Dec 13, 2017

RIP Bruce Brown

Surfers who experienced the first screening of Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer, in August of 1964, left the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium knowing for an absolute fact that they had just seen the best surf film to date.

What they didn’t know is that they’d just seen the best surf film that would ever be made.

Brown was only 27 when The Endless Summer premiered, but he was already a seasoned surf movie maker. He’d released Slippery When Wet in 1958, Surf Crazy in ’59, Barefoot Adventure in ’61, and Surfing Hollow Days in ’62. Finally, in the summer of 1963, while conjuring up The Endless Summer, he screened a compilation of his first four films called Waterlogged. In his early work, you can see the foundation being poured for The Endless Summer. The humor, the confidence, the plethora of great surfing, and the holistic feel to the music and narration were all beginning to bubble over. (Two of his neophyte offerings, Slippery When Wet and Barefoot Adventure, even featured original scores by the accomplished jazzman Bud Shank. Not a bad start for a surf film maker in his early 20’s.)

Maybe it isn’t so strange that Bruce Brown found his voice making surf films. The name “Brown” seemed to be a prerequisite for the job. The originator of the home-brew 16mm surf movie, Bud Browne (sic), began showing his delightful tomes along the California coast in 1953, and another Brown, Don, produced three surfing features in those early days, along with filming that bitchin’, snarling left that appeared every week on Hawaii Five-O. None of the Brown(e)s are related, and yet they were concurrently working in an era when there were less than a dozen active surf film makers in the entire world. Go figure.

The surf movie makers of the 60’s were “indie” decades before the term even existed. These guys were so independent, they didn't even bother to work for themselves half the time. They cobbled together used, bottom-end 16mm film gear with a desire to earn a living near the water. Then they made it all work with as little movie-making expertise as possible. They shot miles of film during the wave rich winter months (the romantic wedding of “surfing and summer” being largely contrived), slapped the footage together in the spring, then toured coastal areas that summer. They screened at women’s centers, high school auditoriums, and tiny local theaters. Inland surfers had to rent the films they wanted to see via mail, then project them for surf clubs and frat houses at a buck-a-head to cover their expenses.

During this embryonic period, neither the filmmakers or the audience were sophisticated enough to tell the lies the other wanted to hear. Producers trusted their gut when it came to content, and the audience didn't respond to a poor offering with acrimonious coffeehouse critiques later that evening. They looked for the guy in the parking lot when the show was over. The closest thing to the touring 16mm surf films of the 60’s, probably, would be the rock and roll shows of the 50’s, when the likes of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Eddie Cochran would drive from town to town with their gear stashed in the trunk, putting on shows in rental halls.

The era of straight-from-the-hip, straight-from-the-heart, surf film making (which lasted roughly from 1958 through 1976) was often characterized by shady financing (you can guess the details), short-sighted archival sensibilities, and, on occasion, riotous screenings in venues filled with three thousand surfers. (In this era of pint-sized, multi-plexes, the concept of three thousand people sitting in one theater is awesome. The concept of three thousand surfers stuffed into one theater is flat-out terrifying.)

As works of art, these low budget productions were rarely compelling enough to transcend eras, let alone reach beyond the beach culture. But The Endless Summer has steadfastly refused to fold its tent. Five decades years after its initial released, it’s almost eerie how it can still speak to us. Through 10 U.S. presidencies, the hippie movement, women’s lib, gay lib, man on the moon, the Vietnam war, the pill, Kent State, Watergate, Monicagate, vinyl, eight track, quad, digital, disco, leisure suits, herpes, aids, another round of disco, phone sex, computer sex, Martin Luther King, Rodney King, Desert Storm, and the internet, there isn’t a non-surfer with a pulse who isn’t itching to give surfin' a try before the closing credits roll.

Bruce Brown’s simple, engaging narration in The Endless Summer is the key to the film’s appeal, and the creative process behind his story-telling hearkens back to era of the Marx Brothers, when early talkie comedians performed their material before live audiences for months before committing it to film. When The Endless Summer was initially shown in high school auditoriums, there was no sound on the projection print. Like most surf film makers of the day, Brown sat on the stage just off screen and DJ’d the music track via a reel to reel tape recorder while providing the live narration. It was a one-man band affair, and it took real talent to mingle all the volume levels while talking story. For months, Brown exhibited The Endless Summer “live” before he committed his spiel to the version that’s now burned into our psyches. He knew exactly what gags and sentiment and exposition worked, because he’d performed it in front of the toughest audience there was…surfers. (The nicest thing you can say about the denizens who attended surf movies back then is that they arrived without automatic weapons.)

By 1966, the original 16mm version had been shown to death along the coastlines of the surfing world, and Brown was confident enough to seek out a distributor who would exhibit it theaters across the country. He couldn’t drum up any takers based on his early success, so he screened his film (still flickering away in 16mm) in Wichita, Kansas…in the dead of winter. This was as an acid test aimed at proving his point. The film was a smash, breaking the theater’s all-time attendance record, but there were still no takers in Hollywood. So, on spec, he blew it up to 35mm, rented a movie house in Manhattan Beach, California, and filled the joint every day for an entire year. Finally, the power of The Endless Summer to draw large audiences was undeniable, and a distributor was signed. The film went on to gross a reported 30 million dollars during its worldwide theatrical run.

The Endless Summer elucidated the true joys of surfing to a generation of Americans who were otherwise stuck with two conflicting, and largely fictional, images…the candy-assed Beach Boys/Frankie and Annette portrayal, or the surfer-as-waterborne-hoodlum portrayal. The film’s popularity was bitter-sweet for surfers, because the entire country had finally embraced our sport for all the right reasons. But dammit, it was ours first!

Brown’s cinematic formula is pedestrian, and the film is rife with sloppy photography, sluggish pacing, lame gags, and a sometimes embarrassing social perspective. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of who stars Mike Hynson and Robert August are, or where they’re going with their lives. They aren’t even characterized as exceptional surfers, which they were. As far as we know, they’re just two guys who, when they aren’t striking out with chicks, are looking for a few waves to ride. The rarest of all feelings is generated between the film’s principles and the audience…the feeling of being equal.

The Endless Summer was so successful in its heyday, it actually killed what little innocence was left in the 16mm surf movie genre. It was impossible for surf film makers not to play to the hope that their homage might also be picked up by the big boys in Hollywood, and elevate them into an early, well-heeled retirement. What’s astonishing is the no one else has even come close to duplicating it with any real success…and they’ve been trying for 5 decades! (Even Brown’s slick, beautifully photographed 1994 sequel, The Endless Summer II, hit the target but missed the bull’s eye.) The idea of two guys traveling the world to find something (themselves, great waves, whatever) combined with good surfing footage, a few sight gags, some funny narration, and a catchy musical score has surfaced time and time again, but it’s never the same when seen through the eyes of anyone but Mr. Bruce Brown.

For non-surfers who stumble across the film, there’s always a sense of revelation. “Is that what surfing’s like?” they ask, with a quizzical smile.


For surfers, it captured the mythology of our sport so thoroughly, it actually became a part of that mythology. When surfers of any age, and from any country, speak of great surf movies, “The Endless Summer” rolls off their tongue within 15 seconds. To this day, it validates why they surf. Someone finally articulated something that surfers are either unwilling or unable to voice ourselves. It almost functions like an old, scratchy Louie Armstrong 78. Thank God we have it, because how else could we explain real jazz?

While today’s loud, glossy, corporate-sponsored surf videos give us a sense of the new, The Endless Summer gives us a sense of renewal. In Brown’s scheme of things, regardless of your age, when you surf you're young. Even in its fifth decade, it remains the unbeaten, untied, undisputed heavyweight champion of the surf movie world.

Paul Gross


tuskedbeast said...

Beautiful re-purposing (I'm guessing) into a perfect, affectionate eulogy of his crowning achievement. I would hope piece could find it's way into the hands of someone speaking at Bruce's memorial.

Not to distract from the subject, but have you ever considered compiling your best writing in a place where people could read it?


Paul Gross said...

Thanks you for the kind words, Jonathan.

This eulogy is a distillation of a feature article I wrote for Longboard Magazine back in 1994, and an essay I wrote on Brown for Salon On-Line Magazine, circa 2003.

Paul Gross said...

Compiling my "best" writing would be easy...putting it on the back of a cocktail napkin would suffice!

I dunno about the rest of it. Maybe online somewhere? Would anybody care?

tuskedbeast said...

Uh... yes!!

Because all the quality "surf" writing in general out there could fit on a napkin. Intelligent surfers crave MORE.

This piece is exceptionally good, balancing historical context, resonant personal observations, and most importantly, heart and enthusiasm, in your fun, readable, unpretentious style- a pretty neat trick, Paul.

I've only read good stuff from you, and it was good because you focused your abilities and experience on things you are truly passionate about.

So, yes.

tuskedbeast said...

And online would be great. With a "donate" button, too.

Paul Gross said...

OK, now you have my attention!

Unknown said...

I've been reading lots of eulogies since Bruce died. Paul, yours is the only one that hits the mark. The "corporate 'surfers"" don't get it, though they think they do because they're "hip", you know?
Bruce personally let me and my friend into "The Endless Summer" at Pier Ave Auditorium when he was first touring it and narrating it on stage. The line closed right at me and I saw him and despite my overbearing shyness, pleaded to get in. I said I'm sure we could find 2 more seats. I was an absolute nobody 16 year-old that surfed. So he told us OK and had the ticket person to let us in! It was an amazing experience, the movie was truly mind-blowing. I never looked at surfing again as a sport, now I saw it as spiritual. Thanks Bruce, for a little gesture of "sharing the stoke" and changing a life.

harmless neighborhood eccentric said...

Super nice Paul

Anonymous said...

Dear Gloria and Paul

That is some fine piece of writing, Paul!!!

Peter and I, along with other lifeguard friends, wore bleached levis and Hawaiian shirts to those four wall Bud Browne films and didn’t mind the guys who rolled beer cans down the aisle between the folding chairs. It was ritualistic for us.

And by the way, there was another surf film maker in the day who won an Academy Award, Grant Rohloff for Wet and Wild, best short subject, can’t recall which year that was. Peter sold one of Grant’s films to somebody in South Africa, can’t remember which one, and when the guy wrote to ask for another copy Grant had already cut up the original for another work in progress. Living on nothing, divorced and somehow surviving, Grant was one of the dearest friends anyone ever counted on. We gave him our old cars when we bought a new one. The last time that happened we were hit with numerous parking tickets from various California cities. He had not registered the vehicle and had kindly lent it to a wheelless friend. Dying of Cancer surrounded by loving pals in a friend’s home in the Rodeo Grounds (Topanga) he remarked that maybe he shouldn’t have taken so many drugs.

And speaking of cars, Charlie King, intellectual LA City Beach Lifeguard, draughtsman, humorist, cartoonist, surfing buddy, drove one car after another, purchased for almost nothing and abandoned wherever they died. Such was the glory of life in Mid-Century Southern California where, "noses were made to hold spectacles.”

Back to Paul Gross. You are truly a fine writer.

And Gloria, you are our truly lovable friend along with Paul.

Cheers, Sahra and Peter Dixon

PS. Endless Summer provided the impetus for a junior editor to pull The Complete Book of Surfing out of the slush pile at Coward McCann for seven printings and several revised editions. Thanks to Endless Summer.

Unknown said...

....heavenly to read this tribute.Just a southern California girl with a lot of memories stirred up tonight. Thank you for posting.