DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
SURFWISE (director/writer: Doug Pray; cinematographer: Dave Homcy; editor: Lasse Jarvi; music: John Dragonetti; Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Tommy Means/Matthew Weaver/Jonathan Paskowitz/Graydon Carter; Magnolia Pictures; 2008)

 
"Provocative but even-handed subculture lifestyle film."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Doug Pray ("Big Rig"/"Scratch"/"Hype!") is the filmmaker of this bizarre surfing subject matter documentary that focuses on the Paskowitz family and their eccentric 85-year-old patriarch, Dorian, more than it does on surfing. He was born on March 3, 1921 in Galveston, Texas, and when 13 his family moved to San Diego, where he found surfing as his calling card in life. Dorian graduated in the 1940s from Stanford University as a doctor and began his career in Hawaii in public health administration, but after two failed marriages and a severe dislike for the mainstream materialistic life he dropped out in the late-1950s to become a surfer--something he loved doing better than anything else. Dorian claims to have introduced surfing to Israel, and tells of how he discovered a holistic path and learned how to have good sex without any hangups. This led the Jewish doctor dropout to mate with Juliette, a woman of Mexican-Indian heritage living in California, and he had at last found his soul mate. They would raise nine children (David, Jonathan, Abraham, Israel, Moses, Adam, Salvador Daniel, Navah and Joshua), with only one girl among the brood, and would live a nomadic life in their tiny 24-foot camper. The kids did not go to school and instead surfed every day, as the family traveled together and their purpose was to have fun surfing and then go off to catch the next wave. While the dogmatic authoritarian father preached against the evils of money and that clean living was essential, and believed he was doing the right thing for his family by helping them gain wisdom through their experience of living a life in harmony with nature despite no formal schooling. They were seen by outsiders as a happy family living on the edge with hardly any money and became lovingly known among the surfing set and media people as "the first family of surfing."

Pray lets all this radical alternative lifestyle sound great for half of the film, as every family member talks fondly of those carefree earlier days in the late-1950s and 1960s. But in the 1970s problems arose when the children were older and there inevitably was a fallout from their Old Testament-like dad, as the children now wanted things, were becoming independent and realized they were raised like gorillas and not prepared to live among people. By this time the patriarch opened up a surfing camp in San Diego to earn a minimal amount of money and everyone in the family pitched in to help. But soon they left one by one and with each one leaving, Dorian felt stabbed in the back. This period of time burst the bubble on everything being a joy ride, as it's pointed out how self-serving, rigid and prone to temper tantrums the patriarch could be. The dream of Dorian's seemingly turned into a nightmare for the children, as the eldest son David suggests that they grew up like "nine only children." 

But this provocative but even-handed subculture lifestyle film comes with a so-called happy ending, as after ten years of estrangement all the children return from far off to reunite in a family reunion and speak lovingly of a father they say meant well but obviously had a few flaws in his philosophy of life. Many of the kids are married with children of their own and all the boys have showbiz careers that vary from rock singers to working in Hollywood on films while their sister is contented to be a conventional Valley housewife raising a family. The only part of the film that rings false is the happy ending, as after all that has been said and done it becomes apparent that the domineering Dorian in his quest for personal freedom unconscionably left the kids ill-prepared for life and was too blind and selfish to see the damage he was doing to his loved ones.

The film has a nice laid-back feel and is as easy to take as an ocean breeze. There are location shots in California, Hawaii, and Israel, interviews with every family member and some surfers the family knew, home movies; and news clips. It comes together as a well-made conventional commercial film, and makes for a hell of a family story--as one of the grown boys suggests: "even a flawed family that sticks together is better than no family at all."

REVIEWED ON 11/30/2008        GRADE: B

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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