Lawrence Russell

Big Wednesday (1978) dir. John Milius writ. Aaberg and Milius cine Bruce Surtees music Basil Poledouris star. Jan-Michael Vincent (Matt Johnson), William Katt (Jack Barlow), Gary Busey (Leroy "Masochist" Smith), Lee Purcell (Peggy), Patti d'Arbanville (Sally), Sam Melville (Bear), Barbara Hale (Mrs. Barlow), Darrel Fetty (Waxer), Gerry Lopez (as Himself), Robert Englund (Fly, narrator) et. al.

Big Wednesday: an obsession in search of an art form

Surfing: a dangerous adolescent diversion or a true form of harmonic union with Nature?

It's always difficult to tell a story which occurs over a number years, unless you're using the episodic format of serial drama. Plot is suppressed in favour of character, character is suppressed in favour of incident, incident is suppressed in favour of history and abstraction. So it goes. These are the difficulties faced by Milius when he uses a fifteen year panorama in Big Wednesday, his feature about three young California surfers who come of age during the Vietnam war.

Sometimes the action is murky -- even trivial -- as the secondary characters jostle for significance and we struggle to remember who they might be and why. Perhaps the problem is that much of the action occurs in the mid and long-distance, rendering the characters as groups or mere details in the bigger landscape. Yet the surfing sequences are spectacular, where the ocean becomes the primary character, a sort of deity who rules the lives of these drifters like a beautiful cathedral wherein they find the religious union we all instinctively seek, regardless of the season and personal difficulty.

The action is told in five Acts that coincide with the big waves all surfers wait for: the South Swell (summer 1962), the West Swell ('65), the North Swell (summer '68), the Great Swell (spring '74)... and Big Wednesday (1977). It also matches the seasons in the lives of the three surfing buddies, moving from innocence through the corruption of the Vietnam war to the redemption of the Great Swell and the triumphal "Big Wednesday". It's the 20 foot wave wall on "big Wednesday" that gives the Point Hot Dog champion Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent) a chance to redeem himself from a life misspent failing to deal with adulthood and the responsibilities of being a minor star. It's also a chance for the three amigos to be reunited and surf the greatest swell southern California has ever seen, allowing Milius to close the action in a montage coda of fabulous cinematic drama.

Yet it's not easy being honest, avoiding role-mongering propaganda, creating a character like Matt Johnson who is a de facto American oxymoron. It's not easy because the industry pressure is there to create role models, heroes who are men of action, not pretty boys who lack conviction and shun responsibility. With his sleek Aryan hardbody and surfer cool Matt's as American as Pop-Art, yet with his alcoholic passivity and devious draft dodging he's as un-American as a French contraceptive. In 1962 his world is a beach-party of all play and no work, where drinking is a sport and the beach a friendly gutter. By 1965, however, the child-man surfing star is just a hobo on the beach, married to his sweetheart and facing induction into the Services. He fakes his way out of the draft by wearing a leg brace, an ignoble act that marks him as a man without character, as he lacks a legitimate moral posture or even a rudimentary ideology.

His friend Leroy (Gary Busey) also fakes his way past the draft, pretending to be a schizoid wino. But the other member of the triad, Jack Barlow (William Katt), simply does his duty and enlists. Jack is a straight-shooter who deserves better than he gets, although he survives Vietnam, which you suspect he won't. Before his departure to Nam you watch him surf alone in a beautiful cine-sonata that forebodes doom, a pointless sacrifice of beauty and youth. Instead, another surfer from the Point gang is killed in Nam, which is sad enough, although it lacks the pathos Jack's death would've created. An opportunity missed... or once more, the truth? Again, the action is in the distance, the emotion concealed in the waves.

It's this non-judgemental distancing by Milius that represents the strength and the weakness in Big Wednesday as a story. Drama demands catharsis. 1978 also saw the release of The Deer Hunter -- and it gave the audience plenty of catharsis. Today, removed from the political context of the times, Big Wednesday is just a surfing movie with occasional continuity problems.

However, it's very well worth watching, as there are some nice touches beyond the solid acting and atmospheric cinematography. For example, the crumbling arch and broken steps that lead down to the beach, boarded up like an abstract sculpture to discourage access, yet always the route taken by the three surfers, these mavericks who seek their own symbolisms in the waves. Or Matt's night meeting with the drunken Bear on the condemned pier where Bear once had his board shop, the "Big Wednesday" swell throwing black waves against the pilings in a challenge to their reunion.

Because it starts in the bonding of youth and follows a shared ideal (surfing) regardless of personal fortune, the story appeals to our sentimental view of the past and our own journey into adulthood. In Big Wednesday, surfing is an obsession in search of an art-form.

You can certainly see why the surfing fraternity like this movie, why there are gear shops called Big Wednesday and a line of Bear surf boards continues to be marketed.

© LR 1/2000


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