The epic of California’s beach culture has never been properly recorded. We’ve gotten flashes of it in the music of The Beach Boys and Dick Dale and the waves of shitty instrumental tracks that are what surf music is really all about. We’ve gotten parodies of it in the teen beach comedies of the Sixties.
None of these things begins to scratch the surface of what the California beach scene has been and has meant — the poem it has written in our collective hearts.
John Milius (above center) grew up in the surf culture of California in the early Sixties — saw it wiped out by the dislocations of the Sixties, the Vietnam War and the rise of the counterculture. In Big Wednesday he tried to write its epitaph, an elegy for a peculiar phase of the endless epic of the California beach.
He never finds the right tone for his elegy, or can’t sustain it. The movie is a kind of hodgepodge of Milius’s own obsessions, his conflicted psyche. It is by turns sentimental, cartoonish, puerile, boorish and gracious — but the sentimental and gracious elements come close to being a fitting tribute to his subject.
His love for the beach, everything the California beach has meant to him and to America, is alive in the movie. The California beach deserves more, but it has always taken what it could get, whatever the sea was granting on any particular hour of any particular day.
Maybe that’s as it should be — you can only ride the waves that are rolling in. If the swells and sets aren’t cooperating, you build a fire in the sand, drink some beer and wait on the sea’s pleasure. It will be different in the morning with la mer toujour recommencée . . . always starting over again.