Taking on ocean's Goliaths

`Riding Giants': a surfing high

August 06, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Riding Giants may not persuade you to get out there and ride the wild surf - there's nothing cowardly about wanting to experience 25-foot waves from a safe distance, and not atop a piece of lightweight foam and fiberglass.

But it will make you awfully glad others do, and that there are people out there to photograph them.

Compiled by Stacy Peralta, whose award-winning 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys chronicled the worldwide skateboarding phenomenon, Riding Giants tries to do the same thing for big-wave surfing, a sport that is to everyday surfing what climbing Mount Everest is to hiking the Appalachians - similar, but way more exciting and way, way cooler.

As a history of the sport, Riding Giants hits all the hot spots, beginning with the ancient Polynesians who started surfing about 4,000 years ago and ending with the exploits of Laird Hamilton, at 40 (and married to volleyball superstar Gabrielle Reece) perhaps the best big-wave rider ever.

Along the way, giants of the sport are profiled and interviewed, including Greg Noll, who began surfing in the '40s and once rode a 30-foot wave, at the time the largest ever tamed; and Jeff Clark, who discovered a reef break near San Francisco, called Maverick's, that produced waves rivaling anything Hawaii could offer and rode them by himself for 15 years.

Listening to these guys (the interviewees are almost exclusively male) talk about surfing and surf culture is an educational hoot; surfers have always seen themselves as cultural outcasts, and even senior-citizen surfers like Noll retain a glimmer of that outcast (if not outlaw) persona.

The movie's one failing is that it doesn't really explore why that culture developed; perhaps that's fodder for another film.

But the real trip is watching these guys manage to keep their balance atop waves cresting three or four stories in the air. Despite their seeming indifference to mainstream culture, surfers through the years seem to have gone to great pains to chronicle their exploits on camera.

The movie is filled with thrilling film, both vintage and modern, as these aquatic warriors attempt to conquer waves of Herculean size and fury. The risks these guys take seem outlandish, their accomplishments otherworldly.

Riding Giants

Directed and co-written by Stacy Peralta

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Rated PG-13 (Language)

Time 105 minutes

Sun Score ***1/2

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