2004Director: Stacy Peralta
Cast: Jeff Clark, Laird John Hamilton
think it'd be fair to say that, thanks to overuse, the word awesome has lost its potency. And although I admit to being among those who frequently use the term to describe things like, say, The Cosby Show or a bowl of soup, I also think that's too bad. After all, what are we to do when something comes along that truly is awesome, that is so amazing and grand to look at and think about that it simply overwhelms? From now on, let's try to be a little more mindful when using the word.
That said, Riding Giants, a new documentary about the wonders, challenges, history, and personalities of big-wave surfing, offers up an ocean full of the most genuine and undiminished sort of awesome. Really. The images are stunning, and so are the actions of innumerable surfers who, with their gutsy, demented minds and physical sorcery, thrill us. They do so with a force that matches the power and mystery of the ever churning, ever changing, big-N, Nature in which they practice their sport.
"All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I'm fine."
It's awesome to see and the stories are awesome to hear. As a result the movie achieves all kinds of visceral thrills, an endless desire to emulate, and frequent compulsive left-right head nods of disbelief, that are simply not possible with works of fiction. Riding Giants captures what can be right about a documentary. To be sure, despite that constant offering up of awesomeness, the work as a whole is, in fact, not awesome. In many ways, it falls victim to what can be wrong about a documentary. On occasion it's preachy and melodramatic. It rambles, repeats, and contrary to that surfer attitude the movie wants so desperately to honor, it takes itself way too seriously.
Riding Giants is the work of writer and director Stacy Peralta, whose first documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, was about the birth of modern-day skateboarding. Dogtown succeeded where Riding Giants does not, because its story was discrete—it was about a small, finite group of kids at a specific place and time with a singular goal. The personalities it featured were varied and engaging; the drama felt real. But the scope of Riding Giants is too expansive and Peralta fails to maintain his balance.
Of course his subject is great fodder for the big screen. Evidently, there's regular surfing and there's big-wave surfing. Regular surfing is the kind of surfing that you or I would do. It's the surfing of Gidget and the Beach Boys. It still requires some balls, but sane people do partake, they have a good time and they rarely die. Big-wave surfing, on the other hand, involves seeking out the biggest, most intimidating, freak of nature, 30-foot-plus waves and trying to conquer them by riding across their face on a little fiberglass board. Generally, big-wave surfers are hip and brazen. Their sanity, however, is questionable. Although they have better tans and cooler hair, they are the tornado chasers of America's coastal regions.
"Wait a minute...nobody ever said anything about going in the water!"
With that palette, Peralta tries to create a clean historical arc by focusing on three successive personalities, big-wave surfing gods from yesteryear, yesterday, and today. The movie starts with Greg Noll, the legend of Hawaii's North Face surfing scene in the late '50s and '60s, and his mythical success at the famed Waimea Bay. Then, it moves on to Jeff Clark, the literal founder and decades-long advocate for the Mavericks waves near San Francisco. Finally we get Laird Hamilton, our modern day hero, golden boy, and tow-in surfing innovator. Each is extraordinarily talented and has forever changed the sport in his own way. But ultimately, unless you are part of that scene yourself, they are likely to seem just as interchangeable as the scores of other talking heads and surfer dudes that flash up on the screen. Their stories do not stand out as exceptional, functioning more as a vehicle to relate a history, than as dynamic characters. Unless you subscribe to Surfer Magazine or your name is Laird, you're likely to lose a little patience and steam toward the movie's end. Haven't we surfed this wave before?
Despite its weak storytelling, Riding Giants keeps itself afloat with those beautiful and amazing images. Even more so, it’s the passion and energy of the people on screen that ultimately charms us. For these people the experience is spiritual, and from them we don't get awesome. We get other words that are both potent and rare—words like "gnarly." Not since Bill and Ted have we heard that one so frequently, and never before has it been uttered with such little irony and so much devotion. It signifies the intractable, the chaotic, and the raw, and evokes a passion that's real.
By: Rob Lott
Published on: 2004-07-23