American surf culture and the advent of big-wave surfing are documented with enormous detail and affection by filmmaker Stacy Peralta in “Riding Giants,” a spirited (albeit ironic) choice to kick off this year’s Sundance Film Festival in snowbanked Park City. Placing footage of some of the sport’s most bone-crunching, board-breaking waves alongside interviews with the daredevil pioneers who rode them, pic offers a highly engaging immersion into a culture of larger-than-life characters driven by their thrill-seeking instincts. Though not as tightly focused or accomplished as Peralta’s dazzling debut film, the 2001 skateboarding docu “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” pic is an undeniable crowd pleaser ripe for specialized distribution.
“Riding Giants” begins with a highly amusing animated segment entitled “1000 Years of Surfing in 2 Minutes or Less,” in which Peralta recounts the development of surfing among indigenous Polynesian cultures, its subsequent suppression by strict-minded Calvinist missionaries and its ultimate revival in the early part of the 20th century by Duke Kahanamoku. From there, Peralta slows down the pace a bit, introducing early California surfers of the ’40s and ’50s, explaining their gradual migration to the beaches of Hawaii in search of bigger waves and depicting, in no uncertain terms, the crass co-opting of this heretofore private, rebellious pastime by Hollywood (the “Gidgit” movies and their many beach-party clones).
Other digressions — perchance too many — follow, including an extended episode focusing on the 1969 “swell of the century” and some of the biggest waves ever recorded, including one allegedly ridden by surf legend Greg Noll. Eventually, Peralta winds his way up to the present day and “extreme” surfer Laird Hamilton, whose innovations in the realm of jet-ski-assisted tow-in surfing have permanently altered the dynamics of the sport.
While Peralta is a natural archivist, with an unerring desire to preserve, time-capsule-style, the images and events that have been important in his life, his real strength is less historiographical than sociological. Though “Riding Giants” is never boring, it’s certainly at its least interesting when it seems to be serving as a textbook timeline of great moments in past and present surfing history. (This is particularly true given the extent to which the subjects of tow-in surfing and other new technologies have been addressed by other recent surf pics, including Dana Brown’s superb “Step Into Liquid.”)
Fortunately, most of the time, Peralta sets out to provide a sense of what surfing means to those who have devoted (and sometimes literally sacrificed) their lives to it, by way of a series of lively interviews with such surf legends as Noll, Jeff Clark and, of course, Hamilton — all from different surfing generations, all united in their quest for aquatic glory.
As these distinctly self-effacing icons recount tales of impossibly large waves attempted and brutal wipeouts endured, viewers who would never dream of dropping down the face of anything taller than themselves will be alternately perplexed, awestruck and strangely moved by the crazy depth of these mavericks’ commitment. And by the time Noll speaks of the ocean at Waimea Bay as a woman with whom he has a long and special relationship, it’s hard not to be hooked.
Yet, it’s equally hard not to feel that Peralta has bitten off a bit more than he can chew here — that this always intelligent and enjoyable assemblage would be that much more so with some finer tuning. Peralta wants to tell us so much about his subject that, at times, the sheer wealth of anecdotes and talking heads and jumps back-and-forth in time become a bit wearying. Pic would almost certainly benefit from another pass through the editing room, where some of its untidy edges could be neatened up.
As with “Dogtown,” pic looks and sounds great, distinguished by Peralta’s energetic use of multi-layered, multi-textured photomontages to imbue stock images with a new vibrancy.