Wednesday, June 03, 2009

'The Present' by Thomas Campbell - a response.

As an already established lover of Sprout, I went to see Thomas Campbell’s latest offering, The Present with a good idea of what I was in for and a fair certainty that I would like it.


Right on both counts.


The barrow that T. Campbell continues to push in this film is an enthusiasm for riding both a variety of surf craft and waves. The point is to keep yourself open to different wave riding experiences without trying to privilege one over another, and which is an approach that continues growing to be increasingly popular and accepted. And it’s hard to fault an idea that advocates both riding the right board on the right wave as well as promoting mixing things up to keep them interesting.


What I thought might be a bit problematic for the film was how to weave such a diverse array of wave riding approaches together into something that makes sense in terms of ‘surfing’ - an idea that I find problematic. I am sceptical that surfing can be so cohesively discussed as one thing or one idea and I have become increasingly convinced that as surfing diversifies more and more in both the media and in the water, it grows to be segmented the same way that skateboarding seems to be. So I was interested to see just how Mr Campbell and co were going to try and link longboarding, shortboarding, bodyboarding, bodysurfing and so on and on as aspects of the one same experience.


Come on Thomas! Show us your hand!


Well, he does this pretty much immediately with a brief discussion of the film’s title, The Present, creating the link in a way that even I found endearing and convincing. The Present suggests that surfing waves, that riding waves, is an experience which places us firmly in the now, in the world, in the day, in the moment. Such a premise argues a removal from the complex networks of our lives and brings us back, ultimately, to enjoying the world around us, in this moment, through ourselves.


To get even more philosophical and conceptual about it, such an experience and connection breezily plays with notions of time itself, because from this surfing perspective we’re forced to focus on one thing, one wave, one moment. And it is in this way that the aspirations of the title are clear – The Present, the moment, the gift, the immediacy, the time, the now, the you, the me, the us.


Deep, man.


To argue his point, Campbell features an real array of ‘right now’ surfers who (we are constantly told/sold by their sponsors) are relevant to contemporary surfing – Ry Craike, Dane Reynolds, Sofia Mulanovich, Joel Tudor, Kassia Meador, Alex Knost and of course, those multi-board-riding darlings, Dave Rastovich and Dan Malloy. (Because let’s face it - what self-respecting West Coast US surf film would fail to include, nay feature, a Malloy?) And the waves vary from perfect Indo barrels to knee-high peelers to thundering West African “freight trains” (their description) providing a range of waves as varied as the boards ridden. The footage and the production plays with a assortment of waves, boards, riders, styles, places, approaches and aesthetics all the time using the title concept to pull it all into some kind of unison.


The footage used is diverse and beautiful, and plays with colour, light and perspective. It revels as much in the spaces and places of where the waves are as much as it does in the waves themselves. And not in that awfully patronising way that Sipping Jetstreams did with it’s frozen filmic portraits of the locals-who-live-a-simpler-life although, to be fair, there is indeed a little of this going on. (“Hey kid! Can you stand still over there while I film you holding a kite?”) If you want to be involved with a community, then by all means, be involved, but thinking that you’re connecting on some deeper level just because you use their picture for your surf film is a crock of shit. It’s just another way of taking, taking, taking from such communities. Conversations about ‘the simple life of the local people’ in the places visited is a little tired for my liking and I feel it’s time to move on. If you’re trying to make a statement about the unbalanced, problematic, sweep-it-under-the-carpet relationships of surfing to certain locations then fine, do so. You should! But you’re not. In which case, the local people you’re filming with such wonder are simply folk, going about their business, which just happens to be a bit different to your business. Get over it.


Phew! Glad I got that off my chest!


Previous to viewing the film, a friend who had already seen it had lamented the lack of originality and the way that, to his ears, the ongoing voice-over references straight back to Bruce Brown and The Endless Summer films. I can see where he’s coming from and I too found it sometimes a bit irksome as his observation rang in my ears and nearly ruined things for me. The monotony of Campbell, Dan Malloy and Rastovich’s droning narration does get a little irritating at times but at others I did feel that it helped explain the point and to keep the story and context together, so I could forgive it. I much preferred the staged phonecalls. They amused me –haha! - and I thought they worked well in spite of, or perhaps because of, their cheesiness. There are sections in there that are purely fun and silly and I liked it. Surfing is fun and silly a lot of the time.


I also l.o.v.e.d the soundtrack.


The film dipped its toe into an early and necessarily superficial discussion of the environmental reality of boards and the currently unsustainable way they are produced. Not much was really said, but I understand why and a point was made and I think it’s good that it came up at all. Considering the number of boards that Senõr Malloy must go through it’s good to know that he ponders his board-based footprint in any way! And of course, I have to point out not just the inclusion of women surfing in the film (Campbell is good at that) but the way he did it! I liked that there wasn’t a chick section that set women’s surfing up as graceful or charming or great or different or anything in particular. When there were women surfing (and it was only three ladies in total) it was as a part of what was going on in a much more inclusive way that didn’t really need to be pointed out. Like in the real world.


Overall I reckon the film is beautiful and fun and sincere. The sincerity doesn’t emerge from the tried-and-true format of travelling to different countries to surf (but it certainly makes for good viewing), nor does it lie in hangin’ with the locals in each location (I can get those tales from friends as they come home from their year overseas). And certainly big films like The Endless Summer I & II and Step Into Liquid etc etc, have already played with the theme that ‘surfers are all bound by an experience’ but I’ve never really been sold on that. Certainly The Present draws on all these surf film clichés and tools to develop it’s own voice and lacks the modernity of the raw, new-media, YouTube clips that I take such great online pleasure in and which seem to be the way forward at this point, but I think that films like this one retain their relevance. I like the feature-length, the not-always-digital-film, the story, the cohesion, the sense of continuity. I like that people put so much time and effort into something. And sometimes I just like to look at pretty things.


For me the sincerity lies in the sentiment. As both Sprout and The Present show, surfing is a fragmented and diverse spectrum of approaches and aesthetics and I have often wondered how similar it all really is? But Campbell’s film is thoughtful and has clearly been laboured over, and its simplistic conceptual device of ‘the present’ drew me in. Instead of focusing on a specific surfing approach it argued, once again, the case for branching out and making it about wave-riding, re-jigging the focus onto the immediate physicality of surfing and of time…


the present.


3 comments:

  1. Really looking forward to seeing TC's latest creation particularly as I am a firm believer in the notion of "Choose the appropriate craft for the wave on offer"

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  2. Cheers for the review. Considered stuff is always a treat to read. Guess all thats left is to see it for myself.

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  3. Thanks.
    Reading your post (and others similar to this one) I feel like I'm an alien. Alien to the surf culture, and the surf world alien to me.
    Which is true. I'm like a guest.
    But if "the best surfer is the one having fun", then I'm a good one, and please be patient with me!

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