Riding Giants

on July 09, 2004 by Annlee Ellingson
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For the first time in its 20-year history, the Sundance Film Festival opened with the premiere of a documentary, Stacy Peralta's "Riding Giants." The choice was an apt one: Peralta made his debut at the fest three years ago with "Dogtown and Z-Boys," a film that won the fest's Audience Award and Directing Award prizes in 2001, and "Giants" has a warm-weather subject matter (big-wave surfing) and the rock-and-roll energy to kick off an industry gathering perhaps best known for its snowy setting and happening party scene.

Indeed, "Giants" is as kinetic as its subject matter, opening with a cheeky montage of 1,000 years of surf history "in two minutes or less." The sport originated in ancient Polynesia, but Peralta's focus is on the last 50 or so years when it has evolved into the lifestyle we know today.

Amid the archival photography, current and vintage film footage and interviews with the sport's great athletes and analysts, three major personalities emerge: Greg Noll, nicknamed "Da Bull," was a big-wave pioneer in the '50s and '60s and channeled his natural showmanship to become the sport's first bona fide celebrity. In 1969, his ride atop a six-story breaker at Makah on Oahu's west shore during what's been called the greatest swell of the century has become the stuff of surf lore. (That a Zapruder-like film is rumored to exist but could not be unearthed for this film as proof only furthers the legend of Noll's achievement.)

In 1975, Jeff Clark discovered the Mavericks in Half Moon Bay near San Francisco and surfed there alone for a decade and a half before anyone believed any waves north of Southern California were worth riding. And Hawaii's Laird Hamilton has surfaced as "the best big-wave rider who ever waxed a board." It was Hamilton who first harnessed motorized watercraft to propel himself onto the big waves offshore that would be impossible to paddle in on human strength alone.

Unfortunately, although Peralta attempts to shape his history around these three choice figures, thereby giving viewers personalities they can connect with, ultimately the topic's too broad. He's at once American-centric, omitting such hot surf spots as Australia, and narrow in his vision, neglecting to address the purist critics who object to the mechanized direction the sport has taken. Meanwhile, he passes up any meaningful assessment of the culture's evolution from its bohemian beginnings to the sponsor-driven business it is today. (Perhaps this is due to Hamilton's influence: He was with the project since early on and has an executive producer credit. Notably, he has since launched his own production company.)

In contrast, Peralta's "Dogtown" focused solely on a specific crew of skateboarders, of which Peralta was a part, whose influential surf-inspired style pioneered the X-Game event as we know it today. This allowed viewers to both get to know the major players while feeling they're getting their whole story. Still, while Peralta was a top pro skateboarder when he was 19, he thrived in the sport largely due to the influence of surfing. That he would turn his camera back to the water was perhaps inevitable, and he's found his niche as a filmmaker, having cut his teeth on board-sports movies with his "Bones Brigade" video series. He has a knack for cutting found footage with a dynamic soundtrack and obviously recognizes the advantage of pausing the narrative for a moment and allowing his audience the pleasure of just watching the surf. Starring Laird Hamilton, Greg Noll and Jeff Clark. Directed by Stacy Peralta. Written by Stacy Peralta and Sam George. Produced by Agi Orsi, Stacy Peralta and Jane Kachmer. A Sony Classics release. Documentary. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Running time: 105 min

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