‘Giants’ catches a wave

  • By Robert Horton / Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, July 15, 2004 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

It’s almost as regular as the next wave breaking on the reef: another summer, another surfing documentary.

“Riding Giants” rises a little taller than most. This one has the required awesome footage of people gliding down huge walls of water, but it also gives entertaining background on the peculiar pursuit known as big-wave riding.

The director is Stacy Peralta, who made a splash on the documentary circuit with “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” a history of the skateboarding boom. Peralta wasn’t just a filmmaker, he was one of the former skateboard kids, and he brought his own crazy passion to the project.

“Riding Giants”

More surfing: An entertaining surfing movie that provides background on the school of “big-wave” surfing, with emphasis on old-school pioneers such as Greg Noll and the new Achilles, Laird Hamilton. From “Dogtown and Z-Boys” director Stacy Peralta.

Rated: PG-13 rating is for language.

Now showing: Metro.

The same passion is on display here. In its delightful opening reels, “Riding Giants” gives a quick overview of how surfing fever began to spread in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Using wacky home movies (where did they find this stuff?), the film captures the hang-loose spirit of the drop-outs who converged on the beaches of Southern California and Hawaii.

Three figures emerge as pillars of the big-wave school. Greg Noll began surfing after World War II, and went to Hawaii in the mid-1950s. The movie gives him credit for being the leader of a posse of fearless surfers who dared the massive water of Hawaii’s Waimea Bay for the first time.

Noll is always easy to pick out in vintage footage; he’s the big guy with the black-and-white striped trunks. Telling stories about the past, he delivers the most uncensored versions of events.

Jeff Clark is featured in a section about Maverick’s, a spot south of San Francisco. Its punctuation may be questionable, but Maverick’s was a major discovery for the surfing community.

Clark surfed the place as a high-schooler, and for over a decade he had it virtually to himself. Its newfound popularity comes with risks, as the movie documents in a vignette about the death there of experienced surfer Mark Foo.

Finally there’s Laird Hamilton, the Achilles of modern surfing, who explains the hair-raising methods of tow-in surfing. With a partner on a Jet Ski, surfers can now get out far enough to ride mountain-sized waves far off shore.

Peralta’s style is wonderfully breathless, as it was in “Dogtown.” The discovery of Hawaii’s North Shore is nothing less than Columbus-like, and the afternoon Noll rode a 30-foot swell in a storm in 1969 is spoken of in the awestruck terms usually reserved for the D-Day landings.

But that’s what’s fun about this movie. It has a sense of humor, too; the impact of the Sandra Dee movie “Gidget,” which kicked off the great surfing craze of the ’60s, is recalled with amusing disdain.

Some surfing documentaries seem geared for enthusiasts, but “Riding Giants” is for everybody. It speaks the common language of the waves.

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