Huntington Beach --The new wave

Hollywood loves surfers but few surfing movies have earned the respect of the pros or captured the thrill of the sport. Until now.

Last week, during the US Surf Open at Huntington Beach, one of the tumbledown surf cities south of Los Angeles, a strange annual ritual was enacted. On Main Street, which terminates at the legendary - to surfers, at least - Huntington Pier, there are two surf shops: Jack's Surfboards and Huntington Surf and Sport.

On Thursday, fans and news crews gathered outside Jack's to see venerable surfers being inducted into the Walk of Fame, which is modelled on its rather better-known movie-star namesake on Hollywood Boulevard. On Friday, the same group would assemble across the street to cheer this year's inductees into Surf and Sport's Hall of Fame, itself modelled on Graumann's Chinese Theater, also on Hollywood Boulevard, where film stars have long pressed their elegant palms and soles into wet concrete for posterity. On Thursday, former world champ surfer Peter Townend played Master of Ceremonies at Jack's, having been granted his granite sidewalk plaque in 1988. On Friday, he was across the street getting the same treatment, this time in manually depressed concrete, just like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. "Now people can walk over me on both sides of the street," said Townend.

One can't help feeling that the flattery offered to Hollywood by these two surfing institutions has rarely been reciprocated by the sleazy Dream Factory only a few miles away, which has been walking all over surfers for decades. A few days later I call Stacy Peralta, former 1970s skateboarding champion, skateboard entrepreneur and director of Dogtown and Z-Boys, the successful documentary about his days as a member of the groundbreaking Zephyr skate team. His latest documentary, Riding Giants, takes him back to his beginnings as a teenage surfer. Early in our conversation he's drowned out by a long and deafening, quasi-oceanic roar and for a moment I'm gripped by an auditory hallucination of Peralta speaking to me from within some gigantic unfurling scroll of blue-green water. He struggles to make himself heard again: "Wow, this huge jet just flew over. We're right under the LAX flight path."

Riding Giants gives us the deep culture and long history of big-wave riding, from its pioneering, semi-outlaw origins in 1950s Hawaii to its present incarnation, known as tow-surfing, on offshore breaks sometimes hundreds of miles from land, where unique conditions produce terrifying swells up to 60ft high. To ride such waves, surfers - sometimes after having been dropped with their boards and vessels from helicopters - must be towed in by jet-ski to achieve the speed necessary to reach the wave's crest before plunging  down its face. Some have described tow-surfing as cheating, not true surfing. But astonishing footage of surf-prince Laird Hamilton careening along a cylinder of thunderous water with consummate grace quickly puts paid to that objection.

Dogtown and Z-Boys told of how, in the early 1970s, Peralta and his friends, working-class street kids of the dilapidated blue-collar beach towns south of Los Angeles - "where the debris meets the sea", in the words of Z-Boy Nathan Pratt - transferred the skills they'd learned surfing wretchedly dangerous, urban-nightmare breaks around the wreckage of Venice Pier to the landlocked practice of skateboarding. For the latch-key kids who gathered around the Zephyr surfboard shop, style was everything, and what looked good on water could, given the right storm-drain, a well-chosen section of the sloping concrete banks of the LA river, the appropriately contoured playgrounds of particular hillside high schools or the walls of certain drained suburban swimming pools, perhaps be replicated on dry land.

Although Dogtown and Z-Boys's skateboarding footage is incomparable, the truly indelible moments are its footage of the dozen or more post-pubescent surf rats - with what narrator Sean Penn calls "their aggressive localism and outcast attitude" - riding waves over and through the rotting, spiky, entirely dangerous pilings beneath the condemned, now long-vanished Venice Pier. One false move and they might find themselves impaled, knocked out or drowned. But it was worth it, as Z-Boy Wentzle Ruml recalls, in his richly sardonic surfer argot, because "when you came in off a heavy grind, man, all your bros'd be hootin'". Nominally about skateboarding, it pulses with the surfer sensibility.

Applying his techniques to big-wave surfing, Peralta has reinterpreted, as he did with Dogtown, the quintessentially Californian narrative, mildly tweaked for surfing: Paradise Lost, Childhood's End, the Last Frontier, the gradual fencing-in of a once wide-open US. Perhaps it's an inevitable story arc, given surfing's origins in the Polynesian paradise of Hawaii, and its incarna-tion as a multimillion-dollar business.

In Riding Giants, Peralta's paradise is the North Shore of Hawaii in the early 1950s, when a group of visionary waveriders, many from the mainland, congregated in conventional surfer squalor at Waimea Bay; 10 unruly guys in one Quonsett hut, subsisting on filched pineapples and whatever they caught from the ocean. "North Shore when there was nothing there, no watch, no car, no money, no nothing, just a T-shirt and a surfboard," in the words of Greg Noll, sometimes called "the Babe Ruth of big-wave surfing", a stocky soul who wore convict-stripe trunks and who was, years later, the only surfer to ride the great 100-year swell of 1969. No watches, perhaps, but someone, it seems, always had a 16mm camera on hand - "this was before Super-8", Peralta reminds me - to capture breathtaking footage of Noll and friends larking about with an almost demented insouciance in the monstrous waves. And no safety-net, adds Noll, now a chunky, bright-eyed and chipper senior citizen: "No lifeguards, no jet-skis, no helicopters. If you fucked up, you were on your own."

Peralta venerates Noll. Noll also inadvertently invented the surf movie by filming most of his North Shore friends riding the terrific swells off Waimea. "They were adamant about shooting it," says Peralta, "and surfing's such a beautiful aesthetic, it's tailor-made for amateurs. You don't need to know too much to get a great shot. After they'd acquired a lot of footage, they realised there was a market out there for it. They started hiring high-school auditoriums and showing it with live, on-the-spot commentary. And typically the commentator would be the film-maker himself, like Greg." For Peralta, tellingly, one of the hardest aspects of making Giants was negotiating with ageing beach bums for the fabulous footage they'd shot as kids.

Los Angeles is so thoroughly entangled with the history of surfing, it's surprising the city's main industry hasn't made more films about the sport. It's knocked out its share, but few earned the respect or praise of the bro'-hood of the waves. The paradise that Noll and his fellow surfers dwelt in was, however, comprehensively violated by one movie - Gidget. Surfing history is over and over again divided by long-in-the-tooth wave professionals into "pre-Gidget" and "post-Gidget" periods. "It was the first general audience film about surfing," says Peralta, "and as bad as it may have been, it introduced the concept to land locked people." Before Gidget, there were perhaps 5,000 surfers nationwide. By 1964, the figure had grown to two million. The intervening surf-explosion gave us Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys in their original Pendelton-sweater incarnations, as well as the Ventures, the Cascades, and the quintessential surf-guitar band, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, whose Surfer's Choice album was not at all misnamed.

The films broke a lot less ground than the records, sadly. Gidget is still quite special, what with perky Sandra Dee in the title role, and Cliff Robertson as, pricelessly, "The Big Kahuna". Gidget was based on a novel by German-born screenwriter Frederick Kohner, whose daughter Kathy returned from Malibu every day after school filled with tales of her surfing friends. The movie was a smash and whatever its effect on surfing's original small tribe of enthusiasts, it's a pleasure, in Dana Brown's documentary Step Into Liquid, to re-encounter the real Kathy, a married schoolteacher, and still a pretty and active surfer in her early 60s.

Then came the deluge, a cinematic parallel to the musical dead years after Elvis entered the army and before the British "invasion": the beach-party genre. Original Mousketeer and pre-adolescent America's 1950s wet-dreamgirl Annette Funicello, flanked by Frankie Avalon and Fabian, appeared in Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. Prized now for their camp value and unfathomable cheesiness, they were despised by pros for their surfing footage, which usually featured pretty-boy contract stars riding their boards dead upright, hair just perfect, before a back-projected wave of surpassing wimpiness and zero tubularity.

Documentarians did rather better by the bro'-hood, particularly Bruce Brown (father of Dana), with his evergreen 1966 surfing-travelogue The Endless Summer, Peralta's favourite surf movie. Brown followed two clean-cut teenage surf champions, Michael Hynson and Robert August, around the world in search of the perfect wave, stocking up on priceless technicolor footage of waves in California, Africa, Asia, Australia and Hawaii. His surfers are from the period when the sport's most successful practitioners styled themselves athletes rather than far-out dudes itching to get radical.

Very few surfing feature films have achieved any creative distinction since the Beach Blanket era's high tide. Perhaps only three are really worth mentioning: John Milius's Big Wednesday, Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break and John Hancock's Blue Crush.

Milius was a southern California surf-rat in the early 1960s, and Big Wednesday, made in 1978, distills his experiences. He focuses on three surfing pace-setters, played by Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt and Gary Busey, between 1962 and 1974, as they grow up (or don't), get married, get drafted, get drunk. Their mentor is The Bear, a grizzled second world war vet and board designer, one of the fabled North Shore Noll-niks, who works out of a store on Venice Pier. Although they drink and fight and screw and surf, and though they have friends named Crusher and Waxer, Milius portrays his trio like members of what Sergio Leone, in Once Upon a Time in the West, called "an ancient race": a timeless breed of mystical heroes, and makes their story that of his own generation.

The film's four sections align with the emblematic years of the period: 1962, all innocence yet to be lost; 1965, the slide into the abyss; 1968, the middle of the tunnel, and 1974, year of Nixon's downfall and, in Milius's creative shifting of real events, Big Wednesday, the 100-year swell of surfer legend, transposed from 1969. For all its macho posturing and infantile humour, Big Wednesday does achieve a moving, albeit clumsy lyricism. The moment when Matt, now a married pool-cleaning contractor, sees his younger self referred to in a surf-footage movie - called Liquid Dreams - as one of "the older generation" is heartbreaking.

It fell to a smart, sceptical woman, Bigelow, to deconstruct some of the more self-regarding mythic nonsense peddled by Big Wednesday. On the surface, Point Break indulges every hot-blooded cliché of the surfer's parallel universe: Keanu Reeves's Johnny Utah is lawyer, football hero and FBI rookie, a straight man (well ...) to Patrick Swayze's visionary fascist surfer Bodhi, who at one point intones the late champion surfer Mark Foo's well-worn theory of life: "You wanna feel the ultimate high, you gotta be prepared to pay the ultimate price." Bigelow takes the macho bullshit that underpins parts of the surfer worldview and pulls it apart with sustained but subtle mockery. Every male actor is indulged to the absolute max to achieve an almost cartoonish parody of masculine bonding rituals. She shoots Reeves taking the kind of slow-mo, objectifying shower hitherto reserved for naked surf-hotties, and gives him a boyish-looking girlfriend played by out-lesbian Lori Petty. And Bigelow repeatedly underlines the homoerotic hunter-and-the-hunted dynamic that animates the growing infatuation of Utah for Bodhi, particularly in the kinetic chase that culminates with Utah letting Bodhi escape - in his Reagan mask - before impotently emptying his gun into the sky.

Against such a thoroughly feminist takedown of the male surfer ethos, Blue Crush is almost redundant, a tame girl-power fantasy that comes alive only when sexually ambiguous drill-sergeant tough-gal Michelle Rodriguez is on screen, although some of its special effects do occasionally suggest how it feels to be dragged the length of a football field by some implacably murderous wave.

Even this doesn't cut it with the real surfers, though. Step Into Liquid advertises itself as offering a repudiation of the likes of Blue Crush: "No special effects, no stuntmen, no stereotypes, and no other feeling comes close." And Peralta himself has a long-gestating thriller, The Search for Captain Zero, in development. "It's based on a true story of a guy looking for his long-lost best friend. There's lots of surfing, but there's also drug-running and piracy all along the Baha Peninsula. It's very dark indeed."

For all the easy mockery and cheap-shot put-downs to which it is prey, surfing, a blue-collar sport that took over a middle-class world, is possessed of a simple, unpretentious power and clarity that demands we drop our urban-ironic flippancy to comprehend it. As the kid in the surf-shop says to Reeves in Point Break: "Surfing's the source, dude." Perhaps one day Hollywood will convey this to us.