Tuesday, May 31, 2011
After going back and forth for weeks about whether to see Bridesmaids, I’m kicking myself for having avoided it so long. You’d think I would have been convinced by the viral movement that sprang up early on, calling all feminists to buy tickets so Hollywood would make more “chick flicks” that aren’t “vapid rom-coms or something about shopping.” But the more you care about feminism, the warier you get about movies that are supposedly about girl power or female friendship.
The muttering I’d heard about the diarrhea blowout in the dress shop didn’t help: would Bridesmaids lean too hard on gross-out humor for my taste? More than that, what put me off was what I’d seen of Kristen Wiig’s Annie in the trailers. I usually like Wiig, and there’s a sense of nerve-shot decency in even her most annoying characters that makes it hard to hate them, but when she starts playing endless variations on just one note she can wear out the funny pretty fast. Annie looked like she might be another Gilly or Penelope, tired long before she got retired. Like we need another movie about a tiresomely crazy chick.
But Annie turns out to be one of the most fully fleshed-out contemporary women to show up in the movies for ages. Wiig, who cowrote the script, is in nearly every scene, and the camera often lingers on her face to catch a kaleidoscope of emotions as someone else is speaking. Even—maybe especially—at her most ridiculous, Wiig makes Annie sympathetic, finding the loyalty, love and, yes, neurosis and insecurity that drive her a little nuts sometimes and make her nearly derail her best friend’s wedding and her own life.
Yet she’s no train wreck just because her life has gone off the tracks. Bridesmaids’ favorite comic tool is exaggeration. It takes almost every situation a little—or a lot—too far, but even its wildest slapstick is anchored in totally relatable emotions. In one of the movie’s sweetest scenes, Annie resorts to desperate measures to regain the attention of a lovely traffic cop she briefly dated and then dumped. That scene’s pleasures come as much from the suspense of waiting for his inevitable surrender as the joy of watching her ridiculous siege.
Realistic emotion blended with balls-out comedy and laced with a strong dose of nerdy discomfort is Judd Apatow’s signature style, of course, and Apatow is one of this movie’s producers. Aside from the bit in the dress shop, I suspect that a lot of what he contributed was the talent that maintained that distinctive tone, starting with director Paul Feig, one of the directors of Apatow’s so-funny-because-it‘s-so-true Freaks and Geeks. Maya Rudolph is Annie’s best friend, the warm, funny, grounded ur-BFF any woman would want; Jill Clayburgh (in her last role) is loving and comically ditzy as Annie’s mother; and a murderer’s row of funny women make the other bridesmaids “a stone cold pack of weirdos,” as Lillian affectionately calls them. Great comic actors, including Terry Crews as a fascistic exercise drillmaster, Michael Hitchcock as Annie’s uptight boss, and John Hamm as Annie’s odious “fuck buddy,” make even the small parts vivid.
Weddings are fertile ground for parody, and Bridesmaids digs in with gusto. The much-discussed gross-out scene turns out to be a welcome fart in the face of a snobbish, criminally overpriced bridal shop, but most of the humor is a little less obvious. After Annie messes up her maid of honor duties, Lillian hands the reins to fellow bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne), making Helen the victor in a battle for best-friend status that provides the movie with most of its funniest moments. Helen then proceeds to execute the “perfect” wedding, an obscenely upscale affair we see through the eyes of the broke and resentful Annie. The bridal shower is particularly ludicrous, each guest riding a white horse from the parking lot to the door of Helen’s palatial estate and leaving with a “party favor” in the form of a live puppy, so it’s fun to watch Annie crack, railing at the event’s over-the-top pretension and attacking “that fucking cookie,” a huge heart-shaped tribute to the bride and groom on display in the garden.
A sometimes wince-inducingly funny index of socially awkwardness, Bridesmaids has a heart as big as that cookie. Without resorting to snark, condescension, or cheap shots, it finds the funny in the winning trifecta of female friendship: love, loyalty, and competition.
Written for TimeOFF
Friday, May 27, 2011
Living in New York is like going online: When you know you can find a world-class example of whatever or whoever you long for if you just look long enough, it’s hard to stop searching. Most of us zigzag between curling up in whatever niche we’ve carved out for ourselves to enjoy the moment a bit and hunting for something more, either online or IRL. Restless City makes that duality its subject, alternating between its main character’s ceaseless travels through this often hostile or indifferent city as he tries to establish himself and his delight in its capricious generosity and moments of unadulterated grace.
The niche Djibril (Sy Alassane) occupies is a hustling, bustling underground economy created and populated almost entirely by African immigrants. A musician who dreams of making it here, he starts his journey on Canal Street, part of our growing army of Senegalese street merchants, but soon graduates to courier. The community he moves in is a large, mostly nurturing world, and Djibril floats through it beatifically at first, meeting, greeting, and eating as he goes. Then he falls for a gorgeous prostitute, Trini (Sky Grey) and his life starts to take a predictable slide toward tragedy. But even as the plot turns pedestrian and predictable, the look and feel of the movie remain sumptuously evocative.
Cinematographer Bradford Young uses the same rich browns and reds, stately compositions, soft lighting and shallow-depth-of-field focus on the actors’ gorgeous faces that helped make Pariah another of the most compelling movies to come out of Sundance this year. Costume designer Mobolaji Dawod’s clothes are beautiful too—which isn’t surprising when you consider that director Andrew Dosunmu started out as a fashion photographer. Whether it’s Djibril’s snug brown leather jacket, the fly straw hat worn on the record producer he hopes to work with, or earth-mother Sisi’s (Danai Gurira) print dress and matching headdress, the costumes don’t just look stylish enough for the glossies Dosunmu used to shoot for—they help establish character.
There’s not a lot of dialogue in Restless City, but the words aren’t missed. Often, as we watch Djibril and the other main characters go about their business, it feels almost like a silent movie, its music (a mix of energetic percussion and operatic emotion) the only sounds we hear. As he rides his Vespa though the city, Djibril’s big red headset blocks out everything but the African music he’s listening to: He’s literally deaf to everything outside his immigrant cocoon. Even when it’s not filmed in slow motion, as it often is, the film’s contemplative pace also helps keep us inside Djibril’s reality—and helps stave off the sentimentality and cheap melodrama that could so easily have ruined this simple story.
Dosunmu, who’s from Nigeria, has directed music videos for Common, Erykah Badu and other “artists that know themselves as artists,” as he puts it; written a book about African soccer stars; and made a lively documentary (Hot Irons) about the African-American hairdressing competition subculture. But his main interest is making films about Africa and Africans that broaden the narrow set of images we’ve been fed about his homeland.
That may have been his main objective in Restless City, but it’s not his only achievement. His first feature is about being a diaspora African, but it’s also about the agony and the ecstasy of being a New Yorker, surfing that endless wave of possibilities toward some possibly unreachable goal.
Written for The L
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Werner Herzog dates his fascination with Paleolithic cave paintings to age 12, when his imagination was captured by a book about the Lascaux cave. Many decades later, that obsession has paid off for us all. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is Herzog’s trippily reverent exploration of another French cave, discovered long after his childhood, which houses the oldest paintings known to man.
Like Herzog, I'm fascinated by what we can glean from archaeological finds about how people in ancient cultures lived and thought and felt. I even have a similar (though less intense) childhood memory of learning about the Lascaux cave drawings: I remember poring over a New York Times Magazine feature that helped me see them as sophisticated art rather than "primitive" artifacts. But my amateur interest turned out to be more of a drawback than a draw when I first watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
I left that screening feeling dissatisfied, grateful for the extended view Herzog had provided of the cave and its paintings but frustrated at having learned so little about the people behind them. Then I did a little reading and got a sense of just how little we know about those ancient ancestors. The second time I saw the movie, free of the obscuring scrim of my own unrealistic expectations, it was an entirely different experience -- and not just because I saw it in 2D, which I actually preferred outside the cave and didn't miss inside it. This time, what struck me was not how few hard facts Herzog turned up but how diligently he dug to get at whatever is there to be gleaned.
You and I will never see Chauvet Cave in person. The French government sealed it off from all but a few scientists upon its discovery in 1994, sparing it the fate of Lascaux, where the carbon dioxide and moisture introduced by an army of visitors fed fungi and molds that have disfigured some of the paintings. Herzog is the only filmmaker ever allowed in Chauvet long enough to shoot a feature, and even he worked under tight constraints. He was limited to a crew of four, granted just a few hours in the cave, and required—like everyone else who enters it—to stay on a two-foot-wide metal catwalk.
The catwalk is there to preserve the animal tracks, human footprints, stalagmites, bits of 28,000-year-old coal, “menagerie of bones,” as Herzog puts it, and other treasures that make the cave’s floor almost as rich an archaeological gold mine as its walls. Perfectly preserved for thousands of years, during which the minerals in the water that seeps steadily in have slowly colonized almost every horizontal surface, the cave is eerily beautiful. The filmmakers give us plenty of time to admire that beauty, passing the camera slowly over stalactites and stalagmites as smooth as plaster casts, still-dripping calcium carbonate icicles, and rippling curtains of glittering stone.
But mostly, they show us the paintings, coming back time and again (maybe a few times too often) to some of the most beautiful. Almost all depict animals that look surprisingly familiar, considering that they were painted 25 to 30 thousand years ago. The bone and ivory flutes Herzog shows us from other digs of about the same time are instantly recognizable too. As one archaeologist puts it, before playing the Star-Spangled Banner on an ancient flute, they even play the same tonal range we use now. No wonder Herzog calls the cave a “familiar yet distant universe.”
The director rarely appears on camera, but the extravagantly rounded vowels of his familiar voice are never far away. His flatly idiosyncratic observations, heard in his intermittent voiceover and off-camera questions, set the tone.
He starts by sharing the elation he felt as he first descended into the cave, the camera defying gravity to flip upside down or float up and over the landscape as we follow him and his guides and crew into the wonderland below. Between visits to the cave, he takes time out to interview a motley assortment of insightful, never self-serious experts. Together, he and they speculate about how things might have looked and smelled and sounded in the heyday of the cave, and how the Paleolithic people who went there to admire the animals might have thought and acted.
Now and then Herzog makes a questionable assumption—how could he be so sure a child's footprint left thousands of years ago was that of an eight-year-old boy?—but for the most part, he’s meticulous about differentiating between knowledge and guesswork, reminding us that most of what we think we know is conjecture, thanks to the “abyss of time” that lies between us and the Cro-Magnons who created the paintings.
Fortunately for us, Herzog is one of cinema’s great speculators. His hypotheses and questions provide some of the film’s most fascinating moments, like when he wonders aloud whether the cave paintings are the beginning of art, and hence of the human soul.
The extra dimension in the 3D version can be dizzying or downright distracting outside the cave, but it emphasizes the strangeness inside, exaggerating the undulations of the walls whose curves the cave painters often worked with in equally creative ways. Moving his lights over the images, Herzog tries to approximate the torchlight by which the Paleolithic people saw them. The flickering light, he points out, may have created the illusion that the animals were moving—an illusion that the artists often encouraged by drawing an animal with two sets of legs or other cues that imply motion. That observation leads to one of Herzog’s most intriguing theories: that the paintings are “almost a form of proto-cinema.”
If art is a way for the past to communicate with the future, as one scientist observes, The Chauvet paintings are powerful art, reaching across that chasm of time to touch something in the roots of our being.
Written for TimeOFF
Monday, May 16, 2011
The Princess of Montpensier begins in the midst of a gripping hand-to-hand combat in 16th century France, as a count and a handful of his men hunt down an enemy on his own farm. As in later scenes of soldiers hacking away at one another in suffocatingly close quarters, director Bertrand Tavernier hammers home the brute horror of war, stripping it of any pretense of nobility. The 70-year-old director’s clarity of vision on the subject makes this one of the strongest antiwar movies of 2010, a year that included powerful documentaries like Restrepo and The Tillman Story.
But the main fight in The Princess of Montpensier is not the war between Catholics and Huguenots. It’s the rivalry for the heart of Marie (Mélanie Thierry), the princess of the title.
Tavernier and his co-writers based their screenplay on a 17th-century novella, and on the research Tavernier always does before resurrecting a past time and place in one of his authentic-feeling films. Whether Marie is learning to butcher a hog or being undressed in a roomful of servants on her wedding night, the details of her life are often startlingly unfamiliar, yet they never draw undue attention to themselves or detract from the authenticity of the characters’ emotions. When I interviewed him a few weeks ago, Tavernier talked about how he makes sure his scripts, sets, costumes, and lighting are historically accurate, so his characters will look and talk and act the way they should—and then he tells his cast and crew to forget everything but capturing “the passion and the emotion” of the story. Regardless of when his movies are set, he says, he films them in the present tense. “I’m not filming a Renaissance table. I’m filming a table.”
His method clearly works. He succumbs just once here to the impulse that sinks so many directors of costume dramas, sending the count into the heart of the historic St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre to rescue a woman from rampaging soldiers. But on the whole, Tavernier studiously avoids stagey set pieces and melodramatic swashbuckling, focusing instead on the texture of daily life in the castles of France (and, to a lesser degree, on its battlefields) nearly 500 years ago.
Marie is just 16 or so when we meet her, a gravely gorgeous girl in love with her dashing but destitute young neighbor, Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). But her feelings don’t mean much to her parents, who trade her in marriage, like so much prize horseflesh, to Henri’s stodgy cousin, Prince Philippe de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet).
If anything, being married makes Marie more appealing to Henri, for whom wooing her is now a way to get back at his more privileged cousin as well as a pleasant pastime. Henri and Philippe are soon joined in their competition for her favors by a cynical young duke, who sees Marie as attractive arm candy. The stakes grow for Philippe as he gets to know his wife better and starts falling for more than her looks, but the men are motivated mainly by their love of the chase and their hunger to win the prize, whatever it may be. As Henri puts it of their competition: Marie is “a doe in our midst.”
Only the Count de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), the man who led that charge in the opening scene, truly loves Marie. But Philippe enlisted the count to tutor his wife while he is at war, and the older man’s deep-rooted sense of honor prevents him from wooing his patron’s wife. Instead, he serves her faithfully, her only true friend and a witness to her blighted life.
As only we and the count can see, Marie is smart, self-aware, and hungry to learn. She’s also woefully ignorant, since women didn’t get much of an education in those days, and her choices in life are strictly limited even after marrying a prince grants her some status. Tavernier shows us the courage it takes for her to arrange for a romantic tryst with Henri. She may be tragically naïve about her lover’s feelings, but she’s true to her own, and she’s brave enough to risk everything—her social position, her wealth, and her husband’s budding devotion—for a shot at true love.
It’s sad to see social convention rob Marie of what might have been real happiness with the count, but the real tragedy of this all-too-relevant period piece isn’t her missed chance at love. It’s the human potential that goes unrealized in Marie, as it does in so many other bright, brave young women with the bad luck to be born into rigid patriarchies.
Written for TimeOFF
Friday, May 6, 2011
If you thought Todd Haynes's Mildred Pierce was too slow-moving and uneventful (and God knows a lot of people did), Chantal Akerman’s glacially paced Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles will probably drive you up a wall. Personally, I love these movies partly because they unfold slowly, allowing plenty of time to appreciate the intricate ballets their title characters perform on the line between Xtreme girl-power efficiency and total dysfunction.
I also love the Museum of the Moving Image for choosing this double bill to celebrate Mother’s Day weekend. Way to reclaim the day from florists and greeting card companies. That’s my MoMI!
Haynes has called Jeanne Dielman “a feminist masterwork of minimalist constraint; a cinematic powerhouse of narrative innuendo.” It’s easy to imagine why the director, a semiotics student turned Queer Cinema pioneer who loves to experiment with both old and new ways of conveying ideas and feelings on film, might have appreciated Akerman’s influential 1975 indie. Jeanne Dielman pushes naturalism so far it risks losing its audience, but it has plenty to say, if you can stick with it, about how social norms can disempower women and how mysterious all of us humans are, even to our own selves.
Jeanne Dielman, a widowed bourgeois housewife, is stuck in a constricted and constricting world, trapped in small spaces—mostly her own kitchen or the other rooms of her tidy but cramped apartment, but also the cage-like elevator she rides to and from her apt, the bank where she deposits her earnings, and the stores where she does her shopping. So are the other women whose paths she crosses during the day as they wait patiently, shop aimlessly, or perform menial tasks of their own. Akerman provides the voice of one of those women, an unseen neighbor who drops off her baby with Jeanne—and keeps her hostage at the door one day after picking the baby up, delivering a monologue of mind-numbing banality while Jeanne mm-hmms politely.
Ackerman and her cinematographer, Babbette Mangolte, used a stationary camera to emphasize their characters’ stasis. They sometimes keep the camera rolling for a bit before or after the subject had left the frame, in a style long since popularized by Jim Jarmusch and others, but for nearly all its 201 minutes, the film focuses on Jeanne. It observes her in long, mostly wordless or near-wordless takes over the course of three days as she ticks her way down a list of self-appointed tasks. By day three we’ve come to realize just how ritualized her routines are, so even a little deviation, like dropping a spoon in the kitchen, registers as a sign that something’s seriously wrong. Then one of the johns Jeanne entertains during the day (hey, she’s got to pay for all those fillets of veal she cooks for herself and her son) gives her an orgasm, which introduces a lack of control that the tightly wound Jeanne finds unbearable.
Mildred Pierce, an apparently faithful adaptation of the James M. Cain novel, looks and feels far less challenging and austere than Jeanne Dielman, but the two are sisters under the skin.
The most striking similarity may be the breathing room both give their protagonists. At a total of five hour-plus episodes, Mildred is even longer than Jeanne, and that allows both films to capture pretty granular details (we don’t just see Jeanne pick up a dirty dish when it’s time to clean up; we see her wash the whole stack, and at the start of Mildred Pierce we practically watch Mildred make a pie from start to finish). Literally making visible mundane bits of (typically female) business that most films gloss over also shifts the dramatic emphasis, so a near-silent dinner Jeanne shares with her son or a visit from Mildred’s estranged husband during which he plays on the floor with their youngest daughter feel as important as a case of adultery or murder.
Both films are interested in the poisonous effect of the secrets we keep even from ourselves, and how little we know even of the people closest to us. As Dennis Lim put it in the New York Times: “Mr. Haynes’s great theme has been the mysteries and traps of identity,” and Mildred is a fascinating case study. She’s loyal, hardworking, capable, and invested by Kate Winslet with enormous empathy and heart—you can’t help but sympathize with her, especially after her husband leaves her for another woman and she has to scramble to provide for herself and their daughters, starting out at an employment agency where she’s told she has no skills and ending as the owner of a successful chain of restaurants.
But then Mildred projects all her inchoate social-climbing hunger onto her older daughter, Veda, turning her into a hot mess of unearned privilege, resentment, and toxic snottiness, and you just want to shake her. When both mother and daughter’s dreams of Veda’s success in the world of classical music, that culture-snob haven, are finally realized, it’s because Veda has turned into a monster. A gifted colluratura, Mildred’s coddled daughter has the voice of an angel, but she’s no more to be trusted, her vocal coach warns, than a poisonous snake.
Mildred’s central tragedy is her unhealthy fixation on Veda. She works hard and gets everything she thought she wanted, but—even more than her hunger for money and social status—her toxic relationship with her daughter keeps happiness out of her reach. Their twisted family tie functions more like an unrequited love affair: Mildred blushes like a schoolgirl when Veda bestows an icy shard of love or approval on her, and she’s overcome with emotion when she hears her daughter sing—so much so that, the first time it happens, she has to leave her restaurant to be alone on the beach with her thoughts and emotions.
Delphine Seyrig’s Jeanne spends most of her time onscreen alone, and though Seyrig’s deadpan mug is much harder to read than Winslet’s translucent one, Akerman gives us plenty of chances to study it. The film ends with a seven-minute shot in which Jeanne sits at her dining table, covered in blood and looking at the camera.
Staring at her for clues as to what she might be thinking, I found myself wondering about her son. How will his world change after learning what his mother is capable of? What will he think about how his mother spent her days? And why didn’t he talk to her more when he had the chance? Did he think he already knew everything there was to know about who she was and what she had to say?
Guess I’d better call mom.
Written for The L magazine
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) looks like the kind of character you’d expect to see starring in a classic Western. The colorful guide of a small wagon train, his face nearly obscured by a mop of ropy hair and a bushy beard, he wears theatrically fringed buckskin and loves to tell stories about his past adventures. But this self-styled hero is a legend only in his own mind.
Director Kelly Reichardt and her frequent collaborator, screenwriter Jonathan Raymond (he also wrote Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy), are hardly the first filmmakers to deconstruct the dime-novel mythology that shaped our view of the West. The disconnect between the actual people who settled the West and the stories we tell about these men (and yes, the stories are almost always about men) is one of the givens of post-50s Westerns, providing the theme for movies like The Man who Shot Liberty Valance.
By the mid-60s, that disconnect was accepted widely enough to be satirized in movies like Cat Ballou, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and True Grit. But Kid Shelleen, Butch and Sundance, and Rooster Cogburn were all loveable eccentrics who ultimately lived up to their hype. Meek is a much darker figure, part of a neo-Western wave of self-styled heroes (the first may have been Little Big Man’s General Custer) who are actually villains. The ego-blinded poseurs in this blustering brotherhood may not mean any harm, but their actions often have lethal consequences. As Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) says of their leader in Meek's Cutoff: “Is he ignorant or is he just plain evil? That’s my quandary; it’s impossible to know.”
We join Meek and his scrawny band of followers as they trek through a dry, scrubby, mostly flat expanse of 19th century Oregon. For most of the film’s 104 minutes, the only sounds are the squeal of an axle and the rumble of wagon wheels on rocky ground, occasionally accompanied by some unsettling strings, but we eventually learn that the settlers—three couples and one pre-teen boy—followed Meek on what was supposed to be a shortcut. He said it would take about two weeks to reach their destination, but it’s been five and they have no idea where they are or how long it will take to get to a place where they can settle down. What’s worse, they’re running out of food and don’t know where to find the water they need more desperately with every passing day.
It takes a while to adjust to the sparseness of the dialogue, but once we do it begins to feel—as it does in Reichardt and Raymond’s other films—as if silence is a kind of integrity. Emily and her husband, Solomon (Will Patton) have a more equitable relationship than the other couples, so he tells her at night what the men have discussed during the day and clearly values her opinion, but even their talks are terse and punctuated by long silences. Certainly Meek’s tall tales are just one of the tricks he uses to lead people astray, something we’re not meant to fall for. Reichardt makes that clear the first time we hear him tell one, focusing on Emily’s stony reaction before cutting to Meek and the boy he’s enchanting.
When the group picks up an Indian who’s been shadowing them and takes him captive, some of them hoping he will lead them to water while others fear that he’ll set them up for an ambush, words starts to seem even more irrelevant as the Indian (Rod Rondeaux) speaks in a language the settlers don’t understand or stares uncomprehendingly while they debate whether to follow him or kill him.
Emily starts out without much more say than the Indian in this (white) male-dominated world, but Reichard and Raymond flip the power structure on its head by filming most of the story from her perspective. That point of view keeps us grounded us in the day-to-day texture of the group’s life, immersed first in their long daily trudges under the blazing sun and then in the chores the women do every morning and night. Even when the men gather to decide what to do next the camera stays with the women, focusing on their speculation rather than the men’s decisions, which come to seem more and more arbitrary and futile. Meeks’ Cutoff has a kind of Zen vibe, its focus purely on the journey, not the destination.
Forever on the move and never arriving, the group seems trapped in a Mobius strip. Reichard occasionally emphasizes that feeling by doing a slow fade from one shot of the group on the move to another, making the characters look frozen in place even as they move through space. Her nearly square frame also keeps them confined, shutting out the gorgeous panoramas we’re used to seeing in Westerns.
The real Stephen Meeks led a much larger group of Oregon settlers astray over a “shortcut” that came to be called Meek’s Cutoff. It was apparently a grueling journey during which oxen fell in their traces, children and old folks died of disease, and exhausted scouts were too weak to dismount when they finally reached help. Reichardt’s film doesn’t include many such climactic moments, and even the ones it includes are underplayed: When a man who starves himself to save his family finally collapses, for instance, the camera films his fall from a great distance. Yet there’s plenty of drama in Meek’s Cutoff as we ride the waves of doubt, anger, resentment, hope, fear, and paranoia that pass through the settlers while they make and remake their minds.
As stripped-down and primal as a Beckett play, Meek’s Cutoff is an existential drama about a universal dilemma: How do you choose your path in life when you don’t know where you’re going or who to trust—especially if you’re told that you don’t get to choose?
Written for TimeOFF
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Nineteen eighty-six never seemed as far away as it did when I rewatched My Beautiful Laundrette. What I remembered most fondly about Stephen Frears' film is the sexual relationship between Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), the former school chum Omar hires to do his dirty work after his uncle gives him a laundromat to manage. The film's straight-ahead treatment of that relationship, which is neither pathologized nor played for titillation but simply shown as a fact of both boys' lives, was a boundary that still needed busting in those days. It made Laundrette an instant classic for me, one of those movies that validates your life experience and worldview at a point when it needs validating, making you feel as if you are not just seeing but being seen as you watch it. Seen now, without that brave-new-world charge, the sex scenes seem a little stagey and the chemistry between Omar and Johnny feels lame—especially in the final scene where the two splash water on each other's bare chests, as self-conscious as bad actors in a porno.
Screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, like Omar, is a native Englishman with an Indian father and an English mother, and his insider's perspective on the pain of assimilation was also pretty new—and much needed—when the movie came out. I remember absorbing what his screenplay had to say about the xenophobia and cultural dislocation endured by Indian immigrants in Maggie Thatcher's England almost as if I were watching a Frontline documentary. Now that that perspective is no longer so rare in our media universe, what stands out for me is the didacticism of the script's expository dialogue. Omar's Indian relatives are forever making declamatory statements like: "In this damn country, which we hate and love, you can get anything you want. It's all spread out and available. … You have to know how to squeeze the tits of the system." Even one of Johnny's ignorant, Paki-bashing friends gets into the act, warning him: "Don't cut yourself off from your own people…everyone needs to belong."
The music is annoyingly insistent too, and the costumes a little too on-the-nose (I get that Omar's uncle's English mistress is a working girl aspiring to the good life, but wouldn't she take off her fur sometime?), and sometimes Frears and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton try too hard to wring meaning out of the visuals, like when they line up Johnny and Omar on either side of a window so one boy's face merges with the other's reflection. That rawness makes the film feel as adolescent as its protagonists at times, but it also has pockets of wisdom and an underlying emotional honesty that resonate still.
Day-Lewis had been acting for a while when he made Laundrette, but it was the one-two punch of his Johnny in this film and his Cecil in A Room With a View (the two films opened on the same day in New York) that made my head, like a lot of other people's, snap in his direction. Cecil was one of those repressed, effete imperial English prigs you love to hate, but Johnny you just love, period. First glimpsed through the scrim of a dirty transom, a taciturn tough guy with a world of pain in his eyes and a shock of platinum-blond hair rising up from his black roots, he's the kind of self-raised, semi-feral kid nobody expects much from, but Day-Lewis invests him with a quiet conviction that signals intelligence, self-discipline, and a hard-won sense of morality. Before reuniting with Omar, Johnny had been the leader of a pack of rude-boy neo-fascists, but he's through with that life. He wants to be done with fighting altogether, but other people—including Omar—keep pulling him back in. When trouble erupts in Omar's laundromat, Day-Lewis' wiry body cycles through reluctance and resignation before switching to total commitment as he flings himself into the fray.
Omar seems to be heading in the opposite direction from Johnny as he climbs past him on the socioeconomic ladder, shedding his good-boy baggage along the way. Unfortunately, Warnecke is too much of a white swan to inhabit Omar's dark side convincingly, so he leaves one of the movie's central questions unanswered: Does Omar love Johnny or is he just manipulating him, interested only in getting rich and getting revenge?
Plenty of other actors are wonderful to watch, though, creating whole characters in scant minutes of screen time. Roshan Seth is elegantly world-weary as Omar's father, a celebrated journalist gone to seed since moving to England, where he can't find a job. Saeed Jaffrey is alternately oily and empathetic as Omar's businessman uncle. Shirley Anne Field has a touching dignity as the uncle's mistress, and Rita Wolf invests the underwritten role of his daughter with a kind of ferocious frustration.
Whenever any of them or Day-Lewis is on the screen, My Beautiful Laundrette springs back to life, a Petri dish of English culture wriggling with thwarted ambition, dreams deferred, and good intentions gone awry.
Written for The House Next Door