Don’t Make Me Turn This Surfboard Around, Buster!
There’s more to the Paskowitz story than sun and surf
by Molly Templeton
SURFWISE: Directed by Doug Pray. Produced by Graydon Carter, Tommy Means, Matthew Weaver and Jonathan Paskowitz. Cinematography, Dave Homcy. Music, John Dragonetti. Editor, Lasse Järvi. Starring the Paskowitz family. Magnolia Pictures, 2008. R. 93 minutes.
Director Doug Pray (Hype!) continues his exploration of subcultures with the fascinating Surfwise, which explores the stories of the Paskowitz family. Led by Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, a longtime surfer and Stanford-educated doctor, the family (Doc, his wife Juliette and their nine children) spent decades traveling about in a series of small campers, surfing, eating raw foods and observing Shabbat on the beach. Doc took jobs here and there to make enough money to keep their lifestyle going, but he preferred having nothing. The children, eight boys and one girl, all slender, handsome and tan, were brought up without being sent to school, raised to follow their father’s strict ideals and, well, to be awesome surfers. “I just wanted my kids around me, surfing with me, and education be damned,” says Doc.
Doc is a strange, mild yet forceful figure whose certainty about his way of life is at first oddly charming, as he stretches, naked and nut-brown, in his Hawaii apartment and other surfers discuss how the Paskowitz family embodies the spirit of surfing. Doc’s descriptions of his lifestyle switch between the familiar (the energy of the ocean, the desire to live in a way more true to himself) and the less so: wanting to raise his children like gorillas raise their offspring, for example, or the trip around the world during which he slept with women and gave them a “male deficit” score. (Charming, no?)
But what’s most interesting about Surfwise isn’t Doc himself, despite his particular story and the amount of time the film takes to explore the layers of that story (old film clips and photos of his sculpted figure on the beach in California and Israel give fascinating depth to Doc’s history). Instead, what’s most involving is the way the film depicts the effect Doc Paskowitz had on his children. It’s clear in the kids’ stories that they variously respect and resent their father for the force he exerted on their lives. As kids, their lives seemed fantastic: “It was like we were on vacation every day,” says Navah, the lone sister. But they slept “like puppies” in the cramped camper and were unprepared to deal with the rest of the world.
As they grow up and leave the nest, the kids become musicians, illustrators, surfwear designers, surfing instructors (at the Paskowitz Surf Camp) or, in the case of Navah, a homemaker who describes feeling “like a fish out of water” in her normal life. There’s a feeling of displacement, of instability, that hangs over the Paskowitz kids as they talk; most of them have established themselves in the world their father tried to stay out of, but it’d be hard to say that they seem entirely happy about it. But neither do they seem to want to go back, and you can see why when eldest son David tells a bitter story about being his father’s lieutenant, or when, at an entirely predictable but notably awkward reunion, Doc immediately mocks Abraham, his third son (the self-described “first girl” of the family), for not being “full of muscles” like his youngest brother.
As it nears the end, Surfwise stumbles the same way last year’s In the Shadow of the Moon did when Pray tries, unsuccessfully, to broaden the scope of the film: Images of gas pumps, litter and soldiers flit by as the family members talk about living carefully among the ills of modern civilization. Is the Paskowitz way the answer? Clearly not for everyone, and not just because rising gas prices would keep these disinterested-in-money folks off the road. What Surfwise shows most memorably is not that surfing is really neat, or that we ought to live differently, or that what makes you happy might not be what you thought would do so; it’s that children are not their parents, and that inflexible freedom is hardly freedom at all.
Surfwise opens Friday, June 13, at the Bijou.