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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."
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.