Poster for Chasing Mavericks (2012), the ninth lowest grossing box-office mass released film in history
While I watched the latest big-budget story of Jay Moriarty I thought about David Foster Wallace’s essay How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart. The essay is his reaction to and review of tennis legend Tracy Austin’s sports memoir. Summing up his supreme disappointment with the book, he examines why we as readers continue to go back to the shelves and pick up these sports memoirs knowing that they will be full of nothing but flat, dead PR prose. He asks how the athlete can “shut off the Iago-like voice of the self” and simply perform their techne, that one thing a person does so well that, like the Homeric heroes, it “facilitate[s] a communion with the gods themselves.” Is such a person “an idiot or mystic or both and/or neither?”
Chasing Mavericks is not a sports memoir, but it shares a number of aspects with Wallace’s thoughts on Tracy Austin. In neither story, memoir nor biopic, does the reader/audience come any closer to understanding the feeling of the athlete. On winning the US Open, Austin describes the experience, saying, “I immediately knew what I had done, which was to win the US Open, and I was thrilled.” Compare this to the various platitudes that pepper the dialogue in CM:
It’s about finding the one thing in life that sets you free.
It’s the reason you were put on this earth.
It’s about something bigger than you are.
Actual lines from the movie, from various sections. The rest of the dialogue is just as canned, and there were times when I thought that the movie would be better off with no dialogue at all. And if the dialogue were all that was problematic, then it would be okay.
Jay Moriarty, legendary big wave surfer, who died free-diving at 23
The problem, in both cases, is that the people creating the book/film have chosen specific aspects to be loyal to, at the sacrifice of what makes compelling story. In both cases, the perspective lens is focused someplace other than where one would find what Wallace describes as the “almost classically greek” trajectory of both athletes’ lives. For CM, the concern of the creative parties involved seems to be making sure that their film accurately portrays surfing as a sport. To this end, the film exceeds expectations. From teenagers down at the subtle breaks of Santa Cruz carving the glassy waves, up to the immense feeling of inferiority and the seeming impossibility of the task that one feels when confronted with facing one of the largest walls of water in the world. Frosty, Jay’s neighbor, mentor, and father figure shines as an instructor, laying out point by point what it takes to accomplish this task. We understand the challenge of paddling across Morro Bay, the death-like stillness of holding your breath for four minutes. Even the complex nature of triangulation between guide-points to find your place on the wave seems understandable to the audience. But all of this care and precision is for nothing because we feel nothing for Jay.
Jay Moriarty at Mavericks
And we should fucking ache for Jay. His story is an extraordinary bildungsroman, his family life broken and desperate. His father abandoned him and his mother seems to be a barely held together alcoholic trying to scrape by in a job at Target. Jay seeks out a role-model on his own, works after school to pay for the radio receiver he needs to track storms, achieves the impossible, faces his fears, and marries the sexy blonde. All before he turns twenty-three.
Moriarty on the cover of Surfer
And then there’s Frosty. The man is a Homeric Nestor without the digressions. He is Jack London’s wet dream. He chases storms early in the morning, risking his life against his wife’s pleas, and upon her death, swears off surfing Mavericks to keep a promise to his wife that he never could in his lifetime. He gives up the thing he loves to raise his daughters.
The film does not prep the audience for any of this. Frosty comes off at times like a surf-bum version of Gerard Butler’s higher grossing Spartan character; Jay seems sensitive to, but ultimately disaffected by, his family struggles up until the last ten minutes of the film; and when Frosty’s wife dies of a sudden seizure, people in the theater actually laughed, completely disconnected from the reality we were supposed to be living.
So too with Tracy Austin we boil down the tragedy of heroic rises to fortune and Shakespearean falls from grace. No more does Austin’s book consider her tragic trajectory than does our biopic of Jay Moriarty.
True, in the last moments of the film we hear Frosty in voice-over reading the essay Jay wrote to Frosty about fear. In that letter we hear everything we need to hear about Jay: his fear about opening the letter from his father, the inner demons he confronted, and most interestingly his acknowledgement that life is ultimately short and fast. But it’s too little too late. After we see Jay succeed at Maverick’s, we cut to Jay floating in some other sea, where he is about to drown in a deep sea diving accident. Cut back to Frosty and a myriad other surfers in the ocean scattering his ashes. I felt nothing, though I felt obliged to feel otherwise.
Perhaps if the whole story started with that sense of fatalism. If it opened with the voice-over of the first half of the letter laying out just what it is that truly effects Jay, then the tragedy of the events to come would be foreshadowed. But without this foreshadowing, the film is nothing more than sports memoir.
Legends Start, and Flop, Somewhere
Wallace sums up his essay like this:
“Such a person does not produce a very good prose memoir… [Tracy Austin’s history] may also, in addressing the difference in communicability between thinking and doing and between doing and being, yield the key to why top athletes autobiographies are at once so seductive and so disappointing for us readers. As is so often SOP [standard operating procedure] with the truth, there’s a cruel paradox involved. It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able to see, articulate, and animate the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but they are its essence.”
The closer Chasing Macericks comes to portraying the sport, the farther it gets from describing the essence. Perhaps there is something of the athletes’ techne that will remain forever secret in that communion between the athlete and whatever god to whom they wish to pray.