Sometimes, a movie about a thing is really about another thing.
Let me explain.
For example, “The Social Network” is about Facebook the way that “Moneyball” is about baseball, in the sense that you don’t have to care remotely about either Facebook or baseball to find each movie fascinating. They’re about those subjects, but they’re really about how their protagonists view the world differently than the rest of us.
“Low & Clear,” an intriguing new documentary showing at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Sunday at Space Gallery in Portland, is like that. On the surface, it’s about fishing (a subject I care nothing about), but swimming underneath, it’s about friendship, passion and whether it’s the journey or the goal that’s really important. (Subjects I care a great deal about indeed.)
“Low & Clear,” the audience award winner at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, examines the friendship of two avid fishermen, J.T. Van Zandt and Alex “Xenie” Hall and why their trip to fish the remote, frigid rivers of British Columbia might be their last.
Filmed with a gorgeous but very specific eye by co-directors Khalil Hudson and Tyler Hughen, the movie first introduces the quiet, philosophical J.T. intoning that “the biggest mistake made about fishing is that it’s about catching fish. Fishing is a micro-examination of life itself” and “something that heals me and brings me back to center and lets me start again fresh.”
J.T.’s introduction is juxtaposed immediately and humorously with that of Xenie, announcing his presence with a string of impressive profanity hurled literally at the wind, which refuses to stop messing with his fly-casting. The film’s style changes to suit this garrulous character’s incessant fishing patter, the editing turning choppy and culminating in a truly dizzying montage of some of the photographs he takes of himself posing, beaming, with every fish he’s ever caught — a number he estimates at 60,000 or so.
As the men tell their shared story over some truly mesmerizing outdoor footage, we learn that Xenie, the more experienced fisherman (who ekes out a living cutting firewood to fund his fishing), mentored J.T. until they began to grow apart as J.T. pursued a more balanced life. This trip to Canada will be their first in a long time, and as it goes on, the distance that’s grown between them — and the tensions that causes — become evident.
Xenie’s needling, competitive advice (and consistent, whooping success) gradually wears on J.T.’s zen-like approach; at one point, an exasperated J.T. confesses that all his talk of the aesthetic beauty of the experience “might just be a compensation for the fact that I can’t catch anything.”
Like I said, fishing’s not my bag, but “Low & Clear” undeniably drew me in as the longtime friends’ frayed relationship and their shared but conflicting philosophies toward the thing they love played out. A gorgeously photographed meditation on how, even with a profound connection, as J.T. says at one point, “life takes you in different directions.”
Tickets to “Low & Clear” cost $7 ($5 for Space members and students with ID). Co-director Hudson will be on hand for a Q&A after both screenings.
Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.