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The Beach°

It is not often that a film turns out to be worse than I have imagined it was going to be. But such was the case with The Beach, which is an absolutely dreadful motion picture. Nevertheless, let me begin by saying that I do not lay the blame on Leonardo DiCaprio. I am personally indifferent to the Leo question. I cannot say I think him a bad actor because I've never seen him act in a movie. However, I would have to say he's far better cast in this movie, playing Richard, a hip young American dude on the loose in East Asia, than he was in Titanic as a Jack Londonish painter who learned everything he knew about life and art from the school of hard knocks. The real problems with this movie lie in the direction by Danny Boyle and the screenplay by John Hodge, both equally miserable. While traveling through Thailand, Richard encounters Daffy, the crazed resident of a cheap hotel where Richard has momentarily put up, who gives him a map showing how to reach a fabled island paradise uncharted by cartographers. After Daffy conveniently exits the scene by his own hand, Richard, accompanied by a young French couple also staying at the hotel, sets off in search of this tropical Utopia. What they find upon their arrival is a hippie commune in extremis  governed by the matriarchial Sal (Tilda Swinton), which makes Colonel Kurtz's compound in Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now look like summer camp. From this point on, The Beach resembles nothing so much as the ill-begotten offspring of a union between William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies and Roger Corman's LSD cult movie The Trip. Since I have not read the novel by Alex Garland upon which The Beach is based, I am not in position to judge how many of the movie's shortcomings are owing to problems in the source material, but I have little doubt that whatever these problems might have been, the movie has succeeded in magnifying them a hundredfold.

During the first half or so of its interminable 120 minutes, The Beach blindly staggers along from episode to episode without rhyme nor reason, before descending into an abyss of melodrama with the unexpected and unwanted appearance of some stoned surfers whom Richard had ill-advisedly allowed to copy Daffy's map. One disaster leads to another, culminating in the violent dissolution of the commune by some Thai peasants engaged in raising marijuana on the other side of the island who had allowed the hippies to maintain their camp as long as the latter kept the island's existence a secret. At the end, nothing remains except for Richard, now once more comfortably ensconced in his life as a student in the USA, to oracularly deliver the moral of this saga in a voice-over commentary. To wit: Paradise is just the best moment in your life which you have to continue to hold in your memory after it has vanished in fact. Cool! And to think it was only necessary to shell out five dollars and waste a perfectly good afternoon to hear these words of wisdom. Even if Leonardo DiCaprio were the least talented performer in the history of the American cinema (which he certainly is not) he could not have done anything to make The Beach any worse than it is--any more than actors of the caliber of Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, or Robert DiNiro in their prime could have done anything to rescue it.

Generally, speaking I take no pleasure in trashing a movie. Life is too short to waste it spending time proving that a piece of junk is a piece of junk. My main reason for writing about The Beach at all has less to do with the movie itself than with the now nearly extinct genre, that of the exotic, to which it belongs. From this point of view, seeing  an expensively produced specimen of the exotic genre like The Beach at the present day is like catching site of a dodo or an archaeopteryx strolling down the streets of Burbank. The genre had flourished from the late 1920's to about the mid-1930's, and included some of the most important pictures of the era, among them Friedrich Murnau's Tabu, Josef von Sternberg's Morocco and Shanghai Express, W.S. Van Dyke's Trader Horn, Frank Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen, John Ford's The Lost Patrol, and last but not least Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian Cooper's King Kong, as well as a number of lesser known but by no means uninteresting productions such as Erle C. Kenton's The Isle of Lost Souls. After 1934, the genre went into eclipse, in no small part owing the strict enforcement of the Production Code, since the typical exotic picture was virtually a repository of all the Code's "Thou shalt not's," including the ones prohibiting the depiction on screen of nudity, of illicit or perverse sexual behavior, of promiscuity, of drug addiction, and of suicide, to mention a few. Although some important contributions to the genre appeared in the later 1930's--Frank Capra's Lost Horizon, John Ford's The Hurricane, and Howard Hawks' s Only Angels Have Wings--the genre carried on only a marginal life in Universal's campy Technicolor® spectacles starring Maria Montez.

But a more fatal blow was to be dealt the exotic with the advent of television in the United States following the end of World War II. The great examples of the genre from its early period had depended for their effect upon a certain magic distance between the audience and an exotic locale--even when, as happened most often, that locale had been (re)created in a studio in this country. A famous old cliche says that familiarity breeds contempt and few inventions could illustrate it so well as television. When any Joe Blow with enough money to buy a tv set could have the "real" Morocco right in his living room, at the tips of his fingers, what magic could there be in  sitting in a theater watching one fabricated by Josef von Sternberg on celluloid? I have already discussed these changes in some detail in the article And Something Completely Different: Shanghai Lil aboard the USS San Pablo and there is no reason to repeat here what I have said there. Suffice it to note that after the death of the genre, all that remained was to bury it by demythologizing it as Barbet Schroeder did in The Valley Obscured by Clouds, which tells of a group of European travelers who get lost and ultimately perish while searching for a fabled paradisiac valley on an island in the South Seas. (There are more than superficial similarities between Schroeder's film and The Beach and it may well have influenced the latter.) Yet even Schroeder could not bid the genre farewell without a poignant gesture: in the final shot, as the characters lie scattered lifeless on the ground, the camera pans up to show the no longer obscured valley--just beyond their reach. The Beach, however, does not demytholgize the exotic, unless urinating on its grave can be called demythologization.

Beneath the surface of The Beach it's possible to detect vestigial features of the genre in the themes of fatality and betrayal, which clearly appear in one of its first important works, White Shadows in the South Seas (1928),  directed by W.S. Van Dyke II. Shot entirely on location, began as a collaboration between Robert Flaherty and Van Dyke for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer using a combination of professional actors and non-professional locals. When Flaherty who "didn't care much for working with stars and had frequent disagreements with his collaborator over content and approach"--to quote Ephraim Katz's The Film Encyclopedia--left the movie, Van Dyke, hitherto a director of undistinguished action pictures, finished the picture and embarked upon making a series of successful films with exotic settings. Although burdened with a rather melodramatic story line--which would certainly have appalled Flaherty--about a derelict doctor who finds and then loses paradise on an isolated island in the South Pacific, White Shadows in the South Seas is an effectively made picture which marks a real turning point in the development of the genre; more than any other film, it is the lineal ancestor of the masterpieces which were to follow in the next seven years. (Already the film's initial plot situation, indebted to several literary sources including the Frederick O'Brien novel of the same name, dealing with an individual stranded on a strange island who must overcome various challenges--in White Shadows in the South Seas the hero heals a sick boy and becomes a godlike being in the eyes of the inhabitants--reappears in a number of later films including White Zombie (Vincent Halperin; 1932), The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel and Ernest Schoedsack; 1932),as well as in Island of Lost Souls, and  King Kong.) Like the doctor, Richard too is fated to betray the paradise that he has blundered upon. Yet The Beach no more knows how to develop the theme of betrayal than it does that of the fatality which always accompanies the discovery of paradise and dooms it to be lost once more. Neither theme is at home in the commercial American cinema today, and their loss marks a diminution of the moviegoing sensibility.

Although the exotic genre flourished during some of the worst days of the Great Depression, no one should imagine the films to be examples of American movie "escapism." To the contrary, it would be difficult to think of a single major work belonging to the genre whose conclusion is not overshadowed by tragedy--usually by death although by madness in the final shots of Morocco. (Few films, however, go as far as King Vidor's Bird of Paradise  (1932) whose heroine played by Dolores Del Rio throws herself into a volcano at the conclusion to appease the gods whom she has offended.) It is not merely an etiolated longing to return to the state of nature that motivates the scenario of a typical exotic production but an unconditional utopian demand for happiness. In its most passionate manifestations,  the exotic movie is always an epic of desire, and just as in Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind this desire cannot be satisfied by some material object. The exotic locale is never itself the object of desire, only the surrogate for what is radically exotiōkos. The exotic in the usual sense of the word only marks the point where the quotidian ceases rather than the portal to paradise itself, the point of discontinuity between the ordinary world and what can hardly be called a world at all, since it lies wholly outside anyone's experience--and The Beach  wholly degrades the genre by already throwing in juicy National Geographic pictures of the island when Richard first hears about it from Daffy. Moreover, as the prototypic example of Tabu strikingly attests, even approaching this point as if it were the doorway to a promised utopia is fraught with peril. But The Beach doesn't culminate in tragedy as do Tabu, Morocco, or The Lost Patrol--just in a bad trip, for both Richard and the audience.

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E-mail Dave at daveclayton@worldnet.att.net