While Taylor Steele’s much celebrated Sipping Jetstreams and Castles in the Sky were undoubtedly triumphs in cinematography and aesthetics, they failed to deliver any genuine insight into the surfers and their relationship with the destinations they were experiencing. 

Maybe I just like a little more substance with all that stylized footage, but for me it was just too many pretty images without enough verbal context. Taylor Steele’s struggle to capture the human dimension was further emphasized with Missing, his 2013 Mick Fanning biopic, which basically just missed the mark. By the film’s end we knew nothing more about Mick Fanning than at the beginning.    

Which brings us to Taylor’s new film, Proximity; an ambitious project, which is framed around four manufactured double acts – Dave Rastovich and Steph Gilmore, Shane Dorian and Albe Layer, Rob Machado and Craig Anderson, Kelly Slater and John John Florence.

After paying sixty bucks for two tickets to a big screen premiere last Friday night, I was a little concerned that it would be money spent on another forty minutes of art-house surf cinematography that was beautiful to look at but somehow just a little boring. I hadn’t seen any of the trailers so any preconceptions were based on past films.    

Fortunately it was clear from the very outset that Taylor had taken a radical departure from his past projects and decided to focus intensely on the personal and psychological dimensions of his subjects. 

The film is cut so that it plays like a kind of four-way revolving door that loops through each duo and then back around again. The editing style offers a refreshing break from the stagnant section-by-section, surfer by surfer approach that is so frequently used in movies featuring multiple surfers. That said, it’s probably easier to discuss Proximity in relation to the four double acts it features.   

 Albe Layer and Shane Dorian hunt pits and drink pints in Scotland. Photo: Glaser

While Dorian and Layer are bailed up in Scotland waiting for a mysto slab to break, most of their scenes centre on them sitting in a low-lit pub, playing darts and drinking pints. Sounds dull, but the humble setting actually makes the dialogue between them even more compelling. Suddenly Dorian and Layer, two of the best big wave (and aerial in Albe’s case) surfers in the world are just regular guys who enjoy a beer and a bit of banter. The only difference is that instead of talking about the footy they are engaged in an honest and revealing conversation about the nuances of riding life-threatening waves. And when that slab finally does turn on and they swap pints for highly technical tube rides in voracious, cold-water kegs, all that deferred gratification is well worth it. 

Even on an isolated tropical isle the competitive tension between Kelly and John John is apparent. Photo: Glaser

Cut to John and Kelly and they are sitting in some obscurely located, Pacific Island hut, hunched over a chessboard, the dim light bouncing off Kelly’s head as blonde-locked John John relishes the opportunity to put the King and his King on the ropes. As the two are locked in mortal combat over the chess board, John asks Kelly whether his ‘process’ or straight out desire and external motivation were more important when it came to winning his titles. It kind of is like watching two grand-masters reveal their most critical moves.   
 
As one might expect many of the scenes between John John and Kelly centre around competition. Who can pick the fastest crab? Who can cast the rod the furthest? Who can win the chess match?

Do they score great waves? The spot they focus on looks like a wind-blown backdoor, but that’s exactly the kind of hollow, rampy set up these two thrive in. While some of the surfing is riveting and edited with the same restraint and artistry we’ve come to expect from Steele, the film makes it clear that impossibly perfect surf is not the focus, so you don’t really expect it. You are happy to enjoy waves, which have something distinctive and unique about them.      

Rasta and Steph represent different surfing paths but share a reputation for classic style. Photo: Glaser

If the other three duets are cast because of their similarities then in Rasta and Steph there is an obvious distinction – Steph is a self-confessed, contest junkie while Rasta long ago severed all ties with singlets and sirens. The two discuss their obviously different stances on competition surfing and so become interesting ambassadors for each side of one of surfing’s age old debates. However, Dave and Steph also share a connection in that both are synonymous with style. While this theme is played out in their filmed conversations it is one example where the key message is actually best communicated through the moving pictures – one wave at a Mexican point features Dave and Steph riding together, choreographing their cutbacks and swapping spots in the pocket with such impressive fluidity and grace that the utopian notion of a world where we share waves seems not only achievable but something worth striving for. As is so often the case when someone hands Steph a retro board and tells her to surf in amongst the guys for the camera, one could make a case that she actually steels the show.                   

Steph and Rasta choreographing a ride on a right point. Photo: Glaser

Ando and Machado are cast as the ectomorphic (skinny), rubber-limbed, goofy-foot free-surfers with quirky tendencies. They tread through snow to go surfing in Japan and hang with cowboys and fishermen in South America, but while their footage is compelling and Machado quick to deliver a quip, their dialogue, while still engaging, is probably the least compelling. If nothing else their scenes indicate that, at 43, Machado remains one of the world’s most watchable surfers.     

Ando and Machado – always kinda goofy. Photo: Glaser

Proximity is also framed by the gentle, but sage-like narrative voice of Gerry Lopez. Gerry is never seen but chimes in intermittently with pearls of wisdom that borrow from pop psychology, new-age eastern philosophy and that ever reliable Mr dial a quote, the Dalai Lama. At times it all sounds a little clichéd, but for the most part it works as a means of tying together the threads of a movie that is perennially moving in four different directions.  

In a Q and A for the audience after the film, Taylor stressed the challenge of making a feature length surf movie in an era that is saturated with rapidly delivered, high performance footage. (A genre he ironically helped create with his early performance-focused films like Momentum). “I had to really think about what is the purpose of a surf film these days and what I am more curios about,” conceded Taylor. “ It had to be something with a little bit more emotion or feeling.”       

Machado is definitely still a joy to watch. Photo: Glaser

Fortunately Taylor has explored new territory with Proximity. Where another of Steele’s films, The Drifter, was anchored around a kind of corn-ball, faux sentiment, here we feel like the surfers are being sincere and divulging some of their deepest feelings. Sure a couple of the scenes are set up but it seems justified if it helps to illuminate the true natures of the surfers.

Overall it seems Proximity is a mature and compelling piece of surf cinema. With the valued assistance of creative director, Todd Glaser, Taylor Steele has produced what is certainly his most sophisticated surf film yet (and my favourite of his).  
Perhaps we know it succeeds in pushing new boundaries because rather than leaving us hanging out for another masterfully ridden perfect wave, we are instead hungry to spend a little longer peering into the minds of the world’s best surfers, and of course to know who won the chess game between Kelly and John John. 

Steele is undeniably an influential figure and has single-handedly re-routed the direction of the surf film genre before. Maybe he has done it again by ushering in a new era where viewers will demand compelling, curated action along with intriguing insights into the surfers. Can’t wait to see if all those kids on the beach churning out the clips take a cue from Taylor this time? If they do, surfing might be in a better place.