World's most charming and narcissistic surfer performs decades-long social experiment on his own family with mostly bad results.
Seven years ago, Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, a 93-year-old surfer who had developed the most common-sense guide to eating (“Pinch an inch of fat anywhere on your body and you’re overweight”) and living (“Don’t screw another man’s wife!”), died after surgery gone bad.
Doc, a Russian Jew, went to Stanford, became a doctor, threw it all in to chase surf, introduced surfing to Israel (and later to the Palestinians of Gaza) and surfed up and down the American coastlines with nine kids in a 24-foot van, following his philosophy that wisdom comes not from formal education but experience.
A documentary of his life was made in 2007.
It was called Surfwise and, even if he comes across as a wild tyrant, the stories of him and his wife fucking in the van while the kids blocked their ears and living on gruel and beans and surfing their lives away, is an example of life as an experiment, as a Great Dream.
As fate would play it, me and Matt Warshaw, the great surf historian and former SURFER editor, were kicking around interview favs yesterday and the documentary came up.
BeachGrit: Ain’t it a funny world, one minute we’re talking about best interviews in the game then it turns to Dorian Paskowitz eating pussy and the best surf documentary ever made, Surfwise. Gimme a synopsis?
Warshaw: World’s most charming and narcissistic surfer performs decades-long social experiment on his own family with mixed results.
Mostly bad results.
Not much surfing in the movie.
Surfing is off to the side—as it should be, or has to be I think, for this kind of movie to work. Surfing just happens to be the thing that gets hold of Dorian and shapes all the choices he makes. But the movie is about those choices, not surfing itself.
Why do you give Surfwise so much weight, above, even, something like Sea Of Darkness?
Because I think any all-in surfer over the age of 25 starts to wonder about what it means to dedicate your life to chasing waves. We do some shit. Dorian pulled his nine kids out of school, loaded everyone in an RV, and basically headed up a small surf-based commune. That’s radical, but in some ways it’s just a scaled-up version of what we all do. So you watch the movie wondering if Doc nailed it or fucked things up completely, and the question U-turns back on your own life as a surfer. For me it does, anyway.
Doc called you once a year, that right? Jew to Jew?
He’d call and it was just an easy warm breeze. I’d just fall right into it. Doc was flattering, gossipy, foul-mouthed, great sense of humor, and a half-hour later I’d hang up smiling and feeling very special—even though I knew he’d moved on and was doing the same routine to the next person on the list. He was very political. I do think he enjoyed talking to me, but he also knew I was writing surf history, and I’m sure he was fluffing his legacy—I’ll be doing the same, soon enough.
Doctor, surfer, womb buster, writer of a grand treatise on what being healthy means, he was a real cat, ol Doz. I bought his book, he sent it to Australia with a handwritten note about how thrilled he was to be sending a book all the way to Bondi. But he wasn’t unconditionally adored by his family, I think safe to say. Like you say, he did a grand experiment via his nine kids in nature vs nurture. How much of us is genetics, how much is what we kick around doing and who’s in our orbit. Some of the Paskowitz kids thrived, didn’t seem to mind the parents sexing next to ‘em most nights, living rough; others wanted to bust out of their daddy’s tough but idealistic bubble, driven mad by it all.
Am amazing part of the movie, that never gets commented on, is that it was co-produced by one of the kids—Jonathan, I think. Family-made movies always have a slant. Andy’s doc did, for sure. But Surfwise was totally open to going wherever it was going to go. I haven’t seen it for a few years, but I very clearly remember sitting in the theater keeping a sort of graph in my head, with “hating dad” on one side and “loving dad” on the other, and placing the nine kids on there. One of the sons, I can’t recall which, was playing piano onscreen at one point, just raging against Dorian, and that floored me. Another one of the kids, one of the younger ones, seemed almost brainwashed by his dad. Then Doc himself, who I think was in his mid-80s, trying to sort it all out while the camera rolls—and kind of failing, as I recall. But like I say, hats off to everyone in the family for putting it all out there at all.
Highlight of film?
It wasn’t any one moment or scene, but something happens in the movie, maybe 15 or 20 minutes in, where you fully realize how complicated and fucked-up the story actually is. Early on you’re watching Doc nude on a stationary bike, a charming old surf-geezer talking fitness and health, and you fall for him, you’re in his camp. And you get to hold onto that notion for while. Then there’s almost a kind of vertigo as the other side of him comes into view. And the film sticks to its guns. You think the big family reunion at the end is going to bring the big redemption for Doc, but it doesn’t. I mean, it’s not an easy film to watch!
The bit where Daddy Doz encouraged one of the other, Moses or Israel, to beat the other to death.
Yeah, that was awful.
From an American point of view, and you were there when it was all happening, the Paskowitz fam were big surf names in the US, yeah?
Not really. Every month in the surf mags there was a little black-and-white ad for the Paskowitz Surf Camp, and I guess they brought in enough people to make a small business out of it. Dorian had a health column in SURFER, but it told us not to eat french fries, and nobody wanted to hear that. The whole deal with the Paskowitz family seemed a little cultish, but surfing itself was a little cultish. Later on, Izzy and Jonathan Paskowitz were maybe the two best young longboarders in the world, but that felt different from the whole Paskowitz family deal.
What do you think Doz got right, and what did he get wrong? Or does it matter? It made great cinema.
As a surfer, especially way back then, you’re always figuring out what kind of deal you’re going to cut with the non-surfing world. How much to go with it—school, job, home, convention—and how much to do it your own way. Doc went full surf. Good for him. The cardinal mistake is that where Dorian was a well-connected Standford-educated practicing doctor at the time of his big decision, his kids were half-feral home-schoolers. They had no say, no choice, the way Doc himself did. Each of the kids seemed remarkable, each in their own way, in the film, and while I only ever knew two or three of them, I sincerely hope they are all doing well and thriving.
Did you talk to him after the movie came out?
Just once. He said he hadn’t watched it, and wouldn’t watch it, which I think was bullshit. But it would have been incredibly difficult for him to say otherwise, probably. That’s a pretty heavy reckoning to deal with at the end of your life. I think about Dorian and Surfwise, a lot, to this day. Sea of Darkness I watched and liked and forgot.