There are certain Friday nights at Encinitas's La Paloma Theater when the crowd awaiting the 9:00 p.m. show is a virtual sea of blond heads. Blond heads standing in line, blond heads looking in shop windows along First Street, blond heads coming back from the 7-Eleven with cans of beer and candy bars, blond heads skulking in the alleyways getting one last puff of marijuana before the show starts.
Adding to this uncanny homogeneity is the fact that these people are almost all young. There are a few exceptions — a smart, thirtyish couple in matching La Coste shirts; a few Marines from Camp Pendleton; and three bemused septuagenarians — but most of the men are anywhere from seventeen to twenty-three years old. the girls even younger.
And the dress is remarkably similar. The girls look provocative, sexy, and colorful in clinging sweaters or sweatshirts and tight pants. The men are considerably more conservative in baggy cord Levis or shorts with T-shirts on which various liquor store or surfboard manufacturer names are embossed.
The conversation one overhears while waiting in line is decidedly different from the chatter before a show at the Grossmont Center or the Fashion Valley Four. One picks up strangely nasal voices saying things such as. “Where'ja go out yesterday?”
“Oh. man. Swami’s was breaking in the afternoon but there were way too many guys out. George's was pretty hot. but I went out at Pipes. Five to six foot, top to bottom tubes — righteous!”
Of course, there can be only one reason for this gathering outside La Paloma: the screening of a surfing film. In this case it is A Matter of Style, whose arrival has been presaged by ocean-blue posters claiming “outrageous action” and “hot tubes.” Surfing movies, and the crowds that are attracted to them, are nothing new to Southern California; Bud Browne. John Severson, Bruce Brown, and Walt Phillips were making them over twenty years ago. In those days, the films were shown at large halls, not real theaters — places like the auditorium on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach, the Santa Monica Civic, and the Oceanside auditorium. Those were naive, experimental, and immature days for surfing, and surfing films were considered nothing more than haphazard collections of big-wave footage designed to jolt a saltwater-logged audience.
Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer not only lent some respectability to the genre, it also brought the surfing film temporarily out of its narrow market. People in Mississippi and Minnesota went to see it, people who had never set eyes on a surfboard. But almost nothing has happened on such a mass scale in the fourteen years since The Endless Summer was first released.
Who, then, goes to the trouble to make these notoriously unprofitable films for a select, die-hard surfer audience? The answer is, obviously, a die-hard surfer, someone like Leucadia's Steve Soderberg, the writer, producer, director, and editor of A Matter of Style. Tall, very thin, blond, dressed in light-blue, draw-string pants, a cream-colored, short-sleeved shirt, and sandals. Soderberg looks like the typical surfer. But at thirty-three he is older than most, as the ample wrinkles around his eyes and on his brow attest. One thine about older surfers, the sun’s reflection off the rea and white sand takes its toll; they age quickly.
Soderberg’s enthusiasm for surfing, however, is as strong today as it was when he was fifteen. ”I don’t know where I’d be today," he told me, "if it weren’t for surfing. I mean, there's nothing really . . . at all like surfing. I can’t really describe it. But, you know, without it life is really, well, it's not nearly as exciting. It’s the most exciting thing you can do.
“I mean, most of my friends,” he continued, "my friends who surf that is . . . and I know I do it, too, but they're automatically going to be distrustful of someone who doesn’t surf, particularly if that person is real straight. You'll find that most really hard-core surfers only have other surfers as friends. With me, it’s not really that I don’t have any nonsurfing friends or anything, but it’s just. I don't know, just not the same. If they don’t surf, there’s just going to be a gap between us. ”
Soderberg’s love for surfing began while he was a student at Palos Verdes High School, about ten miles up the coast from Long Beach. He grew up surfing at spots like “Rat." Haggerty’s, and the P. V. Cove. In those days the boards were very long and as heavy as small boats; just carrying one down a cliff was a major struggle for a fifteen-year-old. Surfing in that era was more a fad than it is today, but for Soderberg and others it became something more. “Sure. I knew guys who got into it because it was just the thing to do. And even me, at first, I was really a grem.’ I wore all the right clothes and everything (I think at that time it was a white windbreaker that all the surfers wore). The thing was just to be seen walking down the beach with your board and being a surfer. That was the best part. But the guys who were into it just as a fad, quit. The guys who stayed with it, they really just loved surfing. That’s the difference. I think you don’t see as many guys today who do it just as a fad.”
Certainly today, despite formidable geographical restrictions, surfing is a legitimate sport. In North County and areas like it, surfing is one of the most powerful and pervasive interests for teenagers. Virtually everyone surfs, and when they’re not actually in the water, they talk surfing. But Soderberg is able to recognize the limitations of obsession. “In Hawaii,” he pointed out, “surfers find that surfing can be a total experience. In California it's different, but there [in Hawaii] they can really immerse themselves into surfing. There definitely is a challenge of the ocean there. I mean, it’s all there — it’s beautiful and it's easy to get into it. But out here in California, it’s harder to do that. The waves, the conditions are not nearly as exciting and people wonder what these surfers are doing. They don’t fit in as well as they do in Hawaii, and maybe people look down a little at them. Some people think that surfers have never grown up, but in other societies that’s not really true, not at all. Even in Australia they’re looked up to. And in South Africa. If you ask anyone in South Africa who Shaun Tomson is, they’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s the international surfer." But around here, if a guy travels around and surfs, they wouldn't say, ‘He’s an international surfer,’ they’d say, ’He’s just a surfer ... a bum.’ It’s different.” Soderberg is talking about the inveterate surfer, the person who has no other identity. “Most serious surfers,” he explained, “you know, the die-hard like you’re talking about, they travel a lot.