FILM / The young men and the sea

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The Independent Culture
Big Wednesday (PG)John Milius (US)

Pepi, Luci, Bom . . . (18)Pedro Almodovar (Sp)

Stepkids (PG)John Micklin Silver (US)

'When you go surfing, most of the time is miserable,' says John Milius, film director and former surf cultist. 'You drive in a car for three or four hours telling stories and discover the surf crummy and the water cold. You go back in the car and try and find a place where you can get five tacos for a dollar. Then you try and find a place to throw up.' It might not sound like the stuff that myths are made of but, from these unprepossessing origins, Milius sought to make a movie, Big Wednesday, on grand, sonorous themes: the loss of American innocence; male bonding; golden youth, and how quickly it flies. We are privy here either to the fundamental mysteries of life, or else to something crashingly banal.

The film starts out as a Californian beach romp. The summer of '62 is one endless party for three hunky young surfers, Jan-Michael Vincent, Gary Busey and William Katt. They motor down to Mexico for a jape; thoroughly wreck one of their homes (while mom waits long-sufferingly to clean up the mess); launch into a food fight - Big Wednesday was made in 1978, the year of National Lampoon's Animal House. But it is also marked by the disillusioned, post-Watergate era: like American Graffiti (1973), it takes a more sober look at the early Sixties explosion of youth culture, and the rapid tarnishing of that youth by the call to Vietnam.

Big Wednesday falls into four segments tracking the surfers from 1962 to 1974, the last showing their triumphant passage into manhood as they dice with death on the mightiest waves they've ever seen (these superb sequences are the most compelling reason to see the movie). It is a powerful metaphor for their transformation, carrying both spiritual connotations of baptism and cleansing, and also carnal ones (breaking waves are the classic movie cliche for orgasm).

Milius does not put much of an interesting gloss on the genre's Wasp, male fixations (see feature, right). The Watts riots of 1965 are seen fleetingly on TV, but otherwise there is barely a black face (except, of course, in the Vietnam draft scene). And it is no surprise that Milius, a Boys' Own director if ever there was, relegates the women, uh, girls to the ranks of beach bunnies. Their presence in the surfing fraternity is described as an invasion of privacy.

At the end the three stride out for their communion with the elements. Milius has said he wanted to evoke western heroes facing the final shoot-out, but this is muscle beach and their superiority is strictly physical (they are meant to be entering middle-age, but it is signified only by elegantly greying sideburns and the odd moustache: no one has done a De Niro on the bits below the neck). They are like Aryan ubermenschen marching to their destiny.

There is something more fundamentally retarded about the movie, however. It intends to show how the glittering bubble was pricked by the cruel outside world, but this barely impinges on the story. One over-long sequence shows the kids trying to evade the draft. It is played for laughs, these perfect flowers of manhood transforming themselves into wrecks.

And you are left sympathising with the smart ones who slipped through the net, not the straight- arrow surfer who sets off to fight for God and country (he returns to nothing worse than to find that his girlfriend has married somebody else). One minor character who did not make it is mourned with the memorable obituary: 'He was a good surfer and a really great guy.' All this is in sharp contrast to the surfing scene in Apocalypse Now (written by Milius), in which breasting the waves of the Vietnam coast is a relief, momentarily, from the horrors around. Big Wednesday, however, stays in the shallows.

Another ghost from the past: Pedro Almodovar's very first film Pepi, Luci, Bom . . . (1980), a farce which features such authorial leitmotifs as urination, farting, drugs and lesbianism but, in contrast to his high-gloss later work, boasts awful lighting and sound. The film has a slightly disarming punkish impudence, but is mainly of historical interest. Stepkids, finally, is a lame comedy about a Los Angeles family distended by divorce and remarriage.

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