4 August 2008 | Chris Knipp
"Surfwise" is what Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz has sought to be after he found himself--a surfer guru. A Stanford-educated doctor and observant Jew fed up with conventional life and passionate about surfing, he put two failed marriages and an ordinary medical practice behind him in 1956 and left Hawaii for Israel. He hung out with the bedouin and taught Israelis to surf, but when they wouldn't let him join the military during the Suez crisis he went to California. He and Juliette, his new wife of Mexican/Mexican heritage, first made their home in a 1950 Studebaker. Next "Doc" set them up to wander in a 24-foot camper, working part-time in clinics and focusing on family.
And I mean family. For ten years Juliette was constantly pregnant or breast-feeding and the result was nine children, eight boys and one girl, all surfers, unschooled, living on a spartan diet of no fat or sugar, sometimes down to their last quarter and crammed into the little vehicle under the iron rule of Dorian and later of David, the eldest, the "captain" who carried out his orders--but later rebelled dramatically.
No school, no fat, lots of surfing. And always the little camper rig.
"Doc," now a tanned eighty-something with an arthritic limp but great vigor of mind and body who still surfs (on his knees), for five decades lived his life in the moment for the pleasures of the waves, which he passed on to the big Paskowitz brood and eventually to many others in his surfing school which several of his sons continue. He decided, as he explains in terms too frank to give here, that his previous marriages had failed because of poor sex. This time with the help of Juliette there was good sex and plenty of it-- every evening, in fact, in the confined quarters, where the kids also had to sleep. Not a very comfortable situation for the boys, whose nomadic life and lack of school made it hard for them even to meet girls.
"Doc" had become fiercely idealistic, and his example has influenced others and hasn't been rejected by his offspring. Their life was rough, artificial, and arbitrary, and not always fair to the kids. Nonetheless they were the envy of other kids who came their way. They didn't grow up ignorant because they read a lot of books--from public libraries which would like them back. "Doc" didn't condone stealing, but penurious circumstances sometimes necessitated a little lawlessness. Big risks were taken when the young ones faced the big waves. There were a couple of serious injuries. But they didn't risk being caught by truant officers because being on the go, the family lived off the books.
There is a carelessness and speed about Pray's film that's not entirely out of keeping with the material but is frustrating--right from the start. In over a decade of previous efforts like 'Hype!,' 'Scratch,' 'Red Diaper Baby,' 'Infamy,' and 'Big Rig' the filmmaker has tended toward punk, hip hop, and off-the-mainstream cultures and the Paskowitz radicalism--sort of--fits the picture, but details of the family history, which spans half a century in images and documents, are sometimes allowed to flit by too fast to take in or digest. It is stunning to see the row of boys in wet suits or shorts, perfectly graduated in height, tan and bursting with health if sometimes (by American super-sized standards) precariously lean. Those images are clear enough. "Doc" and Juliette, who're still together, living in Hawaii, and both speak a lot on camera, produced a passel of robust young people.
In an outtake son Abraham runs down the list in order of arrival on the scene. David was captain. Jonathan was the black sheep. Abraham was the "little lover," "the soft one," Israel was "the golden boy, "as talented as he was good looking." Moses was "the Macabee, the giant." Adam was "the genius." Salvador was the artist. Navah is the strongest women he's ever met. She lives a conventional life as a suburban housewife in Encino.
It's not easy growing up with a crusader, and Paskowitz was something of a dictator, though also fiercely protective. The kids weren't prepared for the outside world, for mercantilism, jobs, traffic, living in a world governed by money. "Doc" may have done OK without it, but they couldn't. And when they found friends who got sugar doughnuts for breakfast or later who used alcohol and drugs, it was hard to go back to multigrain gruel and clean living. They were human. Adam wanted more than anything to become a doctor. But when he found out at 18 that he'd need about ten years to catch up on normal preparation for college and medical school, sadly he gave up on those ambitions. He is the one now who pledges to "keep the dream alive" and "put my kids through what Dorian put us through." One brother is a professional artist, two are singers, another is in Hollywood. Izzy/Israel who has an autistic son, helps run Surfers Healing, a program of surfing for autistic kids. Two of the other sons are involved in the family surfing school. They seem all to have done well. Some have pretty strong complaints about how their special upbringing handicapped them, at least at first, but they seem to agree that the good outweighs the bad and that what their father gave them was priceless and unique.
I say "seem," because this documentary is neither cautious nor searching. There is an unfortunate slapdash feel about it. And it's not a good thing--not at all--that some of the key information seems to be in outtakes on the DVD. There are i's that need dotting and t's that need crossing. The film concludes with a family reunion staged in Hawaii. It emerges that some of the siblings hadn't seen each other or their parents for years. Details are not forthcoming.