Monday, August 29, 2016

The Endless Summer

I cannot think of a more consistently enjoyable documentary than 1966's THE ENDLESS SUMMER.  It has long been one of my go-to "chill" movies, one that instantly puts me in a favorable place.  Bruce Brown's film has such a good vibe, so to speak, that even if it were shoddily, clumsily made I wouldn't trot out my usual critical daggers.  But it's not - despite a low budget (some of it bankrolled by Brown) and handheld 16mm camera work.  Set to a groovy, evocative score by The Sandals, the film in fact plays as smoothly as some of the sweet rides depicted.

Surfing rides, that is.  Prompted by some unfavorable winter conditions in their native California, Brown travels with stick riders Robert August and Mike Hinson around the world on both sides of the Equator to follow the summer season.   To locations where surely the waves are always well formed and just begging to be ridden.  The trip would take them to points in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and finally Hawaii.  Some spots had never been explored for their wave rideability.  Many are rugged and filled with uncertainty.  Often the boys' expectations are confounded; where great surf was expected turns out to be flat and vice versa.  Some residents tell them they should've seen the water yesterday.  Or perhaps they should come back in the winter!

One interesting repeated motif in THE ENDLESS SUMMER is a return to where the conditions are always excellent - Hawaii.  With its monstrous walls of water and spewing foam we see incredibly brave (or perhaps crazy) riders speed down the faces and sometimes wipe out so dramatically you wonder how they could survive.  We see some pretty awesome footage of it throughout the film, before August and Hinson actually get there, almost as counterpoint to how unpredictable other beaches across the globe may be.

You may wonder how engaging THE ENDLESS SUMMER would be if you're not interested in surfing.  The film has maintained its timeless appeal for mainly one reason, Brown's laid back, lighthearted narration.  It's always been impossible for me to resist.  While he does get descriptive about the sport, it is not the room clearing kind of arcane detail you might find elsewhere.  Brown talks like a friend, albeit a mildly sardonic one, as he describes good surf, bad surf, African natives, crazy locals, and endangered animal species.  His travelogue will engage those among you who will only hope to visit such exotic places like Ghana and Cape St. Francis.  Even if Brown's neo-colonial attitude reeks of a less enlightened time, it never comes off as overly smug.  And he doesn't sound like some stereotypical beach dweller gnarly brah, either, which would've been hugely annoying.

Some of my favorite of Brown's observances were of the children who watch these American hot doggers meld with the waves in ways they likely never imagined.  It fires their imaginations.  THE ENDLESS SUMMER did likewise to many filmgoers, from wannabes to groms to seasoned pros.  I include myself in there, someone who was able to stand on a board a few times in Florida waters, a place that truly doesn't have much surf.

P.S.  All the world was a beach again for Brown and company some thirty years later with THE ENDLESS SUMMER II, which retraced August and Hinson's travels with two new pros.  It is also worth catching.

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