San Diego Surf: Film Review
A long-unfinished feature shot in 1968, Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey's goofy excursion into Southern California surfing culture had its world premiere at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
NEW YORK – It’s not technically a plot spoiler when there’s zero plot. So it’s fair game to reveal that the long-unfinished, unscripted 1968 Andy Warhol feature, San Diego Surf, is almost 90 minutes of preamble to Taylor Mead getting a golden shower from the Factory’s pretty-boy surfer, Tom Hompertz. “We middle-class people really suffer watching you surfers out there,” groans Mead, who plays a restless married man yearning to put his bourgeois golfing days behind him and acquire SoCal surf-culture status. “Can’t you just piss on us?”
Given that the middle class were well-heeled back then, it sounds like a sly reversal of Mitt Romney’s political philosophy. In any case, that watersports scene typifies the ambisexual absurdism of this piece of rescued Warholiana. More a flaky souvenir of a stoner vacation than an actual movie, the non-narrative 16mm artifact had its belated world premiere as part of MoMA’s “To Save and Project” film preservation series, ahead of a Jan. 23-28 run at the Museum.
Warhol was the victim of a near-fatal shooting by Valerie Solanas soon after returning to New York from the San Diego location, making this the final film project in which he was directly involved before handing over the reins to longtime collaborator Paul Morrissey. The Andy Warhol Foundation commissioned Morrissey to finish editing the film in 1995, based on existing notes and a rough cut. While the actual print contains no credits, available information indicates that Morrissey and Warhol were co-directors, as well as sharing camera credit.
Following Lonesome Cowboys and featuring many of the same core cast, San Diego Surf is less intent on celebrating male beauty and fraternity, despite the obvious opportunities presented by its subject and setting. It sits midway between the aesthetic principles of Warhol’s purely experimental work and Morrissey’s increasingly narrative- and character-driven later features, like Flesh, Trash and Heat. A string of static scenes and rambling, improvised conversations, the film mixes affectless banality with droll humor. It’s an exercise in boredom that can be intoxicating, excruciating or both. As such, it will be of interest chiefly to ‘60s underground cultists.
There’s undeniable charm in watching Warhol darling Viva sip cocktails and bat her massive false eyelashes on the beach. She plays Susan, an East Coast transplant to sleepy La Jolla, desperate to divorce her effete husband (identified as Mr. Mead), and escape the stifling monotony of housebound motherhood. Describing herself as “a nice, normal middle-class wife with a penchant for surfers,” Susan opens the film with a semi-incoherent direct-to-camera monologue that evokes ‘Little Edie’ Beale in Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens. “They don’t even raise girls in California – just boys,” she whines, musing on what she imagines is a hotbed of homosexuality.
Despite Susan’s doubts, the dissatisfied couple open up their stately home to a bunch of beach boys, among them Hompertz, Joe Dallesandro and Louis Walden. There’s also a Hawaiian dancer (Nawana Davis) who sings “The Muffin Man” to Mr. Mead, briefly fanning his fire. In one horrifyingly hilarious moment, a distracted Viva drops a baby while attempting to hold a child in each arm; Dallesandro’s lucky catch saves the poor kid from hitting the patio.
While the sexual appetites of both husband and wife are teasingly indicated, the focus – if that’s the right word – shifts to finding a man for pregnant family friend Ingrid (Ingrid Superstar). This midsection becomes something of an insomnia cure as Ingrid, Viva and others drone on about nothing. But then, tedium was always a substantial part of the point of Warhol’s films.
Eric Emerson of glam-punk band The Magic Tramps turns up briefly to accuse Ingrid of seeking a husband to hide her lesbian tendencies, admitting himself that his three marriages have been acts of sexual subterfuge. More diverting is the small talk between Ingrid and a surfer dude with fabulous mutton-chop sideburns. “What do you think about all this space exploration going on?” she asks, without much interest. “Oh, I don’t know,” he replies. “It’s groovy. Maybe they can find some waves there too.”
While Hompertz and some of the local recruits reportedly had board-riding skills, the full extent of action on the waves is a few brief shots of surfers paddling in low swells. But that’s perhaps appropriate given the flagrant fraudulence with which the amusingly verbose Mr. Mead accesses the subculture. “I’m a surfer now!” he exclaims in triumph as urine splashes his face in the film’s outré coda.
In these days of hi-def crispness and digitally perfect images, the raw splendor of sun-drenched exteriors captured in 16mm is a refreshing nostalgia trip. As a countercultural comedy of manners, San Diego Surf is not-quite-equal parts dull and funny. But it’s a useful reminder that Warhol and Morrissey’s work opened doors for a whole line of subversive filmmaking personalities, from John Waters and Paul Bartel to Larry Clark and Harmony Korine.
Venue: Museum of Modern Art, New York (opens Jan. 23; MoMA)
Cast: Viva, Taylor Mead, Louis Walden, Joe Dallesandro, Tom Hompertz, Ingrid Superstar, Eric Emerson, Nawana Davis, Michael Boosin
Directors: Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol
Producer: Andy Warhol
Directors of photography: Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol
Editor: Paul Morrissey
No rating, 90 minutes