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Friday, February 29, 2008

Surf's Up (originally published 8/02)

Here in the 21st Century, America has at last become a place where nearly everybody surfs. First we channel surfed the waves upon waves of programming flowing into our living rooms over cable TV, and now we regularly shoot the curl on the wildest and most untamed ocean of all, the Internet.

All this, of course, is mere metaphor. And yet there was a time, some fifty years ago, when actual surfing on the actual ocean threatened to become as big a craze as surfing the web is today. Back before the term "extreme sports" was coined, slightly demented thrill seekers were making pilgrimages to places like Southern California, Australia, and Hawaii for the privilege of gliding down massive, 25-foot-high walls of water while standing precariously on a fragile board. The intensive surfing culture was, of necessity, confined to coastal areas, but in time curious journalists began to write about it, spreading the fascination to the inland states. Then, pop groups like "The Beach Boys" and "Jan and Dean" began to sing about surfing, bringing its culture into the popular mainstream. Ultimately, of course, movies were made about surfing as well. In fact, notwithstanding the current cybernetic spin on the term, movies are still occasionally made about that original kind of surfing, as witness the recent release of "Blue Crush." To see how earlier films have portrayed the surfing culture, look for these titles on home video.

"Gidget" (1959). This lightweight romantic comedy aimed squarely at the lucrative youth market was among the earliest Hollywood films to incorporate the surfing culture into its storyline. Terminally perky Sandra Dee stars as Francie Lawrence, whose diminutive stature has earned her the nickname "Gidget," short for "girl midget." Still, she's growing up fast, as evidenced by a growing competition for her attention between two local surfer boys, Moondoggie (James Darren) and The Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson). The character created by Dee was sufficiently popular to spawn a number of sequels and television spin-offs over the next twenty years. Reproduced below is the film's promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, featuring Dick Clark giving his benediction to the new teen craze.

"Beach Party" (1963). I have to mention this one, the first of many featuring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, or else you'd think I wasn't paying attention. Honestly, though, there isn't a lot of surfing going on here. Still, the surfing culture provides a picturesque backdrop to this tale of fun, sun, and teenage libidos. The latter, in fact, is what anthropologist Professor Sutwell (Bob Cummings) purports to be studying at the beach, using Frankie and Annette as the subjects of his investigation of the "mating habits of teenagers."

"Ride the Wild Surf" (1964). This low budget picture represented a reaction against the relentless silliness of the Frankie and Annette beach party movies. The plot is a standard one for surfing movies: three California guys make the trip to the surfing Mecca of Hawaii to test their mettle in a surfing contest at Waimea Bay. Along the way, each finds romance.

"Big Wednesday" (1978). Made long after the surfing craze had receded from the national spotlight, this elegiac film looks back with nostalgia on the evolution of the surfing culture, using it as a symbolic backdrop for the story of three surfing buddies. Written and directed by John Milius, who wrote the screenplay for "Apocalypse Now" (1979), "Big Wednesday" follows its main characters as their lives periodically intersect over a period of 12 years. Naturally, it is always the beach that draws them back together. Their devotion to surfing remains largely unchanged, but each time they reunite it is clear that time and circumstance have altered them. The period of time covered by the film is the early 1960s to the early 1970s; the Vietnam years. Few were left unscathed by that era, and Milius's characters bear the scars of its turbulence as surely as they bear the scars of a decade of wipeouts in the surf.

These Hollywood versions of the surfing life are enjoyable enough, but I should point out that they do not by any means represent the totality of surfing cinema. Next week, by way of dropping the other shoe, we'll take a look at the work of the filmmaker who has been called "the Bergman of the boards" and "the Fellini of the foam," and at his most enduring legacy, the film that many surfers still regard as the ultimate cinematic expression of their lifestyle.

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