Listen: Is surf localism just a more historically steeped form of modern Karenism?
Psychological drama, surfing and storytelling, Pro Land is still as captivating as ever, more than twenty years later.
Derek Hynd’s movie Earth Pro follows the infamous 1999 world tour battle between, mainly, Danny Wills, Mick Campbell and Kelly Slater.
You remember the story.
Baby-faced Danny and the fiery Mick at the head of the tour, apparently destined to bring a world title back to Australia. Only for Slater to rush on the day of the final at Pipe and win crown number six.
One of the tightest and toughest championship races of the modern era. All documented by Hynd on a portable camera, long before the days of webcasting. The independently produced documentary was uploaded to YouTube a few years ago with Hynd’s blessing.
Earth Pro was not the first look behind the scenes on the tour. It wasn’t necessarily the best either (see: shout in blue). Looking through a contemporary lens at the surf has dated.
The build quality is poor. There are verge of awe-inspiring voyeuristic T&As strewn everywhere.
But as a psychological drama, surf as a storytelling, Earth Pro is always on top. Exciting, more than twenty years later.
The story is simple.
Follow the top five surfers (Danny, Mick, Kelly, Beschen, and Occ) as they progress through the tour. Stick a camera to their face at the appropriate times. Document the story as it unfolds.
The film opens in Japan, after the Australian stage, and is a slow burn at the start. There is scrappy surfing in the skinny waves. A reminder of the bad old days of conditions around the world. Short interviews with key players. An updated dashboard at the end of each competition. Otherwise, very little exposure. After Sarge’s Surf Album than Scream in blue.
But the form soon emerges.
As we move from one composition to the next, Hynd the author begins to inject himself and the script unfolds.
Just as Erik Logan and Pat O’Connell identified twenty years later, bone marrow is in the top five. What a variety of characters Hynd has had to work with.
The re-emerging Occy, preparing for his eventual title run the following year. His play on small waves in particular is always amazing to watch.
Slater, evergreen, at one of its many peaks.
Beschen, the cynical sage, in whom Hynd surely sees himself the most. Surf with incredible precision, to the point of austerity (see: economy of movement). But also honest comments, cutting both on its own performance and that of its competitors.
Best friends Willsy and Campbo. The heart and soul of history. Two Australians from Ocker, tragic LMBs, ready to take back the crown for Australia. Just sting for a fight, either between them or with any willing cat.
As Hynd continues to dot the subjects as they move from Bay of J, to Europe, the United States, Brazil, nuggets of insight emerge. The interaction between best friends Wills and Campbell is absorbing. Willsy, the disproportionately blessed talent who struggles with target number one on his back. Campbell, the competition animal who likes to be an outsider.
Then there’s Slater, the tritagonist, emerging from the shadows as a Dionysian villain to steal the show in the final act.
It was DIY reality TV. But it was believed. Honest. The human condition was played out on a small VHS screen.
Or at least it was like watching it after a few Saturday afternoon clubs.
The late David Forster Wallace said world-class athletes are on the move: “To be a high performance, high performance athlete is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we mediocre observers have. so hard to see in us. So we want to know them. We want to become intimate with this depth. We want to get into them. We want the story.
This therefore applies to any type of sports journalism. Hynd got the story. It’s not hard.
That a single operator with nothing more than a handycam and a flair for drama can create a compelling documentary shouldn’t be surprising.
Earth Pro treats his subject with the respect, seriousness and subtlety he deserves. He understands the product for what it is and doesn’t try to do something more with it.
Competitive surfing is like war. Long periods of boredom punctuated by short periods of excitement. It’s never going to be a mainstream viewing because it’s not a mainstream product no matter how you try to package it. This requires an investment from both the audience and the director.
But the hard work will pay off if you are patient enough. Give them enough rope and they will hang themselves, as the saying goes.
Earth Pro takes us behind the veil.
Bone marrow is in the top five, of course. But that doesn’t mean you should throw the rest away. Just look at ’99. The world title was decided on the day of the final, but we also got to see tour veteran Jake Paterson beat wildcard Bruce Irons in one of the most biting finals in Pipe history.
There are stories everywhere, if you let them breathe.
Compare it then to the overproduced and heavy tales constantly being broadcast by the multi-million dollar “media house” WSL. Top five. Ultimate surfer. By artificially fabricating drama, the WSL deprives itself of the very magic it wants to create.
Disrespecting and undermining the sport he is desperately trying to monetize.
Any fool with a handycam can see it.
But hey, maybe Trestles will prove me wrong.