Surfwise Movie Review

Documentary, 93 min
Directed by Doug Pray

The floods have got me thinking about water: the great life-giver, the great destroyer. Lao Tzu, the founding Taoist, says that we should emulate water over rock; for the softness of water, which yields infinitely to anything in its path, eventually overcomes and destroys the hardest stone. All life, including ours, is oriented at its root toward a river and the rain, but all rivers and all rain eventually drain into the sea–“that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea,” as Yeats says.

Surfwise, a documentary by Doug Pray, is about the sea—well, about a father that tries to return his family to our primordial condition and find what he calls a “superior state of well-being”—-i.e., surfing. The father, Dorian Paskowitz, spends his early years, in the 1930s and ’40s, fluctuating between surfing and becoming a successful doctor from Stanford. Finding respectability oppressively mediocre, he embarks on several sexual experiments, which culminate in his meeting the love of his life and having nine children with her. It’s not so much that they drop out of society: they never plug in. No school, no money, often no clothes, all 11 putter around the world in a 24-foot camper, surfing and pursuing the perfect life. The first part of the movie is so high-spirited it almost entices you to drop everything and seek the grace you see in the 82-year-old Dorian calmly standing up on his board as the surf swells and foams around him.

But you soon realize that this family is not simply a band of hippie Huck Finns. If anything, Dorian resembles an Old Testament patriarch; and his children suffer and sometimes flourish under his almost-prophetic power. Maybe it’s just the recent flood, but watching the children talk about being cramped in their camper, nightly forced to hear their parents raucous love-making, I found myself in a reverie about what Noah’s children must have endured. No wonder we’re so screwed up.

Doug Pray does a good job of gradually complicating the situation: almost without noticing, the children’s ecstatic memories of riding the perfect wave dissolve into revelations about how long they’ve been estranged from their parents; or, in one case, of the oldest son—now in his 50s—breaking into a teen’s heavy metal lyrics of rage against his father. The fact is that the tyrannical impulse almost invariably accompanies the Utopian drive-—the great dream of always riding atop the wave and never crashing. I think some will come away from the movie hankering to ride the sea swells of life; but many, like myself, will begin to see the immense, accumulated wisdom in our mediocre respectability beside a river.

The conclusion of the movie-—I’m not spoiling anything by telling you they’re all reunited in the end-—is too easily achieved. But maybe that’s as it should be, for as the movie shows the parents embracing their children, we’ve been instructed to see the dreams and anger sharking underneath the tranquil surface. Come to think of it, the Paskowitzes aren’t that extraordinary.