The surfers interviewed in the documentary Step Into Liquid are a genial bunch with nary a harsh word to say. They’re all buddies, and they wish each other well. While it’s hard to believe that there exists an exercise on this earth completely devoid of politics when sponsorship is involved, Liquid stays away from the worldwide Pro Surfing Tour, instead concentrating on convincing a skeptical audience of non-surfers that riding a long board really is the way to happiness and fulfillment.
Writer-director Dana Brown orders his movie as a collection of smaller anecdotes that add up to a whole view of surfing, spending most of his time on the actual act rather than surf culture. He takes us to Ireland, where the Malloy brothers shock the locals by treating the cold Irish coast like it’s Malibu. The Malloys serve a dual purpose; Brown also uses them to prove that surfing can cross boundaries and draw people together. The Malloys make their own little attempt at integrating contentious Catholic and Protestant kids by teaching them all to surf.
Others we meet include Dale, a middle-aged janitor who has gone surfing every day for nearly 25 years (“I’m surfing to 2004,” he tells us), a trio of chick surfers who hold it down for the estrogen crew, and various pro surfers and pioneers. Brown also covers surfing innovations, including the toe-in method that involves getting to bigger waves by towing a surfboard by a Jet Ski. Brown comes by his skill genetically; his father, Bruce Brown, made The Endless Summer, the be-all-end-all of surfing movies that just last year was selected for the National Film Registry. (Brown does lay the “perfect wave” metaphor on pretty thick by the closing frames, but he does such a nice job juggling everything else that it’s hard to criticize him simply for being obvious.)
The beauty of Step Into Liquid is that it never gets bogged down in one particular story. Whether it’s visiting surfers in the Great Lakes surf heaven of Sheboygan, Wis. (where the water is a hideous brown, a sharp contrast to the sparkling blues and feathery grays of the other locations he goes to), or tracking a group of four surfers 100 miles off the coast of California who surf 66-foot waves, Liquid is light on its feet.
And then there’s the cinematography: Brown begins his movie with a title card stating that no special effects or stuntmen were used in filming. Camermen are often visible onscreen, because Brown employs quite a few of them to capture different angles of the same wave. This technique makes everything even more immediate and real — and truly beautiful. Shots where the camera goes from outside the water, through a wave and into the water on the other side, capturing the churning underbelly of a deadly torrent, are breathtaking.
Liquid makes a good case for the “it’s all good” philosophy when it comes to surfing. Its subjects all seem happy and balanced — one surfer who broke his neck in a swell and must now use a wheelchair has no anger at what happened to him. These guys accept injury and even death as occupational hazards, all in the name of fun. But what they’re really saying isn’t that surfing is necessarily fun but that it’s pleasurable; what becomes crystal clear by the end of Liquid is that surfing may be the most hedonistic sport ever. They do it “because it feels good,” surfer after surfer says, not because they actually set out to live a life of slackerdom. That’s just a byproduct of living life from one wave to the next.
Showing exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].