“The past is a foreign country,” L.P.Hartley famously wrote, “they do things differently there.” Thanks to two Tiki DVDs, now we can see for ourselves.
A mostly silent, at times hypnotically Herzogian, compilation of amateur vacation footage from the 1950s through the 1970s, Hawaii Home Movies is an eerie experience — a video seance. Vanished tourist Edens flicker back to life in faded color and fuzzy focus, among them the Coco Palms Resort, the Willows restaurant, Ulu Mau Village, even a glimpse of Don The Beachcomber’s outdoor Dagger Bar on Waikiki.
More compelling than the long dead places are the long dead people, often caught unknowingly on camera. A group of fat Middle American ladies breaks into an impromptu hula in a shopping center parking lot; WWII vets in aloha shirts disembark from an endless line of buses at the Punchbowl cemetery; a bored tour guide takes a cigarette break. In one Super-8 sound-camera clip of surfers on the North Shore, the cameraman’s off-screen wife can be heard carping, “It’s better’n San Diego, but it’s still nothin’ spectacular, Bob.”
The footage all comes from the collection of Rohan Pugh, an Australian Tikiphile who culled an hour’s worth of the 8mm and 16mm reels he found at yard sales over the years. He added no contextualizing voice-over narration; as he freely admits in the liner notes, he also did “very little editing. Unless it was edited at the time, this is as it came out of the camera.” There are the inevitable longueurs: we could have done with fewer Kodak Hula Show moments, or shaky pans of empty beaches. But on the whole, the DVD benefits from Rohan’s decision to let the archivist in him win out over the entertainer. Giving the amateur footage a professional gloss would have stripped it of its ghostly affect.
Professional gloss is on abundant display in The DVD of Tiki, Volume 1: Paradise Lost (pictured at top of post), an artfully directed documentary about the rise and fall of “Backyard Polynesia,” the midcentury pop-culture lifestyle trend first documented by Sven Kirsten in his 2003 tome The Book Of Tiki. Sven is one of the film’s many on-camera interviews (full disclosure: your humble Bum is among them), and Sven’s sound bites, interwoven with rare vintage footage and new sequences shot in the South Pacific and at the surviving Tiki meccas of North America, help director Jochen Hirschfeld condense 40 years of Poly-Pop history into 95 sharp, satisfying minutes.
It took Jochen, who directs TV commercials in his native Germany, eight years to complete this first volume of his Tiki opus. Since he began in the nascent stage of the Tiki Revival, he was able to accrue a wealth of material — including a visit with Martin Denny and a session with one of postwar Tahiti’s legendary Bali Hai Boys — that a filmmaker setting out today couldn’t hope to capture, since more than a few of Jochen’s interview subjects are now dead. But more important than possessing exclusive footage, Jochen possesses the narrative gifts to put the ghosts of Tiki’s past into a crisp and cohesive story. Here’s hoping Volume Two doesn’t take another eight years.