Friday, August 22, 2008

"Surfwise" (2007): An Experiment in Family Living

Once again, I agree with Tim's brilliant observations on this film. I saw it recently and can’t get it out of my head. More accurately, I can’t quite get my head around IT. Then I remembered the Ancestral Pueblo people of Bandelier National Monument.

If you’ve never been, Bandelier National Monument is home to the cliff dwellings and city foundation remnants of this 10,000 year old civilization. In walking the trails, you can see the foundations of housing “developments” created by this industrious people. What struck me, at the time, was the small size of the living areas. Sharing would be an understatement in these times, when communities had to work closely together in order to survive.

10,000 years later, Dorian (“Doc”) Paskowitz has lived his life as a fascinating social experiment, not unlike the Ancestral Pueblo people. A brilliant doctor with a passion and talent for surfing, he lived with his wife and nine children (yes, nine) in a small (yes, small) RV and traveled from place to place around the southern US. While the Ancestral Pueblo people searched for water to drink, the Paskowitz family searched for water on which to surf.

Much like the ancient Ancestral Pueblo people, Doc Paskowtiz created an almost absurdly close (by today’s standards) family that did most everything together. As Westerners, it’s hard to imagine growing up without a television, a school, or any space to call your own. And how would you react to living in such tight quarters that you were in the same room as your parents while they had sex? These are the cringe-worthy moments in “Surfwise” when you get a knot of sorrow for the Paskowitz kids. But then again, though their formative years were not typical according to Western society standards, you can appreciate how natural and healthy they were. Yet, the children tell some stories of near abuse at the hands of their dictator-type father. More cringing.

One of the strongest messages to come from watching the story of Doc Paskowitz is his relentless commitment to health. An exercise fanatic who abhorred sugar, he dictated the absolute necessity of physical exercise, the power of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and “a little meat,” and the natural joy of sexual expression. It’s hard not to hear his words and feel anything other than admiration (though you can eliminate the meat, in my case).

Today, the children are all successful adults. I was amazed to discover that two of the Paskowitz boys were members of one of my very favorite (though short-lived) 90s bands, The Flys.

This documentary is so well done, it’s hard to have an opinion about anything other than it’s subject matter. From a purely technical, filmmaking perspective, it certainly rates a whole lotta salt. On another level, if this film doesn’t get you off your butt and into an exercise routine, nothing will.

"Surfwise" - When Life really is a Beach

What the hell do you know about surfing?
You're from god damned New Jersey. - Lieutenant Kilgore, Apocalypse Now

A crazed megalomaniac who curses himself for not stopping an execution which occurred when he was at the “height of my powers”; A man who wanted to breed his own master race using his strong will and strict diet and discipline along with an appointed lieutenant who acted as enforcer; A man who used these young warriors to forge a separate society, outside the trappings of the opulent capitalist one which he despised. Adolph Hitler? No- a devout yet potty-mouthed Jewish doctor turned surfer named Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz.

Leaving all the trappings of an ordinary life, ‘Doc’ and his wife raise nine children in a 24 foot camper, instead of sending them to school –they take them on series of surf adventures cross-country. How could a documentary about such a bizarre Jewish doctor who becomes surf Nazi mean anything to anyone? Because unlike so many loud meaningless films coming out these days, “Surfwise” actually questions the meaning of life and the direction of our society but in a way that is not preachy. Director Doug Pray carefully paddles us through various moods and emotions. As the children age and try to actually enter society we feel their frustrations. (With one strange scene featuring a son emotionally lip synching his own song about it) The end result is entertaining, smartly filmed and edited with a great soundtrack to boot. Life’s a wave, but how many swim out and try to grab it? Is that one surf metaphor too many dudes?