January 12, 2007

Book Review 1: My Beautiful Laundrette

Book Review: Christine Geraghty. 2005 My Beautiful Laundrette. London: I.B. Tauris £9.99

The Book Cover

Preface: This article is now part of an interlinked theme called Representing Changing Britain: Ethnicity and Hybridity. If you have visited this page via another route you may wish to follow this perspective on contemporary British Cinema.

The specialist publisher I. B. Tauris has teamed up with Turner Classic Movies film channel to develop The Turner Classic Movies British Film Guides . The series was launched in 2003 and the fact that I have seen so few of them about on the shelves of bookshops varying from University of Warwick bookshop to Birmingham and Coventry branches of Waterstone’s is disturbing. When this happens it is little wonder that British cinema is held unjustly in low esteem. Critical coverage of our best films is a fundamental part of cultural citizenship. It is thus worth reviewing and hopefully revitalising sales of these books. This review and those which follow on this blog are not conducted on the grounds that they are new, but on the grounds of the ‘long tail’ argument which has been advanced and analysed elsewhere on this blog. If something is worth reading then it is, worth reading.

On the basis of Geraghty’s book on My Beautiful Laundrette and a swift glimpse at some of the other ones I have received for review this series of monographs on individual British films is doing what it says it intends to on the inside cover which is to : ...comprehensively refute the ill-informed judgement of French director Francois Truffaut that is cinema.

Priced to go, at a very reasonable £9-99 these books are ideal for those who wish to engage with a film more deeply either from direct personal interest or as a student completing a film or media studies course.

The books are well researched, well written and don’t go off into the depths of ‘theoretical practice’ at the expense of the film. They are a good match for the French cine guides also produced by I. B. Tauris which I’m more familiar with.

The titles in both series are written by well known academics and critics and effectively act to bridge that gap in film studies literature which veers between total populism on the one hand and obscure academicism on the other. In short, they provide an intelligent read for the train being a handy size to carry around.

Race Politics Identity Complexity

My Beautiful Laundrette

My Beautiful Laundrette was made in 1985 by Stephen Frears and scripted by Hanif Kureshi. It was certainly one of the most interesting British films of the 1980s and certainly deserves a full monograph devoted to it. Along with films such as Mike Leigh’s Meantime it spoke to a disaffected youth culture who had a rebellious consciousness which had been honed by the growth of political and cultural such as ‘Rock Against Racism’ the ‘Anti Nazi league’, anti-fascist marches in Lewisham, ‘Gay Pride’ and mass radical cultural events sponsored by the Greater London Council (GLC). Despite the triumphs of the Thatcher government there had been strong resistance to it from London under the leadership of ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone and other cities such as Sheffield at the time had been supporting radical cultural politics.

The audience for a film like My Beautiful Laundrette was an audience without a film until that point. The fact that Hanif Kureshi appears on the London cultural scene at this time is less than coincidence. The reason why the film was so successful in Britian, apart from the cinematic elements which Geraghty explores very thoroughly, was this rich cultural environment. Had it been just a ‘boring but worthy’ film then it would have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

I have a criticism of Geraghty for sidestepping the cultural context from which the film grew. In her introduction she argues for a corrective position set against a critical backdrop which has emphasised the social and political importance of the film. Geraghty instead argues that much of the film’s success was based upon its aesthetics and its cinematic art. Here there is a tendency to slip into the polarisation of text / context as different methods whilst I prefer to use SPECT (social / political / economic / cultural / textual) as a combination. My Beautiful Laundrette fits into all of these categories rather well, which is unusual.

Throughout the book there is a lack of recognition of the hybrid nature of many young people at the time, certainly in the more progressive cities of Britain in any case. It was they who provided the audiences because it was a part of their lived cultural experience. Geraghty makes the point that having a cinema release was a status thing from within the British cultural establishment gaining access to a critical weight which would have been absent had Channel 4 chosen to go down the route of premiering the film on TV. In fact the film gained around 8 million viewers on two screenings on TV. Geraghty seems to be putting this down to its mode of release rather than the fact that there was a ready made target audience. The film would probably have gained similar numbers of viewers in the UK if had just come out on TV because of the cultural milieu from which it grew. On the other hand Geraghty is certainly right when it comes to overseas reception and distribution.

At the time the film was surrounded by controversy in the UK because many in the readymade audience were concerned with having ‘positive’ role models. Kureshi’s original play was having none of this and both play and film stood up for making the characters have human foibles rather than cardboard cut-out ‘good’ Asians. Many a late night smoke ridden argument was held about whether the film was politically progressive or regressive.

Room for some qualitative audience research

Whilst Geraghty homes in on the academic critical debate around black British cinema from academic luminaries such as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy and Kobena Mercer this is a film where some qualitative audience research wouldn’t have come amiss. Some memories and experiences of people at the time might have been welcomed both from readers who were around at the time and from current students. This would have been especially valuable given as Geraghty notes from her own students that they think it is an old film. Perhaps there’s a research project there for somebody.

Narrative, Mise en scene and Performance

Geraghty does some excellent analysis of the narrative particularly in relation to the narrative theories of Todorov which makes the book valuable student reading to accompany the film. As a contiguous narrative there are many strands the relationship between Nasser – Omar’s Uncle – and his mistress are but one.

Nasser and his mistress

She makes some very pertinent comments about the performances noting that whilst the film seemed to be a launch platform for Daniel Day-Lewis it didn’t lead to similar success for Gordon Warnecke who plays Omar relating this to part of a wider problem for British Asian actors.

Geraghty also analyses the mise en scene very well commenting on the way that this is clearly a proper film rather than an extended TV play through a range of cinematic devices. When it comes to mise en scene apparently many considered the ‘Powders’ laundrette to be a comment on a cinema. I must say I read it as a bit of a homage to Schlesinger’s Billy Liar when a spanking new supermarket is opened by Julie Christie. By comparison this is a parody upon Thatcher’s entrepreneurial UK.

Keeping good films alive

Geraghty also makes some useful comments about how a film can live on through being adopted by courses such as the Welsh Joint Exam committee’s excellent Film Studies ‘A’ Level. Discovering it as an affordable DVD last year I showed it as a movie on my British cinema course for evening students many of whom were contemporaries. For them and for me it still retains it freshness and liveliness as a film.

Geraghty notes how the film made other films about hybridity possible such as Bahji on the Beach, East is East and Bend it Like Beckham. This alone makes it a very important British film. Geraghty notes the rather dismissive tones of Claire Monk who criticised films like these for becoming a ‘staple of British films’. The fact of the matter is that as Britain seems to be becoming more culturally divided rather than less with the growing demand for single faith schools a lamentable signifier of this tendency the need for popular representations of cultural hybridity is important. As part of the ethnic polarisations in British society today is centred upon the growing class divide criss-crossed by this ethnicity there is a greater need to encourage hybridity as the essence of Britishness.

Will it go on my bliographies?

Absolutely despite my comments about context the book’s discussion about the film’s aesthetic strengths are considerable and it will help many a student learn more about film criticism when read alongside the film itself. Geraghty’s book is also to be welcomed for being a book which will keep the film’s message of hope alive.

For more on the book and link to a free extract click here

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