Tim Baker | Have We Cheapened The Tube?
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Have We Cheapened The Tube?

Have We Cheapened The Tube?

Once, the only way you could experience the view from inside the barrel was to get barreled.

It was surfing’s mystical, transcendent, peak moment. A bit like losing one’s virginity, it was a club you joined after much fumbling and clumsy  foreplay, when some of kind of existential truth was finally revealed in a fleeting, ecstatic exchange.

When surfing’s greatest creative genius George Greenough first captured the view from inside the tube, with a bulky, custom-built water housing for his 16 mm camera strapped to his back, riding an inflatable surf mat at Lennox Head, the surfing world was spellbound. For the first time, those precious seconds inside the tube could be studied, analysed and savoured even by those who’d never got near the inside of a barrel. Those few sequences from Crystal Voyager and Innermost Limits of Pure Fun in the early ‘70s held sway in surf image-making for another  40 or so years.

I can recall when the young American crew filming Shelter, the Litmus-inspired soul surf flick of the early 2000s, crammed into an old farmhouse in the Byron Bay Hinterland under the direction of Chris Malloy and Taylor Steele one Autumn. The cast of disillusioned pro surfers were here to make art, man, to escape the constricting yoke of the pro tour and “get back to where it all begun”.

They listened to John Coltrane, read Kerouac and Bukowski, jammed around camp fires and ruminated about astronomy, painted an old bus and chased cows, hung moody black and white postcards from clothes lines strung across the loungeroom wall, and watched Innermost Limits of Pure Fun on high rotation. It’d be easy to mock these quaint beginnings of the whole retro soul movement, but I found it heart-warming that these big name pros were searching for something pure, trying to retrace surfing’s songlines in pursuit of the essential, unsullied thrill of the wave-riding act, before the surf industry had consigned them to “10 years in hotel rooms and hire cars,” as Chris Malloy put it.

There was one moment of Greenough’s footage that inspired near-hysteria in the old farmhouse, when George’s camera lens scrapes the roof of the tube and for a few surreal moments is traveling through the lip. It’s hard to describe, but the abrupt transition from soaring through the tube, to becoming embedded in cascading arc of the lip and out again, seems to transport the viewer. Such intimacy with the tube had never been captured on film before and even if experienced first-hand would resemble little more than a shower of spray. Slowed down in 16 mm film it felt akin to taking a high speed trip through the human blood stream.

Barely a decade on, we are now all chronically bored with the view from inside the barrel so routinely captured in countless Go Pro clips. Surfing’s sacred, transcendental, peak moment has become just one more thing to yawn and be bored about in our world-weary determination to remain barely impressed by anything.  It has become our own internet porn – our pole-in-the-hole action – as we search for something gnarlier, more graphic and shocking to illicit a response from our flaccid imaginations. And the idealized images we are assailed by now render the real world experiences most of us have to content ourselves with as unworthy.

 In deconstructing the sublime, being able to replay, slo-mo, fast forward and endlessly share these most intimate moments, have we lost something magical? The genie is out of the bottle now and there’s no turning back. But as Billy Bragg once crooned, “The temptation to take the precious things we have apart to see how they work must be resisted for they never fit together again.”

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