In 1978 Robb Moss made a short 16mm film called Riverdogs. It chronicled a month-long trip he spent with friends rafting naked through the Grand Canyon and camping out at embankments along the way. Despite the rush of whitewater and the carefree lifestyle captured among majestic outdoor settings, Moss, who had solar battery chargers built for the project and a raft customized for his film gear, admits to having a miserable time documenting the whole thing.
Flash forward to 1996 when Moss, who says he doesn’t shed friendships, decides to revisit and tape on mini-DV, five of the 17 rafters from Riverdogs because he “wondered if that movement — from gaudy youth to the enactment of our various adulthoods — could be the subject of a film.”
That film, The Same River Twice, had its world premiere in the documentary competition at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.
The Big Chill, Documentary Style
The telling portraits that surface are all the more poignant thanks to Moss’ affection for the subjects. The key players are Danny, Jeff, Cathy, Barry, and Jim. Danny is now a married mother of two who teaches aerobics. Jeff, a writer and father of two, is divorced from Cathy. During the course of Moss’ film we see Cathy handling her motherly and mayoral duties in Oregon and eventually re-marrying. Barry is the father of three who loses a re-election bid in California, is treated for testicular cancer, and turns 50. Of the five, Jim, who used to be Danny’s boyfriend, is the only one that is still a free-wheeling spirit who remains a river guide and spends the winters in a trailer in California.
It’s tempting to compare The Same River Twice to The Big Chill, insofar as both look at the aging process of a generation as it switches gears from counter-cultural roots to more established and familiar patterns. But whereas any Hollywood narrative compromises itself by trying first and foremost to entertain (and documentaries are certainly not immune from this), The Same River Twice is refreshingly free from manipulative scoring, cheap laughs, or tawdry dramas. In its place is an honest and touching examination of the process of aging that juxtaposes the present with the past by intermittently splicing in the 16mm footage from Riverdogs as a reference point for both the viewer and the subjects within the film, with the recent DV footage showing us these same people almost 20 years later.
Peyote to Prozac
Where an outsider might have gone for the easy laugh or heightened melodrama, Moss avoids material that might exacerbate existing tensions between his friends and employs, instead, an approach that is respectful, simple, and elegant.
Moss states that “The Same River Twice travels a road from peyote to Prozac… the film-past, for example, rendered pastoral and lush, and the video-present crowded and utilitarian, the past imagistic and wordless, the present rushed and talky.” What emerges from this “temporal mosaic of their life choices,” as Moss describes it, is a touching and clear view of the life journey that affects us all.