How better to begin an essay on surf movies
than with the image of a wave without a surfer. Every week, as Steve
McGarrett intoned “Aloha”, a big blue curl would freeze
on screen. Within the
conventions of television, we knew the suspense was bogus. The next
episode would be much like the one before: after forty minutes of
driving to and fro in Waikiki, McGarrett would tell Dan-o to “book’em”,
a cut to commercial and then the wave.
wave was not just any wave. It was a metaphor for justice. American
justice. Inevitable, powerful and seemingly the very stuff of nature.
is no accident that Hawaii Five-O appeared on the fault
line between the sixties and the seventies. The Summer of Love was
over. Nixon was in the White House. Vietnam was a quagmire. The
seventies were the theatre for America’s hangover from a binge
of self-indulgent dreaming; dreams that seemed possible after the
hard work of the Civil Rights movement. But it’s one thing
to chaff against conservative stasis. It’s quite another to
demand its obliteration.
Five-O has a reactionary core. Waikiki, the epicenter of life
on the big island, is the epitome of that strange ability America
has for making places safe for the world to consume America’s
fantasies about itself. Indeed, Honolulu is perhaps the crowning
achievement of this project -- built to accommodate both the military
and the tourists who rely on that military to keep them safe at
the edge of the American world.
and Disneyworld were thrown up in godforsaken places in agreeable
climates, places where the dispossessed and the desperate had fled
to stake a claim on some moldy tidbit of the American Dream. Orlando
and Anaheim, in spite of and perhaps because of the presence of
Disney, are deeply conflicted locales. There is a hot spot of ruthlessly
oppressive family-friendliness evoking a simulation of America at
its most childish and innocent ringed by sundry purgatories that
speak of America’s current reality -- strip malls, strip
clubs, and the joyless sprawl of McMansions, motels and mega-highways.
contrast, the natural beauty of Hawaii is elemental to the illusion
of both leisure and the moral goodness of the leisure project. The
park is the theme. Eden preserved. Or rather tamed. The savages
who killed Captain Cook now greet visitors with smiles and lais.
The Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor tipple mai-tais as Charo capers
onto stage at the Waikiki Palace, warming up the crowd for an Osmonds
is very much part of this Eden-esque illusion. Let us return to
the empty wave. McGarrett’s mastery of Hawaii is complete.
Not only does he understand the need to maintain the façade
of tropical calm and comfort for the tourists, he also knows that
the façade is just that. McGarrett can’t afford to
“not to know.” The show’s villains are the rogue’s
gallery of dream apostates and drifters one expects to find at the
crossroads of the Pacific as the Summer of Love fades out --
drug addicts, mafia kingpins, cultists, rancid hippies and in the
case of McGarrett’s arch-enemy, Wo-Fat, a cunning Asian mastermind
with nothing but contempt for America and its childish optimism.
Jack Lord plays McGarrett as a cross between Eliot Ness and Elvis
-– charismatic and clever yet vulnerable. He is the surfer
of the empty wave.
the animal kingdom, justice does not exist. We invented it. Why?
The threat of justice might be a deterrent to crime. But justice
is also an acknowledgement
that we come from the world of nature, of primal forces. Our humanity,
our humanness, as Saul Bellow notes, must be won as we live. McGarrett
is an excellent “surfer” for justice. He is just because
he has chosen to live as such. He knows the wave and how it must
there are those who choose otherwise. The film Point Break
(1996) concludes with the bankrobber/extreme sport enthusiast Bodhi
(Patrick Swayze) disappearing behind a fortress of monumental waves
on a remote beach in Australia while on shore, his nemesis, an FBI
undercover agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) finally gives up his
Jalbert-esque hunt. Utah isn’t beaten. Far from it. Looking
out into the pounding surf, he understands
at last why Bodhi robbed banks -- to live free of a system
that had nothing to offer him and ultimately would break his spirit.
The stolen money financed the noble pursuit of liberty. Justice,
if it were to be delivered, belonged to the waves. I find this “aha!”
moment of phenomenological clarity far more affecting than that
of the Matrix, when Neo (Reeves) sees the code streaming
behind the illusion. Utah and Bodhi are not creatures of divine
intervention realizing heroic destinies elemental to humanity’s
survival. They are individuals making hard choices for themselves,
no one else. They are together, alone.
film begins in sunny Southern California and director Kathryn Bigelow
piles on the “endless summer” clichés quickly.
Utah is a former football star with a bum knee. His partner, Papas
(Gary Busey) is an old surfing idol going to pot. The plot is a
slight contrivance, lashed together with a tan line and a strand
of bleached hair. The real story lies in the impressionistic surfing
sequences. Bigelow renders them in slow-motion silhouette. The surfers
fuse with the light and the water. Bigelow shoots the get-away from
a bank heist through the back alleys of Santa Monica likewise. It
is the world as Bodhi and his crew experience it. The zen of the
water is the zen of the street, as unwelcoming as it is.
Crush (2002) suggests that it is possible for surfers to survive
within the system if you use it to achieve an existence on your
own terms. Three young females work as maids in Hawaiian hotels
to support their surfing life. The world on the land sucks
-- they’re forced to clean up after vulgarians and cementhead
celebrity athletes. Their physical beauty is corseted into the precocious
yet bland sexuality of Brittany Spears and Christina Aguilerra.
Only on the water are they free. When one of the girls is fired,
she advises her friends to shut and keep working. They need the
money. And without that, the dream dies. But what awaits our heroines
in their future? Prince Charming and a brood of kiddies dolled up
Ralph Lauren duds? Isn’t that what the American cult of youth
tells them is the ideal for a young beach goddess?
That Point Break ends on a gloomy beach in Australia, far
from the tropes of Southern Californian “surfer’s paradise”
is fitting. Bodhi has not rejected those tropes. He never embraced
them to begin with. He is supra-cultural. Nature is his home. The
cultural form, the uniform of the surfer, was merely a shell for
the spirit. What a contrast to the way extreme sport is peddled
in the American mass media. If you look the part, the ads suggest,
you can play the part. Is this really true? The “buffness”
of Utah and Bodhi are the result of masterful physical activity.
Even though they are aging, they are aging in action. The commodification
of surfing is successful because it promises easy leisure and status
from that leisure. You don’t have to do the work of authenticity.
But because you aren’t out there on the water taking risks,
you don’t gain any insights either. One is struck by the universal
appeal of surfing as spiritual tonic in Step Into Liquid (2003).
Even the mad bastards who brave the chill of Lake Michigan to ride
a ripple or two know that special rewards are available only out
on the water. Fraternity arises from that experience, a shared knowledge
that they carry within them back on land.
third crucial character of Point Break is Papas (Gary Busey),
the mentor of Utah. Busey’s iconography is all California
surfer -- tanned, blond, toothy, playful. But in Point Break, the
surfer is long in the tooth and soft in the gut. He looks like he’d
be more comfortable in the crowd at Jimmy Buffett concert than on
a surfboard at dawn. He is the totemic figure of what happens to
surfers after the last wave. Vitality goes and along with it, vigilance.
You end up working for the system and then dying for it.
is exactly the point of Big Wednesday (1978), a film in
which a much younger and trimmer Busey stars. The story focuses
on three friends from 1962 to 1974. During those dozen years, they
do a lot of surfing while history makes it own moves. They dodge
the draft. The Summer of Love comes and goes and in the backwash,
the seventies arrive. Again, I think this is the crucial decade
for any discussion of surfing films. The sixties gave us revolutionary
moments that were unsustainable. The seventies, much maligned as
they are, was a special time when those revolutionary impulses unleashed
hangovers and aftershocks. The chickens that could came home to
mend their broken wings. The conclusion of Big Wednesday,
when the mythical wave that the characters have been waiting for
finally appears, is one such aftershock. While they were waiting
for the wave, life happened. And now that the wave’s here,
are any of them willing to give up that life. One is. And from that
wave Bodhi of Point Break appears, eighteen years later.
Wednesday was written and directed by John Milius who wrote
an early draft of Apocalypse Now (1980). The first is an
ode to his youth in Southern California. The second film is a strange,
quixotic attempt to graft Joseph Conrad’s fictionalized indictment
of the 19th century Belgian slave trade onto American military misadventures
in Vietnam. It is a film that strains for myth, to speak to eternity
about America and the galvanic hubris of its project. The Milius
touch is not hard to find in Apocalypse Now. Many critics
focus on the relationship between Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and Willard
(Martin Sheen). But far more compelling is the brief yet portentous
meeting between Lance (Timothy Bottoms) and Colonel Kilgore (Robert
Duvall). We first meet Kilgore when Willard’s boat arrives
just after Kilgore has laid waste to a small village. Kilgore is
no mood for visitors. Or cowardice. He upbraids one of his men for
refusing a fallen Vietcong soldier a drink of water. Yet, just as
he is about to deliver the water himself, Kilgore is distracted
by news that Lance is in Willard’s party. Until that moment,
Lance has been an amusing bit player, sunning himself on the fantail
of the boat or waterskiing behind it. He is a cartoon, a caricature
of the beach bum golden boy drafted into service.
can’t believe his luck. A championship surfer is in his midst.
After some bragging shoptalk about breaks and the weather, he demands
that they hit the waves immediately. Another of his men objects
to this. “Soldier, you surf or you fight,” Kilgore bellows.
“Charlie don’t surf.” Indeed. It’s not enough
for Americans to bomb and burn
the land. Justification for the rack and ruin lies out on the waves.
Their mission of conquest must be consecrated in a primal American
way. Here is America at its most beautiful, invincible, incorruptible.
The impromptu last rites ceremony being conducted by a priest near
the village seems inadequate and bogus in such a light. The surfers
who dodge canon blasts out on the water while riding the break are
Kilgore’s true soldiers.
that you only had to look at Kilgore to know he’d never get
a scratch. The same can be said for Lance. So pure, so beautiful,
so young is the lad that he escapes mortality and the madness that
delivers it with such fury and speed. As the other members of Willard’s
boat meet increasingly grim exits, Lance thrives. After Willard
kills Kurtz, he descends to the bay where he finds Lance surrounded
by silent, adoring natives who step aside to form a processional
walkway to the boat.
does Kurtz spare Lance when he gladly killed Chef, the skittish
Cajun? Because Lance must endure.
All of them, Kilgore, Willard and Kurtz needed him to justify their
actions. They were fighting for him and his kind. Moreover, Lance
was a talisman, a good luck charm who personified the apotheosis
of the endless summer dream Vietnam killed. Coppola uses the ritualistic
brooding music of the Doors in the climax. The Beach Boys have no
place here. Nor would they ever after.
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Dugdale teaches the University of Detroit Mercy, where he also
director of The Writer's Center.