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Step Into Liquid
Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Broadcast on air: 8/19/03 and 8/20/03

Dana Brown's Endless Summer for the 2000s, Step Into Liquid, is now playing at the Del Mar Theater in Santa Cruz and runs a short 95 minutes. Up front we see written on the screen, "no special effects" and "no stuntmen." Indeed, unlike Blue Crush, which unabashedly morphed already serious waves into near-unimaginable monsters, this movie seems honestly free of tricks, until you realize, at some point, that the sound, at least, is enhanced.

The movie introduces us to a group of surfers in Hawaii, Australia, Michigan, Texas, Ireland, Chile (Easter Island), Vietnam, Tahiti, and, of course, California, both south and north, prominently featuring the group at Santa Cruz. Since this is a movie about waves and the (mostly) guys who ride them, we don't learn that much about why or how these guys are traveling the world in search of the big one, except, interestingly enough, for the story of the Vietnam vet who returns with his son, and the Irish American brothers who use surfing as a way to bring Protestant and Catholic children together.

Like they are all saying, the cinematography is gorgeous. The characters interviewed also manage to convey with sincerity the ways in which surfing puts one in touch with something spiritual. They all also manage to convince us that surfing, as a life (not a lifestyle), still, to some extent, eludes capitalism's grasp. But if the movie's not being tongue-in-cheek when it claims to dispel stereotypes, then I'm afraid it falls short. Let me count the ways: you still get the impression that these guys are Peter Pan types and that somewhere in their families there was enough disposable income around to free them from the oppressive burdens of the full-time wage-labor world. All of this is fine, I mean, they're not trying to persuade us it's a higher calling or anything. The only problem I found was that, true to stereotype, a lot of the guys were verbally inexpressive, so that the character sketches and the interviews lose something in translation. So, for example, while the story of the kid who's paralyzed but still surfs is moving, you're left wanting to hear a bit more about what it is that keeps him going and keeps his friends taking care of him.

It's traditional, in American movies, to be enchanted by the romance of inexpressive, handsome men communing with each other around some dangerous activity--surfing, war-convincing us that something deep and spiritual is happening there. Step Into Liquid tries to do that. But those of us familiar with at least some of the communities in question wonder where the less-than-spiritual side of the brotherhood went to: what about the territoriality of surfers, the impossibility of breaking in to the local crowd, the sexism? To the movie's credit, it does let us see that some of these folks, for all their stewardship-of-the-earth (I mean the ocean) rhetoric, have precious few clues about the world through which they glide. There's the guy who's amazed that the islanders aren't all deformed from "inbreeding," as he puts it, or the vet who declares that Vietnam is a communist country and so it has a lot of rules.

Finally, there's one colossal disappointment in Step Into Liquid, and that's its portrayal of women. You'd think that after Blue Crush a surfing movie would know better and certainly this one was touted as prominently featuring women, thus earning its reputation as a surfing movie for this day and age. But the short sequence that introduces the women begins with seemingly unironic comments about "surfing like a girl" (the girls themselves talk about it) and just keeps on condescending from there. It is, nevertheless, a woman who coins the phrase that inspires the title of the movie, "stepping into liquid."

There's no multicultural or feminist modernism about this movie, so don't expect it. There are modern, cutting edge techniques and technologies, including amazing hydrofoil surfing that looks like gliding on air, and what must be remarkable, if invisible, cameras and filming techniques. Don't get me wrong; this is a breathtaking movie, as anyone who lives next to the Pacific is sure to appreciate. And, like the surfers themselves say, it's not the story, or the people, that makes Step Into Liquid an awesome spectacle, it's the ocean and the power and shape of the wave.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.