Saturday, January 14, 2017

Stubs - The Endless Summer

The Endless Summer (1966) Starring: Mike Hynson, Robert August. Narrated by Bruce Brown. Directed by Bruce Brown. Written by Bruce Brown. Produced by Bruce Brown.  Run Time: 95 minutes. United States. Color. Documentary

If you have ever eaten at an Island’s Restaurant, no doubt you’ve seen footage of snow skiers and surf riders that they used to show on an almost endless loop. They can be fascinating to watch. If you’re expecting The Endless Summer, Bruce Brown’s ode to traveling the globe looking for the perfect wave, to be more of the same, then you will be sadly mistaken. There is much more to The Endless Summer than simply footage of surfers and waves, though there is plenty of both.

Bruce Brown was no novice to filmmaking, having begun in 1957 after his discharge from the Navy with the film Slippery When Wet, a film he was paid $5000 to make to promote the Velzy surf team, sponsored by Dale Velzy, then the self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Manufacturer” of Surfboards. An avid surfer himself, Brown would document the rise of what was then a cult sport, as he continued to make movies: Surf Crazy (1959), Barefoot Adventure (1960) and Surfing Hollow Days (1961).

For five years, the pattern had been pretty much the same. Brown would shoot a film during the fall and winter months, edit during the spring and take the film on a four-wall tour during the summer. By 1962, he was thinking if he could spend longer making a film, but he knew he would need more money. To raise the $50,000 he figured he would need, he had made Water-Logged (1962) from what he thought was the best footage from his previous films.

The original intention may have been to make a film about surfing in South Africa, but during the planning stages that idea changed. When he approached a travel agent about tickets, Brown was informed that the price of a round-trip between Los Angeles and Cape Town would cost $50 more than just circumnavigating the globe. Suddenly, the film was expanded to the idea of following summer around the planet.

To make this film, Brown decided to take the first two surfers who could afford to pay their own ways. Those two, Mike Hynson and Robert August, portrayed as wholesome friends in the films, were anything but. Neither man knew the other before the filming.

August, the brown-haired one, was a recent high school graduate who put off going to college for a year at the suggestion of his parents and counselors to take advantage of this once in a lifetime adventure. Hynson, the blonde, was older and was already becoming a part of the “counter-culture” that was beginning to take hold in America at the time. He had also been arrested for stealing surf boards from Hobie Alter. Alter not only forgave Hynson, but lent him the money to make the trip. Hynson was also interested in getting out of the states to avoid the draft and a free ticket to Vietnam.

Robert August and Mike Hynson make their way to their plane at LAX.

At the beginning of the film, the two are seen dressed in business suits carrying their surfboards as they get on a plane headed to Senegal. There they not only have to stay at an expensive $30 a night government-run hotel, but they were the first to surf the waters off that country. Their next stop was Ghana, where they introduced surfing to several villagers by the sea. They were also taken on a guided-tour by a wily taxi-driver who did it for gas money. Gasoline at the time sold in Ghana for $1 a gallon, considered a gyp to the travelers, but would now be considered a bargain price.

Scenes of the first surfing off the coast of Ghana.

The surfing gets better when the boys reach South Africa, where there is a small but devoted group of surfers in Cape Town. On a surfing safari, they are taken to the beach where the local surfers crowd on the waves. Seeking more open spaces, the boys, including Brown, hitch a ride with Terence Bullen and his son, who were driving across the country to Durban off the Indian Ocean. It was at Cape St. Francis that Brown took some of his best footage and, rather than sending it back to the states to be processed and edited, he carried it with him for the rest of the trip.

On their way to the perfect waves at Cape St. Francis in South Africa, the boys and their guide surfed down the sand dunes.

Their trip took them to Bombay, India, where there was a layover. While not part of the film, they did have their own adventure. They had heard Indian customs was confiscating cameras to avoid filming at holy sites by tourists. To avoid detection, Hynson went through his screening with several 16mm film canisters strapped to him under his suit.

From there it was on to Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii, where Hynson and August continued to surf the waters, but they were no longer the oddities they had been in Africa.

There are the occasional shots of beach bunnies and women surfers in The Endless Summer.

When they returned to the states, Brown completed editing the footage and began showing it at some small venues like he had with his other films in 1964. But this time it was clear to him that he had a hit. The film showed for a week at the Santa Monica Auditorium. While August went off to college, Brown, Hynson and some other surfers took the film on a tour around the country.

Despite their success on the road, Brown still had not found a Hollywood distributor by 1966. When he was told that it wouldn’t play 10 minutes away from the beach, Brown rented out a theater in Wichita, Kansas for two weeks starting on February 9, 1966. With some good marketing, the film played to sold out crowds.

Next, Brown blew up the film from 16mm to 35mm and rented a theater in New York, Kips Bay Theater. There he received positive reviews and the film had a successful run. Finally, there was interest from the big distributors, but most wanted to change the poster, by adding bikini clad girls to it or change the movie by adding a love-interest. The only one who didn’t want to change anything was Don Rugoff of Cinema 5 distribution.

The film turned out to be a big success, eventually making about $30 million total, making Brown very wealthy. Hynson and August thought they were owed something for the success of the film and went to see Brown, then living in Santa Barbara. Brown tried to placate them with $5,000 cash, a new car and help with starting a business. While August took him up on the offer, Hynson didn’t. A drug dealer by then, Hynson didn’t need the money, having $15,000 in his trunk, but he would later try to sue Brown and August.

In 1994, Brown would release a sequel, The Endless Summer II, in which two younger surfers, Pat O'Connell and Robert "Wingnut" Weaver, retrace Hynson’s and August’s trip. Nine years later, Bruce’s son Dana would release his own surfing film, Step Into Liquid (2003), which follows the evolution of the sport.

Not only did this film inspire many to take up wave riding and for surfers to travel, but it also had an influence, good or bad, on Hollywood. The search for the endless summer, and affording it, drives surfers into bank robbery in Point Break (1991), a film starring Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, Gary Busey and Lori Petty.

Watching The Endless Summer is a bit of a nostalgic ride back into a much simpler time. The film avoids the politics of the day, from the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, which happened while they were on the road, nor does it mention the Vietnam War, which was ramping up at the time.

The Endless Summer is not the stodgy documentary that we may think of when hear the word. The film was as much about entertainment as it was about education. Not only is Brown’s narration oftentimes comical, but he sort of fudges some of the details. The most extreme example is one scene that was shot later in Orange County, that makes it look like August and Hynson were surprised in the bush by a local chieftain, who was actually promoter R. Paul Allen in blackface.

Visual joke from the film shows the name of the gas station in Ghana with the high-priced petrol.
Rather than just being a linear tale of Hynson and August, which could get sometimes tedious, Brown intersperses footage from Hawaii and Malibu involving other surfers. While it breaks up the flow of the story, it does illustrate the informal approach Brown has towards the genre.

While we have come to an almost invasive approach to sports camera work, most of the film is shot from the vantage point of the beach. Instead of a microscopic view, we see full rides, even if they might have been two edited into one, which Brown has admitted to doing.

If you look at The Endless Summer as a documentary of surfing around the world in the early 1960s, you are going to be partially disappointed. While there is some of that, especially when it comes to Africa, that really isn’t the focus of the film. If you think of it as documenting two friends on an epic voyage searching for the best waves, then you’ll be disappointed there as well. Hynson and August were not only strangers thrown together, but they didn’t, as the film suggests, actually plan their trip; Brown did. The two boys were really just players in Brown’s film. In some ways, this is a precursor to "reality" shows on television, in which players react to situations they are put in and any drama is created through editing.

The Endless Summer may not be a great documentary, but it is a great surf film. A lot of fun to watch, The Endless Summer is a nostalgic look back on an era that never really existed through the eyes of two total strangers pretending to be friends. But bottom line, it is really quite enjoyable to watch, even for those of us that have never been on a longboard.

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