Page Two: The Art of Surprise
S.R. Bindler's 'Surfer, Dude' continually pulls off the unexpected
It was early morning by the time I got to it, but as I watched it I was absolutely captivated. By around 3am, when I still had at least 20 minutes to go, I was no longer lying in bed as I watched it. Instead, having gotten up, with my eyes glued to the set, I was moving around the room, dancing – not doing the frug, waltz, or twist but just being in constant motion, moving to the rhythms of the movie.
This happens when I really love a movie; even in a theatre, I'll get up and prowl the back. This is especially the case when the movie continually surprises. My movement is an almost unconscious reaction.
The last thing I expected was to react to Surfer, Dude this way. I love the movie. I don't think it is "great for what it is" or that it's "very good and really works." I flat-out love it.
Surfer, Dude is of my favorite kinds of film; it's continually surprising without resorting to cheap melodrama to resolve actions or instigate the climax. Instead, these films march to their own beats, so that you never know what is going to happen next. The very best of them have you rethinking the protagonists and what they are up to throughout the film. Until the end, you are uncertain as to how they perceive their worlds, exactly who they are, and what drives them.
Films that are critically regarded as mature and ambitious works almost always track toward the tragic. Serious, important films, after all, need to be serious. Most drape themselves in a nonchalant, reactionary affection for an imagined past. There everything was so much better – and, as much as the present sucks, things are only going to get worse in the future. The left believes that justice is dead, that multinationals rule the world, that evil men are doing evil things, and that we have left nobility, democracy, compassion, and discourse behind us as soulless mercenaries run roughshod over decency. The right feels that morality has been corrupted, the known order assaulted, institutions distorted, and government overexpanded as common sense and the basic rules of civilized life have been abandoned in pursuit of a godless, Marxist hegemony. All sides inherently think the system is broken (though in different ways), that the population is too large, and that advancing technology and increasing industrialization inevitably are leading to an ever-more-corrupting and amoral dehumanization.
Just suggesting that the present is exciting and evolving more than it is dead and dying – that the best is not behind us but actually is ahead – is to earn across-the-board contempt. Arguing that hopelessness and convenience-store pessimism are just lazy reactions, while the possibilities of joy, community, and achievement are amply available, leads to contemptuous condemnation.
In the face of this near unanimity of darkness and doom, Bindler and McConaughey offer up a cinematic ode to surfing not just as a lifestyle but as a way of living. There is a sweet, Zen mysticism accompanying the well-known visual language of surfing that undercuts viewers' ingrained perceptions. Since McConaughey's character is completely stoned and happily spaced throughout the film, you can never be sure if he is transcendentally wasted or has an almost absolute sense of who he is, or both.
Let us now celebrate movies that are deliberately odd, peopled with characters who fit right into them. In Jim Harrison's novel Farmer, for example, every time the reader is sure that the story is about to be pumped full of artificial melodrama, it fools you by veering in a less spectacular, completely unexpected direction.
There are so many films that constantly surprise just operating only according to their own rules. Stanley Donen's Charade; Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard, Citizens Band, and Something Wild; Joan Micklin Silver's Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter; Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused and Before Sunset; Preston Sturges' The Palm Beach Story and Hail the Conquering Hero; and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction are just a few of them. If, after their first time watching any of these films, viewers were to insist confidently that they knew exactly where the film was going the whole time, one would suspect that they were either supernaturally perceptive or lying. I would lean toward the latter. Although not as grandiose and lacking the more spectacular set-pieces, Surfer, Dude reminds me of The Big Lebowski – not that it's specifically similar to that film or any of those others, uniqueness being the defining characteristic of all these films. How they are alike and reminiscent of one another is in their adventurous spirits, unique cinematic strategies, and the untethered audacity of their narratives and characters.
If you've been following the Chronicle's online movie debate in Film Fight, let me weigh in by noting that most people look to tragedy, more than comedy, for meaning. A happy ending is invariably suspect, ringing false, while well-done tragedy almost always seems real. Simply put, tragedy is art; comedy is only entertainment, and optimism is unreal. Unhappy/troubling endings are the most honest entrance into the sad ugliness of the lives we lead; happy endings are fantastic, unreal, and "Hollywood" – qualities that almost always disqualify a film from any kind of serious critical and audience consideration. Despair is the shared and accepted language of meaning.
I'd suggest most of us have more good times than bad, and, certainly, most of the time things are a lot better than tragic in our lives. The best of times, however, are often haunted by the unnerving sense that they are just preludes to a fall. Even if we don't experience the worst, we anticipate it. Life is pain, even when it is not painful.
Cinematic tragedies rarely offer even the most distant hint that something better is coming. But in the nadir they depict, there is at least an undercurrent that, if nothing else, a leveling-off may follow. In a movie, the audience knows a happy ending is of the moment – that the lovers, finally reunited, will wake the next morning with one farting in bed. Our sense of the real world suggests that any final is temporary: In a month, the couple will be fighting all the time; in a year, they'll be divorced. Tragedy provides believable closure.
Whereas highs may well outnumber disasters in most people's lives, fiction that attempts to ring true often ignores the former while emphasizing the latter. There is an almost universally shared, primal superstition that we should live expecting the worst, because allowing either hope or optimism into our lives guarantees disaster. "Reality" has become a genre like the Western or the musical, having little to do with everyday life but everything to do with accepted archetypes and conventions. Very consciously crafted toward the tragic, standard stories, set themes, static dialogue, grim settings, and similar patterns of characters‚ lives, and relationships are the norm. "Reality" is evoked not by shared experiences but by cinematic stylistics: shooting in black and white or stark and faded colors, using depths of field designed to evoke the impersonal, and lighting most scenes in such a way as to define claustrophobia.
Social criticism is also now a genre unto itself; rather than tackling real-world problems and everyday politics, its films obsess on the obvious. Pedophilia, deviance, psychotic violence, and severely damaged characters are all presented as though in service of serious social commentary but instead are actually stereotyped past the point of predictability. Good God, if one more filmmaker discovers that, much to their shock, something rotten, cancerous, and putrid is permeating the superficially gleaming, but actually hypocritically stinking, Potemkin villages of the American suburbs, I may have to take up arms. As celebrated as they may be, if films like American Beauty, Happiness, Your Friends & Neighbors, and Mystic River seem at all revelatory to you, I'd suggest seeking medical help immediately.
Rather than indulge in blaring the obvious, Surfer, Dude continually pulls off the unexpected. Scott Glenn and Willie Nelson are the wise elders, each beautiful in his own way, each wise in many ways. One is a surfer; the other herds goats. McConaughey almost seems to be doing a young Nelson at times. Alexie Gilmore as the love interest does an inspired job, especially as she runs counter to the female type usually found in that role. She doesn't as much anchor McConaughey as go flying off with him in his hot-air-balloon, dreamlike ways of living. The film features a major crisis – one that may well be natural, metaphoric, and/or existential – laid out in the visual and verbal vocabulary of surfer movies.
I could go on and on. I won't. Without undue weight, the film is profound; without too much thought, it is meditative; and without pretentious philosophizing, it is about making meaning. But mostly, Surfer, Dude is about how following your heart, having fun, and living with humor is the way.