The Same River Twice

In 1978 Robb Moss, an award-winning independent film maker and Harvard professor, went with a group of 16 other river-guide friends on a five-week (and very clothing-optional) river trip through the Grand Canyon. He brought with him a 16mm camera and made one of his first films, Riverdogs, to document the adventure. Many years later it occurred to Moss to revisit the lives of some of that company in a new documentary. The Same River Twice is the fascinating result.

A large part of my reaction to the film can be summarized in short passages from two philosophers. The first of these is the Greek, Heraclitus, who lived about 540 to 480 BCE. No complete works of his have come down to us, only fragments quoted by near contemporaries. Some of my favorites include (from Philip Wheelwright's collection, Heraclitus):

You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on.

Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.

It is in changing that things find repose.

All things come in their due seasons.

The way up and the way down are one and the same.

A dry soul is wisest and best.

Most of these ideas are now part of common philosophical wisdom -- the only constant is change, and character is fate. They are widely appreciated, even if their origin is forgotten. But undoubtedly Moss had Heraclitus explicitly in mind in the naming of his film.

The theme of change and constancy is echoed in the title of a work, Moving On/Holding Still, by another young man, Peter Simon, who chronicled in a small body of still images some of the lifestyles of the 1970s. The photography in this book, as well as another by Simon, Decent Exposures, should be of great interest to naturists. Those books are long out of print, but Simon recently published a retrospective, I and Eye: Pictures of My Generation, which is still available. It contains many naturist images, and a lot more besides.

Was there, indeed, anything revolutionary or even new about the attitudes and lifestyles of young people in the 1960s and 70s, as documented by Moss in Riverdogs and by Peter Simon? Perhaps I'm biased, having been young then myself, but I think the answer is yes, to a degree. I think that a few people of that generation did usefully explore alternatives to the often perverted work ethic, conformism, and consumerism of their society, questioning, however timidly, whether there was any way of living other than as a corporate serf in some amalgam of warfare state and Walmart nirvana. Such people were not as plentiful as the media may have made them seem. Possibly they had some positive political effect on the rights of women and minorities. But even those parts of the legacy remain under seige, and there is little pride that can be taken in actually having effected noteworthy lasting improvement in most aspects of the ambient culture.

Perhaps The Same River Twice, in its examination of a few real life histories, can give us some clues.

In any case, the phrase "moving on/holding still" circulated in my mind as I watched Moss' new, double documentary. Clearly, Moss has used the tension between holding still and moving on as his framing theme. Almost the first scene -- which is presented again in flashback near the end -- has the group discussing whether to "lay over" another day at their camp on the river, or instead to get in their boats and move on. Although the film examines the later lives of five people, there are really just two main protagonists: Jim and Barry. In the crucial scene, Jim argues for staying put, and Barry argues for moving on.

Jim and Barry are almost stereotypes of themselves. When revisited twenty years later, Jim is still a river guide, the only notable occupation he has had in the whole period. He lives by himself in a rusty trailer near the town of Coloma, California, when he is not working on the river. Barry, on the other hand, has taken up a conventional, and modestly successful, middle class existence as a family man and director of a psychiatric hospital in Placerville, California.

Where Jim has chosen to remain disengaged from society and traditional social roles, Barry has embraced both. He has even been elected mayor of his small town. But we pick up his life's thread just at the point where he is running for re-election. And he loses. Despite Barry's worthy efforts to engage with society and contribute to it, it seems his labors have, at least in this case, been met with indifference from society: "Thanks, but no thanks."

The last segment of the movie is titled "I want to change my vote!" Barry has been asked to reflect on his life up to that point, whether perhaps he regrets having left life on the river in exchange for an "adult" life of family, work, and social responsibility. When he views the scene from Riverdogs mentioned above, he says good humoredly that he would like to change his vote. But we know he's only joking. Instead, no, he doesn't begrudge young people the ability to live a free, naked life on the river. Because "it's their turn to be young." As for Barry, he finds being a father what defines him at the moment. Because it is his time to be a father. And some day, if he's lucky, it will likewise be his time to be old. However, and this is the sad thing in Barry's philosophy, if he is right: "We all just get one turn at each." As Heraclitus (as well as Ecclesiastes) said, things come in their due season.

But we wonder just how sincerely Barry feels that. Is it what he really feels, or is it a rationalization for the choices he has made? It is at this point that I recall some words from another philosopher -- remember I said there were two that came to mind? The man I'm thinking of was a rebellious youngster of an earlier generation in America -- Henry David Thoreau. His words:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work.
Perhaps I'm being unfair to Barry, and I could be quite wrong. But my impression is that his life is indeed one of "quiet desperation". Why do I have that sense? I think it's because, while he is sincere about identifying with his current roles, such as that of a father, his present life is not entirely what he would freely choose today. Instead, it is a consequence of choices made many years ago, over a period of time. Of course, to a large extent, this is a fate we all share.

Jim is another matter altogether. He has retained far more freedom. The simplicity of his lifestyle and the choices he has made over the years -- to live alone and to remain mostly disengaged from society -- leave him with much the same degree of freedom he had twenty or more years ago, with his twenty-something companions.

Ironically, there isn't a great deal that Jim wishes to do with his freedom, except to live from moment to moment. He isn't exactly an admirable or exemplary personality. It would be easy to regard him as selfish and self-centered, heedless of society's conventional expectations. Like Peter Pan, he doesn't want to let go of his youth. And yet, it is Jim who gets the final words in the movie. He talks of what he wants to do with the rest of his life, and his desires are very simple. Plant perennials in the fall, trim trees in the winter, mulch in the spring, water in the summer. He seems to echo Candide, "let us cultivate our garden." Where Barry's life is seen as one large, single cycle, Jim's life is entrained to the perennial circle of seasons.

Moving on, holding still.

Where do most of us situate ourselves between these alternatives? I think the answer is that we vacillate. For what it's worth, I'll just mention that right after first viewing The Same River Twice I went with my colleague and good friend, the family dog, for a walk in the woods near our home. Like all dogs, she lives mostly in the present. She likes to linger wherever there's a particularly intriguing smell, sniffing vigorously. No one could say that she forgets to stop and smell the roses. Holding still. I, on the other hand, while out for a walk, generally like to keep moving on, if only because of the need to cover a certain distance in a limited amount of time.

I guess the real question we all have to ask ourselves is not an either/or question, but one of finding the right balance between these alternatives in our lives. The world goes around in multiple, entangled cycles.

Loose ends

What role, exactly, does nudity play in this film? The answer is: a lot and only a little. There is a great deal of healthy, wholesome nudity here. But that definitely should not deter any parent from letting their kids watch. In fact, it's a wonderful film for kids to see when they become old enough to begin wondering what adult lives are like. Seeing the film may help them not let go of childhood too soon, and not make irreversible life decisions before the "right" time.

All the nudity is in the scenes from long ago (1978). It seems to play little, if any, part in the present lives of the people featured. They are amused, and generally pleased, to relive their naked experiences, but that's about it. As far as we can tell, none have become dedicated naturists.

Does the nudity have an artistic purpose, perhaps as a metaphor for youthful Garden of Eden "innocence"? I hope not. That would be too trite. Moss explains it thusly: "The sheer exuberance of the human body naked re-exposes the characters to the glare of their youth." For the rest of us, the nudity simply is what it is -- an appropriate way to enjoy a long, lazy float through the Grand Canyon.

There's an interesting detail in the story of Jim and Barry that is hinted at but not explained anywhere in the film. This is that the towns of Coloma and Placerville, where Jim and Barry (respectively) lived at the time Moss revisited their lives, are only 8 miles apart. But nowhere are we told whether these two people have any ongoing contact, or even what they think of each other's chosen paths in life. Wouldn't it be interesting to know more about this?

But that's only one little nitpick. Overall, this is a film that works well on several levels. It's a fine human-interest documentary. It's artistically and aesthetically very well done. And it raises many perennial questions of philosophy and sociology, questions that continue to fascinate -- perhaps, in large part, because of their lack of easy answers.

For more about The Same River Twice, see

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Copyright © 2005 by Charles Daney, All Rights Reserved

Last updated: June 23, 2005