Resident musicologist Max DeCurtins revisits Bend It Like Beckham and scolds its naive approach to music, college sports, and the treatment of the Other.
These days, I tend to approach any writing at all with the skeptical, critical, and sometimes self-addled mindset of an academic trained in the humanities. Today, however, I’ve been in an all-day funk, to the point where only the bliss of homemade fettucine carbonara has been able to coax me even partially out of these uninvited doldrums. Most days, fettucine carbonara and two glasses of sauvignon blanc would make me considerably more sanguine. Today, as I sat down to re-view Bend it Like Beckham with my bowl of garlic- and parsley-scented deliciousness, the better my pasta became with every bite, the worse became my impression of the movie. This isn’t to say that I don’t still find the movie charming—I do—but today, everybody and everything takes a little bit of a beating.
So, Bend it Like Beckham. I distinctly remember liking it back in 2003. It seemed well-executed, inspired even. And it is well-executed; its timing is handled expertly, if not very creatively. It features plenty of attractive actors and a generous sprinkling of [ɪnɪtˀ]s which, along with other British-isms, helps promote the movie’s own exoticism even as it exoticizes Punjabi Sikh culture. (It’s all very meta, innit?) It also treats sports in a way that I, notably sports-indifferent, find quite understandable: one person’s passion for a sport, and her discovery of a community that shares that passion. While in the States soccer doesn’t generate nearly the kind of revenue and media attention that (American) football, basketball, and baseball do, I can’t help but find the movie just a touch naïve in 2013. That Jess and Jules can get full-ride sports scholarships to Santa Clara merely hints at the bloated, corrupt, self-important worlds of American collegiate sports and the national sports franchises. (You may ask yourself how other institutionalized activities, like fine art, theatre, ballet, etc. differ from the monstrosity that is the American sports obsession. Surely they’re just as self-important? Perhaps, but they don’t receive a tenth of the attention—or the funding—that professional sports receive; to quote Rep. Mark Richardson of The West Wing: “As long as there’s been a Congress, there have been multibillion-dollar boondoggles. We’d just like to share in them a little bit, please.”)
Beckham shows off some of its strength in its casting. Parminder Nagra (Jess) discharges her role with aplomb. Keira Knightley (Jules), not yet known to the world for her role as Elizabeth Swann in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (note to the esteemed editor of this venerable blog – I hereby stake my claim on Pirates) [editor’s note: you can have it], seems here almost like a prelude to that performance, which unfolds in much the same manner. Juliet Stevenson, apparently more than a little typecast as Jules’ neurotic, overbearing mother, fits the bill in more ways than one (more on this later). Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Joe) has perhaps the weakest part in the core ensemble, his Abercrombie appearance falling short of compensating for his inner conflict with misogynistic tendencies. Joe’s position on things never quite feels settled; on the one hand he constantly self-deprecates for coaching women instead of men, and does seem to express genuine hope that he’ll be promoted to coaching men, yet at the end of the film he chooses to continue coaching the women even when offered the opportunity to coach the men. One can’t exactly decide what this means, or to what degree it resembles a Republican publicly supporting a social position only after it’s been proven politically palatable.
How We Got Into the Other, and How to Get Out
Bend it Like Beckham positively wallows in its dealings with the Other. It presents but does not offer commentary, depicts but not confronts, and even in its presentation, it’s not particularly memorable. Take Tony’s coming out: blander than cheap ice cream from CVS, all he can manage to say is “No, I really like David Beckham.” Jess finds herself on the receiving end of a racial slur (“she called me a Paki”), but it takes an attuned viewer to understand why this constitutes a slur; Chadha leaves India’s and Pakistan’s mutually belligerent relationship completely unexplored. Joe’s Irish, but the history invoked by his self-identification more than likely flies over the heads of the movie’s non-British audiences.
My problem with this lies partly on a meta-level: Beckham is only one in a long list of movies that present stylized, exoticized portraits of their particular Other. Not only do I get the sense that the characterization is dated, but seldom mentioned is the implication that this particular Other is more Other than the…others. From My Big Fat Greek Wedding to The Family Stone, whether it’s Greeks, Jews, Italians, Irish, Indians, gays or geeks, we as audience feel encouraged by these movies to find one culture more exotic than another. So many of these presentations of the Other, whether movies or TV shows, never quite make it clear that we are, each and every one of us, each and every culture, crazy and weird; it’s perhaps this lack of forthrightness that begins to explain why so much contemporary humor is exceedingly ironic.
Madamina, il catalogo è questo:
Just as racism, sexism, homophobia and religious phobias permeate the movie, so too does it traffic in other presented-but-unexamined treatments. If you’ve read my previous contributions to Ten Years Ago, you know what’s coming next: by “other treatments” I am, of course, referring to the music, and in particular the way that movies meant for (or most accessible to) Western audiences use Western art music.
I can’t ignore the blatant, even grotesque moment of “musicism” in Beckham, in which Jess, preparing her final penalty kick of the crucial game, hallucinates and sees her wizened relatives dancing in front of the goal instead of the players struggling to guard each other. This moment, the run-up to the kick, and the kick itself, are accompanied by none other than Nessun dorma. Western classical music is absent, totally absentfrom this movie, except for the “big finish”? No other musical idiom employed in the movie is equal to the task? Or does it—like classic Looney Tunes cartoons, but without the cleverness of Carl Stalling—simply appropriate opera as a representation of the absurd? And why Nessun dorma, in whose (ab)use Bend it Like Beckham is not alone? Why not something from Così fan tutte or Leporello’s famous patter aria from Don Giovanni? In the context of Beckham, Puccini sticks out like Stevenson’s reference to the Spice Girls (in the *present* tense).
If we’re really being honest, one of the best features of this movie in fact has nothing to do with the film and everything to do with the DVD release: it contains a special feature dedicated to the cooking of aloo gobi. They say an army marches on its stomach, and foods do seem to highlight in an immediate way the beauty and diversity of cultures. It takes me back to a college-era conversation with Stevi Costa in which, nerdy linguistics enthusiasts that we are, we concocted an idea for a course focused on the linguistics of food. Oh, the memories.
Earlier I noted that Juliet Stevenson “fit the bill” for Beckham in several ways, one of which is her homophobic insinuations regarding Jess’ and Jules’ relationship (and her later hypocritical attempt to cover her homophobia). According to this amazing thing called the Internet, Chadha had originally written the two leads’ relationship as a romantic one, but revised the script out of concern for its reception among the very same socially conservative community at which she pokes fun on film. Maybe that’s hypocritical, maybe not, but am I the only one to think that it might have been an interesting direction to have Joe and Tony get together instead?
The Spice Girls. Christ, I’m old.