The bubble of youth is going to pop! Soon! Milk it!
Big Wednesday is and always will be the only time that Tinsel Town has effectively captured our beloved surf. The themes portrayed in John Millus and Denny Aaberg’s 1978 classic are still totally relatable to the lives of every surfer today, and offer an almost prophecy like sermon on the circular nature of the surfing life.
The film’s major success is that it’s not about surf; it’s about the golden period in every young man’s life that inevitably has to come to an end. Summer’s almost over and every song has an ending, but that’s no reason not to enjoy the music!
Denny Aaberg, the creative prophet behind the film wrote a short story for Surfer magazine called “No Pants Mance,” from which much of the film was based. The piece is short and describes a swinging Malibu party that ends in a brawl and someone urinating in the host’s Mum’s steam iron.
The intro to the piece is most telling as Aaberg describes how the generation of Malibu surfers that came before him, including Miki ‘Da Cat’ Dora, all packed up their trunks at the end the summer of 1962, “the last great summer,” because, “the great days are gone, the real surfing is over and it’s too crowded!”
This is a theme that rolls through Aaberg’s seminal film, but also acts as a metaphor for all things surf. The influx of surfing’s popularity, the government’s influence and the fact that everyone has to grow up, whether they accept it or not, is most potent.
Big Wednesday’s three protagonists effectively cover the spectrum of the weird and wonderful characters that our beloved pastime attracts. Jack Barlow is the talented introvert, a natural company man who’s been influenced by his beach side habitat.
Far over to the left is Leroy the Masochist, a wild dude who lives to “get radical” in the form of recklessly charging big waves and trying to grill himself in the oven at parties.
Smack bang in the middle is Matt Johnson, “That is Matt Johnson!” – an Adonis destined to burn briefly, but ever so brightly. Every surf town from Cape Town to Carlsbad has a Matt Johnson. The handsome, humble dude, who between the ages of 18 and 25 has it all. The best haircut/car/chick/sponsor, but inevitably loses it. Being popular in high school never did anyone any favours.
Male-on-male admiration is portrayed beautifully in the film. It’s such an inescapable part of the surfing world, and it’s totally gay! Stephen Fry says that, “The best thing that you can do is to have a hero, someone that you admire,” but Stevie also used to play a game called ‘rudies’ with a childhood pal, which involved watching each other defecate in the woods! So I’ll leave that one up to you.
However, you know that bile-inducing feeling you got when you first learnt the fate of our Andy Irons!? That’s love my friend! The grommets in the messiah-like Bear’s surf shop certainly feel the same about one Matt Johnson. In a moment of indulgent self-deprecation Johnson tried to shrug his endorsement deal with Bear and declares that:
“I don’t want kids looking up to me… I’m a drunk Bear. I only surf because it’s good to go out and ride with your friends. I don’t even have that anymore.”
This sentiment is quintessential to the route to surf stardom (Bonjour messieurs Marzo, Wood, Archbold, Herring) and brings to a head the reason that professional surfing is almost void of characters: If you want to be a professional surfer at the highest level then you literally have to spend the whole of your adolescence surfing!
Everyday, surf, surf, surf, it sure doesn’t make for interesting interviews! Gabby didn’t spend his teens making out with Bridget Bardot types on picnic rugs at beach-blanket burnout style parties and getting in bar-brawls in Tijuana with Leroy the Masochist. But then again that’s why Gabby’s a world champ and the proverbial Matt Johnson ended up cleaning pools for a living.
The scene ends in classic style, when Bear, with gravel in his voice and tears in his eyes, preaches his poignant sermon:
“Growing up’s hard on any kid. But those kids do look up to you whether you like it or not!
(Lengthy trumpet crescendo to theme tune)
“You better pick yourself out a new board now, don’t ya think.”
The “all good things must come to a end” sentiment is perfectly punctuated in art as in life by the Vietnam War. The conscription scene in Big Wednesday is one of the all time classic depictions of youth defiance in cinema history. The boys belting each other in the knees, dousing themselves in fish oil, dressing up as queens and Nazis alike to dodge the shackles of conscription is absolute silver screen gold! But this shit actually happened.
What a cruel twisted fate it was to go from the real golden era of surfing in the early-to -mid -sixties (think striped trunks, Volkswagon beatles, fires on the beach) to being thrust into the filthiest of mosquito-ridden jungles to fight the yellow man. What a wild ride!
Friendship ties into the tale of the golden era of the Malibu surf scene in an eternally relatable manner. It’s the morally incorruptible Bear, once again, who hits the proverbial nail on the head in his wedding day exchange with the newly appointed Los Angeles state lifeguard/excommunicated surfie Jack Barlow.
“For god’s sake Jack it’s my wedding day, have a drink.”
“No I don’t drink.”
“Jack, your friends are the most important thing you’ve got, have a drink.”
“What are we drinking to?”
“Only to your friends, to your friends come hell or high water.”
My best mate’s Dad’s in his fifties and he runs with a gaggle of weekend warriors that we refer to as The Johns. The Johns spend countless hours at the weekend, away from the trouble and strife, driving up and down the coast hanging out in car parks, drinking coffees, and checking the surf endlessly.
They barely ever surf, even when it’s pumping. The unexplained, eternally greener grass nature of this seemingly pointless activity became clear to me in the re-watching of Big Wednesday. The Johns aren’t searching for a better sandbank or a more sheltered cove. They’re searching for Atlantis, the Garden of Eden, a thing that’s gone and lost forever. The golden era of their youth. This powerful potion of nostalgia is the glue that binds the Johns,and it’s totally spawned an industry. Hello Deus Ex Machina!
If you, like me, are in the apex of your golden years I urge you, I implore you, not to take for granted the rose-tinted phase in with you currently exist. Cherish your friends and your time, because before too long the bubble of youth will pop!
In the haunting words of Matt Johnson:
“Summer’s almost over, let’s get radical!”