The intriguing documentary Bunker77, screened in its U.S. premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival 2016. Executive producer Edward Norton made the presentation and introduced the director Takuji Masuda who briefly discussed his documentary Bunker77.
Bunker77 is about one of the most unique and breathtaking surfers you most likely never heard of. However, if you are a surfing cognoscente or have an insider’s perspective on the surfing culture from the 1960s onward, you probably have heard of the wildly charismatic, electric, and devil-may-care character that was surfer Bunker Spreckels.
It was in the 1960s and 70s at the height of the counter culture, free love, and easy access to drugs when Bunker Spreckels made himself into a surfing legend. Clark Gable’s stepson, and heir to a multi-million dollar fortune from the Spreckels’ sugar dynasty, was a rebel, a playboy, and a brilliant flame that blew itself out long before it could light a bonfire that might have changed the world once it settled down to a steady burn.
As director Takuji Masuda indicates and examines extensively with film, photographs, commentary, and interviews with friends, Spreckels’ siblings, and those who watched or surfed with him as he effortlessly rode the waves, Bunker’s influence in the surfing world extended to fashioning his own unique board design. But any further innovations on wave riding and short boards ended when he died at twenty-seven, that magic number that launched stars like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendricks, and Jim Morrison into the eternal heavens and left the rest of the culture wondering what might have been if someone stumbled upon them before it was too late.
And so it was with Bunker, who was like the “playboy of the western world,” once he turned twenty-one and after he immersed himself in every hedonistic indulgence, simply because he was rich enough to do so and perhaps a bit lost as well.
Tak (as his friends [i.e. Ed Norton} refer to him), previously a national surfing champion in Japan where he won the long-board pro-tour (JPSA) title in 2001, knows the intricacies of being a great surfer, though if you were to ask him about it (I did), he is extremely humble about his own expertise. Who better than he to chronicle the all too brief and amazing life of Bunker? Who better than he to interview those who appreciated Bunker’s surfing talents, whose exhortations Tak melds with footage and music that elucidates the brilliant moments when Bunker was in a heavenly place of artistry surfing his heart out.
For Tak, the collaboration with C.R. Stecyk III, Art Brewer, Joan Spreckels, and John Gable to shape accounts of Bunker’s life to its oversized reality on film has been a labor of love for nearly a decade. The film captures the personality of Bunker as best as can any bio pic through filtered memories, still photographs of his early life (parents-Kay Williams and stepdad Clark Gable), siblings, celebrity friends, and the singular perspectives and anecdotes of others (i.e. Tony Alva, Laird Hamilton, Johnny Knoxville, Roy Russel, Kenneth Anger, Shaun Tomson), who similarly adored, admired, or were continually amazed by Bunker’s being and bravado.
However, where the documentary truly shines is in how Masuda intercuts and edits powerful and thrilling footage of Bunker Spreckels’ surfing feats as a teenager when he retained a fearless aura of immortality and beauty in the time before he inherited his millions at twenty-one. It was then, we learn, that he intrepidly chose to ride waves that no one else would attempt and lived simply following his passion everywhere, in California and on the North Shore of Hawaii and elsewhere. It was then he morphed into the iconic portrait of the golden surfer emblazoned in our dreams, the free- spirit with the surf board-fit, blond, tanned, incredible looking.
In a surreal synchronizing of old footage and our dreams, Tak unspools these fantastic images of Bunker gliding through the water with his own expressly unique style that has given rise to surfing trends. With these segments Tak reveals a singular artist who defined the ethereal danger and beauty of surfing for that time and maybe for all time.
Some of the most intriguing footage that Masuda includes is of an interview of Spreckels attempting to define himself as a legend and off-the-charts, over-the-edge player a few months before he died in 1977. The timeliness of the interview footage is an irony or perhaps a suggestion of something more profound. For those who look carefully, they may realize that Bunker’s discussion of himself imbues swaggering confidence and fun. There is also a child-like, innocent shyness and sense of yearning that slips through, especially in his discussion of surfing. The segment whispers Spreckels’ core and suspends us in a moment of time that breathes eternity.
Art Brewer was hired by Bunker to travel with him and photograph him on his excursions to exotic places around the world; he was acquainted with Bunker’s excesses, his passion for women, martial arts, weapons, and of course surfing. As Tak, Brewer and C.R. Stecyk III composed surfing articles for Super X Media (founded by Tak), Stecyk III and Brewer would discuss their wild times with Bunker which is how the idea for the film generated. Tak closely worked with Art Brewer and C.R. Stecyk III when he published their book on Spreckels, Surfing’s Divine Prince of Darkness, under Tak’s Super X Media label. The footage of the interview of Bunker three months before he died, is the extraordinary contribution from which Masuda’s Bunker77 emerges.
Masuda’s powers of story telling and admiration for his subject is revelatory. Through his cinematic techniques and avid choice of music are revealed Bunker’s ethos, his boyishness, his beauty, and his naivete, despite fronting that he was a “wild and crazy guy.” Bunker who wanted to be a movie star and was up for a part in a film was obviously influenced by the glamour of the celebrity life he experienced with his mom, Kay Williams and stepdad, Clark Gable, a loving father the short time he was with Bunker and his siblings (Gable died at 59).
That movie never happened. Bunker’s fortune did, and with it the tragedy of that age for some: to “live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse.”
Masuda’s work is a touchtone for the surfing world in its celebration of a legend who was a “one-of-a-kind,” in a culture which now has become so mainstream that the surfers from that time who are still around comment about the vast differences between then and now. In a way, when Bunker passed, that time and that culture’s simple, ethereal, freedoms began to draw to a close and other elements entered in for good or ill.
For those who knew Spreckels’ genius riding the waves and recklessness riding of his inheritance, the simplicity of his passion for surfing was life-affirming. He was cleanest and most joyful when he completely immersed himself in this love. It is a subtle and profound message that Masuda relays in this faraway yet probing look that peels back some of the mysteries of Bunker Spreckels’ life.
Bunker77 is screening at the Hawaii International Film Festival on November 9 and 11 and will be at DOC NYC on November 16 and 17. Click here for information.