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Life's a Beach

Wednesday, May 10 2000
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Over the last half-century, surfers have grown into an indelible American archetype -- carefree, laid-back souls who'd rather catch a wave than get a job, traveling the world in search of perfect waves and free thrills. Part of that image comes after decades of surf films, packaging that persona both for the next generation of surfers and a nation that looks to California as a bohemian's paradise. In conjunction with its "Surf Trip" exhibition, Yerba Buena Center brings together five of the most influential surf movies, plus one recent ode to the sport, in "The Sick Six" series.

Proto-surf-filmmaker Bud Browne shot several 16mm films during surfing's early heyday of the '50s. In the 1960s, as personalities began to emerge among the surfer class, Browne traveled between Hawaii and California to capture 11 of the day's best board riders in 1963's Gun Ho. Just a few years later, Bruce Brown's ode to the sport, The Endless Summer, sought to counteract the image of surfing as represented by Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, and Gidget, as the filmmaker followed Cali surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August on a globe-trotting quest for new waves and warm water.

Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman documented the changes coming over the sport in 1972's Five Summer Stories. Touching on some of the social upheavals of the times, the filmmakers painted a portrait of the surfer as a sun-bleached escapist who simply can't live by society's rules. Even so, the film tread where few glory-shot surf films dared to go: conflict between native Hawaiian and "Howlie" surfers, creeping commercialism, women gaining respect on the water, and the threat posed by coastal development to the sport (this edition offers postscript assurance that many of these surf breaks were in fact saved). By the time Bill Delaney made Free Ride in 1976, the sport was an international commercial entity. His film -- narrated by a pre-Airwolf Jan-Michael Vincent -- documented wave-catchers traveling to Hawaii, Indonesia, and California in search of big waves, prize money, and sponsorships. A decade later, Delaney's Surfers: The Movie captured the surfer in his own words, sometimes hilariously (a 10-minute segment in which various surfers attempt to define the meaning of "stoked" could be straight from the mouth of Jeff Spicoli). At a time when video had killed off expensive, big-screen surf filmmaking (just as video had done in the porn industry), Delaney set to celluloid a final homage to the surf movie of old. Taylor Steele's Loose Change brings the sport into the present, offering a contemporary look at surfing, and surfers.

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Todd Dayton

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