Thursday, February 10, 2011

Turn On, Tune In, Surf's Up!

Film: Surfwise
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

If you are human and have a job, at one point or another you have gotten to the place where in your head it’s a good idea to chuck everything, give up all ideas of material possession, and go live on a beach somewhere. That dream, living without commitments and without obligations has a real place in the psyche of anyone who has ever spent a day getting yelled at by a boss or slaved over a task that could be accomplished by a poorly-trained chimp. Surfwise is the story of a family that really did this, and made it work for not just a little while, but decades.

At the center of this world is Dorian Paskowitz, a doctor with a Stanford medical degree. After two failed marriages and disappointment in making money off of sick people, he went to Israel for a year. At the end of his year, he attempted to join the Israeli military, but they wouldn’t have him, so he returned to the U.S. to look for the woman he could make happy. In his world, this meant finding someone who would put up with what would become his ultimate Bohemian-on-the-surface lifestyle, would be willing to churn out children like a factory, and would want hot monkey sex every day. He found the right person when he met Juliette.

For the next couple of decades, the Paskowitzes drove around the world in their beaten down camper, looking for places to surf and producing a brood of eight boys and one lone girl. So imagine this—eleven people in a camper, not on vacation, but permanently. Doc Paskowitz raised his children by his own principles, which included the idea that formal schooling was worse than no schooling and that being healthy involved surfing every single day. So the Paskowitz clan surfed, drove, ate fish that they caught from the ocean, and made money by running surfing camps and by having Doc taking doctoring jobs in remote locations.

The first half of the film or so is an idyll. Here we learn all of the positive things that happened from this strange lifestyle. The kids, naturally, became world champion surfers from all of the constant practice, and starting getting endorsement deals. Their lifestyle was incredibly healthy and positive, and it’s evident that there was a great deal of love.

Not all was sunshine and roses, though. We also learn of the terrible cost of this lifestyle. The kids, as successful as they were in the surfing world, also came out of this experience with absolutely no idea of how to function in modern-day society. They have, as a rule, no formal education, having instead the wisdom that they were taught as children, which sounds great but looks like hell on a resume.

This doesn’t begin to address the other, perhaps more subtle but certainly just as deep scars that the life left on the entire family. Any break from what Dorian wanted was considered as betrayal. Any desire for a normal life or anything traditional was against the family code. Just as disturbing, Doc and Juliette never seemed to quell their appetite for relentless, constant sex, which means that every night, the kids got to listen to Mom and Dad going at it in the same small camper that all eleven of them slept in. Certainly, every one of them has multiple “I caught Mom and Dad having sex” stories, and from all accounts, it appears that all of them have about five of those for every week of their life.

Any extreme thing like this particular lifestyle can’t last forever, and as the kids started to get older, the cracks started to show. It started as competition between the older brothers, which became increasingly vicious as surfing competitions became more competitive and more important. Eventually, the family splintered, less with factions and more with people simply walking away from their extreme existence and trying to find something like normality. It’s telling that of the nine children, only one claims he has plans to raise his own children in anything like the same way as he was raised.

Doc himself is very much extreme in the same way. Because of this, he’s a divisive figure—he is both intriguing because of his ideas and his putting those ideas into practice and terrifying for the same reason. Much of what he says makes a good amount of sense, but much of what he says feels so wrong that it’s like coming around a corner and finding a dead animal. There’s an immediate pull back reaction. Any good lightning rod has the same effect.

If Surfwise fails in any way of creating this both compelling and repellant portrait, it fails at the end, when the family reunites. This Paskowitz family gather feels like a made-for-the-film event, a “let’s all put aside our differences for the sake of the camera” moment that wouldn’t happen if it hadn’t been for the film crew.

It’s impossible to watch this film and not feel twinges. On the one hand, it’s natural to look at that lifestyle and see a carefree, idyllic existence, the kind that would be possible if it weren’t for a mortgage, a job, a car payment, and an inherent need to keep up with the Joneses. On the other hand, there is a comfort in knowing that I’ll probably never have to eat fish heads to survive, and have never forced my children to walk around bare-assed naked because we couldn’t afford clothing for them.

Why to watch Surfwise: Your mind will be blown that they made this work for so long.
Why not to watch: The mixture of jealousy for the lifestyle and disgust at the lifestyle.


  1. I enjoyed this quite a bit. It's an interesting story in and of itself. But I liked the presentation largely because of how balanced it was. You can sympathize with where Doc is coming from, even if you're a little hesitant to embrace his endgame (whatever it was) and even though he looks like quite an arrogant, smug looney-toon at times. And it was cool to hear the kids talking about both sides of that life, how cool it was at times, but also how dictatorial Doc was and what a shock it was when they get tossed into the "real world."

    As much as I liked it, I'm not real enthusiastic about it being one of the 1001 movies I must see before I die. In the last few years, I've seen some great documentaries, like Blackfish; No-No (about the major league baseball player who pitched a no-hitter while high on LSD); The Search for General Tso's Chicken (about Chinese restaurants in America): and the one about Nina Simone. They were all great, and if I ranked them, it would be hard to say that Surfwise was noticeably better than a bunch of documentaries that were probably never even considered.

    I might feel differently if I hadn't seen The Act of Killing. That sets a pretty high standard. There's no doubt about that one.

    1. I agree pretty much across the board. Documentaries (like science fiction and horror and especially animation) are underrepresented genres/styles/whatever on the 1001 list. Making room for an interesting but ultimately forgettable doc, or finding space for two documentaries about Aileen Wuornos seems like very bad use for limited space.