“The biggest mistake made about fishing is that it’s about catching fish,” observes J.T. Van Zandt at the start of Low & Clear. “Fishing,” he goes on, “is a micro examination of life itself.” The film illustrates, not only with the usual images of beautiful streams and rivers, wide skies, and rocky slopes — here shot primarily during a winter flyfishing trip to Canada. The movie rather digs into the “examination” too, offering a version of “life itself” that sets J.T.’s philosophical bent against that of his favorite fishing partner, mentor, and friend, Alex “Xenie” Hall. While J.T. maintains that the beauty of the activity lies in perfecting techniques, in contemplating the magnificent environment and perhaps one’s place in it, Xeni is more concerned with catching fish. Indeed, he keeps a journal of his catches, as well as a calendar and an extensive visual record. “Photo album after photo album, shoebox after shoebox,” J.T. marvels, “Photos of every fish the guy has ever caught in his life.” Cut to Xeni, not quite explaining, “Just to freeze frame that moment in time, yeah, it’s a little weird.” But, he adds, “Time is precious,” and he resists “dividing it up” into a career or a family. “Right now, [J.T.’s] behind a desk somewhere, I’m imagining, clutching his cell phone.”
It appears that the fishermen accept their disagreements, even as they provide the film’s structure. Screening on 18 June at the Doc Yard, where it will be followed by a Q&A with filmmakers Tyler Hughen, Kalil Hudson, and Alex Jablonski, the film gives the guys a chance to articulate and argue for their different ideas and approaches, as well as how they trouble one another. Where J.T. has a fiancée back home in Texas and an office job (“You have to be a productive member of society”), Xeni does what he can to fish, sawing down trees and selling firewood, determined to maintain his sense of independence and tetchy rebelliousness. If J.T. sees his friend as looking “more defeated than he once was,” he concedes he competes too. How well they fish reflects “something in our own lives, some kind of karmic retribution, ” he says, ” If he outfishes me, something’s wrong with me. If I outfish him, something’s wrong with him.”
And still, this quietly astute movie shows, again and again, as they persist in their private mythologies and keep up their essential contests, they remain close — amid the most strikingly expansive landscapes you might imagine.