From Gidget to Jeff Spicoli, Hollywood has branded the surfer America's quintessential dumb blond. The 1989 screen classic (totally classic) Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure consolidated the pop culture archetype: Surfers are dumb but sometimes lovable slackers who abandon meaningful pursuits like high school history to catch most excellent waves and, more important, party on, dudes! (History hasn't really cared that Bill and Ted never actually seemed to surf.) If a surfer is lucky enough not to be a complete blockhead, he's apt to be a deviant—say, robbing banks while wearing a Nixon mask, à la Point Break.
Such fun-but-facile takes only brush the surface of a sport and culture that encode many traits Americans celebrate: daring individualism and courage, rejection of social conformity, embrace of risk, eagerness to harness technology to go faster, farther, higher than the next guy.
Enter Riding Giants, Stacy Peralta's new documentary about big wave surfing, which explores those avenues while presenting surfing as an influential and meaningful subculture that values courage, freedom, and fun for the sake of fun. What's more, to judge from Peralta's account, the surfing industry—corporations that hawk billions in gear annually and promote themselves by sponsoring competitions and surfers—has changed the sport and its culture but not corrupted them, a phenomenon that undermines the distinction many surfers (and denizens of other countercultures) like to draw between commerce and integrity.
"The surfers in this film were great sportsmen and adventurers just like the great heroes of baseball, but they founded a culture and a lifestyle that, to this day, people participate in whether they surf or not," says Peralta, who established himself as a documentary filmmaker with the skateboard doc Dogtown and Z Boys, a surprise hit in 2002. "I thought it was a story that deserved to be told."
The film starts with a cheeky crash course on the history of the sport, then homes in on three major stories: the rise of modern surfing in 1950s Hawaii; the surfing world's 1992 discovery of the big waves at Maverick's, a beach in Northern California that board shaper Jeff Clark had already surfed solo for 15 years; and finally, the insane landscape of tow-in surfing, in which muscleman Laird Hamilton and others use jet skis to drop into 80-foot swells.
Riding Giants is most compelling when documenting that Shangri-la period in Hawaii, when legendary big-wave rider Greg Noll and a ragtag band of swashbucklers descended upon the North Shore of Hawaii to live in Quonset huts, avoid the Man, and surf nonstop. "They traded in the leather shoes for the thongs," says Peralta. It was a counterculture very much in the spirit (if not the aesthetic) of the Beats, the much more famous rebels of the supposedly buttoned-down 1950s.
Noll, who surfed in black-and-white striped board shorts and specialized in conquering waves everyone else considered too big, epitomized the lifestyle. Now 67, Noll still rattles off a quip a minute and is the most charismatic, entertaining voice in Riding Giants.
"When we started coming to the North Shore," says Noll, "the first time we blew through Haleiwa, in my old truck with six or seven surf-crazed Haole surfers with boards hanging out the back and our favorite lady's underwear hanging on the antenna of the car…I remember looking in the rear view mirror and these old mom and pop store owners are all kinda hanging out the door to see what just blew through town. "
The sleepy Hawaii that Noll fondly remembers really didn't recover. By the early 1960s, the secret was out: A glut of movies such as Gidget and Ride the Wild Surf, often featuring footage of guys such as Noll riding waves, brought the masses to the beach, and surfing as a thriving bohemian lifestyle didn't survive them.
But to Peralta's credit, Riding Giants doesn't mire itself in nostalgia or try to suggest that the cheesy movies (or the big-money sponsorship business) ruined the sport or the people who practice it. Peralta eschews the knee-jerk narrative in which those living beyond the break of cultural trends can either remain "authentic," eschewing any opportunity to make a living off their way of life, or sell out and bid farewell to their souls.
What is especially heartening is that Peralta, himself a veteran of the skate punk scene, isn't getting drubbed for this message—even or especially among those ordinarily quickest to complain about the corrupting effects of commerce. Online and in print, surfers are raving about Riding Giants—more enthusiastically than critics—not seeming to care that it's funded in part by surf apparel giant Quiksilver, part of the multibillion-dollar industry that many watermen have blamed for polluting the purity of the sport.
Even Greg Noll, who once made his living selling boards, has been known to criticize the surf industry as corrupting. Yet he's clearly proud of the story told in Riding Giants—all the way through the final act, which focuses on Laird Hamilton, who as today's top big-wave rider makes a handsome living off his sponsor, Oxbow, a French sportswear company.
"The hard-core guys like Laird…if they didn't get a penny, they'd still be doing it," says Noll. "I'm not sure if they're gonna be too happy if you put that in the magazine, because their sponsors might squeeze them a little bit. But basically, those guys do it for the pure joy."