On Tuesday 22nd July, the London Surf / Film Festival presents a one-off special night of cult surf cinema, honouring surfing's icons and bringing Andrew Kidman’s era defining Litmus to the big screen alongside the world premiere of The Ripple Effect, presented on the night by award-winning director Peter Hamblin.
For Festival Director, Chris Nelson, Litmus defined the era in which it was created, diverting way he and his fellow surfers approached wave riding. He recently caught up with Andrew Kidman to discuss his film and the profound effect this iconic project has had on contemporary surf culture.
Words by Chris Nelson.
1996, the aftermath of the Slater/ Machado high-five at Pipeline. The tail slides and banana boards of the new schoolers had distilled into the new order. Music was spectacularly unspectacular, the fire and energy of grunge having foundered against a wave of mainstream mediocrity. In Australia, a young filmmaker was quietly pulling together a project that would have a lasting impact on our culture, changing the way we looked at our lifestyle, our icons, the boards we rode and the way we rode them.
Viewing Andrew Kidman’s iconic Litmus through the prism of time, you can see it was almost 20 years ahead of the game. In an era when surfing was all about the consolidation of the ‘new-wave’, the skate inspired, Slater, Machado, Beschen et al; a time when everyone rode the same homogenous boards – thrusters, mostly too short, too thin, too rockered, Litmus offered up a different perspective. It brought us an appreciation of the high line, the drawn out curve, altered shapes and the surfers who had gone before and radically shaped our culture – Derek Hynd, Wayne Lynch, Tom Curren, Nat Young, Mickey Dora – the go-to cultural icons of modern referencing. Kidman was way ahead of the curve; at a time when surf culture was a youth culture and it’s titans were ageing, grappling with what the future held, Kidman showed that they were not only relevant, but still pushing the limits.
“I guess this is just what interested me in surfing,” says Andrew Kidman of the focus of the project. “People like Derek Hynd and Wayne Lynch were just more interesting to me back then, than what Kelly was doing on 18 1/4 thrusters. I was riding those [short]boards and there were moments when they felt incredible, but most of the time, in good waves, they were letting me down. When I was in Jeffreys Bay in ‘93 Derek was messing around with the Fish and revisiting single fins. I got to ride all these boards, including Dave Parmenter's 7' Widow Maker he'd built for me to ride Jeffreys on. The light just went on surfing being a personal experience. I imagined it could be something to make a film about.”
We weren't trying to make a film that would appeal to any kind of audience, we were just trying to make a film that might represent the culture at the time – we're talking about the mid nineties, the Duke introduced surfing to the world in the early 1900's – the culture was alive. Jon and I just wanted to share this.”
Unlike it's contemporaries, Litmus was not neon, hibiscus print boardies – it was a dark film, neoprene-clad and brooding. Each chapter is a tome. Curren in the back yard, trademark carves to the sound of his own guitar; Joel Fitzgerald charging huge PMPA Point in Ireland, sitting in a damp Land Rover discussing legacy; Hynd in his J-Bay residence, talking Dora; Wayne Lynch an education in smooth lines at home in Oz.
“Jon Frank and I definitely had something that we wanted to make a film about,” explains Kidman. “Jon felt the same way I did, he knew there were other things in surfing that touched people and he wanted to show this. We had people we wanted to work with and we had places we wanted to go as we knew a surf culture existed there. It didn't matter to us that the culture was only a handful of people, it was still surfing. We weren't trying to make a film that would appeal to any kind of audience, we were just trying to make a film that might represent the culture at the time – we're talking about the mid nineties, the Duke introduced surfing to the world in the early 1900's – the culture was alive. Jon and I just wanted to share this.”
Watching Litmus, hearing Litmus, Kidman not only captured the stylings of his characters, he drew out their thoughts, and then moulded the film around the music to create an all encapsulating artistic endeavour. In many films music seemed tacked on, almost an afterthought. For Kidman, it was the seed. “The music was the start of the project,” he explains. “The Val Dusty Experiment Jon, Mark & Rose Sutherland and myself, Brad Thompson, the guy that wrote/played the 'Dream' song – produced it. We recorded the music before we made the film because we wanted our film to feel like the music. Tom [Curren]'s music felt the same, we recorded his music live in a backyard in Torquay, it felt right. I still love listening to it, it gets so crazy at one point. It's just a live jam with Tom playing and Cam Batten singing. Stuff like this happens all the time in real life, you can hear the fire crackling in the 24 gallon barrel drum during the recording. The Screaming Orphans were the same, that's just live at their house, one shot, they are incredible live musicians. One take, one room, microphone, Alan Lomax style. Val Dusty is the same, all those songs on the soundtrack were just live, we had one shot at playing them. It's real, maybe that's why it resonates.”
Few surf films are iconic, but Litmus is a true beacon – a dark, brooding star. It helped surfing navigate from neon splashed youth culture, to multilayered, multifaceted lifestyle. Like a low pressure system, it's effects have grown, spreading out across surf culture, arriving like a groomed swell; shifting the sands, making waves. “Hopefully people are experiencing the joy of being involved in what they ride and what this great past time allows us all to feel,” says Andrew, “A connection to nature and the spin of the earth.”
For me the film changed surfing forever. I couldn’t relate to the mainstream bright crystalline view of surfing; it's potato chip boards. Kidman kicked open a door on a more complex, interesting, textured world where we were all welcome. Visiting a fellow surfer’s pad you’d see the bright orange VHS cover nestling on the shelf and know that they got it. It became a signal, a litmus test.
For details about the event and tickets click Here.