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In Search of The End in On the Beach

by Ethan Tussey

by Michael Suen for IN MEDIA RES

The truest account of the end of the world would be, to quote Michael Chabon, "a book of blank pages." For now, it remains imagined and narrated. Derived from the Greek apokalupsis ("uncovering"), "apocalypse" is often deployed as the master telos which will justify and make sense of all that comes before it: Utopia, the Second Coming of Christ, the Atomic Bomb.

To some, the Atomic Bomb offered a symbolic bookend to World War II and a new period of economic and industrial expansion. Yet nuclear holocaust fiction released in subsequent years would upend the teleological myth of nuclear-powered security and prosperity. An idyllic bourgeois life is enjoyed by many characters in Stanley Kramer's 1959 film adaptation of On the Beach, but only at the cost of the end of the world. Whereas the Aristotelian "catastrophe" of a traditional drama might have triggered some clarifying revelation, here the catastrophe has already happened before the story even begins.

On the Beach is a speculative tale set in 1964, as Australia waits for the lethal fallout of a global nuclear war to reach its shores. In spite of their demise, most residents continue to live as though little has happened. There is no apparent pandemonium in Melbourne, only a haunting insistence on routine. In one of the film's first scenes, navy lieutenant Peter Holmes begins his day by cheerfully preparing warm milk for his baby and tea for his wife Mary. The scene's post-apocalyptic context is obfuscated, offering a misleadingly mundane depiction of domestic life. It is only when Peter notes the milk deliveries have stopped that the couple even acknowledges something has changed.

Whether taking leisurely strolls along the shore or fulfilling logistical duties on a submarine, it is through the liminal positioning of the island nation's surf that many of the characters — and, by extension, the narrative — seek purpose and delay the inevitable end. They find themselves "on the beach," textually marooned in a world of failed ideology. Their everyday practices, still tethered to their prelapsarian world, are at once absurd acts of denial and earnest attempts to reclaim meaning.

Fortunately, the film's narrative fatalism is tempered by its transmission from fiction to reality. That the film simultaneously premiered in Moscow and the United States amid Cold War tensions speaks to the triumph of the film's diagetic search for meaning — contingent on the merciless foreclosure of textual life. 

Anthony Perkins and Disaster

A scene from On the Beach

from On the Beach (1959)
Creator: Stanley Kramer
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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