Riding Giants Review
Prior to Riding Giants the surfing documentary was represented by two major titles: The Endless Summer, Bruce Brown’s charming low budget success from the sixties, and Crystal Voyager, a 1974 effort famous for its Pink Floyd scored final sequence. The first was a personal effort in which Brown captured the culture of which he was a part, whilst the second relied solely on its imagery to do the talking. As such both were films to best enjoyed by surfers themselves; those outside the scene more likely to be bewildered by what they were seeing. Were the conditions captured in these efforts exceptional or distinctly average? Were we witnessing some of the finest surfing ever or simply whatever the filmmakers had time to catch? Such questions were never satisfactorily captured, and whilst neither film could be classed as bad, they did leave room for a more accessible factual piece. Riding Giants may not be quite that work, but in the meantime it does provide its own set of pleasures.
Directed by Stacy Peralta, Riding Giants is thus the follow-up to his acclaimed skateboard doc Dogtown and Z-Boys. As with Brown and The Endless Summer (not to mention all of this surfer epics), this directorial debut was about a milieu which Peralta knew well. Indeed, he was one of the film’s major characters as it documented the years in which he and a close circle of friends revolutionised the sport. Understandably, his newer picture lacks this more personal touch, but then it does carry over a number of Dogtown’s other qualities. Sean Penn may not return for voice-over duties, yet Peralta himself proves equally laid back a narrator. Plus we have a group of agreeable, entertaining interviewees (Greg Noll being a standout), a fine upbeat soundtrack encompassing everyone from Link Wray to Basement Jaxx, and a kinetic visual style which breathes new life into a wealth of archive footage.
Indeed, Riding Giants may be a headlong rush of a film, but does it have a sense of direction? In documenting big wave surfing from the fifties to the present day (the working title, as is revealed by the outtakes over the end credits, was simply Big Wave), Peralta is of course dealing with a much bigger narrative than the comparatively tiny half a decade which Dogtown concentrated on and as such has more room to slip up. In order to combat such possibilities Riding Giants has therefore been split up into three acts. The first focuses on the scene surround Waimea, Hawaii in the fifties and sixties, with especial attention paid to Greg Noll. The second documents Mavericks, California during the eighties and early nineties, this time with Jeff Clark at its centre. And the third allows us to conclude on the figure of Laird Hamilton whose family connections make for a spanning of these surfing generations.
Not being any kind of surf aficionado, it is impossible for me to tell how definitive - or reductive - a history this approach provides, but then it does allow Peralta to cover an awful lot of ground. In random order we touch on the wave of post-Gidget surf movies (“It just makes me puke,” add Noll); the alternative culture of the scene; mini-dramas of killer waves and fatal wipeouts; John Milius; and the banning of the sport many, many years ago by Calvinist settlers in Hawaii. Moreover, Peralta understands that much of his audience will not be the best informed and so also finds the time to supply us with various technological explanations (though, oddly, these come at the midway point) and thereby allow us a greater understanding the inherent pleasures and dangers than was afforded by either The Endless Summer or Crystal Voyager (not to mention Blue Crush, Blue Juice, Aloha Summer et al).
That said, Riding Giants never bows down to a mainstream audience or faces the danger of alienating its core audience. Its remit is remarkably wide-ranging, thereby allowing for personal, cultural and technological histories to be encompassed, whilst the sheer wealth of archive footage is truly breathtaking. Firstly, it’s footage – especially the stuff from the fifties – which proves incredibly inviting with its combination of sun, sea, sand and tans, yet the fact there’s so much can only serve to highlight Peralta’s passion in mounting such a project. Indeed, he’s made a work which is incredibly reverent to the figures on-screen, whether it’s the older, though no less enthusiastic, forefathers or those continually breaking new ground, so to speak. Certainly, the only time he lets his guard down and allows for a jokier, less enclosed view of his heroes is during the jokey outtakes over the end credits.
As should be expected from such a new release, Sony’s Region 2 handling of Riding Giants is especially fine. Of course, the quality of the archive footage is understandably variable, but the newly shot material really shines. Moreover, we get an anamorphic transfer (at a ratio of 1.78:1) of a crisp, clean print. Likewise, the soundtrack is equally impressive, present here in DD5.1 form. Certainly, the talking heads material sticks to front channels, but the almost continual soundtrack allows for a suitable expansive mix.
Yet whereas Riding Giants itself makes the effort to involve as wide an audience as possible, its numerous extras may only find favour with surfers themselves. Perhaps the most inviting piece is the commentary by Peralta and editor Paul Crowder. It’s an agreeable laid back listen in which they discuss everything from the initial conception of the project to its use of music. Understandably given Crowder’s presence, this can err towards the overly technical, but otherwise it offers a fine overview of the film’s making.
The second commentary pairs co-writer Sam George with the three surfers who feature most prominently throughout Riding Giants: Greg Noll, Jeff Clark and Laird Hamilton. As such it’s very much a piece which goes over the heads of those viewers with minimal knowledge – people who we don’t and perhaps never will know are pointed out, in-jokes are made, etc. etc. That said, the sense of camaraderie between the different generations is quite inviting whilst George does his best to hold proceedings together. Indeed, it’s by no means unlistenable to anyone who’s never set foot on a surfboard, though it’s worth going in prepared.
Elsewhere, the disc offers a pair of featurettes on, respectively, the film’s making and its premiere. Given the fact that Peralta has already discussed much of the former on his commentary, there is of course a good deal of shared information, but then if you’re after the shorter versions (these pieces extend to 28 and 20 minutes apiece) then these will no doubt suffice.
Rounding off the disc we also have a bunch of deleted/alternative scenes which were mostly cut for time and in some cases appear in only half finished form (music is missing, that kind of thing). As such there’s nothing essential on offer here, but then Sony should be applauded for opening each scene with a piece of explanatory text (written by Peralta himself) which provides there context and reasons for being cut. Bizarrely, the disc also contains trailers for Being Julia and Bobby Jones : Stroke of Genius.