Friday, August 12, 2011

Nobody Surfs Forever

It’s strange how even though I’m driving a convertible now it took me several weeks before I ever bothered to put the top down. The normalcy of everyday life doesn’t really put me in the mind of doing it and maybe by a certain point I was just putting off the first time, nervous about doing it somehow, maybe wondering if I was the sort of person who should even be driving a convertible. And besides, what if I couldn’t get it back up? What the hell was I going to do then? Yeah, I worry about these things. On the other hand, I wondered what the point would be of owning a convertible in Los Angeles if I didn’t do something about it so on a recent Saturday I drove down to Santa Monica where I pulled over to the side of the road, summoned all my meager courage and flicked the switch for it to go down. For the first few moments I was kind of taken aback with that decidedly unfamiliar sensation of having nothing but the sky over me as I drove. But soon San Vicente took me to Ocean then as the car headed down the California Incline towards the PCH the Beach Boys came on the oldies station I had on singing “God Only Knows”. For that one single moment in my life, everything felt right. Everything was beautiful. I drove up to Malibu, the wind blowing, the radio playing, as I thought about this place along the Pacific that for a long time I had lived relatively close to but had spent very little time in. I suppose the parts of L.A. I’ve always had interest in exploring have been more inland but when I drive up there I find myself confronted with my own memories of Blake Edwards films, ROCKFORD FILES reruns and maybe a little of the end of KISS ME DEADLY, wondering what those fantasies have to do with the actual reality. In my dreams I can see myself sitting out on some patio, watching the sun go down, waking early in the morning to see what the beginning of the day feels like when you’re there. But they’re only dreams and to this day when somebody tells me they’re spending some time up in Malibu it always sounds like they’re going to some far off land. That’s what the place always seems like to me.

With each of the New Hollywood directors embarking on their own personal big budget projects during the late 70s John Milius joined in with BIG WEDNESDAY, his grand personal statement, his CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, his NEW YORK, NEW YORK, his DEER HUNTER, his SORCERER—supposedly he even traded points with Spielberg and Lucas on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and STAR WARS. But the film was a flop when it opened in 1978--the release date is listed as May but it doesn’t seem to have opened in New York until an obligatory run in late July suggesting Warner Brothers never even went fully wide with it. Lucas apparently asked for his points back (nothing can be found on if Spielberg did the same) and it seems more or less forgotten now except for whatever cult has built up out there. Though Milius still had box office successes that were to come in the 80s such as CONAN THE BARBARIAN and RED DAWN his shot at being one of the big guns had passed and with very little activity in recent years he’s possibly best known now as one of the screenwriters of APOCALYPSE NOW as well as the inspiration for John Goodman’s Walter Sobchek in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. A Milius-like figure referred to only as the Viking Man is also a key character in Steve Erickson’s excellent novel “Zeroville” (seriously, go read it), portrayed as a key observer of the changes going on all around, ferocious to his core in his love for film yet helpless to the changes he knows are coming. Forgotten as it might be by the mainstream, BIG WEDNESDAY is at its best a moving piece of work which has fallen though the cracks when 70s films are discussed although since Tarantino had Zoe Bell refer to it as a “classic” in DEATH PROOF that indicates there are some fans out there. It might be a case where the overall work makes more of an impression on me than certain individual sequences do but it still has enough true emotion to what it says that can be found in those reels of footage that convince me of the majesty found in all those waves.

Divided into four parts, BIG WEDNESDAY tells the story of three friends who are the hottest surfers in Malibu, superstar Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent), responsible Jack (William Katt) and crazy Leroy (Gary Busey), known as the Masochist, who live their carefree life under the watchful eye of their mentor Bear (Sam Melville) who makes their boards and forever tells stories about the glory of the waves. In the first section when we meet them it’s the carefree early sixties where they have nothing in mind but the waves but as the decade goes on and Vietnam enters the picture the friends begin to drift apart, with little but the surfing remaining and it all culminates in Big Wednesday, part of the Great Swell of ’74, the day everything they’ve ever known about surfing has been building to.

Ignoring the usual Frankie Avalon and Jeff Spicoli stereotypes, BIG WEDNESDAY plays like an autobiographical story purposely elevated to the status of myth which could not only be said about pretty much everything John Milius has written or directed but also, I suppose, how just about any autobiographical story could be seen by the person telling it. Written by Milius and Dennis Aaberg, much of the film is light on plot and actual incident, merely presenting the broad strokes of the lives of these three guys and the people connected to them that matter, along with few blanks in those long gaps we don’t get to see that the movie seems to want us to fill in for ourselves like the issue of Matt’s drinking. The opening section, with the long stretches of surfing, hoping for a big Swell, hanging out at the roadside café and the feeling that nothing is at stake makes it all seem like a paradise on earth. When a fight breaks out at a house it’s clear that even if stuff is broken nothing really bad happens, contrasted with a trip out of that insular world soon after to Tijuana where a fight does have real consequences and nothing is really the same after. The expected path taken from the start of the decade to the end, as well as beyond, is very much in there but while it’s tempting to describe the plot as kind of a mashing together of the broad strokes of both AMERICAN GRAFITTI and MORE AMERICAN GRAFITTI it’s not really the goal of this film. Sure, the local burger joint becomes overrun by hippies intent on serving health food instead of ‘animal hostilities’ and Vietnam obviously plays a big part (tying it into APOCALYPSE NOW, of course, though I suppose Milius couldn’t name one of these guys Lance after a close friend since he had already used it for that film) but it never simply goes over the expected sixties cliches of how turbulent times were as the friends fall apart over differing views on the war or protests or whatever. When they spend one night watching reports of the Watts Riots on TV someone mentions how there’s no need to go over seas to fight a war but as close as those events might be it still feels a million miles away from the waves they know. To them, everything is a million miles away from the waves they know.

With a story that begins during carefree times then moving onto the war there’s a slight structural similarity to THE DEER HUNTER (and William Katt’s slight physical similarity to Bruce Dern gives it a COMING HOME connection as well—each of these films were released at various points in 1978) but Milius’ goal is to focus on things beyond what happens in Vietnam. Instead of pinning the blame on the war and everything going on around it, he seems to look at where the path of the three friends leads to as the inevitable passage of time, a journey as unstoppable as the waves that continue beating against the shore, over and over again. It’s all part of the road to manhood as far as he’s concerned, each change inevitable as they confront age, maturity and the world impugning upon their own version of Paradise which ends sooner then they would like. Just a few years after his glory days Vincent’s Matt Johnson goes to see a surfing documentary he’s featured in but nobody cares—they’ve all moved onto who the new hotshot is. Maybe this was just the wrong kind of nostalgia for the summer of ’78 when GREASE was the word but the continued feeling that gradually emerges over the course of the film is tough to ignore. One of the main flaws with BIG WEDNESDAY might be that as genuinely earnest as it is too much of the movie doesn’t really live up to this mythic stature with sequences like a visit to the draft board coming off as more tonally out of step than funny, an excursion to Tijuana which feels too chaotic and a long stretch where they mourn a friend killed in Vietnam but no one watching the film could be blamed for not figuring out who they’re spending so much time who it is they’re talking about. These sequences aren’t exactly bad, there’s just not enough to set them apart from other versions of this stuff we’ve seen before and never sticks in the brain for me as much as the moments when they’re out there on the water.

The use of an omniscient narrator during transitions from one period to another also keeps things at a distance that maybe isn’t totally desirable for us to look at these guys as full-fledged individuals—that voice actually belongs to Robert Englund and he does an excellent job, also appearing onscreen in a small role as one of the friends, maybe the only one of the minor players who really stands out (I like the moment when he says, “Stay casual, Barlow”). His onscreen appearance is so fleeting that there’s no indication that the movie is actually being narrated by him—whether it is or not doesn’t really matter anyway—and as affecting as his phrasings might be it sometimes is still keeps things at a distance from the main characters, which maybe is what Milius wants anyway. There might be an issue of accessibility as well—it’s easy to imagine how anybody of the right age could relate to AMERICAN GRAFITTI in one way or another, but the world of BIG WEDNESDAY feels a little more insular, a code that maybe only can be fully cracked by those who don’t need to be convinced of what it’s like out there on the water. But there is a power to the film even if it only partly has to do with what it was really like up there during that time, with people lined up over the cliffs, gazing at these waves which almost seem to represent the edge of the earth and a dragon guarding the wall there that can only be conquered by these guys who have Bear as the Merlin to their white knights of the Malibu Round Table. The surfing footage that is undeniably thrilling and beautiful with some genuinely astounding photography (all praise to D.P. Bruce Surtees), both far away and close-up right in the faces of the various actors actually out there amid the waves—the influence on Kathryn Bigelow’s POINT BREAK is obvious (both films did actually did a great deal of shooting in Hawaii plus it surely wasn’t an accident that Gary Busey was cast in that film) and even the way Basil Poledouris scores these sequences with undeniable majesty, eschewing the expected pop songs heard at other points here, seems like it was something being recalled in that later film as well. It’s clear that this isn’t always meant to be a realistic look at this world and at certain points when things are going bad the way the day for night photography is done it’s not quite clear what time of day or night it’s even supposed to be. All that matters is the impression that the world is ending and Bear, with his own side narrative of going inland (or selling out, which for him is the same thing) then losing it all, I suppose it is.

The glory days are really taken as a given, only consisting of a brief stretch of screentime and much of the film in the best John Ford tradition feels like a series of greetings, farewells coming off as a long dirge to youth, to good times and ultimately a peaceful acknowledgement that nothing can go on forever but maybe you can come to an acceptance of that and depart with no regrets or looking back. The way certain characters turn up near the end almost makes it seem at first like this is meant to be some sort of fantasy sequence which isn’t really the case since it ultimately acts as the closing chapter of an inevitable rite of passage—the film isn’t about being trapped in the glory days of the past but about making a quite acceptance of how you can cherish what you once had without getting stuck there. The song which plays under the end credits is about as deliberately on-the-nose as anything I’ve ever heard, probably too much so, but like everything in BIG WEDNESDAY it clearly means what it’s saying as much as possible. With just about the worst the guys ever seem to do being a food fight they start in the local burger joint, it’s very much an idealization of surfers and their culture, no doubt about it—getting back to Quentin Tarantino, he once said, “I don’t like surfers. I grew up in a surfing community and I thought surfers were jerks. I love BIG WEDNESDAY so much. Surfers don’t deserve this movie.” But they do have this movie. As I made that drive up to Malibu I found myself wondering about some of those roadside fish places and what possible links there still were to the Malibu of decades past. BIG WEDNESDAY may be one giant mythologizing of it all, painting it as greater, bigger than it really was, but it somehow seems appropriate.

It’s also a film where the waves stay with me more than the actors and maybe for me the most memorable appearance by anyone is that lone surfer seen in the corner of the frame during one of the transitions, a haunting shot at the 38:25 mark which stays with me and says so much. There is beauty in this film but the leads never seem to take control of the screen in the way that you’d want from a film which seems designed to create such stars in the fashion of AMERICAN GRAFITTI—Busey is enjoyably nutso as we’d want him to be, Katt is maybe a little to stoic at times in his straight-arrowness but Jan-Michael Vincent’s self-seriousness does hold, always saying more with his eyes than the character ever seems to know how to communicate otherwise. Lee Purcell and Patti D’Arbanville do manage to make strong impressions in the minor roles of the girls in their lives, Katt’s real-life mother Barbara Hale plays his mother onscreen and Joe Spinell plays a military psychologist (is there a more unexpected role in Spinell’s career?). Frank McRae and Perry Lang who would be seen the following year in the Milius-produced 1941 appear in small roles, John Ford veteran Hank Worden turns up briefly as an ornamental nod to the past and Milius himself cameos during the Tijuana sequence to scream “MAR-I-JUANA!!!” right at the camera.

Whether approaching their appointments with the draft board or marching towards the water with their boards, the three of them marching towards the water on the titular day it’s clear that Milius looks at these guys as another version of the gang in THE WILD BUNCH and a piece of music at the end of the Tijuana section familiar from the end of that movie drives home the way he ultimately feels about these guys…the way he ultimately feels about this mythologizing of his own history. The fact that a photo of himself from these times is shown under his own directing credit says a lot as well. As much as its own earnestness lingers enough of the movie just isn’t quite as strong and I suppose it also contains a sort of instant nostalgia which never seems quite genuine to me--Bear glancing in at everyone dancing as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” plays at an early party, obviously wishing for this moment to go on forever and knowing it can’t, feels just a little too idealized. But the emotion plays, the yearning nature of trying to connect with those waves plays and while it’s tempting to call some of the Robert Englund narration pretentious (“Who knows where the wind comes from? Is it the breath of God?”), there’s something about these haunting words mixed with this awe-inspiring imagery that stays with me, making me understand why it matters to these characters to dream about a big day in the future which hopefully will come and, as Bear says, you can wipe clean everything that went before it. Maybe that day driving up the coast was my own version of that as well and I was even able to get the top back up when I was inland again, returned from that far off land. I love driving with it down now. I can’t wait to do it again. As for the film, time marches on. BIG WEDNESDAY marches on. The waves will be there.


Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I've loved surf movies since "Endless Summer" and "Big Wednesday" is a big favorite.

It reminded me of the classic "Ride the Wild Surf" - 3 surf buddies with very different personalities coming to terms with their places in the real world, all culminating in the one big wave. Mostly, the (relatively) realistic feel, at least compared to the Beach Blanket movies.

Joe Valdez said...

Big Wednesday is a truly overlooked movie. It plays a lot better if you think of it as a rock album -- not every song is a chart topper and I could skip over several of the segments here with ease. But the party crashing scene, the journey to Tijuana and of course the big finish are all worth playing again and again. John Milius really captured the feel of old time surfing, before anyone fathomed making a buck off it.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

That's a great way to look at the film, Joe, it never occured to me. The film is flawed in minor ways but it is affecting and it does stay with me. I'm not surprised that it's a favorite of people like you guys. Thanks!