Sensitive film focuses on aging baby-boomers

By Danielle Stein

Ah, to be young, thin, naked, and in love – all on the Colorado River. Rob Moss’s footage of his summer rafting trip with hippie friends in 1978 looks the epitome of counterculture bliss. No obligations, no itinerary; just sex, drugs and freedom.

Twenty years later, Moss filmed five of his fellow travelers in their new lives, new homes, and new bodies (featuring less head hair due to balding and less body hair due to clothing). He films them living their current quotidian existences and he films them watching the footage from their time, now long vanished, on the river. And between the two, he captures the transformation that is age and experience.

Though it has a decidedly wistful tone, Same River Twice escapes the simplistic nostalgia that mindlessly reveres one’s “glory days.” Certainly the free-spirited optimism of the twenty-somethings shines through the older, grainy footage, but there is an optimism in the new footage, too. Our subjects are less free, but perhaps more fulfilled. Jeff and Cathy, now divorced, share two children, and Cathy is finding new love again. Danny is a mother of two who recently gave up the drudgery of her day job to become an aerobics instructor. Barry is a father of three and struggling with testicular cancer. All are extremely involved in community and family.

Still living as a river guide on the Colorado is Moss’ fifth subject, Jim, once the summer love of Danny. The slow pace and simplicity of his days is contrasted with that of his old friends; as they dash from town meetings to school recitals, we see Jim, in scene after scene, procrastinating the building of a “gardener’s cottage” he has planned near the California trailer he inhabits during winter. By the documentary’s end, he has completed only its foundation.

Jim’s existence, at face value, may seem most enviable. But ultimately, any added freedom he has is overshadowed by a stark aloneness. At one point, Barry asks himself whether he is jealous now of his younger self, and concludes that everyone has their time to be young, and, if they’re lucky, their time to be middle-aged and old. The film concurs.

This pervasive, if subtle, sense of optimism is further aided by the fact that the idealism of its subjects has hardly waned since their time on the river, despite their integration into ordinary, middle-class life. The collective do-gooding of the group is almost unbelievable: two of them (Cathy and Barry) are their town mayors, and another (Jeff) has recently written an ecological book on forestry and hosts a talk show in Oregon that discusses local issues. All still give off an earthy, low-maintenance vibe and none have succumbed to the materialism that has consumed so many baby boomers since the 60s.

At times, the angelic quality of the group is part of the film’s problem. It’s almost as if the conflict between younger and older self is absent – Barry is a hospital director, grassroots politician, environmentalist and devoted husband and wife; Cathy is a mayor and mother who used to work at Planned Parenthood and now wants a day job as the local school busdriver. It’s not as if they are high-faluten investment bankers, dripping in Armani, wondering what happened to the naked free spirit who lived in the Grand Canyon for months with nothing but a backpack and companionship. In one scene, Jim wonders what it would have been like to follow his friends into suburban society, to be a more “complicated” person. “Complicated” is obviously a relative term.

The stripped-down, value-driven nature of Moss’s friends makes them extremely likeable, but makes the movie perhaps less so. There is tension inherent in the process of watching oneself grow older, but it is limited here. Some critics have compared Same River Twice with The Big Chill, and one even praised the documentary for not featuring “sell-outs” as did the fictional film about a bunch of Michigan grads. But The Big Chill was compelling precisely for that reason: it showed generous, contemplative people struggling to reconcile a significant change in priorities and lifestyles.

Still, Moss succeeds in capturing interesting phenomena and emotions with images of even the most mundane activities. We see Cathy, donning a sensible haircut, conducting a local meeting with authority, juxtaposed with her rock-climbing 20 years earlier, nude except for a harness, hair falling in her eyes. We see poignant instances of Barry trying to keep up with three young children after a draining radiation treatment, the sense of mortality that comes with age apparent in his face.

With Same River Twice, Moss has created something that is deeply personal to him and is likely to resonate with much of his audience. What it lacks in drama it makes up for in sincerity; it is refreshingly free of manipulation. It is also refreshing in its uncyncial belief in the values of the 60’s – values that, sadly, are today often no more than a punchline.