By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
"That crucial and controversial question will be answered by a panel of big-wave experts . . . with surfing's biggest prize taking on a new significance as a symbolic showdown between two countries at odds over global policy — France and the United States of America."
This startling bit of agitprop led off the press release heralding the Billabong XXL "Biggest Wave of the Year Award" held on Good Friday in Anaheim. Lafayette in flagrante delicto!It was no longer a matter of a man, his driver and their attendant personal watercraft going up against phenomenal odds. The historic $60,000 winner-take-all prize, with an additional grand a foot added on for any wave over 60 feet, had been downgraded in importance by its own hype-minded creators.
If you want to start an international incident, the surfing community would be the last place to try. World-class wave riders are internationalists due to the scope of their activities. To surf, one must travel both literally and figuratively. Riders are essentially apolitical. To denigrate through cheap politics the genuine heroics of individuals who choose to risk all in order to careen down the faces of waves that are taller than eight-story buildings is idiotic. Injecting Francophobia only ups the cluster-fucked aberrance of what is beginning to reek of corporate sludge. Is this a measure of wave heights or are we analyzing colonial track records? Okay, so Dick Dale, the "King of the Surf Guitar," is Lebanese. Surfing in the Middle East? Would that be New Jersey? And there is a state-of-the-art artificial-wave machine at a five-star resort in Dubai. What's worse, who can forget that cultural-watershed Charlie's Angels episode where a sidewalk surfer played by Stacy Peralta prevented an undercover sheik's assassination?
Like any murder investigation, it's a matter of exclusion rather than inclusion. Billabong's XXL is the creation of Bill Sharp, who's an ungodly-blond Newport knee boarder turned promotional provocateur. A veteran denizen of the Orange County surf syndicate's cordon sanitaire, Sharp realizes that quantification is the portal to commodification, and therein lies his evil genius. Hence the reductive brilliance of XXL's supersizing of surfing. No one can argue with such a coronation of the obvious. Large is in charge. Apex drops by alpha riders are suffused with de facto meaning. Sack beats all.
The paramount metaphysical accomplishment here is that XXL allows the dry-land masses to "see" the truly unobservable. In actuality, the spectacle of surfers detaching from tow vehicles in the open ocean to slingshot themselves into far bigger waves than ever reach the continents is impossible to watch or comprehend. This activity takes place in the deep blue, usually scores to hundreds of miles from shore. The distances traveled by the riders preclude anything but momentary glimpses caught on film, which are absurdly being judged this night in Anaheim.
So, XXL is an odd hybridization of Barnum and Baudrillard, wherein natural force — huge breaking waves — manifests itself only to be reduced to a media incarnation that ultimately supersedes the original experience. This presentation is surfing's new sideshow. The ominous aspects for the sport posed by this paradigm shift? Even Jumbo eventually succumbed to a greater corporeal force than P.T. Barnum's renowned illusionism. The "Eighth Wonder of the World" was instantaneously rendered a couple of tons of ground pachyderm meat by a fast freight train. The Billabong XXL provides value as a core counterweight to the current onslaught of so-called "surf" business, but sure leaves one wondering what mayhem awaits down the tracks.
These days Gucci sells surfboards and $250 rattan thongs. Bic Sport proclaims its 7-foot-9 Natural Surf model to be "one of the top-selling single boards of all time." Diana Vreeland states that "Surfing's a bit of all right!" There are Tommy Hilfiger and Budweiser and Miller and Coors boards all hanging on walls just a-waiting. Prada models sport origami leis. Helmut Lang relates that "Surfing has existed for a long time, of course, but it is even sharper and stronger and more graphic now."
Richard Milhous Nixon's old Hobie is currently valued at more than some Old Master paintings. (That Nixon never surfed seems not to matter.) Runway mannequins walked through Chanel's spring show carrying surfboards. Ralph Lauren imported the Santa Barbara Surfing Museum to Manhattan to enhance his creditability. Donald Duck wears a surfboard-print aloha shirt as he greets visitors to Disney's California Adventure. Karl Lagerfeld says, "My insurance won't let me surf." But you can always see Karl at Biarritz. Or Ralph Lauren driving his woody wagon.
All of this is why when 18-year-old Makua Rothman, a son of Da' Hui, a group of truly fundamentalist watermen, accepted his award for $66,000, I was genuinely happy. Sixty-six feet Island-style is consequential. Hectic Hawaii always beats out pretense and pretenders. Monster mush in the Bay of Biscay? Makua No Ka Oi. N'est-ce pas?
It's just your not-so-typical aerospace press conference. In attendance are a couple of shuttle astronauts, a bevy of Air Force brass, a plethora of big-balled test pilots, plus a gaggle of Internet millionaires and telecom billionaires with an outer-space itch to scratch. There is also a smattering of heavy hitters on hand: moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, Erik Lindbergh (Charles' son), Congressman Bill Thomas, and Academy Award winner Cliff Robertson who, in typical Hollywood fashion, takes the microphone and talks about himself for 10 minutes before remembering he's here to introduce Burt Rutan.
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