There’s No Crying in Surfing

September 23, 2018.Jonah Das.0 Likes.0 Comments

There’s No Crying in Surfing: New Film Revisits the Complicated Legacy of Andy Irons

One of the now standard shots in adventure film is to start with a solitary skier or snowboarder working a chute or a powder field, and then slowly pull back – way, waaay back – to reveal the massive, dizzying scale of the mountain, and the suddenly tiny, receding figure inching down its face.

This technique, pioneered by Teton Gravity Research in the 1990s, has long since been adopted by a half-dozen other adventure filmmakers. So leave it to TGR to reverse the whole process, breaking ground one more time with filmmaking that goes in the opposite direction: outside in, from comfortably huge to suddenly intimate, from the vastness of an adventure sports landscape to the tears of deep, unresolved human grief.

TGR’s compelling new documentary, Andy Irons Kissed by God, makes quick work of the meteoric rise and fall of a surfer who transcended his sport with a mix of artistry and rage. It traces his hardscrabble childhood in Kauai, to instant fame and fortune before he ever made it out of high school; to three world surfing championships and dozens of victories around the world, all of them in the throes of undiagnosed bipolar disorder; the redemption he seemed to find through the love of a fiercely loyal woman; his final descent into addiction and full-blown psychiatric meltdown; and his lonely death in a Dallas airport hotel, from a combination of drug overdose, premature heart disease, and physical collapse.

The mystery and horror of his end, at the age of 32, has galvanized Irons’ story arc into something akin to that of tortured artist, or poet, or rock star – mythmaking the film does not, thankfully, indulge in. Instead, it paints a quick watercolor portrait of a complex, brilliant, and fatally flawed human being, while giving over the balance of its screen-time to the crushing impact of his death on those who loved him.

The filmmakers at TGR may have perfected the genre of the adventure sports film, but Kissed by God is about as far as you can get from the fist-pumping ski or surf porn on the TV over the apres bar. This, by sharpest contrast, is the morning-after film, a deadly serious hangover cure for too many kinds of drugs to keep one’s demons at bay. It is a tear-stained homage, befuddled in places by blinding pain.

Irons was surrounded by a huge entourage of friends, apologists, users, and unwitting enablers. His widow, Lyndie, says multiple times in the film that she was trying to “protect” Andy by not letting anyone see or know what was really going on with him, in between all the great victories and wild victory parties. But she could not protect him from himself, or any of the things that make the film feel like a ripped and tanned version of VH-1’s Behind the Music.

We see Andy in full-blown manic episodes, in fistfights on crowded breaks, yucking it up with his brahs in the hyper-tribal Kauai crew that surrounded and defended him to the end. But we also get an agonizing screen minute of video, shot from above of Irons curled up in fetal position on the floor: this gifted, beautiful, adored young man, his body nearly catatonic, his wide, searching eyes filled with confusion and terror.

The filmmakers could well have taken the easy way out by leaving it there. The archival footage of Irons’ surfing throughout the film reminds us that he was indeed a transcendent athlete, a true artist on the churning medium of the ocean. His surfing ranged from wily defiance to barely contained explosion, a swaggering and rage around the edges that pulled you out of your body and into his.

But they did not leave it there. Instead, they zoomed in: to the interior lives of Irons while he was alive, and of those closest to him and still grieving seven years later.

As the narrative describes Irons’ increasingly unstable and para-psychotic states, the filmmakers replicate it with abstract expressionist touches: underwater shots of waves, disjointed edits, baths of odd color, agitating music. The effect is to replicate exactly what it feels like, literally, to be held down after a wipeout – but also metaphorically, I would imagine, to be trapped in the disorientation, isolation, and burning shame of mental illness.

Kissed by God brings us right to the edge of discomfort for the subject (and us), on the interior lives of those Irons left behind. Which is why you may not want to see if this film if you are not comfortable seeing grown surfers cry.

The film opens with Bruce Irons, the burly, chiseled younger brother – and great surfer in his own right – who had an obviously stormy, difficult relationship with Andy. Still struggling with his own demons, the entire movie screen fills with a tough, masculine face buckling with pain as he breaks down and sobs openly.

We also see, in nearly as stark a close-up, Kelly Slater – as cool and steady a presence as we get in surfing or any sport – still struggling to sort through his own grief. In an interview full of strained silences, Slater struggles with the question that haunts every survivor: how might he have been somehow complicit in Irons’ demise, especially given Irons’ bizarre obsession with beating his once childhood hero? And then, of course, more tears, from Slater’s translucent, almost otherworldly eyes.

And finally, Lyndie, the devoted wife who was seven months pregnant with their first child when Irons died. Most of her interview footage is shot on a breezy porch in Kauai, in a flowing floral dress with lots of makeup – which makes the interview with her, near the end of the film, all the more devastating: another intense close-up, against a black screen and with no more noticeable make-up, just long agonizing silences and unspeakable sadness. With an almost cruel sense of timing and thoroughness, the film plays the audio of Irons’ final voicemail to Lyndie, thick with drugs and pain and exhaustion, the dissipating echoes of a man falling finally into the abyss.

For its premiere, we saw the film in a Northern California theater full of obvious surfers. (You could tell by the deep, ruddy tans; the weathered faces on the still hardened bodies; the premature limps and multiple sets of crutches.) Everyone around us was choking back tears; big surfer boys don’t cry, after all, even with guys like Bruce Irons and Kelly Slater up there on the screen, giving us permission.

But by the end, the open weeping all around us begged the most obvious questions, and they went well beyond the tragedy at hand: Who among us had lost someone we loved to opioids? Or to a horrible, preventable accident, because he simply had to catch that wave, or make that summit, or paddle that section, or scale that face he never should have? Who among us had lost someone to an undiagnosed mental illness, just pieced together thanks to the clear and concise medical information in this film, recognizing finally in the ghost of Andy Irons their own lost brother, friend, or lover?

Kissed by God is a belated chance for all to grieve: those who loved Irons and could not save him; those of us who were captivated and inspired by his surfing and shocked, confused, and angered by his death. It is not just a captivating film to watch, but a brave and brilliant film to experience, daring as it does to venture into such emotionally raw terrain.

J.D. Kleinke is a writer, musician, surfer, and yoga teacher based in Half Moon Bay, California. He is the author of three books about the US health care system, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street JournalFreeskier, and other publications. His latest book is Dudeville, a novel about snowboard mountaineering.

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