Joe Sixpack's Film Blog -- July, 2008
July, 2008 | Film Reviews - TV rants - Kid's Vids & More


"Surfwise: The Amazing True Odyssey Of The Paskowitz Family"
(Magnolia, 2007)

"Surfwise" is another fascinating feature-length documentary by filmmaker Doug Pray, who has made several amusing, enlightening films on pop-culture sub-groups such as the Seattle grunge scene ("Hype") and hip-hop DJ turntabulists ("Scratch"). In this case it's a fascinating portrait of an unusual family on the fringe of society. It's a one-third celebratory, two-thirds tragic portrait of the Paskowitz family, a once-legendary surfing clan whose patriarch, Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz dropped out of mainstream society in the late 1950s, to follow a near-absolute rejection of modern materialism. Paskowitz and his wife traveled anywhere on a whim for over a decade, surfing up and down the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of North America, surfing, having lots of sex and making lots of babies. In all, the Paskowitzes had nine children, eight boys and one girl, and raised them outside the confines of "straight" life. Instead of going to school, the children surfed, and were reared according to their father's bold, yet ill-defined personal ethic.

Although Doc's decision to drop out preceded the hippie movement by almost a decade, his family's journey intersected with the 1960s hippie-era rejection of cultural norms, and with the "Me Generation" self-absorption of the '70s. But while these larger cultural shifts were widespread, the choices of the Paskowitz family were much more far-reaching and severe than most of the counterculture types of the time. With no fixed income and a total abandonment of the American work ethic, the Paskowitzes were both legendary and tragic. As the children came of age, the strains of traveling together in a small camper intensified, and the family fragmented and fell apart. Just how much they fell apart is revealed in the film's second half, which skillfully explores the dark side of Doc's impulsive and absolutist philosophical rejectionism. Each of the (now grown-up) children reflect on the internal pressures (and joys) of their extreme lifestyle, and how completely unprepared it left them to make their own entry into adult life. Although the Paskowitzes dominated surf competitions in the early 1970s -- and got considerable media attention and corporate sponsorship -- because they were so naive about money matters, none of them held onto the money or the opportunities they made, and their professional careers largely fizzled out. Many of the children rightfully express their anger towards their parents for leaving them stranded without education or options, and the film is a fascinating reflection on the potential hazards of extreme alternative lifestyles. Although Doc Paskowitz clearly shoulders much of the blame, he remains a roguish and compelling figure. Many of his critiques of modern society are pointed and incisive, and his candid assessments of consumerism, wage slavery and sexual repression are attractive due to his bluntness and accuracy. It is a complex portrait, and doesn't offer easy answers to the viewer, but rather many disturbing points to ponder. Definitely worth checking out.


"The Golden Compass"
(New Line, 2008)

This was a decent, if cursory, adaptation of The Golden Compass, the first book in Philip Pullman's controversial "Dark Materials" trilogy. The original print version is both innovative and tendentious -- an absorbing fantasy world built as a means for the author to exercise his strong antipathy towards organized religion. The movie glosses over the anti-religious message, although not quite to the extent I'd imagined. The condensed plotline can be a bit jumpy, but on the whole this is an enjoyable action film, with the social commentary lurking just below the surface -- it's dumbed-down a little, but still basically the same as the book. Worth checking out.


"Project Runway -- The Complete First Season"
(Miramax, 2004)

I gotta start off by saying that my family lives in that dark netherworld of people who refuse to pay for cable, so we see everything "late" - when it comes out on DVD. Thus, we were early devotees of American's Next Top Model, which was fun for a while, but grew old quick. Meanwhile, our friends were telling us how fab "Project Runway" was, and we had to smile our tight little, sad smiles and nod our heads politely and wait 'til the darn thing came out on disc. FINALLY, we watched Season One, and boy what a grrrreat show this is!! Unlike Top Model (with which you have to compare it) Runway isn't gimmicky or dumbed-down -- instead of putting its contestants in silly situations that or having their "professional" critiques be dominated by catty comments (ala Tyra's show), "Runway" is an actual test of skill, and places real demands on the contestants that really show their abilities, often to an astonishing degree. More than that, since it is a contest of skill -- social and sartorial -- there's an actual chance that the people you like might actually win, whereas in Top Model, it's always the lamest person who wins in the end. Runway is a great show. Our friends were right; we were wrong. I'm big enough to admit it................ But we're still not gonna pay for cable.


"Executioner's Song"
(Paramount, 1982)

Tommy Lee Jones excels in this seedy, depressing biopic about Gary Gilmore, a violence-prone petty criminal who found infamy as the first person executed in the United States after a federal ban on the death penalty was lifted in 1976. Gilmore was a classic American grotesque -- a high school dropout who fell into an life of crime and was repeatedly arrested and jailed, he became a hardened criminal and a sociopath who lashed out thoughtlessly time and time again, culminating in two senseless murders, just months after his release in 1976 from a twelve-year stint in prison. Yet he was also utterly unremarkable, one of countless thousands of losers who think nothing of violence and aggression, a creepy guy who just happened to be sent to death row when the tides were changing on the issue of capital punishment. First broadcast in 1982, five years after Gilmore was executed, this film is skillfully rendered and quite depressing, showing Gilmore's fitful attempts to reintegrate into society, his failures, and his mounting anger as his life grinds to a halt despite his newfound freedom. Jones is all twitchiness and hot-headed reaction, a restless bundle of nervous, blind, stupid anger -- his performance deservedly won an Emmy award, having created one of the most repellent, queasy characters to ever hit the small screen. The middle section of the film follows Gilmore's romance with a single-mother local biker chick (played by Rosanna Arquette), a haphazard relationship that swiftly descends into domestic violence and triggers a cycle of blind aggression, ending with two cold-blooded murders, and Gilmore's inevitable arrest.

The question of course is whether this film glamorizes murder, or if it provides any useful insights or social commentary. The answer to both of these questions is a little bit yes, and a little bit no. It is a very well-crafted, compelling production. The ensemble cast is strong, and Jones's depiction of a bumbling, semi-catatonic sociopath is impressive. The rawness of the sexual content and the realistic use of curse words (I watched the "Director's Cut" version) is a bit shocking, even at this late date in our violence-saturated media culture. But the film doesn't really glamorize Gary Gilmore, or his actions, and doesn't build a cult of personality around him the way that, say, films about the Zodiac Killer or Ed Gein might do. Gilmore is about as un-sexy and unattractive a man as possible, a loser adrift in an unappealing white trash subculture who can think of nothing better to do than pick up a gun and exorcise his own frustrations by carelessly killing two complete strangers. Likewise, the murders he commits are casual and thoughtless, and occupy little time onscreen. If anything, this film could be seen as a comment on the banality of evil, writ small, showing just how dull and just how common murder and violence can really be... A thought that, in its way, is even more chilling than the more amped-up murderers-are-cool imagery that dominates contemporary American popular culture. I wouldn't say that this is a particularly enriching movie -- there are better things to spend you time on -- but it is not sensationalistic and it does have some heft to it. Worth checking out, although it will probably mostly appeal to crime story aficianados and serial-killer buffs.

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