Think of California and one of the first things that comes to mind is tanned bodies on the beach, surfboard at the ready. It's an image that has been cultivated by that other glamorous California hotbed, Hollywood, which for more than 50 years has been depicting surfers as supremely toned happy-go-lucky types, high on life. The documentary Hollywood Don't Surf! hilariously shows how the stereotype of surfers pushed by the movies is one that has been lambasted by the sport's participants.
Directed by Sam George and Greg MacGillivray, the documentary takes an acerbic look at the history of surf movies. The journey starts in 1906 with footage, filmed by the camera pioneer Thomas Edison, of surfers on the beach at Waikiki. In the 1930s, surfing was featured in Bird of Paradise, starring Dolores Del Rio and the Bing Crosby vehicle Waikiki Wedding. But it was in the 1950s that Hollywood really began taking a keen interest in the beach Adonises. Many studio executives could spot surfers outside the windows of their Malibu beach houses, and they saw a way to appeal to the youth audience that film studios so coveted.
The advantage was that while surfers tapped into the same sense of youthful alienation and counter culture that made films such as The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause popular, the protagonists, instead of being moody dark figures, had a smile on their faces and a healthy outdoor lifestyle. It seemed a perfect fit. The seminal surf movie was Gidget. Released in 1959, it was the hit movie of the summer. Paul Wendkos's film is credited with popularising the sport in California. However, as would become the norm over the decades that followed, the established surfing community detested the movie.
George says that Gidget was one of the most groundbreaking films of the 50s. He says, "If you look at the plot of Gidget and you look at the story points and the values, it was actually pretty radical. These were guys trying to break out of the 1950s conformity they had been raised in, and here's a girl who wants to tap into that scene. I mean these guys are conflicted. "The one guy that said 'I'm a beach bum', he goes back to work, he's disillusioned and tries to hide it. There is one wonderful scene where he drops his bag and his ID card from his job falls out and when another young surfer sees it, he's ashamed that he's got a job. Those were radical values to present in the late 1950s when really it was all about conformity at the time. So these films had a pretty significant cultural impact which has never really been fully appreciated."
Surfers reacted to what they saw as the mistreatment of their sport by Hollywood by making their own documentary films on surfing and showing them in high-school auditoriums. One such film, The Endless Summer, proved so popular that it was belatedly given a cinema release. The divide between the realistic portrayal of surfing in surfing films and the laughable attempts at Hollywood's dramatisation had begun.
It is with the post-Gidget attempts at creating what has become known as "surfploitation" or "waveploitation" films that this documentary most concerns itself, in particular the 1979 surfing flop Big Wednesday. It was written and directed by John Milius, who made Dillinger in 1973 and The Wind and the Lion in 1975 and would subsequently make Conan The Barbarian and Red Dawn. Big Wednesday was expected to be a hit film, so much so that George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg swapped a share of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars for a piece of the action. Their confidence in Milius was misplaced.
Even though it was made by surfing enthusiasts - Milius is an avid surfer and Hollywood Don't Surf! co-director MacGillivray was a cinematographer - Big Wednesday couldn't avoid the clichés of the genre. George, who with his beach blonde hair and muscular physique looks like a prototype surfer, argues, "There is always a danger in making real personal movies. We talked about this with Steven Spielberg, but that conversation wasn't included in the film because of time restraints. Big Wednesday had a lot of great elements, and one of the elements that wasn't working for it was that there was probably a little bit of hubris and it got pretentious. I think there are some great scenes, some great action scenes, but I think the overall tone of it is just a little pretentious.
"But then I challenge anyone who is given money to make a film about their childhood to be completely objective and not make it seem more important than it was," he says. One of the big surprises is that the filmmakers managed to track down and convince Big Wednesday star Jan-Michael Vincent to agree to be interviewed. The man famous for starring in the television series Airwolf has gone into a self-imposed exile in recent years, and George is rightly pleased to have brought off this coup.
Also interviewed is George's wife Nia Peebles, who most famously starred in the 1987 surf movie North Shore and was with her husband when the film received its world premier on the beach at Cannes. George argues that his movie is as much about the process of filmmaking as it is about surfing movies, and interviews with Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino back him up on this assertion. "At its heart, Hollywood Don't Surf! is a film about film," argues George. "It's really about a genre of filmmaking, and it just happens to be about a subject that we're really close to.
"Why, when actors try to deliver lines as surfers, does it sound so inauthentic? Kevin Costner is in Bull Durham, do you think that when baseball players watch that they say 'come on, players don't talk like that!' I don't think so. I don't know. "That kind of dialogue, I think, is a little bit easier to capture on film. That's why it's fascinating. What is it about surfing and the image of surfing, the sound, and the vocabulary, that makes it so difficult?"
One actor that George agrees managed to successfully portray a surfer was Sean Penn, who played the absent-minded Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But very few other films about surfing get any credit from surfers. George argues that the quintessential surfing movie is Don Taylor's Ride the Wild Surf, made in 1964. "That really was seminal; it was the first movie just about surfing. All the other movies are derivative of that."
That includes Point Break, which was hated by the surfing community for its depiction of the sport. George was the last filmmaker brought onto Hollywood Don't Surf! after his successful career writing several hit films about surfing, such as Riding Giants (2004), Pipeline Masters (2006) and The Lost wave: An African Surf Story (2007). The original idea was to make a film about Big Wednesday, but slowly and surely, like a tidal wave, the project just got bigger and bigger until it became about the two great loves of California: surfing and making movies.