Between "Blue Crush" in 2002 and last year's "Step Into Liquid," the past few years have been pretty good ones for surf movies. And "Riding Giants," a new documentary by Stacy Peralta, continues the trend with admirable smarts and verve. With what has become his signature visual flair, musical taste and intelligent, sensitive writing style, Peralta has brought forth an exhilarating, often mind-blowing history of surfing, from its Polynesian roots to today's extreme big-wave version of the sport.
"Riding Giants" may not transcend its immediate subject to become the epic pop-cultural history lesson that Peralta's 2001 skateboarding documentary, "Dogtown and Z-Boys," was. But it still makes an invaluable contribution to the appreciation of a pastime that for years was identified with sunburned slackers and souped-up jalopies. Those stereotypes might have their origins in truth, but as Peralta shows with consummate skill and infectious enthusiasm, they don't begin to plumb surfing's deeper and more wide-ranging story.
To tell that story, Peralta has wisely enlisted three of surfing's most storied and charismatic pioneers: Greg Noll, Jeff Clark and Laird John Hamilton, each of whom took the sport to a new level by daring to surf waves of a size that had never been attempted before. When Noll started surfing in the 1950s, it was still a little-known sport. When Noll, a brash, burly bear of a man, moved from Southern California to Hawaii's North Shore with a group of similarly intrepid friends, they were not only staking out huge, undiscovered waves to surf, but they were flouting every gray flannel, get-ahead principle of postwar America. Using fantastic home movie footage, as well as some wonderful present-day reminiscences by Noll and his contemporaries, Peralta paints a portrait of a beatnik Eden where men -- and a few women -- lived on the beach, stole pineapples and chickens to eat and spent up to 10 hours a day, as one says, "surfing our guts out."
Guts is precisely the right word, to which images of the North Shore's gargantuan waves breathtakingly attest. But soon after Noll took a jaw-dropping last ride in 1969 -- on a wave that is still thought to be the biggest swell attempted in the 20th century -- a boy was eyeing a similarly challenging set of waves just north of San Francisco. For 10 years, Jeff Clark was the only person to surf Maverick's, which came to be known as America's answer to Hawaii's legendary big waves. Surprisingly modest, Clark makes an unlikely and unassuming trailblazer. But, as one of his colleagues puts it, his achievement in exploring Maverick's was akin to "a mountain man killing a grizzly . . . sleeping in the carcass that night and not telling anybody about it."
That might sound like overstatement, but with the help of cinematographer Grant Washburn -- and the ingenious use of sketches and watercolors in cases where no one was on hand with a camera -- Peralta adroitly conveys the size and seductive power of waves that his subjects have devoted their lives to. (Seductive, and potentially deadly: It was at Maverick's that the surfing star Mark Foo lost his life in 1994.)
As in "Step Into Liquid," the subjects of "Riding Giants" are articulate and thoughtful when asked to explain a vocation that to many might seem like a permanent summer break. But just as often as they produce perceptive observations about surfing and its physical demands, they find themselves unable to explain the almost mystical role it plays in their lives.
Peralta is keenly aware of that contemplative aspect of surfing, and even though "Riding Giants" reflects the same discerning musical sensibility the director demonstrated in "Dogtown and Z-Boys" -- this time drawing on everything from Alice in Chains to Erik Satie -- its most moving and effective moments come when Peralta turns the sound off and simply lets the audience watch in silence as surfers lyrically ply waves that seem to belong solely to them. By the time he follows Laird Hamilton to his personal grail in Tahiti, these athletes and their journeys have taken on a spiritual power that approaches the mythic.
Riding Giants (105 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row) is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.