Magazine article Artforum International

Chairmen of the Boards: Thad Ziolkowski on Riding Giants

Magazine article Artforum International

Chairmen of the Boards: Thad Ziolkowski on Riding Giants

Article excerpt

THE POPULAR IMAGE OF SURFING--a rider on a large, wind-groomed wave--is, alas, an idealization. Waves are bad more often than good, even (in fact, especially) at world-class breaks like Pipeline. Hence surters travel when they can, in the hope that the waves will be better elsewhere. Occasionally they are. But even in the elite ranks of globe-trotting professionals, most of one's time is spent doing various mental and physical finger exercises. Great waves arrive like Rilkean storms of inspiration, and serious surfers are fully the equal of artists in the degree of their commitment and obsessiveness. Paddling out at a moment's notice--on one's wedding day, on the morning of the big presentation--can entail the destruction of love relationships and the loss of jobs ("Why get fired unless it's firing?" runs a surf forecaster's motto). Meanwhile, between swells, which is to say most of the time, surfing is as much an act of the imagination as anything else.

The structure of the surfing imagination is that of the surf-film utopia, though in fact "surf-film utopia" is probably a redundancy. The movies have titles like Wanted, Puerto Underground, Tripping the Planet, Litmus, North of Nowhere. Shot for the most part on video since the '80s, they are low-budget and unapologetically repetitive: one noteworthy ride after another, period, with at most a thong shot or distracted pan of shore--"I think that's Indonesia." (And the 2002 terrorist bombing in Bali has altered this format not one iota.) For anyone unable to summon a vivid physical memory of riding a wave, the typical surf film would be as compelling as hard-core porn to a toddler.

From a purely cinematic perspective, some of the finest surf films are the relatively rare popularizing ones: The Endless Summer (1966), Five Summer Stories (1972), The Endless Summer II (1994) (a title whose laughable paradox speaks volumes about surfers' relation to language and utopia), and, most recently, Riding Giants, which premiered at Sundance in January and will arrive in theaters this July. The problem with this genre--and it's distinct from narrative films like Big Wednesday (1978) and Blue Crush (2002)--lies in its compulsion to explain, to tell instead of show. Surfing is most like dance, of the arts. Rhythm, strength, and flexibility are the essentials, integral for attaining the velocity necessary for the successful completion of individual maneuvers and the overall ride. For surfers, good ones anyway, waves are like partners who create choreographic possibilities. Rhythm, both natural and acquired, is even at the heart of the knack for falling into step with the pace of a given swell, of being in the right place at the right time, something whose importance increases with the size and danger of the waves. But there's a profound difference between dance and surfing, one best revealed by a trite dance gesture, the rhapsodic fluttering of the hands at the lips that means: If only I could speak what I long to say! There is no such gesture in surfing, because there is no pining for speech and clarification. For all its repetition compulsion, surfing is in a sense autotelic. It is not signaling anything: it is not a representation; it is not for others.

Hence the flawed nature of the popularizing surf film, which, in seeking to convey the appeal of surfing to nonsurfers, brushes surfing against its own self-involved grain. Happily, this tendency is often compensated for by high production values and painstaking water photography. The lens of a 35 mm camera bobs to the surface, and a rhomboid of light throbs on the glassy shoulder of a reef-pass wave; a lithe, backlit figure appears at the crest on a slip of foam: Surfing is simply eye candy, vastly superior to skiing or skateboarding or most anything else as a visual phenomenon. There's a Brakhage-like purity to the best surf footage, a sumptuous, slow-motion self-reflexivity. After all, waves are themselves a kind of film: moving, translucent, image-bearing. …

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