Once upon a time, I suppose, only the Chumash Indians cared about the shoreline along South California. Now, the stretch from Santa Barbara to Chula Vista belongs to everyone’s imagination, brought there by personal visit, reports from friends, or the indigenous Hollywood culture industry.
The beach inspires artists, or at least a certain class of performers. My personal ethos was molded in the 60s by Annette, Frankie, Sandra Dee, et al in the endless Gidget and Beach Blanket movies. Then, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys figured out how to amalgamate the sun, sand, and surf with mid century teenage lust, and we heard Surfin’ Safari, 409, I Get Around, Fun, Fun, Fun, Surfer Girl, and the iconic California Girls. The Endless Summer stamped the surfing/beach lifestyle as one of freedom and self-indulgence along the cloudless edge between land and sea.
I moved to Southern California in 1970, after loudly proclaiming I would never live in a big city like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. I was entranced by the idea of sun and warmth every day, and quickly learned about the sea spray and its soft embrace in Santa Monica Bay.
By 1975, I had moved to Venice, less than a block from the ocean, and was living with one of those California Girls, who’d grown up spending summers at the beaches from Malibu to Redondo. I had already fallen prey to the Beach Boys’ mysticism, making pilgrimages to all the beaches mentioned in Surfin’ USA, at least the ones in LA and Orange Counties. I was working hard, learning to be a doctor, spending 70-90 hours a week at the hospital. Once home, I would literally kick off my shoes, and walk down to the beach, where everything was quieter, there were no cars or buildings, and the Pacific stretched for half a planet out in front of me. I could watch the waves forever, it seemed. They’d cast a languid spell, softening the light, erasing the hours, and wrapping me in a cuddly cloak of warm salt air.
The next year, Cheryl and I went to see the movie, Lifeguard, starring a young Sam Elliot. His drawl was not as pronounced then, his skin smooth, hair all brown and fluffy. He was a lifeguard at Torrance Beach, holding fort in one of those light blue plywood towers which line the LA County beaches. His days were mostly spent watching surfers, smiling at bikini-clad sunbathers, and wondering how he got to be so old, yet getting by as a glorified surf-bum’s. He gets pulled into Real Life, though, attending his 15th high school reunion, where he falls back in with an old girl friend, who now has a 5-year-old daughter. Sensing he’s got to have some more tangible means of support if he wants to head a family, he is tempted by another old high school chum into work as a Porsche salesman. Much of the movie simply shows Sam looking out at the waves, pondering whether this wastrel life is actually better than selling out and moving in with the herd. It was a movie less dependent on its plot, or even its characterizations, than on the simple feeling of quiet contentment along the southern California littoral. I can’t remember how the movie ends, whether he stays on as a lifeguard or drops into the 9-5 life. All I do remember is it caught me at the very moment when I was yearning for a ski bum’s sojurn, but committed to a much more intense role as physician, all the while living amidst artists, drop outs and bums seaside in Venice. I had caught the pull the lifeguard felt, and understood the draw of the beach.
Fast forward to 1991, and Point Break, with Keanu Reeves as ex-college quarterback-turned-FBI-agent Johnny Utah. Patrick Swayze is leading a band of surfing adrenaline junkies who don masks of recent US president while robbing banks to support their lifestyle. Keanu’s boss, squirrely mouthed Gary Busey, pushes him into learning how to surf so he can infiltrate the gang and bring them to justice. Of course, Keanu gets enthralled in the surfing scene, falling for surfer girl Lori Petty, and getting Patty Heast’d into a bank job with the Ex President’s. Once again, the southern California beaches and their mesmerizing magnetic draw steal the show from three guys who admittedly can’t act that well anyway. The story ends with a now long-haired Reeves letting Swayze paddle out to certain death while attempting to surf in a 100 year Australian storm. Another movie which has stuck with me over the decades, simply because it relies on beach life for its main aura.
And now, Savages, the latest film from Oliver Stone. Over his 30+ year career as a writer/director, he has often chosen large, historic subjects: Vietnam War (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July), Presidents (JFK [about the assassination], Nixon, W), 9-11 (World Trade Center), along with both Wall Street movies, the Jim Morrison bio-pick, 13, and the over-the-top story of serial killers in the 24 hour news cycle age, Natural Born Killers. He never does anything softly, or subtly; he dives in full force, always jiggling a bit with the conventions of story telling and movie arts. His movies are controversial, watchable, and intense.
Don Winslow’s 2010 novel, Savages, details the increasingly fraught lives of Ben, Chon, and and their shared girlfriend O, three 20 somethings washed up in luxury in Laguna Beach. Their cliffside house over the breakers is funded by Ben’s double major from Stanford in botany and business, which he has parlayed into the best cannabis in the state (THC levels reaching 30%). Chon, his best bud from high school, provides the muscle along with some seal team comrades from his tours in Iraq and ‘Stan. Their dreamy, breezy, beach-y life is roundly slashed apart by the Baja cartel, which wants their product and distribution network. Blood, intrigue, and dark hilarity ensue, all the while with that laid-back SoCal scene surrounding every move.
Stone makes full use of Winslow’s careening plot twists, and employs his many little tricks to suck us in to the story. Benicio del Toro and Selma Hayek as the drug kingpins can’t be beat, and for once, Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, John Carter of Mars, Battleship) takes advantage of his deadly combination of sultry sex appeal and smoldering violence.
The biggest draw of Savages, though is not the blood or dope, but the scenery. Whether it’s Selma Hayek falling apart while dining outdoors under palm trees, or Ben and Chon planning strategy while wave-watching in their Laguna aerie, or driving 300 pounds of bud down I-5 in a beat up van @ 90 mph to meet a deadline at the border, the action is always softened by that barely perceptible but insistent call to “catch a wave, and you’re sitting’ on top of the world”.