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— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

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Before introducing us to the giant waves referred to in the title, Stacy Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys) gives a quick history of surfing, starting with the ancient Hawaiians.

In that same vein, I’d like to present the history of the surfing movie, going back to surf film pioneer Bruce Brown. Brown’s best-known film is Endless Summer, an occasionally cheesey, but mostly sincere travelogue of two surfers circling the globe in search of the perfect wave.

After Endless Summer, Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon with the Gidget movies (et al.), reviled universally by real surfers. Brown came back in the 1990s with Endless Summer II, and his son Dana Brown brought the form into the new millennium with Step into Liquid.

Riding Giants takes the genre even further by imbuing it with film literacy and adding an auteur’s style. Even the music seems more complex and inspired; the film opens with a brief sanctus, before introducing a heavy-metal guitar riff, capturing the dual nature of surfers around the world.

The Big One, in Three Acts

Greg Noll pondered the big waves at Pipeline in 1964
Greg Noll pondered the big waves at Pipeline in 1964

Riding Giants is told in three parts (after the introduction). The first act covers the early days of modern surfing. Peralta interviews Greg Noll and shows us some of Noll’s early photos and home movies, often the only record of the birth of surfing the best spots in Hawaii. A single photo exists from that one day in Noll’s youth when a low-pressure system created the biggest wave ever photographed, a wave that Noll was compelled to ride, risking his very life.

Act two moves the film moves to San Francisco, and Half Moon Bay, where Jeff Clark rode a big wave known as Mavericks for 15 years before the surfing community came to see what all the fuss was about.

As a transition to the biggest waves, in Peahi off of Maui, Peralta introduces the physics of big-wave surfing. Longer boards were needed to catch bigger waves. Some, like Laird Hamilton, used windsurfers to gain speed to catch the waves, but then they were stuck with a sail and they were no longer surfing.

The solution was so obvious, but took years to discover: tow-in surfing. One could use motorboats (and later, Jet-Skis) to tow the surfer into the wave, giving them requisite speed to catch it and ride it. Tow-in surfing also allowed for smaller and faster boards, making the once-unrideable Peahi waves the ultimate big-wave ride.

Stylin’ Documentary Style

Peralta doesn’t take as many tangents as Dana Brown did in Step into Liquid. Nevertheless, he does stop to fill in the uninitiated on some of the terminology. The “line-up” orients surfers with the shore so they can be sure to avoid hazards such as reefs and rocks. The “wipe out” is the inevitable tumble from a wave that kicks your ass, or if you’re unlucky, breaks your neck. The “leash” attaches your ankle to your board, which floats; it usually tells a tumbling surfer which way is up, but which can also get snagged in underwater crevasses and trap you in the breaking waves.

Like all surf movies, Riding Giants has gorgeous cinematography. Like the better surf movies, it has interesting interviews with colorful subjects. But it is not content to stop there. Peralta has a much more kinetic filmmaking style than Bruce and Dana Brown have. He uses eye-catching cutout styles instead of Ken Burns-like pan-and-zooms. He even manages to give motion to still photos, in a technique that’s sure to be copied.

In the end, Riding Giants is a slightly different take on the surf genre. The more familiar you are with the genre (or with surfing), the more different it may seem from other surf movies. In either case, it’s a joy to watch, and a cheap way to escape to the beach this summer.

  • Gary Johnstone: Can you possibly tell me what the piece of music is that's playing when jeff clark is first surfing mavericks alone and he has a twinkle in his eye, it sounds very electronic, dance orientated, i've been searching on the web for days and can't seem to find out what it is.... can you help please?
    i would be most grateful.
    thanks for your help,
    Gary. March 26, 2008 reply