Review: The Yin & Yang of Gerry Lopez
Part review, part powwow with the zen king of Pipeline.
It’s been decades since Gerry Lopez was at his surfing peak, cakewalking at Pipeline, pioneering at G-Land, so the question of ‘why now’ had me curious. Why did The Yin and Yang of Gerry Lopez come out now?
“I don’t know,” Gerry responded blankly when I asked him, “that’s just the way things happened.”
Clearly I was looking for meaning in all the wrong places.
Gerry wasn’t being evasive or difficult in his answer, however he unknowingly gave me an insight into his mindset. For someone who for years has animated the surfing world, Lopez is surprisingly passive. Almost a dreamer. Though ‘observer’ would be a better description of the things that just happen around him. While keenly aware, he makes no judgement, holds no firm opinion. If it wasn’t so cliched I’d say he simply goes with the flow.
Over the years there have been a few filmmakers who’ve wanted to make a Gerry Lopez biopic, and Gerry admits to being keen, however they could never get the angle or the story right. “Stacy [Peralta] contacted me just after he made ‘Riding Giants’,” says Gerry, “and told me he wants to make a film.”
“I thought ‘OK’,” says Gerry, again flowing with the current, “and we made a start before hitting a few hurdles and stopping.” That was fifteen years ago. Recently, Patagonia started up a film division, encouraging Stacy and Gerry to revisit the project and see it through. Thus it’s not timed to coincide with anything in particular, and nor is it rushed before he falls off the perch - after all, he’s in terrific nick for a septuagenarian - the timing just is.
Which is fitting for a guy who flows like water.
I’m not sure what it says about myself, but I watched the film hoping for more of the yin than the yang - more darkness, more dirt. The title promises balance - of dark and light, bad and good, weak and strong - but it only partly delivers on that commitment.
The story is largely told chronologically, with a few digressions for good measure, but the storytelling rests upon the yin/yang device. It works as a starting point, and is very true when considering how a softly-spoken, lightly-built surfer came to rule the world’s most brutal wave, but the idea peters out as the film advances. That’s fine, it doesn’t detract from the show in any way, human lives are too complex for one-dimensional explanations anyway.
More curious, at least to this critic, is how Gerry even came to be a surf star, leave alone retaining his star power fifty-something years after he started up Lightning Bolt Surfboards with Jack Shipley. Of course, he had the poise of Nureyev on a surfboard and was calm like Colonel Kilgore on a battlefield, yet so much of his life happened by chance. Lopez came to surfing late - only applying himself after a premonition in his college years - became a commercial shaper by accident, careened into the coolest brand of the 70s, and bounced out of it blemish-free when it imploded, fell in with scoundrels on the make in Kuta who opened a whole new world for him, and later moved to Oregon on a whim, making a success of that too.
Contrast all this against, say, the ambitions of the modern sports star, or the manipulative world of PR and brand management and Gerry proves a point: that maybe there’s a place in this world for dreamers, the people that simply leave things to chance, as long as they’re happy with where their decisions take them. By all indications, Gerry appears very happy with where his lack of forward planning has taken him, even when it’s hundreds of miles from the ocean. Wherever he goes, there he is.
So, no, they’re isn’t much yin, or darkness, in the film because he’s simply not an unpleasant person - he knows which wolf to feed. Don’t expect dirt or controversy of any kind, because despite the title allusion there’s little to be found. Gerry Lopez’ story isn’t one of fraternity, we don’t relate to him as another flawed human being, but as an example for our better selves to follow.
All very spiritual, no?
While chatting, Gerry told me that his next project is a follow up to his 2008 book ‘Surf Is Where You Find It’, only this time he’s exploring the spiritual dimension of surfing. Twice during our conversation he wonders about, what I’d call, ‘the intangible benefits’ of a surfing life. A clear mind. Vitality. Purpose. Even social order. Dora’s cynical quip about life being a waste of time plays no part in Gerry’s surfing worldview.
“You Australians get it,” says Gerry about the social standing of surfing down here, going on to explain how surprised Stacy has been at the aftershow Q&As. “Most of the questions have been about yoga, or about looking after yourself through surfing.” Stacy apparently was taken aback, though Gerry, who last visited Australia eight years ago, and retains many friendships down here, expected as much.
The film itself is classically Peralta, in that it has all the stylistic flourishes of Stacy’s earlier work including jump cut editing and lens flare effects. Surfers of a certain age who have opening film sequences of Gerry’s Pipeline bottom turn/stall combo seared into their brain may be a tad disappointed that Stacy uses minimal slow-mo. The film is very much paced for a modern audience.
A large bonus is that much of the period footage either hasn’t been seen before, or it can’t easily be found on digital platforms. The producers have worked hard to source rare footage. For some viewers it’ll be entirely new - I’d never seen the drop in footage of Shaun on Gerry - while for older surfers it’ll be a case of deja vu all over again.
Though The Yin and Yang of Gerry Lopez will get a digital release later in the year, it’s playing in select cinemas now and it goes without saying the big screen is its natural home.