Something funny is happening to mainstream surfing. The material-minded, mall-loving monster that waveriding’s become is starting to fracture, and you can see it along the point breaks of Santa Babylon: groms are growing their hair long again while college-aged rippers raised in the age of Slater are putting down their shred sleds to try out finless, solid wood back-to-the-future machines. Surfers young and old are scratching at the soul of surfing again, and though the cynical salts might call bullshit, these retro riders are drawing high lines on weird shapes not for marketing’s sake, but simply because they miss the stoked-out spirit of yesteryear.
This in-the-trenches take on surfing is starting to look more and more like the world of Thomas Campbell, a genre-jumping artist who doesn’t really break down existing walls so much as he lives like they don’t exist. A master chef in the kitchen of creativity, the critically acclaimed painter, photographer, sculptor, and record label owner occasionally slow-brews a soulful surf film, such as 1999’s Seedling and 2004’s Sprout, which both gave voice to the “ride anything” movement-whether it’s a thruster, decades-old longboard, or barn door-while the rest of the wave-minded moviemakers were focused on the same old shortboard-ripping thing. With a sensitive eye staring straight at the fundamentals of the experience, the 39-year-old Campbell reveals-via a narrated format la Bruce Brown and an always complementary mood-setting soundtrack-a side of surfing that Surfer Magazine and sponsor sticker-peppered, ADD-inducing surf flicks seem to forget. Now, after another five years of marination, Campbell is back with the latest chapter: The Present, which premieres to a Santa Barbara audience on Friday, March 20, at the Arlington.
Taking time out from final edits at a secret New York City laboratory, Campbell chatted recently with The Independent about his latest creation. With a way of talking that’s reminiscent of a perfect wave peeling through Rincon on an otherwise stormy day, Campbell waxed philosophic about the fabric of surf culture’s cloth. “Things in this world just seem so commodified in general these days,” he explained. “So much of what surfing is isn’t in the mainstream. : They are giving you the experience through the avenue of selling you something.” The Present, explained Campbell, is about “the moments that keep us coming back” to surfing: the solitary exhilaration of being in nature, the variable sensations of wave-riding, the sheer, undeniable beauty of it all. A well-polished and accomplished surfer in his own right, Campbell regularly chooses to get wet at C-grade waves to have “a mellow, nice experience instead of going to the A-grade wave and getting my eye-of-the-tiger on.” Similarly, his forays into the world of surf filmmaking are not about making money but, rather, about “making something good.”
To that end, Campbell has rallied an eclectic and supremely talented cast to spread the gospel of the ride-anything movement in The Present. World-class lip-slayers, nose-walkers, and tube-spelunkers such as Ojai’s Dan Malloy, Dave Rastovich, Dane Reynolds (filmed entirely in Ventura), and Alex Knost are on board, along with stoke-harvesting gurus such as Joel Tudor (the Timothy Leary of ride-anything) and Rob Machado pushing the limits in every direction imaginable. There is also a long overdue and mind-blowing display of women’s high-performance surfing-Australia’s Chelsea Georgeson threads an Indonesia barrel that would put 99 percent of the world’s surfers to shame. Also, love it or hate it, the alaia craze for traditional boards that’s currently infecting surfers everywhere reaches new and jaw-dropping heights in the film.
Though Campbell stops short of saying so himself, The Present might just be anything but a serendipitously titled film. By living, breathing, and creating at his own pace outside the mainstream, Campbell has captured the widely divergent forces of the now in a way that only finely executed art can. Simply put, The Present is a ridiculously well-timed present for us all.
The Present makes its Santa Barbara premiere at the Arlington Theatre on Friday, March 20, at 7 p.m. Music will be provided by Ray Barbee and the Mattson 2. See trimyourlifeaway.com.