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DVD Review: Riding Giants

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This movie was a pleasant surprise. Neither my girlfriend nor I are surfing fans, participants, or even knowledgeable, but I saw enough good reviews on Netflix to make me want to give the film a try. I'm glad I did.

Written, directed, and most importantly, edited by the team that made the highly rated Dogtown and Z-Boys (a 2001 documentary about skateboarding), Riding Giants weaves together archive footage, new interviews, and explanatory narrative to tell the story of surfing and its evolution, concentrating naturally on riding the biggest waves.

Starting with an animated segment modestly labeled "1000 Years Of Surfing In Two Minutes Or Less," we quickly springboard from Polynesian natives riding boards before the arrival of Captain Cook to the late 1940s in Southern California. At this point we start to get involved, not with the technical aspects of the sport, but rather with the groundbreaking individuals who defined milestones in its development. The concentration on the human story grounds the film and makes it interesting even to non-devotees.

The movie is structured in three distinct sections. The first is light-hearted, fun, and breezy as we meet the few guys who popularized surfing in its early days and discovered the majestic locations that would define Hawaii as a surfing mecca for decades to come. 

The most charismatic and outspoken of the group is Greg Noll, one of the first riders of a giant wave. His modern interview commentaries are so good, they extend all through the film to the point where he acts as something of a Greek Chorus, counterpointing the actions of those who came after him in the sport.  The archival footage in this segment is a joy to watch, including many aspects of the goofy hijinks the boys would get into during the few hours they were out of the water.

The second segment is darker in color and tone as the scene shifts to Half Moon Bay (south of San Francisco) and some of the most dangerous big wave surfing available. This section covers the period from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Finally we are brought into the present with the current wunderkind and poster boy of the surfing world, Laird Hamilton. The shift to modern technology is evident not just in the surfing equipment and techniques, but in the quality of the footage, which is outstanding. The movie action climaxes with recorded footage of a Hamilton ride generally regarded (we are told) as one of the greatest rides in the history of surfing.

You may not notice it as you are watching, but the production techniques on the movie are simply superb. Modern interviews that were done for the movie use film stocks and color temperatures that match the archival footage the people are commenting on.

The "old men" talking about their exploits in the fifties are filmed in overexposed, punched colors that match the old Ektachrome stock. The 1970s segment uses interviews in black and white that cut unobtrusively into the dark waters and black wetsuits of Northern California.

Music is a huge presence in the movie. The production team includes a wide range of styles, from classic California surf instrumentals with their twangy guitars to modern rock from Linkin Park to classical pieces from Bach and Satie. It all fits in seamlessly with the footage, interviews, and narration.

Sound editing on the wave action brings home the power of giant waves and the potential for danger and death that they offer. The movie benefits from a good sound system and a subwoofer.

There is a surprisingly interesting commentary track by the writer/director and the editor as well as commentary by the interviewed surfers. The DVD also contains a "Making Of " featurette, a disposable movie premiere special from cable TV, and deleted scenes. You could spend a long time with this disc!

The only parental advisory is some off-color language in the Greg Noll interviews.

Riding Giants is recommended even for those who have no particular interest in surfing. It simply works as a well-done, interesting piece of documentary filmmaking.

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