Reviewed by Carla Freccero
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.