‘Mo­men­tum Gen­er­a­tion’ will move you

The Republican Herald - This Weekend - - NEWS - BY ROBERT LLOYD LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

You do not need to be in­ter­ested in surf­ing to be ex­cited and moved by Jeff and Michael Zim­bal­ist’s ex­cel­lent, elo­quent doc­u­men­tary “Mo­men­tum Gen­er­a­tion,” which pre­miered Tues­day on HBO. A surf film might not be the first thing you’d ex­pect to bring you re­peat­edly to tears, but I can say with au­thor­ity it is pos­si­ble.

Even to a ca­sual ob­server, there is some­thing es­pe­cially marvelous, oc­ca­sion­ally mirac­u­lous and art­ful about surf­ing — na­ture makes ev­ery ride an im­pro­vi­sa­tion, a sort of ar­gu­men­ta­tive col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the surfer and the surfed. When the waves get big — and they get Godzilla big — rid­ing them makes no ra­tio­nal sense; it seems half­way to a death wish. But peo­ple do, and it is some­thing to see.

The phys­i­cal in­tel­li­gence and ex­cel­lence that make ath­let­ics aes­thet­i­cally in­ter­est­ing even to those who don’t care about sports — style counts, al­ways — are abun­dantly on dis­play here. But the film­mak­ers’ real in­ter­est is in the ways we form of a sense of self; how friend­ships form, fray and heal; and what it means to lead a ful­fill­ing life — which may have noth­ing to do with win­ning surf con­tests. In­deed, the price of com­pe­ti­tion, and the re­wards of giv­ing it up, is a cen­tral point of the film.

Its fo­cus is a group of surfers — Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Shane Do­rian, Tay­lor Knox, Benji Weather­ley, Kalani Robb, Ross Wil­liams, Tay­lor Steele and Pat O’Con­nell, all present, re­mem­ber­ing their teens and 20s from their fit 40s. They bonded at the house Weather­ley’s mother, Bar­bara, rented since 1988 on the North Shore of Oahu, over­look­ing the surf break known as Pipe­line, which Robb calls the “most dan­ger­ous place on Earth.”

Slater, the youngest and old­est per­son to be named World Surf League cham­pion (and, with 11 ti­tles, also the win­ningest), is the name most peo­ple will have heard; he was on “Bay­watch,” in Ver­sace ads, on the cover of In­ter­view and named one of Peo­ple’s most beau­ti­ful peo­ple. (He has been in the news lately for co-cre­at­ing a “per­fect wave” ma­chine.) All, how­ever, are known in their world.

Even with so many char­ac­ters, the story the Zim­bal­ists tease from the ma­te­rial — and from what HBO de­scribes as “tens of thou­sands of hours of footage in pri­vate ar­chives” — has a solid nar­ra­tive drive and fo­cused arc, while leav­ing room for dis­agree­ment, am­bi­gu­ity and lapses in mem­ory.

It’s a sort of spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor to Stacy Per­alta’s 2001 “Dog­town and Z-Boys,” about the trans­for­ma­tion of skate­board­ing by a tribe of Santa Mon­ica Bay surf rats in the 1970s. Each film is con­cerned with the painful process of grow­ing up, with what hap­pens when things done for love be­come things done for money, and with find­ing a bet­ter fam­ily than the one you were born into. Many of the Mo­men­tum kids came from bro­ken or abu­sive house­holds. (“My way out was surf­ing,” said Knox, echo­ing a com­mon sen­ti­ment. “Things are chaotic, go out in the ocean — which is funny be­cause the ocean is chaotic. But I felt calm out there.”)

The group got its col­lec­tive name from “Mo­men­tum,” a VHS video made by Steele, who camped out in a van in front of Weather­ley’s with a cam­era; Slater called it “the glue be­tween us.” (You can find that film, which is al­most 100 per­cent surf­ing set to punk rock, on­line; it’s oddly mes­mer­iz­ing.) Steele took his films on the road with the surfer stars and sound­track bands, in­clud­ing Pen­ny­wise and Blink-182, and ev­ery­body got fa­mous.

“We were a broth­er­hood,” Wil­liams said. “We had our own lan­guage for a long time. We would all just speak in weird tongues and had so many code words that were like four lay­ers deep.”

Much hangs on the drown­ing death of Todd Chesser, the slightly older “moral com­pass” of their crowd, a pro surfer sus­pi­cious of money and fame, whose loss sent some reel­ing and hard­ened oth­ers, and whose death marked an end to care­free days and group co­he­sion. It is not ev­ery sports doc­u­men­tary in which a per­son says, as Weather­ley does here, “Men have the hard­est time with feel­ings and emo­tion; a lot of ma­cho, a lot of ego so you never re­ally go, ‘Let’s talk about this.’ ”

An­other key thread is the ri­valry be­tween Slater and Machado, who met when Machado was 12 and Slater was 13 — “al­ready a su­per­hero,” Machado re­called. Things come to a head in a still-con­tro­ver­sial high­five at the 1995 Pipe Mas­ters — a 2015 piece on the surf web­site the In­er­tia called it “pos­si­bly the most iconic mo­ment in pro­fes­sional surf­ing to date” — that was either a spon­ta­neous act of friendly con­grat­u­la­tions or a tac­tic cal­cu­lated by Slater to gain an ad­van­tage. In either case, it high­lighted surf­ing’s dual na­ture as con­test and quest, sport and art. Slater would go on win­ning; Machado would pi­o­neer “free surf­ing” as a ca­reer out­side of com­pe­ti­tion; Do­rian would de­vote him­self to rid­ing big waves “so that Todd would be proud of me.”

Ob­vi­ously, “Mo­men­tum Gen­er­a­tion” is but a slice of sev­eral lives and an in­com­plete pic­ture of each. But it has weight and bal­ance; it’s nat­u­rally ro­man­tic but never sen­ti­men­tal. Telling their tale, the crew is thought­ful and well-spo­ken (they do say “gnarly” a lot), af­fec­tion­ately rough with their mem­o­ries and mem­o­ries of one an­other.

It gets dark at times, but ev­ery­one gets his due, and there is a happy end­ing of a sort whose point is “You can let your­self be happy.” The film is framed with a re­union: The band is back to­gether. It ends and be­gins in the wa­ter.

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