Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Days and Images of Hawaii

The famous credit sequence for Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980) remains a thrilling piece of media. Although more well-known for its music (as with many such Hawaiian-themed artifacts in the American imagination), the visual sequence itself is a remarkable work of montage that even today can hold its own against the latest films and music videos. Yet, the aesthetics of those credits are only a small part of why I find it (and the show itself) absorbing—like the larger narrative canvas of Hawaii Five-O—it is also a remarkable historical snapshot of the mainland’s particular fascination with Hawaii in the middle of the 20th Century.

The credit sequence in Hawaii Five-O is a montage of the state’s appeal—spliced between introductions to the show’s stars are extended shots of Waikiki Beach, a weirdly excessive fetishization of a United Airlines 707 jet airliner (the popularity of Hawaii rose partly in tandem with the emergence of affordable airfare and a new US middle-class), hula dancing and Hawaiian girls, Honolulu’s nightlife and so forth.

But what I always find the most striking in this sequence every time are two separate shots of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu—one a bird’s eye view of the Honolulu Memorial and then a cut to a zoom-in on the Lady Columbia statue. Built just four years before the show began, it is a tribute to veterans of WWII and the Korean War (later, too, of Vietnam—a conflict which Hawaii Five-O negotiated in interesting ways during its run). The appeal of Hawaii in the mid-20th Century was always very much in dialogue with war.

My next major project, which will take many years to complete, will be a study of US images of Hawaii in film and television from roughly 1935 to 1970. The particular emphasis will probably be the 1950s and 1960s, when the territory/state was at the height of its popularity in the mainland, but the roots of that popularity stretched back to before WWII. The white sugar plantation owners in Hawaii by the 1930s realized that that commodity wasn’t going to last, and thus made the conscious decision to rebrand Hawaii as a tourist destination. As early as 1935, Hawaii became a fad in the mainland US, with the popularity of Harry Owens music and Bing Crosby musicals (in particular, 1938's Waikiki Wedding). By 1940, the interest had begun to wane, until the attack on Pearl Harbor, which added a whole other layer to the issue. While the US military had long built up a huge presence there, the attack focused mainstream America on the islands, much of which didn’t even know Hawaii was a US territory.

Before WWII, images of Hawaii largely depicted the islands as an ahistorical tropical utopia for the rich and famous (Hawaii was where Hollywood celebrities went to get away from Southern California, which is literally the subject of the 1939 Robert Young comedy, Honolulu). In a sense, that’s not unlike how Hawaii is represented today—think of a recent episode of ABC’s Modern Family or the Apatow comedy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008).

But, for a couple decades, images of the islands seemed very locked in to a particular moment in American history. In particular, I’m interested in examining the reception of these film and television images through the lens of US military involvement in the Pacific, whiteness’ negotiation with notions of racial utopia, and the emergence of a new leisure middle-class. It is similar in scope and methodology to the Song of the South project—focusing on the historical contexts, generational nostalgia and transmediated branding of populist American media within an overlapping time frame (40s-70s)—but with a very different series of central artifacts.

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So, then, the question becomes . . . why? There are two answers. The first is more scholarly (and perfectly valid): people just haven’t yet talked about it, and yet it demands attention. Consider this: in 1961, Elvis Presley’s soundtrack album to the film Blue Hawaii was released, and went on to be the highest-selling album of his career during his lifetime. Elvis went on to do two more popular films and soundtracks during this decade set in Hawaii (Girls, Girls, Girls and Paradise, Hawaiian Style). In 1966, meanwhile, the historical epic, Hawaii (based on the hugely popular James Michener novel of the same name), was the highest-grossing film of the year (and followed with a sequel four years later). In 1968, finally, Hawaii Five-O premiered, and went on to be the longest-running night-time drama in the history of American broadcast television, until it was finally passed by Law and Order in 2003. My initial research question is, then, why was the subject of Hawaii so popular by the 1960s?

But, as I mentioned above, the seeds for this were planted in the 1930s—like my project on Song of the South, I think of media history in terms of accumulation and dissipation, such that asking why something was popular in mainstream US media requires looking more so at the decades which proceeded the timeframe in question, those decades which established the conditions of possibility which the presence of current texts then activate. For example, the sudden, unexpected popularity of Song of the South in 1972 was less a reflection of that decade, and more the culmination of different factors set in motion in the 1950s and 1960s (even though those were the decades when the film was theatrically-unsuccessful and then pulled from circulation for 16 years). There, I suppose, the connection ends—I have a very different personal relationship to the kitschy, if condescending, Hawaii Five-O than to the far more disturbing Disney film (and, of course, the historical context of the Hawaiian islands is very different than the American South).

The other interest in the Hawaii is more personal—my grandfather and father both worked for United Airlines, which built its tourist empire, beginning in the 1950s, on being the “official” gateway to Hawaii for mainland tourists. Episodes of Hawaii Five-O (and the opening sequence of Blue Hawaii) are littered with gratuitous shots of United jets. My grandparents went there every summer. All of this is a part of my family’s history. What is also a part of my family’s history is war. My grandfather served in the Pacific during the Korean War. Meanwhile, two of my uncles, his sons, then served in Vietnam.

A few years ago (approx. `05-`06), at a family holiday gathering in Oregon, several of us were talking about experiences visiting Hawaii (I had only been there a couple of times as a kid, though I have since visited there once more in 2007). While my grandfather and father talked excessively, nostalgically even, about their many memories of the islands, my uncle (who never had the luxuries of air travel that others in his family had) at one point simply remarked, “the only time I was in Hawaii was on my way to Vietnam.”

This was always very powerful to me. In many ways, that simple statement completely changed my understanding of that generation of post-(pre-?)war, middle-class, white America’s relationship to Hawaii, and I think in retrospect planted the seeds for this project. I understood what my uncle was literally saying—dating to the late 19th century, Hawaii was always the hub for the US military presence in the Pacific (even before the US military overthrew the sovereign Hawaiian government in 1983). In the 20th Century, all military activities and personnel involving conflicts with the Japanese, the North Koreans and the Vietnamese went through Oahu. But I also understood what he was saying symbolically—his memories of Hawaii directly co-existed with memories of combat. I also then thought about my other uncle, the one who didn’t come back from Vietnam, and realized that the last vision he had of the US, and maybe of “paradise,” was Honolulu.

Whether one agrees or not with the righteousness of 20th Century US military intervention in the Pacific (and I adamantly do not), there is nonetheless a profound, genuine, sense of “utopia” at work there for a whole generation of middle-class Americans—including those, remember, who didn’t have a choice about serving—when they saw images and sounds of Hawaii in populist media of the time. Hawaii was the last, and first, thing they saw of paradise (and of the U.S.) on their way to, and from, war. That brief shot of the Honolulu Memorial evoked that memory for audiences, every week on CBS, for 13 seasons.