As per the request of an esteemed student, this is a post about my favorite surf films. Admittedly, I have not seen every surf film ever made. On the one hand, one would have to define the category of "surf film" more narrowly in order to even accomplish that task because if you opened it up to non-published films by local savants the task would be beyond gargantuan. Surfing and photography/film go together like peanut butter and jelly or like mustard and pate, depending on your taste. The ocean and its waves are an endless source of photographic inspiration even for non surfers. This is because ocean waves and thus surfing are so phenomenologically dynamic and elusive. In its essence surfing is a sublime practice and human beings have always been in the business of trying to capture the sublime if only for the very reason that it represents the infinite that we feels ourselves to be a part but which at the same time seems to always elude us due to the consciousness of our finitude (that was a very Kantian formulation -- Kant was on to something there). We want to capture 'the moment' precisely because the moment passes. Furthermore, in the moments that we ride waves we do feel ourselves to be participating in some kind of immortality. Capturing these rides in such a way that we can see ourselves from outside of ourselves, or see others participating in that very act, that gives us so much joy and thus increases our capacity to access not only the memories we have of riding waves, but also the actual rides themselves. This is why video analysis and coaching is becoming such a huge part of my teaching method and my overall blog and brand output.
As most of my readers and students know, I've been surfing my whole life, so there's hardly a time that I can remember when surfing magazines and films were not somewhere in my peripheral vision, if not the objects of my direct attention. But watching surf movies did not really become a huge part of my life until 1991, when my surf obsession began to blossom into a full blown mania. Long before then, however, the local surfers established a Moss Locals Surf Film night at the Elkhorn Yacht Club, and a lot of my introduction to surf films was at this event. We would all gather together for a barbecue, raffle, and a screening both of slides and movies taken throughout the year in Moss Landing and there would also be a screening of a recent or popular surf movie. I remember one such night in 1992, 93, or 94 when they were screening Jack McCoy's Bunyip Dreaming (1990) and Luke Egan launched into a duck dive, a paddling maneuver that had been eluding me, and I turned to my best friend, Andrew Dolan, and exclaimed, "Oh so that's how you do it!" Our lives in the impact zone greatly improved after that night.
You will see that a lot of the films listed below are from the 1990s. This is because in the 90s I watched the most surf videos in my life. I was ages 10-20 and had the most free time to indulge in a life dedicated mostly to surfing and watching surf videos. I remember whole summers where Andrew and my routine was to wake up at dawn and surf for 2-4 hours, go back to his place and eat breakfast, then watch 1-2 surf videos, then draw a little, then go back to the beach and surf again, perhaps till dark, then go back to his place and watch more surf videos (Andrew lived one mile closer to the beach than I did). At this time, however, I was most interested in what is now called 'surf porn' or 'hardcore surf films', which means nothing but high performance or new school surfing set to music, with a few adolescent male antics, and little to no awareness of issues to do with colonialism and imperialism and misogyny and corporate stench. Some did this better than others. Taylor Steele was and is the master of this genre and we ate up all of his flicks, beginning with Momentum (1990), like candy. I honed in on the Machado sections and emulated him as much as possibly could. For me Rob had the most style out all of Taylor's surf subjects, and I was keen to develop that over all of the other technical stuff.
Because I became (and still am) so obsessed with style, probably the most influential movie of the 90s for me was Andrew Kidman's Litmus (1996). In a recent SURFER magazine article titled "The Litmus Effect" (October 2015), Steve Shearer argues that wasn't just true for me, but that Litmus changed the way "high performance" surfing and boards are thought of more generally. That is to say, Litmus, is not just your thrash bash smash surf porn, but was a move towards a more thoughtful, reflective, and inclusive idea of who and what constitutes great surfing. Shearer writes: "In surfing's most conservative era, Litmus aimed to expand minds and quivers alike. Twenty years later, its impact is still being felt." Both Andrew (Dolan -- my friend) and I were particularly blown away by Derek Hynd's surfing at J-Bay on a variety of radical equipment. The lines he draws in that segment are so smooth and simple yet so radical, and he did the first ever frontside layback in a tube we had ever seen (and I haven't seen another since although I tried to do one last Monday in Long Beach). Slowing down and looking around to speed up became the new money in our game.
I am starting to realize that, like most things I begin to write about on here, I could pen a whole book on the subject of how surf films have influenced my surfing and where they correspond to certain moments in my life. I suppose film works in this way generally for lots of us born any time in the past 100 years. But I realize that this is the internet and attention spans tend to run on the shorter side, so I'll wrap this up for now with a list on the most influential surf films in my life, with a few highlight notes. Some of these are hard to find. Some you can find on surfmovies.org or thesurfnetwork.com (the former is free and spammy and the latter has an annual membership fee and has a lot of films, but is also rather limited). Others you may find in your local surfshop or on the filmmaker's website or even on Amazon or Ebay. I'm going to list them in chronological order, even though I may not have encountered them in that way in my life.
The Endless Summer (Bruce Brown, 1966)
However contrived it may be, The Endless Summer remains the classic surf adventure story. It's pre shortboards, pre board bags, pre roof racks, pre WSL and pre huge fashion industrial complex surf clothing companies. I am too skeptical to ever be a purist, but I do believe that there is something quite distilled in Mike Hynson and Robert August's surfing in this film. I find it extremely instructive to watch these guys surfing with the utmost ease and grace without leashes on 30+ lb boards in waves they have never surfed before. Just cover your ears when Bruce Brown says anything about "the natives" or women.
Style Masters (Spyder Wills, 1979)
I was introduced to Style Masters while working at Aqua Surf Shop in SF in the early 00s. This is a classic compendium of North Shore style gurus. You want to learn to soul arch, barrel ride, and hand jive? This is the film for you.
Bali High (Steve Spaulding, 1981)
Bali High is actually the first surf film I have ever watched. My dad is good friends with Steve Spaulding, who hails from Monterey, and is an honorary Moss Landing local. From ages 6-15 it was in a solid weekly rotation with Top Gun (1986) and The Sound of Music (1965). While I learned to sing "Do-Re-Mi" I also soaked in Tommy Carroll's insane tube skills at Uluwatu. Really inspiring for a young goofy foot. But seriously, there is epic footage of unspoiled Bali in this film. Big, perfect, empty waves. Steve helped run the first resort at G-Land in 1979, something I have to pick his brain about very soon.
Bunyip Dreaming (Jack McCoy, 1990)
Despite what I said about Litmus in the introduction, overall, I might actually have to say that Jack McCoy's early 90s trilogy, Bunyip Dreaming (1990), Green Iguana (1992), and The Sons of Fun (1993) were in many ways the most influential surf films for me just for sheer amount of hours I spent watching them. Bunyip follows the alter ego of Mark Occhilupo, named Rocky, in a quasi aboriginal 'dream time' where he threads blue tube after blue tube and does the sickest hair whip gouges on boards that look to have little to no rocker. This cemented and made concrete the myth I had heard about in a bar in Costa Rica when I was 11 that Occy is "the greatest goofy foot of all time." (What was I doing in a bar at 11? Story for another time.) Furthermore, Peter King's help on the soundtracks, turned me on to Concrete Blonde, which has remained my favorite band of all time. These are available in a triple DVD set on Jack's website. I own all three. They're in Costa Rica and we'll be watching them at our camps this January!
The Search (Sonny Miller, 1992)
Oof, another one that gets damn close to the "most influential" prize. My Uncle Ted (my mom's younger brother) gave me this on VHS for Christmas in 1993. We were in Annapolis. It was snowing. I was wearing my Haut Surfboards sweatshirt, Quiksilver jeans, and Uggs, pretending to be back in CA. When I got this I immediately went downstairs to the entertainment room at my aunt's and popped it in the VHS player and my mind was blown by Tom Curren's psychotically smooth and radical surfing. "The Search" was a concept I think conceived by my hero Derek Hynd who did some work for Ripcurl at the time. Well, as usual, Derek nailed it on the head. Features an eclectic cast including a young Davo and an on his way to writer-dom Jamie Brisick. Hard video to track down. Tom Curren's blow tail with only one or two toes on the board is not to be missed. I must have rewinded and paused and slo-mo-ed that part over 1,000 times.
Momentum (Taylor Steele, 1990)
Enter the NEW SCHOOL. Every magazine was writing about it. Kelly Slater. Rob Machado. Taylor Knox. Kalani Robb. Shane Dorian. Taylor Steele's Momentum defined the new light equipment, aerial focused, rad shred, southern California punk rock-inspired generation that would lead the way for all surf videos that were produced in the later 90s and early 00s. He literally made the formula for it. Now I can only handle 2-5 minutes of this kind of mindlessness, but when I was a pre-teen and teenager this was manna.
Litmus (Andrew Kidman, 1996)
I think I may have said enough about this film in the preamble, but it is fitting that it comes after Momentum because there is a sense in which this film is the antidote to the Momentum/Modern Collective ilk of youth-focused, fast, intense, untouchable, radness. In an indirect barb at this kind of mentality, Wayne Lynch says in the beginning of the film, "Surfing has gotten older and it needs to grow up." Don't get me wrong, this is still a film that's pretty much just surfing set to music, but everything about it is toned down and a bit grittier. It offers new perspectives, and perhaps starts to lead us towards less fascistic surfing futures. Definitely a lack of the lady shredders though, which Kidman has sought to reconcile in his recent work with Stephanie Gilmore.
Thrills, Spills, and Whatnot (Dane Reynolds, 2011)
What, Dion?! No surf films from 1996-2011?!! Well, yeah I guess so. There were tons of films made in that time period. I have seen a lot of them, but none really struck my fancy until Dane Reynolds started putting out films. First of all, this film was free, and came with a certain issue of Surfing Magazine, so good on Dane for that Robin Hood maneuver. Secondly, films just got too rad in the 00s and too slick, too edited, too nonchalantly colonialist. While Dane Reynolds is one of the raddest, if not the raddest, most untouchable, surfers skill-wise, he shows his human side in this film (and in all of his other projects too). He shows the spills and the whatnot that go to make up a majority of our surfing experiences. That's what we bog through to get to the thrills. I love that about Dane's approach to filmmaking. And the other worldly stuff he does on his foam/fiberglass finned contraptions, it's so awe-inspiring I don't mind one bit that I'll never be able to access those lines in my own surfing. Instead it pushes me to push myself to my own limits.
Uncharted Waters: The Personal History of Wayne Lynch (Craig Griffin, 2014)
For where I am now in my life and in my surfing, this is the best surf film I have ever seen. I suppose I have been inspired by Wayne Lynch since Litmus, but he was never on my radar in a big way. There is so much I like about this film: the surfing, the story of Lynch's outsider role in the surf world, the political and historical sensitivity (i.e. the emphasis on the impact of the Vietnam War), the cultural respect shown for the aboriginal peoples of Australia, stories from great surfers, some whom are not mainstream or well known, just a ton of depth. You can learn very important lessons from this film because Wayne Lynch is a massively inspiring character. Now I have to go back and see Evolution (1969) and Sea of Joy (1971), the two films Lynch starred in that solidified his idol status in the larger surfing imagination.
This list really reflects who I am as surfer and a thinker. It's very shortboard inspired/focused, so those of you looking to learn how to ride a longboard better, I will have to do a bit more research and write a post in the future about what I feel to be the hottest log flicks. I will say, however, that the films listed here are focused on surfers with great style and are thus highly instructive as to how to steer any kind of surf craft.