'Echoes' at Lennox
On 5th December 1973, almost fifty years ago, Crystal Voyager, Albe Falzon's follow-up to the phenomenally successful Morning of the Earth, premiered at the Sydney Opera House. The film was a basic biography and exposition of George Greenough as he went about his life as surfer, sailor, fisherman, filmmaker, and boat builder. He already had a boat for crossings to the Channel Islands, some twenty miles off the Santa Barbara coast based on a dream about aliens and featuring a modified Boston Whaler. Most of the narrative work in the film is done by Greenough building a yacht, The Morning Light, which he plans to sail to Australia. The film ends with a sailing sequence, then a strange new film begins...
It was a tumultuous period. The best of times, the worst of times etc etc. It's not mentioned in the film but America was cooked. The meat grinder of the Vietnam War was struggling to its ugly conclusion with the Fall of Saigon less than a year away, Watergate proceedings had uncovered criminality in the White House and led to the impeachment and subsequent resignation of Richard Nixon, oil shocks from war in the Middle East led to gas shortages and stagflation, the Club of Rome produced a manifesto - The Limits Of Growth - which predicted environmental degradation under existing human growth models, while violence at Altamont Speedway by the Hells Angels slammed shut the peace, love, and mung beans dreams of a hippy generation.
Australia, by contrast, was still sunning itself in the cultural optimism of the Whitlam years. Education was free, living was cheap, crowds were low, conscription had been scrapped. Primary production was in decline and the small coastal towns had yet to embrace tourism.
During this period Greenough was back and forth between Australia and California - working lobster traps north of Point Conception to fund long winter stays on the East Coast, mostly living out of the back of a car, which he had pulled the back seats out of to sleep in. Echoes, the strange film tacked onto the end of Crystal Voyager was mostly shot at Lennox Point* on a single 'hero' morning of rare long period east-northeast groundswell. Greenough emerged from the car after a poor nights sleep due to the pounding surf, wrangled the war surplus 16mm Mitchell film camera into the custom housing powered by heavy lead batteries. The weight of the whole set-up? In excess of 15 kilos - about a fifth of Greenough's bodyweight.
The greatest mystery about the filming on this epic day, is how the hell he got off the rocks. Not once, initially on the Velo Spoon, but twice, with the second rock-off on a mat. George had realised with the weight of the camera, and the negative/neutral buoyancy Spoon, that he couldn't get enough hull speed to get over the ledge to catch a wave.
The famous 'pings' - reminiscent of sonar soundings - which introduce the film take us straight into this immersive world on this epic day, minus the physical battle to get off the the rocks and the thirty pounds of camera gear on our backs. We are now with Greenough in his world, led by the pings and the ensuing 23 minutes of high psychedelia of Pink Floyd. At 15 mins in we again hear the pings and thus begins an intense sequence of in-the-tube shots culminating in the 'hero' shot where Greenough manages to accomplish the immensely difficult task of negotiating his way into and out of a deep tube-ride on an inflatable surf mat with the experimental backyard camera gear operating.
That shot and the film itself represented a high point in how surfing was perceived by mainstream culture. It received standing ovations at the 1974 Cannes Film festival and later shared a doublebill with the animated classic, Fantastic Planet, for a record breaking six month run on London's West End.
Pink Floyd screened Echoes to massive audiences across their live shows, projecting the film during live performances of the title song. You could easily argue it's been downhill ever since - either Hollywood cheese or the bland commercialism of pro surfing representations.
Echoes can look a bit twee now in the age of GoPros and Skeleton Bay tubes where you have to remind yourself to breathe. You have to remind yourself there wouldn't be a GoPro without Echoes and how, despite democratising tube-riding fifty years ago, it still remains an insanely difficult task for most to get into and out of the green room. What Echoes still offers, if you can surrender to it, is a dislocating experience as you let go of the terrestrial and embrace the oceanic. It's a regressive, almost primordial sense of returning to our watery origins. Both in the womb and before fins became limbs.
What's less well known or appreciated is how Greenough went out at the top of his game, on terms of his own choosing. In Greg Huglin's 1982 film Fantasea there's a sequence of Greenough “driving it wide open” at Lennox Point. It was close to the last time he surfed the Point, at his peak. He turned left to eschew the crowds and found B-grade spots to ride, usually solo. And when they got crowded he found other B-grade spots, constantly keeping one step ahead of the crowds, often hidden in plain sight. A slight, stooped figure with a surf mat, hunched from the brutal wipeouts with heavy camera gear on his back.
Echoes plays tomorrow night at the Lennox Community Centre, less than a mile from where the footage was shot fifty years ago. The print has been digitally remastered from the original film canisters stored at the National Film and Sound Archive.
// STEVE SHEARER
*The first sequences of Echoes are shot north of Pt Conception and in the Santa Barbara Channel.