Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Best Summer Movie Of All Time: “The Endless Summer” (Bruce Brown Films, 1966)

By Lars Trodson

A friend of mine and I used to have a little summer ritual. We’d park the car on the side of some road and crack open a beer and listen to the Red Sox on the radio. We’d just lean against the car, drink the beer, smoke a couple of cigarettes and listen to the game. It is an indelible memory of summer for me; it seems almost the essence of summer for me. If there is one movie that captures that feeling, that soft gentle buzz of contentment that only the warm summer months can conjure, it’s Bruce Brown’s “The Endless Summer.”

I didn’t see this when it first came out -- I would have only been six -- and I can’t remember under what circumstances I might have first watched it. Something tells me I saw it on Dana Hersey’s Movie Loft on the old channel 38 that was broadcast out of Boston. I might have seen it on an early video cassette. I don’t remember. Either way, it cast a spell over me, which is a considerable achievement given that I have about as much interest in surfing as I do trigonometry.

Okay, maybe a little more interest. I doubt I’d watch a documentary about math. But you're in the thrall of some kind of spell from the opening golden moments of Brown’s film. It’s not just the setting of this picture that's so appealing, the tropical beaches of Hawaii and other places around the world. It’s not just the twangy guitar-based California style theme song, performed by The Sandals, that makes you smile. It’s very much due to the pitch-perfect narration spoken by Bruce Brown himself.

The thing of it is, “The Endless Summer” is not only a beautifully photographed film -- so many of the shots are expressive and surprising -- but the spoken-word narration is consistently delightful. “The Endless Summer” is a wonderfully written film and that can't be overlooked. The narration and the images are perfectly stitched together. Brown has an breezy style of speaking, he has a warm, nicely pitched voice; it lilts and pokes a little fun at itself. “Summer means many things to people,” he says at the beginning of the film, mentioning other sports such as riding motorcycles, “But for us it’s the sport of surfing.” And on the word “surfing” he practically sings it, and so begins the story.

If it wasn’t for the pleasure of this narration, “The Endless Summer” would teeter on extreme boredom. The shots are almost exclusively from the beach, peering out into the open ocean. Water is water, whether you’re in Santa Barbara or South Africa, and it could be repetitious.

But as “The Endless Summer” unspools, you realize that Brown’s gentle observations are interspersed with unobtrusive facts about the sport of surfing. When the film is over you’ve been given quite a tutorial, but it wasn’t professorial. It’s like running into a knowledgeable and pleasant expert at the corner tiki lounge, who regales you with tales of his life, while also teaching you a thing or two.

The other thing you notice is how humane Brown’s narrative is. The movie came out in 1966, and Brown, if he had had the bent, could have gotten away with some crude stereotypical observations about the tribes of West Africa trying to surf for the first time, but Brown avoids any of these obvious cliches, and so throughout the movie Brown’s engaging and generous personality comes shining through.

He also introduces us to several surfers throughout the film, praising their craft and elucidating their little quirks and surfing idiocyncracies, and so the film is not only filled with gorgeous vistas, it’s filled with the smiling faces of people from all over the world. Everyone in this film is invariably smiling, and that contributes to its gorgeous vibe.

The “story” isn’t much. Two young surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, start out in California and travel around the globe chasing the summer months on various continents. Their search takes them to Africa, to Tahiti, Australia and New Zealand and back to Hawaii. The pleasure is in the off-hand observations Brown makes about each country, including the fact there were are (were) more sheep than people in New Zealand. He takes the time to show you the indigenous animals and what the land looks like. It’s a tongue-in-cheek travelogue with a most convivial guide.

I suppose some of the continuing appeal of this movie is nostalgia-based. It is quite obviously a historical document from a time not really so very distant, but one that seems sadly vanished. The film actually has very few people in it, and one imagines that if the trip were replicated today, the beaches would look utterly transformed, with hotels, restaurants and flocks of people choking the now-expanded roads. This may or may not be true, but if it is true for so many places in the world it probably is true for the locations in this film.
That Brown caught some of these places on film at that time is good luck for us. We’re treated to the pounding grandeur or The Pipeline in Hawaii -- waves of frightening ferocity. And we see the elegant, endless waves of a hidden beach in South Africa. These are lovely, elegant scenes.

“The Endless Summer” as a whole is unhurried and warm -- not inappropriate descriptions of summer itself. It’s delightful.

There are also beautifully unexpected moments. The images of Hynson and August riding their boards down the sand dunes of West Africa will have you shaking your head and smiling, just as you would if a companion, on a summer night, told you something that surprised and pleased you, and made you laugh.