Eve Babitz is the 20-year-old Los Angeles ingénue you see above, playing state-of-nature chess in 1963 with French artist Marcel Duchamp. Babitz was many things in the '60s and '70s. Goddaughter to composer Igor Stravinsky. Laughing sexual adventuress. An artist who made gorgeous album covers for Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds. Most famously, Babitz was an "It" girl, a busty West Coast Edie Sedgwick, the rock and roll muse of the Chateau Marmont. Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, Stephen Stills, Harrison Ford—the roll call for Eve Babitz' A-list conquests goes from here to Wilshire Blvd.
Best of all, Babitz was a writer; sharp, truthful, and funny—like Joan Didion's hot, wild little sister. She would later be published in Esquire and Vogue, but her best first-person essays were gathered in Eve's Hollywood, a name-checking 1973 memoir set in the near and far corners of L.A. One of the pieces, "The Art of Balance," is about Babitz' experience at the 1972 Santa Monica Civic Auditorium premiere of Five Summer Stories, the last and best-known movie by surf auteurs Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman. I'm 90% sure I was in the audience that night, up in the rafters with Jay Adams and a bunch of older Bay Street-Pico Ave. surfers we'd attached ourselves to, breathing in the exhaled smoke of 1,000 lit joints and screaming our pink little-boy larynxs out. Babitz' essay reminds me of what it was like to be at the Civic on a surf movie night. Two-thirds homecoming dance, one-third Altamont.
It also reminds me that, unless your name is Bill Finnegan, the best surf writing is invariably done by non-surfing outsiders. Read on.
THE ART OF BALANCE
By Eve Babitz
Santa Monica, California: MacGillivray-Freeman Films premiere their final surfing film, Five Summer Stories, on a Friday night at the Santa Monica Civic to a sold-out 3,000-seat house. The filmmakers themselves, Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman, were there to run the projectors, deal with the onslaught of counterfeit tickets, and introduce the first use of stereo sound with 16mm film. The soundtrack was provided by The Beach Boys and a band called Honk, among others.
There were three things going on Friday at the Civic. First, the audience, whose median age was about 17 and who were tan, mostly blond, clear-eyed, and radiated health in thick pulses you could almost hear. Few of them smoked cigarettes or wore glasses, and all exhibited a sense of exhilarated urgency and impatience while waiting for the movie to begin. Second, the surfers in the film, who were recognized instantly by the audience and wildly cheered as they engaged in gleaming duels of fleeting, awesome beauty. And third, the attitude of the movie, elaborately created for this night, this audience, by two guys who presume that the film will not only be shown to surf freaks but who spent thousands of extra dollars so the sound would wipe everyone out completely. They didn't have to, but they're "hot," so they got fancy. "Hot" is surfer for "great."
Delays in the movie's start time brought the already straining-at-the-bit kids to a point where they could hardly breathe. Flattened-out popcorn boxes frisbeed through the air, the smell of burning grass got thicker, and a blanket of smoke settled democratically down so that everyone was exposed, no one escaped. Paper airplanes circled above like San Juan swallows, and I learned that they had to stop giving out programs at these surfing events because it left too much of a mess afterwards. A band was supposed to play but it was a half-hour after start time and they hadn't taken the stage, and it was obvious anyway that nobody wanted to hear a band, but they might be able to endure a band if it didn't make too much trouble. Meanwhile, the paper planes crashed into each other overhead, the mood got thicker with impatience and whistling and stomping.
At 8:30 or so, the band came on. The audience booed, yelled PLAY ROCK AND ROLL, and was just generally horrified by this cleaned-up Joni Mitchell-memorial-church band when all they wanted was a loud jam, preferably haphazard. The band seemed to despise the audience, too. "TAKE OFF YOUR CLOTHES," one last word of advice at the end of the set from someone in the third row. "Thanks for your patience," sneered the band leader. "And now our lackey will clear the stage so you can see your movie." What a thing!
"Just wait till the movie comes on," a friend of mine assured me with certainty. He'd become my friend because he was sitting next to me, and we were part of the audience, and breathing the same air. I thought he was just a kid—he was 20 and I'm 28—and he thought everybody else were kids 'cause they were 17. "You'll see," he said shyly.
I'm guessing the audience wouldn't have actually rioted if the delay had gone on much after 9 pm, but since it started by 9:00 I'll never be sure. Bolts of expectation slammed around the theater as the lights dimmed. A sudden roar rose up from the audience as the movie came fearlessly onscreen with some trance-imposing abstract colors, solarized colors in slow, slow motion turning slowly, dragging us into its rhythms and gutting us into awed silence before the whole thing changed into realer and realer color and at last was bright, blazing truth—a man sliding down the inside of a 15-foot sheet of molten green with diamonds shooting out at the top and as the wave curled lazily into itself the man drew back into the loop of air inside—the "tube"—and vanished until, at the last moment, the final moment, he pulled back out into the open. We cheered our devotion. Now I knew what everybody had been waiting for.
The movie was laid out loosely in five "chapters." The beginning showed Hawaii as a kind of down-home Paradise with sweet scenes of flowers, cows, smiling girls, and a friendly voice discussing the happy discovery of the Banzai Pipeline in 1963 by Bruce Something, who used to be the hot one as far as the Pipeline was concerned, but has since been superseded by Gerry Lopez, who looks like a relaxed lady-killer revolutionary. Onscreen, Lopez stroked the inside of a curled four-ton menace, going faster than is truly permitted in the world, too much faster. The audience went crazy in transported ecstasy.
Later in the film, in a section devoted to "style," Greg MacGillivray's narration gave way to descriptions by fellow surfers about one another. Simple Californian accents, personified best by Corky Carroll, served as poetry, especially while describing Lopez. "He has an innate comprehension of himself in terms of the wave rather than apart from it, and this enables him to exist in very delicate situations," and Lopez appeared out of the end of a long tunnel of green with his fingers caressing the inside of a 15-foot joyous threat. "I'd say his relationship to the ocean is definitely sexual." Lopez leaving diamonds slowly trailing behind him as he rides. We were silenced in disbelief before raising the rafters.
About halfway through the film we were dazzled by a face so abrupt in its savagery and its vestigial traces of paradise that I figured the audience uproar was a simple reaction to the jagged beauty of the face itself. Bygone island eyes. Disheveled black hair tangled around his face and down past his shoulders like a thorn frame. Underneath the face flashed the news that this was David Nuuhiwa (New-eee-vah), but everybody in the place already knew that except me, which was why they were screaming. "David," as he is referred to in surfing magazines and movies, because everyone knows who "David" is, was filmed as he took first place in the US Championships on a "blown-out" (rotten) day when he got one of the few decent waves. His style is to ride as though his feet were nailed down. His posture while on land recalls the diffident spare way that Manolete must have looked, or how TS Lawrence must have listened. There are some people who harbor myths and David Nuuhiwa, at the age of 22, appears to be one. Seeing him drive the streets of Huntington Beach in his weathered white Jaguar sedan with two surfboards perched smugly on top evoked no jealousy from the audience, who instead applauded and laughed at this show of perfection and affluence, though most surfers don't have much money, because David should be rich and happy. His shrug that accompanied his only comment about the contest (" . . . an instant replay of two years ago") was the confused gesture of one unused to having to say words or answer questions. At the end of the contest there was David, squinting appraisingly out to sea at the sun going down before turning back to dry land as night approached.
The filmmaker editorialized on surfing as an organized "sport," indicating that any competition is a corruption of the art imposed by geeks and morons who are fat, don't know anything, and are just using surfers for their own mercenary ends. The audience seemed to be in accord with this point of view. However, more and more contests are held every year for higher and higher purses ($10,000 sometimes) and, as one of the surfers said, "It's better than working."
Of all the surfers shown, Jeff Hakman was the only one who made the word "athlete" come into my head. Maybe it was because his hair is so short and he looks so football-playery, and because the attitude of the other surfers was that of grudging admiration because Hakman is hot with inevitable triumph. But I could tell they didn't feel the dumbfounded awe that they felt about Lopez' "ability to exist in very delicate situations" or the sheer joy of knowing David just exists.
Terry Fitzgerald, an Australian, was described beautifully as "Go, go, go, go—you can't stop and you can't look back. He looks radical but he defines his goals precisely and follows through." Pretty fancy. ("Radical" is a strange surfing word that I can't quite figure out—sometimes it means something good but to be wary of, sometimes it means an unwieldy wave. It seems to be a spur-of-the-moment word with good rather than bad connotations; maybe it means crazy.)
Intermission. I went to the foot of the stairs where I was to meet Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman. I was still dazed from the smoke and the gorgeous water and the young girls' beautiful stomachs which nearly all showed tanned and hollow because the tops of their hip-high Levi's failed to meet the bottoms of their waist-low clingy sweaters. MacGillivray didn't look like a surfer nor a filmmaker—he looked like a young high school algebra teacher, and talked like one too, clear and optimistic and cheerful. Crisply-ironed shirt, economical manner, friendly, bright—no tan, no shilly-shallying, no digressions, no waste. Jim Freeman looked like a Big Sur person. More woodsy than his partner. Looking like he wanted to get back to work.
I feebly began asking questions and learned that Greg began surfing at the age of 15 and made his first surf film at 17, before he was out of high school. Now he was 26, and this was absolutely his last surfing movie. "We've gone about as far as you can with this, you know, and we're working on the script for a real movie which should be together in maybe a year. Sunday we're going to Hawaii to do a commercial for Timex with Gerry Lopez—about how a Timex survives even that, you know?"
He told me that Five Summer Stories, which is two hours long, cost $30,000 to make, and that the sound had cost a fortune.
"Did The Beach Boys just give you the music?" I asked.
"Yes, Brian Wilson wanted to write the theme song, too, but we ran into a time thing and had to let it go. We could never afford to pay them for the music they did."
Five minutes later I was back in my seat, waiting for more. One of the "Stories" was called "Close Out," and it was about the disappearing surfing breaks and the plans for converting many of Hawaii's most perfect surfing beaches into harbors. Classical music played in the background while the we watched oil derricks and other shore-rapes. "L.A.," as one of the kids next to me sadly remarked at the end of the segment, "is so screwed."
Ecology was never mentioned; the word doesn't fit into this night, or these lives. But the audience, most of whom have spent a good part of their lives learning the guarded secrets of walking on water, who are enraptured by the sea, who keep themselves healthy, alert to their balance so they have the strength to shoot through green, roaring sheets of water—the audience has a personal, intimate, tragic stake in ecology. There are big business interests behind the many yacht harbor projects in the works. Will the surfer-artist, to stop the businessman, have to forsake his art? Will David Nuuhiwa put on a shirt and go to Washington and fight? David?
At 11:30 it was over and we were sated. Enough of slowly tunneling ocean myths, of diamonds flying into a child's blue sky, of boards leaving trails on clear green mountains, and of bygone island eyes. We'd screamed ourselves hoarse for Gerry Lopez, cheering him through lazy explosions that could snap him in two. We shimmered with pleasure. And even I, who, until last Friday barely even knew how to get to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, was able to "exist in very delicate situations."