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Surf's Up … At the Library?!

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You heard right. The very much landlocked Library of Congress has been celebrating summer with its “Summer Surf” film series in the Mary Pickford Theater (third floor of the James Madison Building). And it is proving to be quite the hot (pardon the pun), albeit FREE, ticket.

This past Tuesday’s showing of “Endless Summer” was a full house, and next week’s showing of “Pacific Vibrations” is already “sold out”–although as I mentioned, tickets for Pickford screenings are free. The link in the previous paragraph tells you how to get seats for future showings and provides a link to the full theater schedule.

Jennifer Harbster, a Library of Congress staffer who volunteers as a programmer for the Pickford Film Series, recently interviewed John Severson — founder of “Surfer Magazine” and director of “Pacific Vibrations” — for his thoughts on the surf film genre and his own films:

I read that you were a high school art instructor, but were you also a surfer? What was the inspiration for your surf films?

I was a high school art instructor at Laguna Beach, California. Drafted into the Army in ’56 and ultimately sent to Hawaii. I was a surfer from the late ’40s, and photography was a hobby. I had a 16mm camera that I used mainly for surf. In Hawaii I was exposed to bigger and better surf, and shot when I could afford a roll. I surfed big waves, and was on the US Army Surf Team. There were a couple of guys showing films at the times, but they had little sense of drama or production. I ushered at the San Clemente Theater for several years, and was a film nut. I learned a lot about filmmaking by watching.

Eventually I had enough film to show, and mixed with art and an interesting music track–plus live narration–I was in business. I revolutionized the surf movie film circuit with “Surf Safari” in 1960.

Were you ever approached by Hollywood to make surfing films? Or was your aim to make “pure” surfing films for the surfing public?

I was approached by Hollywood in ’61 and spent several years with an MGM group trying to put together a surf film for general release. The main partners were Chuck Walters, Joe Pasternak, and John Darrow (an agent).

They liked what I had, but had to make “improvements,” which coming from a non-surfing point of view were disastrous. The film died in the vault, stinking of Hollywoodism. I went back to pure surf films. Three or four years later, Bruce Brown stuck to his guns and released his “Endless Summer,” which was a success.

When I was planning to exit Surfer in the late ’60s, I decided to make an environmental surf film celebrating the beauty of the ocean and our relationship, and at the same time, making the viewer aware that we needed to take care of this resource. “Pacific Vibrations” was never meant for Hollywood, other than perhaps art houses.

Its first incarnation was without narration or speaking parts by anyone. It floated from scene to scene with music as the vehicle to transport you. It worked well, and someone at Warner Brothers heard about it and asked for a viewing. They were coming off their Woodstock success. I was looking for a distributor. They loved it. “Just what we’re looking for … but … could you make a few changes here and there, and make some characters more important, and, and …” They set me up in an spacious editing room with help and encouragement and praise, and after changing the film as they suggested, they didn’t like it. A new production head from New York hated surfing. It wasn’t long before I was out the door.

I regrouped and opened the film in Santa Monica, Huntington Beach and San Diego. It showed for months to full houses and continued in Huntington for a year or so. American International Pictures became interested and signed a deal just as I was leaving the magazine for Maui. They did a typical Hollywood treatment by showing it in various theaters around the country without any advertising build-up to see if it would take off. If it did, they would put advertising money in. It didn’t.

This was followed by some 16mm distribution, piracy in Australia, and occasional shows of faded footage or poor quality video copies.

Are you still making films? Do you have any aspirations to make another film?

I make iMovies with my daughters and granddaughters, mainly arty family productions–teaching the little ones cutting, timing, music and sound, and the fun of it. I dropped out of filmmaking in the early ’70s because film was so expensive. You couldn’t play and experiment. By the time video came in, I was back into my painting career and loving the one-to-one relationship; not interested in all the “middle men” of filmmaking.

With the advent of video cameras, etc., are pure surfing films a lost art?

They seem to be evolving into wall-to-wall surfing with rap tracks. Some would say these are finally “pure” surf films. But evolving is the key word here. Look for change.

Do you have an opinion of any current “pure surf” films like “Riding Giants”?

I thought “Riding Giants” was very well done. My only disappointment was that they didn’t tap into all the footage that was available (including mine), and used a lot of soft footage, and missed some of the great moments. But you wouldn’t miss it unless you were there.

What do you think is the impact of your surf films?

My early films made a huge impact on surfers, if nothing more than a few hours of being stoked out of their minds. Some remembered them for years, and still remind me of this or that show. The fact that they were live, with taped music, and prints that were run until they couldn’t be repaired again, made them like ripples in a pond–slowly disappearing. Too hard to reconstruct, or not financially feasible, they’ll eventually disappear. Pacific Vibrations has a chance of hanging around, and I hope to reconstruct it, with some minor editing, leaving at least a copy for the future.

The Library will be showing the Warner Brothers film “Big Wednesday” that stars Gary Busey and Jan-Michael Vincent. You also had a film called “Big Wednesday.” Do you have any connection to the Warner Brothers film?

My fourth surf film was “Big Wednesday” (1961). South Bay gremmie John Milius was taken by the film and when he grew up and made his surf film, he bought the title from me. The name was daring at the time–without relevance to surf–but worked well, and my film was a success. I’m constantly surprised by (mainly ESPN) with the Big Mondays, Tuesdays, etc.

Was there a script or story board for “Pacific Vibrations,” or was it just a “fluid” shoot-at-the-moment type of film?

Cinema verité mixed with art and theater.

What type of equipment were you using with the filming of “Pacific Vibrations”?

I had just started shooting with a French Beaulieu, which lasted about as long as the film. My tripod was a Pro Jr with a Miller fluid head. I had lenses up to 650mm, and state-of-the-art water housings. For the interviews and sound pieces, we rented cameras and sound equipment.

Did you make any other type of films?

No other films, although I always thought I was heading toward art films, and was in particular inspired by the short Canadian art films and the Eames films. Also, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympic film was influential, as well as a raft of old silent comedies.

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