Even those challenged by wading pools are bound to be caught up in the surfing fever that surges through Riding Giants. This seductive love-of-the-sport documentary from ”Dogtown and Z-Boys” director Stacy Peralta – one of the founding daddy-o’s of modern skateboarding and thus a kind of surf king himself – is so mellow and cant-free that it may take willpower not to run directly from the theater down to the nearest shoreline, just for a whiff of whatever saltwater magic sauce the big-wave stars featured in Peralta’s vibrant docu are on.
”Riding Giants” traces the sport to its Polynesian beginnings, then zooms in on the genesis of 20th- century Southern California surf culture – the boards, the bikinis, the laid-back cowabunga. And that’s when the movie really starts cooking – I mean, gets gnarly – in good part because the present-day interviews are so disarming and the archival footage of shimmering-wet guys (and a few gals) is just so rad. In the late ’50s, just as Gidget was commodifying the experience, pioneers like Greg Noll were running out to meet Hawaiian waves thought too fearsome for all but the cockiest sumbitch to tackle. And cameras, it seems, were always there. Jeff Clark remembers riding Maverick’s (Northern California’s death-defying reef break) in the 1970s, when no one paid attention. Laird Hamilton – widely considered the best big-wave rider, bar none – describes his humbling mastery of a perfect, and perfectly colossal, wave off the southern coast of Tahiti in 2000. (Video footage confirms the jaw-dropping feat.)
Of course, other movies, from ”The Endless Summer” to ”Blue Crush,” have conveyed surfing’s dangerous beauty and sexy mythology. But in focusing on a handful of weather-beaten surfers who were there before Abercrombie & Fitch fetishized all that useless beauty, and in letting a few regret-free veterans tell what it felt like when waves were waves and life was simpler, ”Riding Giants” does more than just goggle at a specialized sport. Watching historical clips of the barrel-chested Noll triumphing over big surf with a grin, then cutting to the present-day man, a tangy raconteur in a retiree’s eyeglasses and Hawaiian shirt, we’re invited, each of us, to imagine our own biggest wave, in whatever form, and encouraged to, oh, what the heck, just ride it.