When it hit in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, surfing symbolized youth and vibrancy, extreme sporting reduced to sun, fun, and lots of bikini clad babes. But on the fringes of the misdiagnosed fad (it had been around long before Jan, Dean, and the Beach Boys discovered it) were those who viewed the ocean as one big spiritual adventure, a karmic mountain worth climbing and conquering as often as possible. Such a seafaring sage was Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz. As one of the sport’s important pioneers, he left his job as a general physician (and a couple of bad marriages) to go on an odyssey of surf self discovery. And once he found his newest bride Juliette, he fathered a family of nine kids, raising them to be as free spirited and audacious as he.
Thus Surfwise, the excellent new documentary from Doug Pray (Hype! Big Rig) arrives at its first dramatic hurdle. How does a utopian philosopher, part hippy, part hedonist, seem relevant to a drastically reconfigured Type-A society? Especially when the veneer of the Paskowitz’s lifestyle seems so outwardly…odd. Luckily, Pray provides archival footage of the family, as well as current conversations and interviews, painting context and offering clarity where sunswept vistas and well tanned bodies exist. We soon learn that, for little kids, lost in the fantasy fallacy of their nomadic existence, living Dad’s dream was not such a bad way to pass one’s youth. But once adolescence struck, and with it the typical, hormonally charged sibling rivalries and social urges, the Paskowitz clan began to implode.
Pray’s approach comes straight out of the three act story arc school of narrative. Part one focuses on Doc, how he came to his decision to ‘drop out’, and the slightly seedy sex-capades he indulged in before settling down again (he even offers the tacky ‘test scores’ he gave his physical conquests). Part two describes the full blown family dynamic - breakfasts of heavy multigrain gruel, nights sleeping stacked literally one on top of the other. In the middle are idyllic days of beach bum luxury, sequences of rampant poverty and need offset by a chance to live freely, cleanly, and as fully as possible. Doc believes in something called ‘optimum health’, a notion that we can never be completely disease free. But by getting in touch with our inner happiness and sense of well being, we can become happy.
Part three provides the payoff, the bickering and backbiting that drives the Paskowitz clan apart. As we are introduced to each and every sibling - oldest Dave, followed in quick succession by Jonathan, Abraham, Israel, Moses, Adam, Salvador Daniel, only daughter, Navah, and ninth child, Joshua - we see how different they appear from their past personas. Each carries a grudge against the others (issues over money, control of the family name, and other competition complications are everpresent) and a huge shoulder sized chip regarding their dad. Most complain about the lack of a formal education, one angry son arguing that, to pursue his dream of being a doctor, he needed ten YEARS of schooling just to catch up.
Others offer more ambivalent condemnation. It’s clearly a case of love/hate, the recognition of an early life in pursuit of pleasure with a middle age bill continually coming due. Most striking is Israel/“Izzy”, a former world champion who now argues with God over the birth of his autistic son. Similarly, David has a supremely self-serving moment when he sings a dark Goth tinged dirge to his father, anger amplified by lyrics that seem more like a whine than wisdom. Pray makes a major mistake during this awkward, off putting moment. Instead of breaking in, or intercutting something that would suggest Dave is doing this on purpose, he simply lets the man reel and rant. It’s not an example of true emotion - it’s showboating for the sake of sensationalism.
Clearly, Doc Paskowitz’s major flaw as a parent was instilling within his kids a feeling of social invincibility and elitism. All strive to be stars, either in the music or motion picture biz. The dejection they wear on their faces, bar bands barely making it, career choices seeing more valleys than peaks, provides a nice counterbalance to all the warm wistfulness. Granted, we do get glimpses of the shoddy campers the family lived in for years, and the bohemian element that surrounded the Paskowitz brood does tend toward shock come time to face the real world. But it seems like for many in the family, normalcy means another kind of specialness. They can’t just be farmers or clerks or plumbers. Something about Doc and the name Paskowitz turns even the most level headed member into an angry adult child.
Fortunately, the head of the now scattered household keeps things in perspective - sort of. Wildly Jewish, he grows somber when he realizes he did nothing to help save his brethren during the Holocaust, and while he’s noted for bringing surfing to Israel, attempts to join their army got him laughed out of the ranks. Still, faith is very important to Doc, and you can sense it whenever he speaks. Maybe it’s a messianic complex taking over, or his decision to parlay his particular story into a self-help book and website, but there is a definite sermon on the mount quality to his catchphrases and lifestyle buzzwords.
Pray’s participation comes in the focus, and Surfwise only slips up once (the aforementioned song by Dave). The rest of the time, the director delivers facts with fanciful shading, sequences that explain the lure of the ocean with images of the vast waves washing over their would-be conquerors. This is a gorgeous movie to look at, sunsets providing proof that nature delivers the best light show in town. And since the story is equally compelling, we wind up with a winning combination. Again, few contemporary minds will see what the Paskowitz clan did and think that mimicking it makes sense. After all, we are all caught up in our sullen suburban malaise and need for creature comforts. But there is something inspiring about this tribe that hit the open road to discover the world and themselves. Sadly, what they found wasn’t always pretty or pleasant.