Riding Giants (2004) dir. Stacy Peralta
By Alan Bacchus
I’ve never been surfing, never tried, never wanted to try, yet I find surfing fascinating. The visual sight of a man or woman being carried by the awesome power of the ocean’s waves with elegance and grace is an act worthy of any dance or a work of art really.
And so 'Riding Giants' is elevated above and beyond his previous and more acclaimed documentary ‘Dogtown and Z-Boys”. 'Riding Giants' is more poetic, truer and attempts to understand a deeper examination of the mind and body.
Surfing is a big story, it’s been around for years and many films have been made about the subject. Peralta admirably finds his niche in the subcategory called ‘Big Wave’ riding, referring to the need and desire for surfers to ride the biggest waves possible, not for sport, competition, or sponsorship but the need to tame the ferocity of nature – and if not tame, then be at one with the awesome power of nature.
After a fun 2minutes animated sequence which gets out of the way the 1000 year history of surfing, Peralta starts off with the first group of big wave surfers led by the charismatic Greg Noll, who in the mid 50’s ventured onto the vacant North Shore section of Oahu for the first time and surfed its legendary waves for years with the carefree attitude we’ve come to know as the surfing culture, or as some might say, ‘beach bum’, a rather derogatory term for their uninhibited connection to the land and the water.
Peralta finds a compelling narrative throughline to follow which makes each character and each surfing milestone more engaging, fascinating and astounding than the next. And by the end of the doc the actions of Laird Hamilton compared to the early big wave riders is like Lebron James playing one on one with Elgin Baylor – two great players but at remarkably different skill levels.
Peralta charts the next benchmark in Big Wave surfing as the discovery of ‘Mavericks’, a secluded spot in North California, too cold and remote for the casual surfer, but with waves bigger, badder and more dangerous than the North Shore. Peralta tells the incredible story of Jeff Clark a Big Waver who discovered Maverick’s by himself and surfed it alone for 15 years before anyone else. By this time we're into the 90’s when the rest of the Big Wavers catch up to Clark, which puts Peralta into another gear aesthetically, transporting us from Dick Dale to Alice in Chains and Soundgarden in the soundtrack and even more astonishing surfing footage as the visuals.
And if we thought the waves couldn’t get bigger than Mavericks, Peralta introduces Peahi, Maui, better known as ‘Jaws’ – an even more dangerous spot with ungodly gargantuan waves. It also makes for a good entry point for Laird Hamilton, the most legendary of Big Wave surfers – a white kid from Hawaii, cocky, good looking and completely dedicated to the ocean.
Not satisfied with Jaws Hamilton elevates the sport to international acclaim with a series of advances in the sport which allow him to go higher and faster than anyone before him, like the toe and surf method of skidooing out miles from the shore to find breaks previously inaccessible to the Greg Nolls and Jeff Clarks. Again, Peralta manages to top the Maverick’s footage, ending with some of the most astonishing feats ever performed by man, in an extreme sports endeavour – Laird Hamilton, riding a board half the size of everyone else, in the middle of the ocean gracefully being pushed by a 75 foot wave at speeds of 45mph is simply unbelievable.
Unlike the characters in ‘Dogtown Z-Boys’, the surfers of ‘Riding Giants’ exhibit modesty and restraint. While bravado and boisterous ego was advantageous to the culture of skateboarding, we get the feeling such behaviour is disrespectful to the waves. Because no matter how good Laird Hamilton or Greg Noll is at surfing they’re always at whim of Mother Nature and tempt death every time they go out. ‘Riding Giants’ thus finds its most compelling voice in this existential and spiritual nature of surfing.
‘Riding Giants’ is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment