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Commentary : Surf Film Shows Sport Of Youth

September 28, 1987|KRISTINE McKENNA

Your average surfer is equal parts Jacques Cousteau, John McEnroe and Johnny Rotten; you can bet he'll be knowledgeable about the sea, be a first-class athlete and have cockiness to burn.

An outsiders' sport that Hemingway no doubt would've loved, surfing is a Zen dance requiring impeccable form, an intuitive communication with nature and above all else, machismo . There's little margin for error in this high-risk sport, and whimps need not apply.

Judging by the crowd of 1,500 surfers and fans who turned up at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on Saturday for the world premiere of "Gone Surfin'--Amazing Surf Stories of 1987," surfing is as much a youth movement as it is a sport. Not that you must be young to be a surfer--there were plenty of aging bronze gods at the Civic on Saturday (surfers tend to age quite well). Rather, surfing is a youth movement by virtue of a Peter Pan ideology that decrees it's OK never to grow up. Saturday's powwow brought together a rebellious tribe of dare-devil vagabonds whose lives appear to be an unabashed pursuit of freedom and pleasure.

The surf aesthetic is the very antithesis of the insidious Yuppiedom currently plaguing the land--which is not to say that surfers aren't competitive or are uninterested in status; they're a viciously competitive bunch and are ruthlessly snobbish to boot. But they recognize the shackles of conventional success and opt for a more personal, again, Zen-like, success.

This evolved consciousness comes to an abrupt halt when it comes to sexual politics. Somehow, surfing has remained completely unmoved by women's liberation.

There's not a single female surfer featured in "Gone Surfin'," which depicts chicks as being useful for sex, decorating the beach and fetching food or brewskies, but good for little else. Saturday's surfboard giveaway, hosted during intermission by two anonymous dishy babes, made it clear that surfing is still in the Stone Age when it comes to feminism. Who were these girls? Why were they onstage? They looked good in tight clothes, that's why.

Surfing is definitely a major male bonding scene, and packs of young boys dressed in standard issue T-shirt and comically baggy shorts could be seen bonding to beat the band on Saturday. Rowdy horseplay and displays of aggressive humor were evident in abundance.

Yes, a surfers' dedication to his sport is matched only by his dedication to partying, and many in the boisterous bunch at the Civic could give Spicolli a run for his money. You remember Spicolli? The stoned surfer played by Sean Penn in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"? He might've seemed like a parody of a surfer, but there were a number of dudes, goin' fer it in a decidedly Spicolli-esque fashion on Saturday.

From the minute the lights went down for an opening Bugs Bunny cartoon, the whoops and ear piercing whistles never abated for a moment. A thick cloud of herbal smoke enveloped the hall, while a hopelessly drunk young lady seated near the front staggered into the aisle repeatedly to strike up conversations with strangers. It was, to say the least, a loose bunch of people whose behavior bore a striking resemblance to the boxing fans who turn up at the Olympic Auditorium.

However many beers they might've prepped themselves with, the surfers at the Civic were riveted to "Gone Surfin'." Independently financed, directed and distributed by Scott Dittrich, this fantastic film offers a state of the art look at a sport that's growing by leaps and bounds.

Established as a professional sport in 1976, surfing has spawned a clothing industry that Dittrich's organization says nets more than $1 billion a year and offers $1 million in prize money annually to its champion athletes. Surfing's spin-off sports include skateboarding, snow surfing, windsurfing and body surfing--all of which are featured in Dittrich's latest film (the acrobatics of the skateboarding sequence in particular are mind-boggling).

While Bruce Brown's "The Endless Summer" is the only surf film to succeed in crossing over to a mainstream audience, Dittrich is the current master of the genre as far as hard-core surfers are concerned.

Dittrich's film career began in 1972 at UCLA, where he met and began working for noted surf film maker Hal Jepsun. The next year he formed his own company and in 1974 released his first feature surf film, "Fluid Drive." That was followed by a docudrama on skateboarding and an ongoing series of surf films.

By using footage contributed by a crew of cameramen stationed around the globe, Dittrich has been able to turn out a film every 12 to 18 months and keep abreast of the trends in the sport better than most other makers of surf films. Working out of his home in Topanga Canyon assisted by a small staff, Dittrich distributes his films to theaters in coastal cities all over the United States, where the arrival of a new Dittrich flick is greeted as a major event by the local beach rats.

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