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It’s a scene that might have been airbrushed onto the side of a 1977 Econoline van, had the boat trip been part of surf fantasy back then: A 78-foot power cruiser bedecked with ten frothing surfers and surf filmmakers anchored in a sapphire sea. On the port side, a palm studded island with a barreling left. To starboard, a palm studded island with a barreling right. Sun is golden, with an added micro-dose-vibrancy thanks to my BluBlocker sunglasses. On the stereo, Jorge Ben winds his way through “Taj Mahal.” On the tripod, C-700 sits at the ready. On cue, a dolphin leaps giddily, nearly petting distance, from the bow.
We are here to shoot Self Discovery for Social Survival, a film-in-process co-produced by record label Mexican Summer/Pilgrim Surf + Supply and directed by Chris Gentile. On deck, sliding into boardshorts, swigging from koozie-sheathed beers, singing snippets from Cars songs, waxing Bonzers, and blowing air into Greenough-inspired air mattresses, is a quartet of Australia’s finest young wave sliders: Creed McTaggart, Beau Foster, Ari Browne, and Ellis Ericson. They survey the left and the right as if watching a tennis match. It’s a coin-flip, an eeny, meeny, miny, moe. It is decided—by volume of hoot—that the right just barely beats out the left.
They smear sunscreen on their faces, crowd into the small dinghy helmed by a bearded Asian man who laughs at pretty much everything, and motor out to the lineup. They plop into the water, fasten leashes, paddle over to the break, and get right to it. Their lines are not contemporary lines. There are no air reverses, no double spins. There are, as Ari puts it, “snap downs and turn backs.”
Chris Gentile is a shop owner. But he’s much more than that. Born in 1973 and raised in Rhode Island, he was introduced to surfing by his uncle Lou at age nine. Three years later he moved with his single mom to the west coast of Florida, where he got deep into hardcore punk and vert skating. After school, he and his friends would steal wood from construction sites and build half-pipes. “That was my first experience making objects,” he remembered. “The creativity that came out of the underbelly culture of skateboarding—I soaked all that up.” He got his BFA at Ringling School of Art and Design in 1995 and his MFA at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 1998.
At grad school he met the art critic Dave Hickey, author of Air Guitar, who’d come to Chapel Hill to give a lecture and do studio visits. “He said to me, ‘Listen, I’m not coming into your studio to talk about your work. I’m not going to get in your head. You’re already going to be fucked with by everyone else here. I don’t know you at all. So what am I going to tell you about your work that’s going to be significant?’ And there was some of my work on the wall, and my surfboard in the corner. He honed right in on my board, and goes, ‘What are you doing with that?’ Dave Hickey knew about surfing. He asked if I knew who Billy Al Bengston was, if I knew about Light and Space, Finish Fetish. He opened up this door that I never knew existed. At the end of this three-hour conversation he goes, ‘Where’s surfing in your work?’ I’m like, ‘It’s not. I avoid that.’ He’s like, ‘No, no, no. Not literal. But this shit should be in your work. You’ve got to figure out how to do that. Because the rest of the pseudo-intellectual shit you’re stewing—it’s boring.’ He’s like, ‘Where’s craft? Where’s craftsmanship? You know, John McCraken’s slabs that are painted like hot rods, like gel-coated boats, and surfboards…that’s the influence. You get it?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I do now.’ That changed my life. He gave me the courage to touch all these things in my life that I was passionate about.”
After graduation, Gentile got a teaching position at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Qatar branch. He lived in the Middle East for two years. “But my whole goal was to get to New York,” he told me. “I didn’t want to be that academic artist. I wanted to be in a dialogue with musicians, artists, writers. I wanted to be in a bigger conversation.” At age 26 he moved to Brooklyn, got married, and began his art career—he showed at Jeff Bailey Gallery in New York and Gregory Lind Gallery in San Francisco. To supplement his income, he worked as the creative director of the photo studio at Condé Nast. In 2007, he opened Mollusk in Williamsburg.
I first met Gentile at the shop’s grand opening. Situated on an industrial back street where hookers and junkies did their shady business, I think it’d be safe to call it the most urban surf shop in the world. That night he screened Patrick Trefz’s movie Thread on the side of a rusty water tower, the high rises of Manhattan in the background. We got to talking. He told wickedly funny stories about his Italian family. He was passionate about contemporary art and photography. We became fast friends.
In 2012, Gentile opened Pilgrim Surf + Supply, which has since become a major hub for the New York surf scene. Here is where swells are discussed and ideas are hatched, one of which is Gentile’s surf film, a collaboration with the indie record label Mexican Summer. A few months ago he called to invite me along on the Indian Ocean leg.
“We’re bringing musicians on each of the trips, then they compose score for the film based on their firsthand impressions, actually getting in the surf and feeling it with their hearts,” he explained. “Aaron Coyes of husband-wife duo Peaking Lights is coming with us. I’ve been to that part of the Indian Ocean before and I felt like I had left the earth. It’s so isolated, and you can feel it. Aaron and his wife, their music feels familiar, but it also kind of takes you somewhere else. It’s kind of trancelike. Last time I was there I felt like I was going into trances. The rhythm of the sea, the drone of the engine of the boat—it’s like you’re in a womb. And there’s something about their music that has that quality about it.”
Gentile was philosophical about the film. “The only thing I can relate it to is making art, to being in a studio. If you go in there with ideas all the time, you end up just getting disappointed. But if you really embrace your curiosity…there’s that Franz Kline quote that always sits in my mind: ‘The real thing about creating is to have the capacity to be embarrassed.’”
The surf footage/music marriage is nothing new. Hear the languorous guitar of The Sandals and there’s Mike Hynson and Robert August gliding across smooth combers in West Africa in Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer. Hear “Simple Ben” by John J. Francis and there’s Baddy Treloar dancing around the shimmering Angourie pocket in Alby Falzon’s Morning of the Earth. Hear “People” by MiSex and there’s Cheyne Horan weaving up and down in a Duranbah barrel in Jack McCoy’s Stormriders.
About a decade ago, at the Globe Fiji Pro, a group of pro surfers and writers and photographers were gathered at the Tavarua bar when Chris Cote, the charismatic editor of Transworld Surf, introduced a game. “Guess the surf film,” he commanded, and broke into the song “I Want You Back” by the Hoodoo Gurus. “That’s Kong tearing the shit out of some beachbreak left in Beyond Blazing Boards!” someone shouted, almost immediately. And on it went for the next three or four rounds of drinks. I was almost embarrassed by my proficiency in making the song-to-scene connection.
“When we were conceiving this, the one key thing I thought would differentiate this surf film from others is that the music being created for the moments are totally going to setup what we can and can’t do,” Gentile told me. “It’s not like we get to go pick a song that’s got the right mood that we can playfully edit to. The artist on the trip is reacting and responding to the moments we’re having. And we’re going to have to relinquish a great deal of control and have our own reaction to whatever they compose.”
Gentile went on to reference the artist Agnes Martin: “Her paintings and her essays were a huge influence on me. I’m paraphrasing here, but she said, ‘As human beings we all think that our minds are what guide us through life, but really it’s the emotive in our bodies that are reacting to everything first, and it’s our minds that go back and evaluate what those reactions are.’ And I think music and surfing are like this. It’s all reactive. And the more you do it, the more intuitive it becomes.”
One night during our boat trip, Gentile pulled out his laptop to show cuts from the two trips that preceded ours. There was Ryan Burch, CJ Nelson, and Karina Rozunko twinkle-toeing across playful lefts in sun-struck Mexico. There was Stephanie Gilmore and Kassia Meador streaking high lines in moody Iceland. Self-Discovery, Gentile explained, will be a kind of triptych: Mexico, Iceland, and our undisclosed Indian Ocean locale.
“Mexico is dirty and dusty and an extension of California, so I wanted to anchor it with Californians. The Allah-Las are from California. Their music has a hot, dusty, earnest sort of sound to it. And then I started thinking about timeless surfers, because Mexico doesn’t change very much. And certainly Ryan Burch, Richard Kenvin, Devon Howard, and Ellis Ericson, Karina Rozunko, Corey Colapinto—they all have a piece of the past in them.
“Iceland has a mystical quality to it. It’s untouched and moody and wild. It was a lot of caravanning around from spot to spot. Steph Gilmore, Kassia Meador, Lee-Ann Curren, Andrew Kidman, Beau Foster—they were all out of their element. The five-millimeter wetsuit, the hood, the boots, the gloves—it all just completely neutralizes gender. The musicians Connan Mockasin and Andrew VanWyngarden came along. I had a good feeling that everyone would be very accepting of one another and would want to experiment and explore and be really open to not getting great waves all the time and finding other things to be inspired by, and that’s exactly what happened. The hunt was way more interesting than the actual kill.”
On Gentile’s laptop, the Allah-Las composed music in a studio with clips from their Mexico trip playing on a monitor. It was interesting to hear them strum guitars in synch with the close-up shots of cross stepping and nose riding on screen. Gentile explained that this is the idea: experience the trip in the flesh, in the salt and sun, but also draw on rough cuts of surfing and scenes to inform the songwriting.
I asked him about assembling the cast on these trips—why these people and these places? “One of the overarching ideas on every trip was to include an elder, so to speak. Someone in their 40s or 50s who’s experienced as a surfer. That was something I thought would help bring about stories, and that there’d be the passing on of wisdom. I wanted to assemble surfers who were really open, who would be able to mesh with other people and create a group dynamic that’s positive and fun and also challenging. That was another hope I had, that intellectually things would come out of this—conversations, thoughts, curiosities. Who would want to be around each other and who would I want to be around? And that even extends to the camera crew—Sebastian and Chelsea Slayter, Jimmy James Kinnaird, Chris Burkard. All those people were as much a part of the trip as the surfers and the musicians.”
I thought about the round-the-clock raging that Creed, Beau, Ari, and Ellis had been doing. As per the tradition on boat trips, the beers came out early and the piss-taking was incessant. One night water-cameraman Jimmy James took off his clothes and got into the dinghy. Standing naked in a Christ-like pose, the boys pelted him with crushed-up bananas. Another night, Creed, Beau, and Ari tried to break into Ellis’s cabin to torment him while he was asleep. Ellis heard them, climbed out the hatch, grabbed the fire extinguisher, and blasted them in a full-blown whiteout that took about two days to clean. Did Gentile know that things might turn barbaric when he assembled our Indian Ocean crew?
“I knew that it would become an absolute fucking nutfest,” he said.
The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry is a 1973 book by literary critic Harold Bloom, the idea being that no contemporary poet can escape the cannon. The same could be said of surf films. When Ari does a backflip off the sundeck, he shouts “Young Guns II,” referring to the 2005 Quiksilver film featuring the same scene. When Creed shows Gentile a clip on his phone of the previous night’s tomfoolery, Gentile mentions the Runman films of the 80s. When Gentile springs into director mode at the bow—wry smile, salt-and-pepper beard, turquoise sea shimmering in the midday sun—I can’t help but think of Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. When I first saw that film, in 2005, I felt a deep sense of familiarity. The Bill Murray character could easily be swapped out for Jack McCoy, the jaguar shark for the perfect wave. At a time when the romance of surfing was waning in my 39-year-old mind, The Life Aquatic put it all back in perspective. Traveling to far reaches on the search for the perfect fleeting mirage—is there a more poetic existence?
In the water—day eight or nine or ten, it all blurs—Creed, Beau, Ari, and Ellis do pornographic things to the zippy, almost translucent right-handers. We are in the middle of nowhere, with no boat or landmass in sight, save for the swirling boil of coral reef that’s probably exposed at low tide. They ride an array of wave craft—a fish, an asymmetrical finless, a six-channel, a boogie board. Between waves they communicate in a shorthand that sounds more sea otter than human. Hoots, whoops, and giggles abound. Phrases are reduced to single words, words are reduced to just their first syllable. It’s all in the line of that Anxiety of Influence stuff—they’re painfully aware of the post-pro surfing era they occupy. “Clip” is a popular term among them, as in “cle-e-e-e-ep!” I asked about its etymology. It comes from their eager, Balinese, pro-surfer friend who hears of coming swell, thinks of fame and sponsorship dollars, and froths out an exuberant, “Get cle-e-e-e-ep!” Of course the boys use it ironically, almost mockingly, not of their Balinese friend, but of the dancing seal—or rather dancing sea otter—nature of spinning their first love into a career.
So when a wave comes—which it does, a mother of pearl-hued wall that’s looking very tubular—and Ari whips around and paddles with cartoonish seriousness, Creed, Beau, and Ellis sing it like it’s a song: “Cle-e-e-e-ep!”
[Feature image: Ari Browne, loving the Indian Ocean alien. Photo by Chris Gentile.]