Los Angeles Times
March 14, 2004
Their ideals are unshed
A director revisits a group of his river-rafting friends to see if their '70s counterculture beliefs wound up submerged.
By Beth Pinsker, Special to The Times
As Robb Moss approached 50, living a quiet life as a Harvard film professor with his wife and three daughters, his version of a midlife crisis involved more than the usual introspection. As he went through the nostalgic process of looking back over his misspent youth, he had a film to watch: his first short, an artistic 16-millimeter naturalistic documentary that captured him and his friends as they rafted, naked, down the Colorado River in summer 1978.
He took "Riverdogs" on a kind of road tour, showing up at old friends' houses and making them watch the footage of themselves as lithe youngsters, genuinely living the counterculture dream. He pulled out his camera, a digital video one this time around, and filmed while they talked about what happened to the philosophies they used to express so openly in those days by taking off their clothes. They now had families, jobs and responsibilities; the men's hair had disappeared, the women's faces had grown more lined.
Moss had no idea where it was going, but what he eventually found was a new film, "The Same River Twice," that challenges the assumptions most people have about the evolution that "hippies" went through when they settled down. After a career of making artistic and educational documentaries about things like fertility, the Long Island Sound and racial tension in Gambia, Moss suddenly hit at the core of the zeitgeist. His friends were neither sellouts nor burnouts, and he had a story to tell about the way time passes for all of us.
"Some people think that simply because they become middle-age, that's a betrayal of their youth. And there's an assumption that those values [of the '60s and '70s] were idealistic and unrealistic and therefore were abandoned," Moss says. "But we feel buoyed by how connected we are to our former values."
The film cuts back and forth between that river trip, which was a typical summer excursion for the group of 17 friends, and five of those people in the present day. There's Barry, a mental health administrator in California. Cathy is the mayor of her small Oregon town and is divorced from Jeff, an environmental writer and radio talk show host. Danny is a mother and fitness instructor in Santa Fe, and Jim is still a summer river guide, not quite in the rat race but not a burden to society.
"I've never judged whether my life would be a good example of generational shift," says Barry Wasserman from his office in Placerville. "But I find it pleasing that people take it that way."
Wasserman is also pleasantly surprised that his friend's random interviews turned into a film that has received this much attention ˜ making it to the prestigious documentary competition at the Sundance festival last year, being nominated for a 2004 Independent Spirit "Truer Than Fiction" award and having a theatrical run that moved into Los Angeles on Friday. He couldn't understand what the point would be in filming his life. And Moss couldn't, either, at first. He was just shooting and listening, which has been his filmmaking and teaching philosophy for years.
"I'm surprised that it's on theatrical screens," Moss, 53, says from his office at Harvard, catching up on the film's progress since Sundance. "It's a quiet film, without stars, without huge events, and is about something as subtle as the passing of time. Documentaries have become so sensationalized and ratcheted up, and boundaries have to be transgressed further and further. This film doesn't do that."
Even though Moss appears in only one brief present-day scene, camera in hand, it turns out that the film isn't about his friends and how they have grown older and more sedate. The film is really about Moss, and what Moss is really about is teaching.
He never intended to go into the profession, but once he started part time at Harvard in the mid-'80s, he found his calling. Now he's always teaching. Going to Sundance was like holding a far-flung seminar. He bumped into former students everywhere and was even competing against some of them for prizes. This year, when he was a member of Sundance's documentary jury, it was only a matter of luck that none of his former students had a film in the competition, which would have required that he excuse himself.
"I love having them here in the craziness of Sundance," he said during last year's festival. "There's something so deeply comforting about having a moment to laugh about what's going on."
His students are always equally glad to run into him. Jehane Noujaim, who directed the documentary "Startup.com" soon after graduating as one of Moss' star pupils and was at Sundance this year with "The Control Room," admits to shadowing her old professor through this year's festival. "You will not find a student who doesn't adore him," she says. "He pulls people around him without even trying."
That charisma also draws students who don't end up as documentary filmmakers. "One thing I learned from Robb was to shut up and listen to the material," says Jeff Balis, who was at Sundance last year as a producer and on-screen character in "Project Greenlight."
Even the first public showing of "The Same River Twice" was a teaching experience. It played at the Newport Film Festival in summer 2002 as a work-in-progress presented by New York's Docuclub.
"I could see the shape of the thing for the very first time," Moss says. "This was a different process for me than I've ever done because it wasn't a question of organizing sequences. It was making a case of how the past and present interpolate."
Maintaining the nakedness was the most difficult choice because it kept the film off a natural home like PBS. But it was nonetheless essential because it provides an instant framework to understand the characters' philosophies.
"I went to Berkeley from 1968 to 1972, maybe that's the only thing I have to say," Moss says. "Nakedness is almost always associated with sex, but it wasn't for us. It was about having a relationship with the outdoors."
He shot that 16-millimeter footage after studying film as a graduate student at MIT with originators of the U.S. version of cinema vérité, "direct cinema." He was more in tune with naturalism, though, and captured the group cavorting on the sandy shores and climbing rocks, with nothing artificial ˜ not even music ˜ interrupting the sound of the water gurgling over the rocks.
"I believed in the power of images and sounds over text to reveal the world," he says. "It's wonderfully naïve and passionate. It's hopelessly naïve, actually."
All the participants in the film disdain the term "hippie" as an epithet for young people who are unrealistic and selfish. They worked, Wasserman emphasizes. They had a contract with a company to run river tours and they showed up on time, pumped the boats and cooked the meals. In the wintertime, they went back to day jobs. And they weren't exactly kids. "I was 31 in 1978," he says.
"There are some ways in which our lives ˜ my life ˜ turned out more traditional than I imagined," Wasserman adds. "But I wouldn't say I'm disappointed by it. I don't think of myself as fundamentally different than I was then."
"I totally appreciate Robb's affirmation of that time in culture," says Danny Silver. "I loved that era of my life, and I wouldn't trade it, nor do I feel I want to be back there. All the people on that trip have stayed true to their ideals. Community is important to us, as is doing work that makes a difference. I believe there's not a single Republican among us."
By Louise Kennedy
CAMBRIDGE - A student crouches on bare feet before a random assortment of objects - twigs, shells, a rubber lamb chop - laid out on a blank sheet of paper, dragging an ink-dipped feather across another blank page to make a drawing. Across the studio, a student with a camera stands watching the drawing student, preparing to make a videotape of him at work. Next to that student stands Robb Moss, teaching.
"Look through the camera; maybe don't turn it on right away. Take your time," Moss is whispering. "Shoot for about three minutes. Don't zoom. Don't shoot for less than 10 seconds a shot. I want to reinforce the idea that you're making discrete shots. Change the focal length, change the angle, change the distance to subject. . . . Do it any way you want, but I want you to be thinking about taking the scene apart in shots."
Moss has been teaching this art - the art of taking the world apart in shots and putting it back together in a movie, choosing what to leave out and then what to put in - for 15 years at Harvard, where he's the Rudolf Arnheim Lecturer on Filmmaking. And he's been making nonfiction movies himself, putting things in and leaving things out, since his student days at Berkeley, from which he graduated in 1972. At 53, he has now revisited one of his earliest films, the 1978 "Riverdogs," by going back to talk with five of the 17 people it shows rafting down the Colorado River about how their lives have changed, and not, since those sunny and expansive days.
The result, "The Same River Twice," has its local theatrical premiere tomorrow at Brookline's Coolidge Corner Theatre. The movie (edited by Karen Schmeer, with Linda Morgenstern as associate producer) has already played, to mostly glowing reviews, at New York's Film Forum and at several film festivals, notably Sundance. (Moss won't attend tomorrow's screening because he's in Rio de Janeiro for another festival.) The movie's commercial success, Moss says in an interview at Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, is "surprising and heartening."
"I wasn't thinking about commerce," he says, but he has some thoughts about why "The Same River Twice" has found a broader audience than he expected. "I think it's unusual for a nonfiction film to try to regard a 20-year period," he says, "and it expresses a certain boomer experience. For younger people, it expresses a series of choices they've yet to make. Those are the two constituencies: people who look at it having gone through the cauldron of their life choices, and those who are still facing those choices."
In a sense, those are the two kinds of people we see in the film: young ones with their whole lives opening out before them, shot luminously on film, and older ones (in grittier video) whose paths, by chance and by choice, have narrowed. The twist here is that they're the same people twice.
Another twist, and one that has distracted some viewers from the movie's subtle and touching meditations on youth, age, and the river between them, is that the younger versions of these people are mostly naked. For Moss, the nakedness is important, but it's not central.
"The film wouldn't play in the same way if they weren't naked," he says. "It shouts youth and possibility and vulnerability." Beyond that, he says, "it was not nearly so extravagant as it was practical. This was pre-polypropylene; we had a choice of wet cotton or no clothes."
But the naked bodies aren't what really strike him now. "It's more the psychological nakedness," he says. "I didn't know that at the time. You don't know things while you're doing them."
One of the men we see onscreen, naked and not, would agree. "The nudity is nothing. The exposure is the later material," Barry Wasserman says by phone from California. "The exposure is your self, not your body." What made him and the others willing to expose themselves in that way, he says, is their friendship with Moss and their faith in him.
"Well, you know, Robb is so trustworthy, which is why he got that movie," says one of the women in the film, Danny Silver, on the phone from New Mexico. "Everyone trusted that he wouldn't humiliate us and would be kind, and in the end he was. Of course he was, because that's who he is." Achieving balance
Ask some of Moss's former students to talk about him, and you get an unusually rapid and thorough flurry of return phone calls. "The greatest teacher I ever had," says one. "A huge influence," says another.
"He's very patient; he's articulate and incisive without being overly academic," says Allie Humenuk, a former student who is working on a documentary about the photographer Abelardo Morell. "Unlike some other professors who you feel are unapproachable because they really do know so much, Robb pulls you out. He's not - he's just very present. You feel like when you're talking he's clicked into what you're saying. And that is amazing, because he's got so much going on."
Humenuk, like several others, admires Moss's ability to balance his teaching with the demands of his own work and family life; he and his wife, Jean Kendall, are raising three daughters in Jamaica Plain.
"I don't know how he's balancing all that," says Julie Mallozzi, a Boston filmmaker who has also taught with Moss. She remembers seeing him teach students at noon, then send them out to shoot - but not before making an appointment to meet with them again, to view the results, at 2 o'clock. That's 2 a.m.
"I said, 'Wow, you really didn't have to do that,' " Mallozzi recalls. "And he said, 'I'm not going to be the one standing in the way of their progress.' "
It's that seriousness about his students' work, says Moss's friend and Harvard colleague Ross Mc Elwee, that makes his students "adore" him. "I think what they respect so much is that he respects them." Moss combines warmth and rigor, McElwee says, in his teaching as well as in his own work.
"He's a very astute cinematographer and has an eye for what's important as he shoots," McElwee says. "He also has an eye for what's not obvious as he shoots. . . . You're always editing, even as you're shooting, and Robb is always aware of that." Exploring lives
Back in the drawing studio, Moss watches his student. His gaze travels from the camera to its subject, the artist rendering a collection of objects chosen and arranged on the floor, and he smiles.
"See, I would love to be an artist like this," he says. "I'd like to have less gear. There is nothing sexier than studios, nothing. The people sprawling around in their bare feet, the smells, the light . . ."
So why make movies instead of drawing or painting? He thinks.
"I love movies. I think I work backwards from that. I like exploring lives. I like the possibility of waking up in the morning and filming in a village in West Africa. I don't do that every day, but there's the possibility... As a way to experience the world, I love movies. The cost, the length of time, the gear..." He sighs.
He returns to studying his student, watching the watcher. A minute later, he speaks again.
"There's some way in which - one of the things about growing up is that you end up not doing all these things. You marry this person and not that person, you do this job and not that one. And you do what you can do. That" - he gestures to the drawing student - "was never in the cards. I couldn't do this. I got a D in handwriting in the sixth grade."
But what he can do, and does, is make movies that express his way of seeing the world. One of his hopes for "The Same River Twice" is that it will serve as a corrective to the often cartoonish view of the earlier time it portrays - and of the people who lived through that time and went on to become grownups.
The cartoon, Moss says, is "bad dancing, bad fashion sense, bad drugs - none of which was my experience." The "hippie" caricature is untrue to his own life, he says, and to the lives he shows. We see people raising children, raising vegetables, trying to make a difference in other people's lives, some by getting involved in local politics. "People's running for mayor of their small town," as two of the movie's characters do, "seems like a natural outgrowth of the values of the '60s," Moss says. "Sometimes I think those things still live; sometimes I think there's just the salad bar."
"The Same River Twice," though not overtly, is about such choices. And right now, Moss is facing another choice: whether to blow the digital movie up to 35mm stock, which would make it more salable to distributors but would cost about $100,000.
"If this were 15 years ago, I think I would just do it," he says. "But I have to think about my family's future in ways I didn't have to before I had children. I'm not willing to mortgage their future for the sake of a few more screenings. And also, when is enough enough?"
In the drawing studio, one of his students poses a similar question: How long do we shoot for? Moss offers a deceptively simple answer.
"I would shoot it," he says, "until you feel like it's done."