These days, when you watch a movie and wonder "How did they do that?", it's typically a technical question. How did CGI create that dragon, those thousands of Middle Earth warriors, the Chinese swordsmen skipping across a lake, that web-slinger's battle with Doc Ock? How did they get that incredible angled shot of Victoria Falls (or a bird plummeting a thousand feet)? How did they get those dangerous exotic animals into the same frame with the hero?

With the 2004 surfing documentary "Riding Giants," "How did they do that?" becomes a different question—or rather, two. There's the psychological one: Where did those young men get the cojones, never mind the skill, to ride a board down a 40-foot wave, at 35 miles an hour and more, with white foam curling behind, rocks up ahead, and a vicious undertow below? Then there's a procedural one: Just how did they produce that 1950s video footage of big-wave surfing off Waimea Bay, Hawaii, and how did they manage to live out there, year after year, simply to surf?

There's no real answer to the first question, and as exhilarating as the film proves to be, there's unfortunately no clear answer to the secondthough it should have been easy to supply one.

Stacy Peralta, who wrote and directed "Dogtown and Z-Boys," the terrific 2002 documentary about the invention and culture of skateboarding, did something similar in 2004 with big-wave surfing. This is not the story of surfing, period. Gidget turns up, briefly and to much disgust, but there's precious little footage of Southern California, and not a single note of The Beach Boys or Jan and Dean. "Riding Giants" is about a comparative handful of (almost exclusively) men—the heroes of a subculture within a subculture.

These surfers were not looking for the "perfect wave" in the sense that the good-natured bums of "Endless Summer" sought a smoothly-sculpted roller that kept going virtually forever (and found it off the coast of Africa). No, the three men who represent successive eras of big-wave surfing—Greg Noll off the north beach of Hawaii in the 1950s, Jeff Clark at Mavericks near San Fran in the 1970s, and superstar athlete and promoter Laird Hamilton in the 1990s—were looking for bigger, faster, colder, more dangerous, and in a strange way the film never fully articulates yet somehow communicates anyway, more spiritual than pot, pranks, girls, and endless sunshine.

(One of the film's surprise interviewees is John Milius, who recalls an academic mentor's disappointment when Milius said all he wanted to do when he got out of high school was surf. The assumption was that he'd never amount to anything, of course. "Giants" doesn't even rub it in by reminding viewers that Milius is a film director ["The Wind and the Lion"] and screenwriter ["Jeremiah Johnson," "Apocalypse Now"] of more than modest success.)

Beyond the sense of what exquisite athletes these surfers are, it's a mild surprise to viewers who know nothing about surfing (and that includes this one), how much history and structure subtly but solidly undergird this movie. One expects lots of surf music and bikinis (both of which turn out to be fairly scarce), and balmy scenes of bright sunlight and palm trees (but there's not a lot of those, either). In other words, one anticipates a pleasant and lovely bore that could not possibly hold one's attention for more than 20 minutes.

Instead, one gets quirky home movies dating back to the mid 1950s; edgily shot watercolor and ink drawings to illustrate unfilmed and often unfilmable events; interviews with engaging, aging surfing vets (often pretty graying and/or chunky) relating their past experiences and sensations; and occasional technical background that proves useful in understanding the history of this little-known sports byway. Dick Dale turns up on the soundtrack, of course, but so do Satie, The Stray Cats' "Rumble in Brighton Tonight," and select orchestral quotations. Benjamin Strong of the Village Voice complained of Peralta's weakness for "setting of dramatic moments to bombastic music", but doesn't make it clear whether he was objecting to Pearl Jam and Soundgarden or the symphonic material. Certainly, Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" and the theme from "Jaws" are intentionally witty and brief, not portentous.)

A cute 1,000-year history of surfing in two minutes, Terry Gilliam-style, takes the story from pre-Christian Hawaii through Captain Cook and southern California to the real beginning of this tale: a tiny group of West Coast refugees who went to the north coast of Oahu in the early 1950s to live and surf all day, every day. There's some talk of "bucking the system, not doing the grey-flannel suit" thing, but mostly these guys were just having a good time.

But what about the 25-foot waves of Waimea Bay? It didn't help that early surfer Dicky Cross had been killed in a storm there in 1943. There were rumors of a nearby haunted house and human sacrifices at the burial grounds above the beach. "You'd look at Waimea Bay and wonder: Could the human body survive the wipeout?" one veteran recalls.

Greg Noll finally gave it a try in October 1957. Once he was successful, the rest of the gang followed. They designed "guns"—long, narrow boards for riding those fast, high waves. (Noll's measured 11 feet, six inches.) The memories of the aging vets are especially entertaining here: "It almost doesn't help to know what you're doing out there"; when you wipe out, "You feel like a piece of lint in the washing machine."

Then the "Gidget" movies hit in the early 1960s, and a worldwide surfing population that might have been 5,000 in 1959 exploded into 2 or 3 million by 1965. In his good-naturedly profane language, Noll decries the film shots of girls wringing their hands over their surfer guys, stars posed in front of a "fish pond," and then a cut to a 25-foot wave. "Man, it just makes me puke," he says. "I mean, goddamn, man, who can believe this shit?"

When a 1969 storm hit the islands and created the biggest waves ever recorded, police told locals to evacuate, but crazy Greg Noll went out and rode a wave at Makaha.

Act Two takes us to Mavericks, a reef near Half Moon Bay, 20 miles south of San Francisco. A 45-minute paddle out, the waves break big and icy cold near "a veritable graveyard of jagged rocks." In 1975, local teenager Jeff Clark gave it a shot. It was fabulous, and for 15 years Clark surfed out there alone. No one took Clark seriously, nobody else wanted to surf the spot. Another vet says it was like a mountain man killing a bear and sleeping in the carcass, with nobody to tell about it. Someone else finally tried it in 1990, then everybody came. "It was way gnarlier" than southern Cal, one says; "It's hateful, it's hateful!" another declares in a voice that's equal parts admiration and fear.

At this point, in both film and historical timeline, it's useful to talk about surfing strategy ("The Line Up," "Caught in the Breach"), technology (how leashes work), and the psychology of big-wave surfing. Dr. Sarah Gearhardt, one of the rare female surfer voices in the film (as rare and surprising and sadly unexplored as the females in "Dogtown and Z-Boys"), says: "I have to override that safety mechanism that wants to rise up in me and keep me from doing something that could kill me." When a surfer is swept under and his tether pulls at the board, it stands on end out of the water, in the position evocatively known as "tombstoning."

Occasional dramatic video and still footage add to one's sense of the danger. Jeff Clark is shown hanging onto Anchor Rock, where the surf has thrown him. We see video footage of the surfer known as "Flea" caught in white surf when his leash hung up on a rock and successive waves pummeled him. "It's like doin' a sit-up with 200 pounds on your chest," he tells the camera. Several of the big-name surfers from Waimea Bay showed up at Mavericks in December 1992, and though Clark had been surfing there 17 years, one of them, Mark Foo, died that very day.

Act Three takes us into the 1990s and farther from shore. Even bigger waves break near the reefs that lie far out to sea. Laird Hamilton, a child buddy of the Oahu surfers, and adopted son of surfing enthusiast and board builder Billy Hamilton, follows in the wakes of the greats. (It is noted that Noll once paddled out 2 hours to the reefs in 1963.) Laird and his peers found the best spot at Peahi, far off Maui. "We knew that we had discovered the real unridden realm," Darrick Doerner recalls.

The challenge is catching the wave—gaining enough speed to ride it—because the bigger the wave, the faster it travels. Late in 1992 Hamilton and Buzzy Kerbox hit on the solution of using a 16-foot Zodiac, and eventually a Jet-Ski, both to get out to the big waves and tow the surfer into his wave, and to follow him and pull him to safety if he wipes out. As Dave Kalama explains, "When things go wrong, they go wrong real quick . . . . you're an insignificant little rag doll." This turned surfing into a real team effort, instead of the solo venture it had always been. Another technical development was a much shorter board, which idea they got from snowboarding. "Guns" had grown long only to assist in catching the big waves close to shore. Now surfers could maneuver swiftly up and back and around, with their feet tucked into rubber footholds like those found on snowboards.

Hamilton found his perfect wave at Chopu, off Tahiti, in August 2002. The wave was not as big as those at Peahi, but unmatched for "mass, power, and ferocity." During his long tube-shooting ride, he disappears entirely from view, under the white spray, then re-emerges as steady as a 747. The still photo that graced a later cover of Surfer magazine carried the legend "oh my god."

The sheer power and beauty of these sequences illustrate the interviewees' fairly inchoate sense of the spiritual aspect of their sport. Says one, "You're not doing this for your own glory; you're doing this because you're caught up in this great act of nature."

But back to those two questions. The first is unanswerable (although Billy Hamilton earns a good laugh during the credits when he says the source of Laird's drive and courage is "the third testicle we had added at birth"). But this viewer would have liked to know a little more about how those guys survived on the north side of Oahu all those many years. There are a few brief sentences about fishing, eating wild fruits and plants, and occasionally stealing chickens. But Noll captured some terrific surfing footage that is now nearly half a century old, and film, developing, and equipment didn't come cheap in those days.

Still, the beauty and majesty of the waves, and the individuals who ride them, provides a surprisingly moving and pure film-going experience.

David Loftus, Sept. 10, 2004


Stacy Peralta - Director
Stacy Peralta, Sam George - Writers
Jane Kachmer, Agi Orsi - Producers
Laird John Hamilton - Executive Producer

2004, 105 minutes


2004 Opening Night Selection, Sundance Film Festival

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