Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Aug 04, 2008 1:03 pm 
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A very unusual family

The word "Surfwise" describes what Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz has long sought to be: a wave-riding guru. A Stanford-educated doctor and observant Jew, he put two failed marriages and a conventional medical practice behind him in 1956 and left his home in Hawaii to seek a radical new path to freedom and the good life. Sojourning in Israel among bedouin, he introduced surfing--his passion, and still a new thing--there, but left again when the Israelis wouldn't let him join the military during the Suez crisis. Back in the USA with his new wife of Mexican/Indian heritage, Juliette, he made their home in a 1950 Studebaker--but soon moved up to a second-hand 24-foot camper. He worked part time in clinics and they focused on surf and family.

And I mean family. For ten years the compliant Juliette was constantly pregnant or breast feeding. The result was nine children, a lithe, tan brood of eight boys and one girl, all surfers, unschooled, living on a spartan diet of no fat or sugar, sometimes down to their last quarter and crammed into the little vehicle under the iron rule of Dorian and his "Captain," David, the first born, who carried out "Doc's" orders--but ultimately rebelled.

No school, no fat, lots of surfing. And always the little camper rig. And a lifestyle whose mixture of the halcyon and the dysfunctional--as the film reveals gradually and incompletely--is enough to make some view this story as a kind of Capturing-the-Friedmans-by-the-Sea. But despite some questionable details, there's no scandal here.

As the film shows "Doc" today, he's a tanned eighty-something with an arthritic limp, a sometimes annoying ego, but also great vigor of mind and body. He continues to surf daily though he must do so on his knees.

When he started out with Juliette he decided, as he explains in terms too frank to give here, that his previous marriages had failed because of poor sex. This time with the help of Juliette there was good sex and plenty of it-- every evening, in fact, in the confined quarters, where the kids also had to sleep. Having to hear the noisy love-making wasn't especially fun for the boys, whose nomadic life and lack of school made it hard for them even to meet girls. It wasn't good for Navah, the one daughter, either.

"Doc" was as fiercely hedonistic as he was idealistic. He also appears to be a bit more of a crackpot than you'd tend to expect of a longtime medical practitioner. But his dreams, partly embodied in a book, Surfing and Health, which he still markets for the stiff price of $55--have had a positive influence on others in the surfing world and from their testimony on camera, have not, all in all, been rejected by his many offspring. Their life was rough, artificial, and arbitrary, and, as we learn in more detail in the film's second half, not always fair. Paskowitz père was dictatorial and intolerant and beat the boys when they didn't conform. Nonetheless there was a sense of specialness, instilled passion. The boys got to win prizes surfing and were the envy of other kids they met on the road or in the surf camps they helped "Doc" put on. Nor did they grow up ignorant, because they read a lot of books--from public libraries which would still like to get them back. "Doc" didn't condone stealing, but penurious circumstances sometimes necessitated a little lawlessness. Risks were taken when the young ones faced the big waves, and there were a couple of serious injuries. But the Paskowitzes didn't risk getting caught by truant officers because being on the go, the family lived off the books.

There is a carelessness and speed about Pray's film that's not entirely out of keeping with the material but is frustrating--right from the start. In over a decade of previous efforts like Hype!, Scratch, Red Diaper Baby, Infamy and Big Rig the filmmaker has made punk, hip hop, and off-the-mainstream cultures his focus, and the Paskowitz radicalism--sort of--fits his countercultural editing style. But this is complicated material and details of the family history, which spans half a century in images and documents and whose ambiguities multiply, often flit by too fast to register, let alone absorb.

The honed bodies are clear enough. There are plenty of Super 8 clips and snopshots of the row of boys in wet suits or shorts, perfectly graduated in height, tan and bursting with health, though by American super-sized standards, during poor spells they may look precariously lean. "Doc" and Juliette, who are still together, living in Hawaii, and who both speak a lot on camera, produced a passel of robust young people.

In an outtake of the film, son no. 2, Abraham, (b. 1962) runs down the list in order of arrival on the scene. David was the leader and "captain."" Jonathan was the "black sheep." Abraham himself was the "little lover," "the soft one." Israel was "the golden boy, "as talented as he was good looking." Moses was "the Macabee, the giant." Adam was "the genius." Salvador was the artist. Navah is the strongest women he's ever met. She lives a conventional life as a suburban housewife in Encino. There are closer looks at some of the guys than at others. Joshua, the last born (1974), contains "a bit of everybody." He's the one who remains most ripped and Adonis-like.

It's not easy growing up with a crusader, and Paskowitz was something of a dictator (" a Fidel"), though also fiercely protective--and the world he created was too hermetically sealed. The kids weren't prepared for ordinary life, for mercantilism, jobs, traffic, living in a world governed by money. "Doc" may have done OK without it, but they couldn't. And when they found friends who got sugar doughnuts for breakfast or later who used alcohol and drugs, it was hard to go back to multigrain gruel and clean living. They were human. Adam wanted more than anything to become a doctor. But when he found out at 18 that he'd need about ten years to catch up on normal preparation for college and medical school, sadly he gave up on those ambitions. He is the one now who pledges to "keep the dream alive" and "put my kids through what Dorian put us through." One brother is a professional artist, two are singers, another is in Hollywood. Izzy/Israel who has an autistic son, helps run Surfers Healing, a fast-growing program of surfing therapy for autistic kids. Two of the other sons are involved in the family surfing school. They seem all to have done well. Some have pretty strong complaints about how their special upbringing handicapped them, at least at first. Some have deep resentments. Others seem to agree that the good outweighs the bad and that what their father gave them was priceless and unique.

I say "seem," because this documentary is neither cautious nor searching. There is an unfortunate slapdash feel about it. And it's not a good thing--not at all--that some of the key information seems to be in outtakes on the DVD. There are i's that need dotting and t's that need crossing. What was "Doc's" own upbringing, and what led him into this lifestyle? How and when did the various siblings break away from the camper life, and from each other? The film concludes with a family reunion staged in Hawaii. It emerges that some of the siblings hadn't seen each other or their parents for years. Details are not forthcoming.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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