I finished “Who Owns Native Culture?” by Michael Brown an investigation of the legal and political status of indigenous peoples, read a history of soccer, got through half of Bill Bryson’s History of Everything, and swallowed Yuhl’s cultural history of Charleston’s early 20th century image-making. I am topping off this literary feast with Levinas’ seminal 1948 essay on aesthetics, all within a six-day trip to Mexico so of course I am thinking about authenticity.
No sooner had we arrived in Mismaloya than we were confronted by large protest signs painted on sheets accusing the government of robbing the people of Mismaloya of their “unique patrimony,” a neat echo of the various case studies in Brown’s book, although in this case less the specialized sovereignty rights associated with specifically indigenous peoples but rather the rights of a localized people. The protest was authentic: grass roots, geographically localized – and it was claiming heritage, so in a broad sense it was indigenous. Indigenous tends to mean specifically the pre-settlement peoples of “settler” nations like the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia and Brazil, although in most of those places the majority of indigenous peoples live somewhat inauthentically in major cities.
From what I can gather the Mismaloya protest is occasioned by the overdevelopment typical of tourist areas, which always threatens to destroy their authenticity. But then we went to dinner on the beach and were confronted by the origin of Mismaloya tourism, beyond the natural beauty typical of the larger Bahia de Banderas region: a movie. Because of course the attraction to Mismaloya began in 1964 with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr and the Night of the Iguana.
A couple of days later we did a “canopy”tour in the jungle at El Eden, which we were constantly reminded was the set of a movie twenty years later – The Predator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Can the set of a movie be an authentic experience? It can certainly have a big impact on tourism, and on the preservation of historic sites. The Hearst Castle in California is a tourist site that gains much of its impetus from the film Citizen Kane, which was after all a fictionalized account of its builder. In Thailand, they had to rename a section of river Kwai to satisfy the demands of tourists flocking to see a surprisingly modest bridge made famous nearly fifty years ago by Sir Alec Guiness. Paris, with no shortage of authentic sites, experienced a recent boost at those sites associated with the novel and film Da Vinci Code. I remember visiting a bridge in Nassau at the age of 10 that I had seen in Thunderball, the most lasting (and thus most authentic?) memory of a certain family vacation.
It occurs to me that I am constantly peppering my tours with references to the use of various locales in famous or even less famous films. It also occurs to me that I have seen life size statues of Elwood and Jake Blues all over Ireland and lots of other places, too, and that moviemaking is simply mythmaking or storytelling or cultural production or whatever the theorie du jour wants to call it and it is an authentic expression of people and places and times and the stories it tells and the places it tells them add to history and add to architectural significance. And while this might seem too “meta” to be authentic, the case of Night of the Iguana – where the filming itself became a celebrity case long before the film’s release – isn’t this is fact part of the story of the place? I recall being in Monaco on the road where Princess Grace died and that was real and authentic and she had a real and authentic and even royal life that began in movies. A movie can be considered an artwork, so if we flock to see Michelangelo or Botticelli in Florence or Da Vinci in Paris can’t we flock to see Scorsese in New York? Is the Fontana de Trevi an 18th century treasure or a celebration of the 1960s sexual revolution by Fellini? I would hazard to say it is both. We like our authenticity to be pure, but that purity is itself a cultural construct. As the saying goes, the truth is never pure, and rarely simple.