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Video Quest

Deconstructing our world through surf videos

[This feature originally appeared in our November 2015 Issue]

Of all the movies in which aliens learn everything they know about life on Earth from watching our TV shows and films, Galaxy Quest is by far the best. Tim Allen acts his ass off as the star of a hokey space-adventure drama modeled on Star Trek. A hapless planet full of literally humorless aliens has been watching the show for years and has mistaken it for a historical documentary series. It's absolutely brilliant, and you should watch it. I recently did, and then I spent the next few hours deep in thought. What kind of images have we been broadcasting out there to the non-surfing world for the last 25 years? To find out, I poured myself a beer, picked out a handful of DVDs completely at random from my (well-curated) surf stack, fired up the computer, and attempted to discover what it would be like to learn everything I knew about surf culture just from surf videos.

What’s Really Goin’ Wrong?

…Lost (1995)

When not rolling down hills in trash cans, or trying to surf grocery carts, the mid '90s ...Lost crew held their own as some of the world's best surfers. Chris Ward, patron saint of ...Lost Enterprises, demonstrates. Photo by Kenworthy

When not rolling down hills in trash cans, or trying to surf grocery carts, the mid ’90s …Lost crew held their own as some of the world’s best surfers. Chris Ward, patron saint of …Lost Enterprises, demonstrates. Photo by Kenworthy

Oh, Lord, this may not have been the best movie to start with. If all you knew of surfing came from this and the rest of …Lost's lo-fi classics, you'd assume that all surfers (well, at least those in Orange County) were the high-school dropouts that panicked parents warn their teenaged daughters about. And that they spend most of their time lighting the hair of middle-aged homeless guys on fire, catastrophically crashing down stairs on surfboards, scrawling phalluses on the faces of their drunk friends, sexually terrifying any girls within their lines of sight, defiling the already plenty-defiled streets of Cabo, and angrily shredding the shit out of Lowers. Surfers seemingly have no shame, no limit to their pain threshold, and definitely no breakable bones. I'm probably dumber for having seen these movies, but I love them. I really want to hang out with all these guys.

Shelter

The Moonshine Conspiracy (2001)

Jack Johnson (right) and Chris Malloy (left). Crunchy granola vibes but serious heavy-wave chops from the Moonshine Conspiracy conspirators. Photo by Ellis

Jack Johnson (right) and Chris Malloy (left). Crunchy granola vibes but serious heavy-wave chops from the Moonshine Conspiracy conspirators. Photo by Ellis

This movie makes surfing look like a Jack Johnson song brought to life. It's the film equivalent of a mellow beach party at night: fire crackling away, smell of sage on an offshore breeze, three dudes strumming guitars, people drinking kava out of gourds, dreads pulled up into man buns, artisan tequila. Before I was halfway through Shelter, I'd grown a beard, shaped a single-fin, learned to play the ukulele, and bought a biodiesel camper van—all completely involuntarily. A second viewing had me hand-carving a teak sloop that I could use to sail around Indo and performing Polynesian fertility ceremonies in the backyard. This is how I'd imagine all surfers were, if I'd only ever been to the beach in Santa Barbara. Parents would be thrilled to let any of these people date their children.

Campaign

Poor Specimen (2003)

I'm a little bit confused. Are these guys surfers? Or a failed improv comedy troupe? Apparently surfers spend as much time bouncing through silly skits wearing floppy wigs as they do surfing. Campaign treads on some hard-hitting philosophical turf here, though, asking the question: How far will corporate America go to exploit surfers in advertising? At least I think that's what's going on. It's mostly surfers hocking pretend products in surprisingly well-filmed TV commercial spoofs. OK, but aren't pro surfers just walking and talking billboards, like, professionally? Hmm. I guess the takeaway here is that pro surfers are aware of market economics, which is refreshing. But also maybe totally unaware of irony, which is disappointing.

Feral Kingdom

Rip Curl (1995)

Caption. Photo: Grambeau

Don’t bother “searching” for any of the Search movies in DVD format or online. They’re fading into VHS dust. Photo: Grambeau

Ha ha, just kidding. Feral Kingdom and the rest of
Sonny Miller's Search movies are available only on VHS, so nobody will ever see them again. Which is a tragedy, because they're the finest surf movies ever made.

Web Clips

Marine Layer Productions (Various)

Caption. Photo: Glaser

Hipster darling Dane Reynolds, mid-flight and deep in thought, probably ranking his top-5 favorite Pavement songs. Photo: Glaser

When you sit down and watch hours and hours of Marine Layer clips in a row, you get the feeling that—psychologically speaking, anyway—surfers would have been better off just working in an independent record store somewhere. Dane Reynolds' aloof nonchalance, and an apparent disdain for beach culture in general, are right out of the '90s-era hipster handbook. In fact, that's what surfing feels like in Reynolds' world: a throwback to the grunge-y coolness of the thrift-store hipsterdom of the Clinton years. Dude even drives a beat-up Volvo wagon. I think what Marine Layer wants to say to all the world is, "Even the best surfers on Earth would maybe rather be college-town librarians."

Web Clips

Mad Hueys (Various)

The first time you see a thong-bottomed woman let a guy with Coors Light bubbling out of his mouth smack her ass with a bloody, still-writhing yellowtail tuna, you know right away that you've entered the holy land of frat-boy surf fantasies. Nothing but mai tais, trucker hats, goofy shades, and willing ladies. In Huey World, surfing seems to be a blend of the late-night "Girls Gone Wild" infomercials and a high-def version of the …Lost movies. This series approximates what your average high-school guy in Nebraska prays being a surfer is actually like when he plans his big move to California.

Modern Collective

Kai Neville Studio (2009)

Caption. Photo: Struntz

Modern Collective: When The X-Files met ultra-high-performance surfing. Photo: Struntz

I feel like I should be staring quizzically at this movie in the video-installation section of an art museum. Surfing in the Collective is completely opposite to how it appeared in the …Lost movies. Here, surfers would never be caught dead lighting anybody's hair on fire, riding surfboards down stairwells, or drawing dicks on each other. I bet they've never even heard of Orange County. If Modern Collective were a person, he would be a club-hopping ecstasy fiend who secretly despises the beach and won't stop talking about that time he spent a weekend slunking around a drug-fueled art den in a gentrifying part of former East Berlin. And why is this whole thing filmed from inside an alien spacecraft? I miss the …Lost crew already. But the surfing: holy shit. A non-surfer would instantly be aware that the surfing in this movie is about as high performance as it gets, even though it's really a senior project from film school masquerading as a surf movie.