Salt and Seed
Duck Beach to Absurdity: A Review of "Duck Beach to Eternity"
One of the smartest and most interesting sub-themes of the film is the relationship between sexual and spiritual maturity. The filmmakers often turn for incisive critical commentary to a secondary subject, a NYC-based social worker named Steven with many interesting things to say about the prolonged psychological adolescence that accompanies deferred sexual initiation for singles. Lacking the personal experience of sex with a real body, Steven argues, chaste Mormon singles turn to cartoonish, PG-13-style sexualized media to shape their expectations of sex and intimacy. As a result, these adults find their emotions, their desires, their self-concepts—the entire suite of traits bound up with sexuality in adults—developmentally delayed in a prolonged immaturity. Duck Beach turns out to be nothing more than the chance to "pay $700 to go touch a boob," Steven says.
He makes a persuasive case. Moreover, this state of psychological adolescence is compounded by a prolonged social immaturity: unmarried adult men and women are sometimes seen as less capable and less mature than their married peers, because marriage is the final rite of passage into full Mormon adulthood.
On the other hand, the film illustrates the ways in which the alienation imposed by singleness in a marriage-centric church bestows a mature critical sensibility on some singles. Bryan explains this well: "When you find yourself visibly excluded and on the fringe, you think. You step back and think, 'Why is this?' You question why." The thoughtful self-examination and cultural criticism that Bryan himself offers throughout the film are evidence for his claim here. Finding himself outside the Mormon ideal in such an obvious way motivates him to think independently, to question and seek his own perspectives and his own voice.
Despite the thorniness of the territory it explores, the film never lapses into cynicism or ridicule. And while it brandishes no agenda for fixing the difficulties it observes surrounding singleness and marriage in the church, it does offer two gentle moments of respite from the otherwise-constant sexual pressure of Duck—gestures, perhaps, toward sites of spiritual shelter for singles. The first is in worship itself. Cameras follow the subjects as they dress and primp for church meetings on Sunday; as is typical in big singles wards, Sunday worship is largely an occasion for still more sexual scrutiny and gamesmanship. But after church, the housemates work together to prepare a meal and sit down around a table. As the men and women bow their heads and close their eyes during a sincere prayer over the food, the camera glides intimately over each face. Hidden for a moment from the gaze of others, and focused prayerfully on gratitude and humility rather than status and competition, the subjects come together for a few minutes in genuine spiritual community.
Another such moment occurs, unexpectedly, on the beach. The camera had been listening in on a group of men relating their adventures in scoping out and approaching the hottest women on the beach. The camera then turns to linger for a few seconds on a series of individual head-and-shoulder shots. At first the viewer is expecting more soft-core beach cheesecake: the film speed shifts to slow motion, and one almost hears the "Baywatch" theme swelling in the background. But soon it becomes clear that the tone has changed. As the subjects look wordlessly into the camera, their faces convey longing, affection, openness, wonder: everything they can't reveal to one another in the ruthless social environment of Duck, they project toward the camera. In a culture where outside appearance counts for so much, the filmmakers seem to be saying, art finds a way into the soul. Worship and art, in tension but not antagonism, are spiritual pavilions for weary hearts battered in the social fray. Frandsen, Naylor, and Arnst have built a fine pavilion at Duck Beach; may they build many more.
Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.