The Endless Summer
Netflix stream viewing
I've never had any great interest in surfing. When I think of the beach, I'm reminded of my days in summer camp as a child, and we did a whole lot more splashing around and dunking each other than we did surfing. I vaguely recall experimenting with a boogie board once or twice.
I learned the hard way that swimming in a beach is nothing like swimming in a pool, and the difference, obviously, is in the waves. Not that I'm that great a swimmer to begin with, but at least with a pool, the conditions are much more controlled and predictable, and swimming always felt more relaxed and natural there, not like on a beach, where the waves can do anything - and to be honest, I still find the waves to be a little scary sometimes.
I remember being envious of the counselors who would go further out into the waves than we campers. At this one day camp, whenever we'd go to the beach, the counselors would form a "horseshoe" perimeter in the water within which we would have to stay, and the counselor who was the best swimmer (I think it was always the same guy; not sure) would be in the center, the farthest out from the shore. It would be a challenge for us to swim out to him and try to mess with him in some way.
I live near Rockaway Beach, and in recent years I've gone out there in the summer to see the surfers. I wasn't even aware they had a surfing scene. Whenever I used to go out to the Rockaways, I always went to Riis Park, which was much further down the peninsula. (I remember the beach there as always having big waves, in my mind, anyway.) A few years ago, however, I went to Rockaway Beach and was pleasantly surprised to see surfers doing their thing. I don't recall seeing any spectacular moves, but I'm not exactly an expert on the subject. Everything they did looked amazing to me.
Coney Island, by contrast, is a place where I almost never see much in the way of surfers. Every time I go out there, I see way more swimmers, especially kids. Maybe the waves aren't conducive for hanging ten. Maybe it's not allowed down there. Don't know. [UPDATE 6.11.15: A subsequent visit to Coney after writing this, plus confirmation from John, leads me to conclude it's the former.]
It may be that no other film captures the terrifying beauty and exhilaration of surfing better than The Endless Summer, a documentary from 1966 that follows two California surfers as they travel around the world in search of the so-called "perfect wave." Once again, I prevailed upon the Netflix account of my pals John and Sue to watch this one, which is available as a stream. Over burgers and chips, we watched it at their place and got a great kick out of it.
Director, writer, co-producer, cinematographer and editor Bruce Brown follows two surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, all over the world and films them taking on the waves in a wide variety of locations, from California to Africa to Australia to New Zealand and Hawaii. A surfer himself, Brown's entire film career has been devoted to the sport, ever since he took 8mm shorts of California surfers while in the Navy in the early 50s. He taught himself how to make movies from a book.
Summer was made on a budget of $50,000 and was turned down by Hollywood. A two-week screening in Wichita, Kansas was a huge success, however, and Brown followed it up with a year-long run in New York, and distributor Monterey Media/Cinema V picked it up. It would gross $5 million domestic and $20 million worldwide.
The cinematography is incredible. We see Mike and Robert hanging ten from multiple angles, and Brown even gets a few subjective shots from a camera strapped to a board while it's in motion in the water! They need to be seen to be believed. John had made the point that while the average person could conceivably take shots like these today thanks to the progression of modern technology, they must have looked strikingly innovative in 1966, a time when Frankie-and-Annette beach party movies were the apex of beach-related cinema, and Jaws was still nine years away.
Even today, it's thrilling to watch. The skill Mike and Robert, as well as the surfer friends they make during their travels, have in taming the waves is amazing enough, but we also see the majesty and power of the waves themselves. We see lesser surfers getting wiped out, their boards flying in all directions as they escape with their lives. We watch breathlessly as the bigger waves carry the surfers higher and higher up the crest until they tumble over the top, or encircle the surfers within a tunnel of water that quickly closes behind them. It's man versus nature at its most primal.
Summer is not without its flaws. Seeing Mike and Robert, two white guys, coming to African countries like Ghana and Nigeria and teaching the natives how to surf can't help but smack of imperialism to a certain extent, and John, Sue and I were gob-smacked at seeing them in South Africa, apparently completely ignorant of what was going on down there at the time with apartheid and Nelson Mandela. Maybe Americans were too busy fretting about Vietnam to know much about South Africa in 1966 (and indeed, traveling around the world to surf on unfamiliar shores must have seemed like a great away to avoid the draft!), but in hindsight, it's extremely difficult to watch our protagonists interact with white South African surfers who probably benefited directly from the apartheid system, even if they didn't contribute to it, and not think about such things.
It would've been nice to have seen Mike and Robert talk about this, and many other things, but here we come up against my biggest problem with Summer: Brown's narrative, which dominates the entire film. He takes a light-handed, even silly at times, approach to his narration (though it comes across as a bit racially insensitive in some scenes in Africa), but he even puts words in the mouths of Mike and Robert - for humorous purposes, yeah, but it struck me as overkill. Even documentary filmmaker chatterboxes like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock let their subjects speak for themselves, but not Brown. Also, in some surfing sequences, he really should just shut up and let the power of the waves and the skill of the surfers do the talking.
The soundtrack is put together by a band called The Sandals, and as you would imagine, there's plenty of catchy surf-rock instrumental tunes. The theme song is very mellow, the kinda tune you could imagine listening to as the sun goes down on the horizon after a long day of surfing, and you're lying there on the sand, lounging under an umbrella, maybe with a lemonade in your hand. You can practically hear the waves breaking on the shore. The Endless Summer, dated as it may be, will make a surf fan out of you for sure if you're not one already.