‘Bunker77’: Film Review | San Sebastian 2016

Clark Gable’s self-destructive surf-star stepson is profiled in a Swiss production premiering in the Savage Cinema section of the Spanish showcase.

The waters of bio-documentary become choppily muddled in debutant director Takuji Masuda’s Bunker77, an adoring tribute to surfing’s most self-destructively maverick playboy. Step-son of Clark Gable and heir to a huge sugar fortune, “Bunker” Spreckels joined superstar contemporaries like Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison in the notorious “27 Club” when expiring in a hedonistic, drug-fueled haze nearly forty years ago. But while his stranger-than-fiction life could perhaps yielded a Pacific Coast, Boogie Nights-flavored equivalent to Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning cautionary tale Amy, Masuda’s frenetic take ultimately succumbs to a surfeit of creative wipe-outs.

Aficionados will nevertheless be stoked to catch this relentlessly lively dive into the sport’s pre-commercialism golden days of the sixties and seventies — surf-god Laird Hamilton and skateboard maestro Tony Alva feature as interviewees — making it an obvious pick for festivals and channels favoring extreme-sports fare. The Swiss production’s prospects will also be boosted by associations with its four high-profile executive producers: Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis, Sundance’s Trevor Groth, Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan and actor Edward Norton, none of whom appear.

The Bottom Line

Good vibrations turn sour.

JackassJohnny Knoxville does get a little screen-time, however, the performer — who played a character based on Spreckels in The Lords of Dogtown (2005) — popping up briefly near the start to commend the film-makers on securing “all that archival.” And although there’s insufficient video of Spreckels‘ multi-faceted career to justify the high sense of eager anticipation Knoxville’s first-reel comments evoke, Masuda and his huge editing team (six editors and six “additional” editors) do make judicious use of audio interviews recorded by the posterity-minded Spreckels himself.

Having spent formative early years in the Hollywood spotlight following his mother’s marriage to Gable, Bunker was clearly in the business of self-mythologizing from an early age. Masuda nimbly interpolate extracts from Gable classics — including The Misfits and  Gone With the Wind — to comment ironically on Bunker’s chaotic career.

Something of a Jay Gatsby figure, the gregarious, pampered, free-spending, party-hearty heir — who never quite recovered from inheriting $50m ($400m today) on his 21st birthday — constructed and developed extravagant personas which sometimes had only tangential relationships to his actual character. But Masuda seldom penetrates Spreckels‘ dazzling levels of artifice and reinvention in a way that yields much psychological or sociological insight, instead retreating into repetitive waves of oh-gee-wow hagiography. 

The director’s involvement with this story stretches back several years, including contributions to a Taschen volume, subtitled Surfing’s Divine Prince of Decadence, showcasing Spreckels‘ early days as a lithe, blond much-photographed beach-prince. Masuda also produced My Surfing Lucifer (2008), a five-minute short by sometime Spreckels pal Kenneth Anger, the veteran underground provocateur seen and heard briefly here. 

Born in Japan and educated in Canada and Florida, and himself a former highly successful surf pro, the now Swiss-based Masuda commenced Bunker77 as an MFA graduation project from Pepperdine University in Malibu. And the picture does have the feel of a boisterous student enterprise whose director hasn’t found a way to productively harness his obvious enthusiasm.

Amid the welter of recreations, animations, talking-heads, movie extracts and multi-source montages, basic biographical details get lost or confused. Viewers will come away from Bunker77 thinking its subject’s birth-name was Anthony, when in fact it was Adolph; on-screen captions spell the family surname Spreckels and “Spreckles“. Tantalizing talk of Spreckels collaborating with Anger on Lucifer Rising (1972) is frustratingly garbled; and an elaborately faked-up trailer for an abortive (real-life) film dealing with Bunker’s sojourn in South Africa is a chaotic, confusing pastiche. 

Even the title — Bunker’s nickname jammed together with the year of his demise — is ham-fisted, sounding more like a promotional hashtag than a movie moniker. Or perhaps Masuda and company were trying for something edgy and radical, emulating the spontaneity, originality and boundary-pushing experimentalism which propelled Bunker to legendary status and exerted such an influence on future surfers. If so, it’s unfortunate that such a maverick approach didn’t extend to the film as a whole; Bunker77 is yet another paean to a reckless, instinctive ground-breaking whose own stylistic stance is familiar to the point of cliche.

Production companies: Endangered Spirit
Director / Screenwriter: Takuji Masuda
Executive producers: Anthony Kiedis, Trevor Groth, Edward Norton, Stephen Gaghan
Cinematographer: Dave Homcy
Editors: Matt Chesse, Tyler Hubby, Erik Barnes, John Sitter, Gabriel Britz, Amy Scott
Composer: Adam Peters
Venue: San Sebastian (Savage Cinema)
Sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York (josh@submarine.com)
In English
No Rating, 90 minutes