The Heart of Whiteness: The Allure of Tourism in Vertical Limit and The Beach
Issue #54, March 2001
Lately, when Americans travel abroad, the inhabitants of other lands have become servants who are neither seen nor heard. Abusing the hospitality of other nations, Americans test the limits of their own subjectivity at the expense of the others' selves. This is indicative of the varieties of adventure tourism related to eco-tourism that have grown out of the needs of the thrill-seeking nouveau riche of the booming economy. Two commercial movies, The Beach (2000, director Danny Boyle), set in the Maya Bay of Thailand, and Vertical Limit (2000, director Martin Campbell), set in the Karakorum Mountains of Pakistan, are representative of the gung-ho attitude of American travelers seeking truth amid the "undisturbed" natural terrain of other nations. In the filmmakers' conception of modern Asia, the island and the mountain are virtually separated from their native landscapes to become playgrounds for the hip and the affluent; the natives, conversely, are either seen as dangerous alien elements in The Beach or are casually displaced from the scenery in Vertical Limit. These two movies carry adventure-tourism, a modern-day eco-sensitive safari, to the logical end of extreme sports in the case of Vertical Limit and a Hollywood-meets-Gaugin adventure in the serene island-paradise of The Beach.
The descent of a white protagonist into the unfamiliar heart of darkness usually represents a journey into her/himself. However, in these movies the travel made possible by globalization inverts the tourist/native relationship: the guests become the hosts and the host-subjects become outsiders in their own lands. I want to concentrate on this cinematic erasure of the non-white characters. In this contact zone created by the intermingling of cultures, the civilizing mission of imperialism reemerges in the outright appropriation of other cultures and landscapes in the name of creating new tourist spaces of exploitation.
Remember the jungle nostalgia of the Saturday morning Tarzan movies, or sarong-princess Dorothy Lamour in brownface in those 1930s island epics? Remember any native performing any thing besides evil villains or devout servants? Gen-Xers probably were raised on such images. Glimpses of theWestern imperial logic of consuming the other are revealed in the Tarzan movies bu the fact that the white Tarzan is more native than the Africans. Following the era of political correctness, one would think that Hollywood no longer releases movies that display citizens of other nations and cultures as stereotypes. However, as the world shrinks due to the emergence of new communication and transportation technologies, cinematic encounters with strangers from strange lands appear as sci-fi explorations of new worlds or as the age old model of travel to foreign countries with exotic sceneries peopled, at best, by the native of the colonial imagination. The protagonists, usually white, are more at home in the local environment than the natives, who are generally either marginal to the central dilemmas of the narrative or passive recipients of the protagonists' actions. The landscape too is reduced to shots of lush, exotic backdrops or scenes of extreme poverty.
In the imperial drama of American vs. Asian, The Beach , with a hearty nod to the specters of Vietnam lurking nearby, reenacts Apocalypse Now. Based on the novel by Alex Garland about a British backpacker, the movie tells of a young American, Richard (Leonardo Di Caprio), who travels to Thailand looking for something pure and discovers it in a remote island community. The movie was filmed on location on the Phi Phi Le Island, a national marine park in Thailand. Danny Boyle, the director of The Beach, talks about maintaining respect throughout the shooting for the country and its people. He attests that in the end, "we got a chance to speak for Thailand, to tell these Westerners to go home and stop treating it like a playground". The last scene of the film shows Richard sitting in a cyber-cafe, a vaguely multicultural setting, sending an email to his family in the US. The irony is he sits among other caucasian adolescents like himself. This seems at odds with Boyle's claim.
The movie attempts to play the current eco-awareness "don't-mess-with-mother-nature game" by the numbers. This only heightens the irony of the environmental protest the makers of The Beach ran into. In Thailand, environmental groups held extensive protests and boycotts during and after the filming, and local administrative bodies filed lawsuits against the reported destruction of the natural habitat of the island by the film's crew. Boyle actually took credit for the environmentalist opposition, in that the consequent protests had helped generate environmental awareness about Thailand. The Royal Forestry Division, which had leased the island to Twentieth Century Fox, later assessed the damage to the island to be minimal and even admonished the protestors for tarnishing the national image. The plot of eco-tourism thickened when a group of Thai students responded to the American-sponsored environmental protests by publishing a fact sheet on the web.
In the movie, Richard seeks something more beautiful and dangerous from Bangkok, which is no surprise because everywhere he turns he sees a white face looking back at him. The movie implies that at least as many whites as Thais live in Thailand and that the few local markets exist only for the tourists. The island that Richard "discovers" is a refuge for the eco-tourists from white world and especially from the over-exploted Thailand of which it is a part. As the island progressively becomes separate from the geography and politics of Thailand in the film, the remote location, like Kurtz's Congo, becomes a narrative for Richard's development. The "international" community on the island itself is a joke. The community is racially pure: it contains no natives and only two black individuals; the handful of Thais who live on the island are malicious harvesters of marijuana. They kill innocent interlopers to the island who happen upon the marijuana fields. Richard's developmental fantasy depicts the island as his own private heart of darkness and the farmers as the savages against whom he has to defend himself.
The Beach, in comparison to Vertical Limit, takes a slightly more ambivalent stance towards tourism but inevitably plays the same hand. The Gen-Xers backpacking through the exotic wasteland of Thailand are escaping the Disneyfication of easily accessible resorts. They are in search of the ultimate solitary beach where they can establish their own brave new world. In the novel, the main character's enterprise of exploration and settling a new community ignores the land of the non-white Thai, and the main focus is his existential quest of self-actualization. In the film, Richard goes native as a reaction against the West. Inevitably, the island becomes a paradise lost for him. The film shows that white characters carry heaven and hell within them and impose it on their surroundings with no concern for the native inhabitants affected by the imposition. Their counter-cultures simply appropriate the older cultures and traditions they come into contact with. These local customs are unable to resist the onslaught of American cultural imperialism and thus are simply regurgitated into a new "hybrid" for consumption. The island becomes an outpost of civilization in the midst of a strange culture.
At least visually, the heart of darkness in Vertical Limit is sublimely white in its imagery of the snow-white expanses of the inhospitable mountain-peaks of K-2. Thin-skinned former mountaineer Peter Garrett (Chris O'Donnell) joins an expedition attempting to rescue a trio of stranded climbers, including his sister Annie (Robin Tunney). The moralistic fascination filmmakers have for financially successful villains intent on destroying Third World habitats is reflected in the American billionaire Elliott Vaughn, who is duly punished for his hubris at the end. In the film, the cultural distinctions of the local Pakistani characters are insignificant and the landscape itself is incoherent to the extent that the fragments never add up to a total picture of the local culture or geography.
The spare scenes in which the native Pakistani characters appear are intriguing for what they include and exclude. Natives are presented as unfamilar with their own environment. This is evident in the first scene in the Himalays where Peter, a National Geographic photographer, is working in a hidden observatory with an unnamed Pakistani assistant. The work is interrupted when the assistant drops the camera equipment, alerting the snow leopard cubs Peter is intent on photographing and thereby ruining the shot. Then the inept assistant injures himself and must be airlifted to a Pakistani army camp on the disputed Siachen Glacier. A ramshackle barrack with a small group of sick soldiers stands in for an ill-equipped hospital. Later, this same army is shown incapable of handling the technology of nitroglycerine in its equally ramshackle, though well-stocked, munitions store.
Unlike the creators of The Beach, the filmmakers of Vertical Limit make a half-hearted attempt to situate the politics of the India-Pakistan border. This is not altogether surprising since Pakistan, the country chosen by the filmmakers because K-2 is located there, shot into prominence two years ago when it tested a nuclear device in competition with its neighbor India and was subsequently thrown into political turmoil by a takeover of the elected government by the Pakistani army. The decades of economic reliance on American assistance is referred to in the encounter between the Pakastanis and the American at the army camp. Here Peter meets the "native informant" Major Rasul, whose English is impeccably British and whose Urdu is painfully jarring. A terse dialogue is exchanged between Major Rasul and Colonel Salim, the base commander, about a load of medicine, which apparently has not been delivered to the army because the billionaire American Elliott Vaughn needs his equipment and can afford to pay more. The Colonel sardonically retorts to Peter's professional ties with National Geographic: "they're the only Westerners who ever come to Pakistan without trying to conquer something."
This film skips The Beach's nominal concern with involving locals in the narrative. At the startlingly festive K-2 base camp of Vaughn, a haven of civilization after the eyesore of the Pakistani camp, only two native porters remain amid the camp's international community; this is the movie's attempt at syncretism and we-are-the-worldism. What is most interesting about this movie is the gradual disappearance of native inhabitants and even of the mountain as backdrop. The token Pakistani characters, not surprisingly, are killed off one by one so that only Peter, his love interest, and his sister are left standing. There is a very quixotic moment when climbing-guru Montgomery Wick finds his long-lost Pakastani wife, who was a guide to Vaughn on an earlier mission, as a frozen statue in a mountain crevice: natives can't even find their way home in their own land! Another native corpse, this of one of the Pakistani porters, lends life to the stranded Annie and Vaughn in the icy heart of the crevasse where they wage a battle of wits to stay alive. A perusal of the film-credits reveals nary a Pakistani actor on the film's payroll; in fact, the only person native to the sub-continental region is the Indian actor Roshan Seth, playing the bit role of the Colonel. The atypical portrayal of an earnest Muslim Karim, a Pakastani porter, is by Alexander Siddig, of Star Trek fame, and the ingratiating Major Rasul, played by Temeura Morrison, is a Maori New Zealander. As the movie progresses, the mountain becomes secondary to the emotional conflict between estranged Peter and Annie; the film could have just as easily and credibly been produced in any geographic setting without it in the background. The film itself was made in New Zealand, whose Mount Cook of the Southern Alps was a stand-in for the majestic, now virtual, K-2. Digital imagery of the mountain was substituted when the resort town of Queenstown did not suffice for the base camps or the action sequences. Apparently the only presence of K-2 in the movie is of the obligatory footage of the peak, ostensibly the first ever taken on 35 mm film.
The Beach and Vertical Limit are statements of American aspirations and it is telling that they were both released in 2000 at the culmination of the extended period of American century, which fueled the leisure culture of adventure and eco-tourism. As US nationhood was firmly established in the fin de siecle moment of the twentieth century, tourism became an equally aggressive but more disguised aspect of American military and economic expansionism in other countries. In a footnote to history, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, arguably the crest of fin de siecle European colonial ventures. Similar to the post-war traveling of the baby boomers, the Gen X characters of these two movies are typical of the nomads on American passports who lack the geographic, and now cultural, specificity that marked the nineteenth-century Victorian traveling to the Orient. Thus, the ties of the present tourist economy to race and culture in these agents of whiteness become more subtle and difficult to detect. A select few economically secure decide to travel to other lands in search not of wisdom, but of the ultimate high, preferably the more exclusive the better. In their arrogant knowledge of the world, they minimize whole nations and cultures to their Lonely Planet adaptations. Apparently, the native Thais or Pakistanis themselves are not accorded the privilege of escaping to private utopias of their own lands; for this, they will have to travel to the Disneyland translations of their own countries abroad.
That the movies were unable to draw box-office audiences is not the issue, rather it is what they reveal of the ideology of the Hollywood machinery. Perhaps tourism really is the twin of imperialism, the desire to travel outside one's community and play Robinson Crusoe in an "undiscovered" new environment with the natives reduced either to Man Fridays or cannibals. In spectacles such as these, at the heart of whiteness is a bloated self that negates all others.
Mahwash Shoaib is an English Ph.D student at the Graduate School and University Center of CUNY, New York. Her poetry and fiction has been published in small journals and anthologies. She is currently working on her dissertation on transnational poetics.