Saturday, September 25, 2010

Cheap holiday/Other People’s Misery.

If the ultimate non-place of “The Beach”, based on Alex Garland’s* best-seller of the same name, is a heterotopia, then it’s a distinctly white European, middle class one, in which certain post-Rave, hippy overhangs and American-style evangelical self-celebration and pep-talking represents the community’s “ethic”. We are told quickly in “The Beach” that the community has no ideology. This is no doubt intended to reassure us, it certainly comes as a blessed relief to DiCaprio’s “Richard”. Shagging French hotties**, dancing on the beach to All Saints, being entertained with cricket and carnivalesque japes and engaging in light domestic chores represents the summit of human aspiration, or at least the fantasy of a gap year travelling not basically ruined by having to live cheek by jowl with the natives or the considerably less savoury tourists glimpsed on a trip to the mainland to get supplies.

Skipping (barefoot) past the predictable objection that the claim to not have an ideology is the ideological claim par excellence, and skipping past much of the movie itself to the conclusion it’s worth noting that what stays with DiCaprio, the moment he takes home from his “Journey” is, in characteristically narcissistic mode, the final moment of celebration, the commune leaping, united into the air, not his period of mental illness, witnessing the murder of four innocent backpackers, or his own attempted murder at the hands of the commune’s nominal leader

The film attempts to critique utopian notions, pimping out the old argument that paradise must be built on or can only be maintained by terror and bloodshed, yet when Leo returns to the real world from the “parallel universe” of utopian fantasy to click open his email he enters an arena coded as a utopian space. The first email is from his concerned mom and dad, implying a part of the return is a return to the stability of family he has seemed to reject at the start. Family is permanent and “real” (Mom and Dad will “always be there for you”) whereas the clan/ tribe of the Beach cannot endure: it is necessarily transient and “fantastic”. This newly utopian non-space, a heavenly Internet café all billowing white light and digital hum reminiscent of both “A Matter of Life and Death” and “2001”, is dominated by a map of the world in which the topography is delineated by computer circuitry. The camera pulls back to reveal the new people and their new drug, communication, seated beneath it. The most glaring idiocy in the shot is the centrality of Africa, but somehow this irony is overlooked: all cities are the same now (as Shallow Grave’s opening monologue, informs us) everyone is participating in the brave new Wired world, aren’t they?***

The photograph arrives and is downloaded, the moment lasts forever. Any attempt at alternate societies, even on the small scale, let alone any large scale historical projects is to be subordinated to a series of highly coloured, intense, private micro-experiences and associations, the ecstasy not of the commune, but of communication. Even the witless utopia of the permanent vacation can not be maintained, finally there is a real world, an exciting new world of interconnectivity and emerging technology, to return to. There is the fantasy of a post-human state in which technology can elide and deselect undesirable aspects of experience, in which it is precisely the fleeting moment of rapture that can be memorialized and made to endure, the death and pathology having been fully repressed. Communication allows only the best of what other people can offer us, an endlessly open and revisable set of relations conducted at a distance, without the horror of the face-to-face. It's not just that society doesn’t exist, it shouldn’t, it’s fundamentally undesirable. Richard has found the new commune of digital natives, from the post-geographical non-place of the Beach, still too infected by the social and it’s attendant pathologies to last, to the purity of cyberspace in which the dreams of a pristine and crystalline community of untroubled egos can be realized.

There are of course other parallel universes that impinge on the reality of the film’s conclusion, the world of desperate economic insecurity, rural poverty, mass prostitution, pollution, urban squalor and a staggering AIDS rate, along with the political corruption and catastrophic currency crises that have beset the average Thai over the course of the past twenty years, making the country a haven for sex tourist and hardcore drug lovers, but this is a parallel universe the film won’t look at.

What’s important about Thailand is that rich, white people can traverse their fantasies there before going home to exploit the start-up boom.

* In Hodge’s adaptation of Garland’s novel and in Garland’s two screenplays for Boyle we're presented with a kind of anti-Renton, an anti-anti-Hero, the good guy, the average Joe called upon to show extraordinary bravery and self-sacrifice, in 28 Day’s Later and Sunshine the Garland hero is a sober, uncertain man-child, played in both films by the unassumingly pretty and pleasantly inoffensive Cillian Murphy.

**There’s a predictable cod-feminist overlap in the romance between Richard and Francoise in The Beach and Renton and Diane in Trainspotting in which the girls make themselves so much more attractive by deconstructing the men’s romantic bullshit, leaving them momentarily flummoxed but impressed, before sleeping with them anyway! Perfect. After all, what self respecting guy would want to sleep with someone actually dumb enough to fall for his clumsy/cynical shtick? Post-feminism just means you must be seen to know, before you do all the conventional stuff anyway.

***Some countries are, according to Fukuyama, still immersed in History, the post- historical world is simply waiting for them to catch up. Since this trajectory is inevitable (though it can of course be speeded up by the interventionary benevolence of the IMF, NGO’s and if necessary, the Army) we might as well celebrate it right now!


Anonymous said...

Interesting how Decaprio has carved out a 'superstar' career from mutton dressed as lamb. He's the neoliberal non-star par excellence - representing nothing except recognition.

He's managed to represent the sharp decline of Scorcese (not reflected in awards or profits, mind - and Marty's recent films make me wonder if he was All That to start with), epitomises the phoenix-like power of the hideous James Cameron, is a perfect symbol of perpetual MISCASTING with his man-boy face squeezed into presposterous 'period' roles (how I laughed when our hero in Gangs of New York emerges from a 19th century orphanage with that squeezable, well-fed face!), and of course is the choice du jour for any British mediocrity attempting to say something 'important' to us rubes in the multiplex.

It's funny how his dad was ruined by Disney for casting Goofy in search and destroy missions in Viet Nam - now Leo IS Disney and the only thing threatening about Indochina is if the price of pussy and drugs suddenly goes up. Go figure.

carl said...

at risk of seeming ignorant... who is his dad?

Anonymous said...

George DeCaprio drew/published late 60s/early 70s underground comics. As a distributor, he was affiliated with the 'Air Pirates':