From the outset of The Endless Summer, it’s hard to pinpoint what Bruce Brown’s game is in following two California surfers (Mike Hynson and Robert August) on a world tour of then-unknown surfing hotspots. There’s a stiffness to his narration that initially suggests a stoner mimicking one of those now-kitschy PSAs from the 1940s and ‘50s, but as he goes on, he inserts jokes and stresses enthusiasm for certain athletes, areas, women, and practices that denote sincerity. Then there’s the film’s score by the surf-rock band the Sandals, which comes on like the sessions of the Surfaris before they finally nailed “Wipe Out” or the lazy instrumentals Brian Wilson thought up when he was too blitzed to write coherently. These cliché tunes, however, begin to find a groove that matches the sight of legends like Miki Dora weaving around the waves in Malibu. Even the film, which begins with basic terminology and some choice shots of Dora, Butch Van Artsdalen, and other top athletes, makes a move from “Welcome to the Wonderful World of Surfing” to something that transcends its overtly didactic tone, quickly becoming wholly entertaining, interesting, and not without its moments of sheer sublimity.
The roots of both my original misconstrued notion of the film’s tone and its eventual, immense likability stem from the film’s perceived shallowness. Arriving in Dakar, Senegal from Los Angeles, Brown captures images of children covered in dirt and suggests, in his narration, an unwanted governmental intrusion that caused them to stay at the most expensive hotel available; similar children living in similar poverty are seen when the boys move onto Ghana, West Africa and Lagos. But just as Brown, who serves as director, writer, editor, and cinematographer on top of his narrating duties, never purports to investigate, let alone understand the sociological or spiritual implications of the sport, neither does he contrive to turn himself, Hynson or August into mouthpieces for a cause or to do much of anything but search for good breaks and beaches. It’s the sort of focus that can so easily be tossed off as ignorant but Brown doesn’t shy away from the images of these cultures, just finds more purpose and fascination in seeing the kids interact with August, Hynson, and the sport itself. In short, the filmmaker and his subjects never feign importance and the film feels all the more open and devoid of pretentions because of that.
When the boys move onto New Zealand, Australia, and Tahiti, they encounter less instances that call for that sort of distancing but Brown finds other routes to bring out the nuance of his film. Brief asides with girls, cheesy skits, dune surfing, mishaps brought on by cultural displacement, and, especially, their meeting with an animal wrangler named Terrance. The sort of guy who sleeps in the same room as a basket of live cobras, Terrance agrees to drive them to Durban, South Africa when they have transport trouble and, later, nearly gets Hynson trampled and beat by a zebra. Of course, the film is most fascinating and engaging in its photography of those incredible feats of balance and athleticism when Hynson, August, and their colleagues catch the perfect wave but what distinguishes The Endless Summer from the travelogues it has inspired are those unforced, completely blissful moments where Brown just lets an unexpected occurrence play out. A slow-motion rickshaw ride Hynson and August take is a moment of pure, joyful, and humane humor.
Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, and a good amount of reality-television programming owe Brown back royalties and still haven’t improved on the framework he refined here. We never hear Hynson or August speak, relegating the audio strictly to Brown’s narration and the Sandals’s score, and yet we completely understand their trajectory: They are chasing what they love, what they are dedicated to, and, like Brown, have great focus when it comes to their sport. Upon its release, the film made $20 million off its production budget of $50,000, opened the sport up to unknown droves of athletes, and encouraged an interest in searching out and embracing other cultures without fear. And though I can’t justify agreeing with The New Yorker‘s claims of it being “a perfect movie” or, for that matter, a great one, there’s no denying that the small crew behind The Endless Summer set out to do exactly what has been accomplished on screen, and what is on screen gravitates toward and then eventually luxuriates in genuine bliss.
Shot on 16mm cameras some 45 years or so ago, The Endless Summer has been remastered digitally for this Director's Special Edition and looks far superior to the prior edition released in 2000. The colors are clearer and brighter and the film has a fine, detailed texture to it. There are problems with blacks and certain shots that have suffered but this looks to be more of a problem with the print than with the work of the team at Monterey Video. Audio is similarly clear with Bruce Brown's narration hovering over the woozy surf-rock score with very little complaint as far as balance goes.
There's a good portion of extras here but very little that adds anything to the package. The biggest supplement is a 40-minute documentary that mixes footage from the film with recent interviews with Brown and his son concerning both the making of the film and Brown's life. It's nice to see Brown shoot a potato/lemon canon, but it adds very little to a film that needs nothing added to it. Also included are biographies for the main cast and crew, a timeline of Brown's life, poster artwork from around the world, the famous poster itself, eBridge features, and a short featurette on the influence of the movie that is completely useless.
True to its title, The Endless Summer exudes a blissful, mellow buzz that could easily be misconstrued as lazy or innocuous filmmaking.