Unlike skate videos – often little more than advertisements for one company or another which can play on the background in skate shops or in some kid’s basement, mostly unnoticed until the big bloody spill – footage of surfing (that other great California board-based sport) just demands the big screen, and Riding Giants is no exception. Here, Dogtown and Z-Boys director Stacy Peralta wants to show not just any surfers, but the ‘big wave riders.’ These are the most badass surfers out there, the ones who take on the monster waves that make mortal men shudder, riding down walls of water the size of apartment buildings, and if a little hyperbole gets tossed around, what’s the big deal? The waves really are huge.
It begins with a peppy history of surfing, tracing its origins from ancient Polynesia to 19th century Hawaii, where missionaries secularized the sacred sport, and into the early 1900s, when Hawaiian Olympic athlete Duke Kahanamoku introduced the sport to Californians. Riding Giants really starts, though, with its look at Hawaii’s North Shore in the 1940s and 1950s, where some adventurous early surf giants rode the massive waves at now-legendary places like Waimea Bay. Captured mostly through some talking head interviews with big wave legends like the engagingly vulgar Greg Noll and herky-jerky home movie footage, Peralta means for this period to look like a golden age – and he succeeds. The surfers captured here are carefree blonde rebels who couldn’t care less about actually rebelling, they just want to get on the waves; the flip, fun side of the Beats, they chucked the 1950s status quo and lived a primordial existence at the end of the world, with no jobs and no money, catching fish to eat and surfing all day every day.
Anything so glorious has to end, of course, and the harbinger of doom this time is the coming of Gidget. From 1960 to 1965, surf fever popularized the sport beyond any reasonable means, theaters choked with cheap teen flicks in which perfectly coifed models stood on dry boards pretending to surf while massive waves were projected behind them. After bemoaning the loss of paradise, trampled by johnny-surf-latelys, the film has an elegiac moment, but decides to soldier on, and in so doing, loses much of its charm.
A tenuous jump is then made by Peralta, who springs into the 1990s by way of Jeff Clark, who surfed California’s dangerous Half Moon Bay since the mid 1970s. The scene there blew wide open in 1990, with wetsuit-wearing surfers paddling out into the cold waters to brave sharks and the huge walls of water they could briefly and gloriously ride before risking being cut to pieces on the bay’s sharp rocks. A final section on the newest phase in big wave riding – in which surfers on smaller boards are towed by jetski deeper into the ocean and detached so they can ride the previously unassailable 40-, 50-, 60-foot monsters – is not quite as inspired, simply because it seems more like an advertisement for that subsport’s star (and, not coincidentally, a producer on the film), Laird Hamilton. Unlike those carefree North Shore vagabonds, the pros we see in the film’s later sections are true athletes, for better and for worse, sponsored by giant companies and groomed for stardom. Admire their skill viewers undoubtedly will, but there’s little emotional connection; if you’ve seen any of the recent crush of surf movies, like Step Into Liquid or Billabong Odyssey, you know what I mean.
There’s always going to be an eye-glazing effect to documentaries of this sort, in which a small band of obsessives is paraded out to pontificate on the glories of this bay or that wave or that ride, but in the end that’s no matter, because the surfing itself is nothing short of phenomenal. No matter how many times Peralta shows us a small speck of a guy barely gliding out from under a thunderous crash of whitewater, or a lost board spiraling helplessly up into the air, it can’t help but thrill.
They might be giants, or they might be waves.