One year into the life of this site (!), and it’s high time we talked about a documentary. Film is a wonderful medium for fictional storytelling, but its value as an educational tool is just as great; in a well-made nonfiction film, even a complicated or emotionally difficult subject can become highly engaging. And at its best, the genre can make a comfortably obscure topic, one that might never have captured our attention otherwise, interesting and fun to learn about. Case in point: I, like most people, know very little about surfing. I don’t follow the sport or think much about it at all, and the couple of times I’ve tried it, I mostly sat on the beach, completely gassed, my lack of stamina and swimming ability making themselves all too clearly felt. Even more inconceivable is the most extreme version, big wave surfing, which is so far outside the realm of normal experience that even for most recreational surfers, to even attempt it would be a virtual death sentence. But that does little to lessen the appeal of Riding Giants, Stacy Peralta’s documentary treatment of this most ludicrous of human pursuits.
Now, I grew up with outdoor activities to some extent, and might call myself a casual fan of the cinematic subgenre that showcases the exploits of skiers, rock climbers, and other extreme athletes. So I am technically in the target audience for a movie like Riding Giants, and that probably colors my perception of it somewhat, but I also think there’s a lot to engage with here even for people with no interest in extreme sports. Because the movie isn’t just about the awesomeness of surfers riding multi-story waves (though it is certainly about that). It also explores the social history, technological development, and complicated psychology behind the whole endeavor, and finds fun and creative ways to relay all that information, making it an entertaining and informative introduction to the subject even for the lay-est of lay audiences.
It would be hard to find someone better suited to such a project than Stacy Peralta. Growing up in the still-hardscrabble Venice Beach of the 60s and 70s, he was immersed in the local surf and skateboard scenes, becoming a professional skateboarder when he was still a teenager and remaining an avid surfer throughout his life. He’s as intimately familiar with his subject as any documentarian out there; his interview subjects are clearly at ease with him, and his passion comes across in his earnest narration and exuberant filmmaking. Riding a giant wave is a remarkable feat of human physical capability, and Peralta’s fast-paced, musically enhanced surfing sequences, with stunning shots of tiny figures flying across the water at incredible speeds, dwarfed by the towering walls of water breaking over them, invite us to marvel at it as much as he does. At the same time, he’s an astute nonfiction storyteller, having directed several TV documentaries about other subjects before his acclaimed breakout feature Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001), which chronicled the influential skateboarding scene that he was involved in as a youth.[i] In Riding Giants, he has one of the crucial elements of a good documentary—an inherently entertaining subject—but in the wrong hands, it easily could’ve been little more than a collection of crazy surf footage. It appeals to a wider audience because of Peralta’s sound journalistic instincts, and the smart decisions he makes about what to include, how to convey it, and how to structure the story.
Riding Giants is one of those cases where all sorts of factors, from the obvious to the obscure, come together to create a uniquely, enduringly entertaining documentary. Released in 2004, the movie is now missing over 15 years of recent surfing history—including the now-largest waves ever surfed, in 2011 and 2017 at Nazaré, Portugal.[ii] But Peralta made it at the perfect time: the original big wave pioneers were elderly but still lucid and full of personality, still able to tell their stories with clarity and gusto, while the then-current generation, living the sponsored lives of contemporary extreme athletes, had just put the finishing touches on a major innovation that radically expanded the boundaries of the sport.
Peralta also recognizes that as fun as his principal footage of big wave riding and the surrounding subculture is, he can’t rely on that alone to hold our attention, or even to fully capture the essence of his subject. So he also finds other, subtler ways to keep the energy up and the vibe loose, starting right off the bat with a playful segment that gives us, as the title card promises, “1000 years of surfing in 2 minutes or less”, tracing the sport from its Hawaiian origins to postwar Southern California in a jocular imitation of an old-timey slide show. And thereafter, except for a few quieter moments, Peralta maintains a vibrant soundtrack of surf-themed rock and roll, drolly repurposed film scores, and then-contemporary alternative rock. In what has become a staple of extreme sports filmmaking, he embellishes still photographs with added sun-bleaching, and transitions between them with a herky-jerky imitation of damaged film in an old projector—a far cry from the stately stills of a Ken Burns documentary, for example. (For my money, he overuses those transitions a bit, but given the subject, I understand his inclination to keep things moving, and it’s important to remember that in 2004, the residual influence of the hyperactive MTV aesthetic was more powerful than it is now.) Peralta’s canniest, subtlest move is the way he films the numerous interviews that provide the bulk of the movie’s spoken commentary. He films his subjects against the backdrops you might expect—palm trees, the ocean, surf-themed interiors—and he frames them in the standard close-up, but he shoots them with a handheld camera rather than the usual static shot. The camera doesn’t move around so much that it distracts from the interview, but the fact that it’s not completely stationary maintains a certain subconscious sense of urgency and forward momentum.
He’s also smart about whom to interview. In any extreme sports documentary, we obviously want to hear from the participants, and Peralta includes a great many of them from all eras, letting their personalities and enthusiasm shine through in engaging ways. But he also knows that for a movie like this to truly work for a lay audience, it helps to have a guide, usually a journalist or a writer of some sort who can provide the basic facts clearly, concisely, and with a bit more color than the voiceover narration. In Riding Giants, that role is largely shared by two men: Matt Warshaw, author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing and many other books, and Sam George, a longtime surfing journalist who was then the executive editor of Surfer magazine. Both are former pro surfers, but they aren’t ‘featured’ the way the other interviewees are, and their richly informed commentary runs throughout the movie rather than being concentrated in a certain section. Warshaw provides numerous valuable insights, but it’s the eager, quintessentially surfer-ish George who emerges as our primary guide, his articulate enthusiasm and nerdy-savant storytelling (together with the narration he co-wrote with Peralta) providing a solid foundation for the rest of the movie to build upon.
Most important of all is the overarching framework that Peralta creates for the story. He divides it into three principal chapters, each focused on the discovery of a different big wave surf spot and anchored by the surfer who most famously embodies it: Waimea Bay with Greg Noll, Mavericks with Jeff Clark, and Pe’ahi with Laird Hamilton. This simple, intuitive structure is the key reason why Riding Giants works so well for the uninitiated; not only does it provide a sense of chronological and narrative progression, it also allows Peralta to create a clearly discernible sense of variety in the proceedings, which is crucial in winning over a lay audience. (After all, as incredible as it is, big wave riding is a very specific activity, and one can only show it so many times before might start to lose interest.) So the first section, about Waimea Bay and the North Shore of O’ahu, is a heady rush of pure, uncomplicated nostalgia, defined by the rich colors of old film footage, breezy period music, and the lively personalities of Noll and his fellow trailblazers as they look back fondly on what must be a wonderfully memorable bygone era. The Mavericks section, meanwhile, is noticeably grittier, more in tune with the next-level ferocity of the location. The interviews are in black and white, highlighting the contrast with the vibrant, sun-soaked Hawaii of the preceding chapter. There’s a newfound fitfulness and anxious energy in the surf footage, while the soundtrack is heavier and more intense. And we learn very little about the history and social context of the surfers, a different generation whose comments focus more on the unique harshness of the place and the moment-to-moment realities of surfing it. For the final Pe’ahi section, we’re back in the bright sun, but it’s a different Hawaii now, immersed in the world of modern, high-tech extreme sports. Now we have swooping helicopter shots and jet skis roaring around the margins. The surfboards are small and sharp-nosed, ridden in a very different manner than we’ve previously seen. The waves, filmed with the clarity of relatively advanced cameras, are noticeably more massive, and with the conditions so savagely life-threatening, there’s a deeper exploration of what drives the surfers, the nature of the experience that makes the danger worth it, and what it’s like to live with that psychology.
It’s not just about creating distinct vibes, however. The structure also proves to be valuable from an educational standpoint, as Peralta uses each chapter to explore a different aspect of big wave surfing that deepens our overall understanding of the subject. The Waimea section is about straightforward history: surfing is a fringe pastime in postwar Southern California, then a single newspaper photograph triggers a migration of surfers to Hawaii, where the North Shore is discovered and the first true big wave surfing community is born. Peralta explores the sociological side of the story as well, noting the importance of fiberglass in making surfboards easier to handle and the role of some spectacularly cheesy Hollywood movies in popularizing the sport, and placing the carefree culture that developed around it in its proper social context: as a localized iteration of the broader rebellion against mid-century conformity. At Mavericks, he delves into the mechanics of big wave surfing, examining the components of a successful ride and the consequences of failure, as the surfers attempt to describe what the punishing wipeouts we’ve been watching are actually like. And at Pe’ahi, he focuses on the conceptual innovations and technological advances that lead to modern big wave surfing, and way the extreme conditions force it to become a team endeavor.
Like any good journalist, Peralta also knows that for a lay audience to become truly invested in a topic like this, it needs a personal touch, so to speak—an individualized narrative that we’ll find memorable and relate to on an emotional level. So each chapter also includes a self-contained narrative, centered on an individual surfer, that’s compelling or mind-blowing or a little bit of both. In the Waimea Bay chapter, we have the story of Greg Noll: the way he channels the pain and frustration of being bullied as a kid into a both a uniquely bold surfing style and a larger-than-life persona, helping to popularize the sport and making him into one of the first instances of something that’s quite common today: an extreme athlete with a personal brand. He’s cocky, brash, perhaps overly bullish—some of his contemporaries indicate that he wasn’t always the easiest guy to get along with—but we’re with him in the end because he backs it up, putting his life on the line in the middle of a once-in-a-century swell to paddle into what was then the biggest wave ever attempted. My favorite story, without a doubt, is the one that follows: growing up in a sleepy seaside town, surfing the frigid waters off Northern California, Jeff Clark discovers Mavericks while still in high school, but, in a rather charmingly dated twist, no one will believe the place is legit, so he surfs it alone for 15 years before word finally gets out. It’s a wonderful, unique variation of a familiar story: the intrepid, solitary adventurer facing the fury of the elements in epic fashion, and having no one to tell about it afterwards. The final chapter is centered on the more complex story of Laird Hamilton: the fairy-tale meeting with the man who becomes his adoptive father, the youthful alienation that drives him to pour all of his considerable talents into surfing, and once established as a pro, the series of eureka moments that allow him and his contemporaries to invent the methods that let them tackle previously un-surfable waves. This is less an archetypal story than an interesting psychological profile, showing the unique combination of factors that makes Hamilton the unquestioned greatest big wave surfer in the world—culminating in his stunning ride at Teahupo’o on a wave the narration aptly describes as a “freak of hydrodynamics.”[iii]
Hamilton’s wave at Teahupo’o is a prime example of another clever decision that Peralta makes. It’s a thrilling moment, but also one where the movie, in a sense, slows down noticeably: the editing is less frenetic, the music is less bombastic, and the narration and commentary mostly cease. Each chapter has a sequence like this where Peralta slows things down, giving us a bit of a breather and making a point through visuals more than words. In this instance, the historic Teahupo’o wave drives home the enormity of the waves that the new methods allow surfers to tackle. In the first chapter, the ‘slow-down’ sequence is a beautiful, wordless montage of the life that Noll and the others led on the North Shore in those early years, giving us an emotional sense of what a perfectly idyllic existence it was. In the Mavericks chapter, the slow-down moment is a somber one, as the death of the legendary Mark Foo causes the fun to temporarily grid to a halt, shaking the big wave surfing community and making forcefully clear how high the stakes are.
In this most difficult aspect of the subject, Riding Giants again works especially well for a lay audience. Peralta manages to strike a compelling tonal balance; with this subject, death is inevitably part of the story, but we wouldn’t describe the movie as particularly heavy or depressing. At the same time, though, Peralta doesn’t blow off or dismiss the possibility of death; he lets the surfers be open about how rattled they are by it, how it changes their perspective and makes them question the risks they’re taking.
And yet, they all keep going back out, willing, in the end, to accept the danger for the adrenaline rush of the ride—a dynamic that a few of them freely refer to as an addiction. The nature of that experience, the thrill so pure and joyful that it’s worth risking your life for, is the big question whose answer we regular people are always looking for in an extreme sports documentary: What could that possibly feel like, that you’re willing to endure so much suffering in pursuit of it? The surfers try to put it into words, some quite eloquently, but like most extreme athletes, they can’t quite express it in a way we can fully understand. But it still feels honest, because they all seem to be expressing the same inexpressible thing, if that makes any sense. [iv]
The fact that we can recognize that is a testament to how well Peralta has educated us. Before watching this movie, most of us had barely even thought about big wave surfing, but after 100 minutes with him, almost without our realizing it, we’ve become sort of knowledgeable. We know how it began, and how the culture around it developed. We can begin to appreciate the differences between the waves at Waimea Bay and Mavericks, the colossal scale of the waves at Pe’ahi, and the insane power of the wave at Teahupo’o that closes out the movie. And we even have a vague understanding of what drives these people to do something we would never even consider—something even they can’t clearly express.
You might say our horizons have been expanded. Not in any world-changing way, but it was a heck of a ride.
© Harrison Swan, 2020
[i] He also wrote the screenplay for Lords of Dogtown (2005), a fiction film of the same story directed by Catherine Hardwicke, with the young Peralta played by a soulful, splendidly long-haired John Robinson. The movie received mixed reviews, but has since become something of a cult classic, anchored by what ended up being one of Heath Ledger’s last and most far-out performances.
[iii] In this respect, at least, the movie is not yet dated; for this ride 20 years ago, Hamilton still holds the rather nebulous but still badass record for ‘Heaviest wave ever ridden successfully.’
[iv] For anyone with even a shred of interest in this stuff, I’d highly recommend the book Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by the journalist William Finnegan. It’s one of the best memoirs of any kind that I’ve ever read, and does a brilliant job of making the reader understand why a person would structure their entire youth around surfing. (Or any related outdoor sport, for that matter; I don’t surf, but the sentiments that Finnegan expresses are precisely those that I feel, much less intensely, about skiing.)