The action footage was sometimes grainy and occasionally jumpy. The story was minimal, even flimsy — just two tanned dude-bros traveling the world in search of tasty waves.
Whatever its technical limitations, “The Endless Summer” was a small cultural turning point. It popularized not just surfing, but also a charming fantasy about a life of exotic locales, perpetual youth and the pursuit of simple pleasure under a warming sun.
And I was swept up, too, as if by a gently curling right-hander.
The documentary — the word seems almost pretentious for such a shaggy concoction — was the work of Bruce Brown, himself a young, tanned dude-bro who rode motorcycles and waves around Southern California.
Brown, who died Sunday at 80, shot footage of his surfing pals in the late 1950s and early ’60s and strung these clips together into plotless little films he exhibited at local high schools. In 1964, amid a Beach Boys-and-Gidget boomlet, he scraped together $50,000 for something more ambitious. He signed a couple of young locals, Mike Hynson and Robert August, and set off to film them surfing on the shores of Australia, Tahiti, Hawaii, Senegal and other undiscovered breaks. The premise was that the boys were chasing the summer season as it moved around the globe, hemisphere by hemisphere.
Brown wound up riding “Endless Summer” all the way to the shore. It was a regional hit in surf-mad Southern California, then a national phenomenon starting in 1966. As legend had it, Brown persuaded a distributor to take on his movie after he drew round-the-block crowds to screenings he set up in Wichita during the dead of winter.
I can imagine the fascination of “Endless Summer” held for landlocked teenagers across America, but in my Southern California high school of the mid-1970s, the movie’s laidback aesthetic had a life-imitates-documentary quality. The film’s iconic poster image — beachbound surfers contemplating the curls silhouetted by an enormous lowering sun — was everywhere. Only a few of my peers actually surfed, but almost all the white kids I knew adopted some totem of the surfer lifestyle. We knew our “gnarlys” from our “bitchin’s.”
I didn’t get around to seeing “Endless Summer” until more than a decade and a half after its release. By then, it was legendary, the Ur-film of surf docs. I saw it at a screening at the University of California at San Diego, an Edenlike campus perched above the Pacific. Brown was there — cheerful, tanned and celebrated by the audience as if he were Bergman or Truffaut.
Primed by years of peer hype, I expected “Endless Summer” to be dazzling. It wasn’t. Brown’s film felt like someone’s old home movies, an impression abetted by Brown’s cornball narration. By then, surfing photography had improved enormously, and Brown’s pioneering camera work seemed primitive and dawdling in comparison.
But there was something undeniably alluring, even joyous about the film. It was sweet and guileless. It offered no ponderous theories about surfing’s “mystique.” Its message was simple: Surfing is a thrill and a kick.
By that time, it was also kind of an ironic document. Surfing had grown enormously, and “The Endless Summer” depicted a lost and innocent age when a couple of youngsters could haul their longboards to deserted spots in places that had never heard of surfing before.
I was among those who took up surfing, or tried to, after seeing Brown’s movie. A few weeks after the screening, I bought a used, dinged-up short board for $25 and aimed to teach myself to ride the waves.
This turned out to be a terrible idea. One of the pleasant deceptions of “Endless Summer” is that surfing is easy, a straightforward process of paddling, standing and maneuvering. It may well be — but only if you know what you’re doing. As I quickly learned, surfing is a balletic combination of upper-body strength, endurance, balance and flexibility, all applied amid constantly changing conditions. On my first time out, a big, blown-out day at Tamarack Beach in Carlsbad, my board nearly decapitated me. I tried again a few days later, with similarly dismal results.
Then I quit for about 15 years.
Brown followed “Endless Summer” with a few more surf films and a series of documentaries about what came to be known as extreme sports. The most notable was “On Any Sunday,” a 1971 feature about motorcycle racing that was nominated for an Oscar. He also directed “The Endless Summer II,” the 1994 follow-up to his magnum opus, in which a couple of surfers repeat the travels of Hynson and August. It was interesting principally for showing what the original had inspired: In the decades between the films, surfing had become an international phenomenon, spreading to such places as France and Alaska.
A decade later, Brown’s son, Dana Brown, made “Step Into Liquid,” which documented another evolutionary step, “tow-in” surfing, in which riders use motorized assistance to catch huge, fast-moving waves.
Riding the monsters of “Step Into Liquid” seems unimaginable. But as the years peel away, the dream doesn’t die. I still have that dented board in the basement and imagine myself chasing swells like Mike and Robert. An endless summer awaits, and it’s beautiful to contemplate.
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