In Search of the Endless Summer: Surf Films

“If everybody had an ocean across the USA, then everybody’d be surfin’ like Californi-a” sang the Beach Boys in 1963. Most of us actually don’t have oceans, and much of summer is spent in sweltering heat and suffocating humidity. Such cruel facts make the ultimate fantasy of summer an impossibly graceful figure riding a cool wave.

In the early ’60s, the surfer became a figure of freedom from the demands of work and family. Though always associated with the emerging ideals of the counter-culture, surfing never had an explicitly political agenda. Devoted only to the unending repetition of fleeting and graceful movement, surfing is a spectacle of sheer uselessness and excessive pleasure that most of us can only dream about. It provides an ideal image of how we desire to live — devoted solely to a thrilling and utterly innocent pleasure.

Visually, surfing lends itself to film, with rolling water, changing light, and the abstract movements of bodies and boards creating a canvas for innovative cinematography. The best moments in surf films are those that seem like paintings that somehow move, as if Hokusai’s The Great Wave were crashing before our eyes in real time.

Often called “pure” films, the best documentaries are those made by surfers themselves. In the late ’50s, Bruce Brown began filming his friends surfing in California, Hawaii, and Mexico. Editing together these shots, he would rent out halls, play surf music from a tape, and narrate the action live. His early work includes Slippery When Wet (1958), Surf Crazy (1959), Barefoot Adventure (1960), Surfing Hollow Days (1961), and Waterlogged (1962). The formula he developed comes together most lyrically in his 1964 masterpiece, The Endless Summer. Here, Brown creates a mythic narrative that follows Mike Hynson and Robert August as they chase summer around the globe searching for the perfect wave.

At its best, the film is visual poetry, kaleidoscopic blues cut by the lines of a surfer’s transit contrasted to achingly nostalgic shots of sunsets silhouetting surfboards. Shot silently and presented with the sounds of the Sandals, Brown engages in brilliantly goofy and sometimes cringe inducing narration. Although too often unintentionally reminding the audience of the profoundly myopic views of even the most gentle and well-intentioned Americans abroad, the surfing itself seems to exist on a plane beyond politics, as if the waves might push us all into into some impossibly better world.

Around the same time that Brown was making his first documentaries, Hollywood took surfing subculture nationwide with Sandra Dee in Gidget (1959). Based on Frederick Kohner’s 1957 novel about his daughter’s adventures in the Malibu scene, this sunny take on teen culture has Gidget learning to surf and, while the surf bums represent a refusal to grow up, by the end of the film Gidget is tearfully and cheerfully pushing everyone off the beach and into the responsibilities of adult life.

Even more campy, American International Pictures made some of the most memorable drive-in fare of the ’60s, including including Beach Party (1963) starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. While one can glimpse famous Malibu surfers like Mickey Dora in the background, the emphasis is on clean, over-lit and oversexed teens. AIP parleyed the formula into a string of drive-in hits, including Muscle Beach Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965).

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991) might well be read as a studied refutation of everything surfing seemed to represent to the ’60s. While it maintains the dropout ethos of the search for the perfect wave, the surfers are not young innocent kids but a group of thrill seeking criminals. There is still plenty of sex, but mere teen hedonism is replaced by glitz and violence. Unlike the desultory pacing of Brown’s documentaries or the AIP studio close-ups of stars pretending to surf in rear projection, Bigelow works to make the ocean a fearsome rush to test oneself against, and the perfect wave turns out to be a lethal killer created by a “50-year storm” in Australia. The pacing is frantic, the waves are bigger, and gun shots echo throughout the film almost as forcefully as Keanu Reeve’s blank delivery as hero Johnny Utah: “You’re sayin’ the FBI’s gonna pay me to learn to surf?”

Susan Orlean’s touching essay “Surf Girls of Maui” appeared in Outside magazine in 1998, and it describes the lives of poor teenage girls from the town of Hana who grew up doing little except surfing. Her essay inspired the film Blue Crush (2002), one of the best narrative surf films, and one of the few films to take women’s surfing seriously. Gorgeously shot, the film focuses on the lure of the surfing life for women and the intensity of competition.

Also look for more recent documentaries that touch on the role of women and the changes in surfing culture since the ’60s. Bruce Brown’s Endless Summer 2 (1994), retracing his iconic journey and marking the growth of surfing world wide. Brown’s son has continued in his father’s footsteps with his first feature length film Step Into Liquid (2003). Surfer and skater Stacey Peralta of Dog Town and Z-Boys fame directs Riding Giants (2004), one of the best full-length documentaries on the evolution of surfing.

The most recent documentary not to miss is without a doubt Surfwise (2008). It tells one of the most compelling stories in surfing, as if for one family all the ideals of the lifestyle were lived out to joyous and disastrous consequences. Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz graduated from Stanford Medical School in 1946 and found himself caught in the grind of professional life in the ’50s. After two failed marriages and much professional success, he simply dropped out and became a full-time surf bum. With his third wife Julliet, he had nine children, lived in a camper, and made almost no money. He refused to let any of his children attend school, and insisted only that they must surf.

The Pakowitz children spent their entire childhood free of almost any restrictions, moving from one beach to another across the nation. The documentary is filled with still photos, home movies, and television clips of the life they lived — sun drenched and seemingly carefree, riding waves before they could walk, and coming of age as professional surfers. The story they tell as adults is deeply ambivalent, and yet also tinged with a contagious nostalgia, and as we watch the film it is impossible not wonder what it would have been like to grow up in an endless summer.