October 2nd, 2009

on the way to . . .

. . . the New York Surf Film Festival (Sep. 25 - 27), time constraints led me to take I-95 to NYC instead of my originally-planned -- and more scenic -- coastal route.  This led me to stop in Alexandria, VA, just outside Washington, D.C.  Hampton Inn's are my default road-motel-of-choice, so I made a rez at the one just off the south loop.  After missing the turn-off and thinking I could back-door the local roads to the hotel, and instead, wound up deep in da Prince George County hood ala Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities, I managed to reaccess the interstate without incident and take the brand new confusing / dizzying / spiraling exit I missed earlier to "National Harbor" and the Hampton Inn.

Turns out National Harbor was just a patch of mud and trees on the banks of the Potomac a few years ago.  It was then developed, Disney-Magic-Kingdom-like, into an instant "town" / convention center, with lofts, hotels, restaurants, entertainment facilities, parking meters (which oscillate brightly if a car is parked and there's no time left on the meter), its own police force --  like Atlantic Station, only exponentially more artificial. The very dirt / grass / concrete I walked on was less than two years old.  Mariah Carey and T.I. were here during the inauguration!  And I thought I was going to a simple little Hampton Inn . . .


I ate dinner at Rosa Mexicano, an upscale Mexican chain that I have an especially low tolerance for, because, for the money you spend, I always think the food and margaritas could be way better.  Why there?  Because I would have had to blow my brains out if I'd eaten at such authentic theme eateries as "Ketchup" or "The Cadillac Ranch," or, God help me, "Bobby McKey's" (a piano bar). 

True to the convention motif, there was a group who'd hired out the entertainment space near the river, and the band was playing, you guessed it, "Margaritaville" and "Mustang Sally" for no-one-in-particular.  Well, no one but some white people who were "dancing."  Dear God . . .:

the new york surf film festival

The NYSFF (Sept. 25 - 27) featured premieres, shorts, industry-sponsored vanity projects, cult faves and more. There were conflicts between must-see’s running concurrently;  there were snoozers we walked out of and some good ones we then stumbled into. In any case Pamella and I caught our share of waves.

Powers of Three kicked off the weekend, and if there was one film to see, this was arguably it. Produced/directed by (non-surfer) Ross Cairns, Three is the artful, understated-yet-astonishing (the waves can get “quite serious”) and evocative story of three local surfers whose goal in life is to seek out and ride the largest, hairiest, most brutal waves the northern Atlantic can throw up against their rocky Irish coastline. Sometimes they tow-in, sometimes they paddle; but whenever they catch a wave, the water is freezing, the wind howls, drowning is always an option, clichéd hijinks are nil, and, there’s not a single beach spectator or bikini chick within miles to appreciate their art -- it’s “absolutely Baltic,” says one of the guys,  perfectly combining accuracy and brevity.  The soundtrack combines folk guitar, choral thunder and impressionistic ambient drone to perfectly enhance the vibe of these “waves of consequence.” In a weird way, the pure heaviness of the conditions is almost enough to make you not want to go surfing.

On the other hand, the pure narrative emptiness of The Drifter (starring/written by Rob Machado) is enough to make you not want to go to surf movies. Produced by Hurley (the surf clothing giant) and Sire Records, this slick, authenticity-impaired  vanity project is Machado’s take on Apocalypse Now.  Substitute Indo for the Golden Triangle and you have Machado as the brooding, restive, sacrificial (there are several Christ-on-the-cross poses), world-weary Martin Sheen character, whose mission is to go upriver (synch the chopper blade sound with the spinning ceiling fan), slay the waves with extreme prejudice (or, as he says, “break out of his comfort zone”), and return with some sort of Road Wisdom (surfing equals salvation /redemption?) that will allow him to cope with and reenter real (pro surfer) life. Along the way he muses: “Sometimes when you’re most lonely, you’re not alone at all.”  Hmmm . . . yeah, sure . . ., uh, what? The movie’s score doesn’t help: crank the guitars up to  eleven when Machado’s ripping, cue the acoustics when he’s mumbling his zen koans.

Existential Drifter.

Half the world away, in Cleveland, OH, and sporting a radically different (read: real world) aesthetic, is Out of Place. Contrary to what you might think, there are waves on Lake Erie. They might not be big; they might not last long; you might run into a tire or ice floes; hell, you might have to wear two wetsuits . . . , but to the tightly knit band of surfers who bother, Lake Erie provides The Stoke. Scenes include the group’s surf clubhouse (complete with indoor skate ramp), inside Cleveland’s water treatment plant (“Whoever thought I’d be in charge of cleaning water for an entire city,” says one of the guys), and a classic session of trading bars of surf wax like baseball cards. Out of Place won the “Audience Award” for the fest and it’s easy to tell why. At the Machado screening we saw, there was polite applause; for Place there were bring-the-house-down hoots and hollas and the applause was beyond exuberant.   Machado has everything: money, sponsors, boats and planes that take him to ultimate secret spots; the Cleveland guys have crap waves, cold weather, blue collar jobs and each other. Machado’s film shows surfing as the answer to existential angst; Place sees surfing and the lifestyle associated with it as a genuine source of joy. Which movie would you rather be in?