From opening shot to final credit the audience for the première of Drew Heitzler's half-hour documentary Subway Sessions (2002) about the surf culture of New York (yes, that's right, not Maui or Huntington Beach) backed him up 100 per cent. Usually few things bug me more than a boisterous crowd in the cinema, but on this occasion the vocal, over-full house definitely added to the atmosphere. It rapidly became evident that most if not all of those featured in the film were present at Anthology Film Archives, and not afraid to make the fact known.
This may not be the kind of reaction one would expect a home movie to elicit, but nor is it inappropriate. Subway Sessions is Heitzler's first film, and was shot entirely on Super 8. Silent apart from a soundtrack in which The Strokes and The White Stripes meet Will Oldham and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, rounded out with a smattering of No Wave, it could hardly be more Indie. But who ever heard of a big-budget surf movie - Point Break (1991) most definitely doesn't count. Like skate videos, genuine surf movies are DIY productions made by participants, and the experiences they depict are real. Think of Bruce Brown's Surf Crazy (1959) or The Endless Summer (1964). The fact that the activities with which these films deal are inherently dreamlike, existing in parallel with but apart from the everyday world, in no way diminishes their truth or validity.
The classic surf films of the 1960s were about journeys, says Heitzler, 'often into the most remote regions of the Third World. A pre-dawn subway ride to Rockaway isn't too far away from that.' Subway Sessions follows a group of surfers on their way to Queens via the A train, their boards rescued from off-season storage on Manhattan fire escapes and pressed into active and spectacular service. The shots at the beach (just south of JFK airport) are suffused in a summery haze, the surfers silhouetted against the grey-green Atlantic, twisting and dancing like shadows on the waves.
Heitzler began filming last August, while the kids of Jamaica Bay played in the spray of fire hydrants and seagulls wheeled overhead. The results convey a flickering, bleached-out nostalgia no less poignant for its closeness to the present. Old women and dogs mug for the camera, flags flutter, fishermen fish. The sunsets turn buildings into gilded monoliths, flowers into drifting puffs of colour. At times the film looks so overexposed that it threatens to turn pure white, as if the surf was breaking directly in front of the lens. There are smiles and jokes. People forget about looking cool and relax. They surf, even here, like they were born to it. Then 11 September happens.
Heitzler said, 'one minute we were filming the best waves I had ever seen here, the next, we were in the middle of a Pynchon novel.' The events of that day are reflected in the film for the same reasons that they are reflected in everything made in New York at the time, and will cast a dark shadow over the city's art for some time to come. The appearance of the Twin Towers is the only awkward moment in Subway Sessions. The audience goes quiet, and it's difficult not to fear the worst, but Heitzler exercises welcome restraint. Airliners flying over the shoreline become the objects of a now sadly familiar trepidation as they disappear into the heat haze and the grain of the film itself. A roughly etched graffito fills the frame. It's hard to make out but seems to read 'my friends will all be fine'. Such urgent optimism would in any case have been entirely appropriate in the days immediately following the disaster. We all called our friends then, needing to confirm even what we thought we knew for sure.
'I think this movie could be about getting past the anxiety of living so close to the wasteland', commented Heitzler. 'You have to keep doing what you love, and we love to surf.' And so the action continues, in real time and slow motion, wipe-outs included. These may not be the biggest or most perfect waves you've ever seen, or the most flawlessly technical moves, but the spirit is there in buckets. Subway Sessions closes to the sound of Andrew W.K. belting out 'I Love NYC', and I leave, as promised, smiling, glad to be in a place where the value of persisting with such outlandish endeavours continues to be celebrated.
First published in Issue 66