Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore, Now I will you to be a bold swimmer, To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout, and laughingly dash with your hair. — Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
On August 22, 2012, the Big Kahuna died. In the mid-’50s, Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy left a stable position in banking to throw together a scrap-lumber hut on the beach in Malibu with a band of surfing originals including Da Cat Himself, Miki Dora. Brentwood’s own Kathy Kohner, five-foot and 15, somehow infiltrated the Pit Crew, and, famously, her tales of shooting the curl as the group’s adopted mascot would find their way into her father’s novel and eventually onto the big screen in the 1959 hit Gidget. In fact, a summer or two before the film came out, county authorities demolished Tubesteak’s digs, after which he took a job driving a delivery truck and finally retired in Orange County. Kathy went off to college, got married, and raised a family; seventy-two today, she greets diners at Duke’s Malibu, where her job is to tell stories from back in the day. The real-life narrative arc of Terry and Kathy roughly parallels that of the film, with Kahuna finally going back to work, Gidget together at last with Moondoggie, and in the closing shot a beach that once brimmed with muscles and bikinis now back-to-school empty. Both stories speak of carefree youth and a necessary reckoning with a real world, of enchanted parentheses and inexorable Septembers.
The tensions of these real and screen lives have in large part remained those of the film genre Gidget engendered. In the half-century since, from the Beach Party franchise and its early ’60s spin-offs, through Big Wednesday, Point Break, Blue Crush, and many others, and on to Chasing Mavericks in 2012, filmmakers have gone to the sand a couple dozen times to produce narratives either focused expressively on surfing as sport or obsessive life choice, or at least as significant background informing and directing the film’s meaning. The result has been movies that are often more incisively pertinent in their treatment of growing up, family tensions, a world of dizzying social change, race and class, and the seductive lure of commerce and appearance than their wicked barrels, great tans, and dudespeak might presage. With an eye to the meanings behind their attractive surfaces, I’ll be looking at a handful of these, at least one from each decade, for the most part relatively high-profile examples of a film type that, if rarely the source of smash hits, has generally met with commercial success. Hardening firmly in place by the 1970s, a highly restrictive formula thereafter rules the near totality of these films: given their interest in young people on the cusp of adult life, it’s not without a certain logic that they return repeatedly to such story elements as the wise mentor, the temptation to sell out, the preparation sequence, and the concluding challenge or competition. The remarks to follow will examine the genre’s creation in the beach-craze ’60s, then turn to its elaboration in what one might consider the main line of “classic” surf films, with their reliably formulaic focus on childhood’s end; the conclusion will explore how, while remaining generally faithful to established patterns, certain films have brought within their widened purview broader social and political issues. With the exception of Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer (1966) — a documentary but vaguely story-centered and, in any case, so iconic as to be compulsory — all of the films under discussion are pure narratives. As such, they should be distinguished from the grainy collections of hot rides Greg Noll brought to stoked kids in countless multipurpose halls and their often lyrical or thrilling cinematic descendants. Whether big deals like Riding Giants and Step into Liquid, or smaller, edgier efforts like BS!, these documentaries are absolutely central to the surfing subculture and merit separate study, with their specialist target audience, their shared values, and visual assumptions.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the first treatments of waveriding were documentary in nature and aimed at the widest possible audience. Like les Pathé-Frères, who put together 100 minutes on Le Surfing: Sport national des iles Hawaii in 1911, filmmakers in the first half of the century responded periodically to a curious public’s hunger for images of exotic locales and practices that, even in the era of grand liners and early aviation, remained largely inaccessible. By the thirties, in any case, the word on surfing was getting out, if Hawaiian Holiday, the first cinematic narrative treatment of the sport, is any indication. In this 1937 Mickey Mouse featurette, Goofy recklessly challenges waves that, with the typical extraordinary range of Disney’s animation teams, manage at once to be dumb funny, anthropomorphically nasty, and possessed of a frothy, sculpted loveliness drawn straight from Hokusai. While the cartoon is (somewhat speciously) considered the source of the term goofy-footed for surfers who, like its hero, lead with their right foot, its variation on the timeless theme of the arrogant individual chastised by a recalcitrant natural world in fact says little more about surfing than that it was just edging into the public consciousness. It would take the ’50s and early ’60s and the sport’s headlong drop into popular culture before filmmakers would begin to recognize and exploit its rich visual and thematic possibilities.
And what visuals, for there is something basically unbelievable about human beings standing up on a tumbling wave, not to mention carving sleek sweeps and tight reverses back up its face. Cinematically, what’s not to like about good-looking kids in a dream locale practicing a potentially dangerous sport that, even straight-on from a fixed shore location in black and white, films like a million bucks? Considered a moment, however, the scene is much more than its very pretty pictures, in large part because of the richly conflicting signals it emits. As sport, identity definer, and style locus, the surfing we have come to know these last decades is a space of, variously, big-money competition, reverent communication with the natural world, heavy partying, one-to-one confrontation with appalling physical force, proprietary localism of the ugliest sort, New Age self-discovery. It is a counterculture and a culture, a way to rebel and a way to grow up, and some live an entire adult life, work and all, still somehow rhythmed by the daily wave report. Surfing is the Beach Boys sweet in their striped Kingston Trio short-sleeve button-downs, and it’s Dora dive-bombing kooks and bouncing checks. It’s the garden and the salesmen who slither into it. Let’s go surfin’ now, everybody’s learnin’ how, we are joyfully urged, but to paddle out as the new guy is in fact to try entering the most closed of societies. Surfing can seem like an ocean of style, posing, and attitude, but out in the impact zone and beyond, the superficial abruptly washes off. To choose a short board or long, three fins or one, can be no less than to define different selves and value systems.
The very physical space offers an equally rich palette of thematic opportunity. From knee-high kids’ stuff to Fukushima, pure fluid energy rears in defiance at sudden, solid resistance. The arriving swell is pattern and endless variety, or as Laird Hamilton says of the big ones in The Wave, “it’s never the same mountain” (72). Proceeding in stately sequence, breakers seem all ruler-edged order, but of course they are also sites of chaos and fear. There the simple can become “in practice immediately complex,” writes Woolf in To the Lighthouse, “as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests.” Wild swings of perspective rule the sand as well, for what place is more one for sun-drenched, thought-free lotus-eating than the beach. Yet on that thin strip of dry land the tragic drama of our collective addiction to fossil fuels will play out first. And even carefree Waikiki lies hard by an ocean’s unfathomable mass with its troubling, timeless reach of myth and suggestion. It is on the shore after all that Wordsworth rejects that world that is too much with us, yearning seaward to affirm the deeper truths of Proteus and Triton. The beach is just the beach, and it is much more than that. The greatest of the wavewriters, Daniel Duane, recognizes the way the surf scene can encode paradox, locate that sweet spot where the deeply complex and the unreflective simple both somehow find their footing. His brilliant 1996 Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast concludes with a subtly telling conversation between the author/narrator and a local painter. Prompting a response the surfing grad student clearly wants to hear, he asks why she’s chosen to live there on a cliff overlooking the sea:
The shore is a fine line, at once a sandy playground and a fertile environment heavy with suggestion and potential meaning. As for the latter, the beach is perhaps most notably a place of transition and transformation. There the land gives over to the sea, white water segues into deep blue, and in that season between spring and fall individuals no longer children but not yet adults enact their necessarily open-ended scenarios, falling in or out of love or conflict, playing, displaying. It’s not surprising that, beginning with Gidget, surfing films have almost without exception addressed questions of personal growth and maturation. Coming of age is by no means the only subject they treat, but even when it is not the film’s primary interest, growing up often serves as a prism through which to illuminate other issues, reflect social shifts, examine new pressures on the self in a changing world. Despite our best efforts, the adult scene wants us to leave the beach and, with the apparent exception of Kelly Slater, generally gets its way. This tension is interesting, as not only filmmakers have discovered. Gestated perhaps while bunking down at the Challenger Eastern surfboard factory on the Jersey Shore in the early ’70s, Springsteen’s “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” addresses the moment of eviction right from the song’s memorable opening: “Sandy, the fireworks are hailin’ over Little Eden tonight.” A place so named, we know, can only mean eventual obligatory exile. And indeed, Bruce sings, “For me this boardwalk life’s through / You ought to quit this scene too.” Ah Sandy, her name is just right — for what’s under the boardwalk, but also for the grains of time that finally rule even this carnival paradise.
When Gidget and Moondoggie walk out of frame in the closing shot of Gidget, they are certainly leaving their own Little Eden. Yet, while the couple’s slow, wandering steps betray a hint of regret, their return to solid suburban lives as Francie and Jeffrey has a safe ’50s inevitability, one Hollywood-crafted to will into gray-flanneled order the real, more subversive truth of the film, that just over the cultural horizon lay new notions of social organization, sexual behavior, and feminist possibility. For Gidget’s beach is a place of experimentation with those options, a theater for the competing demands of duty and desire at precisely that Ike-to-JFK turning point in American cultural history. Casual alertness to the cultural breeze helps explain the movie’s popularity and strangely lasting appeal, but just as important is its affectionate openness — naïve by recent standards, fresh by the time’s — to the charms of the surfing life. With its neatly prepared surprise ending, the film also has a structure and narrative pacing tight enough to keep you watching even today, and this despite the wooden acting and gratingly “declaimed” dialogue delivery style.
The plotting’s fairly clever. A sixteen-year-old tomboy, Francie gets dragged from her Donna Reed home to the beach by boy-crazy friends. There she meets a band of surf bums who, amazingly to this girl from the hardworking suburbs, just hang out and ride the wild surf. When circumstances lead to an accidental glide down a wave’s face, it’s no looking back for the cute innocent who soon wheedles the dough necessary for a board. Preferring that Francie date the reliable son of a business associate, her parents nevertheless pay up, almost more worried she’ll never grow up than that she will. It would seem that she will if we’re to judge by the company she keeps, notably the seasoned Kahuna — the gang’s leader, a Rochester-in-trunks — and his younger lieutenant Moondoggie. James Darren dreamy, the latter rescues Francie from some stubborn kelp to, unsurprisingly, set the romantic comedy plot into motion: her crush grows, but he’s apparently not having it, for Moondoggie claims he’s rejected his rich father’s world and has eyes only for the open road he’ll soon be hitting with the Kahuna. Along the way, Gidget gains surfing cred, the band surprised that a girl would do anything on the sand but wiggle or “lose” her ball near the guys’ towels. Cheerful lunks with just a touch of leering menace, they dub their mascot girl+midget=Gidget and, mugging madly, tease her in the stagy verbal rhythms of the Sharks and Jets.
Moral and dramatic complications ensue in the last reel when the much-anticipated “luau” finally comes round. Gidget prepares for the big night with an elaborate stratagem: she pays one of the fellows to pretend he’s with her in order, says she, to make the Kahuna jealous — when in fact it’s Moondoggie in her sights. Today almost comical in its innocence, the luau’s amalgam of flaring tiki torches, throbbing bongos, and horizontal couples certainly pushed erotic buttons for a ’59 teenage audience. Now imagine the blossoming Gidget’s surprise when she tiptoes into this orgiastic scene to find that the guy she hired to “court” her passed the gig on to Moondoggie! The attraction’s steamingly mutual, but the ruse is so firmly in place that some inevitable misunderstandings send an indignant Gidget off — and straight into the experienced arms of Kahuna. Back at a borrowed bachelor pad, though, honor outs as Moondoggie shows up to declare himself with a right to Kahuna’s chin, while Gidget runs off in the confusion. The film’s coda makes clear that the summer was just that, an interlude, pleasurable and perhaps even necessary, but meant to end so that adult business could begin. Francie’s sweet surprise is that when, resigned, she agrees at last to meet the son of Daddy’s colleague, it turns out that young man is Moondoggie. Fed up with the Kahuna’s phoniness, Jeffrey’s heading back to college. The new couple visit their old haunts in the closing frames. The gang has all gone back to school, and the Kahuna’s breaking down his shack and returning to work. A chance look at an ID badge indicates that he’s an airline pilot. Even the Big Kahuna, it seems, can’t shake responsibility.
As slight and hokey as it can seem, Gidget flirts with myth, its heroine an Ugly Duckling, its hero a prince in hiding, its disguise ruse and surprise twist straight from Elizabethan comedy. Though only at film’s end is it off to work they go, Gidget’s seven-strong beach crew could be tall dwarves, with their muscular mutual support for the heroine and their customized nicknames. On the sand, by the way, such sobriquets are the norm. There the guys are only Stinky or Loverboy, and the token of Francie’s acceptance into the beach clan is the gift of the title Gidget. Then there’s the mysterious Kahuna. Plosive monosyllabic prose at last overwriting assonantal poetry, his real handle, we finally discover, is Burt Vails. The family name hints at the ultimately superficial nature of the aliases adopted by all these supposed marginals along the shore — thinly shrouding but in no way deeply altering fundamentally conventional selves. As Kahuna admits, that Hawaiian mask on the hut wall in fact comes from Acapulco. At the death of his pet bird — a wild pirate’s squawking partner, an evident image of freedom — the illusions begin to fade, until the only wings left to Burt the Korean War vet lead back to a sub-branch of what President Eisenhower would denounce less than a year later as the military industrial complex. Jeffrey’s pseudonym is most significant of all. When this character who most ostentatiously breaks with his past life circles back to his businessman father’s world, we realize that Moondoggie was never the lone wolf his nickname promised, but only a domesticated pup pretending to howl. And as the film closes, the protagonists are clearly once again Jeffrey and Francie. The fraternity pin he gives her gestures ironically at the band of beach brothers that is now just a memory, while fastening the couple into a stable, socially acceptable relationship and securely fixed identities.
Yet, despite such seeming confidence in its representation of suburban middle-class certitudes, the film’s deeper truth may actually be just how fragile they are. For to dash onto the beach in Gidget is to enter a space of experimentation with new cultural possibilities. Bogus as he may later turn out, by the surf Kahuna lives up to his title, a shaman presiding over disturbing initiatory rites and opportunities. He may plan to check out in an impossibly corny way (no less than “jumping a freight train”), but the surfing life he and the crew have fashioned on the shore actually questions the assumed value of work while implicitly endorsing a subversively collective model of social organization. The gang’s leader, we’re told, is “into existentialism,” and it’s clear those Surfrider Beach bongos are echoing others up the coast at North Beach. Gidget signals the changes to come perhaps most noticeably in its treatment of gender and sexuality. Just over the horizon of the new decade, of course, lay the sexual revolution, and the film has a hormonal physicality that surprises even today. The innocent Francie’s girlfriends fret that she’s “studied up on everything but sex,” while even her June Cleaver mother recognizes the “biological fact: the female matures earlier than the male.” When the girls go off to the beach it’s on a — the term is repeated insistently — “man hunt,” while the perspective is later reversed by the beach crew to corresponding fear of “jail bait.” Standing, remarkably, under a sign offering “Hot Dogs,” one of Gidget’s voracious girlfriends savors the “six hunks of male, enough for seconds!” awaiting her. And isn’t the pad Kahuna leads our heroine back to already a ’70s Hefner-approved den of stylish iniquity?
While, Hollywood oblige, the protected young thing growing up in Gidget finally resists premarital relations, she does offer a refreshing vision of new feminist possibility. A century earlier in Jane Eyre another girl stared across open reaches and lamented that women “must have action,” that they “need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do.” Gazing across the sea’s suggestive, dangerous expanse, then taking on its breakers, no-nonsense Gidget finds that field, at once challenging the resistant model of the prim Valley housewife and that of the coiffed bimbo with her useless beach ball. Five years later, Brian Wilson’s “Surfer Girl” proposes that we “ride the surf together.” Sure, the guy in the song may still hold the key to the “woody” (!), but this is, very suddenly, a changing world. And soon, as other pop culture monuments would have it, manic Mondays will become the norm and, on Fridays, girls just wanna have fun. The world Gidget unwittingly foreshadows is just too much fun, so its heroine is — unsurprisingly — roped back into a respectable status quo, the film’s romantic plot twist masking the quiet anxiety of its denouement.
In the mid-’60s, this tension between a youth culture in full, disturbing emergence and the rearguard resistance of adults will again play out in the sand. In clear response to the success of Gidget, the seven-picture Beach Party cycle is American International Pictures going profitably mainstream after its ’50s low-budget horror and juvenile deliquency shockers. Led by Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, equally clean-cut white kids surf, sip Cokes, fall in love, break into song, and have madcap adventures in that last summer before adulthood. Gary Morris has written incisively about the films and their portrayal of the beach as America’s happy, healthy sandbox-refuge from a very unsettling reality of racial conflict, war, a dead President, nuclear threat, and beatniks not only morphing into hippies but multiplying. In this filmic universe, for example, surfing is presented less as marginal behavior than as a wholesome, outdoorsy alternative to boredom and deviance; planing off the slightly dangerous edge half-sharpened by the Kahuna, AIP thus anticipated such other forms of entertainment co-optation as the made-for-Top 40 surf music craze and TV’s Surfside Six. Morris aptly identifies the “schizoid air” of the films, one “typical of the period of social flux in which they were made.” For all the unbridled agitation they seem meant to portray, they in fact are about reassuring white middle-class America that the world was perfectly comprehensible and that its children were just having some good clean fun before getting on with the important stuff.
The movies are schizoid in another way as well. With their chaste lovers, systematic beatnik jokes, and retread adult actors direct from a well-worn parental past, they indeed send a comforting message to suburbia. Yet, despite pious intention, the form of the films says something else entirely. A weird non-linearity rules: “They are a patchwork quilt of motifs and formal strategies, alternately distanced and in-your-face, heavy with subplots and random songs, cartoon characterizations, slow-motion and speeded-up visual effects, and even blatant audience acknowledgments . . . structurally the films are practically anarchic.” Morris adds that the form of such 1965 wonders as Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini was “influenced by America’s social decline.” This is, if anything, an understatement. While one might easily recognize the zeitgeist in the films’ portrayals of the teen tribe’s resistance to rapacious adult developers or ad men, the zany harmlessness of the villains effectively erases any vaguely political implications. Not so for the off-the-wall structural and stylistic choices of the Beach Party franchise, where an arch, random surrealism, despite vast differences of tone and intention, is not without recalling “Desolation Row.” It is difficult to view the films today and not register somewhere in their genial mess the confused, rudderless society just offshore ready to storm that desperately happy strand. Only a year and a half after the last of the films, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in would hit the air. Counterculture seeping into culture, there was the same metaphor of the nonstop party and the strangely similar — but now fully knowing — comedy of wacky deconstruction.
The Beachsploitation movies are, of course, not really about surfing. They are entertainment vehicles set in a teen- and bikini-friendly environment corporate America was only too happy to lay claim to. If surfing and publishing legend Steve Pezman’s cheerful exaggerations in Step Into Liquid are to be believed, America’s 2,000 pre-Gidget surfers were four million by 1964. His simile for the craze — “like a hula hoop that never went away” — is much more accurate in highlighting how, in surfing, genuine cultural excitement and business opportunity forged a lasting link at this time. In any case, executive fingerprints are certainly all over Ride the Wild Surf, a 1964 hybrid surfing saga/Beach Party romance. Three mainlanders — played by the bankable Tab Hunter, teen heartthrob Fabian, and, from TV’s Lawman, Peter Brown — head to Oahu to test themselves against the North Shore’s winter swell. Conveniently, each has an opposites-attract love complication, with resulting pressures, respectively, to man-up to responsibility, go back to college, or, in the case of Brown’s well-bred Chase, liberate the inner wildman. As the trailer pitch has it, the movie’s about “the guys who go for the action and the gals who go for the action guys.”
Ride the Wild Surf is notable for name-checking the famous Hawaiian breaks and for some terrific early big wave footage, and the way it imitates the sport film’s formulaic Big Competition conclusion essentially established the model for the genre. Likewise for its wave mechanics pedagogy as our three surfers discover a calm day’s flat Waimea Bay, a landmark first lesson for the landlubber audience in what would become a long series of such sessions in subsequent surf films. Significant accomplishments, yes, but the rest does feel like pure commodity, with the studio-logic casting, mechanical swings between action and lame romance, and pseudo examination of personal motivations in the surfing life choice. Escape, self-discovery, alpha-male competition? Unsurprisingly for a lowest common denominator entertainment package, the answer seemed to be all of the above, or none, or something. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the script was cobbled together only after gathering the surfing footage. While the action shots, many starring Greg Noll, are spectacular — the team sent to Hawaii only six years after the first surfers dared Waimea hit a number of big days — the paddle-out and rear projection close-ups are astonishingly creaky, even by the time’s standards. Heads bobbing rhythmically, heavy James Mitchum glowers and our handsome watermen chat casually while coasting down twenty-footers. As Noll growled in Riding Giants, “Who can believe that shit?”
Only a couple of years later such blatantly ersatz treatment of surfing — the scene, the athletics, the meaning — would no longer be possible. The credit, of course, goes to Bruce Brown, whose 1966 The Endless Summer merits the legendary status it has universally been accorded; when the familiar graphics of the film poster appear four decades later in the bedroom of the protagonist in Soul Surfer, we read it not as set design thematics but just as what surfers still have on their walls. After Hollywood’s early commercial forays into the beach scene, Brown offered a different kind of product, one that felt, in fact, so much like a non-product that he couldn’t find a distributor and had to release the film independently to prove it could fill seats. After weeks of word-of-mouth sell-outs in the surf capitals of Wichita and New York, Cinema V finally picked it up for wide-scale distribution. Until Roger & Me in 1989, The Endless Summer was the highest-grossing documentary ever, and if we are to judge from Amazon DVD sales rankings some fifty years after its release, it’s only outperformed by Gidget and Point Break, with user comments breaking regularly toward “Classic!” Yet, while Brown’s film did do business, that never seemed like the point. It had the feel of joyful projection in the back of a surf shop for a barefoot insider crowd — like Brown’s other documentaries from 1959 on, only with the door wider open. The rest of us, gremmies and all, were not only let in but let in on the secret.
The Endless Summer is a movie for surfers by surfers; it’s not a Hollywood scriptmeister working up his daughter’s adventures or the writer/producer pair toiling for Desilu who, their finger to the cultural pulse, would just as easily turn out a hippie film five years after Ride the Wild Surf. Brown’s 95-minute documentary is shaped by a slim, seductive narrative conceit: two real surfers follow the summer around the world and really ride the wild surf they find en route. One of many pleasures of the film is striking up a casual acquaintance with its easygoing protagonists, Mike Hynson and — he of the name too good not to be true — Robert August. Brown, who knew everyone in the small Southern California surf elite, could have chosen a Corky Carroll, but then he would have made a different film. Classy surfers if virtual unknowns, all surf and no name, Hynson and August abruptly reversed the Fabian star formula. One blond, the other dark, one normal, the other a goofy-footer, both cute and anonymous, they were perfect blank slates on which to trace late ’60s dreams of freedom, mobility, and the heartfelt, not socially ordained, vocation.
Though in 1960 only 2 percent of Americans had ever taken an international flight, it was also a time when Jackie Kennedy was admired for speaking and dressing French and her husband created the Peace Corps. Not only a Cold War tool, the latter signified a nascent curiosity for things international after war and a decade and a half hunkering in the suburbs. Certainly, as of ’62 one vicarious frisson of the James Bond films was Pan Am touching down, all sophistication, in Istanbul or Rio. Brown’s shirtless travelogue addressed this interest from another, rootsier angle, one marked by sweet gee-whiz curiosity. The titles’ capitals note, touchingly, that the shots were “Filmed in ACTUAL LOCATIONS AROUND THE WORLD,” and one apparently unironic visual is a little animated map with the toy plane hopscotching across the globe. Producer, writer, director, narrator, Brown begins by presenting basic moves and lingo through a sequence of hot tubes, nosewalks, and wipeouts in Hawaii and California, an always companionable voice-over shifting easily from informative to goofy to quietly lyrical. But what if you could surf like this all year round, he wonders, sending his tousled American youth east from LAX to, successively, Sénégal, Ghana, Liberia, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and the North Shore of Oahu. As exotic as the catalogue of locales from “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was, this was something else, and you feel even now the stoke — and the apprehension — of paddling out in waters that had never seen a surfboard.
The duo’s on-site adventures come equipped with regularly interspersed “memories” of other surfing moments from Hawaii and California (like some remarkable footage of the Newport Beach Wedge, wave-heads the size of VW buses pile-driving body surfers into two inches of retreating water). Aside from letting Brown use good material gathered over the years, the systematic recourse to such narrative pauses suggests that discoveries in exotic climes can really be judged only by reference to a known American reality. And indeed, in the West African part of their journey — its most savory, troubling chapters — August and Hynson struggle in vain to persuade a taxi driver to strap their boards to the top of the car; as he heads off, planks jutting out of the trunk, Brown wonders how this would play on U.S. freeways. When it comes to ethnicity in what was then called the Third World, though, it’s apparent that Brown’s innocents have learned little from their own country’s history or its contemporary racial strife from Birmingham through Watts and beyond. The above incident comes just after these queries: “Would they find surf? Would they catch malaria? Would they be speared by a native?” The ensuing voice-over uses the word “primitive” at least five times. When the guys paddle out alongside a dugout of Ghanian fishermen, they hear “‘something like ‘Oomgawa mungy wango’ . . . . Mike smiled and said, ‘Yeah man, hang ten!’ They thought that was great. They went stroking out, chanting, ‘Hang ten, hang ten.'” If such can be imagined, an even more Tintin in the Congo moment occurs later near Durban. Wracked in fact by (totally unmentioned) apartheid, Brown’s South Africa is apparently populated only by friendly white surfers. In their sharky waters the appearance of dolphins is a good sign, for “sharks and porpoises have yet to integrate.”
Delivering such lines with a wink has made Brown a very easy target for later viewers like Duane, who rightly highlights the embarrassing “1960s colonial stupidity” of “two healthy, wealthy Western boys on an unparalleled journey of cultural imperialism — the whole world as their amusing theme park” (180). I’m tempted to come halfway to Brown’s defence, however. The mere fact that he would send his surfers to a West Africa not only untouched by surfing but virtually unknown to his prospective audience bespeaks a certain cultural openness and generosity. Accompanying the howlers there are moments of genuine curiosity about and admiration for the lives of local fishermen and their communal social organization. While Brown and company express themselves within their limiting American cultural framework of prosperous empowerment and exceptionalism, they have a naïve, enthusiastic sweetness throughout, and their farewell to “our newfound friends” rings far more sincere than patronizing. Viewers spending an hour and half of film time with them might not be completely shocked that Brown himself found his young stars consistently “polite and respectful of the different cultures” (Lisanti, 277).
While the blind spots are glaring today, they are perhaps understandable, coming as the film did just that side of the massive shifts in consciousness announced in Haight-Ashbury or the Pentagon Papers. The ’60s vibe of The Endless Summer is elsewhere, in a free, mobile open-endedness and a fresh, if inchoate, dream of universal community. Road movies, Walter Salles writes, by their very nature “challenge the culture of conformity” if only because they are “about experience . . . about the journey.” Combine that formula with tentatively searching out, then surfing tinglingly unfamiliar waters, and, for all the fun, we are probably talking about the something serious that Salles identifies as a “form of resistance” to convention and the status quo. The sheer rush of surfing, the unadulterated in-the-moment uselessness of the thing, is a large part of its meaning. Brown furthermore makes it clear that around the world others were simultaneously waking to the significance of subversively pure experience in the rhythmed unpredictability of wave sets. And willing to share these heightened, intensely personal moments across different cultures and histories, the heartening opposite of the foul localism that would come to mar the surfing life. Throughout their journey Hynson and August bond with local informants, little micro-coteries, neophytes who try their boards, and a South African who goes 2,000 miles out of his way to drive them from spot to spot.
That guy, by the way, leads them on a hunch to isolated, magic Cape St. Francis, where our pair stumbles across miles of dunes and onto the “perfect wave.” Watching Mike Hynson niched effortlessly in the curl on a matchless right — still on the same wave as Brown runs out of film, changes the reel, and starts shooting again — it suddenly dawns on the viewer that all the international bopping around was in fact a quest. Yet one, the film title coaches, that remains as endless as every summer moment it celebrates is fleeting. Over long sequences, tubes for once exactly the right metaphor, Brown’s narration insists on the “hundreds of years” that razor-traced perfection went unridden and “the thousands of waves that have gone to waste since.” Not waste as in unproductive, but as Eliot would have it: “Ridiculous the waste sad time / Stretching before and after.” What comes in between is what counts, the “quick now, here, now always,” the redemptive afternoon of pure presentness where the quest’s ending is always its new beginning.
In the history of surfing in cinema, there is clearly a before- and an after-The Endless Summer. For the first time, at least for a mass audience, Brown got on film something close to the essential of the sport that had left its fad days behind and was beginning to take up other kinds of cultural, economic, and institutional space. What teases that essence into being is Brown’s affectionate, knowledgeable filming of the surfing action that, contextualized by occasional land scenes and the thin narration-directed “plot,” constitutes virtually 95 percent of the film. Seasoned by a lifetime of surfing and a decade of home-made documentaries for other surfers, his technique was furthermore marked by a certain confidence born in those glory days of Tokyo Olympiad, the Sabols’ early NFL Films, and the Wide World of Sports. Back in that first era of broadcast color before the image glut of later TV and Internet, just getting close to the action with quality footage of the finely trained body in competitive movement was considered by most viewers exuberantly fresh enough in itself to communicate simple human truths about nerve and discipline, the “thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.”
While Brown was an early practitioner of in-water shooting and on-board camerawork, it’s his standard mid-distance shots that carry the film. Set early morning or late afternoon (the best surfing windows because of wind conditions but also the most atmospherically lit and shadowed), they tell a simple, irresistible story of human energy and natural force, of figure and field in an always shifting, ever recorrecting dynamic. His camera can pan tightly in to focus on footwork or back to place a crowd of surfers and a pod of dolphins in suggestive parallel, but most shots are content to be long mid-distance takes with the surfer in constant adjustment to the break, there where the smooth water wall and its collapsed past meet. At that equally mobile and still point of the breaking world, Brown’s surfers for the first time showed a mass audience that surfing is simultaneously about full release and careful discipline, about complete freedom and a form of enslavement to those moments of freedom. The Kahuna had to talk about the surfing life (a finally arid message in the mouth of the stiff, landlocked Cliff Robertson). Through the loving attention of a cameraman calmly assured that the action can communicate everything it means by itself, Brown takes us visually to that cusp of order and flow, obsession and insouciance, discipline and the stoke that is surfing to the committed for whom the sport spills over into the life. His imagery establishing the terms, Brown enabled the waves of narrative surf films to follow.
Most obviously, no longer was it possible to fake the surfing scenes like before, with those bogus flat water close-ups and rear projection. To be sure, pro stand-ins would still get work, but the new semi-norm became actor-surfers comfortable enough in the small stuff to suspend viewer disbelief for the transition to bigger waves unsurprisingly out of their range: a couple of clean rides by the clearly identifiable actor, and the audience was on board. And the new techniques quickly followed, with submersible and embarked subjective camerawork complementing increasingly the can’t-fail straight-on shot. Creating the cinematic illusion of real surfing with its inherent tension and drama was vital, for the waves would no longer simply be a colorful backdrop to conventional romance but a space where the story takes hold, where its characters live most intensely and ask what matters about identity, personal values, and, as always, growing up. Within the genre, no film has framed the Big Issues more insistently than Big Wednesday, John Milius’s 1978 effort. Among other things, it sets firmly in place what would become the surf film’s near obsession with the theme of maturation under the looming pressure of adult limits and responsibilities, while simultaneously — and, it seems at first, paradoxically — confirming the sport’s powerful emotional links with the past and the notion of generational succession. Marked by such recurring story elements as the often distant or absent parental figure and the closing competition or big wave challenge, three decades of films will explore these dual emphases, from the ’80s North Shore and on to such recent films as Blue Crush, Soul Surfer, and Chasing Mavericks.
With all due respect for the genre’s ur-movie, the unsinkable Gidget, Big Wednesday is the first modern surfing film, and it remains by far the most ambitious. That ambition is its strength and weakness. Milius’s autobiographically flavored tale of three surfing buddies from carefree adolescence through the inevitable readjustments of adult life cleaves believably to the details and the feeling of a ’60s and early ’70s Southern California youth culture. While the three are predictably (cf. Ride the Wild Surf) schematic and representative in their differences — the gifted but troubled one, the wildman, the responsible guy — they come to life as characters with credibly different life trajectories. Where Milius goes wrong is in his repeated attempts to universalize and mythify the whole thing. This was the heroic era of the New Hollywood, when a fearless reach for scope in the genre film became a kind of norm. With his famous swap of a point for one in buddy George Lucas’s third film — some space cowboy adventure — Milius may have won big, but the same cannot be said of Big Wednesday. It clearly aims to be surfing’s American Graffiti, but unlike Lucas — or Coppola in The Godfather, Towne-Polanski in Chinatown, etc. — Milius seems unwilling to trust his core material to speak for itself. Trying to hoist it into the great, he finally limits the power of a solid central narrative and some good acting.
Milius follows his trio from 1962 through 1974 as they haltingly come of age in a jumble of surfing, pranks, chicks, and keggers. Along the way, his frequent sacrifice of narrative coherence and focus to the piquant moment jibes well enough with the confusions of adolescence and the mixed-up, tie-dyed intensities of the period. Character emerges from the action and the gab. There’s the local surf god Matt, his problems with alcohol, and the mostly refused duties great talent and minor fame impose; crazy Leroy “the Masochist,” played by Gary Busey and so almost as such derisively funny and self-destructive; and Jake who becomes the lifeguard shooing a burned-out Matt off the beach, then, again uniformed, heading reliably off to Viet Nam. In between the high-quality surfing scenes — most nicely managed by the three actors and seamlessly transitioned to others for the big waves — the guys party, hit Tijuana, split up, marry, father children, try to make sense of the changes, and all, again, periodically punctuated by their coming together, or not, to surf. Milius makes the parallel between personal and social metamorphoses very clear, especially in the war’s intrusion into his story. Their friend Waxer never comes back, and when Jake does, and the buddies meet for the first time in three years for a session at sunset, the end of more than one kind of innocence is writ large.
Too large, perhaps. That particular scene does work with a certain delicacy, for it’s credible that these reunited friends would meet up on their boards, and where else to find secure footing in treacherous personal and social currents? Yet, unfortunately, even the film’s most resonant moments are deformed by an invasive, distracting portentousness. The main problem is the relentlessly highlighted quadripartite structure of the film, announced by simple print on black screen: “The South Swell, summer 1962,” “The West Swell, fall 1965,” “The North Swell, winter 1968,” and, yes, “The Great Swell, spring 1974.” The seasonal myth does bring order to a rambling twelve years of messy lives and social history, but where it most goes wrong is in the voice-over introducing each chapter. It’s never clear precisely who is speaking: perhaps the filmmaker himself, who includes a snap of his young self in the series of nostalgic black and whites that movingly underlie the credits? Anyway, in prose that says too much college Hemingway, the script strains unashamedly for the tingle. Like this from 1968: “The north swell was cold and lonely and dangerous. I remember . . . but now it all seemed to be behind us. Change wasn’t in the beach or the rocks — it was in the people.” Or 1974: “Who knows where the wind comes from? Is it the breath of God? Where do the great swells come from, and for what? It was a time we’d waited for for so long.”
In a Hollywood landscape littered by flimsy entertainment products, it’s hard to knock generous ambition, but one feels Milius loved his highly personal material not wisely but too well. The first time we see the trio as such, they are descending to the beach through the visual frame of a columned neo-antique portico that appropriately underlines their identities — voiced over, typically, before demonstrated on screen — as the local “kings.” Fine, yet when as grown-ups they return to the same scene for the Great Swell and the climactic surfing sequence, the framing calls annoying attention to itself, the steps are weedy, and the architecture sprawls in extravagant ruin. And it’s not only the cinematic language that is italicized. When a waitress newly arrived in L.A. reflects that “back home being young was just something you did until you grew up; here it’s everything,” the lapidary formula evokes screenwriter self-satisfaction far more than real speech. In another register, so too for the prophetic verbal freight of the friends’ admired counselor, the board-shaper Bear: “You hear talk of a big day every now and then — it’ll be a swell so big and so strong it’ll wipe clean everything that went before it. That’s when this board will be ready. That’s when Matt, Jack, and Leroy can distinguish themselves. That’s the day they can draw the line.” Please.
Here much less would be more, especially since the core narrative by itself actually does the job, giving density to the sweet frivolity of the Gidget growing-up model while also widening its scope to treat more consciously and in more clearly realized detail those times that were a-changing. When Milius is not overdoing things, the beach in Big Wednesday is where its young protagonists return believably to center their friendship, look together for meaning and direction in their changing selves, and, finally, take a step over that line into adulthood. In his influential Playing and Reality, Donald Winnicott offers terms that can perhaps cast light on the function of this psycho-physical space in Big Wednesday and, more largely, the film genre it helped create. While Winnicott’s subject was early infancy, his conceptualization of “transitional space” and “transitional objects” resonates analogically when one considers these young individuals obsessively returning to the same place with toys that seem to prolong childhood but in fact help lead to its end. To master the board is progressively to achieve a certain self-mastery when faced with the sets — some calmly manageable, others ominously rising — that life rolls in from its inexhaustible depths. Riding waves is furthermore a formalized, structured encounter with raw pulses of physical energy, an energy clearly parallel to the raging hormonal forces throbbing within the adolescent self. Teenaged girls riding horses come to mind here as a similarly symbolic harnessing of brute natural force during this stretch of profound personal transition.
For our three surfers, the formal moment of transition occurs when they head out on the Big Wednesday in question, its title a sly wink at hump-day, when the week’s beginning tips into its end. Some convincingly filmed big wave rides, music heavy on the brass, ace Matt’s wipeout and thrilling rescue by his buddies, and then the three find themselves on the shore shyly approached by a wide-eyed blond kid with the lost board. “Keep it,” says Matt, fusing the moment of personal transition with the act of transmission, an intersection immediately confirmed when, just before leaving the beach for good, the trio looks seaward to admire a young Gerry Lopez. He’s as talented as they say and, adds Leroy, “so were we.” Importantly, Matt’s board is the regifted work of the cool, mysterious shaper Bear. Older, formulaically cranky but generous, he turns the character first sketched out by the (finally disappointing) Kahuna into a fully drawn prototype for the mentor figure who will return in virtually every subsequent surf film. Bringing form to the transitional object, advising and often scolding his younger acolytes, Bear and his successors dispense an ancestral wisdom that is, strangely, at the heart of one of the sports that might seem most to emblematize modern youth culture. For to a surprising degree surfing is marked by reverence for the past, a devotion signalled by the prevalence of inherited ritual — the shaka, the paddle-out funeral, a ti leaf taken along for the ride, etc. — as well as the mandatory Hawaiian pilgrimage that, beyond the waves, is in equal part an act of respect for the Duke’s heritage and for the Holy Sand itself. Significantly, in Big Wednesday as in numerous other surf films, biological parents play little or no role. Their part belongs instead to the mentoring elder who imposes responsibilities along with an offered place in the line of descendance. That slot is earned by the most worthy and never imposed, only freely chosen. Some of the youthful rebelliousness tapped by surfing lies paradoxically in the growing self’s willing inscription into what is essentially a new family tradition, with its incumbent history, codes, and restrictions.
In the 1987 North Shore that pattern couldn’t be more clear: a naïve protagonist from the mainland leaves his struggling single mother for Hawaii, where luck and talent lead to the tutelage of the tenebrous Chandler, a (once again) bearded boardmaker whose rigorous idealism helps the young man learn what he wants from the waves and from himself. Less corny than this pitch version might indicate, William Phelps’s film is unpretentiously efficient in its dealings with the appealing narrative tension between innocence and experience. Launched as if by jet-ski, it opens the instant Rick Kane takes the Arizona State Surfing Championship (!?), and before minute five the cute tow-head has left pool-generated waves to test himself on Oahu’s eponymous North Shore. Some of the abundant implausibility washes off when, a few missteps and chance encounters later, lead Matt Adler shows that even wide-eyed he can hold his own on imposing Hawaiian breakers. The tabula rasa earnestness he lends the character sets Rick up for more than a few falls — most notably when he inadvertently crosses Vince, honcho in the local surf posse — but it also leads to the crucial relationship with the boardmaker Chandler. Rick’s an artist pressured by Mom to take a big scholarship back East, Chandler an artist forced to make a living selling to big name show-offs. Rick works to remake Chandler’s surfboard logo and in exchange learns from the master how to read waves and write the next chapter of his life.
The film’s most absorbing stretch are the central chapters when the successive improvements in Rick’s design parallel his surfing apprenticeship. Chandler offers him a rigorous education in literal and symbolic depth, beginning significantly with a dive to the reef — for “most surfers never look under the water” — then sequencing gravely through an imposing array of lined-up boards that visually represent the full tradition, from the skegless ancient koa wood 130-pounder to the most alert of the new short sticks. As Rick learns both to look at the world around him and to respect the past, his design efforts improve, from the first, all flash but “soulless,” through the image Chandler at last approves, a surfer emerging as if born from the curl. More than a necessary concession to commerce, the logo’s creation here enacts the trying quest to bring into meaningful accord surface and depth, signifier and signified, in a world that generally rewards their dissociation. There the stars are the Lance Burkharts — icily chiselled and self-regarding in his portrayal by Laird Hamilton — who “think a wave’s just for carving up, hot-dogging, imposing their own style.” Whereas, the shaper insists, “a pure surfer goes with the wave.” Chandler is attractively true to his name, the traditional artisan nurturing a guttering flame. In this decade of Gordon Gecko, he transmits his discomfort with competition and sponsorship, his sense of a moral dichotomy between old-school soul surfers and the facile shredders who score big on the circuit. The inevitable crisis of conscience follows when Rick’s developing wave skills win him a place in the Pipeline Open — “you want your picture in the surf magazines?,” growls Chandler — where, just as inevitably, he’ll make it through to the finals opposite Burkhart.
Even when the film works in complications like Rick’s romance with a Hawaiian beauty and ugly haole-local racial tensions, Phelps’s clean focus on the protagonist’s moral dilemma keeps things relatively uncluttered, at least until the big competition and its have-it-all ending. Rick loses the final due only to Burkhart’s literally underhanded cheating; wins it in the eyes of friends, former foes, and himself; gets abundantly photographed by the surf magazines; then finally chooses art school after all. While not without recalling Gidget, this merging of incompatibly parallel lines seems more satisfying if only because North Shore so fervently communicates the belief that hard-won self-knowledge is what matters, not its medium of waves or paint. In so doing, it explicitly develops an emphasis, one hinted at in earlier films but apparent only in the voice-overs from Big Wednesday, upon the intensely introspective, even mystical aspect of the wet physicality that is surfing. Rick’s apprenticeship is all very Luke Wavewalker, its roots in a similar mulch of vaguely Eastern thought and rough matter from the West’s Romantic tradition. When Chandler obliges Rick to observe for long stretches the churning of the waves, he is discreetly requiring his young charge to look inward with at least as much focus. Presupposing a world and self inextricably mingled in life’s currents, this fusion of attention comes naturally to a sport that perhaps more than any other demands an immersive reactiveness and empathetic alertness to the environment on the part of the actor within that environment. External and internal reality, the rhythm of the waves and the beating of the heart: “Sea of stretch’d ground-swells, / Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths / . . . I am integral with you . . . .” Overblown in that way of his, Whitman here recalls those thrilling, embarrassing winds of Milius that might be the breath of God. Phelps is truer to the laconic cool of surfing discourse; his is in fact a similarly full-throated lyricism, but one stronger for the way he holds it in check.
Versions of this Zen romantic breeze blow through what we might identify as all the “classic” surf films. In Big Wednesday and North Shore, in the animated Surf’s Up, in Blue Crush, Soul Surfer, and the most recent of the lot, Chasing Mavericks, the adolescent rite of passage concludes a carefully accompanied quest that runs down two paths so densely intertwined that they become one, the hesitantly growing ease of the waterman paralleling — becoming — the growing self’s hesitant progress toward confident maturity. A parody starring penguins, the 2007 Surf’s Up memorably condenses the tics of the grizzled veteran advisor into the Geek, a former champ and recluse boardmaker hilariously voiced by Jeff Bridges. The Geek Totally Abides. His counsel to Cody Mavericks, the promising young surfer from Antarctica’s Shiverpool, is virtually interchangeable with that of any of these cinematic mentors. Like, say, this from the wise counselor in Soul Surfer: “You know that moment between sets, the wave not yet formed, just energy surging through the water. Well, that’s the time to be patient. Listen to your instinct. Trust it. You’ll know.” You’ll know for in fact it’s the heart’s message that is counted out in the seconds between swells, and the call “Outside!” is to inner forces needed to face the darkening blue which is at that moment all the future that matters. The intense, inevitable final surfing scenes — far into the crucial competition or engaging that once-in-a-lifetime wave — are also the moment of deeply personal testing, with as resolution the return of threatened integrity or triumph over physical disability, recovery from emotional loss or the mastery of the self’s private demons. This moment of passage in the transitional space of surf and sand is generally the result of extensive preparation, and unsurprisingly scenes of arduous physical and psychological training are a required figure in most surf films. The most recent in the genre, Chasing Mavericks (2012), is in fact almost literally one long preparation sequence.
Chasing Mavericks follows the narrative contours of Jay Moriarity’s short life, from his Santa Cruz childhood as a surfing phenom through his obsession, finally achieved at 16, with riding the mythical Mavericks break just north near Half Moon Bay; Moriarity learned at the feet of Frosty Hesson, one of the early few to surf the huge waves that break only rarely under the spell of severe Pacific storms. Though as early as 1930 Carmel’s Robinson Jeffers may have sighted them in Novembers when “great waves awake and are drawn, / Like smoking mountains bright from the west,” up through the ’80s and early ’90s they were still considered more legend than fact. Largely directed by Curtis Hanson (until health issues forced his replacement for the last fortnight of principal photography), Chasing Mavericks resembles in some ways Eight Mile, with its empathy for the marginal teenager and, once more, “professional” and personal challenges so merged as to become one. As frequently elsewhere in the surf genre, the acolyte’s relationship with the guru — again bearded, gruff, finally lovable — powers the narrative. Abandoned by Jay’s military father, his single mom is a loser who can’t hold a job let alone look after her son; in the sweet, seemingly functional family next door, Frosty in fact has problems playing his own role as dad, such is his love for the ocean and dedication to his Mavericks secret. By turns shredder and long boarder, Jay is tops on the local curls, but after sneaking a view of Frosty on a day when Mavericks is firing, he won’t rest until he has gone out too. You’ve got to train me, he begs, and despite Frosty’s early hesitation and stern warnings, the spectator knows the rest.
Hanson and the film’s screenwriters are unabashed in their treatment of this relationship, actually giving the older surfer’s long-suffering wife these words: “There are all kinds of sons, Frosty. Some are born to you and some just occur to you.” As if that didn’t also occur to the viewing audience. Still, while it would be better if less emphatically underlined, the narrative is indeed structured essentially around a father-son relationship. Symbolically orphaned, Jay wants to be like the admired adult, and five-sixths of the film will consist of his methodical preparation by what the film’s heavy, again underlining, calls his “rent-a-dad.” With the push-ups and black-outs, lessons in nutrition and wave tactics, endless pummelling in the impact zone and paddleboarding across Monterey Bay, it’s hard at times not to see Rocky’s sides of beef and hear that soaring score. Preparation sequences have their satisfactions to be sure, heightening tension and voluptuously postponing the film’s climax, while satisfying a certain curiosity by seeming to break the whole of a complex action or profession into its constituent parts. Chasing Mavericks makes clear that, once again in the surfing movie, more than just waveriding is at stake: it’s about, says the exacting guide, “building a solid human foundation — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.” This follows an earlier, and more resonant, warning, that the secret of big wave surfing is “how you perform when everything goes wrong,” when mountains of water are “pushing you down into a place that’s so deep and so dark you don’t want to be there.” That dark place will show, of course, in the parallel personal histories of the essentially abandoned Jay and his older mentor who, we discover, was left similarly alone and who then, in the film’s major surprise, loses his lovely, supportive wife to a stroke. How to survive such a world? Teaching Jay how to get out through impossibly pounding surf, Frosty says if you look hard enough there’s always a way.
A la North Shore, the two dive to explore Mavericks on a calm day, where a not-yet-ready Jay panics in its spooky, shark-laden depths. Echoing the warning above while preparing the three-minute post-wipeout pushdown in the closing sequence, director Hanson sets in place an important image pattern of enclosure and imprisonment. Every letter Jay receives from his estranged father he locks unopened in a kind of strongbox. The first two-thirds of the film place the boy in closed or tight spaces that visually echo the clenched emotional restriction and fear represented by the box. He keeps returning to a sketch of a diver straightjacketed by a squid’s tentacles, and his room, frequently in half-light, squats in a narrow, somber trailer-like structure haunted by the absent father and the mother’s absent expression. Jay’s escape is surfing, but even then his go-to spot is a kind of inlet accessed only by climbing down or jumping off high-wallish cliffs. His kicks with friends lead him twice to suburban pools. Behind the fences of a vacant house, the empty first pool is a commandeered skateboard park, where bristling antagonism and the kids’ clacking circuits suggest lives of sterile confinement and repetition; the filled pool they later leap into, a scene of whooping fun and promising mutual attraction with Jay’s love interest, hints at progress, but the action remains within a severely immured space. Only when the boy first spies Frosty and his crew at Mavericks do vistas open wide, his envious, disbelieving reaction shot intercut with spacious sweeps of the immense horizon, the endless Pacific, and that wave.
That wave is the thing. The film opens to a voice over haunting shots of a form swimming underwater: “We all come from the sea but we are not all of the sea. We who are, we children of the tides, must return to it again and again.” Uncontextualized, winceworthy to put Milius to shame, these words are nevertheless eventually redeemed by the film’s quiet coda — commemorating Jay Moriarity’s tragic death in a diving accident seven years after the events of the film — but most of all their straining toward myth is validated by that wave. For against the brutal fact of the thing as framed by Hanson, no verbal lyricism, including the lines to follow, can weigh in as anything but understatement. The director clearly knew it was all about the break — thus the film’s title and the way he tactically limits our views of the great swell in action to the barest of minimums until the enormous closing scenes. It’s past twenty minutes in that Jay’s breath catches with his first sight of Mavericks, and until he actually suits up to surf it, they will have only one other brief moment together, when he gapes helplessly from the cliff at a wiped-out surfer swept alone into the rocky Boneyard, a near-drowning that effectively sets up the terminal sequence. The rest of the time it is an absence, a toxic vacuum filling gradually with dread and anticipation. For one thing, Mavericks simply doesn’t exist until the right — or wrong — storm conditions align. Throughout the film Jay obsesses about getting a specialist weather radio; when he does and it at last pronounces the magic wave intervals in his room’s teeming dark, it is the festishistic tribal object signifying that the moment of passage has come. Frosty had said of a quiet Maverick that “the lion sleeps.” The big wave board the young Masai receives from his chief is called, significantly, a “spear,” and, the chasing done, it’s time to slay the beast.
To get a sense of the beast, first know that it’s a forty-five-minute paddle just to make it out at Mavericks. Hanson communicates something of the size, alternating widely framed, sweeping helicopter shots with in-water camera work shooting up the wave’s vertiginous face and then toward the vast vista shoreward after the unfathomable mass of its ugly lead-green shoulder has passed. Most scores would lay it on at this point, but the sound people go instead for a hint of anticipatory martial percussion to prepare the ear for the real payoff, the series of textured vapor detonations as the curls contract and finally explode. Like Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat,” where among “the breakers and currents / I have seen . . . what men believed they saw,” huge motorcraft ferrying surfers into position reel and barely heave over the almost literally inconceivable incoming ridges. Jay’s pro forma antagonist — a low-rent surfer with a foul mouth and little narrative reason to exist — opts for the easier route out on one of those boats, but happily, after a minute of tension in the lineup, Hanson drops the Hollywoody duel one fears is coming. The moon-faced sixteen-year-old and his wave are more than enough duel.
When Moriarity at last paddles out through the ice-cold chop, it is to the break that would kill Mark Foo the first day the Hawaiian big wave elite turned up to surf the spot, and ninety-six hours after Jay’s real-life first drop. As Steve Pezman ranted in Riding Giants, Mavericks is “so gnarly and rocky and . . . violent, it’s just hateful, it’s hateful.” The kid somehow takes off on a wave a dozen times his height and, in live footage from the day integrated seamlessly into the film, his over-the-falls wipeout merits terrifyingly its rep as one of the worst ever witnessed. Of course — after minutes under, board tombstoning then finally snapped off the leash — Jay will conquer the wave. Because expected, and clearly a montage of several separate rides, the soaring representation of his triumph oddly lessens the effect. The older and younger man embrace, a hagiographic series of real surf magazine covers follows, then the news of Jay’s death, echoing with fresh meaning the film’s haunted undersea opening. But it’s all decline from the emotional oomph the masterful camerawork and discreetly stirring score elicit from the wave itself when its pure, foul, rearing hatefulness is still the protagonist’s future. In his Romantic masterpiece Howards End, Forster wrote about another remarkable life and death in terms of a “great wave.” What marks such a wave is that it strews at our feet “fragments torn from the unknown.”
Yet the surfing film can also take as its subject a world we know all too well. It may be a biopic — or at least “based on a true story” — but Chasing Mavericks ironically has a strange intemporality; its merged inward-outward focus, a troubled personal adolescence meeting a monumental natural force, speaks only incidentally to its times. In this, Hanson’s film is something of a rarity as surf movies have from the beginning implicitly reflected, and at times more directly commented upon, that world out there that is not the beach. Surfing is a niche activity set in a physically marginal space, but as California’s Jackson Browne reminds us, “the edge of my country, my back to the sea, looking east” can be a point of fertile perspective. All about puberty and sweet summer rebellion, Gidget and her Beach Party-ing chums in fact signalled fierce culture wars to follow. While The Endless Summer inadvertently underlined American global dominance — “Catch a wave / And you’re sittin’ on top of the world!” — Big Wednesday very advertently widened its scope to treat among other things a painful symptom of that dominance, the Vietnam War, and its seething cultural inflammation. With Apocalypse Now and Kilgore’s truism that “Charlie don’t surf,” six-foot peaks and great rights and lefts could never again be quite the theater of utter innocence they might have once seemed. Since then the continuing institutionalization of pro surfing and the simultaneous explosion of a big-money market for surf fashions and related products have certainly done little for any sense of lost purity and insouciance. Even Bear, the revered and archetypal spiritual guide from Milius’s film, morphs temporarily into a cigar-smoking, sweatshop-running surf brand magnate.
In the decades since, several surf films have even more explicitly addressed what is for lack of a better term called the real world, with its changing mores, social fractures, and commercial pressures upon the self — while in general remaining true to the genre’s dominant coming-of-age-on-the-beach model and, of course, looking swimsuit-great. Perhaps unsurprisingly, with the women’s movement in the ’70s and the hyper-ascendance of already entrenched corporate power during the Reagan Revolution, it is the question of changing gender roles and the temptations of commerce that have most frequently emerged, sometimes unintentionally and in very contradictory manners, from such narratives as Blue Juice, Point Break, Surfer, Dude, Brice de Nice, Soul Surfer, and Blue Crush. In the latter pair, both from the first decade of the new century, the two issues entwine in intriguing ways. Cleverly titled, Blue Crush and Soul Surfer follow stories of young pro surfers trying to make it on the women’s tour who, once again confronted with obstacles and aided by demanding mentors, battle predictably through to forms of personally-measured victory. A significant sign of a changing world is that, while gender questions still enter the protagonists’ stories when they find themselves classically torn between a culturally imposed urge to seek value in male approval and their own growing sense of confident self-esteem, they do not figure as the blanket girls-can’t-surf prejudice that marked the genre in earlier decades. It is truly surprising, even heartening, that in neither film do guys ever give the girls a hard time for practicing “their” sport. No insults, not even any good-natured ribbing: Anne-Marie and Bethany are just surfers, and good ones at that. Kathy Kohner must be proud.
Her Gidget, of course, forced open that door, even if she and Jeffrey as quickly tried to close it. Yet, while a talented woman surfer passes unacknowledged in a shot in Big Wednesday, the place for women in early surf films is still generally the sand. Kiani, the love interest in North Shore, shows up there picturesquely as an earthy, natural force on horseback, like the Susan Hart character in Ride the Wild Surf, and her role is roughly the same, standing by her man and bringing out the best in him. Traditionally alluring and feminine with, literally, flowers in her hair, Kiani anticipates the film’s all-boxes-checked ending by simultaneously awakening Rick to the deep meaning of her Hawaiian culture — of which he later displays more understanding than the local hoods in a crucial fight scene — and encouraging him to knuckle down and accept his New York art school scholarship. His guru’s wife is a similarly nurturing figure who’ll slip in an occasional coaxing word when her idealistic husband misses the point but who leaves the waves to the men. In Blue Juice (1995) that traditional woman shows her other face, nagging the thirtyish hero to grow up, leave his childish surfing ways, and settle down. Notable only as a rare British contribution to the genre and as early work for such later A-listers as Ewan McGregor and Catherine Zeta-Jones, its hodgepodge of a story draws a clear gender line between men as active, irresponsible primates and women as staid homebodies. As such it feels like a rearguard throwback, especially given the female lead in Point Break four years earlier. Edgy, dangerous Tyler not only shreds with the best but teaches the ropes to the Keanu Reeves character. Remember, this was the decade of Baywatch, when, while shoehorned into that red tanksuit, Pamela Anderson nonetheless played a lifeguard. In any case, somewhere in those years, according to Dana Brown’s awkward backhand compliment from Step into Liquid, it became “no longer an insult to surf like a girl.”
By 2011 in Soul Surfer, Bethany’s an excellent surfer, period. Gender counts in the film in that she’ll fuss about her handicap and attractiveness to boys, but it’s much less thematically important here than the way the film reminds us of the burgeoning, increasingly invasive commercialization of surfing, or for that matter of our ad-infested daily lives. Its treatment is largely unintentional, and the effect is, to be honest, far from flattering to its protagonist and those who tell her story. The film recounts with what seems to be relative fidelity the much-publicized tale of Bethany Hamilton, the young pro surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack but who fought back to make it again on the circuit. An audience already familiar with this narrative arc thus arrives more than primed for the heartwarming — and universally applicable — comeback story to follow, and unsurprisingly, if annoyingly, they hear from first frame to last that “life is a lot like surfing. When you get caught in the impact zone, you have to get right back up because you never know what’s over the next wave. And if you have faith, anything’s possible.” The extraordinary biographical facts do lessen the corniness, of course, but there’s a lot to lessen: a family unironically perfect in a way one hasn’t seen in cinema for decades, a villain who happens to be the only non-blonde in the lineup, not one but two intense preparation scenes. And the religion: much more than a dollop, a primary ingredient. “I think I got my strength from Jesus Christ,” the real-life Bethany witnesses in the closing credits. Apparently, if you have faith, anything’s possible.
And thus the film’s title, instead of the more usual sense of soul surfer, that centered individual seeking neither attention nor first place but harmony with the wave and the self. Revealingly, after the cute opening Super 8 footage of the little girl with surfing parents and saltwater in her veins, Bethany avows that “from my first wave I wanted to be a pro surfer.” Given surfing’s carefully cultivated mythology of countercultural spiritual purity, the tendency of other films in the genre — Surf’s Up, Blue Crush, Big Wednesday, North Shore, Surfer, Dude, etc. — has been to question the meaning and personal costs in the professional sport and the accompanying sell-out to commercial motives and interests. Not so Soul Surfer, which not only smilingly accepts as given Bethany’s career choice but is in itself a virtual orgy of product placement. One feels the film, like the surfer herself, was in large part sponsored by Rip Curl. But the name-checking goes far beyond this brand to others and finally to the jaw-dropping moment when preparation for a mission to aid Thai tsunami victims rewards us with a lingering full-screen shot of a pallet of Spam. Agreed, even one can of Spam is an inherently comic object, but the ripple of theater laughter was at least as much in response to the simple fact of the film’s insistent merchandising.
Despite such a moment, the central facts of the narrative are gripping, a girl who gets her arm bitten off, goes back in the ocean (amazing in itself), and then surfs again at an elite level. To make phases two and three of this narrative sequence — the subject matter of the film — work, the precipitating first event demands delicate treatment. About twenty-five minutes in, as Bethany and family friends wait tranquilly for the next wave, the literally out-of-the-blue shark attack occurs. This happens quickly, cleanly, almost abstractly, with no creepy pre-predation music and the minimum of graphic effects. Even Bruce at Universal Studios is scarier than this fakey maw that surges upward and disappears, and that, except for Dad’s later comparison of the scarred board to the now reassuringly deceased shark’s teeth, is essentially forgotten almost immediately after it occurs. To deemphasize the attack by hurrying through then erasing it afterward seems part of director Sean McNamara’s plans: focusing viewer attention intently on the protagonist’s recovery and necessary return to surfing, he does not want his audience to hear those notes from John Williams and get all Jaws-y anytime anybody goes near the water. The issue is in fact only addressed once, and this in order to be summarily dismissed. “Aren’t you afraid?,” asks a friend. “I’m more afraid of not surfing,” replies Bethany.
Well, who would be afraid with Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as their loving, encouraging, longboarding, attractive, scripture-quoting, nonworking, endlessly available parents? Soul Surfer breaks the genre’s unwritten rule of the protagonist’s weak biological family links and subsequent adoption by the crusty but generous spiritual guide. Quaid’s empathetic counselor is, not surprisingly, also a boardmaker. When Bethany fails in her first comeback because she’s not able to get out one-handed through heavy surf, he devises an innovation for her board; and all along he’s there to train her and offer that kind of advice that applies equally to surfing and to life. In this film, however, the real mentor is the Great Boardmaker in the Sky. The religious apotheosis of Soul Surfer occurs before Bethany’s second competitive comeback when she accompanies her church group to Thailand to help those suffering, rather neatly, from a devastating wave. Seeking a larger purpose, she predictably encourages some understandably hesitant local children to enter the water and try surfing. In context, though, the scene comes suddenly to resemble an immersion baptism.
The effect is more than a slight malaise, as it is elsewhere when we hear quotations from Jeremiah or earnest spiritual counsel from Bethany’s youth minister. Often moving due to the exceptional biographical events on which it is based, certainly sincere, Soul Surfer nevertheless suffers from a goody-goody self-righteousness and a smug failure to question certain assumptions on which its film heroine stands. Like Rick in North Shore, Bethany wins, while technically losing, the final competition; “I didn’t come to win,” she reassures us, “I came to surf.” Okay, but this seemingly blithe disregard for fame and honors is in fact underlain by a fully developed mentality of sponsorship and merchandising. Soul Surfer is not unpleasant to watch despite the occasional wince, but its impossible-not-too-root-for comeback mechanics still come off as disagreeable when so insistently framed by Family Values and by a certain Christian Right’s unthinking fusion of free market capitalism and old-time religion.
A decade earlier, Blue Crush (2002) had taken us to the same perfect Hawaiian beaches, where another aspiring young blond pro surfer overcomes hardship to qualify in another big competition, which she again narrowly loses but in fact wins. Formulaic as it is, shamelessly echoing North Shore and Big Wednesday, Blue Crush nevertheless has an honest, scuffed contemporary zip that’s lacking in the pious certitudes of Soul Surfer. Commerce enters the sanctimonious white-bread world of the latter as an honored houseguest, whereas the protagonist in the former lives “on the other side of the island,” there where you struggle to pay your rent. God’s not on Anne-Marie’s side in Blue Crush — she’s just good, and she needs the sponsorship cash that a top performance in the Pipeline Open might bring in. The film was loosely inspired by Susan Orlean’s 1998 Women Outside profile on Maui girl surfers, most from poor single-parent families, together trying to get through the impact zone; what remains is its blend of near-trailer trash social realism with surfing’s perfect dream, and the sense of a hard-won, daily-threatened female community. Blue Crush is a teen entertainment product tracing the classic sports comeback trajectory, but it stands apart in the genre for the semi-ambitious way it entwines the heroine’s troubled surf quest with questions of social class, race, and gender.
Abandoned by her mother, who’s run off to the mainland with some guy, Anne-Marie shares run-down digs with two girlfriends and a kid sister on the edge of delinquency. The three friends hit the surf when they’re not working in neat little uniforms as housekeepers at a nearby luxury hotel or getting chewed out for driving Penny late to school. Anne-Marie’s the star, a local wild card invite to Pipe, with one week left to prepare — but also with, as the pre-credit sequence displays, nightmares due to a wipeout near-drowning. To this narrative complication then add the NFL team staying at the hotel and its absurdly handsome/nice quarterback; Matt crosses glances with Anne-Marie, asks for surfing lessons, and suddenly she’s choosing silk sheets and room service over training. As the protagonist yields to the attractions of fame, wealth, and afternoon massages, her little sister falls even more apart and her friends try to get her back on the board. Finally, following an unpleasant encounter with the team’s hot, nasty “wives and girlfriends,” Anne-Marie sorts out what’s important, surfing impressively after a rocky start, and scoring a Billabong sponsorship and closing hug with Mr. Right.
Fairy tale narrative arc and, yes, brand name placement, but overall the film communicates a credible sense of the serious financial need and social class barriers present even in paradise. For the tight household of girls in the film, surfing exists simultaneously as a state of pure being and pleasure into which they apparently fell at birth and as a way out of a pretty tough life landside. They are always struggling to make the rent; when let go by the hotel, they jump on the comparatively big dough in surf lessons for Matt and his rambunctious teammates. Interestingly, the film is quietly framed throughout by the ethnicity that often runs parallel with class in Hawaii . Even if a little blondie, Anne-Marie is a local, and her elaborately tattooed, similarly low-rent male friends are all ethnically Hawaiian. From the opening scenes, they act as enabling support for her ambitions, urging her out to Pipeline and “blocking” so she can select the best practice waves. But certain submerged resentments surface when they find their friend with her new beau at a secret break, picking a fight with him because, as they say, “we grew here, you flew here.” Back in North Shore Chandler had similarly addressed the mainlander’s problems of island integration, reminding the hero that we took their land, so naturally they want at least to hold on to their waves. Anne-Marie’s other close ethnically Hawaiian friend is Eden, her too-symbolically-named roommate and, in a nice twist on the motif, the film’s by now inevitable mentor figure. Yes, she’s also a surfboard shaper.
Guilting her friend back to work, renting an expensive jet ski for training, Eden is the protagonist’s conscience, one all the more necessary in that familiar pattern of the central figure without parental guidance. The woman as counselor is particularly appropriate in Blue Crush because the idea of feminine solidarity runs central to the film. The male figure threatening to fracture the female community is, significantly, the high school testosterone stereotype, not only a football star but the cutest of quarterbacks. The animal attraction in the first glance is there, but the Anne-Marie of the initial scenes is a centered, ambitious bustler who bristles at the obvious come-on that follows. She’s too busy for such nonsense. When her resolve cracks, her surfing goes to pot, her roommates struggle with resentments, and her sister loses what little order her life had before. The crunch comes one evening during a gala team dinner with Anne-Marie in the knockout dress her new boyfriend bought her: “Let’s go show you off!,” he bubbles. This moment of stereotypical female objectification is punctuated by an overheard restroom conversation among the mini-skirted wags, who can’t see what Matt’s doing slumming like that. Against female solidarity we have the age-old stereotype of women whose fundamental identity is that of catty Caroline Bingley rivals for male attention. Our heroine storms out, only to dive in the sea fully clothed. A moment underwater, and then she’s floating next to him in his tie. “What should I do?,” she begs. Matt winningly replies, “The girl I first met would never ask a man what to do.”
That Anne-Marie would head underwater at this moment of crisis is consistent with the film’s imagery, which, again, begins with an oft-repeated nightmare sequence of submerged, churning terror. Not unlike Chasing Mavericks, the claustrophobic underwater fears link surfing trauma with that of a life struggling to get to the surface. Another near-drowning will follow, and when she finally gets back to work and makes it through to round two at Pipe, Anne-Marie repeatedly refuses waves; and then at last taking off, it’s a hairy wipeout and another long beating. By the time she makes it back out, it’s too late to get the requisite number of waves to beat the real Keala Kennelly against whom she’s opposed. But Kennelly’s surprisingly willing to help, working on the psych-out and coaching Anne-Marie into position. Result: a perfect ten that turns loss into triumph and sponsorship. This, the film’s second feminine mentor figure, might cynically be seen as good PR for the real-life surfer in question, and in any case the competition was already essentially over when she started helping. Yet she may also be viewed as embodying an alternative model of behavior to that traditionally offered by men: when last sighted in North Shore, the Laird Hamilton bad guy is pulling the hero’s board leash so he can’t catch a winning wave. The kind of support Kennelly and other friends offer figures meaningfully into the film’s central concerns, for Blue Crush is about women getting by in a tough world and needing desperately to hang five together.
For these women as, it seems, for the real Maui girls whose story informs the film, surfing is surfing first, natural and necessary as breathing, and only accessorily a business opportunity that circumstance won’t let you refuse. Under what conditions one accepts that opportunity is a big question in numerous surfing films; it is essentially the only one in the Matthew McConaughey vehicle Surfer, Dude, which appeared six years after Blue Crush. McConaughey’s character is identified in the film’s opening sequence by a thunder throat announcer: “Guess who’s coming back! That’s right, legendary soul surfer Steve Addington!” The narrative complication to this Malibu homecoming from the world’s other great breaks is in that TV voice, since the Add Man’s cool, low-pressure gear sponsor has sold out to a bigger corporate group — and now they’ll only keep him on if he agrees to participate in Free Surfer, their upcoming reality show and “first person immersion video game.” Tan, shirtless, and barefoot when arriving at LAX, as throughout the film’s eighty-five minutes, Add answers the customs official’s question if surfing counts as a job with a pause and crinkled grin: “Not really.” Therein lies the pinch — his manager buddy, for all the laid-back vibe lent him by Woody Harrelson, knows that the checks have run out and it might be time to go to work for producer Eddie Zarno, former surfer and full-time shark.
At first glance, the film seems like a way to make some change by putting real-life buds McConaughey and Harrelson together to brah’-talk each other, which they indeed do charmingly. Surfer, Dude is a little more than that, however, in the comic, easygoing social satire that quickly falls into place. Zarno needs Addington’s effortless cool to pull off what, over lush images of azure swells and bikinied chicks, the same media voice identifies as “the coolest reality show of the summer: the best surfers from around the world will be living in this house and partying with these girls!” Addington and Jack slip in and out of this house, negotiating, refusing to sign, and we soon get the picture: cameras everywhere, the cleavage and manufactured crises of reality TV, the “surfing” room where the technicians want Steve’s cooperation in fabricating his game avatar. “Wave porn,” mutters one of his Jeff Spicoli slacker buddies. The production design underlines the contrast central to the film, between reality and reality show, the dusty, shaggy edges of life and the smooth sheen of deceptive appearance. From the brushy Malibu hillsides through the leathered mugs of rumpled gurus Scott Glenn and Willie Nelson, warm earth tones predominate outside the house. Inside, it’s not beer sloshing in a plastic cup but vodka eased into crystal, ivory walls, silvers, greys, frigid cathode blues.
Looming over Point Dume, the spectacular white pad is “early Klaus Woo.” Addington can only stare when he hears that its style is “Post Post-Modern Revival.” For jargon, this nonsense and surfer talk, is part of the meaning and the fun of Surfer, Dude. In Add’s world we hear about keeping the stoke and how “that harshed my morning mellow”; in Zarno’s, “we own his image, and image is reality, so we own him.” A real surfer and one gone bad, they remain as far apart spiritually as they are alphabetically. “Now I cut deals,” replies Zarno to Addington’s memory of a great cutback. Whereas all the latter wants to do is surf “out there.” The secondary narrative tension, though, is that the waves have shut down for weeks, which drives the protagonist to go so far as to swear off women and weed until they return. The word’s never mentioned, but it’s clearly a karma question for, love interest nonetheless developed and plot complications seen to, it’s only when Zarno is at last sent packing that the onshores pick up and the swells rise. Down in Baja on an earlier road trip, Steve had performed a requisite figure in the genre, rising briefly out of his normal cheerful surfgrunt to offer lyrical tribute to the mystical something “special” in the sport: “What’s special about the wind? Surfing is to be with that mystery, to ride that mystery as long as you can. And when it’s over that’s cool ’cause you know you were there.”
Heartfelt stuff and brief so as not to overstay its welcome, such sentiments pleasantly underlie the broad satire aimed at a contemporary commercial and entertainment infrastructure of facile image and manipulation. In the film, however, surfers themselves can also come in for a touch of good-natured, if not always fully intentional, satire. First, the title hints, as sweetheart stoner boneheads, yet also as stealth commercial players. The Addington-style surfer as Emersonian rustic has no truck with commerce, but isn’t it exactly that quality that makes him an attractive potential billboard? Zarno reminds McConaughey’s character that he was being paid not for surfing but for wearing certain shorts on a certain board; plus he’s called, isn’t he, the Add Man. Though we’re supposed to sigh knowingly when the evil producer evokes the “surfing industry,” is there a better term for the interlocking financial interests of competition organizers, clothes and gear manufacturers, the surfing elite, and the producers of subsidiary entertainment products, including this very film? How then to position the surfer protagonist appropriately in relation to this economic system — not fully enmeshed, of course, but close enough to be credible for an audience that wants to celebrate its stars and wasn’t born yesterday. According to certain patterns in, now, decades of films, this generally means, it seems, accepting need but not greed as motivation, and ambition but only insofar as it is framed by a wider could-give-a-shit soul surfer ethos. That line is thin and permeable, however. “They all come round eventually,” Zarno says, with a distressing perceptiveness. When Add does, only serious second thoughts and his new girlfriend’s company president of a father can resolve the problem. The bare feet of the latter in the closing sequence apparently mean he’s a cool dude, but am I the only one to see the irony in East Coast corporate cavalry saving the day for a legendary soul surfer?
At the multiplex, to be sure, most viewers will simply see the McConaughey figure as catching the kind of break he deserves. For in the surf film, accommodation with the business world or fame machine generally washes away like it never happened once the hero’s back on the board and immersed again in that surfing dream whose only requirements, we’re led to believe, are self- or wave-imposed. But the accommodation did happen, and it does happen in some way in virtually every surfing movie (even the largely innocent Chasing Mavericks, whose epilogue accords considerable space to Jay Moriarity’s later celebrity). One curious exception to this rule is the film that will conclude these remarks, Point Break (1991). Even twenty years later, Kathryn Bigelow’s fourth film remains a cult classic. At least in part, I would argue, this is because of its uncompromising portrayal of surfing as entry into an inviolable, resolutely pure spiritual and psychic state. This portrayal is not without its own special, and multiple, ironies, however. While there actually is a truly Manichean split between surfing purity and “society” in the film, the overall effect is more to dissolve lines of division than reinforce them. Beyond rebels, the surfers are outlaws, whereas social force is represented by nothing less than the FBI. Much of the interest of the movie lies in what it goes on to do with such apparently irreconcilable opposites. Point Break pretends to be an adrenaline action movie with the requisite good guys and bad guys, but in fact it’s all about moral nuance, the deceptiveness of appearance, and the inadequacy of simple categories.
The categories would certainly seem to be clear. The Keanu Reeves character is a young Bureau hotshot sent to LA to beef up a robbery division tortured by an unsolved series of bank jobs starring the “Ex-Presidents,” a highly professional gang trademarked by their LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, and Carter masks. A few American male insult greetings into the narrative, Johnny Utah gains the respect of his cynical veteran partner, and together they pursue the latter’s hunch, based on tan lines and a precise heist calendar, that the robbers are surfers. To infiltrate the scene, Johnny learns to surf, which leads to romance with his tough-love coach Tyler and, more troublingly, to a mutual attraction with Bodhi, surfing high priest and, incidentally, bank robbing gang leader. Though she will almost immediately entwine their worlds, Bigelow takes pains at first to distinguish the star student-athlete whose family name Utah evokes a landlocked homegrown fundamentalism from the mystical waterman named for an Eastern wisdom beyond understanding. The memorable opening credits present the two figures in evocative opposition, with multiple abrupt cuts between the FBI agent on the training course, all staccato movement and jerkily repeated shots at bad-guy cardboard targets, and the supplely immersed camera view of a surfer, presumably Bodhi, whose every movement is fluidly one with the wave’s energy. Here aggression is methodically channelled, numerically evaluated, and tightly focused on decisive later action; there the surfer glides in graceful immersive adaptation to the liquid moment. Yet the complicated moral vision of Point Break is such that even as these terms set themselves apart, they also seem to merge — like the titles’ two words and the lead actors’ names, which first appear on opposing sides of the screen, then slide slowly across each other to take their final transposed positions on the other side. The training-day sequence with its targets gliding left and right visually echoes this movement as well as the horizontal sweeps of the surfer’s continuing relationship with the wave. The rain soaking Reeves as he shoots furthermore suggests a link between the two sequences and their central figures. Significantly, the visual last word goes to Bodhi, whose waves finally swamp the camera, in a sense submerging the screen and, by juxtaposition, the young agent who will soon be swept away by what they represent.
Surfers are “some kind of tribe,” we’re told, whose world is instinct and Dionysian bonfires on the open sand; the Bureau offices are a tight warren of cages where the discourse locksteps through statistics and “data-based analysis.” When Johnny moves to the beach, he leaves the indoor swimming pool and its sour agents fumbling blindfolded to pick up sunken bricks for the blind ecstasy of night surfing. “You don’t need to see the wave; just accept its energy,” Bodhi advises. Signalled by little giveaways like surf talk in the office or familiarity with a certain break, Johnny gradually goes native. For much of the film, he’s unaware that this band and its attractive guru are the criminals he’s seeking, so when that at last becomes apparent, his sense of duty is already wound tightly into a confusing web of affection and heady self-discovery. Such complication is the point in a narrative crafted to call into question conventional assumptions. These guys are bank robbers, but their Presidential disguises suggest a parallel, politically subversive agenda: “I am not a crook,” mimics the V-fingered Nixon figure before leaving with the cash. Or as Bodhi later says, no longer suggesting but underlining with a thick marker, “This was never about the money. It was us vs. the system, that system that kills the human spirit . . . . Those dead souls inching along in their car coffins — we show them that the human spirit is still alive.” Perhaps sincere, perhaps wildly self-justifying, such rage against the machine is in any case disconcertingly explicit, for Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi is far more convincing when he communicates in the quieter language of seduction and infectious enthusiasm — in other words, when talking and living surfing. Again, one of the reasons the film has stuck with viewers is its uncompromising faith in the ideal of surfing — the utter here- and now-ness, the otherworldly float — an ideal that by its very nature is more subversive than any political slogan. Bodhi speaks of “a state of mind — that place where you lose yourself and you find yourself.”
When you go to that place and you’re an FBI operative, things get complex. Following a now-familiar pattern, Johnny invents an undercover backstory of orphanhood that prepares him symbolically for initiation into the new tribe first by his coach and then, more meaningfully, by what his partner calls the “Zen surf master.” Before the last reel, admittedly under duress, Johnny is nevertheless taking part in a bank job and helping form a perfect circle while skydiving with his surrogate family of a gang. On one level he does his sworn duty, ceaselessly pursuing his target until, as Bodhi himself says, he (sort of) “gets his guy.” On another, courting his own demons, he easily crosses lines of allegiance between institutional order and impulse, showing up late to his own bust, tossing procedure to the ocean winds, and, most notably, refusing an unrefusable kill shot. In the world of Point Break such lines are made to be crossed. When Johnny first sights Bodhi making small work of a five-foot wall, Tyler identifies him as “a searcher.” Besides the obvious philosophical sense, the term suggests thematic links with the John Ford film. And indeed there is similar room for hero and anti-hero, thwarted binary oppositions, and unsettling excursions into alternate cultures and realities. In its referencing of the American cultural tradition of the criminal or gangster as hero, Point Break furthermore anticipates later forms of troubling complicity between lawman and outlaw in such films as Heat and The Silence of the Lambs.
Another complicity just under the surface is, of course, the erotic tension between the Reeves and Swayze characters; palpable if never avowed, it contributes significantly to the film’s already mercurial atmosphere. The two men share the same girlfriend — “what’s mine is yours” — a Lori Petty coiffed for maximum androgyny and bearing the gender indeterminate name of Tyler. There’s mooning and wrestling and languorous looks. The great action pursuit through the backyards and kitchens of Venice ends with the two protagonists locked in each other’s gaze; finally refusing the shot, Johnny falls back, aims his revolver vertically, firing off a dozen stiff rounds to a monstrous groan of release. This list can go on and should, for a certain gay sexual tension is one more way Point Break explores the question of transgression and border crossing. Like this remarkable juxtaposition: the now wised-up Bodhi who says mysteriously, “I know exactly what to do with him,” then cut to a beefcake shot of a doe-eyed, shirtless Johnny gazing longingly up at the camera directly above his bed. When both figures, finally aware of the other’s true identity, play forward in their edgy game, the skydiving sequence offers a veritable festival of loaded language and action. “We gonna’ jump or jerk off?,” it begins, then “you want me so much, it’s like acid in your mouth.” Free falling, they hug in the air, urging each other to “pull it, pull it,” and when the pair finally hits the ground they are tangled in a chute that for all the world resembles a particularly energetic night’s bedclothes. In the epic final scene, when Johnny runs down his prey in Australia during the Fifty Year Storm, the love interest whose kidnapping was his ostensible motivation in much of the last part of film has completely vanished. What counts is that he “gets his guy.” He could slap the cuffs on normally but chooses instead to handcuff himself to Bodhi. It’s not surprising that you can go on YouTube and among the other parodies find a mash-up of such scenes entitled “Point Brokeback.”
Point Break is indeed parody heaven. Partly it’s the actors, Keanu Reeves, never cuter than here or more wooden as an actor, plus the cult film excess of Patrick Swayze, that ’80s Ghost, Dirty Dancing, and Roadhouse hard guy heartthrob. Not to mention the abs and scalloped peroxide fringe. Throughout, the film throws two genres, the cop and surfing film, into collision, testing their limits, only to go baroquely over the top in the infamous second skydiving scene. The first was Johnny’s initiation, where we could, with indulgent popcorn-fed generosity, just perhaps accept the sophisticated skydiving manoeuvres. Later when, apparently for the girl whose motivational weight we never really buy, Johnny flings himself out of the plane, confident he can streak down, pick up the seven-second lead of Bodhi, and share his parachute, we are entering bafflingly stupid — but joyfully parodic — cinematic air space. The two cops in Hot Fuzz who ruminate on Johnny and Bodhi get a surefire laugh but are also tapping into a warm surge of affectionate memory for a handful of scenes and verbal exchanges that are as unforgettable as they are easy targets for irony. The same goes for Jean Dujardin in his 2005 French comedy Brice de Nice. Though empty-headed Brice can’t actually surf, he sits stylishly off the Côte d’Azur in endless wait for nonexistent waves, starting each day with a devotional pause before a Point Break poster and quoting the wisdom of Bodhi at every available juncture. Well before The Artist, Brice de Nice and Michel Hazanavicius’s OSS 117 films had showcased Dujardin’s subtly physical comic gift and gentle knack for tipping charm into smarm. Siphoning the comic potential from Bodhi philoso-babble while in no way dissing it, Dujardin deftly punctures his character’s empty pretence to reveal a moving emotional neediness and thirst for something grander. Brice is ridiculous but in touching pursuit of an ideal. Which is pretty much how we feel about Bodhi.
Point Break is a genre and gender bender, and a total kick, but people don’t just remember it for the howlers. In its way parody is as sincere a form of flattery as imitation, imitation that, among other things, has already given us the apparently unending Fast and Furious franchise and will soon produce a Point Break remake — to be directed, surprise, by the cinematographer of The Fast and the Furious. There is clearly something in Bigelow’s film that arrests and fascinates, most likely its unsteady demarcation between good and evil, desire and duty, one kind of theft and another. Not surprisingly, the beach where Bodhi and Johnny tangle in affectionate aggression serves at least partially as disputed borderland in this fluid, continuing transaction between civilization and its discontents. Yet the surfline also means something entirely other, for behind the abundant half certitudes and contradictions that compose Point Break stands at least one uncompromising absolute, the redemptive heart truth of surfing: to glide as one with water, to walk on it, leads to a place so intensely of this world it lifts you beyond it. Every surf film seeks words and images to evoke this spot, but it has to be believed to be seen, and none seems to believe quite as intensely as Point Break. In waves where Johnny is born into a new self, Bodhi goes to complete a cycle as natural as the swell, wanting “the ultimate . . . and ready to pay the ultimate price.” Repeated at least twice elsewhere in the film, the adjective seems consciously to echo across the decades the squealed “It’s the ultimate!” and sheer animal delight of a certain Francie after her first life-changing ride on Moondoggie’s board. As Kahuna would find in August 2012, we all finally pay the ultimate price. What matters is that instant in that summer, that wave, that lift, that drop.
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