Surfs Way Up

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

Photo by Erik AederIt wasn't so long ago that surf-movie releases were strictly local events, playing short runs at now-defunct theaters in places like Hermosa Beach, Oceanside and Capitola. Now, though, surfing as a source of curiosity, entertainment and metaphor has moved into both prime time and the multiplex. New, youth-aimed TV shows like North Shore, Summerland and The O.C. use surfing imagery the way '70s sitcoms used Suzanne Somers' jiggly boobs. There's definitely something in the water, and more so now as Stacy Peralta's Riding Giants follows last summer's surprise success, Dana Brown's Step Into Liquid, into wide release.

No doubt, there's a pornographic thrill to be had watching daring, athletic men (and some women, too) riding huge waves, one of nature's more orgasmic eruptions, but Riding Giants, and, for that matter, Liquid, certainly feel less exploitative than their TV counterparts. Probably because the images we're seeing in these films are less about capturing a presumed Zeitgeist and its attendant 14-to-32 marketing niche, and more about telling real stories about real people.

For Giants, Peralta made a wise choice in turning his lens on the iconoclastic and driven (in some cases, insanely driven) big-wave surfers. Picking up where he left off with his groundbreaking skateboard movie, Dogtown and Z-Boys, Peralta hones in on what's become, by choice or serendipity, his central theme of Southern California rebels and pioneers. After the requisite money shot of a surfer hauling ass down a mountain-size wave, Peralta backs up to the '50s roots of a surfing discipline that peaked in the late '60s and then lay dormant until its current renaissance, which began in the early '90s. Peralta pinpoints a 1953 Associated Press photo of three California transplants gliding down a giant wave at Oahu's Makaha Point Surf as the event that changed surfing from an easygoing frolic in the ocean to an adrenaline-pumping, limits-testing pursuit.

That photo alone was enough to send Hermosa Beach boy Greg Noll and a handful of fellow seekers packing their bags and boards for Hawaii. In the first of three character-based vignettes, the film tracks Noll's rise from an unassuming "skinny kid," who had more than his share of sand kicked in his face, to the godfather of big-wave riding. Noll's story is remarkable not just for the boundaries he pushed in surfing, but because it embodies the very essence of surfing's counterculture soul, a soul that's neatly simulated and packaged as prime-time eye candy these days, and will likely remain so until sometime after the apocalypse.

But it sure weren't then.

In an era of postwar conformity, Noll and his band of merry men landed at Makaha in pristine Hawaii like the sporty brethren of the literary Beats. Which is to say, their lifestyle choices were as unusual as their big-wave feats. Eschewing the boom-time corporate teat, guys like Pat Curren, Peter Cole and Greg Noll lived off a relatively undeveloped land, diving for their food, or pinching it from nearby fields, sleeping together in ramshackle Quonset huts, playing all day in waves and waterfalls. In today's vernacular, they followed their bliss. This vision of gilded youth in a veritable Garden of Eden sure looks good on the miraculous vintage footage Peralta and his crew dug up by raiding every vault in surfdom.

There were, no doubt, downsides to this splendid isolation—like Eddie Murphy said 30 years later in 48 Hours, "Lack of pussy make a man brave." No one in this crew, it seems, was braver than Greg Noll. Nicknamed "The Bull" for his wide-stanced, relentlessly charging style, Noll was the one who constantly urged his buddies to follow him into bigger and bigger waves.

The biggest were found at Oahu's relatively untested North Shore, today the mecca of big-wave surfing. Noll refers to the 30-foot-plus waves he mastered at Waimea Bay as the "lady" who let him dance, and occasionally kicked his ass. Again, watching the vintage footage of these guys doing what was previously unthinkable on primitive equipment is joyous and revelatory—the more so because only a few insiders knew the footage existed.

But it's the one that got away that makes for the most dramatic segment of this character sketch. Through stark artistic renderings and interviews with those who were there, including Noll, Peralta manages to capture much of the drama of what for decades was the climactic moment in big-wave surfing. In December 1969, the biggest ocean swell in memory or lore hit Hawaii. Homes were being evacuated along the North Shore as monster waves pounded the coast. Of course, to Noll and a few others, this was bait. None of the usual spots, though, not even Waimea Bay, could hold the surf. Thinking he was going to have to watch the 60-foot waves safely from the shore like a sane person, Noll decided to give Makaha a look before giving up on the swell.

What happened next has long been a part of surfing legend, but until Giants' deft re-enactment has never been experienced on film. Without giving away too much, suffice to say Noll had a long, wet handshake with his Maker but lived to tell the tale. That was it for Noll—he never took on a monster wave again—and, for many years, big-wave surfing. The short-board revolution, with its emphasis on technical, skateboarding-style tricks, took over.

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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