There is nothing mysterious or subdued about Stacy Peralta's enthusiasms. A product of Southern California's vivid beach scene, he's been a surfer since boyhood and was a professional skateboarder in the '70s before he started making documentaries about the defining moments of those sports. The phenomenally successful Dogtown and Z-Boys was an unabashed valentine to his old pals on the piers of Santa Monica and Venice, who developed the new “vertical” skating style and, to hear Peralta tell it, profoundly altered American culture in the process. His new film, Riding Giants, idealizes three generations of big-wave surfers in Hawaii and California — brave obsessives who thought nothing of sliding across the face of ferocious 30- or 40-foot waves produced by just the right combination of treacherous reef configurations and extreme ocean weather. Not since Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer, released in 1966, has surfing been shown in such a worshipful light.
No less a committed propagandist than Michael Moore, Peralta has some strange ideas about what constitutes meaningful social change. For him, the moment when 1950s surfers discovered the North Shore of Oahu is “the equivalent of Columbus reaching the New World,” and the all-surfing, all-the-time lifestyle of pioneers like Greg Noll — who lived in an abandoned Quonset hut on a Hawaiian beach with 10 other guys and subsisted on fresh-caught fish and coconuts — was as important as the civil rights movement or the Summer of Love. If you are willing to accept Peralta's rather blinkered notion of American history — there's the pre-Gidget era, when surfing was individualistic and pure, and the post-Gidget era, when a large part of Paradise was Lost to the masses — you will probably embrace Riding Giants with the passion of a true believer. If not, you might see it as another engaging sermon delivered by a slightly crazed missionary.
Certainly, Peralta tours the holy sites of surfing with the awe of a religious pilgrim. Hawaii's Waimea Bay, we learn, was “riddled with taboos and fears” after two surfers were killed there in 1943, but once the 19-year-old Noll and his friend Mike Stang conquered Waimea's big waves in 1957, surfing took a giant leap forward. Peralta uses clips from old home movies to support his point, and they are terrifically evocative of time and place. Meanwhile, his interviews with the swaggering Noll, the sport's first flamboyant showman, reveal (unwittingly or not) a man whose golden moment has long since passed. “Waimea was my woman,” the bulky, bespectacled 66-year-old tells us wistfully. “It was a full-on love affair for 25 years.” But once Hollywood's mid-'60s plague of inane beach-blanket movies romanticized surfing in Iowa and Nebraska, something vital slipped out of the sport's founding mythology. “Those movies make me puke,” Noll scoffs, 40 years after the fact.
Still, Peralta presses on into rough new waters and new eras. At Maverick's, another legendary surfing locale 20 miles from San Francisco, he revisits the exploits of Jeff Clark, who rode the big waves in this frigid “graveyard of jagged rocks” all alone from 1975 until 1990 — in part because nobody else had the guts to try it. “It was my sanctuary,” Clark tells us, tuning in to Riding Giants' tone of religious fervor. Later, we see a gathering of the faithful at Maverick's, there to honor one of their martyrs, a famous Hawaiian surfer named Mark Foo, who was killed by the place's fierce rip currents in December 1994. Two more intrepids lost their lives at Maverick's in 1995 and 1997.
The most daunting waters of all are in Peahi, on the Maui coast, where the crests can reach 60 feet in height and roll along at 35 miles an hour; and at a site in Tahiti, where huge, cylindrical breakers crash onto a razor-sharp reef. Here we meet the new king of big-wave surfing, Laird Hamilton. Blond, blue-eyed, and golden-brown, he embodies the old surfer-boy stereotype from those terrible movies, but he's definitely New Wave. He helped develop the latest wrinkle, called “tow-in surfing,” which employs a Jet Ski, a tow rope, and some hazardous rescue techniques. But at root, Hamilton, too, lives by the old code. “For Laird,” his wife, also an athlete, tells us, “a day with no waves, it's like a dragon slayer with no dragons.” OK, but film director John Milius, who in 1978 made a fictional surfing movie called Big Wednesday, captures the lure of the big waves more succinctly. “This is not for your own glory,” he says. “You're caught up in a great act of nature.”
In this rhapsodic documentary, though, personal glory does outweigh the fierce beauties of nature — no matter what Milius, or even Gidget, has to say on the subject. Stacy Peralta may think otherwise, but this 101-minute homage to the heroes of surfing is nothing if not a monument to their self-absorption, and to his own. That's probably inevitable.