“I spent an evening in the lobby just to see if people really do come stumbling out in the middle of the picture as reported — they did.”
It’s Saturday night in Ventura, California, and cars stream down East Santa Clara Street, their red taillights glowing in the dusk’s fading light. Outside the Smoke Stop, music bumps and a pair of girls dance in the flicker of its neon sign. A man in an ugly Christmas sweater hurries down the sidewalk. He’s late. I hope he doesn’t miss dinner.
I’m in Ventura for movie night at Chapter 11 TV, the eclectic surf shop that Dane Reynolds owns. The shop’s a year old now, and there’s boards in the window and surfy things like traction pads, leashes, and wetsuits.
Still, the space retains the chaotic creativity that characterizes Reynolds and his projects.
When I first catch sight of him, Reynolds has a spider in his hand. It dangles from a square of paper, as he darts through the doorway from the back of the shop. The plan is to put the spider outside, but people flood through the front door at exactly the wrong moment.
Reynolds dashes back the other way. The spider escapes into the dark behind a pile of boxes.
In the parking lot out back, a pizza truck and a band set up shop. A few streets over, there’s a Christmas-themed event on Main Street, the pedestrian-only shopping area. The thumping music sounds like a rave, and pink lights flash in the trees. I lean against the chainlink fence. It’s topped with barbed wire, which together with the glint of broken glass on the pavement gives the scene a gritty patina.
The night’s film is Motel Hell from Harry Bryant and filmer Dave Fox. They spent three years collecting footage for the project in Australia and around the world. The title comes from a 1970s cult horror film, which is an unexpected choice. There’s a crew of talent in Motel Hell including Shaun Manners, Craig Anderson, Eithan Osbourne, and Holly Wawn among others. I’m intrigued by the theme and the promise of barrels. I like barrels.
The parking lot fills with hoodies, and Vans. In the dim light of the street lights and shop’s windows, everyone looks the same. (Sorry, dudes) Dressed in a bright, patterned shirt, Reynolds darts through the crowd, arranging the projector, restarting the playlist, and messing with a set of lights. He’s everywhere, perpetually in motion, and Reynolds looks happiest when he has something to do.
A couple comes up to ask what we’re doing over here in the parking lot. Watching Motel Hell, a surf film, I tell them through the fence. They seem baffled by this choice. Come to the Wine Walk! They glow with wine and happiness. The ugly Christmas sweater party is a rave is a wine walk. It sounds deranged. I’m not at all convinced all these ingredients belong together, but this is not my problem. I’m just here to watch surfing.
Hoodies swarm the food and beer. The crowd buzzes with chatter. The surf has not been anything special lately. Nearby a dude tells a long story, while his friends pretend to listen. Groms run through the crowd’s gaps. Bryant’s blonde hair floats through the crowd, always at the center of a tight knot of people. It feels like waiting for the show at a hole-in-the-wall club, but the bathrooms are nicer.
There’s a drawing, and then it’s time. We watch Motel Hell projected on the side of a neighboring building, conveniently built with white walls. I slide through the crowd to get a sight-line through the heads. The film’s guitar-driven soundtrack drowns out the thump of the Christmas wine walk rave.
The film opens with Bryant lost in the desert. He finds a dilapidated bar set alone on a sand dune. It’s appropriately creepy and peopled with weirdos. The scene sets up the film’s recurring gag, where a glass of milk sends Bryant spiraling from one adventure to the next. In an interview with Reynolds before the film, Bryant explained that he’s lactose intolerant.
The obvious challenge of making a surf film is that each wave doesn’t last long at all. Film makers have to rely on some sort of device to glue the thing together, whether it’s interviews, skits, or nature channel B-roll. Motel Hell is weird and creative and the joke at the center of it mostly works. Somehow, Fox and Bryant also managed to make a film in Australia without a single kangaroo. I did not think this was actually possible.
The surfing. You want to know about the surfing. Certainly, the waves fit the horror theme. This is not a surf film filled with cute turns and twirly things. Playful, fun-sized waves are also in short supply in Motel Hell. I was not sad about this at all. Instead, Bryant packs some monster barrels and mutant-freak peaks.
There’s some dreamy Moroccan right point break magic at the outset. And also, a camel. But the majority of the footage comes from places like unruly Ireland and remote Australia. There are a lot of waves with evil intentions. The sequence of non-makes gives a hint of the payment they’re out to extract from Bryant and his friends. I’m sure you’ll recognize some of these waves, but to his credit Bryant wanders beyond the usual destinations.
I am a simple kid who likes to watch surf films. Based on the crowd in the parking lot on Saturday, I’m not alone in this strange affinity. A friend asked me recently if there’s anything left of surf culture. I didn’t quite know what to say and still don’t. But I do feel like as long as people are willing to stand around in a parking lot to watch a surf film projected on the side of a building, there’s still some life left in this thing.
Then it’s over. The credits roll and a cold wind blows down the canyon. The wine walk rave has gone quiet and a band called Kan Kan from San Diego plays a set. There’s still a few beers left in the cooler. Cars straggle along the road out front. I pull up my hood and walk out into the night.
If you’re in Hawai’i, you can catch Motel Hell on December 9 at Farm to Barn in Hale’iwa.
I’m told it’ll be online a few weeks after that showing.
Essential, as we like to say around here.