The first hint that you won’t be losing yourself in an endless-summer reverie during Doug Pray’s Surfwise is the moment you glimpse an 80-something man climbing onto his exercise bike naked. There are more moments like that: Here’s the au naturel fitness freak’s wrinkled wife, boasting that their family “all have scrupulously clean assholes.” And several of the couple’s nine children talking about life growing up in a 24-foot camper, listening to Mom and Dad screw loudly every night. Both parents taught their kids that “fucking”—a term the elders use easily and often—is the key to not only personal happiness but world peace.
A gnarly wave would cut the squirm factor nicely right about then.
Surfwise may be about a brood of ’boarders, but it’s less about hanging ten than living off the grid. The patriarch is Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, a Jewish, Stanford-graduated doctor who, even though he’d risen to become president of the American Medical Association’s Hawaii chapter, realized he chose the wrong profession when his peers proved more interested in becoming wealthy than helping the sick. So Doc—even his now-adult kids call him Doc—abandoned the life he knew and shoved off for Israel: “I went out into the desert, like Jesus of Nazareth and a lot of other screwballs,” he says. Doc taught the people of Tel Aviv how to surf and met a Jewish woman who “taught me to eat pussy, and that changed my life a great deal.” He returned to the States sexually liberated and mentally renewed, determined to live as naturally as possible.
To Doc, this meant no fixed address, no formal education for his children, and instructing his third and current wife, Juliette, to nurture “his” kids not much differently than a gorilla would. His attitude toward breeding was nearly Duggar-like: Juliette says in the film that she spent a solid 10 years either pregnant or breast-feeding. Though Joshua, the youngest, asserts that his father’s attitude was more purposeful than let-go-and-let-God: “We were born because Doc wanted to repopulate the world with dudes. That’s fucking hardcore, man!”
Of course, the defining element of the Paskowitzes’ lifestyle was surfing, which they did on a daily basis wherever their caravan—and Doc’s gut-guided itinerary—took them. The children—David, Jonathan, Abraham, Israel, Moses, Adam, Salvador, Navah (the only girl), and Joshua—born between 1959 and 1974, weren’t home-schooled with a sanctioned curriculum but instead encouraged to read and hang, with Doc convinced that there was a crucial difference between life-gotten wisdom and traditional education. Most essential, though, was poverty. Doc occasionally took low-paying, temporary work treating the needy, and eventually started the Paskowitz Surf Camp, which still exists. But he once gathered the family around to giddily show them their literal last dime and refused a $40,000 inheritance from an aunt. They frequently dined on twigs. Instead of presents, the children were given the gift of “the sea.”
Perhaps the looniest part of the Paskowitz story, though, is Doc’s insistence that, really, “we were the most conventional of people.”
After a run in recent years of surfing films both fictional (Blue Crush) and non- (Riding Giants, Step Into Liquid), the character-driven essence of Surfwise is a surprisingly refreshing break from tradition. Watching a pro negotiate monster waves, especially on the big screen, can be awe-inspiring, gasp-inducing, and flat-out gorgeous—but such scenes also become boring as hell when there’s not much else to go along with them. Pray, best known for a pair of music documentaries, 1996’s Hype! (on grunge) and 2001’s Scratch (on turntablism), provides plenty of grainy sun-and-surf footage to go along with his interviews of the Paskowitz clan; like the recording-happy families of Capturing the Friedmans and The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Doc and his crew videotaped and photographed everything from Juliette breast-feeding to the kids overtaking a beach. Modern slice-of-life scenes document everyone individually (their atypical upbringing, David attests, “created nine only children,” and for many years the family was estranged): Israel is shown with his autistic son, Navah is stuck in traffic, and Doc is greeting the day with a bizarre outburst—“Good morning, Mommy and Baby!”—before doffing his drawers and getting on the bike.
Surfwise’s story is essentially Doc’s, and even as an old coot he comes across as maniacal, controlling, and more than a little crazed—not quite the gentle, life-loving, and spiritually attuned superman he strives to be. The more compelling aspect of Surfwise, though, is the obvious question: Are the kids dysfunctional or what? As Adam perfectly describes his predicament, “My dad trained me to be one of three things—a surfer, a bum, or a rock star.” Most of the kids fled the nest as soon as they could. Minus a few regrets, a fair amount of anger, and therapy both professional and self-guided, though, the junior Paskowitzes seem shockingly well-adjusted and have all found success, mostly in the film and music industries. Adam is perhaps the best-known, scoring a hit with “Got You (Where I Want You)” while singing for his former band, the Flys, though he sometimes thinks he should have gone into medicine. “Of course, never going to school might have been a problem,” he deadpans. Abraham also wanted to be a doctor but became disillusioned when he realized how long it would take him to catch up after getting a GED. Despite finding their ways, nearly all the children believe Doc was selfish for not giving them the chance at the kind of education he was able to receive—and later dismiss.
Surfwise rambles a bit as it cuts back and forth in time and clumsily tries to tether the Paskowitz story to a larger message about America’s unhealthy and environmentally unfriendly habits; late-film shots of large waistlines and polluted lakes ultimately feel like they belong in another movie. Even with awkward social commentary, Surfwise sails above its peers, offering substance in a feature you might not have expected to have a thought in its scenic little head.