Posted by Richard Harland Smith on May 29, 2007
There may be no natural vista more perfectly suited to the medium of motion pictures than the seashore. Always the same, ever changing, the water’s edge has been incorporated into every movie genre in the hundred-plus years since the medium’s inception, from shadowy silent films to sunny musicals, from blue steel westerns to syrupy melodramas, from Gothic horror films to Blaxploitation, from Beach Party to Bollywood. While the skylines of Hollywood, New York, London, Paris, Berlin and Rome have changed over the decades, the shorelines of the world have retained their beguiling timelessness.
In the movies, the beach is a great place to begin (the witch slicing runic symbols in the sand in Mario Bava’s I coltelli del vendicatore) and end (undercranked headcase Dom DeLuise trying to slice up Burt Reynolds in The End). The beach is where has-been actor Frederic March breast-stroked to his final fadeout in A Star is Born, where leatherneck Burt Lancaster and velvety Deborah Kerr consummated their hunka-hunka burning love and hardcase Montgomery Cliff fell under a rain of MP gunfire in From Here to Eternity, where wistful swabbie Dennis Hopper met his mermaid inamorata in Night Tide, where wayward astronaut Charlton Heston came home again in Planet of the Apes, where coffin-borne bloodsucker Robert Quarry bobbed ashore in The Deathmaster and Jean-Loup Philippe and his vampire squeeze Annie Belle floated away on the tide in their casket-built-for-two in Lèvres de sang, where Robert Duvall’s Air Cav swept in like Valkyries from the Sikorsky assembly line in Apocalypse Now, where The Warriors made their peace with the Grammercy Riffs, where John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John had summer lovin’ in Grease and where it all began and ended in Jaws.
The sea speaks to us of vast limitlessness and yet it was once considered the edge of the world, the end of everything. The allure of the sea echoes our love of the movies, with the roar of the breakers evoking the purr of the film projector, the hypnotic succession of crashing waves like mesmeric 24 frames-per-second required to animate the moving image.
Some years ago a friend who’d moved to Hollywood more than a decade ahead of me stood above the beach at Malibu with a foreign-born acquaintance. Among the surfers, hodads, beachcombers and sun worshippers were more than a few homeless people, these lost souls conspicuous in their head-to-toe coverings, their garbage-picked gym bags bursting, their shopping carts piled high and pushed with no small amount of difficulty across the sand to the water’s edge, where they stared out into the vast nothingness. My friend heard himself ask aloud: “Why are there so many homeless people on the beach?” His companion replied with clipped European efficiency:
“Because they can go no further.”
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