The internet has ruined a great many things once held dear. Seeing surf films in a theater, with a mass of frothing surfers hooting and hollering at the screen, the cherry embers of joints flashing, the pungent smell of weed filling the air, the sheer exuberance at being alive and sharing a beautiful moment rising like a wave within a darkened cinema—that’s right near the top.
At least it is for me.
Those days are long past. Surf films have grown ever shorter and are available everywhere, whenever you want it, and rarely watched in groups. They almost never try to tell any kind of meaningful story or reflect our culture as surfers back to us. Largely, that’s because our culture has atomized into a zillion different ways to be a surfer, but also because an earnest appreciation of what it means to live and breathe as a surfer would be banished as hopeless “cringe” today. Instead, we’re awash in a sea of Instagram clips either too cynical to be enjoyable or too commercial to have any substance.
This week, however, if you’re in Southern California, you can relive a bit of what once made surf movie nights so damn special.
Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman’s classic 1972 surf film smash, Five Summer Stories, is celebrating its 50th anniversary in grand style. Beginning with a showing tonight at the opening of the Coast Film and Music Festival at the iconic Hobie Surf Shop, and concluding the festival with a special 50th anniversary screening on Sunday, November 13, complete with a live performance by Honk, the band that played much of the film’s soundtrack. This concludes a screening tour of the 50th anniversary of the film that’s been running across the country this summer.
Five Summer Stories is one of the twin pillars of classic surf film lore, along with 1966’s The Endless Summer. Take your pick—it’s a toss up as to which is the best surf film in history. But where The Endless Summer practically invented the concept of dirtbag surf travel, Five Summer Stories answered the question: what does it look and feel like to be a surfer? And it did so with absolutely gobsmacking visual beauty.
MacGillivray and Freeman were talented filmmakers who had decided this would be their last surf movie before they even exposed one frame of film, and they spent a relative fortune—about $30,000—to see to it they went out the right way. Superstars of the era were lined up: Gerry Lopez, David Nuuhiwa, Jeff Hakman, Nat Young. Better cameras shot surfing from angles nobody had really seen before. The production values are still pretty damn superb and back then it blew away virtually any other surf movie made for at least another decade.
From an interview MacGillivray did with Matt Warshaw in 2014:
“Jim and I at that point had done just about all we felt we could do with surfing from a technical standpoint. Getting the camera in the water, riding a surfboard with a camera behind somebody, working with really first-rate telephoto equipment and getting right up there so we could see droplets of water as the flew off Nat Young’s feet—those kinds of images were really what we were trying to get. Make it look as beautiful and fun as it really is. Make it look as clean and fresh and pure as it is when you’re actually out there. We wanted to convey that kind of rapture you get while surfing. A tiny glassy afternoon when you’re sitting out there, feet dangling in the water, all slowed down, and here comes that one little pulse of wave energy. Or a perfect day where you’re pumped up, having the time of your life, surfing at your best.”
Yup. They nailed it. I was born six years after this film came out and started surfing when surfing looked very little like it did in 1972 and still, this movie gets me stoked, makes me proud to be a surfer. Very, very few things today can pull that last part off. The music is great too with local Laguna Beach rock/funk hybrid Honk performing much of the soundtrack, but The Beach Boys also freaking gave MacGillivray and Freeman their music to use for free in the film. Imagine anything remotely like that happening today.
The main event, on Sunday, November 13, has tickets available. Honk will play the soundtrack live, surf world giants like Gerry Lopez will be there to discuss the film, and Greg MacGillivray will also be showing off his new book, Five Hundred Summer Stories, a sort of memoir/photographic coffee table book about making adventure films over the decades.
And if you’ve never seen Five Summer Stories but can’t make it this weekend to the big show, for goodness sakes, watch it here.