Surf Movie Tonight!
The Godlike, the Mediocre and the Hairy-Chested
By Matt Warshaw
Surf movies play off the belief held by all surfers—newcomers to weekenders to pros—that we're living a life of rich open-air adventure filled with regular instalments of folly and bliss, punishment and triumph. We few, we happy few. (Or actually we few million, but still.) Cartoonist Rick Griffin made this point in his gently surreal contribution to Tales From the Tube, a 1971 surfing comic book. In Griffin's strip, a bushy-haired regular-footer drops into a gigantic wave, cuts back to avoid a band of sword-waving Samurai, then rides through a vortex of water directly into the aquatic lair of the Tube Monster, who lassoes the surfer with his tongue and swallows him whole. When the monster can't digest the resin-coated surfboard, rider and board are spat out and deposited next to a beachfront surf theatre—just in time for the next screening of Jumbo Stoke-a-Rama.
Pacific Vibrations John Severson, 1970
California artist Rick Griffin was a surf-world favourite in the early and mid-60s as the creator of the “Murphy” cartoon strip for Surfer magazine; by the end of the decade he’d achieved greater fame as one of the San Francisco’s psychedelic-era “Big Five” illustrators, doing concert posters for the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix and designing the original Rolling Stone magazine logo. Filmmaker John Severson hired Griffin to create a poster for Pacific Vibrations in 1969, and waited eight months before Griffin at last showed him a magnificent piece of airbrushed surf art. But that night, Griffin, high on acid, decided he didn’t like the work, and painted the canvas white. Two months later he delivered this surf movie poster masterpiece—although Severson still claims the original work was better.
Going to a surf movie is kind of like that, but in reverse. Fantasy and suspension of disbelief, for filmmakers as well as audiences, have always have been a big part of the surf movie experience. California's Greg Noll is famous as the pioneering goliath of Waimea Bay and a first-generation surfboard manufacturer, but he also made a few surf movies in the late '50s and early '60s, and later said he "couldn't imagine a shittier way to earn a living." Equipment hassles and travel mishaps were among the reasons Noll listed, plus insufferable hours spent hunched over a camera while your buddies, in the water, shout and laugh and get the best waves of their lives, followed by the tedium of editing, venue booking, poster hanging, and barnstorming the movie up and down the coast, beach town to beach town, from high school auditorium to Elks Lodge to community centre. "Then at the end of the year," Noll finished, "you count everything up and find out, goddamn it, there's barely enough money to get started on the next film."
Morning of the Earth Albert Falzon, 1972
Australian surf movies of the '60s and ‘70s were for the most part cheaper and rougher than their American counterparts, which helped make Alby Falzon’s sumptuous and mildly stoned Morning of the Earth one of the great surf media surprises when it debuted in 1972. Falzon had apprenticed with Aussie surf movie pioneer Bob Evans, then went solo to make Earth, which was backed by a $20,000 grant from the Australian Film Development Corporation. The movie is remembered in part for its soundtrack album, which was a best seller in Australia, and for introducing the surf world to the perfect waves of Indonesia. Surfer described Morning of the Earth as being “about the Garden of Eden, plus waves, minus serpent.”
That's pretty much been the story throughout the sixty-year history of making surf movies. And the result of all this planning and effort and expended energy? A perpetual groundswell of cinematic mediocrity. The critical viewer could reasonably argue that, out of roughly a thousand surf-related movies released since 1953—mostly surfer-made films, but also about three dozen Hollywood or indie produced movies—we're looking at just one certifiable classic (The Endless Summer), a few satisfying backups (Riding Giants, Step Into Liquid), one lame but manifestly popular cult hit (Big Wednesday), and two worthy cinematic surf characters (Colonel Kilgore from Apocalypse Now and Fast Times' Jeff Spicoli). Things drop off quickly after that. The average surf film, repetitive and formulaic, isn't too far removed from Deep Throat-style porn. Just the running time of a feature length surf movie is usually a problem. Paul Witzig's 1969 film Evolution is considered a genre classic, but Wayne Lynch, the film's headliner, admitted recently that he's never actually managed to view the movie in its entirety. Witzig himself watched Evolution in 1997 and afterward said, "It gave me a headache."
Five Summer Stories Greg MacGillivray/Jim Freeman, 1972
Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman formed a partnership in 1966 and immediately began to turn out popular well-made surf films. Five Summer Stories, featuring an iconic piece of movie poster art by Rick Griffin, was cleverly billed “the last surfing movie” as MacGillivray and Freeman by then had set their sights on Hollywood. Stories was the most durable surf movie this side of The Endless Summer—it was updated and re-released annually until 1978. Freeman was killed in a helicopter crash in 1976 while scouting locations in the High Sierras. MacGillivray became a master of the IMAX format, and two of his films received Short Subject Academy Award nominations.
There was a world of difference between looking at a 1973 Surfing centre spread of Sunset Beach deity Barry Kanaiaupuni jamming off the bottom on a quadruple-overhead West Peak bomb, and sitting in a badly ventilated auditorium with five hundred other bug-eyed surfers watching Kanaiaupuni onscreen, as big as Godzilla, arms charging around his torso and head like broken power lines, water arcing off his board in glittering twenty-foot-high sheets, with Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Child on the soundtrack at cloud-splitting volume.
But quality, in this sunburned little film world outpost, often isn't the point. Given the same basic ingredients, a well-made surf movie is always preferable to a badly made one, but art and craft generally fall in line behind getting the latest and hottest action footage. There's method at work here—or at least there was in the pre-VCR era, when a surf movie would arrive in theatres like an encyclical from on high, there to instruct and inform as well as entertain. Phil Edwards' hairy-chested brand of power surfing was introduced to the surf world at large in 1959's Cat on a Hot Foam Board. Ten years later, The Hot Generation was received almost as a newsreel on the opening stage of the shortboard revolution. Surf magazines always beat filmmakers in reporting on the big swell, the hot young goofy foot, the new surf break discovery, but a magazine could only take you so far. There was a world of difference between looking at a 1973 Surfing centre spread of Sunset Beach deity Barry Kanaiaupuni jamming off the bottom on a quadruple-overhead West Peak bomb, and sitting in a badly ventilated auditorium with five hundred other bug-eyed surfers watching Kanaiaupuni onscreen, as big as Godzilla, arms charging around his torso and head like broken power lines, water arcing off his board in glittering twenty-foot-high sheets, with Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Child on the soundtrack at cloud-splitting volume.
Blue Cool Jon Bennett, 1972
Context is everything with surf movies. That Kanaiaupuni sequence is available on video, and watching it now, on a TV screen, it's easy to notice the static camera angle, the shaky framing, and the careless edits. Kanaiaupuni still looks fierce and brilliant. But also small and boxed in. Fifty years ago, going to a big deal surf movie was a little bit like going to Woodstock. Watching a surf movie on TV today is like seeing a photo of Woodstock on a postcard. The genuine surf movie experience was—and to some degree still is—dependent on place and locale, requiring not only a big screen but crowds and anticipation and noise and at least a dozen quick-witted hecklers, plus a half-pint of Schnapps getting handed your way, and a nice big fatty in your shirt pocket. A passing and slightly manic togetherness was the surf film's strangest by-product. "Surfers," as freelance surf critic Paul Gross once noted, "are most comfortable with each other from a distance, and then only barely." Except while attending a surf film. A big surf contest could pull a crowd, but friction was the underlying vibe, and contests repelled as many as they drew. A surf movie could draw a crowd and produce a sort of Christmas-on-the-Western-Front feeling of unity and accord, with everyone temporarily setting aside their lineup feuds and grievances. Energy, not artistry, was the hallmark of the surf movie. Energy, like the mushroom cloud of cheers, shrieks, foot stomps and whistles that filled the auditorium when the lights dropped. Energy, like a group of surfers pushing a filmmaker aside during the second reel of a lousy movie and tipping his projector off the balcony to explode on the empty seats below. "The reels rolled down the aisle, unravelling the film," Surfer magazine reported, "and the audience cheered and left." Mob violence or unique bonding experience—it's a fine line.
Liquid Space Dale Davies, 1973
The genuine surf movie experience was—and to some degree still is—dependent on place and locale, requiring not only a big screen but crowds and anticipation and noise and at least a dozen quick-witted hecklers, plus a half-pint of Schnapps getting handed your way, and a nice big fatty in your shirt pocket.
The surf movie entered its high period a few years after Endless Summer, beginning with 1969's Waves of Change; continuing with early-'70s favourites Five Summer Stories, Morning of the Earth and Going Surfin'; and ending with 1977's Free Ride. Onscreen interviews with top surfers were now common, and animated shorts were used to break up the surf action. Tight-angle water photography became the surf filmmaker's holy grail, and surf movie audiences by the end of the '70s fully expected to be installed directly inside the tube with Shaun Tomson and Gerry Lopez and the rest of the pros, with a two-hundred-frames-per-second film speed lending a still-life quality to events that in real time pinwheeled by in a moment or two. The sport itself had meanwhile proudly and enthusiastically joined the counterculture. Morning of the Earth (1972) features the cream of Australian surfing merrily passing around a hash-filled hookah, while a sequence in Pacific Vibrations (1970) shows a pulsating neon-lined surfer streaking across a blackened wave in what amounts to a big screen promo for LSD.
Forgotten Island of Santosha Larry Yates, 1974
Energy, not artistry, was the hallmark of the surf movie. Energy, like the mushroom cloud of cheers, shrieks, foot stomps and whistles that filled the auditorium when the lights dropped.
Then there was the soundtrack issue. Endless Summer proved that mainstream theatre distribution was at least a theoretical possibility for a surf movie, which meant that a filmmaker with general audience ambitions had to have the whole package ready to go, including all music rights signed and accounted for. This was usually done in one of two ways: hire an undiscovered local band on the cheap to score the film, or pick out fifteen to twenty album tracks, make the necessary licensing connections, take a deep breath, and start writing checks to record labels—a giant leap of faith if your last film grossed in the mid-four-figures.
Tales from the Tube Jerry Humphries/Bob Cording, 1975
A long-forgotten surf movie curiosity, Tales from the Tube had a plot of sorts featuring Pipeline ace Gerry Lopez, dressed in a white three-piece suit and Stetson hat, as an undercover agent out to destroy the Tube Monster. The film abruptly changes direction near the end and finishes with a series of well-known surfers offering born-again testimonials.
Let go of the mainstream dream, however, and soundtrack choices were as wide open as the LP stacks on either side of your living room turntable. This is how an otherwise unexceptional mid-'70s film called Fluid Drive became a hardcore surf movie classic, as filmmaker Scott Dittrich, bolder than his contemporaries, didn't cautiously poach B-sides off the FM fringe but instead stuck both hands deep into the rock & roll motherlode for a soundtrack that included the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin. Show Rincon at daybreak with a six-foot swell wrapping around the point, and you've got a pretty nice cinematic moment. Add Here Comes the Sun and the viewing experience becomes almost holy.
By the end of the decade, however, surf movie production costs were rising (1970's Cosmic Children cost $12,000, 1977's Free Ride cost $70,000), oversaturation had set in (eight surf film ads are booked into the first 30 pages of a 1975 issue of Surfer), and the entire enterprise was beginning to wobble. Video then hit like a cross tackle in the mid-'80s. The surf movie managed to survive into the next decade, but expired after 1991's costly ($300,000) and poorly received Rolling Thunder.
Words and images adapted from Surf Movie Tonite! By Matt Warshaw, Chronicle Books copyright 2005
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