Can you think of any other documentaries that have found themselves graced across t-shirts, boogie boards and dorm room posters? The Endless Summer occupies a special place in our culture. Released fifty years ago in 1966, it embodies much of the peaceful easy feeling of the 60’s, while also capturing an American spirit that had not yet lost Vietnam. The 60’s wasn’t all protests and flower power- there was a side to the counter-culture that was pure blissful escapism, and The Endless Summer represents that in full.
It’s a beautiful piece of filmmaking- director Bruce Brown followed two young men as they traversed the world from Hawaii, to West Africa, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and back again. The goal was to follow the summer season wherever it went, searching for the “perfect wave” and trying to live in the titular endless summer. Brown keeps his camera at a distance for the most part, zooming and panning to stay with the action of the surfing. The camera work is solid if not unextraordinary. Brown had directed several other surfing films at that point, and there were considerable limitations to the technology at the time.
Surfing is like a slow, magical dance, and perfectly suited for cinematic capture. The way the waves curl and unfurl, the grace and care of the physical posture, the gentle balancing that keeps you on board, one tiny move away from falling off or wiping out. Each camera frame feels full of these pleasant details, a relaxing feast for the eyes. It’s enough to make you want to turn off the sound and watch it silently. However, you would be missing out on the classic low key soundtrack provided by surf group The Sandals, as well the film’s other signature feature- director Bruce Brown’s voiceover narration.
It’s full of dad jokes and other less humorous things (which we will get to soon). His timbre and vocal inflections are of an old time, and it’s fascinating to hear how differently we would talk even two decades later. It’s obvious from the beginning that no one would ever choose to make a film this way today.
Far less charming is Brown’s fairly constant casual racism, to the point where it stops feeling very casual at all. In Senegal a group of boys are watching them surf. Brown offers a now infamous line to describe their actions: “Being good Africans, they throw a few rocks.” He refers to a large bodied man trying to ride the surfboard as “chief,” and uses the word “primitive” and “natives” more than a few times. There’s even a staged scene where, when marching through the jungle with surfboards in hand, they have to run away from a “native” wearing facepaint and West African headwear, who laughs maniacally as if he were a cannibal out to get them. They refer to a small boy in South Africa who they befriend as “Mr. Clean” after he gets considerable soap on his face. He smiles big at the camera like a caricature. The depictions of the local citizens they encounter are only a few steps below the vibe of a minstrel show. Every cultural and linguistic difference they encounter is funneled through the filters of American exceptionalism and primitivist reductionism. These two white, heterosexual men, are bopping around the world like they own the place, and the culture at large was built to support that. Not to mention their discomfort with girls surfing in Hawaii, focusing far more on their bikinis and bodies than on their contribution to the sport.
I recognize that this is all, as they say, “era appropriate” racism, and none of these observations are meant to say it’s an unworthy film, or a bad one. It’s a fascinating reflection of that time and place. Martin Luther King Jr. was still alive. The Vietnam War was in its early days and the disastrous Tet Offensive had not yet happened. Richard Nixon was still two years away from the presidency. 1966 was precisely situated between the innocence of post war growth and the brutal reality check which came with the end of Vietnam, the perfect moment for The Endless Summer. Just enough need for escapism, not enough historical perspective for self awareness. It’s a fascinating artifact of its time. It’s a fantasy world in which you can whittle down the chaos of life to a singular search for the perfect wave; that is, if you have the privilege to see yourself in their shoes.