Hollywood loves using Hawaii. Although producers, our government and most of public opinion welcome the brief economic surge accompanying the filming and production of major motion pictures, the movies themselves are pretty bad. "Battleship," for example, is a forgettable action flick based on a board game showcasing American naval prowess - and Rihanna.
It's safe to say that with little exception, most movies filmed in Hawaii - even the better ones - are seldom about Hawaii. Take "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." This very funny flick revolves around a heartbroken guy from Los Angeles. He ends up flying out to the Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu to forget about his ex-girlfriend only to find her in the room next door with her new British beau.
The only two "local" characters in the flick involved the gentle giant Kimo, the cook at the resort, and the aggressive and scrappy Keoki, who false cracks the main character when he sees him with his ex-girlfriend. These are the old, annoying stereotypes of local folks. In the end, the plot (and the characters) moves away from the islands and normal life resumes again in California. Hawaii becomes a distant, exotic memory.
But the locals in that movie were tame compared to Rob Schneider's pot-smoking Ula in "Fifty First Dates." He runs around with his five "keeds," speaking pidgin lamenting about his overweight and unlovable wife. It was hard to believe that character got the green light in 2004.
Hawaii and its inhabitants are usually nothing more than a backdrop for the main plot and characters (who are almost always Caucasian). It's nothing new. About a week after rewatching "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "From Here to Eternity" was on the classic movie channel.
Most of the action and drama took place on a military base, where just about everybody came from someplace else. Instead of stereotypes of local people, "From Here to Eternity" didn't feature any local people. They were practically nonexistent.
Donna Reed's character worked at the New Congress Club in Chinatown, where she made her money spending time with lonesome soldiers. And like the lead role in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," she came to the islands to get away from something on the Mainland. In the end - and after quite a dramatic ride - she packed up and boarded the liner back to the Mainland. She told Donna Kerr that she was never coming back to the islands. The final scene was a departure.
"From Here to Eternity" was released in 1953, when Hawaii was still a territory. Fifty-five years later in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," Hawaii is still just a backdrop for characters from the Mainland to indulge in escapism. While in this island paradise, the conflicts that they took with them are resolved, they grow, and head home happy.
Nobody around here seems to mind. The tax incentives are huge. When a Mainland production comes to the islands, our local media go wild. The television news features the latest big-budget production that comes to the islands. More earnest efforts to depict daily life in the islands are not met with the same enthusiasm. "The Descendants" didn't get a buzz until it was deemed Oscar worthy. And there was not nearly enough buzz when our home-grown production of "Get a Job" was being filmed, edited, produced and distributed from Maui.
The scary part is that some of us discourage anything other than the stereotypes. Remember that "Saturday Night Live" skit with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson?
The Rock worked at a hotel restaurant reminiscent of the one in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." But this time the main characters were the workers playing the ukulele and wearing grass skirts. There were no gentle giants, no hotheads and no happy-go-lucky locals. The Rock's character was articulate, sarcastic and witty.
When a guest commented that they must "love living here," the response was downright vicious.
"My brother and I here live 15 miles inland. There's a rusty pickup truck with weeds growing out of it. Yeah, that's our house." The Rock then chimed in. "Wanna come visit? It's real easy to get to. Just drive through the shantytown, make a right at the meth lab, and you'll see a 15-year-old girl who got pregnant by an out-of-town businessman. Then ask for her brother. That's me."
Then-Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona was not happy and described the skit as offensive. The Hawaii Tourism Authority - our government agency that promotes and encourages tourists to visit us here in the islands - announced that "anything that pokes fun, or puts us in a bad light, our culture, the Hawaiian culture, that affects all of us." I agree. So how come no one was offended by the characters from the scores of movies over the past 50 years?
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."