‘Riding Giants’ will make you want to hang ten | AspenTimes.com
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‘Riding Giants’ will make you want to hang ten

Stewart Oksenhorn

“Riding Giants” presents such a compelling depiction of big-wave surfing – the history, the culture, the characters, the thrills, the beauty – that it makes a nonsurfer (like me) wonder why I’ve never given more than a passing thought to the sport/lifestyle. I’m a little too old, and way too far from a decent wave, to take up surfing. But “Riding Giants” has done the job of a documentary: I now have a thorough appreciation for a world I knew nothing about.Stacy Peralta, the director of “Riding Giants,” has done this before. His 2001 film “Dogtown and Z-Boys” charted how a group of Los Angeles teens – Peralta among them – revived the culture of skateboarding by inventing killer moves in drained swimming pools.”Riding Giants,” however, has the advantage over “Dogtown and Z-Boys” of capturing one of the most awesome, and perhaps most overlooked, spectacles of the natural world: the big wave. An empty swimming pool might be a cool place to test out the limits of gravity. But on film, a dry pool can’t compete with the kinetic force of a 50-foot wall of water.

As with his earlier film, Peralta doesn’t make the action the lone star of the show. Before we see one breathtaking sequence of a surfer riding a monster wave, we get a brief introduction to the origins of the sport – a thousand years ago in Polynesia – and a much more in-depth look at the beginnings of the modern American surf culture.Into the mid-1950s, surfing, at least in the States, was a minor-league pursuit. You could count the “stars” of the sport, concentrated in Southern California, on one hand. It wasn’t word-of-mouth that opened the eyes of this small group to the wonders that lay half an ocean away off the beaches of Hawaii, but the media. An AP photo of three surfers riding an impossibly huge wave at Makaha was splashed on the front page of a Southern California paper, and the exodus was on. A few dozen intrepid, colorful young men made their way to Hawaii and there invented the beach-bum archetype. Led by the legendary Greg Noll, whose thick body, he-man style of riding and signature black-and-white trunks earned him the nickname “The Bull,” the transplanted Californians lived to find the perfect wave. Noll is the protagonist of the iconic story of the era. During the 100-year Pacific storm of the early ’60s, Noll ignored police evacuation warnings and searched out a surfable break. Though no footage exists, no one doubts Noll’s claim of mastering a 50-foot wave.That idyllic existence – eating coconuts and pineapples from local fields, living a dozen to a hut, and making mind-boggling discoveries like Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach – couldn’t outlive the inevitable commercialization of surfing. Bizarrely, it was the kitschy film “Gidget” and the wave of surf films that followed that filled the beaches with kids and their long boards.

As “Riding Giants” traces surfing’s more recent history, the documentation gets better and the thrills more dramatic. Back in California, the film picks up the story of Jeff Clark, who for 15 years, beginning in 1975, surfed the chilly, treacherous, rock-filled Maverick’s break near San Francisco with hardly a witness. Not until 1990 did Clark persuade two friends to join him, finally opening up one of the world’s most notorious surf spots.Amazingly, “Riding Giants” manages to save the best for last. The final quarter of the film is devoted to Laird Hamilton, a promising surfer and tenacious kid even as a 4-year-old. Hamilton is hailed, even by Greg Noll, as the greatest big-wave rider ever, and “Riding Giants” has the footage to prove it. Seeking ever bigger thrills, Hamilton helps usher in a series of innovations: first the short board, which allows faster rides and quicker turns, then tow-in surfing, which uses a Jet Ski to plop a surfer right onto the top of the wave. These techniques allowed Hamilton to make quantum leaps in surfing – and provide a visceral coda to the film. Hamilton tackles the unimaginable Jaws break at Hawaii’s Peahi; he then tops even that by traveling to Thailand to take on the most ferocious surf yet.Don’t have any interest in surfing? You will.

“Riding Giants” shows at the Wheeler Opera House Thursday, Aug. 26, and Sunday and Monday, Aug. 29-30.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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