Filmmaker Scott Dittrich probably hates Patrick Swayze. If he doesn't, he should reconsider. A former UCLA economics grad student, Dittrich (what? - you thought it was going to be Swayze?) has spent the past seventeen years as one of the nation's foremost practitioners of the surf movie. In their pure and traditional form, surf movies are little more than glorified travelogues, showing packs of Sex-Waxed enthusiasts traversing the globe in search of the perfect wave. Then came Swayze in this summer's Point Break. Looking like an escapee from Jim Henson's Particularly Ugly Puppet Factory, he bumbled across the screen, brandishing his stubble and bearing a look in his eyes that said, "Huh?"
Perhaps Point Break director Kathryn Bigelow intended her star to capture the mystique, the metaphysics, the spiritual essence of the surfer. Instead, he captured the spiritual essence of being as dumb as a rug. In just a few ponderous hours, surfing movies regressed more than a quarter-century, back into the ice age before Bruce Brown's seminal documentary Endless Summer.
While human trees like Swayze savage his livelihood, Dittrich, whose first feature was the 1974 surf classic Fluid Drive, continues to forge bravely ahead. Long a surf-movie innovator (over the course of the last decade, he has developed an international network of trusty surfers/cameramen whose cooperation assures him the world's best available footage), he has broken into the new decade with Rolling Thunder, his tenth feature. And while it's no Apocalypse Now (still the best surf movie ever made, thanks to Robert Duvall), Rolling Thunder represents a significant advancement of the genre, combining a dramatic narrative and overt environmental concerns with the more familiar crash and splash waves.
Set 50 years in the future, Rolling Thunder wastes no time in lamenting our present course of ecological suicide. On a torched strip of Australia left behind after a pollution apocalypse, Uncle Robbie (Ian Abercrombie), a former surfer, entertains a dozen young charges with stories of when "the Earth was still green and the ocean was still alive." Those stories are represented by current surfing footage from Australia, Fiji, Bali, Java, Hawaii, South Africa, and California. At every turn, Dittrich is working hard to illustrate the tenuousness of that beauty; to his glorious travel shots, he has added Greenpeace-supplied footage of beaches riddled with discards. With Abercrombie's amiable narration, Rolling Thunder warns that failure to responsibly monitor litter and waste may hasten the end of the world (see Coastal Cleanup feature in this issue).
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But be forewarned: No matter how thematically fortified, hundreds of scenes of lithe, tanned men turning uptide into towering sea spray can (and do) grow tiresome. But Rolling Thunder also comes prepared for that, with a powerful soundtrack that includes material from a wide variety of progressive rock superstars, everyone from Deee-Lite to the Pixies, from the Merchants of Venus to Happy Mondays to Metallica. Australian political-rockers Midnight Oil, known for their environmental concerns, contributed five songs to the project. The music helps substantially, especially considering the questionable acting talents of the children who play Uncle Robbie's charges. Still, if a film can celebrate the carefree life of a surfer, plant seeds of ecological concern, and at the same time heap further embarrassment upon Patrick Swayze, who's to complain?
Written and directed by Scott Dittrich; with Ian Abercrombie and Robbie Page.
Screens at 7:00 and 9:00 p.m. Sunday at the Cameo Theater (1445 Washington Ave.) and Monday at the Holiday Inn at 1350 S. Dixie Hwy., Coral Gables.