Surf’s up

Step Into Liquid

Tasty waves, dude: World-class big-wave surfer Keala Kennelly “rides the big kahuna” somewhere near Tahiti in the surfer documentary <i>Step Into Liquid</i>.

Tasty waves, dude: World-class big-wave surfer Keala Kennelly “rides the big kahuna” somewhere near Tahiti in the surfer documentary Step Into Liquid.

Rated 4.0

“No special effects. No stuntmen. No stereotypes.” Dana Brown’s sensual, sensational surfing documentary Step Into Liquid tells us right up front that what we are about to experience is not only amazing but also very, very real. The film then paddles and slings us through a global milieu of “boards, wax and wetsuits,” in which tribes of wave worshippers and one solo maverick feed off the energy of the sea (and one of the Great Lakes!) and nurture a Zen-like “stoke” or passion for riding frothy crests of apparently all sizes and forms.

The narration by writer, director and editor Brown is as nakedly reverential, repetitive and thin as a late-night infomercial at times, which eventually makes the film feel a bit overly long. But this does not override the fun, beauty and excitement unleashed here. The cinematography is often spectacular, emanating an illusion that the camera is mounted on the waves themselves. And this nonfiction cousin to Blue Crush provides numerous exhilarating rushes as Brown brushes up against the current state of the art, offbeat practitioners and diverse locations of both recreational and professional surfing.

Brown figuratively follows in the sandy travelogue footprints of his father Bruce Brown, whose 1966 The Endless Summer and its 1994 sequel introduced mass audiences to beach bohemia and postcard surfing spots throughout the world. These earlier films talked of catching the perfect wave and the idyllic idea that “with enough time and enough money, you could spend the rest of your life following the summer around the world.” Step Into Liquid is more about the communal element of the sport (with only a passing reference to the personality defects and questionable lifestyle widely associated with the sport) and the idea that “the best surfer in the world is the one having the most fun” (surely referring more to pre-product-endorsement eras).

Though in Bruce’s narration, he had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, Dana’s voiceover has a quasi-religious flavor that acknowledges and then disregards the fact that the more one talks about the spiritual payoff of surfing, the less convincingly transcendental it seems. “It’s like falling in love,” says one participant. “You don’t know what it is until you’ve experienced it.” And Dana’s attempts to flesh out the cosmic allure here become the cinematic equivalent of sand grains in a tight swimsuit.

Step Into Liquid is about surf enthusiasts who alternately are euphoric and then convinced they are about to drown. It makes it clear why “gimungous” should be entered into the next edition of all dictionaries. It also covers such recent twists as tow surfing (in which Jet Skis are used to whip surfers onto a wave) and hydrofoiling (where the surfboard is elevated above the water on an innovative pedestal).

The film takes us from such obvious aquatic play and testing grounds as Southern California and Hawaii to the coasts of Vietnam and frigid Ireland (where the American Malloy brothers bring kids of both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds together on a neutral turf). We visit the Wisconsin shores of Lake Michigan, where inland surfers need 20-mile-an-hour winds to stir up the water; and the Galveston shipping channel, where Texans ride herd on the wakes of passing supertankers. We venture into the 60-foot swells of Cortes Bank 100 miles off the coast of San Diego and the legendary isle of Rapa Nui.

We hear testimony from such icons as Laird Hamilton, Endless Summer star Robert August and “Mr. Pipeline” Gerry Lopez (“There’s waves out there that weren’t meant to be ridden,” he warns), and journalists such as Steve Hawk, father of skateboard phenomenon Tony Hawk. We meet guys with such nicknames as Skindog, Condor and Flea and listen to the quest of waveaholic Dale Webster, who has gone through more than 32 boards and 48 wet suits so far since September of 1975, while trying to surf every day from then until 2004. We also meet a surfer who has gotten back on his board after being paralyzed in a fall and several surfing females (a species ignored in Endless Summer and relegated to topless-sunbather status in Endless Summer II).

The crystalline reverb guitar of the Sandals from Endless Summer has been replaced by contemporary pop music by Brian Setzer, Ash and the Butthole Surfers, but the sport’s grip on the world has not changed much. It is no Hula-Hoop fad. And one Pipeline Masters official drives home the point that surfing is certainly a one-of-a-kind sport that is here to stay. Afterward, he says, “How many people go out and gaze at a tennis court?”