Momentum Generation review: "Softens criticism that Kelly Slater is a narcissist who can't let go of the spotlight!"
narcissism

Momentum Generation review: “Softens criticism that Kelly Slater is a narcissist who can’t let go of the spotlight!”

Our reviewer approaches HBO surf documentary with trepidation. Expects schmaltz on epic scale.

Everyone thought he would go on forever. And even now, with the retirement called and “one last lap” started (disastrously) we still can’t quite accept Kelly Slater might one day be gone.

Momentum Generation, a movie-length documentary, as you probably know, takes a retrospective look at the First Act of Kelly’s career, and puts the supporting cast of New Schoolers into context with him during that phase.

It’s a story of friendship and death. It does illuminate the last lap, softens judgement by critics who see the current Legacy phase of Kelly’s career as a textbook case of a narcissist who can’t let go of the spotlight.

I approached it with some trepidation. Expecting cheese and schmaltz on an epic scale.

The film was being played at the Byron Community centre and the organiser had asked me to attend; he wanted me to prepare some questions for a post-film Q and A.

But, what if it was epically lame and all I could offer up were platitudes or the kind of questions I’d love to ask him man on man but that would turn off a loved up audience here to pay homage to the GOAT?

That dilemma about how to review continues, sharpened in the context of current events like the suicide attempt of Sunny Garcia. Presenting a truthful account versus the potential hurt caused by unkind and insensitive comments.

Kelly’s got a lot, far more than I’ll ever have: world titles, loot, fame, celebrity etc. But I’ve got what he hasn’t and may never have. Kids who know that Dad, even if the Point is pumping, will show up to the cross-country race. A dad who might need a couple of brown sangas to get through the school play but he’ll be there.

Every time.

They know I’ll back them up, even if, especially if, they are in the wrong. 

The most poignant revelation in Momentum Generation, or maybe Kelly revealed it in the Q and A was the fact that his Dad never showed up to watch a single CT contest he was in.

Can you imagine what a kick in the guts that would be?

Dad never showed up to witness who he was, his greatness, his whole being. 

That theme runs strong through the opening scenes of Momentum Generation. Absent Dads, overbearing, aggressive, asshole Dads.

“They’ll fuck you up – your Mum and Dad,” claimed English poet Phil Larkin. It describes the damaged Lost Boys who coalesced around the genius of Slater perfectly.

There are some jarring notes in the opening scenes.

The film makes a major point about surfing still being a renegade, anti-social activity. Kelly claims he didn’t even know pro surfing was a thing.

The Momentum Generation inherited all the benefits of a fully developed surf-industrial complex built by an earlier generation. A major premise of the film, that the Momentum Generation brought surf into the mainstream, is built on a very shaky foundation.

While the non-surfing world still swallows the myth of surfing being a radical activity outside the bounds of normal society, even today, it’s a trope worth selling, the truth is far more prosaic.

Tom Carroll had already signed a million-dollar contract with Quiksilver in 1988, while the Momentum crew were tweens. Kelly was groomed and courted by big money before his teenage years. He was carefully cultivated as “the one”, an updated and improved Tom Curren that could be sold to Middle America.

The Momentum Generation inherited all the benefits of a fully developed surf-industrial complex built by an earlier generation. A major premise of the film, that the Momentum Generation brought surf into the mainstream, is built on a very shaky foundation.

The film is on much firmer footing when it explores its other main themes: friendship, vulnerability and the pressures that competition puts on people in close contact.

Leaving out an earlier incarnation of communal living where the Momentum crew had gathered at the Hill House behind Laniakea under the tutelage of Brock Little and Todd Chesser the film spends much of its narrative capital exploring the relationships that developed at Benji Weatherly’s Pipeline crib.

Todd Chesser, Cheese, remains the alpha male and spiritual leader of the group. A Dionysian father figure with a mad passion for big waves.

Cheese takes the flawed, molten characters of Slater, Dorian, Benji, Kalani Robb, Ross Williams, Machado et al and steels them in the furnace of the North Shore into a force that took over the world.

A classic tale of bildungsroman in filmic form.

World titles follow, the world is dominated etc. You know the story.

Chesser was a pivotal figure not just for surf stars. He called me into the biggest wave of my life, at Haleiwa. I’d slept on the beach, in a cheap suit, after a party and woke up in a sleeping bag underwater getting rolled down the beach into the shorebreak.

Then Todd Chesser goes and dies. Drowned on a massive day at Outside Alligators. And the close knit world of the Momentum Generation falls apart.

The emotional impact of Chesser’s death still reverberates today. Kelly took the stage for the Q and A in an Oatmeal-Heather Odyssey Reversible Crew ($US68) in tears. Through sobs, he recounted how hard it still was for him to watch the film and reflect on the passing of Chesser.

Chesser was a pivotal figure not just for surf stars.

He called me into the biggest wave of my life, at Haleiwa. I’d slept on the beach, in a cheap suit, after a party and woke up in a sleeping bag underwater getting rolled down the beach into the shorebreak. A massive swell had hit in the night.

I paddled out sometime mid-morning, in a state of high anxiety, on an 8’2” Rawson. The Toilet bowl was like a scene from a Poe short story. Gothic apocalypse. Cheese was out there , toying with it. That sideways arrogant grin making it seem like surfing big waves was about as risky as buying a carton of milk.

At some point, the apex of a huge peak came to me and trying desperately to elude it Cheese looked me straight in the eye and screamed “Go!” He had an internal force within him that made obedience mandatory. So I did. Like all the Momentum crew did when he turned them from scared young kids into Pipeline maestros.

Chesser wasn’t the only father figure Kelly wept over during the Q and A. He broke down when discussing the influence of Jack Johnson’s Dad, Pete Johnson. The crowd was gushing, people weeping openly.

The film had made a fair fist of painting Kelly as an over-competitive dickhead but this display of male vulnerability was melting the hardest hearts. Kelly’s last lap will be as much about these public unburdenings of emotion as it will be about surfing.

Kelly and his crew ran a straight edge campaign and avoided the excesses of a Tour where dark spaces lured other damaged youth into toxic drug culture. The ghost of Shane Herring haunted the film. The arc of redemption from rags to riches is an American tale but the Australian experience was as much a mirror image with a darker outcome. Lost boys who did not find healing in their tribe.

Certain things are dissected forensically. The famous 1995 Pipeline High Five, for example.

A view is presented that Kelly somehow orchestrated it to throw Machado for the rest of the heat. Kelly claims it as an organic display of joy. Having witnessed it from the beach, ripped to the tits on LSD, I side with Kelly.

The whole heat was so surreal, so perfect; it would be inhuman not to try and wrest a high point and commit it to posterity. Which is what happened. Kelly the preternatural showman created more of these unforgettable high points than any pro surfer in history.

Other things are left out.

The film is scrubbed clean of sex, drugs, Australians. That surgical insularity aims the film squarely at a mainstream American audience but leaves more questions than answers for global viewers.

Kelly and his crew ran a straight-edge campaign and avoided the excesses of a Tour where dark spaces lured other damaged youth into toxic drug culture. The ghost of Shane Herring haunted the film. The arc of redemption from rags to riches is an American tale but the Australian experience was as much a mirror image with a darker outcome.

Lost boys who did not find healing in their tribe.

I couldn’t help but try and calculate the influence of the Momentum Generation while watching Bells. Kelly’s quarter-final with Ryan Callinan was being watched live by a global audience of around six thousand, maybe a few thousand on the beach watching live.

The era officially ended in 1998, less than a decade after it began, with Kelly’s sixth world title and subsequent retirement. The high-water mark of American pro surfing rolled back from there and twenty-one years later, the American coastal market has not been able to sustain a single CT event.

Only Kelly’s own creation remains. For now, at least.

As far as pure influence on the surfing culture, both Andrew Kidman’s and Jon Frank’s 1995 rebuttal to shopping mall punk and ADHD editing, Litmus, as well as Tom Curren’s post-tour wanderings in the Search movies seem more enduring.

The blowback was stronger than the movement. Only Kelly’s Pipeline surfing from that era seems destined to ring through eternity.

To be fair, and accurate, each member of the Momentum Generation did step up and achieve something close to their full potential. Ross now coaches the heir to Kelly’s throne, John John Florence.

Dorian became the greatest big wave rider of his and any era.

Machado has continued to invent and reinvent a marketable persona and stay stoked.

Taylor Steele was the last man standing to sell a squillion DVD’s and so on.

Kelly’s Third Act, taking control of the waves, may yet prove to be the defining move into the mainstream that twenty-seven years of pro surfing mastery could never provide.

Friends heal and make whole, that is the message of the Momentum Generation, but in the final analysis a father-sized hole in his psyche can never be filled.

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