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A return trip to the summer of '78

'The Same River Twice' is a smart and revealing documentary of rafting friends, then and now.

March 12, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

In 1978, Robb Moss, camera in hand, embarked with a group of friends and fellow river guides on a 35-day rafting trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. Moss, who has taught filmmaking at Harvard for 17 years, decided to catch up with five of the guides some 20 years later, intercutting fresh material with footage from "Riverdogs," his film about that trip.

Other documentaries have crisscrossed between time frames, but Moss' beguiling "The Same River Twice" represents one of the most effective uses of the device. To begin with, "Riverdogs" is the stuff of time capsules. Here are 17 people in their 20s, old enough to have felt the impact of the Vietnam War, who have formed a group knitted closely enough to dispense with clothing for much of the time and enjoy a summer idyll. Danny, a vibrant, 48-year-old Santa Fe, N.M., aerobics instructor, looks back fondly at the experience as "the complete package: fun, sex, companionship, music, beauty."

It becomes clear quickly that Moss and the five individuals he singled out were people of privilege: intelligent, educated people who a quarter-century later also remain physically attractive. They had the luxury of their shimmering Utopian summer but also the capacity and skills to go on to lead fulfilling lives.

The film's focal point is the reflective Barry, now the director of a psychiatric hospital in Placerville, Calif., where he is running for reelection as the town's mayor, a contest his wife wouldn't mind him losing so that he could spend more time with her and their three children. He is a concerned citizen and caring man who has held on to his '70s idealism.

Cathy is also a mayor, of Ashland, Ore. She too has an activist sensibility but has a perhaps more pragmatic nature than Barry. While on that summer idyll, she fell in love with Jeff, with whom she had two children, but they subsequently divorced. Jeff is an Ashland radio talk-show host and a writer; he admits he wasn't ready for married life. Cathy acknowledges it took a long time to get over the unfaithful Jeff, but she has a new man on her horizon.

Of the five people revisited, only Jim has stuck by the river and has remained a guide since 1973 except for a brief stab at dentistry. Still lean, shaggy-haired and bearded, Jim on that summer '78 adventure was considered by the others as a "river deity," and he still lives close to nature, holed up in a tiny, messy trailer in Coloma, Calif., where he is slowly -- very slowly -- building a small house.

It is Barry, however, who provides "The Same River Twice" with its arc and its meaning. Of the five, he seems most conscious of the eternal cycle of life. Like the others, he looks back on that extraordinary summer but sees it as part of a continually unfolding life that for him has been rich and challenging. In considering his youth, current middle age and coming old age, Barry suggests that we remember that "we all get just one turn at each."


'The Same River Twice'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Considerable nudity in the 1978 river-trip footage

A Balcony Releasing presentation. Director-producer-cinematographer Robb Moss. Editor Linda Morgenstern. Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes.

Exclusively at the Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223, and Edwards University 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818.

Director Robb Moss will appear tonight at the Nuart for the 7:30 and 9:40 shows.

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