DVD Review Of
Thicker Than Water
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/27/08
I had never heard of Jack Johnson before I came upon his DVD called Thicker Than Water, at a used DVD store, which, if the DVD package was accurate, seemed to be a documentary about sailing around the world. The back cover features robed Buddhists on the bow of a boat, in an exotic sunset. Could this be a Generation X riff on the whole Seven Years In Tibet theme? I did not know, but always one to enjoy offbeat documentaries, I decided to give it a whirl. Was I surprised, or what?
Well, the disk is a documentary, but not of water-centered cultures about the world, nor of existentialism in a Thoreauvian vein admixed with rock music. No, instead it’s a surfer film, although not of the sort brought to you by Hollywood airheads. It follows a group of young twentysomething surfers who spent a year and a half in the early part of this decade just bumming around beaches all about the world, and shooting their adventures with an old 16mm camera. It is part home movie, part guerilla filmmaking, part acid trip, part bad garage band, and all in all oddly interesting, if not riveting. There are, of course, some great shots of young studs riding through tubes of water- although very few bikini babes, and a good deal of lite pop music, spiced with a bluesy vein, by Johnson. His tunes are most akin to the music of The White Stripes, albeit a bit mellower, but nothing much really happens in the forty-five minutes of the main film. We see surfing in different locale, hear random voices come on and off and say things banal and observant, but, I guess, not much more can be expected from Johnson, who was a former pro surfer whose career ended after an accident, and has since become an alternative music icon, of sorts.
Don’t get me wrong, some of Johnson’s music is evocative, and he does seem like a nice enough guy. I just wonder what sort of vanity is behind such an exercise? That said, the camerawork is much better than one might expect from mere amateurs, but what deeper point is there in the whole exercise, apart from a vanity video. There are scenes that a filmmaker with a real vision could have cut together with much more effective music. The documentary- if one can really call it that; it’s more of an extended music video, travels from Tahiti to India to Ireland to Australia to Hawaii and to many unnamed ports of call, seems like the first rough cut of a filmmaker trying to find his way, not a finished product.
There are brief interludes that compel, such as with black New York basketballers, and one old man who sings nonsense songs, and old Irish blarneymen, outside a pub, who teach the young American hotshots a thing or two about drinking and bullshitting. But there is no central theme to the film, other than the waves, and the music. Too bad, for there was potential here, especially with just a little bit of probing into the lives of those who take a backseat to the forces of nature. The comments, within the film, by Johnson and his filmmaking buddies, the Malloy Brothers- Chris and Emit, who produced the film, make no real sense, and smack of just getting together to run the dozens, not truly inform people who paid for the DVD. Granted, this is not lowest common denominator MTV fare, for there is an oddly smooth and meditative quality about the DVD’s images and music, and it is not bad for what it attempted. I just wonder why a bit more effort was not put into the finished product, when such a small investment could have yielded such high returns.
There are some excised portions from the film, but they are so similar in style, tone, and anomy, to that within the film proper, which is so amorphous and haphazard, as to beg the question of why the five ‘deleted scenes’ were ever deleted. The DVD also comes with a film commentary by Johnson and the Brothers Malloy, and while it helps to know where certain shots were taken and why- such as an anecdote about a beach they thought would be great to camp at, yet which was infested with green snakes, and also who is speaking on certain portions of the actual documentary- like a certain surfing ‘legend’ whose voice and name might be known to no more than fifty people on the planet, there is too much of a frat boy mentality to much of the patter, with moments of depth scattered widely between. Then, after a good observation, the boys will fall back on clichés about how they ‘grew up’ during the making of the film, etc.
All in all, this is the sort of DVD to watch if you’re a teenager with a little bit too much weed and not enough pals to toke it with, but it is not a film for a serious cineaste, nor even a serious surfer, for the waves within the film are rather paltry. Not that any of that is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly not too good of a thing, either. The fact that it could have been more suggests that the boys’ youth was to blame. Ah, youth! If you need me to fill in the rest of that observation you will know how I felt watching Thicker Than Water. Okay?
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