If you like 300, are you gay?

The joy of blockbusters.
June 27 2007 7:05 AM

The Surf Also Rises

How macho movies get misread as homoerotic.

Read more from Slate's Summer Movies.

Point Break.

The most famous thing ever written about surfing, Tom Wolfe's essay, "The Pump House Gang," doesn't have much to do with surfing. Instead, Wolfe focuses on the hostility between adult society and surfing understood as an outsider cult and defined, more or less, by mindless adolescence. This is a strange position for Wolfe (of all people) to take, since embedded within actual surf culture is something that should be right up his alley: an elaborate, informal, borderline inscrutable code of masculine status.

Many high-quality surf spots are governed by a "pecking order," for example. And those who surf the biggest, most dangerous waves are called "hellmen" and "gladiators." So it's no surprise that—despite all the clichés about blissed-out surf-stoners—the most serious and ambitious surf movies convey a traditional, indeed heroic ethos. And it's probably no surprise that they sometimes share a peculiar fate with other films that offer idealized portraits of heroic masculinity, such as this year's 300—the tendency to have clueless film critics misread them as "homoerotic."

Advertisement

Among surfers, John Milius' Big Wednesday (1978) is widely viewed as the best nondocumentary surf film ever made. The movie follows three California surfers—talented Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent), crazy Leroy (Gary Busey), and sensible Jack (William Katt)—as they pass from adolescence to adulthood in the 1960s. The film's crucible is the Vietnam War. The whole crew gets draft notices, and they all feign lunacy to avoid service, but nobody questions the war itself. Big Wednesday, with its conservative director,conveys something else: the disdain that many California surfers of the 1960s held for hippie culture. There's a withering scene in which Matt and his wife sit down for lunch at their favorite diner, only to find that hippies have turned it into a health food restaurant. From start to finish, Big Wednesday is a film about loss and decline, but nothing in the film so pungently signifies the enveloping Waste Land as a hairy waiter in a tie-dyed tank top serving up bean sprout sandwiches.

When Big Wednesday finally arrives, the three friends meet at the beach and turn wordlessly to face "the Great Swell" and walk, as if into battle, toward the surf. At the end of the day, they part, after a round of bare-chested bro-hugs, pausing—wordlessly again—to take in the monster waves still slamming on the outside. (HBO's wonderful John From Cincinnati examines this type from a different angle, asking the question: What happens when such laconic surf-macho runs headfirst into several generations of pain?)

If Big Wednesday is the most serious surf film ever made, Katherine Bigelow's Point Break (1991)is surf cinema's biggest missed opportunity. Roughly based on Tapping the Source, Kem Nunn's acclaimed "surf-noir" novel, Point Break—with a studio budget and an able director—could have nailed the visual splendor of surf and surfing in the same way it nails its sky diving sequences. (Point Break, weirdly, is the best sky diving movie ever.) However, as Thad Ziolkowski noted recently in Slate, Bigelow botches the surfing. She has surfers changing stances and conversing on waves, Gidget-style, and, most egregiously, she has churning left-hand waves magically changing into churning right-hand waves.

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Doublex

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Politico Wonders Why Gabby Giffords Is So “Ruthless” on Gun Control

Behold
Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?