Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Beautiful Laundromat

Doesn't sound as good, does it? I taught My Beautiful Laundrette today and ran out of time. It is such a weird, interesting little film, and I really don't think I had ever seen it before. Director Stephen Frears, who also directed The Queen, described it once as a little film about a gay Pakistani laundry owner. I suppose that that about encompasses it. But as my students discovered as I made them map out the multiple narrative trajectories, it is ridiculously complex for a 93-minute film.

On the one track, Omar enters the family business, and it really is the Family Business, with porn, drug-running, cars, and who knows what else. His uncle Nasser puts him in charge of a broken-down laundromat; he enlists his old pal Johnny's help and steals his (cousin? not sure) business connection Selim's cocaine drop to fund its renovation. The laundrette is a big success, with waves stenciled on the walls and a sound system, but Selim figures things out and demands repayment. Omar and Johnny commit robbery to get the money, but Selim tells him that it was just a lesson: stick by your family.

That doesn't even get us to the end, but you get the idea. The other track (literally, track; train tracks are a big motif in the film) is Omar and Johnny's romance, which only becomes visible halfway through the movie. The striking thing about it is that although it is complicated by race, class, and politics, their physical affection really comes across as tender and playful, and really quite adorable. Even though Omar uses Johnny's labor and sometimes loves treating him like a servant, he rushes in to shield him with his own body in the end when Johnny is being beaten up by his old gang. It's a striking contrast with Brokeback Mountain, which was controversial in how rough and violent the gay romance chiefly was.

Then you have other tracks, with Omar's drunken and disillusioned father, his frustrated cousin Tania who he almost marries, his uncle Nasser's lovely and friendly mistress Rachel, allusions to the National Front...

The film has lasted because it is a great slice of anti-Thatcherite life in the '80s, and of course just because it's a great film. (I used it to teach the concept of postmodernism.) It has big currency now as a queer film, although when it came out, it apparently wasn't taken up by the queer filmmaking community because of identity politics (director Frears, writer Hanif Kureishi, and as far as I know the two star are all straight) and because the filmmakers were more interested in promoting it as a black film (black in the British sense).

It has also lasted because it's the film that launched Daniel Day-Lewis. Yes, the future Last of the Mohicans hunk played Johnny. And star power ain't the word. He's fierce.

Poor Gordon Warnecke, who played Omar (an interesting, very understated performance) has languished in the hell that is minority acting. I wonder if they ever talk.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Los amigos de Peter

My kingdom for an all-region DVD player! I've encountered this problem quite a bit recently, a couple of times for fun and once for work, but all British. My Branagh kick extended to an early quirky comedy, Peter's Friends, that he directed and acted in with an all-star cast: Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, Alphonsia Emmanuel. It's been described as a British Big Chill, but never having seen BC I can't pronounce. Six grown-up friends, whose lives have gone all haywire since college (or uni, excuse me). I thought it was odd that Netflix didn't carry it, so I checked amazon. When the DVD came up as Los amigos de Peter, I knew I was in trouble. Luckily, the Northwestern library has a copy, and let me tell you, it is a cute early '90s time-capsule gem. If your video store has a VHS, rent it. Now.

I also wanted to show my students the BBC special of Hanif Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia, starring a much-younger Naveen Andrews. Just came out, only Region 2.

Hm, one of my profs is right. I do use too many parentheses.

On another Branagh note, I think In the Bleak Midwinter is not on DVD at all, or maybe also only Region 2. Either way, for now I've had to settle for reading the screenplay. Another adorable gem, but this one probably more oriented towards theatre connoisseurs; lots of in-jokes about actors and Hamlet.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Unromantic Beach Vacation

You want a good laugh? Do a youtube search for Hugh Jackman hosting the Tonys. I nearly busted a gut.

You want a painful laugh? Read Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, which was shortlisted for this year's Booker. (Quick trivia, which I put together for my class: McEwan is one of the most frequently shortlisted authors for the Booker (four times, including a win). Also, 'Booker' is a corporate sponsor's name, as is 'Man,' so the full name, the Man Booker Prize, is like the Chase Goldman Prize. Just pretty subdued names, luckily for its prestige.)

On Chesil Beach, a very short novel or long novella, is about a young couple, Edward and Florence, who get married in 1962 before the age of free love. Florence is a sensitive violinist; Edward is neither. But they are a nice young couple--so nice that they really have no idea what they are doing in bed, and Edward's eagerness collides with Florence's frigidity and nervousness to create a disastrous honeymoon night that ends their marriage.

Plausibility entirely aside, it will be entirely up to you whether you find the characters and the graphic description of their abortive intercourse cringeworthy in the good, sympathetic sense or the "oh god I can't believe the man who wrote Atonement came up with this load of crap" sense, which is the one the Times reviewer went for. Personally, I found it quite a good story until the couple split up. It's not meant to be plausible; the point is that it could have happened in that weird time period! Unfortunately, after the split, McEwan only follows Edward, giving us no insight into Florence's thoughts or feelings, when really it was much more interesting to know why she was so repulsed by sex. Edward's perfectly comprehensible, and the brevity of his trajectory afterwards doesn't allow for much elaboration of his character.

So, Florence. Was it education? something in past experience? closet lesbianism? Maybe McEwan thought he was doing an interesting thing by leaving her enigmatic, letting us decide the cause. But it really just leaves her looking a bit crazy.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

G-rated night

Two random points:

1) The BBC is remaking Ballet Shoes! For those of you who are not, well, girls, Noel Streatfeild's {sic} Ballet Shoes is a great little book about three little orphans in London in... I just realized I don't know when. I think post-WWI, because the second little girl, Petrova, is obsessed with cars and planes. They grow up under the care of a devoted young woman and her own old governess and all become stage children to help out with money; they sing and dance and act Shakespeare and worry about their clothes and eat biscuits. It's sickeningly cute and charming, and I have loved it since I was a wee tiny thing. A version was made in the '70s, but I've never seen it. This version, which should come out around Christmas, stars Hermione as the oldest girl. I haven't seen the latest Harry Potter, but found her acting quite bad in Movie #4, so I don't hold out a ton of hope. But I am excited that a whole new generation of little girls (I am sorry, but it is just so excessively girlie) will get to know this book. Well, a whole new generation of British girls. But maybe the crazy American Harry Potter fans will get their hands on it eventually.

I just remembered that the grown-up girls are background characters in another book of his, which takes place during a war, but I don't know which one. Still, cars and planes? More likely post-WWI.

OK, it was bugging me, so I went and checked my copy. Original text copyright 1937, so unless Noel was a lot smarter than Chamberlain, post-WWI.

2) Saw standup comic Jeff Caldwell on Letterman the other night. I've seen him on Craig Ferguson a couple of times and actually watched and liked him, which is quite rare for me -- generally the comics come on and I start wondering if maybe Oprah is talking about a new vitamin I should know about. (Central Time, people, Oprah is on at 11pm here.) I looked him up, and his press makes a big deal about him being a 'clean' comic. Upon careful recollection, this is true, but it was not annoyingly obvious; he doesn't joke about Jesus and small furry kittens. His website is, and he has a myspace page. Watch his clips. The student loan set will send sympathetic chills right down your spine.

Friday, October 26, 2007


Thanks for all the email abuse about the pink background. Much appreciated.

Here's a nonfiction thought. Barack Obama (remember him? he used to be a contender for the Democratic nomination, until suddenly everyone started crowning Hillary a couple of weeks ago) wrote a book, The Audacity of Hope, that was a big seller, got him on all the talk shows, was hailed as a great new political tome, etc. So I read it, just because I barely knew anything about Obama and it seemed that he might be a major player quite soon.

It was exactly like every other political biography I've ever read, which is to say that it alternated between anecdote and policy stance with dreary regularity. I went to church as a child; here are my thoughts on the separation of church and state. I went to college; here are my thoughts on public education. I got married; here's what I think of gay marriage. As a matter of fact, it was uncannily like the last political biography I had read before Obama's, which was Jim McGreevey's The Confession. If you don't remember McGreevey, he is the ex-heterosexual ex-governor of New Jersey. He gave his gay Israeli lover a hefty state job and then lost his own, coming out and stepping down in one fell speech. He and his ex-wife have (separately) been on Oprah.

So we have two books that couldn't be more opposed in a way, one being riddled with Catholic guilt from a politician of no great national stature who fell from power because of corruption and sex, the other a happy book of family values from a politician already a national figure and likely to be a bigger one before he's done. McGreevey is, though Catholic, as white as the driven snow, if not as pure; Obama's book glosses over his extranational ties and stresses the good life in Hyde Park.

On the other hand, they really are exactly alike, because they're both out for the same thing: to convince you, the reader, that they are Good People with smarts and morals who deserve your trust. McGreevey wants some semblance of a career, though he'll probably never hold elected office again, and Obama wants more than a semblance. In the end, they're both out to create that bland aura of likeability that will get them political support.

No wonder they're hardly the exciting reads of the year. At least McGreevey's book left me with a question: exactly which rest stops on the Garden State Parkway are these hotspots of gay cruising?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

As You Like It

You may barely have heard about Kenneth Branagh's new Shakespeare film, since HBO Films decided to skip theatrical release, debuted it a couple of times on TV in August, and sent it straight to DVD. Herewith follows my disappointed little Amazon review:

'Beautiful' seems to be the word of praise most used for this movie, and visually gorgeous it certainly is. It is probably worth watching for that alone. But this comedy, usually hailed as the most witty and sparkling of Shakespeare's comedies, turns into a sort of fest of overblown emotions without the wit to leaven them. It's not helped by its leading lady, Bryce Dallas Howard, who is a gorgeous and well-spoken Rosalind without a lot of range or irony. Only in the epilogue does she really show much spark. Simply speaking, you wish that the characters were taking themselves a little less seriously.

Branagh is, as always, a superb director, but it's the adaptation that's lacking slightly here. The much-debated Japanese setting is not terribly illuminating in any way, unlike his Hamlet transposition which skilfully used the 1848 pan-European setting to provoke reflection on the political and philosophical volatility of the time period and of the text -- a true feat. Here, a few title cards are thrown up with some vague historical background which is then forgotten; the film could just as well have taken place in a quasi-Japanese fairytale world (the equivalent of, oh, let's see, the English Forest of Arden!) without any feeble explanation. It's just pretty. [To elaborate here, it would have been a hell of a lot less unsavory to have a bunch of white people romping around quasi-Japan than Japan. I can think of ways it could have worked really interestingly, so that the Europeans living in their little enclave learned from venturing outside it, etc., but... it did not.]

Romola Garai is a hilarious Celia, so much so that I found myself wishing she had played Rosalind. The other standout was Adrian Lester, who managed to convey a believably villainous but then instantly sympathetic Oliver. Branagh fans were hoping wildly for him to play Jaques or Touchstone; you'll be wishing that afterwards, too, as Kevin Kline was a good but rather monochromatic Jaques (if Branagh had cut the monologue before 'All the world's a stage,' it might have helped), and Molina's Touchstone was not often funny. (Really, that's what I keep coming back to--I ought to have been laughing my head off, and barely ever cracked a smile.)

The DVD is set at low volume, so be prepared to jack it up. Sadly, no director commentary, as I would have loved to hear Branagh talk about his creative shot choices and movement in detail. Instead, there's a crap 5-minute featurette that tells you nothing much about his creative process, but at least provides some behind-the-scenes shots of the genius at work to keep his fans satisfied.

The bottom line: a must-see, of course, for Shakespeare and Branagh fans, who will enjoy critiquing it and/or adoring it. Will probably do well for period-film-lovers based on its visual beauty.

I should warn you all that regardless of my disappointment with this film, I have been on a big Branagh kick lately, so expect more of him.

Post One

My friend Jenny found the review I wrote on Amazon of As You Like It and told me I should start a blog -- something I've been thinking about for a while. So here's a start. I'm not sure how much time and effort I want to put into this, especially since I'm planning on blogging more about (obviously) what I read and watch than my personal life.

The blog name refers not only to my political tendencies but to my rather expansive reading tastes. Trips to the library are usually performed on the way to the gym, to get something to read on the elliptical, and are either exceedingly brief and efficient or exceedingly tedious.
Last night's trip resulted in a biography of Laurence Olivier, A Thousand Splendid Suns (yes, I read Kite Runner, yes, I enjoyed it, yes, I think it'll make a politically volatile movie), a book by Elizabeth Berg the title of which escapes me at the moment, and a collection of E. T. A. Hoffman short stories, which I grabbed because I walked past them and I like the Offenbach opera Les Contes d'Hoffman.

So far, the Olivier bio is pretty good, though since I'm more interested in his work, I'm skimming over an awful lot of Vivien Leigh.