Marginal sports, iconoclastic athletes and audacious style define these unconventional documentaries.
Perfect as a companion — or counterpoint — to “The Endless Summer,” this documentary from Doug Pray unearths the peculiar true story of a family that spent 20 years living as nomads of surf and sand but suffered consequences from breaking with society. In the ’60s and ’70s, Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz and his nine children packed into an RV and traveled along the country’s beaches, where they became renowned for their ascetic lifestyle and their surfing prowess. With rapid-fire energy and scrupulous reportage, Pray reveals the principles and flaws of Paskowitz’s experiment and its impact on his children’s future.
Documentaries about death-defying mountain climbs are practically a subgenre unto themselves, but what sets “Meru” apart is the you-are-there quality of the footage, which was shot by one of the climbers, Jimmy Chin, as he and his longtime partner ascended the “shark fin” route to the peak of Meru, in India. Even among experienced alpinists, the “shark fin” is considered a ludicrous summit because of the brittle rock on the incline, which can chip off with one misplaced swing of a pickax. Nevertheless, Chin kept a digital camera tucked into his gear and kept on shooting on the way up, even when his odds of survival grew perilous.
On Any Sunday
Five years after popularizing surfing with “The Endless Summer,” director Bruce Brown did the same for motocross with “On Any Sunday” (1971) which continues Brown’s yen for voice-over narration, beautiful slow-motion action shots and the thrill-seekers who risk their necks in pursuit of the transcendent. Although Steve McQueen, himself a motorcycle enthusiast, turns up to show off his own considerable skills (he also helped finance the film), Brown focuses on Mert Lawwill and Malcolm Smith, two champion cyclists who chase big air and small paydays on the professional circuit. But Brown’s visual panache is the film’s biggest draw: His cameras are attached to cycles and helicopters, under jumps and around hairpin turns. He makes poetry out of derring-do.