Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Air-Conditioned Eden

The Air-Conditioned Eden is a 1996 documentary produced by the BBC that touches on all the high points of Tiki culture up to, logically, the time it was made. Unfortunately it cuts off just before the resurgence in Tiki nostalgia in the late-Nineties and early 2000's, helped along by artists like SHAG and events like Disney's restorations and anniversaries of the Enchanted Tiki Room. The Tiki Room is covered in this documentary, as are the American experience in WWII, James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific based on it, Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki Expedition, Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber, the admission of Hawaii into the Union, and Martin Denny's exotic music.

It also attempts to get inside the Tiki mindset and understand what was so appealing about it. This is where I think the documentary is at its weakest. For one, it associates the appeal of Tiki with the repressed sexuality of the Fifties and early Sixties, and then builds an argument that Tiki fell out of favour in the late Sixties once people became less sexually oppressed. To me, this sounds like historical revisionism through the lens of the Sexual Revolution: every revolution attempts to legitimize itself by demonizing the previous generations as being repressed in some way (i.e.: the Enlightenment inventing the myth of the "Dark Ages"). I certainly think there was an aspect of sexuality implicit to hula dancers and anthropological nudity, but I also think the case is overblown if that's seen as the reason for an interest in the "exotic" and not a byproduct. But for all I know, maybe it was. I wasn't there in the Fifties after all, and I'm looking at it through my own lens where the world doesn't revolve around sex.

Another example of its weakness is the undercurrent of contempt that the documentary seems to express for its subject. Perhaps its just the British talking about a phenomenon that is primarily American, but often The Air-Conditioned Eden slips into an attitude of "let's look down our noses at what these silly, tacky, repressed people from a long time ago did." Just beware of that when you watch the documentary.

If we accept the documentary's thesis that Tiki fell out of favour because of sexual liberation in the late Sixties (which I don't, but for the sake of argument), then one might argue that the revival of Tiki culture - as niche as it may be - is a response to the fact that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Now everything is so "liberated" that bar culture (especially) has become too pedestrian: a dull sameness of boring bars full of kids getting drunk on domestic beer and looking for cheap, easily accessible sexual partners. Tiki nostalgia may articulate a desire to inject some fantasy back into the scene, for drinks that take skill to make and satisfy a connoisseur's palate, for something fun and artistic and exotic, as well as something steeped in an historic, mid-century, nostalgic milieu. When Disneyland was opened in 1955, Main Street USA was intended to invoke the nostalgia of grandma and grandpa's stories of childhood at the turn of the century. For a comparable effect, a Disneyland that opened today would want to set Main Street USA in the Fifties. I don't think it's an accident that the recent renovations to the Disneyland Hotel echoed that mid-century time period, and the construction of Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar was an essential part of creating that atmosphere.

Without further ado, I present The Air-Conditioned Eden...

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