Friday, May 16, 2008

white movie friday : the beach

I watched this film last night, hoping to write an admiring review of its handling of white characters in foreign lands, but The Beach left me disheartened. I thought it had promise because its makers, director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew MacDonald, put together the much better films Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. They seem intent here on getting a message across about young Americans abroad, but the message ends up garbled at best, lost amidst the apparent need to earn back the megastar salary of Leonardo di Caprio by offering a lot of titillation, and very little cerebration.

In my review of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, I examined how such whites-in-foreign-lands movies tend to operate, which is basically by keeping culturally blinkered, self-involved white characters on center stage throughout, and by reducing non-white characters to one-dimensional stereotypes, and the lands they live in to exotic, variably beautiful or disturbing backdrops. These adventure films are “white movies” because they’re made by white people, about white people, in order to appeal to a white audience.

Again, I had hopes that this film would have more substance threaded into its entertainment efforts than Darjeeling does, but alas. An extensive review would thus entail repeating much of what I said about that film. All-American-boy Leo plays Richard, who goes to Thailand, drinks snake blood, gets laid, finds a bitchin’ beach, gets laid again, stabs a shark, sees some people die and almost dies himself, then escapes it all with a wry smile, a little older and a little wiser. Richard also wrangles occasionally with sweaty, scowling dark people, none of whom get more than two or three lines of character-building dialogue.

So The Beach portrays a very white, male American brand of adventurism, but it does demonstrate more effort than many other such movies to critique its obstinately white travelers, whose stubbornness resides mainly in their apparent inability to dislodge themselves from their own blithely selfish, destructive perspectives.

The beach Richard finds is inhabited by a group of people like himself, Americans and Europeans who want to live “off the map.”
These people repeatedly proclaim their joy at having found paradise, and Richard soon joins them. He’s made the mistake though of inviting others, who soon follow, resulting in the emergence all sorts of repressed ugliness, not unlike that portrayed more insightfully in another island-life story, Lord of the Flies.

Like Richard, the people in the ad hoc family he joins take relational pride in being unlike other Western travelers, or “tourists,” those who flash by in the city scenes, gaudily and obviously chugging beers, groping Thai women, dancing on fire-lit beaches, and vomiting in the street. The filmmakers know, though, that “paradise” is just a Western state of mind, and they make some effort to expose the imperialistic underpinnings of this supposedly egalitarian community.

Dean MacCannell, who made a scholarly reputation by analyzing Western approaches to the rest of the supposedly uncivilized world, has explained part of what’s wrong with this urge to get away from the crowd, and often from oneself, by pursuing some unspoiled Eden. Any paradise found is almost always a paradise constructed, and it almost always remains tethered in a specific relation to the supposedly civilized society one came from, and to the darker, supposedly messier society it actually belongs to: "A paradise is a traditional type of tourist community, a kind of last resort, which has as its defining characteristic its location not merely outside the physical boundaries of urban industrial society, but just beyond the border of peasant and plantation society as well."

Aside from the irony of there being little original about this community’s off-the-map (but really on-the-map) portrayal of what amounts to “tourism,” rather than “travel,” it resides on an island owned by a Thai marijuana farmer. He and the hired, armed men who guard his crop have little to say or project beyond menacing threats, but they do deliver a comeuppance to the community that unveils its careless disregard for local people.

The community's claim to being a sustainable, valid alternative to "normal" life is also exposed as a sham when some of its members suffer a shark attack. As one attackee lies groaning for days on end with a leg that's turning green, the community dispatches him to a tent, unable to put up with his complaints. As the party that is their life resumes, Richard registers disgust for us with their basic immorality.

Despite such brief displays of its own morality, the film itself is notorious in another, racially charged way. Just prior to its 2000 release, news began emerging about the actual Thai beach where it was being made. The filmmakers wanted their white traveler’s goal to be an especially unspoiled, paradisaical beach, so they found a nice one in Thailand. It wasn't unspoiled enough, though, so coconut trees were imported, unsightly sand dunes were bulldozed, and other landscape adjustments were made. Local environmentalists objected, but Fox Studios found the right government officials to bribe, and the actual beach’s ecosystem is still struggling to recover. (The extent of the damage caused by the film crew and its aftermath were tracked by a group of Thai students, who logged their results on a web site called “Footsteps on the Beach.”)

At one point, Richard descends into a deranged state, running half-naked through the jungle, eating insects, and setting vicious booby traps for the farmer's armed guards. His internal frame of reference is suddenly highlighted by the image of him as a character in a video game, fighting animated tigers and dispatching paper-thin villains. This scene connects with earlier ones showing him playing an actual video game, and with another character's attribution of the thickness of his thumbs to excessive video-gaming. The implication is that Richard suffers a detachment from reality because a socially induced filter alters his perception of the world, and of his role in it. Also, we can see that the lingering effects of his American upbringing inform his performance of a Tarzan/Rambo fantasy in ways that would only fit a white male. What seems to snap him out of this fantasy, if only briefly, is the reality of having a woman's blood splatter in his face as she dies.

Had the filmmakers further explored Richard's young, white, male American perspective, and the tendencies while traveling abroad that are often induced by such a social status, this movie could have been much more interesting. As it is, The Beach mostly just participates in the kind of hedonistic, exploitative tourism that it pretends to critique and rise above.

Here's the film's trailer:


  1. I hope you'll write about Mike Huckabee's "joke" while addressing the NRA in KY...

  2. what'd you think about "brokedown palace"? it just struck me as one of those movies that basically revolve around the white characters in a foreign land motif.

  3. No j, I haven't seen it, thank you for the suggestion. It certainly would make an interesting comparison to "the beach," since its central characters are white American women instead of men. I'm hoping, though, to discuss a lot of other types of "white films," beyond the white-folks-abroad format, so it might be awhile before I get to "brokedown palace."

    jimh, Huckabee's jokes about someone pointing a gun at Obama are indeed disgusting, as was the audience's laughter (to their partial credit, some "murmured" instead of laughing, according to today's NY Times). I'll think about addressing his racially charged jokes in a future post, as well as the overwhelming whiteness of his audience, The National Rifle Association. For now, I'd rather this movie review's comment section not be hijacked by such a discussion.

  4. Sounds like we haven't come far from "Bali Hai" in Rodgers and Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC, except with more sex and violence. That film, at least, had the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" -- addressing the idea that white people are taught to be racist, rather than being bornthat way. This was edgy at the time (late 1950s). Look forward to more reviews....

  5. this is a great post even though the movie isn't exactly a new release. i haven't seen the movie but just from viewing the trailer, quite a few of the things discussed jumped out at me especially how the only characters who really talk or are portrayed as having a central part in the film are white (despite being in a completely foreign land).
    another thing that i would love to see an entry about, if at all possible, is how mainstream film, for the most part, embraces same-race relationships. again, i haven't seen the movie so i don't know, but just from seeing the trailer i already have gotten the message that, out of all the women on the beach and in the foreign country, it's a white woman that attracts the main character and wins his affections. while there are exceptions to this, mainstream movies seem to nearly always have different races stick with each other in terms of love. a few examples (and i'm not criticizing these movies for anything other than this practice): clueless, most tv shows such as psych and undeclared, basically queen latifah's entire acting career.

  6. Just randomly read this and thought I should suggest that you read the novel by Alex Garland. The beach has more of a Lord of the Flies feel to it. The paradise is there on certain terms and conditions and can be lost at any time. That is what makes it so fragile. Also, contrary to the movie, he has a much creepier relationship with Daffy, they have loads of conversations which greatly influence the direction of the story. The ending to the book is brilliant, worlds apart from the movie's ending. The movie is bit commercial, but the directing is awesome. The video game thing you mentioned, well, that made no sense to me and still doesn't really. I think they just wanted to show how demented he was, detached from reality like you said. The director chose a shitty way of doing that as that imagery really had no relevance. Anyway, give it a read :D

  7. I know this is an old post, but I just discovered your blog and I'm reading back-posts.

    I'm delirious for lack of sleep, but I had to address one point because it bugged me.

    1. The particular beach the production cleaned up was an environmentally hazardous, toxic mess of tourist litter that the Thai government failed to clean or control on its own.

    2. They did import sand and I believe trees to restore the beach to its original state, not add to it/alter it to suit the themes of the film.

    I have more to say, but I can't stay awake (especially after devouring some very enlightening posts well beyond bedtime!)


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