Sean Doherty: Somewhere Between 'Searching for Tom Curren' and 'Eraserhead'
COASTALWATCH | REVIEW
“Curren’s in Mexico?”
Concomitant with any Curren project, this one began with an air of mystery. This wasn’t so much a search for Tom Curren. Nobody knew he’d even gone.
Two unmarked hard drives of footage turned up in the mail late last year at Rip Curl. Tom Curren, it turns out, had disappeared down to Mexico halfway through last year, shortly before the pandemic closed the border. He’d stayed in Mexico for three months with good friend, Buggs Arico who owns a joint at Salina Cruz. Australian filmer, Andy Potts had tagged along with cameras but no real plan to shoot anything. With the pandemic spreading through Mexico, shortly after they arrived the Federales moved all gringo surfers out of town… with the exception of Tom, Buggs and Andy. They had the point to themselves and it became a closed three-month shoot, just Curren and Salina Cruz.
Tom opens Free Scrubber pondering his situation. “I just happened to find myself here for some reason, being able to surf when no one’s been able to surf.” This is followed by a drone shot of Curren walking out along the rocks on the point, carrying a homemade alaia. He slips, falls, and the board splits in half along the grain. He gets up, looks at the two pieces and walks off, presumably to surf the bigger half.
Under a white-hot Mexican sun, things got both brilliant and weird.
At 56, Curren still surfs incredibly. By the end of the three months, he was a strap of leather, totally surf-cut and tuned to the rhythm of the point. The wave is quick and rarely backs off to allow a turn, but just watching Curren race down the point was hypnotic in itself. His boards were good. He rode twins… flat-bottomed, flat-decked, boxed rails with an ’80s outline. He really opened them up. Shooting alone, Andy shot all the surf footage by drone, which has actually worked. The point runs forever, so zoomed out you get the full racetrack. Zoomed in you get Curren, moving syrupy, rail to rail.
The closed shoot, while a great showcase of Curren’s surfing, was a better look at Curren himself. Filming Curren can be like filming Bigfoot, and initially Andy encountered the same artful dodging everyone who’s ever filmed with Tom has head to deal with. “You push record, he stops doing what he’s doing. He’d be on the wave of the day but he’d see the drones and would kick out.” But over the course of three months, the camera faded into the background and Tom just went about his day, being Tom. Andy was able to capture him, unobserved. “He was staying super busy the whole time with his ‘projects’ as he calls them, which were some of the funniest stuff. But I mean, I think we all lost our minds, man. We really did. We lost our minds.”
The Covid pandemic meanwhile was roaring through the rest of the world. With their own pointbreak and nobody around, it might as well have been happening on Mars for these guys. “Don’t you feel that we’re a little bit naïve to just be sitting here like nothing’s going on?” Early in the film Andy Potts ponders what’s waiting for them at home. Tom’s not even listening. He’s playing circus music on a keyboard. This is Curren, lost totally in the local magic of a life-riff – riding a wave, fixing a ding, playing a keyboard riff, hula hooping, examining a small plant – while the rest of the world goes about its business. Curren cruises through life, and in that way has become almost immune to the problems of a big, bad world. At one point in the film he strums a tune on his ukulele called Living in Fear, which Tom is clearly not.
Andy Potts it turns out was worried with good reason. His year was a shocker. “I got life checked.” He got hassled by locals, before suffering a spinal fracture and two herniated discs in the shorebreak out front. He drove the length of Mexico twice to get out. He was locked up in Tijuana, got caught in a Black Lives Matter riot in LA, lost his mum, flew back to Australia, spent a month in quarantine, lost his dog, had his wisdom teeth ripped out, then flew back to America only to be turned back around by immigration to do it all again. Editing the film between all this was impossible; he just sent the hard drives.
Andy was unsure what the world would make of the footage. “Everyone was so worried about throwing Tom under the bus with this movie. How’s it going to be perceived? He hasn’t really done anything like this before.” The guy tasked with editing the film, Vaughan Blakey was also initially scratching his head about what to do with it. “When I was watching the footage, it was just so fruity,” recalls Blakey. “Everything in there felt like a David Lynch sidebar. This is like David Lynch, mate. But at the same time, I don’t know, it was also a great buddy comedy like The Blues Brothers or something with Tom and Buggs. It’s like this odd couple thrown into isolation and everything they’re doing is just wacky. It was completely hilarious.”
Blakey got license to get weird from the man himself. “Curren and I only spoke twice on the phone about the film,” says Blakey. “That was our only contact before we started cutting it. I said to him, ‘Look, man, I’m going pretty out there on this edit.’ And he was going, ‘Bend it.’ That was his advice to me, ‘Bend it.’ And I was going, ‘Oh, it’s bent, mate. It’s bent. It’s so bent it can see the back of its own head!” That was the last Blakey heard from Curren. Four text messages and two conversations were the sum total of their correspondence. Blakey isn’t sure whether Tom has even seen the film.
But like a Lynch film, there was also an unsettling vibe to it. The whole scene in Salina Cruz was already a little unsettling. The town was empty, and there was also some bad juju with the locals who were a little on edge. But the unsettling nature of the edit comes largely from not knowing what the hell is actually going on. “I was watching it,” recalls Vaughano, “just going, imagine walking in on this scene. What is actually happening here? Would you find it funny? Would you be buzzing, or would you be going, ‘Holy shit, this is actually a little disturbing’? You just don’t know what’s actually going on.”
The edited result was right on the edge. Free Scrubber fell somewhere between Searching For Tom Curren and Eraserhead. “And that’s what I felt like I was watching the whole time. What the hell is going on here? What’s happening here? And it just had this great sort of balance of being really funny, but really out there at the same time.”
When he first watched the raw footage, Blakey was tempted to just get out of the way with the edit. This was Curren in his natural element, Curren being Curren, as rare an insight as you’ll ever get into the man. Blakey however twigged on what he needed to do. Most renderings of Curren over the past 30 years have taken a high concept approach, his surfing genius framing a glimpse into this enigmatic, almost unknowable cat. A figure of quasi-religious standing, Curren films become reverent offerings. You don’t mock the gods… even if the gods themselves seem to be mocking the world.
But Blakey knew what he had to do. He made a Curren comedy and it’s a classic.
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