On the Video Beach
Mainline and borderline shoreline films
AUGUST 2, 1999: Come summer, just about everyone wants to be at the beach, relaxing in the sun, taking a refreshing dip in the ocean, sucking in that invigorating salt sea air. Of course, the beach also means crowds, sand in your clothes, ear-splitting boomboxes, sunburn, and the occasional shark looking for an extra-value meal. And getting there is definitely not half the fun. Our solution: beach movies. A quick trip to the video store and you can settle back with everything from Saving Private Ryan to Blue Hawaii to Blue Lagoon. Here's how some of our Arts writers might be spending a weekend on the video beach.
Saving Private BernieFor me, as perhaps for most people prone to sunburn and lax muscle-toning, the beach has always called to mind not so much thoughts of fun, freedom, and frivolity as reflections on the weakness of the flesh and the shadow of mortality. Naturally, one of my favorite beach movies is Steven Spielberg's (1998). What better way to spend a late spring day on the chic Normandy seashore than being cut to pieces by the mines, mortars, and machine-gun emplacements of the 262nd Wehrmacht division? That guy strolling along the sand carrying his arm like a rolled-up towel summed it up for me. And if Spielberg made coming out of the water look unappealing in Ryan, he didn't make going back in seem like such a good idea either in Jaws (1975) -- which makes these two films the perfect beachside twin bill.
As demonstrated by the late-night-tryst-turned-midnight-snack that opens the latter classic, the passing pleasures of the surf often end in hideous punishment. Maybe that's why I find the legendary Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr clinch in From Here to Eternity (1953) so satisfying, knowing it's going to usher in the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Or the monstrous dead fish that washes ashore at the end of Fellini's La dolce vita (1960), as it poses an ominous, enigmatic memento mori for Marcello and his fellow dissipated revelers. So I guess my perfect beach movie would be that underrated masterpiece Weekend at Bernie's (1989), in which Andrew McCarthy entertains his dead boss at the sea shore, proving that life might not be a beach, but death is.
-- Peter Keough
Vive la topless!The tradition of the French topless beach forces every heterosexual male to confront the 14-year-old boy within. Personally, I've never understood how the French can be so blasé about the custom. I find it much more difficult to deal with than total nudity, which makes neuters of us all. I know some men who swear by L'année des Méduses (1987) as a guilty pleasure. "Sizzlingly sensual drama that stars Valerie Kaprisky (Breathless) as a nubile French Riviera Lolita whose boundless passions spell deadly trouble for all men who will not, or cannot, satiate them," says Movies Unlimited. For myself, I never imagined toplessness could be so boring. Maybe L'année is simply an elaborate joke on American audiences. On the other hand, I always had trouble convincing anyone that Eric Rohmer's Pauline at the Beach (1984) was a "serious" comedy despite the topless scenes. Last Summer (1969) was typically American in the way it made me and my horny male teenage friends wait the entire movie for Barbara Hershey (in her screen debut) to take her top off, then punished us for it by making us feel complicit in another character's rape. To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (1994) is really American -- it's set at the beach, but everyone seems to be wearing sweaters all the time in this Ralph Lauren New York Times Magazine spread set to film, where Peter Gallagher has some kind of necrophilic relationship with Michelle Pfeiffer as his dead wife and Claire Danes cries a lot.
-- Jon Garelick
From Vietnam to the ValleyNobody looks less comfortable on the beach than Jack Nicholson in the role of rumpled radio storyteller David Staebler in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). And who could really blame him -- he's got a delusional Bruce Dern hitting him up for money, a miserable Ellen Burstyn burying her toiletries in the sand, and Scatman Crothers just hanging around waiting for The Shining, or at the very least for Nicholson to snap and start hacking people to death.
Actually, Martin Sheen doesn't seem all that happy to be frolicking in the sand in Apocalypse Now (1979). But he just looks as if he knew something terrible that Robert Duvall doesn't, like maybe that all that napalm's messing with the ozone layer. And maybe he left his sunblock back on the boat or something.
Nicolas Cage could have used a good coating of 60 SPF back when he was just breaking into the business as the punk from the wrong side of the track in Valley Girl (1983). God knows whatever happened to Deborah Foreman, but 16 years ago she was every suburban punk teenager's fantasy girl for about 15 or 20 minutes. And as her unlikely new-wave suitor, Cage became a role model of sorts, not just because he sorta listened to the right music but because he endured the indignity of being a scrawny, pale-as-a-Brit boy on the beach and still managed to get the girl in the end. Let's just say he gave us all a little ray of hope.
Chevy Chase is smart enough not to strip down to a bathing suit as the title character in his most brilliant and oft overlooked film, Fletch (1985). But he does manage to spend a good deal of time hanging out at Venice Beach, perhaps the only beach in the world that doubles as a shopping mall. And it gave me hope that someday Chevy might actually make another decent movie.
None of which has anything to do with Ishtar (1987), that brilliant Warren Beatty travesty that even managed to drag Dustin Hoffman through the mud, or at least a whole lot of sand. Not sure whether there's really a beach in Ishtar, but it's hot and there is a whole lot of sand, which is close enough for the movies.
-- Matt Ashare
Gidget and the surf Nazis?It's still hard to tell whether the Troma team were playing it straight when they made Surf Nazis Must Die (1987), which -- intentionally or not -- spoofed The Warriors, Charles Bronson, blaxploitation, Peter Pan, Roger Corman biker flicks, Julius Caesar, Freud, A Clockwork Orange, martial-arts flicks, managed health care, and the Third Reich. With ingredients like those, it's no surprise the thing didn't make a bit of sense, though every once in a while somebody says something educational and wondrously understated like "Mengele's an asshole -- remember that." Its tale of the rise and fall of a white supremacist surfer gang in post-earthquake Los Angeles was too dumb to bear repeating, though The Lost Boys (released the same year) reprised its Geraldo-ish premise -- Nazi punks rule the beach! -- for a scene where a bunch of skinheads hanging around a campfire just off the boardwalk get eaten by teenage vampires. And though the fractious youth subcultures in Surf Nazis and The Lost Boys looked a bit scarier than their '60s counterparts -- vampires, beatniks, skaters, skinheads, punks, surfers: who can tell 'em apart? -- the appeal of beach movies, or summer vacation, was pretty much what it always had been. As one of the Surf Nazis phrased it, looking out on the dunes in the post-Sex Pistols/Dead Kennedys era, "There's anarchy out there."
That was no less true in Gidget (1960), with cleavage-challenged Sandra Dee coaxed out of her parent trap by sex-crazed gal pals for what they giddily describe as a "manhunt." And though it might have been less sanguinary, Gidget's jailbait buddies were on a mission no less savage than that of, say, Eric Von Zipper's gang in the AIP beachcomber flicks, the best of which remains Beach Party (1963). Another pedophile sea romp with a bespectacled geek "anthropologist" playing peeping tom with Annette and Frankie, it's still most famous for introducing the world to a regional guitar phenom by name of Dick Dale.
-- Carly Carioli
Seals, clams, Venice, and Venice BeachFor beach romance, two very different films: Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice (1971), where Dirk Bogarde falls for a young Polish boy on the Lido, with the beach mediating between life and death, and John Ford's Donovan's Reef (1963), where rough-and-ready WW2 vet John Wayne and prim-and-proper Bostonian Elizabeth Allen (she was, after all, the girlfriend of Reginald Van Gleason III) bridge their differences on the Pacific beaches of Haleakaloha, which here mediate between Christian and pagan, white and Polynesian, order and disorder. For cute sea creatures, you can't beat the seals of John Sayles's The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), who almost make up for the lack of sun on Ireland's misty west coast. For Elvis on the beach, there's Clambake (1967), a piece of Prince and the Pauper-inspired fluff with the King as a rich oil heir, Shelley Fabares as a golddigger, Bill Bixby as a wealthy playboy, Will Hutchins as a water-ski instructor, and everyone on acting vacation. Finally, in lieu of an AIP "Beach Blanket Bingo" flick (I just can't make it through those Frankie & Annette features), I'm tossing in the sextet of episodes from the Saved by the Bell TV series (circa summer of 1991) where Zack, Kelly, and the gang get jobs at a beach club and in three short hours reprise in affectionate detail every beach cliché known to man, woman, or beast.
-- Jeffrey Gantz
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