Surfs Way Up

Riding Giants puts the history of big-wave riding on the big screen

It wasn't until the surf media caught up with Jeff Clark's secret spot, a little break in cold, shark-infested waters near Half Moon Bay known as Maverick's, that big-wave riding made the comeback that is currently in full splash. Clark is the subject of Giants' second character sketch and is perhaps an even more intriguing character than Noll. While Noll had precedents to call upon, when modest local kid Clark, at 17, started paddling out to a rumored giant wave right in his own backyard, he was literally heading into uncharted waters. He found a magnificent and ferocious break, and he took it upon himself to determine whether or not it could be ridden. It could, and he continued to ride it by himself for 15 years before anyone dared to join him.

The Maverick's sequence is perhaps Giants' most viscerally exciting and poignant, both because it's an anomaly—big-wave riding, let alone the world's gnarliest big-wave riding, wasn't supposed to happen in California, and 30 miles south of San Francisco, no less—and because the footage is more contemporary. Whereas the Hawaii scenes are beautiful and nostalgic, and carry a little of the gravitas of history, it's at Maverick's that Giants delivers the immediate excitement of big-wave riding and connects the viewer personally with the close-knit, daredevil Maverick's crew, most of whom are still active. For these reasons, Maverick's feels like our wave and the Maverick's surfers feel like our big-wave heroes.

Less so Laird Hamilton, whom the film proclaims the greatest big-wave surfer of all time and who many believe is the greatest surfer of all time. The final segment of Giants is given over to this tall, sculpted, blond master-race specimen, who, with friends Buzzy Kerbox and Darrick Doerner, pioneered tow-in surfing.

Tow-in surfing, which enables surfers to be slung into waves by Jet Skis and other personal watercraft, has opened up new possibilities for big-wave riding, and Giants has plenty of mind-blowing footage of Hamilton et al. doing amazing things on short, strap-in surfboards in mammoth open-water waves like Maui's Jaws. But there's something about the combination of technology, athletic prowess and Hamilton's crazy-eyed monomania that left me a little flat. Whereas I imagine the Maverick's crew smoking pot and playing in garage bands when the surf's not up, I wouldn't be surprised to find Hamilton and company in the shop tinkering like mad scientists or in the gym working out like the jocks they appear to be. Their triumphs feel like the triumph of technology over soul.

Having said that, when technology means you can cut back up the face of a 50-foot wave, it's damn impressive.

If there's an issue to raise with the filmmaking, it's the same one I'd raise with Dogtown. Peralta and his editor, Paul Crowder, are genius at putting together exciting visual histories of important subcultures—they get the vibe—but they seem less interested in the whys than they are in the whats. Partly, I'm sure, that's because surfers and skateboarders aren't notoriously introspective (their actions are their expression), but still, even after seeing Giants twice, I'm left wondering: Why didn't Greg Noll go out again? And what the hell was Jeff Clark thinking?

Riding Giants was directed by Stacy Peralta; written by Peralta and Sam George; produced by Agi Orsi, Jane Kachmer and peralta. Now playing at Krikorian San Clemente; Regency Lido, Newport Beach; Regency Laguna South Coast, Laguna Beach.

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