FILM / Ripping Yarn: Life's a beach: As Big Wednesday breaks again, John Lyttle traces the history of surf culture from the beach to the silver screen, and provides a guide to surf slang

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The Independent Culture
Check it out. The early Sixties, the acrid smell of sun-tan lotion, the roar of the waves, the clamour of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean pouring out of the automobile radio, chirping surf 'n' turf songs of sun, sea, sex and the American way:

'If everybody had an ocean,

across the USA

Then everybody'd be surfin'

like Californiayay]'

On the beach and on the silver screen youth culture is flexing its pecs. California is where the best waves and the worst movies are made, so inevitably the two meet, date and mate in a series of exploitation pictures known as 'beach party movies', brain-dead tributes to swimsuits filled by hunky boys and giggly girls.

The scene is teen. Where the Boys Are, It's a Bikini World, Beach Blanket Bingo, the Gidget flicks (from Gidget to Gidget Goes Hawaiian), Surf's Up, Beach Ball, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini . . . The tacky titles promise sex, excitement and hot, wet action. Boards and broads, that's the formula; Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello are ideal stars, all body, no mind. And the plots? Frankie is the best surfer on the beach, Annette has the largest breasts in the world, but Annette won't roast Frankie's weenie as he waits for the Big One. He flirts with other beach bunnies while she sits with a circle of insanely perky extras and plaintively sings:

Annette: 'The perfect boy doesn't have to be Hercules]'

Extras: 'Her-cu-leees]'

Annette: 'The perfect boy doesn't have to be Euripides]'

Extras: 'Rip-pi-deees]'

And so on. Much surfspeak is exchanged - 'Aloha] (Hello.) Dig the baggies] (Like your shorts.) In for some climbing and dropping? (Care to ride a wave?)' - before Frankie inevitably sees through the other girl's machinations, wins the Surf-Off (there's always a Surf-Off, complete with horrendous back projection) and the tanned twosome are reunited by the fade-out, masculinity restored, femininity rewarded, the delicate ecological balance of the beach maintained.

Flash forward to 1992. The film: Point Break. The cameras are back playing on the beach, but the cheerful sun has gone down and it's dark. Here's Patrick Swayze, local guru, adrenalin junkie and secret gang leader, 'ripping off banks to finance their endless summer'. Swayze is advising rookie surfer and covert FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) on the fundamentals of staying upright on a piece of wood at sea in the dead of night: 'Feel what the wave is doing. Then accept it's energy. Get in synch and charge with it. You don't need to see.' Note the absence of hot dogs, happy faces and volleyball. Note the overwhelming presence of criminal corruption, testosterone, homo-erotica and goofy New Age mysticism.

So whatever happened to surf and the movies? And how did a recreational sport evolve into what Cambridge don Andy Martin's extraordinary, ironically titled book Walking on Water calls 'less a sport than a state of mind, an adventure in mythology, a religion with its own high priests and ritual sacrifices'?

Perhaps it was always meant to be this way. Surfing dates, not from the California of three decades past, but from 2,000 years ago, when the old Polynesians were cruising the Pacific. Hawaii is considered the home of surfing, and it was there that the cult of the surfer was first enshrined in ritual. The chief's trips to the beach would be preceded by a chanter who would sing his praises (the movie equivalent would be 'What a great guy] Watch our hero shoot that tube]').

Come the 1920s the obsession would travel west, thanks to the Hawaiian hotshot Duke Kahanamoku, a seminal figure who established surfing in California and later exported it to Australia. Initially popular as an exhibition sport for all the family, surfing would swell and fade from the mainstream until the late 1950s.

By then the times were peculiarly well suited for a revival. The teenager had been born and the teenager wanted out of the house, away from Mom and Dad's watchful eyes. The beach beckoned, that metaphorical mid-way site where the certainty of earth met the abstraction of water and the limitless blue freedom of the sky; the perfect place for those stuck between childhood and adulthood. Better yet, and unlike the drive-in, the beach encouraged everybody to take their clothes off.

If the location was essentially Jungian, surfing itself was basically barely-coded Freudian. Surfing is sex. Where, in Western civilisation, water is 'feminine', the surfboard is, obviously, Penis Rising from the Sea. (See how the guys rub their boards in John Milius's re-released Big Wednesday - reviewed opposite - and remember that the clue that eventually undoes Patrick Swayze's unusual method of cash withdrawals is a tub of board polish labouring under the brand name 'Sex Wax'.) No wonder later surf flicks which adopted the boy's angle are fixated on a) virginity, the loss of, and b) riding the Big One.

What began so innocently was too good to remain true, despite the recent efforts of David Hasselhoff's television series Baywatch to resuscitate clean living and good old-fashioned beach values. An era once dominated by Frankie Avalon would slowly succumb to Marvel Comics' Silver Surfer, an alien Jesus figure who endured hideous transformation to save his world - a fairly clear insight into the new psychedelic surfing sensibility. For as the Sixties progressed, surfing movies ebbed from the screen and surfing proper, like its chief chroniclers, the Beach Boys, embraced California's other major growth industries - drugs and psychobabble. They also embraced Californian society's prime dread: the fear of ageing.

If water is the symbolic womb then, inevitably, some will refuse to leave and grow up, a theme that the pivotal, Sixties-set, mawkish, macho Big Wednesday treats as a tragedy of epic proportions for the untamed male. It grafts on to the archetypal surf opus the bitter wisdom of post-pothead, post- Vietnam, post-young hindsight, puffing up a once simple entertainment. 'Some day,' says the diner manageress to her food- throwing customers, 'you'll have to straighten out and earn a decent living.' The boys sneer, but Bear, the bearded shaman who 'makes our boards and tells us stories', knows the ghastly truth: 'Nobody surfs forever.'

Which doesn't stop some people from trying. Patrick Swayze's Bodhi in Point Break is part-Bear - he intones deep thoughts about surfing being 'the place where you lose yourself and find yourself' - and part-Sixties survivor. What was once a youthful habit has become his sole reason for existence; surfing has become a lethal form of narcissism. Surfing now reflects Self-Fulfilment, and is elevated to transcendental status. As a Bodhi follower confesses, 'Surfing is the ultimate rush. Nothing comes close. Not even sex.' Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now, tongue-in-cheek, rams the message home. Warmongering Robert Duvall is willing to have soldiers die to secure a bay famous for its waves. Besides, not capturing it would only please the enemy: 'Charlie don't surf.' Or, as Bodhi puts it, 'If you want the ultimate you gotta be willing to pay the ultimate price. It's not tragic to die doing what you love.'

It is a message that's time has come again. For Bodhi and the Bear aren't selfish freaks or period pieces dusted off for ex-hippies cum beach-bums. They are harbingers of fashion. The New Age is upon us, youth still holds sway, pop culture is King and surf's up. What only a few years ago had appeared to fall into parody - did anyone pay money to peruse Surf II or Frankie and Annette's Back to the Beach? - has staged a comeback. Hence the reappearance of Big Wednesday, once a famous disaster, currently proclaimed a classic: 'One of the best films of the Seventies,' claims Time Out. Meanwhile Hollywood threatens a sequel to Point Break. Perhaps those rumours of a Beach Boys reunion are true after all. God Only Knows.

GREMMY'S GUIDE TO SURF-TALK

Big Stoker - A killer wave

Brown Outs - Nude dancing

Cowabunga - Exclamation of joy

Deck - Top surfboard surface

Face - Smooth front wall of wave

Gnarly - Challenging conditions

Gremmy - Novice surfer

Heavies - Big (20-30ft) waves

Knee Machine - Short board

Lunched - Bad wipe-out (below)

Rip - Dangerous current

Swipes - Beers

Tube - Cylindrical wave

Wipe-Out - Fall off board

(Photograph omitted)

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