Ah, endless summer. It lures us to the beach for the first wave at dawn, to the surf shack daddy-o for groovy tunes at high noon, to a bonfire at sunset. Into this idyll breaks and boogies the surf flick. But what is a surf flick exactly? Is it the meditative, even spiritual story of real-life wave breakers in cinema verite? Or is it the air-headed drive-in entertainment meant for teenagers to shell out their allowance money? Turns out it’s both and it has been since the daybreak of movie history, when none other than Thomas Edison recorded surfers breaking waves in Waikiki in 1906. From that left-foot-forward moment, surfing has secured its position in the medium as surely as the Eskimos of Nanook of the North.
The Endless Summer is the seminal surf film. Breaking the surface in 1962, Bruce Brown’s groundbreaking pic ushered in the most important decade of the genre as the director followed a real-life gang of friends chasing waves worldwide. The Endless Summer would be remarkable just for the footage — it is hard to imagine any filmmaker who more breathtakingly captures images of the planet’s waters — but in waves still felt, Brown told a documentary story with narrative style. The Endless Summer influences documentary film to this day, revealing the philosophy that surfing is much more than a sport and providing its state of mind.
To any true school bunny or dude dropping a curl on the cut back, that philosophy revolves around the wave. Big Kahuna sends swells from heavies to ankle-busters for hot-doggers and honeys to angle, bail, break, nail, and fer shure wipe out. Riding Giants continues Endless Summer‘s endless tale by relating the history of surfing while simultaneously investigating the contemporary scene circa 2004. The surfers interact with Stacy Peralta’s camera with what seems like indifference, leaving the audience to figure out that, among the advances in surfing spiritual practice, they have learned not to waste their excitement. They obsess over the perfect wave, and that pursuit and their love of it — their stoke — is what animates these boarders. Surfing is a profound teacher, revealing its lessons via the perfect ride provided you are attuned to the music of the waves. Surfers are chill, yes, but they’re also zen masters.
Not so Connie Francis and Tab Hunter. Both Where the Boys Are and Ride the Wild Surf, in which these heartthrobs star respectively, are vacation movies with appealing young casts, seaside scenography, and rock ‘n’ roll soundtracks. Slyly, these films cross the axis between serious and silly: They’re morality tales in disguise, surfing the serious wave of teen sexuality via the trope of the unplanned pregnancy as a symbol, and a consequence, of growing up too fast. Beneath their kook and groove, these dramedies tell of the generation gap from the sensible viewpoint of kids on the cusp of adulthood. At the time, both pics evoked the Calvinist response of being prim but titillated, a reaction in sync with our times. That alone renders the value of both films, which examine the constrictions of social mores and the imposition of essentialist gender roles, unexpectedly timely.
No one represents surf and sand as poster-perfectly as Gidget. From the foam, Gidget swam to shore as the quintessential California girl. Sandra Dee was the perfect choice to play the title dipsy-doo. With pigtails and a transistor radio, Dee brought movies up-to-date for an audience that was changing and at odds. Her perky antics allowed the old folks to grumble from within their bewilderment, while giving the kiddos permission to be goofy. Gidget did more than set up the volleyball net for the forthcoming cartoon frolic of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. The series connected the polka dots between warring generations: the greatest generation, themselves now parents, and their offspring who soon enough would be deployed to a different war theater altogether. Seen through the lens of changing times, a beach day with our girl Gidget seems like the perfect moment — when the hours were golden, when the waves were bliss. The times change. Only the seas are constant.