Every year, when the San Sebastian Surf Film Festibal swings around, I try to convince myself I’m a surf cinefile. Then, after watching a dozen or so movies that invariably last 15 minutes to two hours too long, I decide that I will never again watch a surf film, that I hate Australian narrators, that ocean conservation is self-serving and futile, that singer-songwriters all sound the same, and that Kelly Slater gives far, far too many interviews. After a few days of decompressing from this mediated surfing-induced fugue, I snap out of it and can appreciate the kinetic beauty that constitutes our shared passion here at The Inertia. I’m also left with a set of distilled impressions about the state of surfing and surf filmmaking. Although this year I am unable to make it to the beer-and-tapas-fueled bachanal of San Sebastian, the coordinator Sancho Rodriguez, who is, as we speak, swilling directly from a bottle of 2005 rioja and whistling at the screen of the Teatro Prinicipal as the theater goes wild, was kind enough to send me a few screeners, and so, here are my thoughts:
I will never surf Puerto Escondido.
This place shows up, semi-obligatorially in big wave surfing flicks like “Chasing the Swell,” a Red Bull project that contains the usual mix of energy drink logos and nice cinematography. Somehow, they managed to give it the exact same title as an LA Times-sponsored piece that came out a few years ago. Not a standout film, but fun in the way that all heavy-water surf flicks are. Rake me over the reef at Pipeline, drop a lip on my head at Sunset, or bury me in the sand at the Wedge. The heavy, boiling cauldron that is beachbreak at Puerto Escondido terrifies me like no other. I suppose it draws on my earliest experiences with being out of my depth at a local beachbreak which were, as childhood traumas tend to be, more terrifying than any I’ve encountered since. The other issue is, of course, many big wave spots give you the option to paddle in through the channel, ashamed, but intact. If you can paddle out at a closing-out bay like Puerto and decide “Nope, I’ve made a terrible mistake,” the only way to get back to the sand is through the maelstrom. No, gracias.
The only thing I ever learn from Patagonia is that the Malloys are great on film.
I imagine this is how movies are planned at the Patagonia HQ: find a beautiful, pristine wilderness in danger of logging/development/mining/etc, get a weathered sailboat, find out which Malloy brother isn’t too busy at the moment, put him on said sailboat, then find dolphins, lots of dolphins. Such is their latest project, “Groundswell.” A crew of swarthy yet beautiful people go to somewhere swarthy yet beautiful, talk about its eminent destruction and surf a bit. This is environmental propaganda at its most enjoyable –a really pleasant film that surfers and non-surfers alike can enjoy. But as with many of their projects, there is a certain advertisement-tinged vagueness to them. Where are we again? Who is the corporate baddie? What are the issues? Wow, that Dan Malloy is still a demon in the water. Malloy surfs better than you, looks better than you with or without a beard, and is eight and a half feet tall in real life. Craig Anderson could live in the breast pocket of one of his lumberjack shirts. As was the case in “180 Degrees South” with his bro, Keith, the most lasting impressions are of the beauty of the sea, and the beauty of a Malloy brother interacting with it.
Scandinavians are strange and wonderful.
Last year, “Finnsurf” was the darling of the festival. This year, I’m hoping the Norwegian flick “Nordfor Sola” (North of the Sun) builds on that. It revolves around two guys who spend a winter in a self-built hobbit hole at the base of a small bay in the Arctic Circle. Apparently no one went crazy and/or resorted to cannibalism, which is mildly disappointing, but also more uplifting. I’m fascinated by Scandinavian surf films, aside from the fantastic landscape shots, because they bring a unique vision to surf films that adds immeasurably to a cultural milieu that sometimes feels dominated by the tired clichés of California and Australia.
Documenting one swell is something that has not, in the past, been done enough on film. This strikes me as strange as it is the obvious and dominant time frame that surfers live in – basically a natural narrative structure. I’m glad Taylor Steele has evolved from his earlier days of endless, three-minute profile sections and turned his unceasingly acute eye to the chasing of one swell with the two surfers I enjoy watching more than anyone else in the world right now: Dave Rastovich and Craig Anderson. Just don’t interview them too much. It ain’t new, but it’s certainly worth a look.
I’d like to issue a challenge to all aspiring surf auteurs. Make a surf film without using the following types of B-Roll: shots of surfers looking out car windows wearing sunglasses, shots of surfers strumming on guitars, shots of surfers looking out of plane windows and at islands, shots of grizzled men in turbans staring at the camera in North Africa, shots of small children laughing in Indonesia or South Africa, and of course, the shot of surfers with their boards hanging out of tuks tuks. Each one of these and a few more besides is so overused and formulaic it has become part of a lingua franca that lost all semblance of meaning long ago.
Now that I’m in the mood, let’s talk about surf films. Add any favorites you’ve seen recently, or any thoughts on the state of the art, in general.