The movie revels in the absence of anything weighty, but its carefree message resonates today
Image: Wikimedia Commons
I have never surfed—never even dreamed of surfing or had any inclination to pick up a board—and yet in this summer of our discontent I have become mesmerized by Bruce Brown's timeless documentary The Endless Summer. It is a beautifully shot film from pristine locales chronicling the worldly travels of two dashing surfer dudes in the mid 1960s. Brown's masterpiece has been airing over and over again this summer on ESPN Classic, and it seems to me like a perfect antidote to all the bad news coming out of Washington these days.
Wouldn't we all like to leave everything behind and go out in search of the perfect wave right about now? Wouldn't we like to worry about nothing more than finding the right beach with the right surf and the right water temperature? I'd bet the ranch that President Barack Obama, he of the Hawaiian birthplace, would sign on to that deal if he could. If the movie were food it would be your favorite dish at the local diner. If it were a song it would be the sort people pay to listen to in order to fall asleep. If I were a doctor, I would prescribe it to my patients.
Here's how Brown's people subsequently described what he accomplished nearly 50 years ago:
In 1964, filmmaker Bruce Brown decided to follow two surfers around the world in search of a perfect wave. On a budget of only US $50 thousand, with a 16mm camera, he captured the essence, the adventure, and the art of surfing. Hence the renowned The Endless Summer. From the waters of West Africa, through the seas of Australia, to Tahiti, two surfers from California achieved their great dream: to try the wildest waves in the world.
Here's a brief video clip from the film:
The genius of the movie is that it seeks to do no more than record an escape from the burdens of the real world. 1964 was a particularly important pivot point in American history. It was the year of the Warren Report; the year of the Gulf of Tonkin episode that led to the disastrous escalation of America's involvement in the Vietnam War; the year of Barry Goldwater and the Civil Rights Act. These momentous events were happening—shaping a generation—and yet these guys were chasing waves from here to (literally) Timbuktu without an apparent care in the world. They were tuning out in the sun and the surf long before their contemporaries began tuning out with drugs.
The Sandals performed the music for the film, and the surf rock themes are, you might say, epic. Here's the score:
The documentary was released in 1966 to surprisingly good reviews from mainstream movie critics. The timing was serendipitous. The technology of filmmaking would not have allowed the film to be made five years earlier. And five years later, in 1971, the sun and fun would have seemed far too frivolous following the race riots, Kent State, and the body bags coming home from Southeast Asia. For these reasons, The Endless Summer seems as much of a period piece as Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind. Yes, son, there really was a time when the beaches were clear and no one bugged you to put on sunscreen.
The film indeed revels in the absence of anything weighty. There is a single remark by Brown about South Africa's apartheid—he lamely notes that the area's sharks and porpoises segregate themselves in the water. There is a sexist remark about the bathing suits of Australia's female surfers. A few locals here and there are made fun of. And that's about the extent of the film's political message. We don't know what the boys think about anything beyond what they think of the water and the waves and the size of the surf. They aren't characters so much as props.
The film's philosophical message, on the other hand, is front and center: There is art and science in most human endeavors, including the ones that ultimately matter the least to the story of our existence on Earth. The "perfect wave" doesn't exist only in the perfect world these men inhabited during their journey. And yet the surfers were as beautiful and as graceful as the beaches and waves upon which they played. They were as carefree as the fish they saw in the water or the animals they saw on land. No wonder the Beach Boys used the title for their 1974 memorable compilation album (Side 1: "Surfin' Safari," "Surfer Girl," "Catch a Wave," "The Warmth of the Sun," and "Surfin USA").
The Endless Summer, the movie, became an anthem to the world's surfing community. And it helped inspire an international boon in surfing while continues unabated to this day. "Now it's mainstream," Brown told an interviewer last year, "but in the '50s and '60s you were an outcast, you didn't want to mention it in some circles." I'm no movie buff, and I'm sure y'all will correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot name another movie that led a cultural revolution as much as this one evidently did. The Endless Summer introduced world-class surfing to the world and the world was ready and delighted to make the acquaintance.
No doubt there are young men and women in America today who, like me, have seen the old movie on ESPN and become inspired by the grace it portrays. Good for them. I won't ever make it onto a board. But, alas, those who will are likely to search in vain for the empty beaches and mellow pace the boys found, the boys exuded, when they went on their worldwide tour in 1964. Everything has changed since then—everything but the waves of course.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Stormborn,” the first episode of the seventh season.
Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
Spencer Kornhaber: Game of Thrones ended its latest episode with a good-old-fashion pirate ambush, eliminating two out of three of the Sand Snakes and subjecting Theon to a humiliating self-directed walk of the plank. As far as late-episode twists go, Euron Greyjoy’s at-sea ambush was a solid one, injecting real suspense and unsettling violence into what had seemed like a straightforward sail. Yet, in the end, it was also a typical Thrones-ian calamity: You’d best bet against the side you want to win.
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TOKYO—Japan’s population is shrinking. For the first time since the government started keeping track more than a century ago, there were fewer than 1 million births last year, as the country’s population fell by more than 300,000 people. The blame has long been put on Japan’s young people, who are accused of not having enough sex, and on women, who, the narrative goes, put their careers before thoughts of getting married and having a family.
But there’s another, simpler explanation for the country’s low birth rate, one that has implications for the U.S.: Japan’s birth rate may be falling because there are fewer good opportunities for young people, and especially men, in the country’s economy. In a country where men are still widely expected to be breadwinners and support families, a lack of good jobs may be creating a class of men who don’t marry and have children because they—and their potential partners—know they can’t afford to.
Getting too little sleep can have serious health consequences, including depression, weight gain, and heart disease. It is torture. I know.
I awoke in a bed for the first time in days. My joints ached and my eyelids, which had been open for so long, now lay heavy as old hinges above my cheekbones. I wore two pieces of clothing: an assless gown and a plastic bracelet.
I remembered the hallway I had been wheeled down, and the doctor’s office where I told the psychiatrist he was the devil, but not this room. I forced myself up and stumbled, grabbing the chair and the bathroom doorknob for balance. I made it to the toilet, then threw water on my face at the sink, staring into the mirror in the little lavatory. My tousled hair shot out around my puffy face; my head throbbed. I looked hungover.
In those first moments, I remembered the basics about what had landed me in the hospital: Some pseudo-philosophical ranting and flailing brought on by a poorly executed experiment to see how long I could last without sleep.
Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.
In 1995, if you had told Toby Spribille that he’d eventually overthrow a scientific idea that’s been the stuff of textbooks for 150 years, he would have laughed at you. Back then, his life seemed constrained to a very different path. He was raised in a Montana trailer park, and home-schooled by what he now describes as a “fundamentalist cult.” At a young age, he fell in love with science, but had no way of feeding that love. He longed to break away from his roots and get a proper education.
At 19, he got a job at a local forestry service. Within a few years, he had earned enough to leave home. His meager savings and non-existent grades meant that no American university would take him, so Spribille looked to Europe.
Why some progressives are minimizing Russia’s election meddling
When it comes to possible collusion with Russia, Donald Trump’s most interesting defenders don’t reside on the political right. They reside on the political left.
Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich aren’t defending a principle. They’re defending a patron. Until recently they were ultra-hawks. Now, to downplay Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections, they sound like ultra-doves. All that matters is supporting their ally in the White House.
For left-wing defenders like Max Blumenthal and Glenn Greenwald, by contrast, ideology is king. Blumenthal and Greenwald loathe Trump. But they loathe hawkish foreign policy more. So they minimize Russia’s election meddling to oppose what they see as a new Cold War.
The world has many coming-of-age traditions: sweet sixteens, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras. But in one African country, 'initiation' is endangering the health of girls and boys.
CHIRADZULU, Malawi — A slight frame gives her the appearance of a child, but the hardened look Grace Mwase wears makes her seem older than her 14 years. In many villages across Malawi, a largely agrarian sliver of a country in southern Africa, custom dictates that both boys and girls as young as eight attend a rite of passage known as “initiation,” after which they are no longer seen as children. The practice is most entrenched in the country's south, where Mwase's Golden Village is located.
Mwase was just 10 when she was led, along with about a dozen other girls, to remote huts outside her village during winter vacation from school in August. The girls were accompanied by older women from their village in Chiradzulu district, near the border with Mozambique. The women, known as anamkungwi, or “key leaders,” told them that when they returned to their villages they should cook and clean—and have sex. According to Mwase, most of the two weeks she spent at the initiation camp were dedicated to learning how to engage in sexual acts. She had been excited for this time with friends away from home, but that feeling quickly gave way to dread as she learned the true purpose of initiation.
I used to adore the Pride and Prejudice author. But over the years I’ve grown more ambivalent toward her and the fervor for her work.
I once confessed to an audience gathered for a pre-show talk about Pride and Prejudice that I felt a bit salty to see so many of them in attendance. A few months earlier, I explained, I’d given an absolutely fascinating lecture on Mary Shelley to maybe five people, one of whom was my Aunt Carmen. The crowd for Jane Austen—and it was a crowd—laughed. A mix of students, folks from the surrounding towns, and my colleagues were there to see a stage adaptation of what is arguably the author’s most popular novel. It was my job to introduce the performance, and I was terrified. It’s no small thing to talk about Austen in public. There’s always a cluster of people who have been reading her since before they could walk, and they not only have strong opinions but also know her and her writing like my mother knew the Bible.
She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.
Most of the country understands that when it comes to government, you pay for what you get.
When I was a young kid growing up in Montreal, our annual family trips to my grandparents’ Florida condo in the 1970s and ‘80s offered glimpses of a better life. Not just Bubbie and Zadie’s miniature, sun-bronzed world of Del Boca Vista, but the whole sprawling infrastructural colossus of Cold War America itself, with its famed interstate highway system and suburban sprawl. Many Canadians then saw themselves as America’s poor cousins, and our inferiority complex asserted itself the moment we got off the plane.
Decades later, the United States presents visitors from the north with a different impression. There hasn’t been a new major airport constructed in the United States since 1995. And the existing stock of terminals is badly in need of upgrades. Much of the surrounding road and rail infrastructure is in even worse shape (the trip from LaGuardia Airport to midtown Manhattan being particularly appalling). Washington, D.C.’s semi-functional subway system feels like a World’s Fair exhibit that someone forgot to close down. Detroit’s 90-year-old Ambassador Bridge—which carries close to $200 billion worth of goods across the Canada-U.S. border annually—has been operating beyond its engineering capacity for years. In 2015, the Canadian government announced it would be paying virtually the entire bill for a new bridge (including, amazingly, the U.S. customs plaza on the Detroit side), after Michigan’s government pled poverty. “We are unable to build bridges, we're unable to build airports, our inner city school kids are not graduating,” is how JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon summarized the state of things during an earnings conference call last week. “It’s almost embarrassing being an American citizen.”