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Facing the Pacific

Facing the Pacific: Polynesia and the U.S. Imperial Imagination

Jeffrey Geiger
Copyright Date: 2007
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    Facing the Pacific
    Book Description:

    The enduring popularity of Polynesia in western literature, art, and film attests to the pleasures that Pacific islands have, over the centuries, afforded the consuming gaze of the west—connoting solitude, release from cares, and, more recently, self-renewal away from urbanized modern life. Facing the Pacific is the first study to offer a detailed look at the United States’ intense engagement with the myth of the South Seas just after the First World War, when, at home, a popular vogue for all things Polynesian seemed to echo the expansion of U.S. imperialist activities abroad. Jeffrey Geiger looks at a variety of texts that helped to invent a vision of Polynesia for U.S. audiences, focusing on a group of writers and filmmakers whose mutual fascination with the South Pacific drew them together—and would eventually drive some of them apart. Key figures discussed in this volume are Frederick O’Brien, author of the bestseller White Shadows in the South Seas; filmmaker Robert Flaherty and his wife, Frances Hubbard Flaherty, who collaborated on Moana; director W. S. Van Dyke, who worked with Robert Flaherty on MGM’s adaptation of White Shadows; and Expressionist director F. W. Murnau, whose last film, Tabu, was co-directed with Flaherty.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6245-9
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-17)

    In the late 1990s, an advertisement for Fortunoff jewelers ran in upscale publications such as theNew Yorkerand theNew York Times Magazine:it depicted a windswept beach and the blue waters of the Pacific; a miniature rowboat and a string of black pearls rested on the sand. An eighteenth-century map of the Society Islands was featured in an upper corner of the page, where “Otaheite” could just be made out—a detail that immediately worked to blur one’s sense of present realities with past Pacific histories. At the bottom of the ad, two sentences similarly collapsed present and...

  5. 1 The Garden and the Wilderness: Tropes of Order and Disorder
    (pp. 18-73)

    It has often been observed that a key moment in history haunts almost all subsequent representations of Polynesia: the Enlightenment evocation of Polynesian islands—in particular Tahiti—as the embodiment of both Christian and neoclassical pastoral myths. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville named Tahiti “la Nouvelle Cythère,” comparing its lush interior to the Elysian fields and to being “transported into the garden of Eden.”¹ For Philibert Commerson, surgeon on Bougainville’s voyage, this was the island of More’sUtopia(1516) come to life: “This island made such an impression on me that I had already applied to it the name of Utopia, or...

  6. 2 Idylls and Ruins: Frederick O’Brien in the Marquesas
    (pp. 74-117)

    Shortly after the unexpected success ofNanook of the North,Robert and Frances Flaherty met with Frederick O’Brien at the Coffee House Club near Times Square with the painter George Biddle, who had lived in Tahiti, and the singer Grace Moore. According to Flaherty, as they were discussing ideas for his next film, O’Brien insisted he should go to the “exact opposite” ofNanook’s frozen climate—the South Pacific. O’Brien suggested Safune, on Savai‘i in Western Samoa, where Flaherty would ultimately end up living with his family for nearly two years, filmingMoana.Flaherty recalled some time later O’Brien’s saying,...

  7. 3 Searching for Moana: Frances Hubbard and Robert J. Flaherty in Samoa
    (pp. 118-159)

    The day afterNanook of the North’s premiere (11 June 1922), theNew York Timescould barely contain its excitement about the film’s previously unknown director. Through the dynamism and immediacy of his images, Flaherty had managed to bring “life itself” from far-off Hudson Bay in Canada directly into New York’s Capitol Theatre: “Beside this film the usual photoplay, the so-called ‘dramatic’ work of the screen, becomes as thin and blank as the celluloid on which it is printed.”¹Nanookwas more real, more vibrant than mere fictions. A month later, theTimessingled outNanookas “one of the...

  8. 4 The Front and Back of Paradise: W. S. Van Dyke and MGM in Tahiti
    (pp. 160-191)

    As suggested in chapter 2, Frederick O’Brien’sWhite Shadows in the South Seaspresented US audiences a largely critical account of imperialist hegemony in the South Pacific that consolidated and expanded on the skeptical perspectives of earlier works, notablyTypee.When it finally debuted nearly ten years later, MGM’s screen adaptation retained remnants of O’Brien’s anticolonial sentiments—even if, at the same time, it clearly had transformed a work of “factual” reminiscence into pure Hollywood fantasy. The film quickly earned critical accolades, the surrealist Ado Kyrou calling it “one of the most beautiful poems about love we have been given...

  9. 5 The Homoerotic Exotic: From C.W. Stoddard to Tabu
    (pp. 192-226)

    By the end of the 1920s, the revitalization that film had for some time injected into the well-worn themes of the Polynesian fantasy seemed to be on the wane. O’Brien’s popularity—and that of the group of writers that followed him such as Nordhoff and Hall and Robert Dean Frisbie—had dovetailed with an array of films such asA Virgin Paradise(1921), with Pearl White;The Fire Bride(1922), filmed on location in the Pacific;Neverthe Twain Shall Meet(1925), also partially filmed in Tahiti;Aloma of the South Seas(1926), with so-called “shimmy queen” Gilda Gray as...

  10. Afterword
    (pp. 227-232)

    For K. R. Howe, the renewed preoccupation in the early twentieth century with the Pacific island paradise can be attributed to increasing tourism, which helped to demystify and reshape some of the largely hostile images of Oceania produced throughout the nineteenth century.¹ As I’ve suggested, however, a duality and ambivalence persisted in this collective obsession: post–World War I Polynesiana arrived in the US when an increasingly urbanized population was still flush with the relative newness of fast travel, fast communication, and the cinema—all hallmarks of modernity—yet on many fronts weaving nostalgic fictions of the country’s own disappearing...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 233-272)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 273-296)
  13. Index
    (pp. 297-303)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 304-304)