I scored a free ticket to a preview of the surf movie, Newcastle. If I hadn’t, I would have missed a terrific ride – it’s not the sort of movie I’d usually rush to.
Just shows that genre stereotyping – like all stereotyping – can be a folly. Although all the definitive elements of the surf movie are there in abundance in Newcastle – screenfuls of young suntanned flesh, nocturnal beach parties with the obligatory dope, drink, dudes and babes, and of course, sensational surfing montages set to a pumpin’ musical backdrop – there’s a lot more going on.
I’ll dispense with providing a plot summary, partly because I hate reading reviews that waste time on re-telling the story, and partly because the narrative of Newcastle is a secondary concern, the primary focus being the city’s surf sub-culture.
Newcastle the city is a curious place. The images that come immediately to mind are, of course, industrial. Rusty ship hulls, grease, grime and coal, steelworks, tough hard-living hard-working blokes wearing hard hats and steel-capped boots. Essentially, an unforgiving male world, rough as guts. Yet in the midst of this iron ugliness is natural beauty. Gorgeous beaches right on the hearth of the city and a coastline beckoning north to sloping dunes, glassy surf breaks that are the rightful province of surfers in the know, lush rainforest-fringed bays and rugged rocky reef washed by the relentless swells of the Pacific. And art!
The now-famous dance spectacular Tap Dogs speaks eloquently of Newcastle’s paradoxes: labourers glistening with supertoned muscle, in blue singlets and King Gees and steel-capped boots, setting their industrial world to dance with inspired choreography, and undeniable grace and power, transforming the din of drills and sparking angle grinders, of bone-mashing heavy metal on metal, into primal rhythms that speak to the tribal in astonished audiences the world over. Call these dancers poofs at your own peril.
So it is with the Newcastle surf set. On the surface, these young surf dudes are all bonehead machismo. They talk tough, they walk tough. But as with Newcastle itself, there is more going on here than meets the eye. As the movie progresses, the guys’ armour slips, exposing complexities that yer stereotype never dreamt of: the sensitivities, vulnerability, uncertainty and pain that spring like shape-shifting demons out of sexual conquest, tribal rivalries, sibling jealousy and powerplays, the intricate machinations of dominance and submission, hurt and rage and anguish.
But this is a movie that is mercifully unselfconscious in its exposition. The character striptease that in many movies is all too carefully managed and thus unintentionally laid bare is avoided here. The movie moves along at its own pace, in its own way. There is a strong sense that the filmmakers are insiders, immersed in the surf world, rather than outsiders looking in through camera lenses, seeking to manipulate for some higher directorial purpose. This intimate understanding of the surfing milieu is never so profoundly expressed as in the surfriding sequences, which are just stupendous – cinematography as poetry, no less. Exhilarating, lyrical, very beautiful. Transporting, in fact – you lose your sense of time (like the surfers, perhaps).
I googled for some reviews before I set about writing this one. Just curious to see what the critics were saying. I was taken aback at what I turned up.
There were putdowns of the acting, which one critic declared “cringeworthy”. Sure, the young dudes are largely unknowns, and you suspect that their roles demand little more than they be themselves, but I found their performances natural, authentic, utterly convincing. Rishad Strik went further, projecting a powerful and unsettling presence. Looming large and dangerous, his is a brutish character, a wounded bull of an older brother who dominates and controls his younger step-siblings, and radiates impending catastrophe. Tension sings like a wire stretched to breaking point every time he appears. The “names” in the cast – Barry Otto, Shane Jacobson and Joy Smithers – all give creditable performances.
You know, I wonder whether many movie critics don’t fix on earlier reviews for guidance before they venture their assessments. Of the Newcastle critiques I scanned, all peddled the same stuff: the acting was poor, the movie was more Aussie TV soapie than cinematic in quality, the plot was slight, the characterisation too thinly spread and therefore shallow. Perhaps their failure (as I see it) to engage with the movie on its own terms lies in a misapplication of culturo-generic expectations – most of the critics were American – and their insistence on categorising Newcastle as a “coming of age movie” and/or a “surf movie”. It is both, yes, but it is more, and here I think these whingers missed the point.
The lack of narrative resolution gives some clue about where the movie is coming from. Hollywood could not have resisted a neat finale, in which the hero tubes out of the shadow of his older brother’s surfing achievements by claiming a major title of his own. Instead, we are left uninformed of whether he wins or not. IT IS NOT IMPORTANT – AND THIS YOUNG DUDE IS NOT A HERO.
He is but one of the tribe, a character focal point certainly, but a vehicle for a larger exploration. The film taps into and celebrates the endless pulsing energy and recklessness of youth in full physical bloom. It pays homage to the majestic power, beauty and treachery of the ocean and the spiritual yearning of the surfer to find oneness in its waves. But above all else, this movie is a sensitive, sympathetic and deeply humane engagement with a male sub-culture whose surface bluster and machismo belies the complexities, paradoxes and contrasts that run deep within.
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