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Their ideals are unshed

A director revisits a group of his river-rafting friends to see if their '70s counterculture beliefs wound up submerged.

March 14, 2004|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."

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