the greatest technician ever, but if the audience isn't interested in you, you won't get very far. I tend to equate wrestlers with movie actors because not only is it a more familiar concept to my readers, but they also have a surprisingly lot in common. John Cena is a lot like Julia Roberts. You'd never argue that Julia Roberts is a technical actress in the same way that Cate Blanchett is. But Julia Roberts possesses the ability to light the up the screen whenever she's on camera. Whether or not she's any good doesn't matter; she has that certain "it" factor very few people are born with. It's the same with John. He may not be able to compete at a technical level, but he always radiates star power whenever he steps into the ring.

J: And now for some shallow talk: Are you necessarily a fan of muscles? I feel like we're in that scene from Clueless when Dionne says the waiter is "puny, I like 'em big", Cher says "Ew, I hate muscles" and Tai says "I don't mind either way, as long as their you-know-what isn't crooked." Are you a Cher or a Dionne in this scenario? This is hard to talk about without sounding like we're on some muscle-worship fetish site, but being a very svelte man and having gone to college in Wisconsin surrounded by farm boys, I do consider myself weak in the knees for a pair of big biceps. I don't watch wrestling for the homoertocism of it, but damn if I don't think something when John Cena counters a cross-body by hurling his opponent up over his shoulders with one arm.

DJ: I'm more of a Dionne. When it comes to muscles, I'm mainly about if it looks right on a man's body. Like, the typical "juicehead gorillas" the girls from Jersey Shore fall in love with are often too big and that just doesn't look right or appeal to me. But John has the right proportion of muscles and it works (boy, does it work!). If he can pick up some of those 500 pound monsters with no problem, think of how much he could toss me around! Sigh, a boy can dream.