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.

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