Published Aug 01, 2004Surfing has come a long way since Endless Summer, the 1960 documentary by Bruce Brown that tracked two surfers as they sought out the perfect wave. Back then the goal was simple: surf long and look good while you communed gracefully with the ocean. The surfers in Riding Giants, Stacy Peralta's informative and compelling documentary that chronicles the history of surf culture, are as up to the task as the next dude but theirs is a case of substance over style. Focused on pushing themselves beyond their limits, the men and women we meet here are more like mountain climbers searching out the highest, most desperate-looking waves, facing fear and mortality in the process. Jeff Spicoli need not apply.
Peralta, a pro skating legend and lifelong amateur surfer, is quickly becoming the Margaret Mead of California sub-culture studies. His first feature, Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001), was a celluloid love letter that traced the origins of skateboarding to a group of underprivileged kids who found a sort of redemption in the maneuvers they performed in empty swimming pools. Giants, like Dogtown, makes use of an impressive archive of vintage footage, still photographs and enough interviews to choke a horse but unlike its predecessor it has a difficult task ahead of itself in distancing the audiences from its notions that most surfers are, well, beach bums.
Armed this time with his enthusiasm and a trusted anthropological approach to his subject, Peralta anchors the film by focusing on three famed big-wave surfers, each representing a generation of history and a level of chutzpah that borders on the psychotic. There is "The Bull" Greg Noll, the charismatic granddaddy of '50s big board surfing who after surfing one of the biggest waves in the history of Hawaii's Waimei Bay abandoned his board for 20 years and retired to a trailer in Alaska. Next is Jeff Clark, a Northern California surfer who for 15 years ventured into waves the size of six-story buildings near Half Moon Bay with little more that a wet-suit and a promise from a friend that if anything were to happen he would call a paramedic. Finally we skip ahead to the '90s and focus on Laird Hamilton, an extreme surfing innovator who seems to have sprung from the head of Zeus.
The insights are not terribly probing and a few of his interview subjects provide little in the way of help in their refusal to look beyond the crashing surf for their motivations. But in a strange way it doesn't matter. After the fourth or fifth clichéd remark about the waves "being my woman," you find yourself giving in to it all. Peralta has managed, once again, to make a sport that seemed ridiculous look sublime. (Mongrel Media)