Reading Role Models by My Role Model, John Waters

I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember, and I have a huge personal library to prove it. However, the shelves are mostly filled with books I’ve yet to read, for the rate at which I purchase books far outpaces the speed at which I read them. To make matters—well, not worse but different—I’ve also gotten back into the habit of borrowing books from the library. Newly transplanted to Kansas City and without being able to run through the breadth and depth of my own book collection, I have used the splendid public library here to both acquaint me with my new city and to keep my reading eyes and imagination busy.

Role ModelsNow add my ears to the list, too. Recently, I listened to an audiobook for the first time. Ironically, it was a recording of a paperback that sits in my room back home: Role Models by cult filmmaker and artist John Waters. My siblings and I have been fans of the Baltimore-based director since we were kids, having grown up watching Hairspray (1988), Serial Mom (1994), and Pecker (1998) repeatedly. Although my extremely permissive parents probably would have had no problem with our watching his infamous classic Pink Flamingos (1972), I waited until I was ready, in college, to partake in the mondo-trashiness of Divine’s diegetic exploits to secure her place as the world’s “filthiest person alive.” Around the same time, about ten years ago, my sister and I were the first in line to attend a comedic performance by John Waters on campus. I can’t remember everything that he covered that night, but I do remember that that is how I learned of his interest in attending local court trials. And that he is not a fan of blossoms. I still like to quote him, mimicking his cadence and emphasizing the pauses and “S” sounds that he makes: “Limits. We all have our limits.” My beloved button pin, which cheekily states, “Reading is sexy,” inexplicably confounds a lot of people, but I paraphrase something that Waters said that night to explain what I mean by wearing it: “You should never go to bed with someone who doesn’t read.”

John Waters has been an idol of mine for decades now, and I am so glad that I listened to Role Models, his memoir about the multiple individuals, in and out of the spotlight (however big), who have inspired him. I’m certain that I would have heard his distinctive voice in my head while reading it myself, but there is nothing like listening to him actually tell these hilarious and often heart-warming stories about perversion and subversion. The experience, which I shared with my sister in the car, largely as we drove the three hours to Omaha and back, was the closest I will probably ever come to feeling as if John and I really are best friends.

Role Models is divided into ten chapters, each tackling a different subject or topic. He touches on everyone from Johnny Mathis and Little Richard to Leslie Van Houten and Tennessee Williams. In researching the book, he even met the first three aforementioned people, among others. The seventh chapter, “Little Richard, Happy at Last,” recounts John’s early fascination with the influential R&B singer and the disappointing experience he had while interviewing his idol for Playboy magazine in 1987. The “screaming, flamboyant black man” whose voice had so shocked John’s parents in 1957 when he stole, blasted, and danced along to Little Richard’s latest record in the living room unfortunately turned out to be a royal pain in the ass (183). Since Little Richard was the inspiration behind John’s signature pencil moustache, I was surprised that he waited to introduce this idol so late in the book. But his experience having a candid conversation with Little Richard, who wanted approval over whatever John was going to write about him, posed a hard lesson.

John wonders, “But are there some role models you should never meet?” (184). Expressing that sentiment, so early in a book called Role Models, would have been such a bummer in the first chapter—even if Little Richard was instrumental in helping John define his identity. As a child growing up, John had always wanted to be Little Richard, to “somehow climb into [his] body, hook up his heart and vocal cords to [John’s] own, and switch identities with him” (183-4). John’s cautionary tale is exactly why I don’t follow my favorite celebrities on Twitter or other social media networks. I would rather remain blissfully unaware of the stupid or offensive things that they tweet or post to Instagram. However—and this is what I love about John, he’s so forgiving of people’s faults—he still idolizes Little Richard, “the undisputed king in my book” (197).

John Waters, my hero.
John Waters, my hero.

Role Models is also about the fashion, art, books, and pornography that have inspired John and brought joy into his life. In my favorite chapter, “Outsider Porn,” John meets one of his favorite pornographers, a man who literally lives in a pigpen, with rats, dogs, and chickens, to boot. Bobby has fallen on hard times; after selling the rights to his videotapes a long time ago, he doesn’t know how his porn videos, featuring heterosexual Marines masturbating and/or receiving fellatio from Bobby himself, are distributed today. Listening to John describe his discomfort in Bobby’s indoor/outdoor house is a riot, but he is also sympathetic to Bobby’s plight, desiring to take him out to dinner to a nice restaurant. John says that Bobby “is a great artist but doesn’t know it,” and that his video work and hundreds of artfully composed Polaroids of his Marine conquests belong in contemporary art galleries (201). That’s probably the only way I would ever see them. “Outsider Porn” isn’t just hilarious and somewhat upsetting (I wish Bobby’s situation wasn’t so dire); it’s also pretty hot. Listening to John describe several characteristic scenes from Bobby’s porn, without being able to actually see it, certainly invites you to use your imagination in the most fantastic sense. It’s no different than reading really graphic erotic literature.

John Waters hasn’t made a movie in over ten years. Since writing and directing A Dirty Shame in 2004, he’s been busy with a number of other projects: touring with his one-man comedy show (which was later turned into a documentary, This Filthy World, in 2006); putting on a comprehensive multimedia art show (I caught Change of Life at the Orange County Museum of Art in December 2005); watching Hairspray, his most commercial film, transform into a Broadway musical and later a film starring John Travolta as Edna Turnblad; hosting a tongue-in-cheek legal drama ’Til Death Do Us Part on Court TV from 2006 to 2007; and writing two memoirs, 2010’s Role Models and last year’s Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America.

Given John’s background, it should come as no surprise that Role Models isn’t a conventional memoir. While he does mention some of his collaborators throughout (chiefly Divine and Pat Moran, his longtime casting director and associate producer), he holds off on telling any salacious stories about Johnny Depp, who starred in 1990’s Cry-Baby. Role Models isn’t so much about John’s working life—or his personal one, for that matter. Although you do learn that he has “roommates”: pieces of his extraordinary contemporary art collection that are strewn across his Baltimore home and his New York apartment. I don’t care that John didn’t elucidate his filmmaking practices. I would rather hear him recount a particularly perverted airline passenger’s horrifying antics on an international flight that John wasn’t aboard himself. Just to hear him say “turd” over and over is a dream.

Cinecurator Alexandra Frank as John Waters. Photo of Waters's mouth by Greg Gorman.
Cinecurator Alexandra Frank as John Waters. Photo of Waters’s mouth by Greg Gorman.

Opening the final chapter, “Cult Leader,” John laments, “I’m so tired of writing ‘Cult Filmmaker’ on my income tax forms. If only I could write ‘Cult Leader,’ I’d finally be happy” (273). It’s true: “cult filmmaker” isn’t enough to identify him, and this is what makes John so special to me. Unlike other auteurs like Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg, John isn’t just known for his films. He expresses his personality and sensibility in other art forms, and as a diehard fan, Role Models delivers, because it perfectly encapsulates the Pope of Trash’s worldview. Also in “Cult Leader,” John preaches about “a filth movement for the next century,” imagining that readers can choose to join his crusade against those who decry bad taste as the end of civilization (274). What an empowering message, because, once you get past his faux-insistence that you change your name or go topless in public, all he is really saying is that you should let your freak flag fly. Don’t let anyone else define who you are or dictate what you can and cannot do. Growing up with a fixed diet of John Waters movies and still wanting nothing more than to be best friends with the man, I have really taken this advice to heart.

Listening to Role Models, though, inspired me to reflect on other people whom I idolize. It’s been a long time since I was so obsessed with a celebrity that I purchased every magazine he or she appeared in. At ten, I was obsessed with the rock band Bush, and I recall lifting hundreds of issues of Tower Records’ free in-store magazine in order to mail copies to other fans dispersed around the world (this was before the Internet was readily available). I can still sing along to songs on Sixteen Stone, but I no longer think of Gavin Rossdale as my future husband. I was also a card-carrying member of the Christian Bale fan-club as a child, but now I waver in my enthusiasm for his acting. (I can’t wait to rent Exodus: Gods and Kings on DVD and laugh at it.) However, in almost twenty years, my passion for all things Trainspotting has never dissipated. Sure, I donated my copy of Ewan McGregor’s unauthorized biography a long time ago (it wasn’t well written), but I’m never getting rid of my rare Trainspotting movie poster, the one where Begbie has his hand in his pants. John would approve.

I’m not so sure that listening to audiobooks will ever replace my reading of tangible hard copies. I don’t spend much time commuting in the car or on the bus, where reading is nauseatingly impossible. My sister and I started listening to a piece of historical fiction, which spans thirteen compact discs and over sixteen hours of audio. It wouldn’t take me that long to read it, and my mind too easily wanders while listening to the actress read the story. But I know that listening to John Waters’s Carsick while on the road with my sister would be ideal.

Jump Cut: Trainspotting on TV

Tonight ushers in the premiere of CBS’s Elementary, the newest rehashing of the Sherlock Holmes story, set in a contemporary New York. It looks as if, in some circles at least, its promising buzz has turned into less-than-enthusiastic reviews. But I am going to watch anyway, for Jonny Lee Miller plays the iconic character. You see, with him returning to the American tube, this means that you can see four of the six members of the principal cast of Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) on TV every week. You might recall that besides being one of my very favorite films, Trainspotting represents a watershed moment in the history of my cinephilia.

In addition to Miller’s (Sick Boy) starring role on Elementary, three other Trainspotters keep busy as parts of big TV casts. Robert “Bobby” Carlyle (Begbie) is on the audience favorite Once Upon a Time (2011-present), playing a certain Mr. Gold, a creep whose storybook world double is Rumpelstiltskin. I only ever watched the pilot that aired last year. I watched, of course, because he is in it, but sadly it was not my cup of tea. Since 2008 (or the fifth season), Kevin McKidd (Tommy) has appeared on the same network, ABC, as Dr. Owen Hunt, Iraq War veteran/PTSD sufferer/Dr. Christina Yang husband-turned-adulterer in the commercial juggernaut that is Grey’s Anatomy (2005-present), which is entering its ninth—and hopefully last—season tonight. Finally, we have Kelly Macdonald (Diane). If there is a leading lady on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (2010-present), then it would have to be her: she plays Margaret Shroeder, an Irish immigrant in 1920 Atlantic City who falls under the spell of the county treasurer/bootlegging gangster Enoch “Nucky” Thompson. The third season started a little more than two weeks ago with them, having gotten married to protect his investments, on the outs.

The star of Trainspotting—and the only bonafide “movie star” of the bunch—Ewan McGregor (Renton), was going to be part of an ensemble for HBO: indie auteur Noah Baumbach developed, co-wrote, and directed the pilot adaptation of The Corrections with author Jonathan Franzen’s full participation. Then in May, the cable channel pulled the plug on the production, for whatever reason. I was really looking forward to this, not because I know anything about The Corrections (which for the record, I do not), but because I knew it meant five, yes, FIVE! cast members of Trainspotting were going to be on American TV regularly. Interesting to see how their wildly different career trajectories brought them to the same medium, “across the pond” as it were, but on programs that couldn’t be any less similar.

The only cast member never to have secured a regular role on an American TV show is Ewen Bremner (Spud). What hypothetical or existing show can you imagine him having a part on? Although I gave up on it within the first five episodes of its most recent third season, I think I could imagine Ewen on FX’s Justified (2010-present). If you think the waifish Jeremy Davies can play the heir to an Appalachian drug empire with the most nervous energy, I wouldn’t put it past Mr. Bremner to do him one or two better. If he were cast—and I know this is nothing but a pipe dream—then maybe I’d tune into the show again. Even with Timothy Olyphant’s central performance, I couldn’t get interested in Justified, particularly because its Southern California filming locations betrayed its Kentucky setting to such an extent that I didn’t buy any of it. But I digress.

By way of conclusion, I think it’s worth noting the fun coincidence that the Oxford English Dictionary‘s “Word of the Day” is “trainspotter.” Not only do I subscribe to this mailing list, I collect the words I like the sound and/or meaning(s) of. Allow me to educate: according to the trusty ol’ OED, the word, a noun and originally and chiefly British, refers to 1) “A person (often a boy) whose hobby is observing trains and recording railway locomotive numbers, sometimes with other details” and 2) “In extended use (freq. depreciative): a person who enthusiastically or obsessively studies the minutiae of any subject; a collector of trivial information.” That’s me!

Though the OED gives “trainspotterish” as a related word, it stops short of giving the further association and definition of “trainspotting,” which refers to a heroin addict’s practice of finding a fresh vein into which he or she can inject the drug. (The markings on their arms resemble train tracks.) Yes, this means that the title of the book and movie Trainspotting represents a utilitarian concept, and in much the same way that we say we “geek out” whenever we get really excited about something in pop culture, thereby taking ownership of the image which may make us seem uncool or esoteric to others, I like to call myself a “trainspotter.” I don’t watch trains (but I do whenever I have the chance), and I’m not a heroin addict, but I am a trainspotter—especially when it comes to Trainspotting.

Long Take: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen Comes Up With an Easy Catch

Viewed July 18, 2012

On Tuesday, Alison Nastasi of Flavorwire posted ten movie titles she has deemed the quirkiest in the history of cinema. Her list runs the gamut from Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) to Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance art piece Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006). I would venture to add 2011’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Lasse Hallström’s latest exercise in milquetoast filmmaking, to this group. Released in March 2012 in the U.S., the film went on to receive generally favorable reviews, or so says Rotten Tomatoes, but it failed to catch lots of fish in the audience pool. Could it have been the off-putting and somewhat confusing title? (When I mentioned to my father and brother that I had rented the movie on DVD, they both seemed puzzled by the title. Who calls Yemen “The Yemen”? With a shrug, I suggested that perhaps Yemen is like Gambia, whose short name is technically The Gambia.)

Based on Paul Torday’s novel of the same name, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen charts the relationship between a British financial consultant, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), and a government fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), whom she contacts to help with a project that one of her clients would like to see implemented. And that’s just what the movie title refers to: the Yemeni Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) wishes to introduce the sport of fly fishing salmon in his arid, river-less homeland. As the film’s romantic leads, McGregor and Blunt have a fair amount of chemistry, but they hardly set the screen on fire. In fact, the film neither works as a romantic comedy nor as an emotional and spiritual uplift movie, the kind of cinema with which director Hallström has made his name. As per usual, I’m going to spoil the plot of the movie below.

The first twenty minutes or so of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen establish the respective personal and professional worlds of Harriet and Fred, cutting between them so that the tension mounts and the spectator knows that as soon as these super-attractive individuals meet, sparks are going to fly. Like many other romantic comedies, Salmon Fishing utilizes the Pride and Prejudice template, at first pitting Harriet and Fred against each other before they fall in love. Obsessed with his own research, Fred resents having to take a meeting with the persistent Harriet at her office, clear on the other side of London town. He rejects her client’s proposal as “fundamentally unfeasible” and laughs in her face; the geography and climate of the Arabian country just don’t allow for this species’s survival. So things between them get off to a rocky start. By the time he returns to his cubicle at the Department of Fisheries and Agriculture, the Prime Minister’s office has gotten involved, forcing Fred’s boss, Bernard (Conleth Hill), to issue an ultimatum: either accept termination of employment or work exclusively on this project—with a raise. If only all career decisions were as easy to make. I should mention that as the head of the PM’s press office, Patricia Maxwell (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) latches onto the sheikh’s aspirational story so as to counterbalance all of the other destructive events taking place across the Middle East and Central Asia, particularly when it comes to Britain’s continued fighting in Afghanistan.

The trouble with Harriet and Fred’s relationship is that the filmmakers have no creative ways to keep them apart, which is a plot contrivance they’re very committed to upholding until the last scene. A reserved and humorless Ph.D. from Scotland, Fred is married to a cold and distant career-minded woman named Mary (Rachael Stirling). Their sex is passionless and perfunctory, and when he desperately suggests that they have a baby together, pledging to raise it while she goes off to work everyday, she doesn’t hear him. He is so emasculated and unfulfilled that he doesn’t have the balls to repeat himself when she requests for him to do so. Much of the film story unfolds while Mary takes an extended business trip to Geneva, freeing Fred to hang out with Harriet outside of their office hours, in London, Yemen, and Scotland. Thus, when Mary returns to surprise Fred, she receives one of her own: during an interrogation, Fred tells his wife that he’s in love with his work colleague Harriet. Seriously? That’s the best you can come up with? It’s completely unoriginal to make the romantic hero unhappily married, to a distant woman, no less, in order to render his attraction to a caring and sensitive woman compelling, even refreshing. How many times have we seen this before? It would have been more interesting if the script merely presented Fred’s being socially awkward as an impediment to their getting together, with his interactions with Harriet and the sheikh eventually loosening him up. At one point, Harriet teases him about having Asperger’s syndrome, and his response is so cryptic that it’s unclear whether or not he truly has it.

But, if you can believe it, the reason why Harriet cannot attach herself to Fred is even more ridiculous. She spends most of the film crying over her boyfriend of three weeks, Army Captain Robert (Tom Mison), who goes missing in action in Afghanistan. Three weeks?! Don’t get me wrong: it’s a devastating loss, and I cannot imagine how unbearable that kind of uncertainty is. However, I can’t help but wonder if her constant grieving, which Fred does his best to soothe her through, isn’t at least a smidge overly dramatic (and how is he able to do that anyway if he has Asperger’s?). When she finally receives notice that Robert was in fact killed in an attack, she blubbers about how she didn’t even get to know him. Mourning what might have been is perfectly understandable, but through most of the film, she acts as if she has known Robert her whole life (even going so far as to quit coming in to work for days on end), perhaps clinging to his proposal that she wait for him until he gets back from the war. And when he miraculously survives, Patricia uses Robert to elevate the Yemeni project in the eyes of the British public, inviting him to the site to fish in the wadi. No surprise: Robert turns out to be a bore whose embraces stifle Harriet and make her long for Fred. Hmm, I wonder whom she will pick.

But Salmon Fishing carries more than just a clunky romantic comedy narrative; it also represents an emotional and spiritual uplift movie because it is about the personal growth that derives from leaving one’s comfort zone and dreaming the impossible. Sheikh Muhammad, funnily enough, ties these two strands together, but not without some clumsy narrative tropes. On the one hand, the sheikh, upon his quirky introduction at his Scottish loch-side estate, is established as Harriet and Fred’s matchmaker. Over drinks after dinner, he quizzes his project’s top team members about their personal lives, remarking that what Harriet and Fred have in common is that they are each away from their loved ones. What is the sheikh suggesting, anyway? “Ooh, you can get up to something while you’re here, in one of my dozens of guestrooms”? No, but it is a hint that the sexual tension between them is noticeable and that Sheikh Muhammad would approve of their eventual union. Later, at the end of the film, just when it appears that Harriet is leaving the wadi with Robert, the sheikh climbs atop a mound of rocks to see if the salmon have survived a flood that local dissidents have caused by opening the sheikh’s dam. When he spots one still unbelievably swimming upstream, Harriet and Fred rejoice, and he renews his vow to stand by the sheikh and continue to build the site. Harriet volunteers to assist (meaning: to stay with him). Thus, in this moment, Sheikh Muhammad’s gaze from on-high allows him to keep alive the twin dreams of introducing salmon fishing in the country and commencing in earnest their heretofore tentative romance, which I must add, is signaled not with a passionate kiss but with their holding each other’s hands.

Sheikh Muhammad, Fred, and Harriet go over their plans—for salmon fishing in the desert and, implicitly, for romance. Image courtesy of http://www.collider.com

More problematic, however, is the sheikh’s characterization. He is obviously meant to challenge stereotypes about Middle Eastern men, specifically those with oil-exploitative wealth and thus political power, but in doing so, he perpetuates them. He quickly bonds with Fred over a session of fly fishing, talking candidly and self-consciously about his crazy plans, inserting the odd curse word here and there. But he is also stoic and wise, speaking eloquently about his country, hobby, and dreams of development. That he trusts a young British woman with his £50 million investment, asking her to recruit a fisheries consultant and such, suggests that he not only holds zero grudges against the former occupiers of his country, but that he is also one for gender equality. Eh, not so fast: while hobnobbing with Harriet and Fred during their first stay at his Scottish glen estate, he mentions that he has many wives. Thus, he isn’t quite as progressive or “visionary” as Harriet believes; he still leads a rather traditional lifestyle, and the fact that the filmmakers use polygamy to signify his Otherness means that they are treading on popular Western-conceived notions of Middle Eastern cultures. In other words, are there no other ways to say the sheikh is a mixture of worldviews? There isn’t anything even distinctly Yemeni about him, his culture remaining a mystery to the Anglo-American viewer. (Morocco stands in for Yemen, I should I add, too.)

Worse still, it isn’t until the end of the film, I think during a press conference or photo opportunity, that Sheikh Muhammad explains his uncommon project for developing the wadi and surrounding land areas as beneficial to the local communities. Although it is unclear what his title entails (as in, what is his jurisdiction?), the sheikh obviously feels a sense of responsibility toward his people (whoever they are) and thus wants to use his wealth to enrich their lives. However, for most of the film, given Fred’s reluctance to accept the sheikh’s plans, salmon fishing in Yemen comes across as merely one rich, eccentric man’s expensive and incomprehensible (i.e. Western) hobby. The intricacies of his vision are never really elaborated; has he surmised that fly fishing promotes irrigation, provides clean water access, or even relieves stress for resident farmers? This is also why I couldn’t help but wonder, why wouldn’t he just invest £50 million in a much more practical development plan? Added to all of this is the sheikh’s unpopularity with some gun-toting, perhaps tribal, terrorists. His heated argument with one of the militants, who harasses him on the building site, goes un-subtitled, and when he later summarizes what transpired between them for Harriet and Fred, they don’t follow up with questions. At one point, while fishing in Scotland, Fred even saves the sheikh from an assassination attempt with his perfectly angled and cast fishing line. Right… Did no one ever ask Sheikh Muhammad if his money would be better spent on a more popular project? Then again, no one can argue with money and power.

Sheikh Muhammad and Harriet supervise the construction of a Yemeni river for salmon fishing. He comes prepared with a sheathed dagger at his waist. Image courtesy of http://www.pinkjulepabroad.com

In fact, the premise and beginning of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen seemed to suggest that the film is about a clash of cultures, which is something that director Hallström specializes in. Scanning his filmography, it is easy to spot how he gravitates toward stories that revolve around outsiders, such as Tobey Maguire’s Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules (1999) and Juliette Binoche’s Vianne in Chocolat (2000), characters who bring about sea-changes when they, respectively, step onto an apple orchard or into a small ultra-religious village. You might expect something similar to happen between Fred and Sheikh Muhammad, but because the sheikh is so “Western” he doesn’t present any real culturally ideological challenges. Instead, Fred, a skeptical scientist, merely must learn to believe that they can pull it off, despite all evidence to the contrary, because the sheikh’s unflappable faith is contagiously comforting. After all, when a rich man charms you with a highly appreciative salary, glowing compliments, and lavishly furnished wadi-side tents in addition to granting you free-reign at his Scottish estate, how can you resist agreeing with him?

This brings me to my next point: I cannot ignore Salmon Fishing‘s representation of Scotland and Scottish identity, topics that I have begun to ritually analyze. Sheikh Muhammad is obviously obsessed with Scotland, a somewhat perplexing but ultimately amusing characterization. His fascination with the culture presents something of a chicken-and-the-egg paradox: is his Scottish estate—located in the Highlands, no less—his favorite among all his land holdings because he loves fishing for salmon or is it the other way around? In other words, how did his love affairs with Scotland and salmon even start? Interestingly, Yemeni men dressed in traditional clothing guard his glen manor, but he keeps on a Scottish butler, Malcolm (Hamish Gray), to greet guests and manage the property’s day-to-day operations. Later, when the British Prime Minister’s publicist Patricia visits to discuss the impossibility of swiping 10,000 wild British salmon and transferring them to Yemen, the sheikh’s men are decked out in kilts!

Patricia, Malcolm, and Sheikh Muhammad pass a line of Yemeni guards in kilts. Image courtesy of http://www.allmoviephoto.com

My knee-jerk reaction to this scene was a rolling of the eyes. Kilts, of course. What could be more Scottish? But on second thought, this image is representative of how Salmon Fishing sheds light on how Scottish identity seems much more performative than others. That is, putting a kilt on a man renders a whole history, culture, and nation wearable, transferrable. Just notice how the sheikh’s robe clashes with the tartan of his men’s kilts, thereby divorcing the fashion statement from the cultural significance of the patterns, which historically correspond to Scottish families or clans. One of my favorite commentaries on the flexibility of Scottish identity, or how easy it is for non-Scots to adopt traditional Scottish clothing, dancing, or cooking as a way to express themselves or define who they are, comes from The Big Tease (Kevin Allen, 1999). In it, co-screenwriter and now-late night talk-show host Craig Ferguson stars as a Glasgow-based hairstylist who travels to Los Angeles to compete in a hairdressing competition. When he meets with the manager of his hotel to discuss a discrepancy on his bill, the manager (Larry Miller) professes his love for Scotland, saying that, though he’s never been to the Northern European country, he has seen enough pictures of the place to feel that he is, in fact, Scottish. Why do so many non-Scots identify with Scotland, perhaps even wishing to be Scottish? Do they feel an affinity toward a group of people who they perceive as eccentric (i.e. kilts, bagpipes, thick accents, haggis) or as heroic underdogs (Braveheart certainly made fighting against English colonizers fashionable)?

I think that it is all these things, to some degree, and in the case of Salmon Fishing, Sheikh Muhammad’s eccentric character (manifest in his hobby, dress, and home) aligns with his perception of Scottishness as a wearable identity. Unfortunately, Fred, as a Scotsman, never remarks on the sheikh’s overly enthusiastic appreciation for Scotland and Scottish culture. If he had, perhaps a more satisfying cultural exchange between the two men would have occurred. Instead, the filmmakers leave it up to Harriet’s boyfriend Robert to comment on the sheikh’s seemingly conflicted cultural identities. Once the war-torn lovers reunite in Yemen, Robert jokes that Sheikh Muhammad’s next venture will be to erect a golf course in the desert. This rubs Harriet the wrong way, as she is by now a full-on convert to the sheikh’s optimistic vision, and signals the lovers’ fundamental incompatibility.

As with its rom-com narrative thread, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen‘s inspirational theme flounders. But at least its dissection of Scottishness proved more rewarding, though not wholly satisfying.