Crystal blue persuasion

This summer's crush of surfer stories -- on MTV, the WB and in the new "Step Into Liquid" -- have their dorky moments, but they evaporate when we watch someone ride a big blue wall of water.

By Heather Havrilesky

Published August 8, 2003 8:31PM (EDT)

It's been the season of the surfer. Shows about surfing have sprouted up all over the place, from the WB's "Boarding House: North Shore" to MTV's "Surf Girls." And now, almost 40 years after his father's classic movie "Endless Summer" delivered surfing to the world, we have Dana Brown's documentary "Step Into Liquid," which explores wave-riding experiences across the globe, from braving massive waves 100 miles off the coast of San Diego to gliding in the wake of supertankers in the Gulf of Mexico. Like baseball, Elvis Presley, and the supersized nacho platter, surfing has cemented its place at the center of American popular culture.

Considering what a small fraction of our country's population has actually surfed or even watched surfing competitions on TV, what can explain the allure of surf culture to the masses? Are we pasty, overworked outsiders, straining for a glimpse of that soulful, carefree, sunny life that's just out of our reach? Or do we just like looking at big waves and little bikinis?

While the most visible, commercial aspects of the surfing lifestyle -- the golden tan, the sun-bleached blond hair, the stylish logos on high-tech boards -- are distinctly American, the essential nature of the sport and those who devote their lives to it clash dramatically with American culture. Most surfers gladly wake at the break of dawn, dive into cold water, brave sharks and deadly reefs and the undertow, paddle endlessly, their eyes straining at the horizon, all for a few chances to ride a wave. What experience could be less concrete and long-lasting than a wave? It appears out of nowhere, rises and curls and crashes, and then disappears, leaving nothing but kelp and white foam and miles of glassy sea. While the American dream depends on building something concrete -- a family, a house, a retirement fund -- surfers live for a dynamic, fleeting experience with nature.

As absurd as this dedication might seem, the stunning surfing footage featured in "Step Into Liquid" makes it easy to understand the sensual allure of the sport, not to mention its aesthetic appeal to spectators. Watching an athlete like Laird Hamilton, one of the most graceful and beautifully formed men imaginable, dancing with a 50-foot crystal-blue wall of water is an experience that can leave you absolutely awestruck.

It's not surprising, then, that Brown's film features so much unabashed gushing about surfing. The way surfers talk about waves, you'd think they held some secret powers unknown to those of us who are too landlocked or too lily-livered to try it. But Brown's subjects aren't just isolated fanatics.

"Surfing takes precedence over everything," Jeremy Gleiberman told the New York Times a few weeks ago, even though, according to all reports, the waves aren't all that great in Queens, and he has to carry his surfboard on the subway for 45 minutes just to get there. As Robert "Wingnut" Weaver, the star of "Endless Summer II," asserts on OLN's "Surfer's Journal," despite recently having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he feels lucky to have found something he loves as much as surfing. "I don't have a plan, but I don't care," says Wingnut with a big smile. "It's gonna be pretty good."

But, as "X-Files" creator and surfer Chris Carter asserts in "Step into Liquid," "When you talk about surfing, the more you say, the worse off you are." Unfortunately, Brown didn't heed Carter's advice and spread the rhapsodic comments on way too thick instead of letting the images speak for themselves. In fact, a few minutes into the film, I could've sworn I wandered into an IMAX movie by accident. Not only do the golly-gee tone and hokey, staged scenes bear an unsettling resemblance to IMAX's family-style dorkiness, they don't remotely do justice to the understated cool of surf culture. The aw-shucks, squeaky-clean voiceover is clearly designed to match the giddiness of "Endless Summer," but it feels outdated and out of place 40 years later. After almost two hours of such dorkiness ("Seals are the best surfers of all!" "Those little Vietnamese kids just couldn't get enough of that surfboard!"), many viewers will long for the dynamic, hard-edged style and dazzling aesthetic of Stacey Peralta and Craig Steyck's skateboard documentary "Dogtown and Z Boys."

And as interesting as it is to watch strange eccentric surfers ride the wakes of supertankers off the coast of Galveston, Texas, or to witness enthusiastic surfing on shin-high waves in Lake Michigan, such scenes feel a little cloying when cut between footage of hot-dog surfer Taj Burrows pulling aerial stunts that make the guys in "Endless Summer" look like zombies on their boards. Although a handful of viewers might be touched by the scenes of Protestant and Catholic children surfing hand-in-hand off the coast of Ireland -- Newsflash: Surfing Unites A Divided Nation! -- most diehard surfing fanatics will experience the scene where Hamilton meets the big-wave daredevils of the Mavericks crew as a far more groundbreaking moment in history.

So why not scrap the ardent praise and smiling children for more footage of big wave surfing, a mesmerizing spectacle that's as dangerous as it is fascinating to watch? Whether taking on such massive waves represents the cutting edge of the sport or the lonely frontier where self-destructive urges harden into certifiable insanity, a glimpse of big wave surfing throws all sense of proportion and scale out the window. In his Outside magazine article on the death of big wave surfer Mark Foo, John Krakauer wrote, "The difference between riding a head-high wave--the upper limit for most surfers--and riding a hollow, dredging 40-footer is the difference between driving 35 mph and driving 200 mph." It's a difference you can see very clearly. While pro surfers on smaller waves play and dance and perform stunts, the big wave guys plummet straight down mountainous slopes of water, fighting just to stay ahead of the two or three stories of white water crushing down behind them.

Few surfers have the skills necessary to take on big waves, a fact made clear by "Step Into Liquid's" thrilling shots of Dave Kalama and Hamilton tow-in surf in Hawaii's Waimea Bay, known as the Mount Everest of surfing. When you watch surfing competitions on TV, the waves tend to look a lot smaller than they actually are. But there's no real way to hide the size of a wave that's four stories high, and no way to diminish the obvious danger of sliding down a rippling surface that threatens to explode into a tower of whitewater at any moment. But nothing compares to the thrill of watching a select crew of adventurous surfers, including Mike Parsons and Brad Gerlach, take on the Cortes Bank, a spot 100 miles off the coast of San Diego where 60-foot waves rise over a submerged island. These are some of the best big wave surfers in the world, but when they look nervous at the size of the waves out there, you know you're witnessing something revolutionary.

The footage of surfing featured on Mark Burnett's "Boarding House: North Shore" may be somewhat less breathtaking, but the show gives you a good sense of how difficult and luck-based surfing competitions can be. Burnett, the man behind both "Eco-Challenge" and "Survivor," invited a gaggle of competitive surfers to live together while competing in the Vans Triple Crown, offering a closer look - a much, much closer look, in fact - at the strange lives and habits of pro surfers.

While the series, which recently concluded on the WB, may have provided a little less drama than its producer had hoped, it certainly reflected the easy-going nature of surf culture. Despite the fact that the housemates were competing against each other regularly, they remained mellow and unassuming in their interactions. When the women of the house came home late after a night on the town and woke up Damien Hobgood, who had a competition first thing in the morning, you expected him to lose his cool completely. Instead, he quietly told them that the chairs were making noise on the floor above him, and if they could just not move the chairs, that would be better. Later, when a hotel tried to charge Holly Beck's credit card for a rug that Veronica Kay and her friends stained, Holly laughed it off, then calmly called her dad for legal advice. In contrast to the harpies of "Paradise Hotel" who backstab, weep openly, and connive like junior high school kids despite the fact that they have nothing to do but work on their tans and suck down strong drinks, the stars of "Boarding House" downplayed every conflict and shrugged off every disappointment. Of course, notorious hothead and surfing legend Sunny Garcia had to bring a little drama to the picture. Whether pausing briefly to confront those who dare flirt with his girlfriend or unexpectedly walloping those who drop in on his wave, his style of smacking people upside the head quickly became a familiar sight. While such behavior was predictable, coming from the highest profile surfer and most volatile personality in the house, Sunny certianly saved the series from an utterly placid fate.

Still, even the most explosive interactions were summed up with that concise surfer style of wisdom. When Danny Fuller witnessed one surfer smacking another surfer in the head on the beach, he remarked calmly, "Basically, you don't drop in, you know? Guys' lives are at risk. Gotta make examples."

The relaxed optimism of the women of "Boarding House" was particularly impressive. Not only are these women fearless and incredibly low key, but they're utterly unfazed by the stuff that women on all the other reality shows whine about around the clock. No matter how many times the producers tried to drum up a catfight between Holly and Veronica -- Holly doesn't party! Veronica parties all the time! Holly works hard! Veronica blows stuff off! -- there was no real drama because the two women were consistently honest with each other. And, in one of my favorite moments, Holly explained to the two other women in the house how inconvenient she found it to have a boyfriend, even though she still cared about hers. "I'm over having a boyfriend, but I love him," she explained, as the others nodded understandingly. In that moment, they almost made up for the countless boy-crazy offenses of "The Bachelor," "Joe Millionaire," and "For Love or Money" combined.

Not surprisingly, MTV's "Surf Girls" featured young women who are a little pettier and more emotionally explosive than their older, more established "Boarding House" counterparts. Throughout the season, they talked a lot of smack behind each other's backs and a few broke down in tears over some aspect of the competition. But when you consider how young these women are, and that they're braving everything from reef poisoning to tow-in surfing on monster waves, their confidence is pretty remarkable. At least they aren't having flashbacks of being drilled into the reef over and over again like poor Anne Marie, the heroine of last year's ultra-repetitive "Blue Crush."

It's strange, given how many producers and directors have tried to tackle surfing and surf culture, how few have succeeded at capturing the whole picture. The fault of most surf programs, in the end, lies in the distance between us and them. No matter how much surfers try to describe the joys of surfing or the rules of conduct that guide them, we feel like outsiders, pressing our noses against the glass for a glimpse of some life that lies just outside of our grasp. The truth is, on shows like "Boarding House," "Surf Girls" and OLN's "The Surfer's Journal," everyone pretty much agrees with and understands everyone else to the point of repetition, and things get so low key it makes you wish there were some outsider in the mix, to represent the unschooled and the butt-white among us.

Enter "The North Shore," a cheesy '80s movie which, for all its flaws, somehow manages to capture the spirit of the culture better than any of this latest wave of surfing fare. As odd as it sounds, it takes a goofy teen movie with a predictable feel-good plot, a snotty blond popular-guy surfer, and a love interest played by Nia Peeples to triumph where so many others have failed. Our story begins in Arizona, where Rick Kane (Matt Adler) has just won a surfing competition in a wave pool, and he announces to the crowd that he'll use his prize money to head straight to Hawaii to surf the Pipeline! Yay! Before he leaves, his mom urges him not to blow off his art scholarship in New York: "I know you love surfing, but don't throw away your career!" Dorky, yes indeed, and predictable too -- before Rick even hits the beach, you already know that he'll get sand kicked in his face by locals, one of them played by surfing legend Gerry Lopez, and that he'll get beaten (Ooo! Burrrrn!) by snobby surfing Adonis Lance Burkhardt, who's played by a young Laird Hamilton, already showing incredible grace and athleticism on his board. What you don't suspect is that you'll get pulled into this crazy John Hughes-style movie, mostly because the characters represent different surfing archetypes that ring true, from the wisdom-dropping soul surfer Chandler (Gregory Harrison) who lives on the beach with his Hawaiian wife and Sex-Waxes philosophic about the joys of communing with the elements, to the over-the-top surfer dude Turtle (John Philbin) who's surprisingly funny and likable and steals every scene he's in. Maybe these guys look like stereotypes to those immersed in the surfing world, but to outsiders, they give an enjoyable shape to concepts that fall flat when they're described in words, as evidenced by the repetitive, gushing testimonies of "Step into Liquid."

Not only are the characters of "The North Shore" enlightening to an outsider, but the plot offers a number of satisfying twists and turns, most notably when Turtle, who works for Chandler shaping boards, becomes brokenhearted because Chandler has taken Rick under his wing and the two surf together all the time. When Rick discovers that Turtle feels left out, he runs and gets Turtle's prize board, one he's been shaping and perfecting for months, and shows it to Chandler, pretending he made it himself. When Chandler reacts enthusiastically, Rick tells him it's Turtle's board, and Chandler, amazed, immediately invites Turtle to come surfing with them. The look of gratitude on Turtle's face honestly brought tears to my eyes. Throw in surf photography that's absolutely breathtaking, considering it was made in 1987, and an oddly satisfying Scooby Doo ending, and you've got the makings of a cheesy cult classic.

Most of all, though, "The North Shore" underscores the experience of the outsider, which is fitting, since ultimately, America's fascination with surfing is fueled by the fact that it doesn't belong to most of us. Few have the patience and dedication to paddle through cold waters, waiting to fly down waves several stories high. In fact, you'd have to have a firm belief that "it's all good" to throw yourself at the mercy of nature like that. But even if us pale outsiders don't understand it, at least we can enjoy the view from the shore.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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