Alphabetical Index of Column Topics

Click here for index.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Surf's Up, Part 2 (originally published 8/02)

Incredible as it seems, for a period of time in the late 1950s and early 1960s people all across the United States became fascinated by a recreational activity that could only be actively pursued by a tiny fraction of the population. If only "everybody had an ocean across the U.S.A.," the Beach Boys lamented, then everybody could go surfing. Alas, only those lucky enough to live in or near coastal areas actually had any hope of regularly shooting the curl, and yet millions of landlocked Big Kahuna wannabes contented themselves with the vicarious thrill of reading about surfing in magazines, listening to songs about catching a wave, and watching Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello hanging ten on the big screen. Such is the power of popular culture.

As we saw last week, Hollywood was quick to cash in on the surfing craze. Even now, some forty years later, the white-hot surfing mania having long since settled into its emeritus years as retro nostalgia, Hollywood still occasionally goes to the well. The recent release of "Blue Crush" can trace its line of descent right back to "Gidget" (1959), along with all the other Hollywood surfing movies I recommended to you in last week's column.

These Hollywood versions of the surfing lifestyle, however, represent only a small part of the totality of surfing cinema. The early days of the surfing boom in the United States predated home video by decades, but home movies, shot in the 16 millimeter format, were widespread. Inevitably, a few surfers got their hands on these home movie cameras and, naturally enough, they used them to make movies of their friends riding the waves.

By the time they had collected enough footage to add up to a presentation of some length, it occurred to some of these seaside cinematographers that people might actually pay to see their movies. They knew, of course, that Hollywood wouldn't buy their product to show in traditional movie theaters - Hollywood was quite capable of filling those screens with its own material, thank you - so they pursued another exhibition route, known in the trade as "four-walling." Entrepreneurs like Bud Browne and John Severson would rent any sort of hall, from high school gymnasiums to civic centers, then put up posters all over town advertising a one-night showing of films with titles like "Hawaiian Surfing Movie" (Browne, 1953) and "Going My Wave" (Severson, 1962). They would sell the tickets, run the projectors while providing live narration, then pack up the whole show and move on to the next town.

The filmmaker who took this form of entertainment further than anyone else was a surfer named Bruce Brown. His films were based on a simple formula: lots of spectacular surfing footage narrated in a lighthearted style laced with endearingly cornball humor. Brown would make roughly one such film per year, using the profits to finance the next film, as well as a year's worth of surfing.

In 1964, however, he struck gold. Along with two surfing buddies, he embarked on a trip around the world in search of the perfect wave. The underlying premise was that if you circle the globe in just the right way you can experience a full year of nothing but summer. The resulting film, called "The Endless Summer," was Brown's most successful film of all. It was so successful on the four-wall circuit that he was eventually able to persuade a theatrical distributing company called Cinema V to release the film nationwide in 1966. Audiences in movie theaters were every bit as enthusiastic as the four-wall crowds, and Brown's fortune was made.

Most of Brown's early films can be found on home video, although it may take some searching to track them down. Look for such titles as "Slippery When Wet" (1958), "Barefoot Adventure" (1961) and "Surfing Hollow Days" (1962). They are all great fun to watch, even if you've never been on a surfboard in your life. The surfing scenes are fascinating, and listening to Brown's good natured narration creates the feeling that you're sitting in his living room watching his home movies as he sits beside you on the sofa and describes it all. That feeling, in turn, engenders in the viewer a level of intimacy with the surfing culture that Hollywood's surfing films, with all their comparative sophistication and polish, will never be able to match.

No comments: