Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Say anything: A Scarborough man’s new movie shows a lot, but tells little

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Surfers aren’t an especially verbose or articulate bunch, really. They punctuate their sentences with “y’know” and list a lot of things “it’s all about.” But the problem is not a lack of vocabulary or even a reluctance to communicate. It’s that they have a connection that’s hard to put into words.

The surfers and other oceanophiles in BlueGreen, the new film by Scarborough filmmaker and surfer Ben Keller, struggle repeatedly to describe how they feel about the sea. Keller’s first feature-length film, Ishmael (2004), explored the motivations of wintertime surfers who brave near-freezing water and icy wetsuits to ride tiny waves on the New England coast. This time he’s trying to dive deeper, asking why surfers feel what they feel about their watery playground, and — though almost as an afterthought — trying to convince the film-viewing public to get involved with ocean-conservation efforts.

Keller will show the latest cut of the film (narrated by him, for now, for lack of money to hire a professional speaker) at SPACE Gallery on Sunday at 6:30 pm, to raise money to finish the project.

While the people in BlueGreen do articulate feelings merely suggested by other surf films, they still don’t answer the fundamental questions. Describing your testiness after days away from the ocean (as two of the people interviewed in the documentary do) is not an investigation into the nature of your connection with the sea.

The closest anyone comes to an eloquent explanation is Rabbi Nacham Shifren (a/k/a “the Surfing Rabbi” — really), who talks in vaguely clerical terms about how surfers’ attitudes toward life differ from other people’s because they regularly deal with overwhelming power, and manage to connect with — and ride — positive energy in the world around them. Shifren talks of “a drive to make the spiritual physical” that moves surfers off the beach and into the waves.

Less satisfying are clinical observations from scientists (such as Don Perkins of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute here in Portland) about how the health of the ocean is crucial to the health of the planet, and the interview of a woman who lives on a sailboat, in which she discusses her ocean-centered, water-borne life — while she’s sitting under a tree.

The bulk of the film’s joy, where it is to be found, is in the surfing scenes. This is not an adrenaline-filled giant-wave surf movie in the vein of The Endless Summer or even North Shore. Surfing in BlueGreen is ponderous, soulful, full of swells that aren’t even chest-high, and long, slow runs with the occasional turn. Only one guy in the entire film hangs 10. Even the surfboard cameras (including one underneath the board) are used in slow, relatively calm waves, giving a meditative feel. (Jarringly, one more conventional shot-from-the-shore scene features a very clear plumber’s crack on a surfing California lifeguard.)

Underwater footage appears pretty frequently, and again is brooding and slow — not colorful and bright like David Doubilet’s work for National Geographic and its video partners. All of it has a mellow, soulful soundtrack — much of which is supplied by Maine bands such as Seekonk and the appropriately named Harpswell Sound, Cerberus Shoal, and the Baltic Sea.

Watching is relaxing, calming, even soporific. When, 55 minutes into the 90-minute film, several speakers (including Jim Moriarty, executive director of ocean-conservation group the Surfrider Foundation) begin exhorting viewers to get involved in protecting the sea from (unnamed) threats, it’s like face-planting into the surf and getting cold seawater right up your nose.

No wonder Moriarty — in a voiceover for footage of a litter-strewn southern California beach after a holiday weekend — says “it’s hard to get into people’s heads that the problem is as bad as it is.” His own participation in the film comes across as more whiney and lamenting than inspirational.

It’s clear that Keller and those with whom he speaks see the ocean as a friend. But without finding the words to inspire others, they’ll continue to have it to themselves. And maybe that’s what they really want.

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