PRINT Summer 2004


Riding Giants

THE POPULAR IMAGE OF SURFING—a rider on a large, wind-groomed wave—is, alas, an idealization. Waves are bad more often than good, even (in fact, especially) at world-class breaks like Pipeline. Hence surfers travel when they can, in the hope that the waves will be better elsewhere. Occasionally they are. But even in the elite ranks of globe-trotting professionals, most of one’s time is spent doing various mental and physical finger exercises. Great waves arrive like Rilkean storms of inspiration, and serious surfers are fully the equal of artists in the degree of their commitment and obsessiveness. Paddling out at a moment’s notice—on one’s wedding day, on the morning of the big presentation—can entail the destruction of love relationships and the loss of jobs (“Why get fired unless it’s firing?” runs a surf forecaster’s motto). Meanwhile, between swells, which is to say most of the time, surfing is as much an act of the imagination as anything else.

The structure of the surfing imagination is that of the surf-film utopia, though in fact “surf-film utopia” is probably a redundancy. The movies have titles like Wanted, Puerto Underground, Tripping the Planet, Litmus, North of Nowhere. Shot for the most part on video since the ’80s, they are low-budget and unapologetically repetitive: one noteworthy ride after another, period, with at most a thong shot or distracted pan of shore—“I think that’s Indonesia.” (And the 2002 terrorist bombing in Bali has altered this format not one iota.) For anyone unable to summon a vivid physical memory of riding a wave, the typical surf film would be as compelling as hard-core porn to a toddler.

From a purely cinematic perspective, some of the finest surf films are the relatively rare popularizing ones: The Endless Summer (1966), Five Summer Stories (1972), The Endless Summer II (1994) (a title whose laughable paradox speaks volumes about surfers’ relation to language and utopia), and, most recently, Riding Giants, which premiered at Sundance in January and will arrive in theaters this July. The problem with this genre—and it’s distinct from narrative films like Big Wednesday (1978) and Blue Crush (2002)—lies in its compulsion to explain, to tell instead of show. Surfing is most like dance, of the arts. Rhythm, strength, and flexibility are the essentials, integral for attaining the velocity necessary for the successful completion of individual maneuvers and the overall ride. For surfers, good ones anyway, waves are like partners who create choreographic possibilities. Rhythm, both natural and acquired, is even at the heart of the knack for falling into step with the pace of a given swell, of being in the right place at the right time, something whose importance increases with the size and danger of the waves. But there’s a profound difference between dance and surfing, one best revealed by a trite dance gesture, the rhapsodic fluttering of the hands at the lips that means: If only I could speak what I long to say! There is no such gesture in surfing, because there is no pining for speech and clarification. For all its repetition compulsion, surfing is in a sense autotelic. It is not signaling anything; it is not a representation; it is not for others.

Hence the flawed nature of the popularizing surf film, which, in seeking to convey the appeal of surfing to nonsurfers, brushes surfing against its own self-involved grain. Happily, this tendency is often compensated for by high production values and painstaking water photography. The lens of a 35 mm camera bobs to the surface, and a rhomboid of light throbs on the glassy shoulder of a reef-pass wave; a lithe, backlit figure appears at the crest on a slip of foam: Surfing is simply eye candy, vastly superior to skiing or skateboarding or most anything else as a visual phenomenon. There’s a Brakhage-like purity to the best surf footage, a sumptuous, slow-motion self-reflexivity. After all, waves are themselves a kind of film: moving, translucent, image-bearing. Reflections of sky and sea and surfer pass across them. As a swell, the sea rises up to become a screen, recasting the screen on which it’s appearing in the theater, fusing the two. A tube is a kind of camera obscura, and when the photography finds its way inside, it’s like a return to origins, one signaled by the mist that’s spit out at the end.

Step into Liquid, last summer’s popularizing surf film, is a breezy feel-good overview, brimming with happy surf families and rote testimonials about surfing’s spiritual dimension. Of the overcrowding and vicious localism that has plagued the sport for the past thirty or forty years, culminating in widely reported lawsuits and exclusive surf resorts, not a word is breathed. The highly controversial use of Jet Skis to catch big waves—and not-so-big waves—is presented as merely the latest nifty innovation, though it, too, is as much a response to overcrowding as it is the “next level.” This gooily sanitized picture of surfing is not made less objectionable by the action, which is for the most part forgettable, hamstrung by endless slow-motion sequences of merely good rides. Here we have a “celebration” of a sport already too alluring for its own good, and one is hard-pressed to discern a justification for it—apart, that is, from the one hiding in plain sight there in the credits: the companies dedicated to selling yet more surf gear, which is now a multibillion-dollar industry. If surfing is spiritual, then the surf industry, for which Step into Liquid serves as propaganda, is the profoundly corrupt church hierarchy. Run by surfers, it has yet to get properly nauseated by its own rampant dishonesty and venality.

This summer’s Riding Giants, which was directed by Stacy Peralta, focuses on a relatively specialized aspect of the sport: big-wave riding. The film lacks the funky eccentricity of Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001), Peralta’s documentary about ’70s skateboarding in Santa Monica, meanwhile suffering from the popularizing surf film’s usual problems, including bowdlerizing and a cumbersome, IMAX title. On the other hand, the burden of its didactic content is lightened by humor and witty graphics, and it assembles a lot of hair-raising footage of huge surf, using basso profundo rumbles to great effect to convey the sound of avalanches of white water. In the course of attending to the technical details of big-wave riding, Riding Giants also goes some way toward sketching a kind of big-wave poetics of terror and ecstasy.

Once more or less synonymous with modern surfing, big-wave riding found itself sidelined in the late ’60s by what came to be called the “short-board revolution” and the subsequent preoccupation with small-wave hotdogging and tube riding. It wasn’t until the early ’90s, with the revelations about Mavericks, a big-wave spot in northern California, and the more or less simultaneous invention of tow-in surfing, that big-wave riding regained its rightful place at center stage. The brilliance of big-wave surfing lies, like Earth art, in its scale and purity, the stark emphasis on fundamentals: catching the gargantuan wave, getting to one’s feet, and riding from crest to trough and beyond. There is nothing categorically distinctive about it, but the bigger the wave, the more the rudiments become fraught with heart-in-throat peril, and the more remarkable their execution. Big-wave riding is surfing capitalized, classicized.

Riding Giants is organized around profiles of Greg Noll, Jeff Clark, and Laird Hamilton, three remarkable figures whose exploits easily carry the film. Noll is surfing’s Pollock, a macho, hard-drinking lug who was among the first to ride Waimea Bay, which he refers to, teary eyed, as his “gal.” The golden age of modern surfing was the pioneering years of the late ’50s, when Noll and a small crew of Californians lived off the land each winter on the North Shore of Oahu. (The archival home-movie footage suggests an all-male idyll straight out of William S. Burroughs.) In 1969, Noll rode to the bottom of what many consider the biggest wave ever paddled into, but (unlike Pollock) he survived the wipeout to walk away from surfing and become a commercial fisherman.

Jeff Clark discovered Mavericks, the spot just south of San Francisco, where the shadow cast by its gelid, behemoth waves is the deathiest in surfing—and that’s leaving aside the fact that the area is a breeding ground for great whites. In his secrecy and purity, Clark, who surfed there alone for fifteen years, is the sport’s Duchamp. Mavericks itself is even a kind of readymade: a work of art right under everyone’s nose; it took Clark to see it.

Forever experimenting with wave-riding innovations, Laird Hamilton (who pioneered the use of Jet Skis to tow surfers into waves) is part da Vinci, part Richard Serra: arrogant, distrustful, peerless. He has the looks and manner of a Special Forces colonel and surfs with an elite team of training-obsessed fellow tow-in fanatics and swooping helicopters. It’s surfing as assault by Navy SEALs.

With the advent of tow-in surfing, the mystical silence of surfing became a thing of the past. This is an occasion for deep ambivalence, even mourning, not the sort of slack-jawed awe and enthusiasm showcased in Step into Liquid and Riding Giants. Jet Skis permit riders—any riders, whatever their level of expertise—to catch waves too big to paddle into, astounding, unthinkably big waves. But they leave a strong whiff of gasoline in the once-fresh sea air, make an obnoxious, distracting whine, and are destructive of ecosystems at spots like Mavericks. On top of all that, the rides they permit are often curiously boring to watch, since by pulling the rider into the wave so early, Jet Skis eliminate the essential drama of the takeoff and drop. Their embrace by the world’s best surfers makes it dishearteningly difficult to distinguish surfers from motocross knuckleheads destroying a forest or water-skiing frat boys at the local lake.

Riding Giants, supposedly a history of big-wave riding, says nary a word about drug use among big-wave surfers, though at various times it’s been rampant and certainly has a place in any self-respecting—any adult—history of the sport. In the ’70s the original Mr. Pipeline, Butch Van Artsdalen, died of alcoholism, and Jeff Hakman was nearly lost to heroin addiction. Indeed, one of the most memorable stories of big-wave history concerns Jock Sutherland, the Kelly Slater of the late ’60s, high on a megadose of LSD, surfing huge Waimea Bay at night. Now that’s more interesting than any anecdote in Riding Giants. Why such omissions, especially from a director like Peralta, so ostensibly gritty and forthright when it comes to skateboarding?

Two words: corporate sponsorship. If Quiksilver, the money men behind the project, might sell fewer board shorts due to the messy association of surfing with drugs, then by all means let’s leave out the Jock Sutherland story. Corporate penetration has run so deep for so long that it’s become the natural state of affairs, with self-censorship the rule among the surfing press, who don’t seem to realize that they’ve been bought and sold. Meanwhile, Quiksilver washes its hands through sponsorship of a “soulful” big-wave contest like the Eddie Aikau, authenticating itself through affiliation with Hawaiian surfing royalty. And how dare anyone question their sincerity? For what would surfing be without Quiksilver? Just people riding waves for fun.

Surfing stands on the threshold of a dark period. A yearly reward of sixty thousand dollars minimum is being offered by Billabong for the biggest wave ridden. Private surf camps are springing up at great spots around the world, limiting access to surfers who can afford them. Bar-coded tubes can’t be far off, with Quiksilver paid royalties for every “aloha.”

Thad Ziolkowski is the author of On a Wave (Grove Press, 2002).