Stacy Peralta follows up “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” his excellent recollection of the skateboarding renaissance of the late ‘70s, with one of the best surfing documentaries ever filmed. “Riding Giants” tells the story of big wave surfing, deftly weaving a historical tale together with interviews with some of the giants of big wave riding. In the end, we’ve gained a little understanding of what it is that makes these individuals risk life and limb in the pursuit of the biggest wave.
Beginning with the origins of surfing, some 1,500 years ago (and commented on by John Paul Jones), “Riding Giants” introduces the surf culture that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s in Southern California. Peralta depicts these first surfers as counterculture figures in the same vein as Kerouac and the Beats, only much more entertaining.
As the ‘50s dragged on, a subset of surfers emerged who weren’t content to shoot the relatively small curls of the mainland coast. They headed out to Hawaii, to places like Makaha and Waimea Bay, to tackle the biggest waves around. These were the salad days (pre-“Gidget,” as one grizzled surf veteran describes them), when a handful of big wave enthusiasts lived clustered together on the beach, diving for fish, and surfing 8 to 10 hours a day.
Peralta tracks surf’s progress from the lone domain of a dozen or so eccentric men to a global industry. He interviews figures like pioneering big board rider Greg Noll. Nicknamed “The Bull,” Noll was the first to brave the feared waves of Waimea, opening a whole new world of big wave riding. Next is Jeff Clark, who surfed the tremendous waves of Mavericks, north of San Francisco, alone for fifteen years until he convinced others of their appeal. Finally there’s Laird Hamilton, who helped develop the concept of tow-in surfing, which allows the surfer to grapple with waves 60 or 70 feet in height.
The surf footage in “Riding Giants” is truly breathtaking, even the film shot 50 years ago effectively conveys the thrill of “dropping in” on a big wave. Some of the more recent footage, shot from helicopters and jet skis, offers jaw-dropping coverage of Hamilton surfing what many would describe as impossible waves.
Peralta’s gift, and one he also exhibited in “Dogtown,” is the ability to take a subject about which most of us know nothing, and present it in such a way that we actually “get” it. “Riding Giants” not only makes the audience care about a sport few of them have ever had the pleasure to participate in, it also effortlessly takes you along on its ride.