Perfect Movies: The Endless Summer

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Every movie needs a goal for its heroes to work towards–a holy grail or treasure they seek. In romances, it’s love; in action movies, it’s defeating an enemy; in comedies it’s winning over an adversary. In The Endless Summer, it’s the perfect wave.

Along their journey, our intrepid heroes Mike Hynson and Robert August find plenty of adventure, globe-hopping to chase the summer season and in many places being the first surfers to ride the waves there.

Released in the great year of 1966, The Endless Summer is a sun-kissed love letter to surfing and the sea–more specifically, the beach and the waves that appear just off-shore. Depending on where you live, you may either be totally immersed in seaside life and the crowds of surfers, sun tanners, and beach bunnies that flock to the shore during the summer months or the idea of lounging by the ocean listening to soft tunes while the waves crash rhythmically in the background is a totally foreign concept. But director Bruce Brown brought the idyllic life of living as a beach bum to audiences across the world, popularizing the sport of surfing in the process and providing people an endless summer to enjoy on film.

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Besides being a light-hearted movie that seemingly captures the slippery golden feeling of summer, its ultra-hip surf-rock instrumental soundtrack by The Sandals remains a defining example of the genre. So inextricable are the songs featured on the soundtrack to the summer vibe that many people could hear one of the songs and be immediately reminded of surf, sand, and sunshine whether or not they’re familiar with either the movie or the soundtrack itself.

The funny thing about The Endless Summer is that although it takes on the form of a documentary, there’s nothing honest about it: it’s a slickly edited package that throws in obviously staged moments of humor and behaviors its protagonists wouldn’t have ever demonstrated on their own without being poked and prodded by the eternally cool Bruce Brown. He finds the whole enterprise amusing, and his editing shows this every step of the way. That’s why I consider it more of a film than a documentary: it’s too self-aware and well-shaped to be anything other than a narrative film.

As Bruce Brown, in his ever-laid back and snarky narration to the film, states: “Summer means many things to different people,” but for all intents and purposes there’s only one thing the summer means to our protagonists: surfing!

The Endless Summer – A Perfect Movie

The film is straightforward enough: a documentary about two surfers–Mike and Robert–who go on a round-the-world trip following the summer season across two hemispheres, often traveling to countries where surfing had never been seen before and experiencing the ups and downs of travel, meeting new people, and of course surfing.

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A then-nascent sport in the early 1960s, after this movie was released surfing took off as a popular sport and pastime for many beach-bound and shore town citizens across the world. Part of its appeal surely came from the laid-back, eternally cheery (and often witty) narration by filmmaker Bruce Brown, who also frames the surfing way of life as one where good-looking people hit the water in the sun and warmth of the summer to try their luck on the rolling, rollicking surf just off-shore by somehow magically standing on a board and cruising the waves for an exhilarating ride.

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And for surfing enthusiasts, there’s plenty of tasty rides to enjoy watching in this film: Mike and August are excellent surfers who rode longboards, which had the benefit of giving them plenty of room to maneuver while also requiring dexterity and balance to harness their awesome power on the water. Throughout the world and the many locations they travel–Senegal, South Africa, Australia, Tahiti–this intrepid duo shoot the curl and score many excellent rides that Brown carefully traces with his 16mm camera.

But that’s only half the story: the real appeal of the film, the powerful draw that has made the film not only a classic but a fondly loved film by people who have never even stepped a toe in the ocean, is its documentation of wanderlust. The idea that one could simply jump on a plane and begin a year-long journey around the world to exotic locales, engaging in far-out cultures, seeing sights and having experiences you could have never imagined before is a powerful one to daydream about, and that daydream is made real on-screen.

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I’m not a well-traveled person, having spent my entire life in the United States and the only country I’ve ever visited outside of this one being Canada, yet this idea appeals to me immensely–in particular the one detailed in The Endless Summer. Although a novice surfer at best, if The Great Gazoo popped into existence next to me, said “Hello, dum-dum,” and asked if I wanted to travel the world on a surfing adventure, I would leave with the shirt on my back immediately.

But it’s made so appealing because Bruce Brown knew how to craft his documentary of the adventure: with a lot of wit in the narration, warm surf guitar playing on the soundtrack, and displaying the great triumphs of our surf heroes, All-American Mike and Robert, as they traverse the globe to exotic locales and seemingly effortlessly jump up on their boards to ride wave after wave to perfection.

“Wings go in the trunk.”

Bruce Brown has a great story behind his career: having taken up surfing in the 1950s, he began taking footage of surfers while serving in the US Navy in Oahu, Hawaii and spliced together the footage to make a film that was shown for 25 cents admission at a local surf shop. Realizing he had something on his hands, Brown began filming surfers in earnest before coming up with the brilliant idea of a surf travelogue.

After completing The Endless Summer, he tried to sell the film to Hollywood, which was uninterested in it. Undeterred, he rented out a theater in Wichita, Kansas in the middle of winter and the film was a smash success. It gained wide distribution in 1966 and for a film that cost $50,000 to make, it raked in $5 million in the US alone and $20 million overall. Not bad for a surfer with a dream.

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But his story doesn’t end there: Brown ended up documenting all sorts of California-centric emerging sports, including some excellent early documentaries on skateboarding, such as the classic America’s Newest Sport, and the motorcycling doc On Any Sunday. With a style that matched the warm weather of California and a wry wit in his narration, Bruce Brown made some of the most homey documentaries ever on emerging sports in the 20th century.

And this style was defined in The Endless Summer: serving as both cameraman and narrator, Brown knew what was interesting to catch and funny to comment upon in his footage, displaying great runs on the surf along with more amusing moments in the trip, such as Mike and Robert’s absurd experiences in Ghana with a local population that were wholly unfamiliar with surfing and made witnessing these two white boys from America out in the ocean a community event. The kids eventually got so enthusiastic they grabbed whatever spare material they could find to try their hand on surfing.

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His comments are perfectly low-key and humorous. As a taxi driver argues with Mike and Robert on how to mount their longboards to his car, the driver decides on sticking them out of the trunk, which is shown on-screen while Brown comments, “Can you imagine driving down a highway in the U.S. like that? They’d put you in prison!” Also in Senegal, upon finding out they have to stay in a government-approved hotel, Brown snarks: “The rates here were unbelievable. $30 a day, each. When you walk through the door they stamp ‘sucker’ on your forehead.” And then later, when they’re in Australia, Brown comes out with this line: “Bells Beach is the fly center of Australia. You go to the beach and there are 30 flies assigned to your body. When you leave they go back to command headquarters and wait for another assignment.” His little asides make you feel like he’s more your buddy hanging out beside you while watching the film instead of an authority figure narrating the doc that rolls out in front of you; it goes a long way to making the film very likable.

Meanwhile, Brown also says some wonderful things as the adventure goes on, especially when they actually find their holy grail, the perfect wave, in Cape St. Francis, South Africa. Upon finding these legendary waves, Brown intones: What every surfer dreams of finding is a small wave with perfect shape. What we call a perfect wave. The odds against finding that are 10 million to one.” And then, a little later as we watching one of the surfers ride one of these perfect waves, with a bit of awe in his voice as he describes just how wonderful finding the perfect wave was, Brown says, “The waves look like they had been made by some kind of machine. The rides were so long I couldn’t get most of them on one piece of film. On some of the rides I timed them in the curl for 45 seconds.” And then, just to hit home how incredible these waves were, Brown further states, “The thing you can’t show is that fantastic speed and feeling you get in the pit of your stomach. It’s the kind of wave that makes you talk to yourself.”

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Being a surfer himself and having tried out a few of these perfect waves, Brown summed it up with his characteristic wit the sensation with, “Can you imagine riding a 15-foot wave shaped like this for 7 miles? You’d have a nervous breakdown the first 50 yards. I had one on a 3-foot wave.”

Surfing as Philosophy

There are few more ephemeral sport pursuits as surfing: a wave only exists for moments of time and although there are so many of them, there are few worthy of a ride. Besides this, the surfer only surfs when that moment exists and only then: if not captured by camera, the thrill and genius moments of their skill disappears forever and can never be replicated again.

So to does surfing promulgate a certain philosophy that permeates its adherents’ life itself: there’s just the wave, the ride, and you. Maybe no more pure experience in life can be had than when a great wave exists for you to master and conquer it for just a few moments. Maybe it speaks to man’s want to bring nature to its submission; maybe it’s an ego stroke of the most supreme kind, of fighting this inexorable force of nature as it pounds away indifferent. Whichever it may be, the thrill of a successful ride is a pure feeling, like you had just figured out a key of the insane, indifferent universe and strutted upon its face like a king.

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Although this may seem shallow, a body in the ocean plays great tricks on the mind. Feeling the bobbing never-ending eternal force as a conscious human being brings one into one with the elusive rhythm of the universe. We are creatures from the water, after all, and our most base instincts are aroused by being not only in proximity but actually being inside of this pulsing womb of the world and reality itself. We are all enthralled by this force–its non-stop pounding reminding us of our own heartbeats and why being in its unconstrained waters gives us such a thrill.

If this is true, what could be more thrilling than conquering it wave by wave? Mike and Robert couldn’t care less about the safety, danger, or problems that diving into the ocean in strange, unknown waters may entail–although Bruce Brown voices plenty of concerns throughout. Instead, they fearlessly dive into one unknown after another, only sure of one thing: that the waves are everywhere and that they may as well try their hand at mastering riding one of these endless echoes rather than avoiding it. In their efforts, they conquer one wave at a time. It may be gone forever afterwards, but at that moment they merge as one with the water and wave, finding transcendence along the way.

As Bruce Brown elucidates brilliantly when finding the perfect wave: “I couldn’t help but think of the hundreds of years these waves must have been breaking here, but until this day, no one had ever ridden one. Think of the thousands of waves that went to waste, and the waves that are going to waste right now at Cape St. Francis.”

“With enough time and enough money…”

In the sentimental, sad last few minutes of The Endless Summer–sentimental because the lazy melodica riff that plays in the background captures the lazy see-saw feeling of summer perfectly and sad because you simply don’t want the film to end–Bruce Brown says, “With enough time and enough money, you could spend the rest of your life following the summer around the world.” And almost by magic, The Endless Summer has attained this elusive, dreamy goal.

Although filmed now over 50 years ago, not a day has passed in the frames of The Endless Summer: every frame is sunny, every moment is a new discovery, and every ride caught by either Mike or Robert are perfect ones.

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You can re-experience their discovery of the perfect wave over and over, the protagonists never age, their rides are never less than excellent, and the moment in time captured hasn’t faded one bit. Bruce Brown is young and wry in his narration. It’s eternally the early-to-mid 1960’s that depicts a world wholly different–and somewhat perfect–from the one we live in today.

That The Endless Summer has itself become not a dated time capsule but instead a document that captured an idyllic moment in time in the history of the world of two young men and a filmmaker who followed the summer around the world for a year, experiencing new places and meeting new people that had never seen the likes of them before, makes the world itself anew each time you watch it.

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It captures an innocent moment in a world that has since lost any pretense of innocence. The girls in bikinis Mike and Robert flirt with are young and cute but never overly sexualized; the natives they interact with may be subject to Bruce Brown’s little verbal jabs but what he says about them is never cruel or racist–he’s more amused by their own innocence than anything; and Mike and Robert come across more as young men who are astonished by what they experience rather than as jaded too-cool types. The music is subdued and wordless, played at half-tempo and never in a rush or trying to artificially tack on excitement–what’s happening on-screen is exciting enough as is.

And whether in the midst of a heat wave in the broiling summer months or stuck inside on a gray winter day, watching The Endless Summer will bring to you a piece of summer–and a peace of mind. It captures a warmness and calmness that simply doesn’t exist in our modern world. If it did, people would rent it by the hour simply to feel OK for a little while.

Fortunately we have it even better than that: The Endless Summer will provide you with that feeling every time you watch it. It’s a spectacular documentary, a wonderfully warm, funny, and adventurous film, the essence of summer captured, and a perfect movie.

The Endless Summer is currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

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