A new film documents the ‘insane’ adventures of surfers in search of the big one, and celebrates the often glorious relationship between surfing and celluloid. Andy Martin reports.
The legendary North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii is to big waves what the Empire State is to tall buildings. Tonight, however, the ocean is flat. Yet I’m still immersed in wallto- wall turquoise tubes, in the alternate universe of the Sunset Beach Elementary School.
Here they’re showing Johnny Boy Goes Mongo in Indo, starring local hero Johnny Boy Gomes. The real problem for the serious surfer is not how to walk on water – magical, miraculous, and mysterious though that is – but how to cope with the dead time, the lulls between sets. And the answer is: watch surf movies – or make them.
There aren’t many lulls in Stacy Peralta’s excellent new documentary, Riding Giants. Peralta, a former skateboard wizard, paid homage to the skater world in his muchpraised Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001).
His latest film deserves one of surfing slang’s epithets: “awesome”, “epic”, “radical”, “all-time”, or – the ultimate accolade – “insane”. In Riding Giants, size matters. The “giants” of the film are the big-wave breaks themselves: Waimea Bay on the North Shore; the more recently discovered Mavericks near San Francisco; and “Jaws” – probably the biggest of them all – on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Peralta traces the rise of big-wave surfing from the pioneers of the late ’50s, through to the new millennium, in a movie that glows with an aura of youthful rebellion, bravado and hedonism.
Surfing is and always has been an exercise in self-mythification. The ancient Polynesian ali’i, who first rode the Pacific swells on boards the size of trees, had their own personal bards to sing of their exploits. Riding Giants is a foaming celebration of the largely amateur cameramen who have glorified waves and their riders over the past 50 years.
Peralta has artfully taped together some idiosyncratic but archetypal footage. Sliding down a giant sewer pipe in Los Angeles; deflowering Pipeline (a ferociously shallow
left-hander on the North Shore); doing semi-suicidal backflips off the board in 25ft surf at Waimea: a whole archaeology of sociopaths in shorts.
But, as much as it is a short history of surfing’s heaviest moments, Riding Giants is perhaps more importantly a record of surfing’s symbiosis with celluloid.
Surfing was cinema long before Hollywood: a melodrama enacted against the backdrop of the sea, spotlit by the sun, framed by the beach. The spectacle of human
beings pitting themselves against huge but precarious masses of water is an irresistible primal scene.
Being in the audience at the Coliseum must have felt something like this. It’s like watching a man jump off the roof of a house and then seeing the house chase him down the street. Surfing is half love story, half horror movie.
It should be remembered that at the point at which a wave becomes erect, rearing up on shore after a journey that can be thousands of miles long, it is already dying – and it would like to take a few surfers down with it.
But, despite being a few blocks from Malibu, Hollywood has largely fumbled surfing. Gidget (1959), based on a true story of a girl’s personal discovery of surfing around Los Angeles, spawned a decade or more of mediocre beach romance movies with such memorable titles as Beach Blanket Bingo. Of this generation, Ride the Wild Surf (1964) should be treasured for the sake of some epic footage of a big day at Waimea Bay.
Still the stand-out among all Hollywood takes on surfing has to be John Milius’s Big Wednesday (1978). Milius, scriptwriter of Apocalypse Now, director of Conan the
Barbarian, and an accomplished San Diego surfer, stole the title from a 1961 all-action no-plot John Severson film, but transposed his Big Wednesday to the era of Vietnam. He gives his group of young male leads a choice: waves or war – you decide.
The yearning voiceover and the mystic big-wave climax of Big Wednesday became core elements of the surf movie. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) reconciles waves
and war when a bunch of west-coasters change their baggy shorts for combat gear.
The mean surf of the Mekong Delta has Robert Duvall reaching for his board and abusing the locals: “Charlie don’t surf.” Duvall is incensed when his napalm bombardment stirs up an onshore wind that blows out the waves. It is no coincidence that “gun” is a synonym for board (as in the order, “Get me my big-wave gun!”).
Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991) twists the genre into a crime-caper as FBI agent Keanu Reeves infiltrates Patrick Swayze’s gang of bank-robbing Zen surfers.
Reeves’s total-immersion learning takes him from zero to hero in roughly five minutes of superbly lit water sequences.
Blue Juice (Carl Prechezer, 1995) is the UK’s attempt to import some of the drama of Big Wednesday to Cornwall, but lacks Vietnam, a decent plot, and big enough
waves. Most recently, Blue Crush (John Stockwell, 2002) boasts some gut-wrenching pipeline tubes, and, alone among all these films, gives women’s surfing a fair crack of the whip.
But away from these attempts to capture a mainstream audience is a world of no-budget filmmaking that taps into the strange magnetism of riding waves. For surfing has all the elements of dream or nightmare.
Although real, at its most powerful it becomes, as the surfers say, “unreal”. This hallucinatory element has generated a huge underground – or beachside – tradition. Jack McCoy, at the age of 55, has made more surf movies and filmed more waves than anyone ever.
His 23rd film, Blue Horizon, is just coming out on DVD. But he spent nearly nine months this year personally touring it around the world. In August, after Australia, Brazil, and the US, it was on at the IMAX in Bournemouth: horizontal rain outside; inside, perfect sunlit waves. The tall, quintessentially laid-back Hawaiian stood at the door thanking everyone for coming. “Man, I am so stoked [delighted] to see you!” He is the unreal McCoy, a living legend among surf movie-makers.
McCoy spent his youth hanging around the school halls and flyblown theatres where the first generation of shoestring-budget surf movies, such as Bruce Brown’s Surfing Hollowdays and The Endless Summer (1966), were showing. The filmmaker would turn up with his own projector, sell the tickets, give an intro, and answer questions afterwards.
“They were just funky little holes we could hire out for the night,” says McCoy. “But the atmosphere was electric.”
Kid McCoy set out the chairs, graduated to sticking up flyers on telegraph poles, and finally took to making his own films (Tubular Swells, 1975, was his debut).
“I thought, if I could surf, I could point a camera. How hard could it be?”
When surf movies turned into videos (The Green Iguana, The Occumentary, TO’Day of Days), McCoy felt as if he had sold out: “A bunch of guys sitting in their own homes watching wave after wave, like it was porn.”
The messianic dimension, the sense of sharing a revelation, had gone. McCoy calls Blue Horizon his “resurrection”. The quasi-Cain and Abel tale of two opposing destinies is surfing at its most evangelical.
But, for the surf-movie equivalent of the giant wave, Philip Boston’s Odyssey (2004), takes a lot of beating. Boston, from Yallingup in Australia, follows a crew of surfers recruited by surfwear company Billabong to search the world for the Loch Ness monster of surfing, the 100ft wave.
The new generation has to cheat, using jetskis to slingshot the surfer on to the face of otherwise unmakeable monsters, but the film includes footage that makes the opening big-wave sequence of Die Another Day look pint-sized.
Boston, who rose to prominence on the back of a Levi’s commercial which has surfers at Jaws riding pre-shrunk 501s, says of the 100-footer: “It’s not Big Foot – it’s
definitely out there.”
But size is not everything. And personally I have to admit to a slight prejudice against tow-in surfing, with all its semi-militaristic hardware and teamwork and logistics.