Riding Giants

Extreme Surfing Documentary Rides The Crest

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
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Skateboarding legend Stacy Peralta staged a street-level assault on the documentary industry in 2001 when he unleashed Dogtown and Z-Boys, an unforgettable, eye-opening documentary about the history-making Zephyr skateboarding team–pioneers of the radical “vertical style” of boarding–which he himself had been a member of as a young boy. The power of Peralta's first documentary feature was that he made something as obscure at vertical skateboarding (essentially kids riding boards inside empty swimming pools) seem as radical and groundbreaking as mankind landing on the moon.

Peralta's followup film examines an equally extreme sport, the dangerous world of big wave surfing, with almost equal results. Like Dogtown and Z-Boys before it, Riding Giants will be rabidly gobbled up by those dedicated few who follow the sport. But the film is so mesmerizing in its subject, so convincing in its argument, that even those who've never strapped on a Speedo are likely to find themselves enthralled.

Following the amusing intro “1,000 Years of Surfing in Under Two Minutes,” Peralta leaps headlong into the late '50s, when surfing was starting to grow out of its cult sport status and into the mainstream. (The 1959 release of surfer girl opus Gidget would bust the sport wide open.) Peralta interviews (more like “reminisces with”) several early surf pioneers who moved from California to Hawaii, lured by the promise of big waves. Soon, legends like Greg Noll would find themselves at Waimea Bay, staring out at the “unsurfable” waves and wondering “What if?” Building their own unique boards and developing a special style, Noll and his compatriots were soon conquering these staggering waves and creating a major paradigm shift in the world of surfing.

As in Dogtown and Z-Boys, Peralta feels less like a boring, fact-focused documentarian and more like a preacher eager to spread the gospel of a subculture he knows and loves. Like Diane Fosse among the apes (to use a perhaps unflattering metaphor), Peralta walks the walk and talks the talk. He gets entangled in the hearts and minds of his subjects—he is one of them, and they give him their all. The history is interesting, but the stories and emotions of those who created it are the biggest lure.

Riding Giants doesn't have as strong a narrative as Dogtown and Z-Boys, perhaps because the filmmaker is no longer concentrating on one single group. The personalities that drove (and eventually tore apart) the Zephyr skating team lent Peralta's earlier film a natural ebb and flow. Here, Peralta is forced to skip his narrative around a bit. He starts with the '60s pioneers at Waimea, then moves to a maverick bunch of '70s surfers in Northern California and finally ends up with this current generation's most famous surfer, Laird Hamilton, and his discovery of deep sea “tow-in” surfing.

If big wave surfing doesn't seem as big an artistic leap as “vert boarding,” it does serve as a pretty good metaphor for Peralta's “live big, do what you love, fuck convention” philosophy. Hearing guys like Greg Noll talk about certain waves with the same awed reverence ancient Anglo-Saxons must have talked about Grendel is a kick. As in Dogtown and Z-Boys, Peralta has dug up tons of astonishing archival footage. Actually watching these guys conquer (and, occasionally, fail utterly to conquer) these colossal waves, leaves no doubt as to their giddy bravery. (More than one surfer, it must be noted, is no longer alive to tell his tale.) But, in the end, it is the emotional stories these guys relate that remain in memory.

Hearing Laird Hamilton talk about meeting and instantly bonding with his stepfather, famed '60s surfer Billy Hamilton. Seeing sixtysomething surf bum Micky Munoz gleefully admit he still gets excited to see a 60-foot swell. Listening to Maverick pioneer Jeff Clark recount the 15 years he spent surfing Northern California without so much as another soul in the water. These are the moments that give Riding Giants its punch. I may never surf a eight-story wave off Tahiti … scratch that … There's no way in Hell I'm ever surfing a eight-story wave off Tahiti in this lifetime. But, hearing the story straight from the mouth of the guy who did it, makes me feel like I was there admiring every hair-raising moment of it.

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