We’ve all become accustomed to the formula by now: fly to exotic locations, laden with expensive camera gear, and film the best surfers you can find in places most of us will never get to explore. These surfers’ sections are often edited together in a stream of massive punts, connected only by the pumps down the wave face that precede them. Maybe a couple barrels. A layback end section. Almost unknown artists pump out art rock or post punk as backing tracks. It’s a formula that works, and its variations over the last few years have produced good, and even some great films. Like the pseudo-travel-adventure film, recently served with a fine Wes Anderson glaze adorning the entree. But fewer and farther between are movies that eschew this ethos to produce something truly different.
Volcom’s newest surf flick, Psychic Migrations, is just that. On the surface, it doesn’t stray far from the formula, professional surfers globetrotting through remote waves. But somewhere in the mix, director Ryan Thomas has tossed some secret spices or magic plants to produce a surf movie that doesn’t feel like anything I’ve seen in recent years. It’s how you feel about the movie, and about surfing in general, by the end that sets it apart from recent films. There’s something about the way the ingredients in this stew are boiled together and then baked into your brain that feels like something bigger than just watching 60 minutes of surfing.
If cheap, yellow, domestic beer is the proper accompaniment to watching football, the proper beverage to enjoy during Psychic Migrations is probably a root ground in a gourd somewhere in South America before being served inside a monkey skull. There’s no pretense of making “just another” surf movie here. There’s been a lot of press dedicated to the fact that this is Volcom’s first surf movie since The Bruce Movie in 2005. I’m not sure how much of the last decade the ideas for this movie have been tumbling around in RT’s head, but I’d wager they’ve had a while to gestate and mutate before settling into the final product.
The soundtrack is an easy example of Psychic Migrations’ differentness. The first third of the movie passes by before a single lyric is sung, and after a short number of songs with a human voice, you’re plunged back into a lyrical desert, left with only the ebb and flow of the instrumentals. It creates a headspace that RT fills with the surfing he wants to highlight.
And good god, the surfing! The Volcom team is missing a marquee name since Bruce departed, but the team charges ahead behind Ozzie Wrong (Wright) and his anti-fascist rainbows. Solid performances from guys like Yago Dora (may he never don a WSL jersey like so many of his countrymen) and Nate Tyler, who was my underrated stand out in last year’s Strange Rumblings. The whole team turns in a solid performance, splayed out in front of and across your retinas along the entire strange trip.
But make no mistake, there is a highlight, and it’s not the cameo from Volcom’s newest cousin via their parent company. No, it’s Ryan Burch, and it’s not a part you’ll soon forget. Burch has been on the periphery of everyone’s radar for a while now, popping up to surf strange shaped craft in Cyrus Sutton videos or paddle into Teahupoo on a tiny fish. But his part, accompanied by Wright and Tyler, of absolutely demolishing a Chilean left point on a self shaped rainbow fish is some of the most exciting surfing to hit screens recently. His part proves that progression is about doing something new and exciting, and not just about what grab you’re doing while spinning above the lip. Lots has been written about the death of the American competitive professional surfer and the dearth of prospects for resurrection. After watching Burch in this movie, I couldn’t care less if the NSSA dissolves tomorrow, if it means a generation of groms grows up idolizing Burch’s penchant for creativity.
There’s a tipping point in surfing coming, a shift in how we view progression, and prioritize power. The continued codification and commercialization of professional surfing, its trajectory towards Olympic sport and consumer viewing can only breed a push back. Dave Rastovich recently told the What Youth crew what was up, saying, “we should also be having just as many bent, crooked, tweaked out crew in our culture being supported.” Psychic Migrations channels some of the crooked crew riding waves today, and we’re all the better for letting melt into our minds.