The most famous thing ever written about surfing, Tom Wolfe’s essay, “The Pump House Gang,” doesn’t have much to do with surfing. Instead, Wolfe focuses on the hostility between adult society and surfing understood as an outsider cult and defined, more or less, by mindless adolescence. This is a strange position for Wolfe (of all people) to take, since embedded within actual surf culture is something that should be right up his alley: an elaborate, informal, borderline inscrutable code of masculine status.
Many high-quality surf spots are governed by a “pecking order,” for example. And those who surf the biggest, most dangerous waves are called “hellmen” and “gladiators.” So it’s no surprise that—despite all the clichés about blissed-out surf-stoners—the most serious and ambitious surf movies convey a traditional, indeed heroic ethos. And it’s probably no surprise that they sometimes share a peculiar fate with other films that offer idealized portraits of heroic masculinity, such as this year’s 300—the tendency to have clueless film critics misread them as “homoerotic.”
Among surfers, John Milius’ Big Wednesday (1978) is widely viewed as the best nondocumentary surf film ever made. The movie follows three California surfers—talented Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent), crazy Leroy (Gary Busey), and sensible Jack (William Katt)—as they pass from adolescence to adulthood in the 1960s. The film’s crucible is the Vietnam War. The whole crew gets draft notices, and they all feign lunacy to avoid service, but nobody questions the war itself. Big Wednesday, with its conservative director,conveys something else: the disdain that many California surfers of the 1960s held for hippie culture. There’s a withering scene in which Matt and his wife sit down for lunch at their favorite diner, only to find that hippies have turned it into a health food restaurant. From start to finish, Big Wednesday is a film about loss and decline, but nothing in the film so pungently signifies the enveloping Waste Land as a hairy waiter in a tie-dyed tank top serving up bean sprout sandwiches.
When Big Wednesday finally arrives, the three friends meet at the beach and turn wordlessly to face “the Great Swell” and walk, as if into battle, toward the surf. At the end of the day, they part, after a round of bare-chested bro-hugs, pausing—wordlessly again—to take in the monster waves still slamming on the outside. (HBO’s wonderful John From Cincinnati examines this type from a different angle, asking the question: What happens when such laconic surf-macho runs headfirst into several generations of pain?)
If Big Wednesday is the most serious surf film ever made, Katherine Bigelow’s Point Break (1991)is surf cinema’s biggest missed opportunity. Roughly based on Tapping the Source, Kem Nunn’s acclaimed “surf-noir” novel, Point Break—with a studio budget and an able director—could have nailed the visual splendor of surf and surfing in the same way it nails its sky diving sequences. (Point Break, weirdly, is the best sky diving movie ever.) However, as Thad Ziolkowski noted recently in Slate, Bigelow botches the surfing. She has surfers changing stances and conversing on waves, Gidget-style, and, most egregiously, she has churning left-hand waves magically changing into churning right-hand waves.
But if it’s a loving examination of masculine status you want, it doesn’t get mas macho than Point Break. Keanu Reeves plays hotshot FBI agent and ex-college football star Johnny Utah, who takes up surfing in order to investigate a string of theatrical bank robberies. He meets Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), a sort of dreamy New Age badass and the acknowledged alpha dude among a likable clutch of hard-core surfers, who might also be the bank robbers he’s looking for. Their macho pas de deuxstarts with a beach football game, when, as far as anyone knows, Johnny is just some anonymous cat hanging around and learning to surf. At the end of one play, Johnny slams Bodhi into the white water, and the only person who doesn’t get all up in Johnny’s grill is Bodhi himself. He just stands up, shakes the wet hair from his eyes, and, with a delirious look of gratitude on his face, asks his overprotective friends, “Don’t you know who this is?” (It’s the most excellent Johnny Utah, my little droogs.) For a certain viewer, who has a weakness for the unironic pleasures of the heroic encounter, this is a delicious moment of recognition.
But sophisticated critics routinely dismiss this sort of quasi-heroic cinematic friendship as “homoerotic,” and they do so with such offhand certainty that it’s easy to miss how doltishly unimaginative this interpretation is. Indeed, claiming a macho film friendship is not-so-secretly gay has become its own kind of silly convention, a fake-subversive cliché. It is better—sounder both aesthetically and sociologically—to view the masculine pathos in films like Point Break in light of the tradition of heroically minded philosophy that runs from Aristotle to Nietzsche. If Point Break is homoerotic, in other words, then so is Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Indeed, the thing that connects Johnny and Bodhi is precisely the thing that Hegel says distinguishes the Master from the Slave: The master prefers death to a life without honor and beauty, a life of mere survival. (And, just to be clear, we’re talking about Hegel’s idealized view of slave-taking as a convention in ancient Greek warfare—soldier versus soldier. Not the modern trade in African slaves.)
The frisson of attraction that abides in the Johnny-Bodhi standoff is erotic, all right. But it isn’t homosexual desire. It’s narcissism, the delight of seeing one’s rare magnificence in someone else. The fact that Johnny and Bodhi operate on different sides of the law only highlights their mutual identification. Johnny is drawn across that line not because he wants to have sex with Bodhi, but because he wants to be Bodhi—or, more accurately, because he is Bodhi. If this isn’t obvious enough, Johnny’s new girlfriend, Tyler (Lori Petty), who is also Bodhi’s ex-girlfriend, says it repeatedly.
A good way of grasping how the claim of homoeroticism misfires sociologically comes from a more recent example: the Spartan blood bath 300. Critic after critic sneered that 300 was transparently homoerotic. Blogger Andrew Sullivan approvingly cited a (presumably gay) correspondent who wrote, “Everyone in the film is gay.” Why? Because of those short shorts and all those exposed muscles. (The correspondent dug the movie because of the hot, sweaty men. Ergo, everyone dug the movie because of the hot, sweaty men. I hope the entanglement of this interpretation in a hermeneutic circle is obvious.)
Now, 300 has earned more than $200 million in America alone, from an overwhelmingly male audience. What more plausibly accounts for this? That 20 million closet cases snuck off to see an illicit fantasy about bare-chested men in Hellenic Speedos, or that young men from the vast heartland of this very conservative, Christian, pro-military country flocked to see an unabashedly heroic tale of Occidental, republican military glory? To believe the latter, all you have to accept is that, in imagining the sort of heroic figures they themselves would like to be, straight men would project onto them not just excellence but physical beauty. Shouldn’t a guy be able to do such a thing without being called gay?