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Talkin’ ’bout my generation: watching The Beach 11 years on.

November 17, 2011

In 2000 I avoided seeing The Beach. I’m funny that way. If an actor’s too popular I just cannot find him sexy or interesting. So in 2000 I was studiously avoiding Leonardo DiCaprio, probably in favour of more obscure movie star crushes (I cannot recall one of them). Which is a pity because The Beach is a damn entertaining movie, and was perhaps written off and even derided at the time as a vehicle for the still-cute DiCaprio relatively fresh after the hideous  Titanic (1997). (Poor Robert Pattinson seems to be suffering the same fate.) I do like Danny Boyle’s films. Yes, they are cool, and even gimmicky. But The Beach has a commentary going on under its radiant Thai beach surface – obviously. The film has been criticised for its dumb philosophising and philosophy is thrown around by the characters. However, I was under the impression it was meant as a portrait of the terminally self-unaware characters and the kind of trite nonsense they would believe in.

Eleven years on, a strikingly aged DiCaprio continues to do great work and has evolved into one of my favourite actors along with his encroaching, and endearing, pudginess of face. I do hope he doesn’t go the way of Al Pacino or Robert De Niro though – overthesping and chewing scenery in almost every performance. I’m not picking on Italian Americans here: it’s just that when one is One of the Greats of one’s generation, actors tend to turn into caricatures of themselves. I’m a little worried about J Edgar I have to say. But playing a famous OTT personality is a tough job. And Clint Eastwood is an unsubtle, limited director when he’s not making revisionist Westerns. (Invictus!)

So The Beach was good. But also uncomfortable for me. The people on the beach reminded me of the endless flood of privileged hippy backpackers trying to Find Themselves/Find The Real in Africa, dressed in hemp and tie dye and smoking dope in backpacker lodges in our city’s more avant garde suburbs. They also reminded me of all the gap year trips taken by young people I knew after school or university, or the holidays they continue to take to southeast Asia. They come back raving about more spiritual or interesting cultures, armed with photos of strange and gorgeous sights and sites, the email addresses of new world friends – and the occasional horror story of near-misses with poisoning or animal bites, shrugged off as something that one expects while on adventure and worn as a badge of survival. The Western or white world has a strange and uncritical fascination with the East/Asia that continues unabashed (despite the popularity of Edward Said’s Orientalism) into the 21st century.  Perhaps because Asia is real/poor/simple like Africa, but more picturesque, less dangerous and with better curios and a more relatable spiritualism.

Those same world travellers tend to, rather sadly I think, grow up. They still may smoke dope, or travel East to India, Vietnam or Thailand, but they are just as likely to come home to a nice house and young children, a well-paying job. Nothing wrong with it. If it’s one thing The Beach documented it was the inevitable dissolution of the dream of the unspoilt paradise and the perfect community for the young white traveller. The pristine paradise is a temporary retreat after all, and it is a relief to get home. There is nothing more disturbing than a fanatic who takes the Beach too seriously, like Sal (the always excellent and edgy Tilda Swinton) who ‘goes native’, tries to stay there permanently and protect its secrets from other Western travellers. And of course the Thai farmers remain behind, unromantically making their living while travellers and film crews come and go.

The film did not do well at the box office or critically (an abysmal 19% on Rottentomatoes). Go figure. I always seem to like the unpopular ones. But bad or good, the film is a very effective and familiar portrait of a sub-genre of a generation and wormed its way under my skin. Other than doubling my fear of sharks, the film has helped ensure I will never go East to find or lose myself.

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