Surfing in the Movies is what its sub-title announces: A Critical History, with emphasis on the adjective “Critical.” In other words, the idea of this new book is to look closely and analytically at surf films as films and not just as part of an evolving cultural tradition. And have fun doing it.
The first major section, “Five Hundred Summer Stories,” covers the treatment of surfing and the beachspace in documentaries and surfing movies from the Lumière Brothers and Edison through Bud Browne’s pioneering films and The Endless Summer and on to Riding Giants, Taylor Steele, and the most recent videos.
Entitled “In Hollywood’s Hands,” the second part plunges into surfing as presented in fictional features. These include a 1917 cartoon and some early Hollywood movies, Gidget, the Beach Party flicks, Big Wednesday, and later movies like Point Break, Drift, and Chasing Mavericks. Coming just after remarks on Soul Surfer, the selection below looks at one of surf cinema’s most famously promising flops, In God’s Hands (1998):
The title of the 1998 film In God’s Hands seems to identify a kindred spiritual bent, but what the much-awaited TriStar release most shares with Soul Surfer is the finally disappointing use it makes of a very high potential subject. Zalman King’s ambitious project certainly wants to be about the Important Issues facing surfing at century’s end, specifically the lures and compromises of professionalism and the anti-traditional temptation to rely on machines in the surfing of big waves. Unfortunately, the tool chosen for this purpose by screenwriters King and Matt George is a fictional narrative that at its best distracts from some of the most fabulous surfing footage ever assembled and at its worst is, without exaggeration, cringe-inducing. In God’s Hands is a great surfing movie trapped in the body of a schlocky Hollywood B-movie. Perhaps the first warning sign is the need to echo Ride the Wild Surf and Big Wednesday and cover all narrative bets with a trio of very different protagonists. Mickey, Shane, and Keoni represent three generations, from the voluble 35-year-old burn-out who once almost hit it big on the pro circuit and who has a hard time with change, to the infinitely taciturn, infinitely talented 22-year-old, to the bushy-tailed apprentice. Travelling together through the Indian Ocean, they train for mammoth waves, then take them on in Hawaii where old-school Mickey will lose his life. These very different guys obviously care for each other, but, beyond the fact that they all love to surf, why? The film never addresses the question, dogmatically asserting their friendship without ever displaying any real personal history or chemistry so that, in what should be the moving ending, it’s hard to buy into the grin- allergic Shane’s ardent memory of “one of those friends when you just think about ’em you smile.” The problem with this film is that you’re often smiling but at the wrong moments.
Coming out of a movie and TV career in soft-core erotica, director King has the facile Hollywood knack for keeping things very pretty and very superficial. With on-site shooting in stunning locations and highly professional camerawork and lighting, the production values are consistently high but unfortunately at the service of thin, undeveloped characters and a story that, while visually sumptuous, is riddled with implausibility, clichés, and manufactured crises. The tale begins and ends with the framing device of Shane’s Mexican train trip for what we eventually find is his second meet-up with a lethal wave and tribute to the friend it killed. In between, our intrepid trio will surf like gods, but as often, it seems, they’ll get tossed in jail in Madagascar, busted out, pursued in skeleton costumes to an improbably waiting seaplane by a canoe full of worked-up locals, and travel to Bali in a “tramp steamer,” upon the deck of which they will construct a skateboard ramp. When not partaking in the frenetic party and concert scene, they meet up with the real-life big wave elite and train like commandos to ride monster slabs with the then-new tow-in technology. Before they head off to Maui to do battle with Jaws in the spectacular last chapter, Shane will take up with and sadly leave the captain’s daughter, Keoni will get malaria, Mickey will gripe about jet-skis. Watching over their progress is the mysterious Wyatt, the photographer-magus-fixer who believes in Shane as the once-in-a-generation talent, shows up miraculously to distribute pearls to corrupt officials, and, in the guise of writing a book, philosophizes in voice-over about surfing. Poor Shaun Tomson, he of the melodious uppercrust South African accent, is obliged by a burdensome script to illustrate his pronouncement that “every sport has its mythologies” by citing the example of … Mickey Mantle?
To the film’s credit (and risk), real surfers were cast in the other important roles as well. While this helps immeasurably in the water, on land the results are uneven. Matty Liu’s prior TV and movie experience shows in his relative ease with the one-dimensional emotions he’s asked to portray, whether it’s bright-eyed rookie curiosity or the painful fatigue of malaria (that has him, oddly, sprinting madly about at one point and from which he bounces back instantly once the fever drops). More central to the story are Matt George as Mickey and Patrick Shane Dorian as Shane Daniel. George’s character is a muscled, verbose bundle of misused charisma. Lex Luthor bald before today’s Kelly and the whole cool cueball thing, he’s an attractive character who’d be much more so if he weren’t written to be such a “character.” Mickey’s a recognizable movie type, the kind of guy who lives big, smokes cigars, boxes, slaps down royal flushes, chases dames, and can develop an elaborate marlin metaphor about them while locked up in a foreign prison. We are probably supposed to think of all that as a facade for the wounded heart of the surfer who missed his chance and is resisting change now as a kind of personal affront. In the end, the whiny way he keeps repeating “you can do it” about paddling into huge waves poorly serves the romantic soul surfer side of the movie’s staged debate. When the action turns to Hawaii and Mickey goes fatally down in the mountainous wave he in fact does paddle into, details reveal a death wish that seems more motivated by movie conventions than the guy’s earlier tour disappointments and first mild dose of mid-life crisis.
Where George is all over the place in his portrayal, Dorian’s Shane is almost pathologically mute. One generously presumes this is because of his intensity of purpose, though vacancy remains another possibility when interminably long soulful stares only yield monosyllabic replies or, in response to Wyatt’s evident, falsely profound observation that surfing is tribal in nature, a baffling “I never thought of it that way.” While, notably in the Western, the silent man expressing himself with his actions is a classic, it seems the filmmakers exaggerated in their parsimonious allotment of lines to the surfer; Dorian is certainly a novice actor with a very limited range, but he’s not the “fence post” critic Jane Ganahl recognizes, and his voice does have an almost feminine timbre that can be oddly affecting. In any case, he is model handsome, which was apparently a good fit for King who can’t stop posing him silently with his exquisite cipher of a girlfriend in front of endless reaches of sea and cloud. Nestled in the warm shadows of a soft-core-porn-meets-perfume-ad aesthetic, they gaze moodily at each other and into the picturesque distance. The wince factor of the deal gets a good tow-in by the love interest’s sensitive roughneck of a father: “She recognizes herself in ya’, same eyes, same heart, without lies, taking only what you need, giving only what you can.” Much less dreadful as dialogue is the single longest expanse of speech Dorian is granted, when his character poetically explains wave mechanics to her and, with a movingly unadorned sincerity, speaks about the curl where “whatever I’m doing, why I’m doing it, in that moment it all makes sense.” Illustrated by pebbles dropped in a pond, his remarks address the way a big wave folds around an island and keeps going. “All you would need to do to ride it again,” he purrs, “is find out where it’s heading next and beat it there, however you can.” Recalling the 1996 trans–Pacific wave-chasing of Dorian’s buddy Mike Stewart (also in the film) and anticipating that of Chasing the Swell and Taylor Steele’s recent This Time Tomorrow, the image prepares the conclusion when Shane will memorialize Mickey’s passing by catching up to the same swell at Todos Santos.
In its long Hawaiian act, with the exception of Mickey’s continued petulance and, of course, his death, the film replaces its earlier melodrama with the much truer drama of some of the biggest waves on earth. These were the pre-Riding Giants days when towing in needed more explanation. During and after a extended, nicely shot small wave Bali sequence of training sessions (running, lugging boulders underwater, etc.), In God’s Hands calls on surfers playing themselves like Stewart, Rush Randle, Pete Cabrinha, Laird Hamilton’s rugged consigliere Darrick Doerner, and water safety boss Brian Keaulana. Together they provide ample illustration of and lessons in the physical preparation required, why you need to wait for the tow rope to whip, and how to survive 80 yards on the wipeout Mach 10 Express. Necessary for non-surfers, the shop talk is agreeable for a specialist public because, even with the stiff acting, it’s coming from guys with serious cred. The staged corniness of a “What’s your greatest fear?” round-robin washes right off in winter Jaws at its thick, monstrous worst. Before multiple perspective cameras and a perfectly rendered slow motion norm cut occasionally to suddenly thrilling full speed, the film’s star not surprisingly leads the charge. Dorian’s velocity is exceptional, a tiny figure clattering down the face and fighting back in the camera’s direction over the grisly bulge of the passing shoulder. When swallowed up from behind one time, the wipeout leads to effective subjective shooting and a dramatically enacted white water rescue, where the wordy previous warnings trotted out by Keaulana suddenly crystallize into a choreography of military precision. Already sensational in artistically filmed Bali training sessions, Randle adds tight corkscrews to his pull-outs, and Cabrinha somehow shrugs off the legendary right backside. The two most exceptional takeaways are Stewart as he belly slams down the mountain while impossibly holding on (and, yeah right, spinning a 360°), plus a pumped Brian Keaulana in the best ride of all tight out of an explosively spitting barrel. In the end credits, the film’s dedication to Todd Chesser movingly closes the frame on this exceptionally surfed and filmed sequence. Chesser doubled for George in certain scenes; on February 13, 1997, he was inked in for the Mickey death scene during the huge swell but chose instead to surf Oahu, where he drowned at Outside Alligators.
When he first accepted the work, Chesser blogged that “maybe this time Hollywood will get it right.” Despite the other-dimensional surfing, the lost opportunities of In God’s Hands proved him wrong, unfortunately transforming what on one level looks like far more than a $10 M budget into a schmaltzy travelogue for human cardboard cut-outs. Dorian’s Sphinx- like performance on land is less the problem, though, than an ambient over-seriousness and a heavy priorities tilt towards lush visuals and trite, short attention span-friendly conflicts. A film needs a foundation of plausible action and characters we believe in if it’s seriously to take on the key surfing questions ostensibly posed in In God’s Hands about the relationship between professionalism and the surfer’s soul, and how much is gained or lost when machines start taking on the work. Perhaps the closest King’s film comes is when, murmuring about his obsessive life choice, Shane observes that “most everybody wants something else from it. I’m afraid if I ask for more it’ll all disappear.” Even if it’s dicey to mix fiction and real life, this nonetheless comes from a well-known surfer five years into an ASP competitive career that would last six more. Also, if the movie had given at least some vague sense of the money network that allows these guys and their expensive Jet Skis to leapfrog all over the world, it might more reasonably have been able to deal with the economic realities of top level surfing; in other words, to rely on a few clandestine black pearls doled out by the mysterious Shaun Tomson character is to beg the question. While the jet-ski assistance issue comes up repeatedly in Mickey’s nagging and histrionic face-offs with Doerner, the results on Maui are so spectacular that there’s really little debate. Having it both ways, though, the screenplay directs Keoni to reflect that “Mickey was right, you know. I hate the sound of those damn Jet Skis.” Impassive stare, long pause: “Me too,” Shane elaborates. Refusing to deal seriously with the issues it pretends to raise, In God’s Hands finally displays a lack of consideration for the surfing world around which its story is structured. The movie’s messages are so jumbled that it’s not finally clear what it’s about. A sign of that confusion is perhaps Les Dieux du Surf, the French language title of the film: “The Surf Gods,” in other words precisely the opposite meaning of the English title.
From Surfing in the Movies: A Critical History © 2015
John Engle by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640.
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