For them, surf was up but life was tough
"Surfwise" brings us the bizarre story of Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, his wife, Juliette, their nine children, and the many years (from the 1960s to the '80s) they all spent living out of an RV. What you might expect from such a piece of nonfiction is a very Brady documentary. And for the first 40 minutes of Doug Pray's movie, that's what you get: Hey look, there's this funky family that likes to surf and eat super-organic; oh, and the kids don't go to school, either. Neat.
But then the cheesy beach rock disappears from the soundtrack, and a wave of danger washes over the film's weirdly idyllic shores. Life wasn't the never-ending family vacation that friends and the US media at the time seemed to think it was. Sometimes life in and around that trailer was awful. And the movie creates an alarming portrait of a family's gradual collapse under the weight of so much bohemianism.
Dorian Paskowitz was an interesting guy when he quit medicine in the late 1950s to go soul-searching: He couldn't condone making a living from the maladies of others. He recalls that a chance encounter with oral sex changed his life. Subsequently, he toured the world, making love whenever he could, rating the sex with each woman. In Mexico, he met a half-Indian beauty named Juliette, whose prowess was off the chart. He married her, and from 1959 to 1974 she was usually pregnant.
Dorian's idea was to extract himself and his family from the rat race. The life he wanted was actually beyond bohemianism. It was beyond conscientious objection. He wanted to live the way animals did, to eat the way they did, as far as possible outside an industrial system. The family never had money, and he kept the kids - eight boys, one girl - off the map by never putting them on one. Unbeknownst to authorities, they were neither public-schooled nor home-schooled. The waves would be their teacher.
"Surfwise" is built out of individual interviews with the entire (now-estranged) Paskowitz family, two of Dorian's siblings, some cousins, and friends. The recollections create a complex post-mortem. Most of the children harbor resentment toward their father for failing to prepare them for life outside that RV and away from the surf school the family started in the 1970s. Most of them have settled in California and, interestingly, have had something to do with the entertainment industry, seeking fame, or at the very least, attention beyond their parents.
Pray does a chilling job of dimming the lights on the family's sunny dynamic until the film turns morosely therapeutic. As grown-ups, the kids talk about being aware of the family's poverty, about being disgusted and psychologically scarred by Dorian and Juliette's lack of sexual boundaries. One of the brothers says his parents got it on in the trailer just about every night.
Just when you think you've heard it all regarding Dorian's social extremism, Pray finds another crowded room in Dorian's psyche. We learn that he suffered guilt over doing little to help Jews during the Holocaust. He says he was shamed by a photo of a Nazi shooting a mother, and as far as I can tell that picture was as crucial to his development as a husband and father as he says oral sex was. Suddenly, his regimen (keeping himself and the kids in amazing shape, keeping them following his orders, struggling to stay fed and clothed) re-creates the Holocaust dynamic by conflating persecution and survival. Sometimes Dorian plays the commandant, going so far as deputizing the eldest Paskowitz, David, to carry out the physical punishment of his siblings, a move that helped tear the Paskowitzes apart. (Not for nothing, David calls the family a Reich.)
As I watched the beginning of "Surfwise," with its shots of Dorian explaining his life philosophy (don't worry, be healthy) while, say, riding a stationary bike naked, I found myself chuckling at him. Somewhere near the middle, I questioned his sanity, not as the convivial 84-year-old peddling nude before us, but as a middle-aged man who would conduct an epic social experiment on his family. The kids don't see themselves as lab mice. One of the sons wisely observes that in any other moment in pre-industrialized civilization, Dorian's sort of wilderness adventure might have seemed reasonable. David, though, seems viscerally, intensely ambivalent about his father. Many of David's siblings appear to have feelings almost as mixed about David.
"Surfwise" takes us only partway through the looking glass. The movie could have gone deeper for longer. I would have liked to hear more from Juliette, whose lack of carnal inhibitions is as fascinating as the lapses in her memory. But the movie feels exhaustive in its loaded 90-something minutes, showing and telling us much while leaving the meaning of the tangles and twists in this family open to interpretation. For once, the tip of the iceberg is enough.