THE SAME RIVER TWICE
directed by Robb Moss
THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND
directed by Sam Green & Bill Siegel
by Walter Chaw I've just seen an episode of CNN's "Crossfire" that featured as one of its topics the proliferation of "Bush Bashing," which, for as scatologically intriguing as it sounds, refers to the growing popularity of pummelling our dimwit president for his dimwit philosophies and hilljack presentation. The verbal assault gratifying for what it is, what's missing in the new American dyspepsia is any real activism: The movies feel like-Sixties movies, and the government certainly feels like the late-Sixties government, but the level of outrage is something just north of "mild simmer." Students aren't massing, the National Guard isn't mobilizing, and there's no new Flower Power generation to oxymoronically stir the great, slobbering melting pot of American sex and politics. What there is, however, is a glut of underground documentaries finding their way into small theatres to smaller audiences but enough critical support to at least put the intelligentsia on record as suitably discomfited.
Robb Moss's amazing film is as heartbreaking as it is that rarest of beasts, a genuinely life-affirming piece that relies on the peculiarities of the human animal rather than false piety or tones of moral superiority. The Same River Twice is as organic as its title implies, contemplating a short 16mm film taken the summer of 1978 of a group of hippies (Moss among them) engaged in a communal trip down the middle of the Grand Canyon and comparing it to the rafters as they are today, embroiled in the mendacity and the muted joys of the day-to-day. Melancholy and nostalgic, the picture has moments that are as poignant and heartfelt as any in any film this year: a beaten look as a man is reminded of what he's lost in love by a recipe for a harvest sandwich, a belated "can I change my vote?" that comes more than twenty years too late to prolong an idyllic season adrift and timeless.
The grief for the freedoms of youth are leavened by the sense that it's all a part of some inexorable drift--tragedy undercut by the knowledge of universality, and a deepening of the Heraclitus's quote about being incapable of stepping into the same river twice from something of a pat, Wolfe-ian homily to a statement about the quicksilver nature of rivers and their usefulness as metaphors for aging and eternity. By the end of the piece, even the rafter closest to his prelapsarian state pours a foundation for a cabin (albeit one built along the strictures of Fibonacci's Theorem), putting down concrete roots in the hope for a family and a sort of eternity that the Natural, by its immense detachment, disdains. Time waits for no man another possible title for the piece, The Same River Twice is thoughtful, gentle, ultimately Zen--an elegy, an allegory, and one hell of a beautiful film.
Similar in presentation though less successful in ultimate impact, Sam Green and Bill Siegel's The Weather Underground finds the members of the titular cell in the present day, their regret-tinged interviews interposed with archival footage of younger versions of themselves, speechifying, marching, blowing stuff up real good. Full of good intentions, the group represented the white upper-class version of the Black Panthers, a militant group that, for all intents and purposes, became a homegrown terrorist outfit punishing the government for its misdeeds home and abroad. The real wonder is that they had time to do anything else. To a one successful, many entered into public service or teaching positions like the subjects of Moss's documentary; The Weather Underground is similarly steeped in a sort of ideological melancholy. The juvenilia of the group's Old Testament philosophy and the blind alley of violence addressing violence is addressed by the film by the idea that the violence of the splinter group in fact played into the hands of the government in its attempts to paint leftists as dangerous anti-American screwballs. Similar modern smear campaigns are, arguably, easier to carry out because of the fundamentalist image forged by the Weatherman, but little explains the current climate of relative apathy and fatalism as we find ourselves beneath a government and leader that uses the word "crusade" to refer to an invasion of the Middle East.
What fascinates about the timing of The Same River Twice and The Weather Underground is something more compelling than a Big Chill desire to lament the present while casting the past in a sepia regard: it seems to speak more to a collective, oppressive feeling of regret and nostalgia. For the idylls of communal existence, for the militantism of the same, the pictures taken as Yin/Yang companion pieces present what feels like a whole portrait of not just a time in our country's history, but also a period in an individual's history where idealism overruled the cold verities of the day-to-day. Mercurial, angry, childish, even Pollyannaish, yet full to brimming with the dream that an individual can affect change for the better, the pictures, both excellent to slightly different degrees, are almost more mesmerizing for their proximity to one another. Bob Dylan said you didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blew. He's still right. Originally published: October 24, 2003.