Hollywood’s always been a sucker for any pursuit that tweaks middle class norms. And surfing, a lifestyle geared toward bending windswept points to one’s will as the world punches a 9-5 clock, seemed born to the movies before the Beach Boys had ever cut a record. Spouting a slang-filled babble that only the tribal comprehend (remember Sean Penn’s immortal reef-head, Jeff Spicolli, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High?), surfers are steeped in so much personal rebellion, Hollywood almost had to embrace them. Yet who would have thought the sport would still be riding high in multiplex screens nearly forty years after its appearance, threatening to rival such classic movie archetypes as bikers, cowboys, and, yes, even gangsters?
This coming year will see the release of at least one major Hollywood surf flick, “In God’s Hands”, (from Triumph Films and Wild Orchids director Zalman King) as well as a score of smaller indie efforts, most hewed to the surf/skate/snowboard culture which keeps the sport thriving.
But recent entries aside, you really gotta dig back in time (“Tapping The Source” as Kem Nunn titled his first in an excellent bookend of surfer/mystery novels) to figure out why Hollywood has tried (unsuccessfully) to capture the spiritual heart of what many practitioners insist is more lifestyle than sport, more religion/art than a day at the beach.
Pretend it’s 1959 for a moment. You’ve cruised down to the local drive-in on this hot and steamy South Jersey night, only to discover some goofy California teen flick up on-screen. Gidget, starring Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson, and crooning heartthrob, James Darren, was only a summer drive-in throwaway, but it was the first to fire shots off the bow of a burgeoning surf culture festering out in car-crazy Southern California, edgy and perhaps even a bit dangerous. The film’s set-up was classic angst-Lite: Francie Lawrence, a seventeen year-old PYT, as virginal as her freshly trimmed suburban lawn, is adopted by a local clan of Mailbu beach bums and given the moniker, Gidget, a vaguely demeaning hybrid of girl and midget. Before you can say Woody (the car, not the organ) Francie is learning some serious life lessons from her new pals, a band of ukulele-playing, sun-crazed dropouts, who neatly filled the gap between Hollywood’s other favorite rebels, the 50’s juvenile delinquent and the 60’s beatnik/hippie. What does Francine aka Gidget learn? Horror of horrors, surfers have no goals! In fact the crew’s leader, Kahuna (Hawaiian for big chief), is proud to be a nomadic adrenaline junkie, incapable of holding down a job.
Consider the time – late 50’s, early 60’s – and what was to be the cusp of a huge social transformation in America, and you sense the radical ride Gidget’s longboarders were taking off on. The very idea of an alternative to the 9-5 life was unheard of, as was a young woman wanting to do anything besides get married and have kids. While Gidget’s ending eventually did reinforce the suburban norm (Kahuna tears down his Malibu shack and takes a job inland, while the Gidge heads back to college with Moondoogie) this sprightly piece of Hollywood fluff managed to lay the groundwork for several decades worth of surfing evolution, both in the water and the home.
Ben Marcus, field editor for SURFER MAGAZINE, and a frequent reviewer of current surf flicks, rightly notes that Gidget and the beach movies that followed, were an odd, mixed blessing for the sport. “They put out a spotlight which led to a ton of popularity,” Marcus observes,” but they also unleashed a kind of Pandora’s Box as far as the purity and fun of it all. Malibu was so pristine and untouched in the early 60’s; it was the whole Paradise Lost thing for those guys who had it all to themselves.”
True enough. Hollywood was infatuated, read: dollar signs, with So Cal’s surf culture when Gidget was first released. But studio heads were not ready to embrace the forward-thinking premise put out by those who pioneered the sport, as the hippie ethos of personal growth through travel and experience was still five years away. But if Gidget wouldn’t let the Kahuna follow the sun, The Endless Summer, released five years later in (1964), and the genre’s most famous entry, had no such hesitations.
Bruce Brown’s groundbreaking documentary on two California wave freaks Robert August and Mike Hynson – was shot on the big-time cheap, less than eight grand with a handheld 16mm Bolex and a tacked-on narration done by Brown himself; yet became a small jewel of naturalistic filmmaking. Brown’s flick had an elegant premise, neatly dovetailing with America’s new-found love for international travel via the jet plane: forget the bogus Hollywood luaus on the beach, replete with surfers crooning to their moon-eyed gal pals, and follow two real surfers until they find the perfect wave.
And there were no Swarzenegger-style endings for Brown and his crew, thank you. Halfway through the film, the boys suddenly stumble upon their ultimate tube at the base of the African continent, in a sleepy little point-break called Cape Saint Francis. How the lads find the spot, empty save for the coast’s native fishermen, is a key to the film’s sensibilities. With the score from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia blasting behind them, Mike and Robert brave several miles of burning sand dunes before paddling out. And why not? These two well-scrubbed Cali surfers were the first Western, i.e. white boys, to ever encounter a wave deep in the heart of the Zulu Homeland. A true surfin’ safari, as Brian Wilson had described, with all the attendant colonial implications.
When Americans think of surfing movies, the only one they can usually name is The Endless Summer. And rightly so. The film not only turned an entire generation of teenagers on to the sport, perhaps spanning the surf retail market which would grow into the billion dollar industry it is today, it also captured snapshots of our collective history which would never come again (one year after its release, LBJ would be sending boys to another beach in Southeast Asia for the ultimate rite of passage). If seen a few years later, say 1967, Mike and Robert’s quest for the perfect sandbar would have seemed frivolous, their meetings with indigenous peoples smacking of the nationalism of which so many Vietnam vets were accused. But in 1964, at the very crest of the nation’s social, educational, and sexual transformation, the goodwill surrounding the surfers’ journey was genuine, echoing back to a more simple era, when people went out of their way to welcome two wandering strangers.