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.

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