Bye Bye Bodhi

Why the movies always get surfing wrong—and John From Cincinnati gets it right.

Greyson Fletcher. Click image to expand.
Greyson Fletcher in John From Cincinnati 

There are three sorts of surf films: the hard-core variety, made for and by surfers, which consists, like pornography, mainly of high-performance action sequences and a music soundtrack (Back in Town, 2004); popularizing documentaries, which mix high-performance action sequences with explanatory narrative and interviews (Step Into Liquid, 2004); and Hollywood narratives, with their penchant for groan-inducing asseverations about surfing’s mystical dimension and cheesy climactic scenes in big waves (Blue Crush, 2002). Appearing once every 10 years or so, the latter have generally been both artistic and financial flops—perversely satisfying proof to initiates (at least those not on the payroll as writers or stunt people) that the elusive mystique of surfing can’t be caught in the wide weave of a Hollywood narrative net.

In some ways, John From Cincinnati, David Milch’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed HBO series, Deadwood, constitutes more such proof. For instance, in Episodes 2 and 3, Link Stark (Luke Perry), the show’s quietly sinister surf industry exec, is shown wearing a blazer, lest we forget that he’s a “suit.” In fact, surf industry types are indistinguishable from other surfers because they are other surfers. But JFC has gone to some lengths to set itself apart from its predecessors in the genre. Indeed, the show occasionally strains so hard to establish its bona fides that it ends up erring on the side of inscrutability. “So Huntington’s a crossed-up swell,” Mitch Yost tells his grandson Shaunie at one point in the second episode, without any indication to the layman of whether such a thing is good, bad, or indifferent. (It’s bad: A crossed-up swell is one composed of pulses arriving from different directions, as opposed to one strong push from a single direction. Huntington Beach is notorious for mediocre contest surf.)

But JFC gets a good deal right about surfing, which is not a surprise given the number of surfers enlisted in the project. Perhaps taking a cue from HBO’s The Wire, which counts crime novelists George Pelicanos and Dennis Lehane among its writers, JFC has recruited Kem Nunn, author of “surf noir” novels such as Tapping the Source (1984).

JFC is based on the story of the irrepressible Fletcher surf clan. Herbie, a top-ranked competitor in the ‘60s who is credited (or blamed, depending on one’s affiliations) for the renaissance of the longboard, was an early maker of surf videos and an energetic promoter, through those videos, of his two prodigiously talented sons, Christian and Nathan. (Fletcher’s wife, Dibi, herself comes from a noteworthy surf family.) Christian Fletcher is remembered as a punky, irreverent pro who in the late ‘80s added height and flair to the aerial, a maneuver first performed in the late ‘70s; he also played in death-metal bands and developed a crack habit. Christian’s son Greyson is now a highly-regarded “grom”—a preteen-to-early-teen surfer—and plays his counterpart, Shaunie, in the series.

The inclusion of Greyson Fletcher is actually one of the main things that lends JFC its surf cred. Fletcher has an upright, elfin carriage and an androgyny peculiar to certain young surfers. When his squabbling grandparents are threatening to make him late to a contest, it is with echt-Californian understated annoyance that he delivers the line, “I guess I have to be there by 11.” (Then again, he doesn’t really have anything to complain about. He’s part of a surf family, which is about as good as it gets for a grom: His grandma built him a halfpipe in their back yard.)

As for the surf sequences, they’re filmed for the most part in average—that is, realistic—waves. Thanks to a nice use of an amplified ambient ocean soundtrack, the sequences also have a distinctive lyricism that lifts the surfing action into a realm of its own and comes closer than usual to conveying the time-suspended, whooshing experience of wave-riding. Care is taken to match up the stunt doubles with the actors. And gaffs of the sort that plague Point Break, such as surfers suddenly riding with different stances or being able to see over the back of a wave how another surfer is faring on a ride, are avoided.

The first episode begins with surf industry exec Link Stark watching as Mitch Yost, the Herbie Fletcher character, rides a few waves with old-school nimble-footed precision. Yost then walks up the beach to his vintage “woodie” station wagon, into which he slides his single-fin longboard. The scene establishes Yost as what’s called a “soul surfer,” a term coined in the ‘70s to denote a surfer scornful of the commercialization of surfing. A soul surfer would ride a board that had no brand labels on it, and wear a sticker-free wetsuit, as Yost does.

Given that Mitch Yost also owns a surf shop and thus makes his living on the back of the very surf industry he loftily disdains, his stance is somewhat compromised. But JFC should be commended for at least staking out a position of resistance to corporatization. Blue Crush  and the reality show Boarding House: North Shore, to take two recent examples, both hold up happily branded pro surfers as the ideal.

The show also has something to say about the other phenomenon plaguing surfing today, namely yuppification. With a few changes (sub in an SUV for the woodie), that opening beach scene would make a terrific SUV commercial, a stock figure of which is now the boomer lawyer/surfer, getting in an early-morning sesh before heading to the office in his Touareg. Indeed, JFC has its own lawyer-surfer, Meyer Dickstein, who embodies the yuppie dabbler. The yuppification of surfing began in the early ‘90s, around the time of Point Break’s release. The popularization of lightweight longboards coincided with skyrocketing prices for beachfront real estate to cause a class shift in surfing. Far easier for boomers and novices of all ages to learn on (including all those celebrities who now appear in People and USWeekly struggling to their feet in Malibu windslop), the new lightweight longboards also added to surfing’s already overcrowded waves.

Finally, partly because of the careful groundwork done with the surf footage, JFC’s magical-realist touches emerge more organically than you might expect. The first paranormal phenomenon occurs at the beginning of the first episode, when Mitch Yost, rinsing off post-surf, finds himself levitating a few feet off of the ground. It’s a resonant image, since surfing, especially the cross-stepping of a longboarder, inevitably brings to mind walking on water.

But if JFC wants to deepen its surf reality, it’s not the supernatural that needs emphasis but the mundane. The daily reality of surfing is one of checking the waves (at the beach or, these days, on a Web cam), surfing if there are any waves (and often there aren’t and if there are, they aren’t particularly good), looking at magazine spreads of exceptional surf photographed elsewhere in the world, watching surf videos, and daydreaming.

The show’s inclusion of average surf is the right idea. There’s a moment early in the first episode when Shaunie Yost is shown passing up a small wave. The shot is too tight to allow us to see why, whether the wave is uncatchable or not worth catching or someone is already riding it. He’s just shown looking it over and pulling back. That’s surfing—elegant, unclimactic moments of paddling, of taking quiet pleasure in hard-won wave knowledge, of simply being in the ocean on a board. But it’s not high drama, which is why Hollywood can never seem to get surfing right. The question may not be whether JFC can continue to get surfing right, but does it dare.