The Quietus | Cinema | Movie Features
In a basement, or a garage, one of those trapdoors where penniless surfers take shelter, a runaway teenager, her braids floating, dozes on a mattress with her beloved surfboard. On another mattress, hunchbacked against the wall, is her newborn baby. It’s an all-too-brief but fascinating insight into the reality of women’s surfing at Christopher Nelius. Girls can’t surf. The film uses videos from the 80s and 90s to tell the inside story of a group of chronically underpaid and humiliated professional athletes. They pushed for decades for women’s surfing to be fairly respected, until equal pay was finally instituted in 2019.
Surf movies have traditionally stripped out the softer, stinkier elements of the female body. Superficially, with its impetuous graphics and rock synth-guitar, Girls can’t surf aligns with the post-punk and rebellious spirit of queer feminist films like those of 2021 rebel dykes and the comix-and-pop-video fuck-you attitudes of today’s surf movies. Surfing has long been appropriated by wealthy white posers, a satirized parody in the 1987s Surf Nazis Must Die, a camp, apocalyptic B-movie à la John Waters by Peter George. Liberal environmental evangelists, smoking surfers and self-proclaimed “ocean guardians” also power the first season of Rose Byrne’s 80s TV series Physical. A pop-video punk style the recent documentary Riss, a flaky piece by world champion and Olympian Carissa Kainani Moore, likely the current women’s No. And one of the worst examples of surfing’s countercultural poses is Modern collective from 2009, a pseudo-provocative surf film as stubborn as its six “heroes”, who stare in bewilderment at Pink Floyd-like prisms, while his girlfriend waits for him in a bikini on the sand.
Such styles betray the difficulty of capturing the substance of surfing. How do you communicate the effervescent peace of fear? As those of us who attempt to surf know, riding a fast swell can be a difficult task, let alone with a camera. Yet the crash of visual drama – the lingering tiny human navigating the rolling grandeur of gigantic waves, marked by explosive guitar solos – too often takes us away from the physical and emotional experience of surfing. Some images can be glorious, as when surfer-photographers like George Greengough (in the seminal 1973 film crystal traveler) rides with you through barrel waves by attaching a waterproof camera to itself. But too much and it becomes surf porn: another mountainous wave, another white man “popping up” (the technical term for standing on a board) over and over again.
Surf movies have too long focused on the male gaze and its supposed addiction to physical and sexual sensations. In the heaviness of Kathryn Bigelow Breaking pointan FBI agent (Keanu Reeves) pursues surfer bank robbers (led by Patrick Swayze, spouting parodied spiritualisms in Surf Nazis Must Die). A proud director of a woman in a man’s world, Bigelow’s screenplay scorns characterization, splashy plot and the acrobatic camera flexing until it’s all flat. She ogles Keanu’s instructor (and, predictably, love interest) like a man, lingering creepily over her body as she dresses.
She was a new surfer, gadget, which stormed US theaters in 1959, four years before the Beach Boys released “Surfin’ USA.” Sandra Dee plays a childish, squealing blonde who earns the admiration of her over-excited wave brethren. In the 1990s, when some women in Girls can’t surf slept in their board bags on penniless tours, surf movie pioneer grandpa Bruce Brown always laughed like an awkward uncle about “little girls…. and big girls” who surf, Endless Summer IIthe sequel to his iconic endless summerthe most successful surfing documentary of all time.
There’s nothing cute about trailblazers – Jodie Cooper, Frieda Zamba, Lisa Andersen, Layne Beachley and more – in Girls can’t surf, written with Julie-Ann De Ruvo. They relive past challenges as soldiers in a pub, with Cooper remembering taking a giant wave like an enema, “a bayonet in the butt”, because of the revealing swimsuit she had to wear.
These characters bring rugged candor to an understated, solid, and largely enjoyable talking-head documentary that hits hard at corporate jingoism and surf association manipulations of sportswomen forced to wear swimsuits that slip over their breasts. Nelius’ rejection of the genre’s majestic pretensions, however, might be more emotionally textured. In an industry that relies on big brand sponsorship, it’s refreshing to hear from a lesbian, a recovering drug addict, and a surfer living with a disability. But the serious issues of poverty, domestic violence, anorexia and homophobia are all too quickly mitigated by sunny 1980s film stock footage defined by neon colors, hairstyles and sexism. Nonetheless, the earthy pragmatism of women offers a satisfying antidote to the vapid romanticism of the stereotypical noble male surfer.
More interestingly, the film resists the fake brotherhood. There is warm – and professional – rivalry, but relative silence on women’s relationships today, or negative self-comparison. Nor is there too much political correctness, as when Cooper sketches the Eastern bloc legacy of famed US champion Frieda Zamba, nicknamed Robotron by her envious competitors. Zemba’s response? “You can’t hang out with the girls too much. They will discover your weaknesses and crush you.
Certainly these women, all white and Australian, South African and American, seem to embody a time when you act first and never think later, exhibiting that stereotypical male virtue of repression. Many, like Zemba, were self-confessed “tomboys”. Pam Burridge passed as a boy, “flying under the radar”. Perhaps there were fewer words, back then, for the horror of being, like Cooper, intruded on by your straight roommates. Certainly, the legendary Wendy Botha, who posed for the cover of Australia’s 1992 Playboy, sees no irony in being “proud” of her femininity by taking off her kit from the wankers. Growly, jowly and tons of fun, Botha revels in his “warm and fuzzy feeling” when faced with failures, these days, of his younger counterparts.
It’s nice to hear champion underdog Pauline Menczer talk about stabbing her arthritic hands during competition, but the connection between a winner’s mentality and pain isn’t sufficiently tapped. Nelius glosses over Layne Bleachley’s suicidal depression, as the adopted child of a raped mother (discussed elsewhere). Nor is there a hint of surf transcendentalism, easy to parody but radical to experience.
Traditionally, the genre treats the sublime as a masculine thing. The heavenly tone of the stall was set by endless summer and its sequel Endless Summer II. Led by notorious soon-to-be acid tripper Mike Tynson, with no bong or bottle in sight, Brown and co’s super-blonde, pacifist mission was to leave Vietnam’s daily jobs and draft and go summer and surf. in the whole world. With laid-back Californian sarcasm, Brown, in Endless Summer I & II, recounts the antics of its doofus heroes. They swim in alligator-infested waters or weave their way on surfboards past Alaskan bears, paddling and pranking in an unwitting homo-erotic haze. Made on a shoestring budget, the tantalizing turquoise shots of Brown’s first film made $20 million. It’s a documentary phenomenon that bears witness to the sensational counter-cultural myth of surfing.
Brown’s warm visual rhetoric of mystical manhood – orange skies, white discs of sunshine, a single bark tossed about in the waves, and the silhouettes of two half-naked men – is recast with contemporary panache in the black-and-white seascapes by Rick Wall. Satori in 2018. Here, men from the white South African community who ride the giant killer wave, Dungeons, speak with an understated sensibility that, for true emotion, beats anything you’ll hear in Girls can’t surf. The restless ocean appears like a shivering beast, men cling to it like fleas. They’re the legendary quiet guys of local lore, whose heroics like paddleboarding the Atlantic solo for three months are undertaken for personal life lessons ‘on the edge’. “Satori”, in Japanese, refers to instant awakening, to limitless immersion in the present. The men speak euphorically of feeling “like prey”: some of them look high as shit. There are sparkling eyes Moby-Dickstyle soliloquies. A character with crooked teeth and dreadlocks attributes any surfer’s luck to discover perfect conditions to “his karma, his love of the ocean”.
Movies like the Thoughtful Maui Shooting Hana Surf Girls of 2010, and the touching ones of 2007, ensemble of São Tomé The lost wave portrayed surfing in other cultures, but not just from a non-white perspective. A common thread is the surfer’s encounter with the vital force underlying life, or to put it in Polynesian terms, like this year Honor, “mana”. It’s understandable that Girls can’t surf eschews sublime masculine surfing, but it entirely bypasses the sensory encounter with the sea offered to all surfers, even pesky ones like me. I was intrigued by Rick Wall’s group attesting to the rumble of “pure movement” and “at the same time, the hum of silence”. While it’s great to hear directly from female champions, I prefer the visceral, trippy side of movies like Greengough’s. crystal traveler. With bold, bumpy ’70s editing that makes you dizzy from the ocean, the film sucks you through a hushed circular window into the barrel of a wave. Greengough’s drawl also has an irresistibly narcotic effect. Something old is ringing in a person’s brain when they say, “It’s a time warp when you’re in the wave. The only reality is what is happening right now.