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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Beach movies
Why it’s daunting: Other cultures have their own versions of “the resort story,” in which tourists and locals interact and share romance and adventure against a backdrop so gorgeous that it almost seems like a dream. But “the beach movie” is a uniquely American phenomenon, in which multiple aspects of our way of life—car culture, class-climbing, and an obsession with youthfulness—coalesce in films about surfers, singers, lovers, predators, and slabs of tanned meat. For most folks, “beach movie” means one of those cheesy early-’60s American International Pictures productions, which use surf music and just a hint of sex to sell stories over-reliant on convenient plot twists and dopey slapstick. But while those films definitely have their place, the beach movie as a genre ranges a little wider, encompassing drama, documentary, horror… any story, really, that uses the oceanfront properties of California, Hawaii, Florida, or the Atlantic coast as a prime locale for escapism (or as an example of the limits of escapism).
Possible gateway: Gidget
Why: Austrian immigrant and Hollywood screenwriter Frederick Kohner was so fascinated by his teenage daughter Kathy’s surfing obsession that in 1957 he wrote the J.D. Salinger-esque novel Gidget: The Little Girl With Big Ideas in Kathy’s voice, dissecting Malibu Beach culture and the perils of being an adolescent girl in a world built for boys. The bestselling book became a hit 1959 movie, with Sandra Dee in the title role, followed by two other movies with a rotating cast of Gidgets (none as good as Dee), and then a 1965 TV series produced by Harry Ackerman and largely penned by Ruth Brooks Flippen, with a just-so Sally Field playing the brainy, popular surfer girl who wishes she were beautiful but has to settle for cute.
Kohner’s book is still in print after all these years, and still a slangy, salty look at growing up wet on the California coast. And the first Gidget movie remains a classic as well, following plucky, diminutive Frances “Gidget” Lawrence (the nickname being a portmanteau of “girl midget”) as she learns to surf and tries to push her way into the macho culture of the beach. Gidget is about how the heroine learns that the outsized personae of the surfer boys don’t always sync up with how they are off the sand. It’s a sunny coming-of-age story that tries to be as frank as the late ’50s would allow about teen sexuality and the seductive power of surfaces.
Next steps: As noted, the term “beach movie” for most people brings to mind Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, breaking up and getting back together in between surfing, singing songs, shaking their swimsuit-clad derrieres (in lascivious close-ups!), and foiling some crazy caper. The early Frankie and Annette movies—1963’s Beach Party and 1965’s Beach Blanket Bingo in particular—are silly, but not entirely witless. Between Harvey Lembeck’s toothy Marlon Brando parody “Eric Von Zipper” in both films to the spoof of pop stardom in Beach Blanket Bingo, these movies both pander to youth and mock their obsessions, in the grand tradition of middle-aged writers making a few bucks off the kiddos while biting the hands that fed. The shtick feels freshest in Beach Party, which has the added advantages of genuinely funny supporting performances by Morey Amsterdam (as a wiseacre beatnik poet) and Robert Cummings (as a groovy anthropology professor who strokes his long, bushy beard while he attempts to research the mating rituals of the American teenager), as well as swingin’ music written by sunshine-pop hero Gary Usher and performed by surf-rock legend Dick Dale. Twenty years later, Avalon and Funicello would revive their beach-party characters in Back To The Beach, a fun throwback that suffers only from trying to poke fun at a genre that was already fairly tongue-in-cheek.
Somewhere between the down-to-earth Gidget and the frivolous Beach Party lies Where The Boys Are, a 1960 seriocomedy in which four women from a snowy northern university go to Ft. Lauderdale for spring break and test their liberal ideas on “playing house before marriage.” The movie splits the difference between honestly depicting the youthful rituals of boozing and screwing and copping out with four love stories that take abruptly moralistic turns. But the vivid location footage and likable cast go a long way. Casually handsome George Hamilton plays a rich dreamboat, while Jim Hutton (TV’s Ellery Queen and father of Timothy Hutton) and Frank Gorshin take turns providing comic relief, the latter via his performances of “dialectic jazz.” It’s the women who make the movie, though: Dolores Hart (easily the most talented Hollywood ingénue ever to quit the business and become a nun) as a stressed-out would-be libertine, Yvette Mimieux as a tattered china doll, Connie Francis as a brassy chanteuse, and the delightful Paula Prentiss as a statuesque sweetheart. Unlike the boy-crazy ditzes who populate the AIP beach movies, this group is smart and pleasant. Watching them gab away in their cramped beachside motel room is as touching than watching them get their hearts broken.
In 1984, producer Allan Carr tried to revive Where The Boys Are for the post-Porky’s era with Where The Boys Are ’84, but the results were neither classy enough nor sexy enough, a common problem with ’80s beach movies. The decade would seem like a natural for a revival of the genre, given the proliferation of R-rated youth films. But though the teen sexploitation ranks were packed with oceanside romps—Spring Break, Fraternity Vacation, Private Resort, Revenge Of The Nerds II: Nerds In Paradise, etc.—none are exactly classics. For a representative example of the sex-crazed ’80s take on the beach movie, try Hardbodies, about three pudgy, middle-aged losers who hire a studly blonde bum to help them score with the hordes of willing babes populating the beach. Hardbodies’ dialogue is terrible and its sexual politics abhorrent, but the movie knows where its bread is buttered. Director Mark Griffiths makes good use of Hardbodies’ location to show lots of skin and create an atmosphere of idle leisure, exemplified by the heroes’ seduction method, which involves convincing the ladies that they can offer a life of luxury—for one night, at least.
The best beach movie of the ’80s is more family-friendly. In 1985’s Carl Reiner-directed Summer Rental, John Candy plays a stressed-out, salt-of-the-earth air traffic controller whose bosses order him to take a month off, which he chooses to spend in Florida among the moneyed. When one of those snoots buys Candy’s rental house and tries to kick him out, Candy competes in the annual regatta to regain a measure of self-respect. The slobs vs. snobs plot is predictable but effective, largely because Candy is so likable as a put-upon family man. The movie also offers a vivid look at the two sides of vacation culture: the secluded beachside estates and the noisy, rundown shacks stuck next to the public-access path.
One subset of the beach movie is the surf movie, as exemplified by Gidget and 1964’s Ride The Wild Surf, a Hawaii-set romantic comedy that replaces the unbridled goofiness of the Frankie and Annette movies with vivid, thrilling surfing footage. Fabian, Tab Hunter, and Peter Brown play three buds who chase girls and waves at Waimea Bay. The story’s stakes are low—unless the viewer believes that one of these dudes will actually be killed by high tide—but the surf-fantasy quotient is high. (Staying in Hawaii, the 1961 Elvis Presley vehicle Blue Hawaii is also a lot of fun, albeit light on surfing. And the 2002 sports drama Blue Crush is both exciting and involving, and makes a nice distaff response to Ride The Wild Surf.)
The single greatest surf movie of all time—and one of the best films of the ’60s—is Bruce Brown’s 1966 documentary The Endless Summer, which combines footage of some of the era’s greatest riders with instructional lessons, woven through the story of two surfers who circumnavigate the globe to avoid the winter. Prior to The Endless Summer, Brown had made a good living shooting short surf-focused travelogues that he’d schlep around and screen for small paying audiences, complete with his own wry narration. That quirky sensibility—combined with a stirring soundtrack by The Sandals and some stunning footage of crashing waves—made The Endless Summer into an international hit, and convinced countless kids from snowbound climates to head to the coast. (For an updated look at surf culture, Stacy Peralta’s 2004 documentary Riding Giants is also excellent, and spans from Brown’s ’50s/’60s era to the modern day.)
Writer-director John Milius’ 1978 drama Big Wednesday takes a darker approach to the surf movie, implying that the summer does in fact have an end, and that it’s not a pretty one. Based on Milius’ own experiences as a California beach bum in the ’60s, Big Wednesday stars Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey as three buddies who live to surf and don’t take anything too seriously—that is, until the draft and the Vietnam war looms. Milius makes the specter of adulthood and the end of innocence a bit too heavy, but his three stars look like golden gods, and the movie’s surfing footage is breathtaking. Milius is attuned enough to the details—like how to ride tandem and how to ride a board—that the broad strokes of his plot are excusable.
Using the beach as an intertwined metaphor for escape and finality is fairly common. It’s a major theme of Doug Pray’s 2008 documentary Surfwise, about a family of surfers who gradually discover that their obsessive father hasn’t prepared them for real life. And it’s a driving theme in Frank Perry’s pungent 1969 melodrama Last Summer, based on an Evan Hunter novel about two cocky, sexually inexperienced boys (played by Bruce Davison and Richard Thomas) who let their lust for sexy fellow teen Barbara Hershey drive them to torment gawky peer Catherine Burns (who was nominated for an Oscar for this role). Set amid the swaying reeds and shifting dunes of Fire Island, Last Summer captures how the exposed flesh and sense of adventure that accompanies a beach vacation can stoke youngsters’ hormones and provoke some bad decisions.
The same could be said of Jaws, easily the best of the many, many monster/horror movies set at the beach. Director Steven Spielberg’s first big blockbuster is every bit as invested in the mood and social dynamic of a resort community as any beach party movie—hence all the hand-wringing over whether the potential for a shark attack might scare away tourist dollars—but it’s also about how all the petty problems of the characters’ social, domestic and political lives give way to the giant beast lurking below the waves, ready to chomp. (Throw a killer shark into Big Wednesday or Last Summer and they’d be different tonally, but not so different thematically.)
Finally, writer and camp maestro Charles Busch put his own stamp on the genre with Psycho Beach Party, a send-up of ’60s teensploitation that makes overt the perversion that simmers under the surface of the old beach movies. As with Back To The Beach, Psycho Beach Party suffers some from satirizing films that never took themselves too seriously in the first place, but a cast that includes Lauren Ambrose (as the Gidget-like “Chicklet”), Thomas Gibson, Nicholas Brendon, and Amy Adams is attractive and funny enough to make the viewer pine for the genre’s legitimate return.
Where not to start: Beach Party was the first in a series of movies that featured Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello surrounded by a stock cast of romantic rivals, chummy goofballs, kooky bikers, and stick-in-the-mud grown-ups. These films get progressively sillier, and pretty unwatchable by the end of 1965, by which point AIP was adding in sci-fi and monster movie elements willy-nilly (along with the provocative word “bikini”), while straining to keep the attention of pre-teens whose older brothers and sisters had already discovered marijuana and The Byrds. For Kahuna’s sake, steer clear of How To Stuff A Wild Bikini, Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine, and The Ghost In The Invisible Bikini, which are too excruciating to live up to their bitchin’ titles.