The White Man's Service Station
Leo’s much anticipated follow up to the record smashing Titanic has finally arrived, and it is perhaps not so surprisingly, considering the hype to be lived up to an unmitigated flop. Apart from a most excellent soundtrack and some pretty scenery, there is not much redeeming about director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge’s film adaptation of Alex Garland’s novel. From all reports (as I haven’t read it), Garland’s book has its finger on the pulse of a disaffected, mediated, computer-crazed generation in search of “authenticity” in an otherwise simulacral world. It must have taken some butchering, then, to turn the novel into this solipsistic, racist, and generally ugly film. The Beach vaunts the evolved consciousness and abilities of its Western “travelers,” while relegating Thai individuals to the roles of servant, prostitute, or gun-toting criminal, and replaces any sort of transcendent authenticity (or even “authenticity”) with a perpetuation of white privilege.
The story is as follows: disaffected young American Richard (Leo) travels through Southeast Asia and encounters a crazed and suicidal man named Daffy Duck (Robert Carlyle), who leaves him a treasure map to the most beautiful beach in the world. Enter the sexy young French couple Franciose (Virginie Ledoyen) and Etienne (Guillaume Canet, who is much yummier than Leo in my book). Together the three set off in search of shangri-la, and find it. However, it is already inhabited by two groups; the first a band of trigger-happy marijuana growers (whose depiction repeats the “evil Asian” stereotype by which the West has often “understood” Eastern peoples), and the second a “community of travelers,” led by Sal (Tilda Swinton, whose remarkable talents are wasted in this film), who have made their own little hippie heaven on the island.
Predictably, the community falls prey to lies and lust: as Richard helpfully informs us in voice-over, “Desire destroys paradise.” Worse, the tentative detente between the non-natives and the dope growers falls apart, disaster ensues, and, of course, paradise is lost. All of this is too familiar: one of the most frustrating aspects of The Beach is that it feels, from start to finish, entirely derivative, imitating familiar images from U.S.-made Vietnam war films, action-adventures, and tropical romances. The film indexes Apocalypse Now, and The Deer Hunter, as well as The Blue Lagoon and Ursula Andress’s sexy bikini scene from Dr. No, with a little bit of The Lord of the Flies thrown in for good measure. Really, this film is all over the place.
If The Beach were merely a mess, structurally and thematically, we could easily dismiss it, and it could remain the provenance of film history, another chapter in the ongoing story of superstar megaflops. However, what makes this bad film worse is the particularly loathsome neo-colonial exploitation and capitalist skullduggery that has surrounded its production. It appears that, in the production of The Beach, 20th Century Fox has essentially irreparably destroyed the fragile ecosystem of Maya Beach on Phi Phi Island, the real world locale of the film’s tropical Eden. Daily, it seems, more information comes out about Fox’s shady business practices in making this film, including bribery, spin control, obfuscation, and deception.
Two facets of the controversy seem most telling to me, and reflect most clearly the colonizing logic and sense of entitlement espoused by Fox in the making of The Beach. First, in order to make Maya Beach “look” more paradisiacal to Western audiences, Fox’s production found it would be necessary to plant the beach with coconut palms, which are not indigenous to Phi Phi Island. In order to do so, they tore up the vegetation already on the beach, the root system of which anchored the dune structures that were the center of the beach’s ecosystem. Fox promised to repair any damages they incurred during filming, and to return the beach to its natural state, a promise backed up by millions of bhat (hundreds of thousands of US dollars) “donated” to the Thai Royal Forestry Department. As the following rainy season proved, however, Fox’s cosmetic repairs failed miserably, and the sand dunes collapsed, destroying the ecosystem of the beach, and, as the sand washed into the lagoon, greatly compromising the health of the adjoining coral reef. All this so we could watch the film, see palm trees and think, “Ah, paradise.” Forgive me if I sound a bit like the worst sort of green activist (which is hardly the case: before she came down from her tree, I had nothing but scorn for Butterfly), but this seems especially heinous to me. It’s an avoidable disaster initiated by the sort of Orientalizing imaginary which structures Western notions of what an “island Valhalla” should look like, according to which Fox grossly exploited Thai territory.
The second facet I want to draw attention to is Fox’s solicitation of Thai governmental support of their production. When Thai public sentiment turned against Fox and the Royal Forestry Dept., Fox turned its own attentions to the Tourism Authority of Thailand. In effect, in order to gain the governmental Tourist Authority’s support, Fox agreed to promote Thai tourism in their marketing strategies. So, when you log on to the official movie website, you find that you can win a trip for two to Thailand. The outrage of this situation is twofold: first, Fox seems to assume it can use the Thai government as a puppet to conceal their own criminal activities; and second, Fox has essentially turned the Thai government against itself, with different departments condemning the film company, or alternately praising the tourist boom the film will bring. All of which suggests that the studio cares nothing for the concerns of the Thai people or the authority of its sovereign government.
The narrative of The Beach replicates these same exploitative logics. The film sets up a false dichotomy between the “tourist” and the “traveler,” in which the tourist stands in for everything that is tacky, commercial, and commodifiable. The “traveler,” on the other hand, is all about searching for new experiences and knowledge, the rejection of ease and complacency, and the desire for “authenticity.” This is the type of traveler evinced in the writings of Paul Theroux. Theroux’s books are (perhaps most notoriously, The Happy Isles of Oceania) insidiously racist and misogynist, and crassly exploitative of foreign cultures and peoples, much like The Beach. The difference between the tourist and the traveler is, of course, imaginary, and in recent years, scholars like Dean MacCannell and Caren Kaplan have demonstrated how both categories are motivated by the desire for the exotic, and strategies of adventure and “discovery” in which foreign lands are claimed for Western pursuits. In The Beach, the perfect community is (almost) entirely white and Western. Here is the perfect imperial fantasy; exotic lands without those pesky “natives.”
Without any apparent awareness of the ways in which his words echo the logics and rhetorics of such thinking, Leo himself makes the following remark about the “meaning” of The Beach in an interview with Chris Heath in Brit mag The Face: “Like, in a world that seems to be more and more dominated by Western civilization, where everything is now becoming like the white man’s service station around the world, and everything’s becoming catered to our needs and our existence on earth, this to me is maybe one of those last times where there’s still a possibility of something out there in the world being unexplored and uncharted.”
As if Eurocentrism or Western ego-centrism were “becoming” a facet of daily life, instead of entrenched in world history. And does Leo mean Western civilization, or Western culture? This comment, like the film and its production, is screwed up on too many levels to count. Boyle, Hodge, and producer Andrew Macdonald have made two of the most innovative and exciting films in recent memory, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. The Beach, alas, does not follow suit, but merely and entirely stands as a testament to the persistence of capitalist greed and colonialist exploitation.