The Endless Summer

The Endless Summer. Bruce Brown Films 1966.

Before watching the movie:

I wouldn’t have thought that surfing would make an interesting topic for a documentary until I saw that this existed. Maybe that’s one of the functions of good documentary film, to highlight things about the world you wouldn’t have thought you’d be interested to learn about. Apparently the director made a series of several surfing docs over ten years, which seems a bit much, but this seems to be considered the best.

I’m hoping to see 95 minutes painting the picture on the poster, living in the world of the 60s surfing scene and memorializing how great it was.

After watching the movie:

Lamenting how their typical Hawaii and California beaches are too crowded in the summer and too cold in the winter, Mike Hynson and Robert August plan a trip to surf around the world, chasing summer through the Southern Hemisphere and seeking uncrowded beaches with the perfect waves. With stops in west Africa, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Tahiti, they hope to find a route to enjoy good surfing all year long, always summer and never winter.

This is an entirely different kind of documentary than I’m used to. I’ve seen shorts dominated by narration with no on-site sound, but never an entire feature. Where this differs from say, a Disney Adventure film, or a classroom filmstrip, is that the narrator is clearly coming from the world of surfing and sharing it with us rather than a stuffy intellectual type imparting Things We Should Know out of a book. Brown’s delivery has a breezy style, often punctuated with wisecracks and sarcasm.

And they come off as honest jibes that he could have come up with off the cuff rather than something the narrator would never say except the script decided it was time to check if the audience was still awake. It’s still very offputting to have a movie following a trip taken by two guys and yet the narration is entirely from a third’s perspective. It seems less like a movie and more like watching home movies of a vacation presented by someone who wasn’t part of the trip.

The bulk of the movie is surfing footage, which, even though everything is explained for newcomers, is most impressive to people who already know the sport of surfing. The most interesting parts are the more basic travelogue segments about other adventures had along the way to the beach. Also, the west Africa stops at the beginning are both most interesting because they interact with nonwhite cultures who may have never seen surfing before and also the most uncomfortable due to the narration’s casual racism. Mike and Robert come off well, since we can’t hear them onsite or interview them, but Brown talking over them cracking jokes about brutal and superstitious natives brings it down for a modern audience.

There’s also some amusing points where they balk at high prices in developing nations, like the ripoff $30 a night government-owned luxury beachfront hotel they were forced to stay in, and how bad a deal their cab driver’s offer of being their chauffeur and guide for a couple of days in exchange for buying gas is considering the gasoline is a whole one dollar a gallon. Of course, a dollar was worth nearly eight times what it’s worth today, but it’s amusing to listen to the chagrin at being taken for so much money next to the prices we’re used to today.

There’s some points where the film leaves the trip and flashes back to Hawaiian and Californian surfing, apparently because there isn’t enough surfing going on in the part of the story it’s gotten to, but those are the least interesting parts, because the excitement of the movie is the travel and seeking new beaches to explore. To then leave the story and essentially say, “and now, some more familiar surfing”, is entirely counter to what the point of the movie seems to be. Of course, part of the point of the movie is just to show off surfing skills and share the sport of surfing with a larger audience, so that’s more consistent than it seems. But as someone who’s not all that interested in surfing itself, I was turned off by the non-linear jumps to showcase footage.

As a record of exotic locations and exciting sport, I can see this being a milestone of travel and athletic movies. But the way the narrative is forced to be completely removed from the events, told entirely after the fact by a third, or at least 2.5th party, makes it difficult to engage with it beyond admiring the lovely scenery. It’s a fine movie. It didn’t make me want to pick up a board.

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