“Why do you floss?” Robb Moss asks one of the subjects in his graceful documentary The Same River Twice. It’s one of the few leading questions the filmmaker asks in this sympathetic inquiry into the aging of a bunch of his longtime friends — and, by extension, of a generation of middle-class boomers. The answer is as succinct a summation of the film’s concerns as Moss could have wished for. “Because I don’t feel invulnerable,” says Barry Wasserman, a genial psychiatric-hospital administrator who celebrates his 50th birthday during the making of the film. “Not even my teeth are invulnerable anymore.”
In the summer of 1978, after Moss graduated from UC Berkeley, he and 16 friends took a monthlong rafting trip down the Colorado. To judge by the footage Moss shot, most of the group were buck-naked most of the time, and they look great not only to us, but to their saggier middle-aged selves, who watch the old footage with something approaching envy. Slim, lithe, handsome and confident enough to be unselfconscious when photographed wearing only flotation devices, these beautiful young things have nothing to do but play, and languidly debate whether to strike camp or stay the night. They’re hippies without the flower-child posturing — just a bunch of privileged golden youth with all the time in the world. Or so they think. Twenty years later, when Moss comes back to film five of the group leading their middle-aged lives, time is their most vital — and scarcest — resource.
For baby boomers at least, The Same River Twice will exert the same alluring pull as Michael Apted’s
7-Up and other where-are-they-now investigations into the passage of real lives. For our sake as well as theirs, we want to know what happens “in the end,” as if there were such a thing aside from death itself. Unlike Apted’s film, whose more structured aim was to test the durability of the British class system by tracking the lives of three groups of children over four decades (and counting), The Same River Twice has an open-ended, exploratory feel. It is less about whether its subjects have succeeded or failed in life — there’s no real measure for that in Moss’ generously open mind — than about the way time makes monkeys of us all. There are no “failures” in this group, unless you count Jim, the group’s former guru. Who among those of us with even a remote connection to the counterculture in the late ’60s or ’70s hasn’t known someone like Jim? There he is in the early footage, golden, charismatic, a purist and a mystery man whose mystery might also be read as a lack of definition. Jim has all the attributes that make would-be leaders so compelling in youth — and prove worse than useless in getting them through the rest of life. There he is today, still a river guide, still unattached, still reading Chomsky and Zen Buddhism. Jim — who’s pushing 50 and still says procrastination is underrated — has a child’s giggle, the speech cadences of a teenager, and the rootless, bewildered air of all those former hippies one sees selling roach clips on Telegraph Avenue, and thinks, there but for the grace of God . . .
Moss won’t allow us to pity or dismiss Jim, and neither does he judge the others, who have soldiered through the all-too-familiar life passages of marriage, family, divorce, cancer, looking after elderly parents, the rise and fall of ambition. They lead unexceptional lives today yet remain imprinted with both the political ideals — there’s not a corporate pooh-bah among them — and the hedonism of their youth. Jim’s former lover, Danny, a tiny brunette who has aged into a vivacious radiance, jettisoned a career as a genetics counselor for motherhood at 41 and her own aerobics business. Cathy — a mother of two and a former mayor of Ashland, Oregon, who says she’d rather wait tables than go back to the job she hated at Planned Parenthood — is divorced from another group member, Jeff, a lost-looking writer and broadcaster who freely admits (and regrets) neglecting his family in favor of his career. And Barry — funny, articulate, self-scrutinizing Barry, a father of three — survives not being re-elected mayor of his small California town, only to discover that he has testicular cancer.
The early footage, shot in 16mm, is fluid and loose. The present, shot in digital video, appears choppier and more fragmented. But The Same River Twice is far from an arthritic exercise in hippie nostalgia. There is a seasoned richness and vivid specificity to these lives, for all their hurts and losses. Yet the movie is shot through with an undeniable note of elegiac wistfulness. We hear regrets over the decay of the body, a bemused inability to inscribe the everydayness of life into some larger meaning, and a sense of being steamrollered by time, which — like the churning river these people once so effortlessly navigated — just keeps rolling along.
In the opening scenes of the exquisitely calibrated domestic drama Broken Wings, Israeli teenager Maya Ulman — played by newcomer Maya Maron, a striking waif with intense dark eyes, here tricked out in rock-star black offset by a pair of large wings — pedals furiously through the night streets of Haifa. Her mother, Dafna (Orly Zilberschatz-Banai), a weary-looking midwife in her early 40s, has been called in to work. Maya, instead of performing in her band’s first gig, must see to her little brother Ido (Daniel Magon) and sister Bahr (Eliana Magon), while her brother Yair (Nitai Gvirtz), also a teenager, lolls in bed, too out of it to rise to the occasion.
You can see in this blitzed crew the bare bones of a once-happy family, as they plow like automatons through their domestic routines and care for each other with rough resentment. But they’ve been pulverized by the recent death of the father. The director, Nir Bergman, takes no emotional shortcuts: The father was killed not in the army or by a suicide bomber, but by a bee sting — a death all the more horrific for being so banal. Maya, who was with her dad when he died, feels responsible but doesn’t know it, and so unleashes her helpless rage on her palpably depressed mother, who’s barely holding the family together on a practical level, let alone attending to the children’s grief, or her own. Yair, suspended from school and refusing counseling, patrols commuter trains in a mouse suit, handing out leaflets and lecturing anyone who will listen on the subject of infinity. Ido, his face stiff with anger, dragoons his little sister into videotaping him as he jumps into an empty swimming pool.
Broken Wings is Bergman’s first feature, though you’d never know it from the unassuming sophistication of his directing style. His juxtaposition of tone is ironic and often witty as he builds on his own spare script, drawing poetry from the smallest details. Drained of color, the film achieves an air of quiet emergency. Broken Wings has been a huge hit in Israel, and it’s not hard to see why. Bergman is handing his audience a respite from the endless reminders of war while echoing their daily experience of unrelenting stress. The Ulmans float past each other like lonely satellites — until another crisis comes along that makes everything much worse, and then, without fireworks, modestly but significantly better. There’s no euphoria at the end, only the exhausted calm of those who have fought their battles and come to terms.
On Friday, March 12, director Robb Moss will attend both screenings of The Same River Twice at the Nuart.
THE SAME RIVER TWICE | Directed and produced by ROBB MOSS Released by Balcony Releasing | At the Nuart
BROKEN WINGS | Written and directed by NIR BERGMAN | Produced by ASSAF AMIR | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At Laemmle’s Music Hall