Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Riding Giants

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

RIDING GIANTS

5/10

USA 2004 : Stacy PERALTA : 105 mins

surf nazis must die!In California, the way it works is this: kids ride skateboards till they grow up; then they ride surfboards till they grow old; then they ride snowboards. Documentarist Stacy Peralta’s movies are following the same progression – after sk8-pic Dogtown & Z-Boys he now turns his attention to the buccaneering wave-taming heroes of the west-coast shores with Riding Giants. None of these cultures prize modesty in any way, and Dogtown was hampered by the way it felt like pro-skater Peralta and his pals were using the picture to pat each other repeatedly on the back. Audiences had to wait until Stoked to get a more balanced picture of the skate boom-and-bust.

But as it turns out surfers make skaters look like models of self-effacement – which means that Riding Giants might as well be called Blowing (our own) Trumpets, as it ends up being little more than a platform for the participants to bang on and on about how they pushed back the boundaries, revolutionised the sport, ensured that the world would never be the same again. That’s “the world” of surfing, of course, not “the world” as such. The surfers we see seem to exist in a beautiful bubble into which no social or political concerns are ever allowed to impinge. At one point we’re told that in 1968 a “revolution” took place – but this isn’t anything to do with the evenements unspooling across the globe in Paris. No, this revolution is the introduction of the ‘short-board’. Big f*ckin’ deal, as the dudes themselves might have put it.

There’s nothing wrong with a subculture celebrating itself, of course, and there’s no denying that what these men achieved was often spectacular to look at. Over the course of 105 minutes, however, the waves start to blur into each other and Peralta either can’t or won’t do anything to stem the tide of boredom that many viewers may find tugging at their ankles. This is something of a shame – for an hour or so, he delivers a ride that’s often funny, frequently exciting and almost always striking to look at. But because his motivation is to unquestionably celebrate surfing – the film is sponsored by Quiksilver, one of the main surf-gear companies – he isn’t able to go deeper into the subject, or examine the sport’s wider context. Instead he goes overboard trying to convince us that everything we’re seeing is of enormous significance – “we had the impression that something momentous was taking place” – and not just the photogenic exploits of a hermetic, self-regarding tribe.

Nagging questions persist: such as, where are all the women in this mucho-macho environment where bigger = better? Only one female participant is interviewed, though we do hear from the wife of surf-king Laird Hamilton – and while all other interviewees appear without visual enhancement from cinematographer Peter Pilafian, Mrs Hamilton is shot in mild but distinctly noticeable soft focus. Why? Could it be something to do with the fact that Mr Hamilton – to whom the film becomes a fawning paean in the latter stages – is credited as Riding Giants‘ Executive Producer. Didn’t Peralta and his co-scriptwriter Sam George realise how dodgy it is to spend such a large chunk of their movie eulogising (“perhaps the greatest the world has ever known”) one of the people who’s (presumably) paying part of their wages?

And despite all the talk of ‘living outside the rules’ and being ‘radical’, Peralta’s style – talking heads mixed with chronologically-organised archive footage – is just as MOR as it was back in Dogtown. But perhaps that’s appropriate – the men he celebrates are, we see, little more than blowhard jocks, with 50s/60s top-dog Greg Noll in his prime the most swaggeringly obnoxious kind of overgrown playground bully. The mid-sections do barrel us along on the anything-goes energy of the period – only for the film to then “wipeout” and crash on the rocks of Nietzschean narcissism when it reaches the Hamilton era. “It’s not all about ego,” somebody remarks, entirely unconvincingly. Criminally underrated on initial release, last year’s Blue Crush looks better than ever in the wake of this disappointingly shallow tubthump.

13th September, 2004
(seen 19th August : UGC Edinburgh : press show – Edinburgh Film Festival)

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by Neil Young