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The Early Surf Film As American Folk Art (Or, Del Cannon Lives!)
By The Wingchair Critic
Before surfer and filmmaker Bruce Brown produced and released his classic surfing documentary, 'The Endless Summer' (1964) to eventual worldwide success in 1964, he created five other feature-length marvels that are far less known outside of the surfing community: 'Slippery When Wet' (1958), 'Surf Crazy' (1959), 'Barefoot Adventure' (1960), 'Surfing Hollow Days' (1961) and a compilation film, 'Waterlogged' (1962).
`The Ultimate Summer Bruce Brown Surf Collection' (2010) wisely brings together all of Brown's superb surfing documentaries in one collection. Together, the films represent a kind of American folk art of cinema (subtype: sports; sub-category: surfing).
The early Brown films, which in many ways resemble other amateur narrated travelogues of the 1950s, spring fully to life for six reasons: Brown's eye and ear for what is colorful, exciting, and dynamic; his warm sense of humor; his subtle but highly developed sense of the romantic; his judicious editing style; the cast of surfers presented, which includes legends Phil Edwards, Jose Angel, Joey Cabell, and Kimo Hollinger in addition to what appear to be Brown's own special cadre of adventurer friends (Del Canon, Kemp Aaberg, Mike Diffenderfer, Robert August, Freddy Pfhaler, and Henry Ford), and the outstanding original musical scores, two of which are provided by jazz master Bud Shank.
When the viewer's eye is not on the surfing at Pipeline, Sunset Beach, Makaha, Waimea Bay, Ala Moana, and Velzyland in Hawaii, or at Malibu, Rincon, or Trestles in California, it is very likely to be on the late Del Canon, whose presence subtly dominates these films in a fashion almost equal to Brown's.
Accurately called 'the Laurence Olivier of the Surf Film' by Brown's filmmaking son, Dana, the poker-faced Canon seems willing to commit himself to any staged comic vignette, from toe-wrestling with his cronies on the North Shore during a period of flat surf or attempting to mix and press a new board after breaking into a friend's surf shop. Fleeing in terror with two enormous polyurethane feet formed around his own when the shop owner pulls up outside, Canon plunges into the harbor in the best silent film comedy tradition.
It may be that Canon's repeated willingness to participate in these comic vignettes drew both envy and derision from other surfers as well as the growing surfing establishment. Though the tall, handsome, and wide-shouldered Canon was one of the surfers who joined Greg Noll in successfully surfing Waimea Bay for the first time in November of 1957, and was, according to Brown, the first surfer to ever surf Japan, Canon has largely been relegated to a small footnote in the annals of the sport's history. This is a small tragedy that this collection goes a long way towards remedying.
In addition to beautiful and often innovative photography, other highlights include Phil Edwards historically surfing Pipeline for the first time in an era when the break was both unnamed and thought unridable; Del Canon and Kemp Aaberg surfing Sunset Beach; 12-year old Peter Johnson successfully tackling Waimea Bay; Del Canon and Peter Johnson introducing surfing to the people of Japan by example; and exploratory group trips to Australia, Mexico, and Florida.
The 'early' Brown films, which are as inspiring and beautiful as 'The Endless Summer' in every way, capture a bygone era and lifestyle in a subtly romantic, highly evocative manner. Both visually and thematically, the films' 'amateurish,' unprofessional qualities, which make them akin to folk art, underscore Brown's vision, and perfectly capture the relatively open, casual, modest, and freedom-loving spirit of the time for the surfers who were blessed enough to follow their hearts and minds in a conventional era.
'The Endless Summer' (1964) was Brown's first nationally distributed surf film, and also the first on which he spent more than six months on the filming and editing. After a slightly shaky start, 'The Endless Summer,' which features a haunting instrumental theme by the Sandals, eventually became a worldwide hit both critically and commercially, and is recognized today as a sports documentary classic.
However, 'The Endless Summer' isn't necessarily better than Brown's excellent first five surf films. In fact, Brown's earlier efforts are in many ways somewhat better. Though 'The Endless Summer' is more professionally filmed, more tightly framed by the quest alluded to in the title, and somewhat more polished and 'dignified,' it also has some faults the earlier, far more exuberant films lack.
The portion of the film set in South Africa, culminating of the trio's discovery of Cape St. Francis and its "long, utterly perfect waves," is the highpoint of 'The Endless Summer.'
Tall, dark-haired Robert August was the affable, 18-year old son of well-known surfer Blackie August, and had already worked extensively with Brown in earlier films. Why Brown specifically selected Mike Hynson remains a mystery, though the shorter, blond Hynson certainly made a strong visual contrast to August. Presumably, sunnier personalities Brown had used in the past, such as Henry Ford, Kemp Aaberg, or Canon were unavailable for the extended travel necessary to make the film, though scenes of Canon establishing a record by becoming the first person to surf Japanese coastal waters were filmed, but eventually edited out.
`The Endless Summer' additionally takes its audience to Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and, briefly, to California and Hawaii. Among the surfers briefly seen are Miki Dora, Nat Young, Phil Edwards, Greg Noll, and Butch Van Artsdalen.
Thirty years later, Brown apparently came out of filmmaking retirement to make 'The Endless Summer II' (1994), which features Pat O'Connell and Robert "Wingnut" Weaver on a similar trip in search of the perfect wave while chasing the shifting summer around the globe.
While fairly spirited, 'The Endless Summer II' is, like Philip Boston's 'Billabong Odyssey' (2003) but unlike Stacy Peralta's 'Riding Giants' (2004), too slick and soulless for its own good, and lacks most of the simple charm and vision that made Brown's earlier films so immediate, warm, and three-dimensional.
Paradoxically, rarely do technological advances in photography make for better or more evocative surfing documentaries.
Superb and highly rewarding.
0 of 0 people found the following review helpful.
Oldie but goodie.
By MTS II
I first saw the Endless Summer at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium when it first played. It brought back a lot of good memories.
0 of 0 people found the following review helpful. See all 11 customer reviews...
Great gift for both old and young surfers
Old guys like me love anything made by Bruce Brown and the kids will get a kick out of watching a little history of the sport. Great buy on Amazon