Sex on the Brain

Screenwriter Hanif Kureishi thinks deep about getting down

If the day should come when we tire of the political state of affairs, we will not have tired of the affairs of state. No matter what the front-page news is, we'll still obsess over a California congressman's alleged indecent proposals to his missing intern. Norwegian confidence in the royal family might dwindle because of the prince's engagement to a former waitress with a four-year-old son and a history of drug use, but we'll continue to support the fairytale romance of the regal icon marrying the commoner. After all, we're of the generation that watched mounting partisan battles get streamlined into one omnipotent word: Monica. Our minds will never be not in the mood--simply because we can never claim the same about our libidos.

In his films, Hanif Kureishi demonstrates that sex is always political--which seems appropriate considering that the novelist, playwright, screenwriter, movie director, and postcolonial commentator began his career as a writer of erotica. In his recent essay "The Two of Us," Kureishi states: "If our age seems 'unideological' compared to the period between the mid-Sixties and mid-Eighties; if Britain seems pleasantly hedonistic and politically torpid, it might be because politics has moved inside, into the body. The politics of personal relationships, of private need, of gender, marriage, sexuality, the place of children, have replaced that of society, which seems uncontrollable."

Nowhere is the need to manipulate romantic affairs in order to counter the impotence one feels in relation to his or her political environment more clear than in "Tales of the City: Hanif Kureishi's Rough Guide to London," a monthlong Walker Art Center retrospective of six of the seven films Kureishi has written, including the one (London Kills Me) that he also directed. (The series culminates September 29 with a dialogue between the writer and New York Times critic A.O. Scott.)

In Kureishi's first screenplay, for 1985's My Beautiful Laundrette (screening Wednesday at 8:00 p.m.), a young, enterprising Anglo-Pakistani man named Omar (Gordon Warneke) and his impoverished white lover Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis) attempt to start a laundromat business together; the homophobic reaction of some neo-Nazi punks to the pair's passionate kiss serves as a symbol of Britain's cultural intolerance and economic depression during the Thatcher era. When the film premiered in England, the Pakistan Action Committee issued a boycott, claiming that the movie's American distribution was a Zionist plot by Jewish director Stephen Frears to disrupt relations between Pakistan and the United States. The committee apparently wasn't interested in the attempts of Laundrette's other Pakistani characters to balance their cultural identity against the prevalent economic culture of London. ("I'm a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani!" notes a landlord while evicting an immigrant tenant.) Rather, they were convinced that the film was intentionally slanderous. No homosexuals existed in Pakistan, they claimed.

Sexual relationships again serve as metonymy for larger institutional problems in 1987's Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Wednesday, September 12 at 8:00 p.m.). The film observes the titular couple--a Pakistani man (Ayub Khan Din) and an English woman (Frances Barber) who are involved in an open marriage--as they try to come to terms with the atrocities that Sammy's father instigated as a Pakistani politico. Kureishi explores interracial marriage as an uncomfortable commingling of cultural baggage, and he unabashedly places lust within a political context: The title itself hints at the stereotypes of Little Black Sambo and the English rose while positing "getting laid" as both sexual innuendo and a postcolonial reference to the "lay of the land." The movie climaxes, almost literally, with a split-screen "fuck sandwich" (as Kureishi once described it) in which each of three interracial couples are shown having sex. (The scene almost appears like some ad hoc national flag, appearing to insinuate that sex is capable of breaking down rigid national and ethnic borders--not in some clichéd, "love is colorblind" kind of way, but through its potential to create interracial children.) If that's not incendiary enough, the moment is intercut with shots of a group of black singers dressed as colonial soldiers and singing "My Girl." Despite Sammy and Rosie's liberal feelings about sex, the song suggests that copulation is a mild form of colonialism: One body ultimately governs the other, owning it for a moment, despite one's attempts to preserve his or her own identity.

For Kureishi, relationships become even more complicated when money is introduced into the equation. In My Son the Fanatic (Wednesday, September 19 at 8:00 p.m.), released in 1997, a Pakistani emigrant (Om Puri) turns to a prostitute for emotional support when his son (Akbar Kurtha) becomes a Muslim extremist. The father, a taxi driver, drives a client through the streets of London, boasting about its thriving textile industry. As he speaks, the taxi passes by a group of partially naked prostitutes searching for paying customers. It's an image that haunts the rest of the film: A significant portion of England's economy is run by sex, and when the taxi driver's son later uses his religious beliefs to justify burning down a brothel, he reveals his frustration with the ways in which people deal with poverty. The prostitutes live under the same dour conditions that emigrants like him have had to defy.

Given Kureishi's well-established tack of trying to get, as he once said, "as much filth and anarchy into the cinema as possible," it's odd that critics remain surprised by the particular shock tactics in his work. Intimacy (September 28 at 8:00 p.m.), which bleakly details the unemotional sexual interactions between an English man and woman, culminates in a graphic scene of fellatio-- performed (how could such a thing be merely acted?) by Kerry Fox (Welcome to Sarajevo) and Mark Rylance (Angels and Insects). A writer for Guardian Unlimited complained that Intimacy could not possibly have succeeded in its "unprecedented portrayal of real sex" because "the fact of the sexual act is always going to overwhelm the context." Although I haven't yet seen the movie, I would challenge that as we grow increasingly desensitized to violence, perhaps only graphic sex is capable of provoking a constructive form of discomfort.

Clearly, Kureishi is interested in more than literate smut. If he obsesses over the erotics of his characters, it's in order to force a discussion of the power dynamics between individuals and cultures. Within the global economy, the physical acts in Kureishi's films have a currency of their own--whether the transaction is made explicit through prostitution, or implicit through the marriage of two young people from different social classes. For Kureishi, sex--like politics--is always a matter of negotiating who's on top.

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