Rules of Engagement
Following the success of Dogtown and Z Boys, Stacy Peralta has returned to the lyrical energies of athletes on their boards, this time with stupendous wave action. Riding Giants traces a general and enthuastic history of surfing, with special attention to differences among generations, locations, and larger than life personalities. Not unlike last year’s Step Into Liquid (Dana Brown’s enthusiastic update on his dad’s Endless Summer), Peralta’s movie uses archival footage, interviews, photos, and animation to conjure an exultant tale of achievement, invention, and individualism.
Following a brief animated history, whimsically called “1,000 Years of Surfing in Two Minutes or Less” (that notes the influence on early Hawaiian he’e nalu by James Cook, Christian missionaries, and Duke Kahanamoku), the film takes up themes from Dogboys, which extolled skateboarding as a working class kids’ rebellion in Southern California. Riding Giants can’t really make the same class claims, as it was most often kids of some means who could imagine taking “endless summers.”
Focused on surfers’ efforts to seek out ever-new challenges, to redefine freedom and feel rebellious, the film venerates their countercultural peace-loving as much as their posturing, their spirituality and their free spiritedness. Many of these guys (and they are overwhelmingly guys) might be described as “beach bums,” and if they resented the label, they were also eager to live out the stereotype, crashing ten to a beach shack, drinking beer and paying ukuleles, getting by on the fish they could catch and papaya they might gather.
Organized sort of by location and sort of by personality, Riding Giants’ first section is devoted primarily to Greg “The Bull” Noll, hard-partying conqueror of the 20-foot waves in Waimea Bay. Devoted (“Waimea was my gal, man”), he looks back now on those days with affection, recalling his decision to make surfing not just his insurgent avocation, but his livelihood, as the designer and seller of excellent surfboards. Surfing for eight hours a day, Noll impressed serious fans as well as casual spectators with his prodigious talent and sheer nerve. In 1969, at 32, he made history at Makaha, surfing a six-stories high wave that no one thought could be surfed. The fact that no footage of this ride exists only adds to its legend, and it also underlines the surfers’ general inclination to shoot everything—this movie pulls together all kinds of spectacular images, produced by those who were there.
Surfing’s seeming purity—documented or not—was spoiled by the incursion of Gidget (1959) and other pop phenomena that suggested all the cute guys and gals listened to Dick Dale at the beach and rode rear-projection waves without mussing their hair-dos. But true believers never lost their sense of wonder. This perspective is bolstered by incredible footage of waves, tubes, and skies—the waves are actually awesome. Riding Giants also marshals a selection of observers to support its central thesis, that surfing is more a religion, or a way of life, than a sport per se. John Milius (who co-wrote Apocalypse Now  and is here credited as the director of a surfer film) appears to underline the culture’s resistance to “mainstream values.” Or, as surfer Ricky Grigg puts it, “The endorphins are just bursting out of your brain!”
This ideal is variously embodied, by Jeff Clark, whose domain, the gargantuan waves of Mavericks in Half Moon Bay, north of San Francisco, was his alone for some 15 years, as no one believed his reports of stunning surf action. And Laird Hamilton, one of the originators of tow-in surfing, a three-man activity that allows surfers to reach even bigger waves, 60 or 70 feet in height. As Peralta puts it in imposing voiceover, Hamilton’s concept “revised the rules of engagement.”
While these triumphs are rousing, the film includes more difficult, though hardly unexpected, given the chances these athletes take as a matter of course, are sadder stories, including one surfer who recovered from an injury that left him feeling “I was like a seagull filled with oil, just floating,” and the surprising and tragic death of Mark Foo, at Maverick’s in 1994. He’s shown walking with surfboard en route to his last ride several times, in slow motion, to denote his standing or perhaps encourage your contemplation.
The film is disposed toward these sorts of overkill methods—big music, grand descriptions by the subjects who imagine their words preserved on film, forever. At the same time, such somber moments are more than offset by Riding Giants’ proclivity for celebration, adulation, and occasional delirium. Surfing remains a commitment and a cause, a means to extend one’s own limits. Most emphatically, surfing is fun, a means to a very visceral kind of enlightenment. While this philosophy can gesture toward political innovation, even revolution, it can also look narcissistic.