Wildness and primitivism!
It has long been held by important scholars that those surf movies of the 1960s, the ones with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon like Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Beach Blanket Bingo, Beach Party etc. are silly worthless pulp.
“Macadamia” Matt Warshaw, surfing’s only important scholar, describes them thusly in his award-winning Encyclopedia of Surfing (subscribe here and never be hungry again!):
“Silly-but-fun beach films were a hit with young audiences but uniformly dismissed by the critics.”
Well, an important new academic study suggests that maybe they weren’t so silly and worthless. Maybe they even lead directly to the counter-culture that tilted the entire west off its axis and let’s adjust our bifocals and read together:
The surf movies and television shows of the late 1950s and early 1960s were filled with innocent, sun-soaked fun. But were their safe storylines and conventional morals the key to their appeal? Film and media scholar R.L. Rutsky thinks not. He finds undercurrents of nonconformity in seemingly squeaky-clean films like Gidget and Beach Blanket Bingo.
Rutsky sees the movies as a bridge to the countercultural explosion embodied in later films like Cool Hand Luke and The Graduate. Though their exteriors are laden with mainstream sexuality (Will Gidget and Moondoggie kiss? Can Frankie win back Dee Dee’s affection by winning a drag race?), the movies tempt audiences with the undercurrents of nonconformity embodied by surf culture.
The films embraced a sense of wildness and freedom. Rutsky documents the films’ obsession with cultural “others,” from the scandalous bikini to the appropriation of a vaguely “Polynesian” aesthetic. He writes:
However much these films appropriate and exoticize the pleasures of the “other,” however much they play on the stereotypes of wildness and primitivism, they still present us with the desire of white, middle-class American youth for something different from the status quo.
Those beach blankets hid a titillatingly transgressive sense of possibility for teens who were soon to burst into open rebellion as the counterculture subsumed the 1960s.
Want some more titillatingly transgressive possibility, exotic pleasures of the “other,” and stereotypes of wildness and primitivism just about ready to burst into open rebellion?
I’ve got you right here!