Directed by Stacy Peralta. (2004, PG-13, 101 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 13, 2004
After directing 2001’s exhilarating documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, an unparalleled record of the rise of the skateboarding scene in California and beyond, filmmaker Stacy Peralta creatively wipes out on his follow-up doc, Riding Giants, an ode to big-wave surfers, past and future. Whether or not one was initially interested in the history of Dogtown’s surf punks, that movie grabbed attention largely because its amazing pool of archival footage also vividly demonstrated Peralta’s points about the history of the much-maligned youth sport and the scene that emerged in tandem with the activity. Additionally, the low-gauge aspects of Dogtown’s typically home-movie footage supported and artistically echoed the skate punks’ DIY outsider sensibility, creating a satisfying confluence of form and content. The skate scene had the good fortune to hatch and come of age during the Super-8 and video camcorder eras of the Seventies and Eighties, whereas much of the surfing boom Peralta documents in Riding Giants belongs to the decades of the mid-20th century, which just precede the consumer ubiquity of home movie cameras. Even allowing for that liability going in, Riding Giants has greater problems than its relatively bland footage of daring surf gladiators filmed from the distant shore by girlfriends and assorted AV geeks. A good historical overview or some overarching point of view (other than the hearty agreement by all "real" surfers that the Gidget movies ruined the purity of the sport) might have helped Peralta overcome the redundancy of some of this movie’s early footage. Still, the essential organizational problem that befalls Riding Giants is its pivotal hero-worship that guides the movie toward a "great men" narrative approach to history. From the film’s opening seconds, in which a lone surfer emerges from a wave’s whitewater to the strains of first organ, then choir music, we can see that the filmmaker has come to sanctify his subject rather than explore it. Peralta takes us through the history of surfing from the ancient Polynesians to the modern day, although all but a few minutes of history are devoted to the last 60 years. Technological advances and territorial advances are all shown in light of the men who pioneered their use. The heroes of the sport are all given their due – Greg Noll of Hawaii’s North Shore and Waimea Bay, the sport’s first poster boy and showman; Jeff Clark of Maverick’s Beach near San Francisco, who surfed that treacherous coastline alone for years before it became a popular haunt; and Laird Hamilton, surfing’s current hero of the new frontier, who has introduced the latest radical style, called "tow-in" surfing, which hauls the rider out to the really big waves with a Jet Ski, and who is also – what a surprise – the executive producer of Riding Giants. This documentary tells us little that hasn’t already been covered in the Brown family’s famous docs, The Endless Summer and Step Into Liquid, and Big Wednesday by John Milius, who is tapped as one of Riding Giants’ interviewees. There is plenty here to enjoy for beach bums and fans of bikinis and six-pack abs, but others are likely to find themselves hopeless wet blankets.