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- Published on Amazon.com
Matt Warshaw has already staked his claim to being one of the top surf writers. Having edited SURFER Magazine, written THE book on Mavericks (the monster big wave spot in Northern California we saw in Riding Giants) and then penning The Encyclopedia of Surfing, a 770 page door stop of a book that packs in more information about the sport/activity/lifestyle than anyone needs to know, Warshaw has more than demonstrated his chops as a researcher, writer and editor.
Now Chronicle Books has released Surf Movie Tonite!: Surf Movie Poster Art, 1957-2004, a nice 143 page packaging of surf movie posters reproduced in full color and big enough to actually see and appreciate those ephemeral graphic gems. The posters look great, as they always did, and surf posters do deserve to be the subject of a coffee table book. Just not this one.
In the past, surf movies tended to be made by surfers for surfers, or by Hollywood producers, looking to cash in on the fad. The surfer made enthusiast films featured lots of waves, spectacular wipe-outs, and little if any story, that were filmed and screened in 16mm, much like travelogues or the 1950s Warren Miller skiing films. These shows were tribal movie events, exhibited in high school gymnasiums or rented halls, presented by the film maker himself who delivered jokes and comments live while the audiences hooted and howled. The posters, as well as smaller sized handbill and flier versions, reflected this home made effort, the lack of sophistication, and the abundance of stoke generated by the films. Unlike Hollywood films, ephemeral surf movie posters were usually the only method used to promote the shows.
Surfers by and large didn't care much for Hollywood's Beach Party products. Over time the differences have blurred somewhat as the enthusiast films have become more polished and the Hollywood narrative movies utilized more pro surfers, but the difference between the genres is still fairly obvious. Typically Hollywood's posters show the mugs of stars like Keanu and Swayze or the boobs of Bosworth, while the documentaries' promotional materials feature graphic design, wild lettering, lush paintings, and WAVES. Warshaw quotes his own remarks critical of the Hollywood contribution from a 1998 SURFER'S JOURNAL article, but oddly enough his essay in this book seems to be more impressed with the slick fiction films and is generally dismissive of surf documentaries.
The real question is: where are the artists' credits in Surf Movie Tonite? Warshaw writes about the film makers, the music and the stars, and in the introduction he does mentions infamous artist Rick Griffin and designer John Van Hammersveld. But uniformly in this catalog of posters, the writer and/or editors choose not to credit the designers and artists whose works are presented. This omission CAN NOT be dismissed as a simple oversight; Surf Movie Tonite! is NOT a book about surf movies, it is a book of surf movie posters! In some of the illustrations, the poster artist had signed his work, but this was not always the case. The surfing community is not that large, the missing information is pretty easily obtainable for a diligent researcher, and Warshaw, as I stated above, has proven his ability as a researcher. The significant lack of text concerning the posters themselves, their creators, their production, distribution, historical and artistic significance, along with the missing credits, decreases the value of this book immensely. Surf Movie Tonite! simply fills bookshelf space that should have been reserved for a better more complete book. Surfer artists such as John Severson, Bill Ogden, Jim Evans, and Terry Lamb, as well as the above mentioned Van Hammersveld and Griffin, should definitely have had their works reproduced with at minimum a line of credit next to each of their unique and often iconic images. For the most part, the reader is left without a clue.
Warshaw seems to have forgotten that he was supposed to be putting together a book about posters when he ventured off subject to spew about surf movies themselves, which perhaps should be the subject of another volume. The author goes on to say his ultimate surf movie would be some dudes sitting in a car gabbing and smoking a joint while the surf is blown out. So what starts out to be a book about posters, switches into a discussion of some movies he saw, and finally digresses into the author's fantasy deconstruction of his subject and trivialization of surfing altogether. His Introduction ends with the flippant line, "Get Jim Jarmusch to direct, work up a good-looking poster, and it'll make the next edition of this book."
With the dismal efforts the author and publisher put into this book, Chronicle Books and Mr. Warshaw don't deserve to have another shot.