Back when I was twelve or thirteen I asked my Dad to take my friends and me on a birthday outing to a movie called Crystal Voyager which we all thought was going to be a superhero movie. It turned out to be an Australian documentary about surfing. We walked out after what seemed like an hour of footage of nothing but churning waves and I was never allowed to forget about it. Needless to say, despite my later love for Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break, I never saw another surfing documentary again. Nor did I ever surf.
Then the other day I picked up a book called Surf Movie Tonite!: Surf Movie Poster Art, 1957-2004, published by the invaluable Chronicle Books and quite possibly already out of print. The book features over 140 posters and I was intrigued less by the posters themselves than by the concept that there were even 140 surf movie posters (or 140 surf movies) in existence. Quantity however is fueled by the fact that the history of the surf movie, and of the surf movie poster, begins and ends in lo-fi indie d.i.y aesthetic, starting out with 16mm films shown in school halls and taken from town to town (advertised with home-made, single-color handbills) and ending with short run vhs and dvd quickies with laser printed covers. When surf movies became big business in the '60s with Hollywood cashing in with Gidget and Beach Party, the surf movie documentary poster became generally garish and psychedelic (see Rick Griffin's poster for 1970s Pacific Vibrations, though Warshaw has a superb alternative poster, below, that manages to be both trippy and beautifully minimalist).
The surf movie genre, and the surf movie poster, arguably peaked in 1965 with Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer. Filmed in 1963, and picked up by Columbia Pictures (who transferred it to 35mm) three years later, Brown's globe-trotting documentary about the search for the perfect wave grossed $30 million and caused Time magazine to dub Brown “the Bergman of the boards.” Surf Movie Tonite author Matt Warshaw writes that “the John Van Hammersveld-designed Endless Summer movie poster [see below]—featuring Brown, [Mike} Hynson, and [Robert] August standing on the beach in high-contrast silhouette against a blazing background of Day-Glo orange, magenta, and yellow—is the most recognizable piece of Pop Art this side of Warhol.” The poster owes a lot to the graphic simplicity of those early handbills, but it’s the British version of that poster, (perhaps also designed by Van Hammersveld, though Warshaw doesn’t say), a pop-art version of Hokusai’s “Great Wave off Kanagawa”, that leaps out of the book for me as the perfect wave of surf movie posters.
As for Crystal Voyager (a film I’d always remembered wrongly as Silver Surfer), though it isn’t even featured in Surf Movie Tonite! it turns out to be a classic of the genre. Made in 1973 it was picked up by Hemdale for UK release, shown at Cannes, and had a record-breaking six month run in London’s West End, on a double-bill with Rene Laloux’s animated sci-fi Fantastic Planet (a stoner’s double-bill made in heaven if ever there was one). We saw it on its own a few years later, perfectly sober of course, in an empty arthouse cinema in Cardiff, Wales. The film ends, quite famously apparently, with a 23-minute long sequence of slow-motion footage shot inside tubular waves, edited to Pink Floyd’s “Echoes.” I remember it well.