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The Same River Twice

Contrasting footage from his half-hour lyrical docu "Riverdogs" with newly shot footage of the same folks a quarter-century later, vet helmer Robb Moss' film has the built-in curiosity value of watching real people evolve on camera -- a fascination increased by subjects' original, variably sustained commitment to countercultural ideals.

Contrasting footage from his half-hour lyrical docu “Riverdogs” with newly shot footage of the same folks a quarter-century later, vet nonfiction helmer Robb Moss’ “The Same River Twice” has the built-in curiosity value of watching real people evolve on camera — a fascination increased by subjects’ original, variably sustained commitment to countercultural ideals. That said, feature will disappoint those looking for a larger statement on ’70s alternative lifestyles; Moss is content to simply provide before-and-after glimpses of his principals, sans much rumination or contextualizing. Copious nudity (though it’s far from prurient) makes this an iffy broadcast proposition, but further fest play and possible fringe theatrical exposure are assured.

The 1982 “Riverdogs” was a lyrical document of a Colorado River rafting/kayaking trip undertaken by 17 twentysomething friends. Acting on the waning countercultural era’s collectivist, utopian, back-to-nature values, the travelers mostly eschewed any clothing beyond lifejackets — and in Moss’ lovely old 16mm color footage, their naked forms against spectacular landscapes have an effect more neo-classically aesthetic than titillating.

These sequences are intercut with new ones glimpsing five of the original group in the present. Most remain committed, in one way or another, to youthful beliefs: Their occupations include environmental activist, fitness instructor, and in two cases becoming mayor to a mid-sized burg. Still, intervening two decades-plus have brought about more commonplace changes, from child-rearing and home ownership to broken marriages and health problems. The one holdout against middle-class lifestyle is “river god” Jim, who remains a river guide — and whose free-spirited nature has begun to look like semi-dysfunctional, adolescent eccentricity.

Often commenting (with some wonder but no shame) on the footage of their younger selves, subjects are engaging and articulate. But pic’s limited then/now focus frustrates in certain aspects, never directly asking their thoughts about that more liberal social era, or telling us how original group came together in the first place. “Same River” is absorbing within its own decade-jumping, diaristic scope. But it falls well short of providing a nonfiction summary statement on ’60s-seeded, ’70s-enacted U.S. countercultural social experiments — which is too bad, because the ’78 trip was such a perfect distillation of those trends.

Tech aspects are smoothly handled; Errol Morris vet Karen Schmeer’s editing is savvy.

The Same River Twice

Production: A Next Life Films production. Produced, directed by Robb Moss.

Crew: Camera (color, 16mm/HD-to-HD vid), Moss; editor, Karen Schmeer. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Competition), Jan. 18, 2003. Running time: 78 MIN.

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