Riding Giants

(Stacy Peralta, USA, 2004)


Director Stacy Peralta faced a tough job making another sports documentary to match his previous effort, Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001). He could count on the hipness factor when chronicling the urban subculture of skateboarding, but here he must grapple with the somewhat musty, hippie aura that attaches itself to fanatical surfers.


As in Dogtown, the canvas is stretched broadly. Although promising at the outset to squash the history of this sport into a minute or two, in fact the film never stops detailing the recurring saga of the “new generation”, the “next milestone”, the “hottest location” on the globe and, last but far from least, the “biggest-ever wave”.


As the clapperboards show, Big Wave was the working title of this project, and that is a better name than Riding Giants. Peralta, like the maker of any decent surfing movie, tries to take us deep into the death-defying philosophy underlying this activity, its distance from the Gidget-style pop culture cliché, and the lightly anarchistic, self-sufficient, dropping-out lifestyle it has promoted.


But do not expect much in the way of political insight from Riding Giants. Whether in documentary or fiction form, surfers on film usually resemble the contestants on the TV reality-series The Amazing Race: they are so anxious to get to the water that they hug the shoreline and scarcely cast a sideways glance at whatever foreign culture they inhabit. Only a single anecdote – about Laird Hamilton’s problems growing up as a blonde, white American in Hawaii – suggests a different story.


Peralta simplifies both his style and content here. Whereas Dogtown banged on relentlessly about the photography and graphic design associated with skateboarding, here the huge and fascinating cottage industry of surfing cinema is barely mentioned – although almost all the important footage used comes from these precious, amateur sources.


Those into surfing will need no recommendation to see Riding Giants. To an outsider like myself, it seems an authentic and comprehensive account of its subject, and it gives a lot of time to such luminaries as Greg Noll and Jeff Clark.


But it will surely be hard for any viewer to overlook the fact that the portrait of surfing presented here is overwhelmingly male. Although one female surfer, Sarah Gerhardt, is highlighted, and an occasional supportive partner is glimpsed (particularly Hamilton’s wife, Gabrielle Reece), all the most intense talk from the guys is comprised of father-son bonding tales, and evokes the ocean as a “lady” who winks at you and has to be tamed.


It’s Big Wednesday (John Milius, 1978) all over again but, alas, Riding Giants is not in that league of cinema.

MORE Peralta: Lords of Dogtown

© Adrian Martin March 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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