Team Paskowitz: Doug Pray documents the eccentric, real-life saga of a legendary surfing family in 'Surfwise.' (Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Review: 'Surfwise'

Dennis Harvey June 10, 2008

The Bradys and Partridges. Cowsills, Osmonds, Jacksons. The old-school Von Trapps. There’s a certain fascination to family acts, heightening the interest that inevitably occurs when a performer’s professional and personal lives blur. While the above-named might all be musical acts—both real and fictive—nuclear units surface occasionally in other arenas of public life. Almost inevitably, some dynastic dirt is sure to emerge, because sooner or later the family that works, plays, competes, and cohabits together is going to experience some cracks in the household-unity foundation.

There’s plenty o’ such juicy stuff on display in Surfwise, the latest documentary from Doug Pray (Hype!, Scratch). His subject here is the Paskowitz clan, whose patriarch and nine count ‘em nine children have been legends in the surfing world for decades. It’s an eccentric real-life saga that’s compelling whether you’re a wave rider yourself or couldn’t care less about the sport.

Now in his mid-80s, Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz struggled to fit into the grey-flannel-suit conventions of the post-WW2 American Dream, eventually ending two marriages and a high-flying physician’s practice for a transient lifestyle focused on his favorite pastime/obsession. He found a perfect life partner at last in the beautiful Juliette, a free spirit equally willing to live outside the box. Or, rather, in a box: The rapidly growing family lived in a cramped 24-foot trailer that roamed the globe as Doc & co. chased waves. The kids got no formal schooling, ran wild, spent countless formative hours surfing. Many became champion competitors, while the always-threadbare Paskowitz coffers were kept at least a little full by their running an annual surfing school for newbies.

Sound like an ideal way to grow up? It certainly looks that way early on in Surfwise, as Pray shows the self-promoting unit frolicking in ample archival footage. Who needed to run away with the circus when you were a Paskowitz?

But, naturally, there was trouble in paradise, as Pray gradually reveals. A man with very particular, rather dictatorial ideas about how life should be lived, Doc imposed a "nonconformist" regime on his children that in fact required a great deal of conformity to his sometimes violently mood-swinging whims. Material possessions were scorned; a monotonous, flavorless "health diet" is aptly described by one sibling as consisting mostly of vegetarian "gruel." Privacy was not only near-impossible but little-respected, with mom and dad caring little that their noisy nightly lovemaking could be heard by the whole bunch. Raised without standard education, a stable community, or more than fleeting peer exposure, the nine junior Paskowitzes discovered to their chagrin upon reaching adulthood—and often angrily breaking ties with Doc—that they were very poorly equipped to deal with such real-world concepts as employment, money, rent, and other self-preservation essentials.

At once exasperating and admirable, Doc is a memorably complicated character, even if here—art mirroring life—he tends to hog the focus while several offspring find their own checkered histories underexplored. Still, it’s a testament to Surfwise’s level of human intrigue that it leaves you wanting more.