Long live surf film!

At the last surf film screening I attended, I expected to be horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been told would happen to the directors. Everything I’d read online about modern surf film insisted that it was a stupid, brutal, outdated business. Most surf journalists who wrote of surf film condemned the genre as utterly dead and worthless. Even those who wrote well of it, as a historically significant exercise, deplored actually screening new films and were apologetic about the whole thing. The public shaming of the directors, in what were certain to be empty theaters—nobody there because nobody watches surf films anymore—was considered inevitable.

I suppose that from a modern point of view, an Instagram point of view, the whole surf film charade is silly. Who has time for anything more than a minute long? The best clips aren’t held for some archaic, long-form nonsense. They are instantly run up the flagpole, gathering likes and starry-eyed emojis by the megabyte, bringing a euphoric sense of self that psychologists at Cosmopolitan refer to as the “reward cycle.”

Likes and starry-eyed emojis trigger the same dopamine receptors as winning money or eating chocolate, Cosmopolitan’s psychologists say. Likes and starry-eyed emojis, or sometimes heart-eyed emojis, that come straight from the user to the surfer himself or herself. There is no need to wait months or years for clapping hands, loud whistles and “yew” shouts. No need for anything to be filtered through a director.

I should not try to defend surf film or the surf film director, but I must tell honestly the things I have found to be true. I went to the Florida Surf Film Festival to see surf films and write about the various films for myself. I thought they would be simple, boring, outdated, stupid, and that I would not like them very much. But I still had to go and learn and know what modern surf film truly felt like. I had to keep my eyes open, longer than a minute, and force my attention span to track along. I couldn’t allow myself to turn away when the directors went on stage to introduce their various surf films, gazing out at an audience of four who all also happen to be surf film directors.

Also, I went because I accidentally directed a surf film that would be playing at the festival, the second accidental surf film that I accidentally directed, and being on stage and gazing out at an audience of three who all happen to be sound engineers or possibly producers, letting the shame wash over me, would be a valuable exercise no matter how horrifying and sickening.

I woke up hot and sweaty the morning of the festival and spent the day surfing in New Smyrna’s warm water while getting stung in the midsection by creatures the locals call “sea needles.” They were small, white, long, and thin, and they got stuck in my trunks, causing extreme discomfort. I wondered if the sea needles were a metaphor for what I would experience that night. At dinner I felt my stomach roll—not from nerves, for what was there to be nervous about? The two color correctionists who would be there to witness each other’s work? No, I was not nervous at all, but I was not looking forward to the shame that was certain to sting. Pure embarrassment.

I decided to not put it off any longer. I got in my car and headed to the Atlantic Center for the Arts where the film festival was being held. I drove through a swamp where giant prehistoric trees draped in Spanish moss ran into a knot of cars with no place to park. Cars were being turned away by the dozen by a fit man in a black polo shirt and their drivers had very angry faces. Frowns and red eyes hidden behind Maui Jim sunglasses. Children screaming in backseats. I saw a barrier set up across the road with a sign reading “SOLD OUT” taped to it.

I wondered which artist was here—which painter or sculptor showing their work elsewhere in the complex—who could draw so many people in Florida. Maybe Thomas Kinkade, the Painter of Light™? Possibly Jon McNaughton, the “most famous pro-Trump, mass-market painter of the 21st century,” according to The Washington Post? I eased up to the man in the black polo shirt, apologized, and told him I was not there for the sold-out event, but a surf film festival that I was told was on the grounds but may, in fact, be in a broom closet elsewhere. He laughed and said, “This is the film festival.” I could not understand what I was witnessing, so I apologized again and told him that he must be mistaken.

But he wasn’t. Hundreds of people mingled, maybe even thousands. Old and young were equally represented. There was an even split between men and women, too. Everyone was excited, buzzing, chatting about surf films they had seen recently and which surf films they were excited to see that night. I only believed this was actually happening when the lights dimmed and a surf film flickered onto the screen. It was “Cult Of Freedom” by Joe G, a surf film director whose name I remembered from long ago, back when surf film mattered. It was a masterpiece of light and sound, and the audience shouted and hooted. Next was The Seawolf by Ben Gulliver and it was cinematic art, telling the story of cold-water surfing in Canada.

The emotion of the audience swelled with each film. The directors and surfers were greeted like heroes and their short speeches were listened to with rapt attention. I marveled and my confusion grew. How was this happening? How was this happening today, in our time? Isn’t surf film dead? At that moment, I realized a very simple truth. The modern point of view, an Instagram point of view, lacks time for art to breathe and lacks a human connection, though it pretends to offer both. Surf film, on the other hand, truly does, especially watching surf film live. Also, while Instagram and the other social medias allow the surfer to connect directly with his fans, the surf film allows the surfer’s movements to be filtered through a director’s soul. The mélange cannot be faked. The product that surfer and director make together carries weight.

Now, it must be said, a chance exists that the first surf film festival which any spectator attends may not be a good one, artistically. For that to happen there must be good directors and good surfers. Beautiful, exceptional, artistic directors alongside poor surfers do not make interesting surf film. Likewise, if a competent director without genius or great inspiration happens to make a film about a truly brave surfer, even the best surfer in the world like Gabriel Medina, then it still may not reach the level of art. The spectator will be confused, visually, by the many things he or she is seeing and by the mixed metaphors.

But when a great director and a great surfer come together in a surf film the result is near perfection and only fails to be considered one of the major arts, like sculpture or oil painting, because of its relative impermanence. Great surf films, like the dance upon waves that it captures, exist mostly in the moment. The spike of emotion. The sense of everything rising.

I saw Kevin Miller, one of the cofounders of the Florida Surf Film Festival, standing behind a large control panel as I pushed through a wall of spectators who were watching Chippa Wilson fly through the air in otherworldly slow motion. Miller was twisting nobs—adjusting the volume, turning it up as the spectators began to cheer louder. Louder was met by louder again. I asked him what he was most looking forward to and he told me about a film called In Dancing Days Of Dawn, a new feature by twenty-one-year-old Chris “Mowgli” Miyashiro, “a young, innovative eye,” according to Miller. I asked him why surf film matters, especially live.

“When you get someone’s hard work on the screen,” he answered, “and it’s met with full-throated enthusiasm and respect by groms and drunk rednecks and adult learners alike, it’s really something. And not just for the audience. The directors, editors, and filmmakers get a sense of release, I think, when all their hard work is met with such exuberance.”

I nodded, understanding what he meant implicitly. It’s a purposeful slowness that makes a moment, even an impermanent moment, become permanent in a way Instagram uploads, vlogs, and Facebook posts never can—wrapped in honest, human response. I saw John Brooks, the other cofounder, standing in a corner with a smile spreading across his face as I pushed through a wall of spectators who were watching Canadian Pete Devries throwing an axe to his side. I asked him what is most impressive about modern surf film.

He answered: “We’re starting to see quality work from people you’ve never heard of. Advancement in technology means that one person can make a whole film by themself. An individual can manage every part of the process, from shooting to editing to scoring.”

Finally, it was my turn to go on stage. I pressed against the spectators and made my way up, climbing the stairs one at a time, bathed in warm lights. I took the microphone ready to tell everyone how wrong I had been about surf film and how it is the only surf medium that matters (besides printed magazines and gossip blogs). But before opening my mouth I felt incredible pain in my midsection. One of the dreaded sea needles had stowed away, waiting for just the right moment to give me hell. The pain dropped me to my knees and I muttered incoherently and crawled to the side of the stage.

That night at the bar, I overheard no word of sympathy for my meek performance as I sat drinking mojitos in the corner.

“Chas was torpid, he was out of training,” someone said. “Why did he insist on being a surf film director? Why did he go down on both knees?”

“Because he is a coward,” someone else replied. “The knees are for cowards.”

“But if he is a coward,” the first voice asked redundantly, “why did he insist on becoming a surf film director?”

I thought about informing them of the sea needles but thought better of it and made a mental note to watch In Dancing Days Of Dawn as soon as I could. Live, if possible.

Read a section from the new book “Cocaine + Surfing.”

I plod from Huntington to Hollywood in a standard blur. Stop. Go. Speed. Flip-off. Make angry face. Change lanes. Listen to a new track by ex One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles. Listen to a new track by Miley Cyrus’ younger sister, Noah. I always listen to the worst music when I’m driving. And writing. I would try and blame my wife’s daughter, and some of it is her fault, but it’s mostly mine. My heart beats to teenage girl music.

And I finally pull into the valet stand at The Roosevelt, which is jammed. I step out of my car to see what’s happening and watch a valet who is looking at another valet who is looking at a rented white Jeep Compass who then looks over me. The front bumper is halfway off and there is a giant dent in the passenger side door and the whole thing is covered in red mud but I don’t know why the valets care. They didn’t do it. And this is the damned Roosevelt, not the Chateau Marmont for crying out loud.

I can’t remember how many surf parties I’ve been to here. Definitely more than ten. Maybe even 20. There is something between the surf industry and The Roosevelt. Some deep and abiding bond. All the brands from Globe to Volcom to Quiksilver to Billabong, even small ones like RadGnar and Let’s Party, have thrown something or another here. Movie premieres, product launches, birthday parties, photo exhibitions, promotion fêtes, even one celebrating the firing of a team manager. Tonight the surf industry is celebrating the release of a new surf clip by the film director I was supposed to be meeting at Duke’s and who is supposed to be promoting a new high-top shoe that may or may not be stylish.

When there is no official brand event or party, surfers will still stay here if whatever they’re attending is within a 20-mile radius or even 30. I don’t know that any other Los Angeles hotel is even considered. I don’t even know if surfers know the name of another hotel but they all know The Roosevelt and even know how to get here without using Google Maps. It is their true north.

Maybe it is Teddy’s?

The once hot Roosevelt lobby club, with its perpetually lusty orange glow and crowds craning necks to see if someone cooler is lurking in neighboring human knots, hosted the best of Hollywood’s brightest for a handful of years in the mid 2000s. Meg Ryan, early Paris Hilton, that one guy who wrestled professionally, Johnny Depp, etcetera.

The club was started by Amanda Scheer Demme, widow of Ted Demme, who is in her own right a famous photographer and takes the best celebrity pictures ever. All moody and sexy and dark. She took a picture of Joaquin Phoenix, River’s brother, smoking a cigarette and getting punched which wowed. She also took a picture of Travis Fimmel with his perfect nose and his bluest eyes and fuck him. I’m sorry. That is the jealousy writing.

Surfers will still stay here if whatever they’re attending is within a 20-mile radius or even 30. I don’t know that any other Los Angeles hotel is even considered. I don’t even know if surfers know the name of another hotel but they all know The Roosevelt and even know how to get here without using Google Maps. It is their true north.

Ted, her departed husband, was a popular figure and talented artist in his own right. He directed the best cocaine film ever starring Johnny Depp. Blow was based on the memoir of George Jung who helped the Medellín cartel import 85 percent of the United States’ supply in the 1970s and 1980s. Ted died of a cocaine-induced heart attack in 2002, Amanda made the club in his honor and now, I suppose, surf and the Roosevelt make perfect sense. A deep and abiding bond. A love affair that hides in the orange glow and the memory neck craning knots

I hear the valet ask the Jeep’s driver, who I recognize as a professional surfer who rides for RVCA, “Uhhhh are you guys checking in or…”

RVCA doesn’t respond because he is telling his surfer bro, who rides for Rusty, a story about one of his bros who got bottled on the Gold Coast last week.

“So my mate was out surfing Snapper, I guess, and stuffed this guy pretty good. Anyhow, that night outside the Coolangatta Hotel he was drinking a beer and the guy he stuffed came up to him and tried to bottle him. Like, there on the sidewalk. The bogan was so drunk though that he just swung and ended up hitting a parked car and passing out on the ground.”

I feel bad for the valets because long ago I used to be one. I shout to RVCA, “Hey! Are you guys staying here?”

RVCA looks up and laughs. “Chas—howzit, mate? Yeah, for two nights.”

The valet stutters, slightly, and responds, “Do you have a reservation yet? You have to have reservations because we are expecting a full…”

The two surfers don’t let him finish and walk off giggling and reenacting the bottling without taking their ticket. The two valets are left with an uncomfortable conundrum on their hands and look at me but I just shrug and walk toward the door too, without my ticket, wondering how quickly I can leave and also wondering if there are more bottling incidents among surfers than any other population grouping.

I had no idea what a “bottling” was prior to heading to Australia’s Gold Coast over a decade ago. I was covering the first surf contest of the year, the Quiksilver Pro, and at a pub when I saw some drunken surfer grab a beer bottle, smash it on a table, then wave it in the face of another drunken surfer. Viciously. Manically. It felt like the Wild West and I imagined I was witnessing some odd occurrence but was later told “bottlings” are so common that the government recently passed a law where glass would not be used after midnight in order to try and curb incidents.

Or maybe it is just an Australian surfer thing. I don’t recall ever seeing a bottling in…oh, I take that back. I saw a Brazilian surfer think about bottling a Californian surfer in San Clemente but he couldn’t break the bottle and got tackled to the ground first. Fucking surfers. And I hate drinking out of plastic, but I think it is all they use at the Roosevelt and I should probably be happy.

Courtesy of Rare Bird Books.

“Parties? Yeah, we had parties. Lots of ’em. And yes they were out of control on occasion.”

By the autumn of 1979, the fledgling surf apparel industry was in retreat in the face of an abrupt change in public taste. When a well-organized band of hip-hop and rave aficionados arrived in Orange County to crush the hostile surfers once and for all, they had numbers and the swell of history on their side. What they didn’t know was that their surfing adversaries were led by Michael Tomson, a Jewish South African, a reckonable force, and one of surfing’s true characters.

Shaun Tomson’s older cousin was a professional on the brand new circuit, part of the “Bustin’ Down the Door” crew and a Pipeline standout. That wasn’t enough, so he became a journalist, writing for the surf magazines alongside The New York Times and Rolling Stone. But that wasn’t enough either so he started a clothing brand, Gotcha. It was aggressive. It was loud. It was radical. It snarled, “If you don’t surf, don’t start.” It perpetuated an ethos that can still be felt when the ultra-conservative din of today’s surf industry quiets, usually between 3 and 4 in the morning.

Gotcha was eventually purchased by mega menswear brand, Perry Ellis, leading Michael Tomson to tell journalist Phil Jarratt that, “My baby turned into a whore.” Michael went on to be the president of the Surf Industry Manufacturer’s Association, helping to steer the surf industry through the best of times. Now he is ready for an as yet-to-be-revealed fourth act. We talked over a bottle of chilled Sancerre in his San Clemente home.


Chas Smith: Why did Gotcha start in Laguna?

Michael Tomson: I was living in San Clemente at the time. Quiksilver owned Newport so we didn’t want to go there and San Clemente was too far south. So I said to my friend and partner, Joel Cooper, “Let’s just drive up and see what there is.” Driving through Laguna we thought it looked cool but it could have been Louisville for all we knew. We didn’t know anything about it. That afternoon we were in a house and that’s where we formed the company. Through the course of time Laguna became the surf town.

CS: Where did [surf] go wrong?

MT: You mean why is the surf industry on its ass right now? That’s a big question for which there’s no short answer. But I think you have to start with why the industry was booming before it tripped and fell. From 1998 to 2008 the industry went through a period of unprecedented growth. There were more people surfing than ever, longboards were happening, women were in the water along with old people, kids, and anyone game enough to paddle out.

“And there it was, life on the table. I got pounded, held down, thought I was dying. Next thing, I’m being pulled up on a board. I couldn’t focus on anything, had to go to the hospital. Once you start to question yourself it’s over.”

Along with that surge in participants came an influx of new brands. It wasn’t surfing anymore, it was “boardsports.” The tribe even had Hollywood signed up for the program. Blue Crush came out, there was Fuel TV, and a lot of scripts “in development.” Retailers were supporting this new surf handle and allocating large amounts of floor space to the new movement. Quiksilver and Billabong were hitting sales levels in the billions and both were on an acquisition spree buying brands and buying the retailers who could showcase those brands. It was reckless investing, corporate swagger at its finest, and to the uninformed it looked like the surf industry was heading towards an impossibly bright future. Which of course it wasn’t. What nobody was considering was the consumer and the speed with which tastes change. Kids left the party, particularly mall kids, to whom surf product became a turn off—it just wasn’t as sexy as technology, which is where most kids were (and still are) spending their money. Then on top of that, by the time 2008 rolled around, the real estate market had capsized and the global financial crisis was in full swing leaving the surf industry, as we once knew it, in a desperate fight for survival. What used to be the ultimate career lifestyle became a shit show of broken dreams. The surf industry managed to survive the great clean out, the epic reality check, but not without a host of bankruptcies and reorganizations and today it faces a different set of problems, that being the internet and the changing nature of the way consumers buy products—meaning on their phones and not in stores.

CS: Gotcha told people not to surf. That was the greatest ad campaign ever. Kicking your potential consumer in the gut.

MT: That really was at the heart of the matter because surf was so crowded. Longboards had happened, which made surfing accessible to everyone: boys, girls, kids, old people. And suddenly the nucleus of core surf was being overrun. That’s where if you don’t surf don’t start came from.

CS: You blew the lid off. People still whisper in hushed tones about those Gotcha parties.

MT: Parties? Yeah, we had parties…lots of ’em! And yes they were out of control on occasion. I assume that’s why you’re asking. But then again maybe they weren’t out of control. I guess it depends on your point of view. If fashion shows with naked women and midgets is out of control then yes, I’d say they were off the charts. I’ll tell you one thing though, there was never a problem with attendance. And no one arrived late.

“Everything was new. Everything was big. Everything was fresh. It felt like surfing for the first time.”

Today that kind of stuff would never happen. Sometimes I think surf culture has lost a lot of its punk—brands don’t push the envelope as much. Even in the context of advertising, a campaign like Gotcha’s “If you don’t surf don’t start,” was pretty bold—telling people not to start surfing, that there’s enough of us already, which is exactly what every core surfer at the time was feeling.

CS: What was your design ethos?

MT: At that point in time there wasn’t any history to follow, we were out there, just doing it. And I was obsessed with being new every season. I challenged the designers to bring new things to the table. It was a very inspiring environment. And the parties followed the same format. Everything was new. Everything was big. Everything was fresh. It felt like surfing for the first time.

CS: Were you competitive when you were surfing professionally?

MT: I could never only focus on surf. I was too eclectic. Which is where a lot of the fruits of my life came from anyway. But there is a certain monotony to winning in a sport. You have to be dedicated and alone in that. You can’t let anything else distract you. It’s kind of a weird space. I always had [other] interests. At Pipe I was competitive. No question. I was there.

CS: Do you still surf Pipe?

MT: Never! Wouldn’t even consider it. It is terrifying, man! There comes a point in time when it doesn’t matter how hard you’ve trained, how fit you are, how many hours you’ve put in, how good your equipment is. You’re still not going to make that drop and it’s because your reflexes age and you slow down. I don’t even want to ride Sunset anymore. It’s just too heavy. The older you get you realize…I’ve nearly died at Sunset twice. At 50 and 52. This one time I was out there and this set popped up and I said, “Fuck it. I’m going. And there it was, life on the table. I got pounded, held down, thought I was dying. Next thing, I’m being pulled up on a board. I couldn’t focus on anything, had to go to the hospital. Once you start to question yourself it’s over. Once you start thinking too much, that’s when you get caught from behind.

CS: Could you start another brand?

MT: I doubt it—probably for the same reason you wouldn’t start a new print magazine today. The industry is in a state of flux as it figures out how to manage the transition from selling products to stores to selling [directly] online. This is a huge shift. So no, I wouldn’t be interested in starting something new. At least until such time as things stabilize.

“We had parties. Lots of ’em. And yes they were out of control on occasion. But I guess that also depends on your point of view. I’ll tell you one thing though, there was never a problem with attendance. And no one arrived late.”

CS: Did it always feel like the whole thing was going to explode in a fiery ball at Gotcha? That everyone was just barely holding on?

MT: At times it was surreal. There was this one time…and I wasn’t there for this, but it was told to me in detail. I had some guys working for me that pushed the envelope. They decided they were going to have a party in this giant hotel suite. Before people even got there I realized this was going sideways and I bailed. Every surf industry executive was there. And some guys had these hookers come out and one is [pleasuring] a guy in the middle of everyone, in the middle of 50 industry people, and he is going nuts and then her hair comes off in his hand. And it’s a wig and she is completely bald. The whole place went nuts. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen anymore. Everything is so punitive, so confined, so restrictive.

CS: Is cocaine an inspirational drug?

MT: You know something—I don’t remember it that way. It might be to some people but for me I don’t say I’m going to drink to do this or do drugs to do that. To me it’s about…turning on all inputs, all references. I look at different stuff and I start musing and wondering about things. Points of reference, whether they be magazines, or online or books, or ways of saying things or images I see. I am a huge collector of stuff. An importer, that’s what I am. The edge that Gotcha had over everyone was my nationality. I came from a European background and I was all over the world all the time importing stuff. Not products. Ideas. You know. Whereas everyone here was designing in this little enclave of Orange County, the design team at Gotcha was all over the world.

CS: The whole [surf] thing is circling the drain. Companies going bankrupt, mass layoffs, sales numbers through the floor. You’d think everyone would just give up, would do what they feel instead of doing what they think they should, or at least externally. Why not unhinge? It’s the fucking apocalypse!

MT: Exactly. But the thing is, you know, the internet is so cruel. I was beaten to a pulp for charges that were dismissed but I don’t want to get into that. Everywhere I go in Laguna I’m so known in that town, I’m under a microscope there. It’s a joke. In San Clemente nobody knows me from Adam.

CS: Do you care what people say anymore?

MT: Sometimes. But in the big picture, no, not really.