Outtakes: Surf Film Fest screens ‘Vibrations’

Jul. 8, 2015 | 0 Comments

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BY MIKE GORDON / mgordon@staradvertiser.com

One of the best features of the annual Hono­lulu Surf Film Festival has been its devotion to the films that defined the genre.

But this year, when the festival screens “Pacific Vibrations,” the audience will be treated to a classic film that is all but lost to the public.

John Severson’s dreamy 1970 documentary blended psychedelic images with an environmental message that packed theaters. The film has hard-charging surfers in California and Hawaii, pollution-spewing ocean outfalls and dead oil-covered seabirds, and territorial squabbles between surfers and nonsurfers.

And all of that was bathed in the distinctive music of the time, including selections by Cream, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Steve Miller. It’s often been called “Woodstock on a wave.”

But 35 years later only a single 16 mm print, a remastered DVD version and a bootleg copy are known to exist, according to Nathan Howe, who has all three and who also edited and published the filmmaker’s 2014 book, “John Severson’s Surf.”

There may be other copies locked away at MGM, which distributed a 35 mm version of the film in a deal with American International Pictures, but Howe estimates there were probably no more than five in the first place. And he doesn’t know for certain what happened to them.

“It is definitely not available for mass consumption, and it is very, very hard for theaters to get it,” Howe said.

“We are loaning out ours because we are going to be at the festival and I’m going to hand over our version. You have to be careful with what you have.”

Among older surfers the film has a universal response, said Howe, who has one of the original movie posters by famed surf artist Rick Griffin hanging in his Puka Puka gallery in Paia, Maui. “Any time you mention ‘Pacific Vibrations’ to someone, I think they time-travel,” said Howe, 38. “I think it takes them to a certain time and place in their lives that was a good moment.”

The film festival, organized by the Hono­lulu Museum of Art, was attracted to “Pacific Vibrations” in part because it is not widely available, said film curator Abbie Algar.

The festival starts Saturday and runs through Aug. 1 in the Doris Duke Theatre. It will feature 20 full-length films and 40 shorts. But Algar is especially excited to show “Pacific Vibrations” on a big screen and to host the 81-year-old Severson, who is scheduled to introduce the film.

“I think it’s definitely going to find new audiences, and at the same time it will be great for people who saw it tons of times when they were kids,” she said.

For a complete listing of festival films, visit the museum’s website at honolulumuseum.org.

One of the Hono­lulu Surf Film Festival’s shorter films will feature Kauai photographer Mike Coots, who became an advocate for protecting sharks even though he lost his lower right leg to a tiger shark in 1997 while bodyboarding off West Kauai at Wai­oka­pua Bay.

Coots has supported state and federal shark conservation legislation and spoken on the topic to the United Nations, he said in a call from his home in Kilauea, Kauai.By coincidence, the 36-year-old Coots is also featured Sunday on Nat Geo Wild’s “United Sharks of America,” which airs at 3 p.m.

The program, part of the channel’s annual SharkFest series, looks at beaches where shark encounters are most numerous. The leading experts deconstruct shark attacks and provide tips to stay out of their path.

“Growing up on an island where the ocean is all you know, you learn early the importance of a healthy ecosystem and that all science says sharks are a part of that,” Coots said. “To have a healthy ocean, you need sharks.”

That Coots is not angry at sharks surprises some.

“I really have come to love the creatures,” he said. “I’ve been with sharks quite a bit in the ocean, diving with them. Every time, it’s the most surreal experience.”
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Mike Gordon covers film and television in Hawaii for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Email him at mgordon@staradvertiser.com and follow him on Twitter. Read his weekly “Outtakes” column Sundays in the Star-Advertiser.

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