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Catch the wave

Director Bruce Brown rides nostalgia for surfing films

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Even if you never lived through the days of platinum crew cuts and Jan and Dean, it's hard not to have nostalgia for the wholesome America depicted in Bruce Brown's intoxicating surfer films.The Scorsese of the surf, Brown made nine films about his beloved sport between 1958 and 1975, from documentaries of his friends catching waves in Oahu, Hawaii, to narrative features with unapologetically one-note storylines about surfers on a quest for "the perfect wave." Brown took a detour into another hobby in 1971 with On Any Sunday, a documentary about motorcycle racing. Narrated by Steve McQueen, the documentary offers a paean to the boyish lust for wheelie-popping and features footage of tow-headed suburban kids in flared cords racing their banana bikes, as well as tanned, daredevil motorcycle racing champions tearing up dirt speedways.

Thoughout August, Brown is introducing On Any Sunday and many of his surfing films on Turner Classic Movies. This titan of the tubes was recently in Atlanta to tape his TCM promos and discuss his start in the ultimately highly profitable surf documentary business, offering antidotes to the doofusy blight of Beach Blanket Bingo and other non-bitchin' fare.

Brown's most famous film The Endless Summer (1966) was an enormously successful effort to "show what it was really like." Today, The Endless Summer is a cult item, a blissed-out portrait of a world where guys are reduced to golly-gee kids by the sight of some breaking surf, a world so far removed from our own it shimmers like a mirage.

Endless recounts the unspoiled enthusiasm of two wide-eyed but preternaturally cool, good-looking California surfers, Robert August and Mike Hynson, as they travel from Hawaii to South Africa to Australia in search of a perpetual summer and the ultimate wave. Brown's good-natured, joshing narration recounts their ensuing adventures with African village chiefs who want to Bogart their boards and a likably deranged Aussie who sets up extreme encounters between the boys and the local predatory wildlife. It's On the Road meets Dobie Gillis as the boys eventually do find their perfect, almost perpetual tube in South Africa and Brown waxes surfer-philosophical. "Think of the thousands of waves going to waste," he reflects of the virgin surf before these beach bums discovered the mother lode.

Like August and Hynson, Brown says the surfers of the '50s and '60s were united by a common "childish outlook on things. I always focused on the positive part of everything. I think that's kind of how we looked at life," says Brown, a leathery 65-year-old who still lives across from the beach in Gaviota, Calif., outside of Santa Barbara. Brown retains his a deadpan sense of humor and a lingering surfer intolerance for "phonies" and guys in suits.

"We just thought, 'Half the world's nuts. Why would you want to work if you didn't have to? And if you made some money, you oughta spend it on going to Hawaii or having some fun.' We thought other people were crazy!"

Made for $50,000, The Endless Summer eventually raked in $30 million and introduced Americans to the surfing lifestyle. Brown remembers screenings of the film packed with enthusiastic audiences. "It was real exciting, like a 'happening' -- everybody's there in their surf duds with their girlfriends."

Like many of Brown's other surfer films, Endless was originally a roadshow offering, hauled to cities around the U.S. where Brown would rent a local high school auditorium or Elk's Lodge to show the film and provide his own improvised narration, sometimes up to 70 times a year.

Since his first surfer doc, Slippery When Wet (1958), Brown has watched surfing change, from a subcultural phenomenon practiced by a saltwater cognoscenti to a popular pastime for young professionals. Many of surfing's early devotees were also friends of Brown who often parlayed their obsessions into big business in the Ocean Pacific company, restaurants, surf board manufacturing, magazines or, in Brown's case, filmmaking. "We tried to figure out a way where we could make a living and still live the lifestyle" says Brown, who has since retired from the moviemaking business, but has a son making the next generation of surf stories.

Though he was encouraged, after his success with surfer docs, to move to Hollywood, Brown never even considered that an option. "You gotta be out of your mind!" was more his line of thinking.

"Most surfers, our idea of a neat place to be was not a mansion in Beverly Hills, but a trailer on a lonely beach somewhere with the perfect wave coming through off the point," he says.

It's easy to see the impact Brown's films had on audiences of the day, living in the consumer conformity of the '50s, unable to yet taste the liberated '60s. The sense of freedom and possibility expressed in the films is powerful, as these ordinary people, whether surfing or motorcycle freaks, pursue their obsessions without regard for the culture at large.

And though Brown is happily married to his junior high school crush, Pat, and has three grown children, an element of the fanatic and iconoclast still clings to him. Clearly no amount of money will entice him into a business suit, and he retains the irreverent, deadpan wit heard on his voice-over narrations. Brown throws out words like "dude" and "bummer" and continues to live by a code that's not exactly "surf or die," but something pretty close.

"I'd rather get eaten by a shark than get snuffed out on the freeway by a bus," Brown asserts, identifying more with the laws of the surf than the codes of so-called "civilization." "If you think about it, you're dying in this beautiful blue environment, or you're laying on the freeway with asphalt in your forehead," says Brown.

And of course, for a storyteller like Brown, there's one added incentive. "Then the grandkids have something great to talk about."

Brown launches into an imagined dialogue after his passing: "How's your granddad?"

"He got eaten by a shark!"

"No kidding? Wow! Cool!"

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