Judge Joe Armenio would be nostalgic for his naked river-rafting days too, if he had any.
Q: Why do you floss now?
Director Robb Moss worked as a guide on the Colorado River in the late 1970s, living an "unscheduled, outdoor, communal life." More than twenty years later he filmed five of his friends from those days, charting the paths their lives had taken since their halcyon (and often naked) days on the river. The above excerpt is from an interview with his friend Barry, and represents well Moss's technique, which is to allow portraits of his subjects to emerge from careful observation and an accumulation of detail rather than through intensive interviewing or narration. In The Same River Twice, he creates a gentle meditation on aging, and avoids all of the clichéd stories about the American counterculture in the '60s and '70s; he avoids them so completely, though, that the political context that could have enriched his film is absent.
Facts of the Case
In 1978, Moss and sixteen river-guide friends went on a month-long trip through the Grand Canyon, a trip that Moss captured in a 16mm film that he called Riverdogs. The old film consists mainly of uncomposed, spontaneous footage of Moss's friends, either scantily clad or nude, rafting down the river, exploring the canyon, eating, having a communal sing-along, and making decisions about the direction of the trip. (Naked rock-climbing, by the way, seems like an extraordinarily dangerous activity to me. Talk about thinking yourself invulnerable.) The Riverdogs footage alternates with scenes (shot on digital video) from the current lives of the five subjects: Jim, who has remained on the river as a guide; Barry, who is married with children and serves as the mayor of Placerville, California; Jeff, an environmental activist and writer; Cathy, who is divorced from Jeff and also serves as a small-town mayor in Oregon; and Danny, married with kids and working as an aerobics instructor. There are a few narrative elements to these stories, such as Barry's brush with cancer, Cathy's remarriage, and Jim's attempts to build a house, but the film moves with a gentle rhythm that underemphasizes the obviously dramatic.
The conventional story about the American counterculture (expressed in countless articles and news stories about aging hippies, especially back in the 1960s-obsessed 1980s) focuses on the late '60s and '70s. It also tends to condescend to the values of those who rejected the politics and culture of mainstream America, which they saw as repressive, complacent, consumerist, and politically regressive. The suggestion is that their rebellion was simply a naïve period of adolescent experimentation, and that as they grew more "mature" they embraced many of the values they had rejected, getting married, buying houses in the suburbs, becoming stockbrokers. This is a conservative story, in that it equates "maturity" with an unquestioning acceptance of mainstream values.
The Same River Twice challenges this narrative on several levels. First of all, the river trip takes place in 1978, awfully late for this sort of countercultural activity. Most of the reviews I've read of the film refer to Moss and his friends as "hippies," a term that they don't use to describe themselves. The attempt to shoehorn them into the hippie movement of the late '60s and early '70s shows just how deeply embedded that conventional narrative is. Certainly no one would deny that there was still a counterculture in 1978, but it's a pretty thinly documented period; offhand I can't think of another book or film that deals with the subject in depth.
Moss also refuses to make fun of his or his subjects' younger selves or to see their values as naïve; unfortunately, though, he doesn't say much about those values at all. There's a palpable nostalgia in The Same River Twice, but it's not a nostalgia for values lost or changed so much as a more abstract nostalgia for lost time and an awareness of mortality. Ultimately, the film is about the universal experience of aging, rather than the social and political experience of living in a particular place and time. This focus on the universal is poignant, but also makes the film feel disappointingly incomplete. What motivated these people to live the kinds of lives they did in the '70s? What were their backgrounds? Did they hope to change the world or just carve out a happy niche for themselves? How have their values changed as they've aged? We never find out much about any of these things. Near the beginning of the film, Moss asks Danny why they lived the way they did: "because we could," she says. It's probably a true answer as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough, and suggests that their sort of adventurousness is a universal quality of youth, which it isn't; there are plenty of young people, then and now, who never reject the values of their society, or reject them in wildly different ways.
We catch glimpses throughout the film of the left-leaning values that these people have retained. Jeff has written a novel about the logging industry, Cathy worked for Planned Parenthood, Jim remained committed to a life spent on the river. Jim tells Moss that he doesn't regret quitting dental school, his only attempt at a more conventional life, but late in the film there is the suggestion that his commitment to the outdoors has left him lonely and incomplete. We never learn much about what the mayors, Barry and Cathy, are committed to doing in their towns. The film documents Barry's run for re-election, but we never hear his take on any issues; the dramatic tension comes, rather blandly, from his wife's feeling that his duties as mayor reduce the amount of time he can spend with his family. In his audio commentary, Moss regrets not documenting Barry's politics, and then says "film isn't very good at that, or maybe I wasn't very good at that." He recognizes that it's a cop-out to suggest that film can't capture politics. Rather, Moss's tendency towards the subtle and understated dictates that he stay away from anything that might seem bullying or didactic. His style throughout is self-effacing; he doesn't appear on camera, we rarely hear his questions, and he even provides narrative information through titles rather than narration. His transitions between the past and present footage are never jarring or mechanical and are often quite graceful, as when he fades from an image of Cathy's face in the present to one of her in the past, or from Jeff's watch (a symbol of responsibility and discipline) to a shot of the raging river. I certainly think he's capable as a director of capturing political context without becoming preachy, and wish that he had tried harder to do so.
The audio commentary that Moss provides is a thoughtful account of his decision-making processes, although frequently he doesn't have much to say; a full-length commentary track seems a bit superfluous in a film as literal and personal as this one. There's also a Q&A session that Moss held at Harvard's film archives, in which he repeats some of his themes from the commentary. In both the commentary and the Q&A, he expands a bit on the political content of the movie in ways that made me wish even more that such questions had been explored in the film itself.
The movie's focus on the theme of aging and its quiet style give it a gentle, melancholy feel. It has frequent moments of poignance but is often frustrating too; there were plenty of times when I wished Moss would push harder, ask more difficult and penetrating questions, delve deeper into context. His reluctance to pry into his friends' psyches is certainly understandable, but it gives the film a mildness of tone that makes it feel inconsequential at times. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in documentary style, but expectations of profound insight will be disappointed.
Graceful but guilty of excessive self-effacement.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
• Audio Commentary with Director Robb Moss
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