Grass skirts. Aloha shirts. Limbo dancing. Live music. Hula girls. Fire-breathing mermaids. Exotica. Kitsch. And lots and lots of delicious rum drinks.
Those are some of the building blocks of contemporary tiki culture, named after the giant wooden sculptures of the ancient half-god deity that was an integral part of Polynesian culture. The spirited, colorful documentary Plastic Paradise: A Swingin’ Trip Through America’s Polynesian Obsession, which premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WLRN, charts the rise, fall and resurrection of America’s love affair with tiki culture for nearly 100 years: in the Prohibition era, when a sudden surplus of rum led to the invention of creative cocktails; tiki’s snowballing popularity after World War II, when returning GIs sought Polynesian-themed restaurants to relive their pleasant memories of Hawaii; the cultural explosion in the 1950s, when South Pacific, jetline travel to Hawaii and Elvis Presley helped make tiki a household word; the beginning of the end in the late 1960s, when youth rebelled against the things their parents loved and Polynesian huts became reminders of Vietnam; and the gradual rebirth in the 1990s, when the Internet and eBay allowed tiki fanatics around the world to form a community built around their mutual love for the subculture.
“To us, this movie is a history of the 20th century told through this cultural phenomenon,” says Brett O’Bourke, 37, who directed Plastic Paradise. “Tiki was one of these subcultures that left a very strong imprint but became watered down in the ’70s and ’80s. It was resurrected by these aging punk rockers who were looking for something authentic to sink their teeth into. Ironically, they seized on tiki, which is not really authentic, since anything that is remotely exotic is folded into it. They’re looking for this authentic experience in this completely inauthentic subculture, which is fantastic. It’s a dissection of American pop culture and how it is created, both in the past and the present.”
Plastic Paradise is the second film (after 2011’s Emmy award-winning Hecho a mano, about Cuban artists living in exile) commissioned by PBS affiliate WLRN from Common Machine, a commercial and film production firm born out of old media that is in the process of reinventing new media.
The company was founded in 2007 by O’Bourke and Gaspar González, who met while working at the alternative weekly Street published by The Miami Herald from 1999 to 2005. O’Bourke had written gonzo first-person columns about his South Beach nightlife adventures for the paper until January 2001, when he grew tired of the Miami party scene. He landed a job with Jupiter Entertainment, a Knoxville-based television production company, where he learned his craft working on programs for A&E, Discovery and the History Channel.
Back on Street
In 2003, he rejoined Street, this time as executive editor. O’Bourke chose González, a former writer for the Miami New Times, to serve as managing editor.
“Hiring Gaspar was easy, because there were eight applicants for the job, but only one had a Ph.D. from Yale on American Studies,” O’Bourke says. The two men, both Cuban-Americans, quickly bonded over their love of 1960s-era Esquire (“the apex of American magazine publishing,” says González) and tried to replicate that feel for a contemporary Miami audience despite limited resources and a three-person writing staff.