Jeff Spicoli, Sean Penn’s glazed-eyed truant in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, embodies the broadest stereotypes of the surfer in mantras like “All I need are some tasty waves, cool buzz, and I’m fine.” Penn grew up in surfing epicenter Santa Monica, and his method performance, like so much else in Fast Times, is more accurate than one may suspect. Riding Giants won’t dispel the notion of the stoned wavehead, and to its credit, doesn’t try. Stacy Peralta’s new documentary about the history of big-wave surfing pays homage to the near-Zen devotion of mature athletes who never lost their boyish enthusiasm for the Pacific Ocean.
The film begins with a Python-esque nickelodeon history of “1,000 Years of Surfing in Two Minutes or Less” that covers the sport’s highlights, from its Polynesian origins to the invention of fiberglass—an aerospace material that when combined with balsa wood yielded the modern, lightweight surfboard. Inspired by newspaper photos of Hawaiian big-wave pioneers, a circle of Southern California slackers make the first pilgrimage to the 20-foot-plus breakers of surfing’s mecca, Waimea Bay, in 1957. Living along Oahu’s North Shore on purloined coconuts and speared fish, they improvise a Crusoe counterculture that excludes employment and women. “Waimea was my gal,” says Greg Noll, the flamboyant, barrel-chested star of this era.
Peralta, a pro skating legend and lifelong amateur surfer, brings encyclopedic knowledge to Giants, as he did to Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001), his self-mythologizing love letter to the dawn of vertical skateboarding (which Penn narrates). Both movies feature an impressive archive of vintage footage and a dialectical appreciation for their subculture’s relationship to the commercial forces that enable and exploit it. Noll, for example, was the first surfer to capitalize on his fame by manufacturing his own boards, but one sympathizes with his disgust (“Man, it just makes me puke”) for the squeaky-clean beaches of Gidget and Dick Dale, which fueled the demand for his product.
Despite obviously higher production values, Giants retains some of Dogtown‘s irritating stylistic tics—particularly, the setting of dramatic moments to bombastic music and the piling of interview hyperbole. Still, Peralta has become a more relaxed filmmaker, and when he trusts the haunting sight of a giant wave breaking to speak for itself, the movie reaches the sublime heights of its subject.