Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Here's a copy of my SCMS talk today, in case anyone is interested. A big thanks to Benedictine for supporting me, my teaching, and my work.

(please forgive the typos and what-not--this was meant to be performed and not published)

"Save that Gag For The Tourists:
Industrial Reflexivity and Post-Tourism Narratives
in Hollywood's Hawa'i'i Cycle of the 1930s"

In The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii, Beth Bailey and David Farber recount the anecdote of a US soldier on the island of Majuro in the Pacific during a lull in combat during WWII. With beer in hand, Samuel Hynes wandered out to a moonlit beach and found himself immediately overwhelmed: “it was a scene that demanded sentiment,” he wrote, “and I knew I should have feelings about it, sad romantic yearnings for the far off beloved, something like that. But how could I have any real response to a tropical island in the moonlight? It was too damn much, too like a movie with Dorothy Lamour; and I could only feel the way I did in movies like that—charmed but disbelieving.” This anecdote highlights what was self-evident by the 1940s—many Mainland assumptions about islands in the Pacific had been shaped by decades of advertising, radio shows, and Hollywood movies which promoted the South Seas in general, and Hawai’i in particular, as a calm, tropical paradise for romance, filled with hula girls, moonlight, palm trees, and pineapples. A couple decades later, Daniel Boorstin wrote about how “much of our curiosity” as tourists, “comes from our curiosity about whether our impression resembles the images found in the newspapers, in the movies, and on television [. . .] We go not to test the image by the reality, but to test reality by the image.” Hynes’ experience reflected how Mainland audiences might have had a more complicated, conflicted, or even resistant, relationship to these mediated visions of utopia than has previously been assumed by scholars such as Robert Schmitt and Jane Desmond about the cycle of Hawaiian-themed films that dominated the pre-war period, and which today are retrospectively situated as a nostalgic period of innocence disrupted by the 1941 Japanese attack on US military forces in Pearl Harbor.

Not coincidentally, Boorstin also wrote about the foundational Hawaiian “pseudo-event”—the Kodak Hula Show. The modern “Hula Girl” as commodified spectacle grew less out of local music traditions than agricultural economy—not the creation of Hollywood or the Hawaii Tourist Bureau, but of the pineapple industry. The evolution of Hula Girl from fruit sales pitch to primary symbol of Hawaiian tourism is an appropriate historical metaphor for Hawai’i’s economic and cultural transition in the first decades of the 20th Century, evoking the transition from material commodity (fruit) to abstract experience (romance) as the Islands’ biggest selling point.

Early on in Waikiki Wedding (1937), there is a remarkable graphic match between a line of native Hawaiian men banging the drums during the film’s opening wedding sequence to a line of local workers on a pineapple cannery assembly line. The reflexive desire to see the work display here gives the knowledge of production an ironic element of authenticity—as though seeing how commodities are produced (real or imagined) gives them added value.

A foreshadowing of the eventual plot twist, this sequence is intended to convey Hawai’i’s modernity in the 1930s—having moved on from its “primitive” beginnings amidst the music of the jungle to a fully modernized economy immersed in a Fordist model of production. While meant as a corrective to condescending assumptions about the Islands as a retrogressive, pre-modern wilderness, the sequence also retrospectively conveys the depressing vision of a local population reduced to its value as cheap compartmentalized labor to be maximized in a factory (while also eliding the ethnic and racial diversity of the actual Hawaiian population). And, as the film’s later plot twists would imply, the next step in its economic evolution would be the performative role of Hawaiians within the emergent tourism market. The transition encapsulated the co-existence of Hawaii’s pre- and post-industrial economies—the spectacle of Hawaiian performance (for the camera) being as important to the local economy as actual productivity in the fields and factories.

In collaboration with Matson Cruise Lines, a Kodak executive came up with the idea in 1937 for an event that would encourage mutually beneficial consumption. A simple performance of what Rob Wilson has called “commercially transformed hula," the show was quite literally defined by its mediation, since the entire point of the performance was to encourage tourists to take pictures and the occasional home movie that would then circulate back on the Mainland. The show, writes Desmond, “gave tourists a chance to photograph the hula dancers, a possibility unavailable during the dimly-lit night-time shows. [. . . Kodak Vice-President Fritz Herman wanted] a natural background of palms, sun, and sand, a more iconic representation of the hula girl, a suitable souvenir.” The hula shows denied the value of a performer’s labor by reframing it in the show context as nothing more than a continuation of ancient leisure activities. The show was where several noted hula girls got their start performing for the camera before moving on to roles in Hollywood films and later television.

Many were also part of the hula circuits which toured the Mainland to perform live hula shows and first helped create what Adria Imada has called “the imagined intimacy between the US and Hawaii, a potent fantasy that enabled Americans to possess their island colony physically and figuratively.” Wilson argues that the show “functions nicely as a postmodern art form, phasing out so-called real hula, or at least desacralizing it in the context of mass images, a trillion copies, flashbulbs popping.” Discussing the notion of “legendary Hawai’i” (how ancient local legends are adapted for a presumed touristic audience), Cristina Bacchilega has noted the emergent technology of photography in the late 19th/early 20th century was key to solidifying Hawai’i’s appeal to outsiders. The wide circulation of these colonial images, she writes, “and the excitement with which they were met in the West depended not only on their novelty, but on their truth value . . . photographs of faraway places and people were thus seen to provide more powerful ‘evidence’ than words.” Certainly, the Kodak Hula Show was a microcosm of the entire Hawaiian tourism industry—a commodified performance of contested Hawaiian culture whose immediate exhibition for island visitors masked how they were really intended for the rapidly proliferating culture of mass media.

For decades, organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce of Honolulu—and particularly their own Hawaii Tourist Bureau—and the Pan-Pacific Press Bureau—aggressively pushed for favorable press coverage. Everything from magazine advertisements to radio broadcasts constructed the same ideal vacation in tourists’ imagination, experiences which companies such as Matson—with a monopoly on shipping lanes and majestic hotels—were quick to provide. However, as a 1939 economic report by the Chamber of Commerce made clear, tourism itself was an important but minor industry in a territory still dominated by that “mainstay of Hawaii’s business”: agriculture. The origins of this publicity campaign had more to do with winning a PR war locally for the so-called “Big Five”—the de facto oligopoly of businesses and banking interests that dominated local industry and stifled worker rights—and with winning support for statehood back on the Mainland. Actual tourists in Hawai’i were secondary—especially given that travel to and from the Islands was still limited to the wealthy few (such as Hollywood elites)—who could afford the time and money to voyage to Honolulu. But that vision of the dream Hawaiian vacation in the American imagination was a powerful one which would prove to be every bit as consequential for the Islands and for Hollywood.

Hawai’i is a prominent example of what John Urry called a sign of the “touristic gaze”—the gaze implies both distance and difference, tourists are both engaged and removed from the places and people they visit. Vernadette Gonzalez has noted how US soldiers in the Pacific were situated as both tourist and solider, and thus his status as consumer masked his dual role as conqueror in a form of what she called “soft colonialism” that proved more resilient than older forms of conquest. Touristic images of hula girls, of Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head, represent more than just an attractive destination—Hawai’i’s distinctive sign is not just one of distant (frontier), mythical tropics but also uniquely American—a loyalty that attempts to mask the militaristic presence and colonial history, and distinctly multicultural in ways that affirm the US’s desire to see itself as a colorblind utopia, even as the racial difference, or what Desmond has called the liminal racial identity of the Hula girl, is what gives the Islands’ their exotic appeal in the first place.

The idea of Hawai’i as an actual tourist destination is less interesting than its construction in mainland media who did far more than just “sell” the ideal—they reflected the broader shift to experience as a highly desired commodity in the postindustrial age—something which serves as a source of near limitless consumption, loaded with layers of affective investment, and yet requires minimal use of material goods in its actual production (appropriately, the very real issue of Hawai’i’s limited land supply as a plantation-based economy is what forced such an economic shift to begin with). Part of media’s power here was with the millions of working class and middle-class citizens who could not afford to experience Hawai’i as another other than as fantasy. They serve either as rich substitutes for a physical touristic experience, where the deferral can be as powerful as the actual journey, or as nostalgic mementoes of past travels—a medium’s visual and aural “truth value” can evoke warm memories as strongly as a souvenir from the local gift shop.

The postindustrial transition to an information-based economy meant physical goods begins to have less of a priority than the interrelated immaterial commodities of knowledge and experience. We become increasingly disconnected from the actual mode (and history) of production—and the value of actual labor—in favor of a simulated (but powerful) spectacle of production. The respective entertainment industries of Hollywood and tourism operate within the post-industrial triangle of production, knowledge, and experience. The production of knowledge and of experience—consumers want to see (others’) work as spectacle (MacCannell’s “work display”), to go “behind the scenes” in order to appreciate the labor that goes into the construction of their leisure. But they also want the knowledge of production and of experience—consumers want to feel informed, to not feel duped, in an era where education (and the performance of education) is an important commodity onto itself. Not the generation of actual “new” knowledge, but the reflexive recognition and appropriation of others’ existing knowledge (such as the opening anecdote about the skeptical WWII soldier). Finally, consumers want the experience of knowledge and production—they don’t want tangible goods so much as feelings, visions, sounds, and other physical sensations, which provide its own sense of authenticity—as in, real experiences—in spite of a certain distance or irony (such as Urry’s notion of post-tourism) which these artifices might invite. All three work together to provide a powerfully reflexive relationship that constructs, sustains, and modifies the various pleasures underlining what Louis Turner and John Ash have called “the great paradox of the 20th Century: the leisure industries.”

Hawai’i is most often situated through touristic discourse as being more real or authentic by virtue of its premodern opposition to modernity, to the grinding day-to-day hassles of the US mainland. Native Hawaiian historian Haunani-Kay Trask has written that this version of Hawai’i is mostly “a state of mind, Hawaii is the image of escape from the rawness and violence of daily American life.” The idea of the “tourist” is a metaphor for a postindustrial lifestyle as much as it refers to actual tourists—modeling for consumers the ideal experience of the leisure-based life. The tourist pushes history and their labor to the margins in pursuit of a leisure-based life which still feels grounded in the value of labor, with as few of the actual physical and mental obligations of work as possible. In this regard, the Hula Girl is the perfect ideal—one whose very performance collapses the distinction between leisure and labor. Wilson has argued that the Islands’ reimagining as “some timeless primordial paradise” allowed “Hawai’i to be released from [the older] system of capitalist exploitation and teleology of modernity [. . . ] and became a site of leisure and letting go.” Relatedly, this fantasy often involves the leisurely pursuit of historical and cultural experiences without the actual weight of history—hence, the experience of pastiche nowhere more self-evident than with an indigenous culture so thoroughly commodified, distorted, and even at times erased through a series of overdetermined stylistic clichés. This was what Grant Wood noted as “echo tourism,” a “nostalgia for bygone days [. . . a] visitor’s sense of experiencing an exotic past where being Hawaiian was once but is no longer important.”

At the same time, Hollywood’s post-touristic relationship to the manufactured “Hawaiian vogue” was more complicated during the 1930s. The studios reinforced, but also quickly moved beyond, the simplistic clichés of the South Seas romance—of sailors stumbling upon an ancient tribe worshiping shark gods and volcanoes on a mythical island—in favor of much more self-aware and playful takes. Just as Hawaiian advertising and PR interests were always highly savvy about how media messages were constructed, an information-based economy must by necessity theorize itself in order to maintain credibility with a consumer who is always presented with more avenues for experience and more possibilities for knowledge. MacCannell has noted that media such as Hollywood films (or what he calls the “modeling” of touristic experience) “must appear to be disinterested if it is to be influential.” The 1930s saw the emergence of sound film technology and the popularity of the reflexive “backstage” musical genre, which were, according to Rick Altman, essentially “behind the scenes” stories that focused reflexively on the construction of illusion and artifice between performer and audience. Unsurprisingly, many of the most prominent Hawaiian-themed films during this time were not only highly reflexive genre exercises but were also explicitly about tourists’ experiences in Hawai’i, about glamorous celebrity excursions to the Islands, and/or about the challenges of running a pineapple business.

In many of these films, the backstage musical shares a close affinity with what MacCannell (drawing on Erving Goffman) has described as the “back region” of tourist sites—spaces constructed for outside consumption, but made to appear as though outside the usual tourist “traps” and thus more “authentic.” Luau shows, the Polynesian Cultural Center, Waikiki Beach—these are all examples of “the kind of social space tourists attempt to overcome or to get behind.” Touristic rhetoric about seeing the “real” Hawai’i, or to “get off the beaten path,” and so on, appeals to the tourist’s desire to find parts of the Islands that haven’t yet been coopted.

Reflexive narratives provide this kind of back region experience—by not only fetishizing secluded beaches or local hula performances in their native context and not in the resort ballroom, but also by deconstructing the front region in the first place—while also turning history—the materialist histories of colonialist exploitation, labor struggles, and capitalist production—into entertainment.

As early as 1931’s The Black Camel, local haole businessman Jimmy Bradshaw (Robert Young) calls himself the “publicity director of the whole island and the rotary club and the chamber of commerce and everything.” He attempts to woo his would-be love interest: “Take a moment to enjoy the palms of paradise!” To which she cynically replies, “save that gag for the tourists!” He insists, however, that “I’m sick of the tourists. I want to sell Honolulu to you!” Such a deconstruction of Hawai’i’s status incorporated a post-touristic irony, even while the generic classic Hollywood goal was still to reaffirm for commercial interests the deeper “truth” of finding love in Hawai’i. Here, not only the experience of love—but also the knowledge of its artifice—becomes central to its resilience as commodity in the studio system.

Meanwhile, Waikiki Wedding is the story of a pineapple company employee, Tony Marvin (Bing Crosby), who specializes in genius PR campaigns, only to find his last idea backfire. After a Midwestern woman, Georgia Smith, wins his “Pineapple Girl” contest, she’s flown out to Hawai’i, where she’s promised “three romantic weeks in Hawai’i.” But, as she points out to the executives, “I’m here and I’m not getting them.” The problem for business interests is twofold—her experiences directly challenge the romantic myth the Islands’ had been selling, but it also means her syndicated letters describing the disillusionment back home will be a major black eye for them. In order to please Georgia, Tony concocts an elaborate scheme involving his local Hawaiian buddies to stage a completely sham performance of the exotic, primitive adventure not too far removed from the typical clichés of South Seas Romance.

As a final example, Honolulu also starts out as a movie-within-a-movie (although that particular sequence is not set in Hawai’i, it does reinforce the movie’s larger commentary on the artifice of mediated romance). In the latter film, Hollywood star Brooks Mason (Young) attempts to flee his obsessive fan base by switching places with a pineapple plantation owner who just happens to look exactly like him (played of course by Young as well). When he first meets his would-be love interest (Powell) on a Matson cruise ship to the Islands, Mason is forced to fake his firsthand knowledge of Hawai’i in an attempt to use its romantic reputation to seduce her.

(there was originally a clip planned here--a very amusing one, if you can find it).

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