In the beginning, there was nudity. Along a bank of the Colorado River, cradled by jutting cliffs, a community of sun-kissed river guides bathed happily in the nude. They were young and lithe; they were wild and free; they were hirsute, and they had nothing but time. It was 1978, and the 17 friends had gathered for a rugged and breathtakingly beautiful monthlong journey into the Grand Canyon. Among them was Robb Moss, who, six years out of college, saw his river-running days drawing to a close. As part of his farewell to the water and to the life, he filmed the journey, naked flesh and all.
Twenty years later, Moss revisited the footage and followed up with five of the participants to discover where their lives had taken them. The result, the documentary The Same River Twice, is a tender and moving look at some of the essential questions about living a life: How do we make our choices, and what do we regret? Are we where we thought we'd be? How does aging affect us? And, perhaps most pointed, can we integrate the person we used to be with the person we are now?
Moss' subjects are engaging, articulate people, uniformly gracious about contemplating major life choices in front of the camera. Danny, a married mother of two in Santa Fe, is still radiant with life. As she watches the old footage, chuckling over a close-up of one of her breasts, she asks, "Why did we do it?" But her answer is immediate: "Because we could." Later, she discusses the difficulties of sharing her former recklessness with her children. She certainly won't be recommending hallucinogens, much as she once enjoyed them, but should she reveal anything at all? "You either tell the truth and shatter your credibility," she says, "or you lie."
Barry, at 50 the father of three young children, juggles his family with his career -- as both an administrator at a psychiatric hospital and the mayor of Placerville, Calif. His affinity for the outdoors shows up in his bid for re-election, when he pledges to restrict development and protect the town's natural resources. His affinity for his children shows up everywhere -- even on the campaign trail, when he brings them along to canvass houses -- yet he struggles to find enough time for them. In a wrenching moment, Barry's wife confesses to the camera that when she enters the voting booth and pulls the curtain closed, she might not check his name. She would much rather have him at home.
Then there's Cathy, another mayor and mother of two in Ashland, Ore. Cathy has the kind of outrageous natural beauty that threatens credibility; in the early footage, where we see her against the backdrop of one of the world's most stunning natural features, she's far more captivating than any big hole in the earth. Much of Cathy's emotional energy seems to have been absorbed in the sorrowful dissolution of her marriage to Jeff, also a subject of the film. For his part, Jeff blames himself for the breakup: His attention was elsewhere, both romantically and professionally. Cathy and Jeff seem to share their two children amicably, but there are clearly regrets on both sides.
In the contemporary footage, the suburban roads, tract houses, and bland offices appear sadly and irretrievably diminished against the unabashed glory of the Grand Canyon, with its turquoise sky, thundering river, and blinding light. That's why it's a relief to meet Jim, the movie's final subject, who (with the exception of an unimaginable six-month attempt to become a dentist) has remained a river guide and still lives in the wilderness. Jim is not entirely of the world where most of us reside; he has the dreamy, giggly sparkle of someone who knows both more and less than we do. When laying the foundation for a house that may never get built, Jim asks, "Is it small enough?" Later, when considering whether to move some wood, Jim reasons that if he doesn't move it once, he might not have to move it twice. This is the kind of Zen-flavored wisdom that makes his life as enviable as it is inaccessible. It seems that people are born, and not made, Jims -- they are either of the elements or they aren't. Early in the picture, Jeff says, "Jim was the composite of who we were and who we were trying to be," and one of the women marvels that Jim never had to work to be on the river: He just belonged there.
So what, if anything, does Jim regret? In a fascinating moment, he responds that he might regret his lack of engagement; he might sometimes want to be "involved in the world." One senses that Jim hasn't seen the world lately -- but then Moss shows us the footage of Barry, the Placerville mayor, with his kids. They're not easy, kids; Barry is tired and overwhelmed. But they are lovely: Like the wilderness, they are full of life, and Jim is alone.
Particularly notable about The Same River Twice is its editing -- sharp, witty, and compassionate. It's no surprise to learn that it's the work of Karen Schmeer, who has contributed to three Errol Morris films, among others. Schmeer uses the cuts in the best possible way, drawing attention to connections among the subjects and between the subjects and their younger selves. Moss, too, is adept at bringing forward the interesting and important stuff. Like Michael Apted (of the 7 Up series), he asks good questions and remains silent for long stretches, allowing his subjects to think (and speak) for themselves.
In the end, The Same River Twice is a simple, graceful film, offering nothing so indelicate as answers to the basic life questions that it raises. Instead, it is an amiable companion, provoking reflection, a lot like someone you would want to invite on a journey down a river.
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