Hollywood’s attempts to capture the visceral thrill and renegade spirit of surfing with any kind of authenticity have proven as elusive as mounting a true-to-life rock biopic of the love-fast-die young variety.
From 1959’s “Gidget” and the Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon pics of the early ’60s to films like “Point Break” (1991) and “Blue Crush” (2002), the relationship between mainstream filmmakers and surf culture has been “comical” at best, according to Greg MacGillivray, co-director with Sam George of “Hollywood Don’t Surf!” a rough cut of which was screened at Cannes without subtitles.
The documentary’s title is inspired by Robert Duvall’s proclamation as the crazed Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now” that “Charlie don’t surf!” — a line written by John Milius who, according to the filmmakers, may have come closest to capturing the heart and soul of surfing with “Big Wednesday” (1978). But even that film, to which “Hollywood Don’t Surf!” devotes a considerable portion of its running time, comes across in the doc as a well-intentioned, even noble, failure.
Granted, MacGillivray, who directed one of the more lasting documentaries about surfing, “Five Summer Stories” (1972), and was a second unit director on “Big Wednesday,” is a tough critic, and pretty much regards all of Hollywood’s attempts at riding the crest of the surf craze as a washout. “Hollywood seems to feel that they have to fictionalize it,” he says. “Make it bigger, better than it is.”
“Hollywood Don’t Surf!” producer Lincoln Forrest Phipps is a bit more forgiving about “Big Wednesday.” “When it came out in 1978,” he says of Milius’ film, “it was too close to the era and the sport it was speaking to and was competing with ‘Jaws’ and ‘Close Encounters’ and the big blockbusters that put his contemporaries like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in the limelight and (separated Milius) as a renegade. Surfers appreciated that because they’re renegades.”
In the doc, Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino talk about the film in revisionist terms as a classic that has appreciated with time.
“That was the first Hollywood movie to show real surfing,” says Michael Scott Moore, author of “Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread From Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World.” “They did take cameras out on the beach and film professionals in big surf.”
Moore is equally as dismissive of Hollywood’s surf obsession as MacGillivray but recognizes the industry’s influence on the rest of the world. ” ‘Blue Crush’ was mentioned in a few countries I visited as being the instigator for a whole generation of girl surfers in Japan and Israel and, to an extent, in the U.S.,” he says. “So it’s had a huge effect, far beyond the actual merits of the film.”
And while a film like “Blue Crush,” from a cinematography standpoint, might have evoked the danger and adrenaline-pumping thrill of surfing the Banzai Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore as effectively as any film before it, its theme of conquering one’s fears and triumph-of-the-human-spirit overtones ultimately ring hollow for Moore.
“The tendency to do the slow-motion, triumphant wave-riding shot at the climax of the film might be too big for some Hollywood studios to ignore,” says the author. “The potential for kitsch is enormous.”