Waves are beautiful and primal, a force that underpins pretty much all of existence. You are made of waves, and so is everything you perceive. Seawater is beautiful. The seawater-green eyes of Kelly Slater also make for quite the winsome close-up. Beaches? Beaches are beautiful, rife with symbolism, profoundly evocative. It has technical challenges for cameras, but assuming they are surmounted there is probably no more telegenic sport on this planet than surfing. Interview a bunch of guys who are unusually good at it and certain through lines tend to emerge. Like stand-up comedians or playwrights, they all seem to have been raised in broke, traumatic, epically shitty situations where they happened to have access to the ocean. From there, it takes five words and one camera angle to get across that surfing is a metaphorical act, making physical the psychological processes of detachment, acceptance, resilience, agility, and transpersonalization.
You’re with me, right?
Given the esthetic riches and psychic depths you’d think making great surfing programs would be the easiest thing ever, but most of them suck. So let me say first that Momentum Generation doesn’t suck. At all. Executive produced by Robert Redford, directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, it’s a many-layered lasagna of interview footage and multi-POV archival video that depicts the rise of a clique of suntanned Lost Boys who occasionally made surfing Oahu’s notoriously lethal Pipeline break look… kind of effortless. Or at least kind of freeing.
Do you romanticize surfers? To say I don’t is a wild understatement. I grew up in coastal California. I’ve lived a couple miles from Mavericks. And I lived with a surfer for 15 years and have a very specific understanding of what “surfing buddy” really means. I’m not an easy audience for documentaries that glorify a sport I have always seen as full of hypocrisies: its dependence on “team” when it is the most fundamentally solitary and detached thing you can do athletically other than maybe skydiving; the veneer of antiestablishment punk ethos in a world utterly dominated by endorsements and sponsorships; the insistence that passive aggression is a form of Zen priesthood. (What? No, I don’t have issues. You have issues. Shut up). Like most people with two functioning optic nerves, I think Kelly Slater is really pretty, but he was never someone I saw as a key spokesperson for my generation, even if, technically, we’re most definitely of the same generation. What I’m saying is, I don’t approach surf movies, documentary or (shudder) otherwise, from a dewy-eyed romantic point of view. I prepare to be saltier than the water.
And so, watching Momentum Generation, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not schmaltzy. There is a lot of really stunning footage of a location that entirely justifies the word “iconic,” and importantly, it neither downplays nor glorifies nor sidelines the relationship between this sport and emotional pain. That’s not an easy balance to achieve, honestly, but I think they pull it off for the most part. The film captures the personalities of key members of the so-called “Momentum Generation” surfer-cabal, concisely and with reasonable humor and compassion. It delineates the way relationships build and degrade under the influence of both internally and externally generated forces, and it doesn’t shy away from how being a self-centered asshole is fundamentally incompatible with true craft. Overall, I think it’s a significant accomplishment in the genre; it’s about a cult of personality without relying on the cult of personality. It’s esthetically rich. Considering the physical nature of the sport, it makes an admirable and largely successful effort to avoid skimming the surface. And it conveys some of the weird existential angst at the heart of a sport whose most visible face is a kind of defiant addiction to thrill.
Surfing is super dangerous. The ocean can kill you in about a million different ways, and no amount of skill can prevent the ocean killing you if it decides it wants to. Yes, it takes muscles and trained movement and timing and coordination; yes, it is a physical skill set, like any other sport. But perhaps more than any other sport (you can disagree, but if you have ever surfed in choppy water I doubt you would), surfing is about being OK with terror. It’s part of that physical skill set, because as most of the Momentums point out over the course of the film, an unchecked adrenaline rush will make you rigid, clumsy, and unable to hold your breath. It’s also shockingly easy to take that intensity and make it utterly non-thrilling on film. These guys have managed to avoid that. Surfing is a craft (a sport? a lifeway?) that has generated a lot of mediocre film over the years. Momentum Generation is something unusual in all that: It’s genuine, and genuinely interesting.
Momentum Generation premieres Tuesday, Dec. 11 at 10 p.m. on HBO.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.