Between the foibles and hopes of middle-age and the vast perfection of nature, the documentary Low and Clear finds its compelling rhythms and its poetry.
By Tim Jackson.
The documentary Low and Clear by Tyler Hughen and Kahlilu Hudson eliminates character background and the usual conflicts of “storytelling” to present a clear, stunningly shot, and lyrical poem about two men and their relationship to the fine art of fly fishing amidst the rivers of British Columbia. I have a city dweller’s impoverished knowledge of the art of catch and release and limited experience being in quiet, pristine wildernesses, but this rare film reels us into its subtle rhythms, touching us with its openness and integrity.
J. T. Van Zandt and Alex “Xenie” Hall are deeply passionate about fishing, but as the film develops, it becomes evident that each man’s temperament is competitive. Their worldviews may diverge, yet they are united by the commanding presence of the natural world. Van Zandt, son of musician and actor Townes Van Zandt, is a fairly recent convert to the sport. His approach is methodical and his philosophy practical. All we know of Xenie Hall is that he is the son of former filmmaker who “did a film on old gunslingers of the west” in the early seventies and instilled in him a passionate love of the sport. He lives in the wild, cutting and selling firewood for a living.
Xenie’s obsession with fly-fishing is boundless. He keeps meticulous notes of every daily fishing trip and snapshots of each of the “50 or 60 thousand fish” he’s ever caught. He states, “For me there’s a lot of information in there. Just to freeze time . . . time is precious, and just to divide it up.” There’s an equal passion in Van Zandt, who philosophizes about the still beauty of casting on the river. “There are so many similarities to life itself just in how you perceive the fish and how you perceive happiness in your own life,” he declares, to which Xenie responds, “But you don’t want to let it rule your soul.” Van Zandt says, “You gotta keep your mind open to the everything beautiful about the experience and not just catching the fish, the bald eagle, the rocks on the shore.” Xenie rubs his eyes wearily, saying, “Oh man I tell you, that’s the whole point.”
It’s an odd moment of competition. Xenie, who lives the authentic wilderness life, questions the musings of his old friend whom he sees (in some ways) as stuck in the system with a traditional job and family. Beyond that there is the bigger competition of who will catch more fish. This match-up generates an ironic bonding of rivalry and friendship, a bond that endures through decades. As Van Zandt says, “If he out-fishes me, there’s something wrong with me. If I out-fish him, there’s something wrong with him.”
The filmmakers, together with their producer Alex Jablonski, are all experienced nature documentarians. Long shots reveal the quiet and the richness of the wilderness. Cameras track low along rivers and streams. Shots linger, allowing us to see the patience and solitude of preparing, casting, luring, and snaring a catch. When a gleaming steelhead is caught, the men carefully release it back into the river, the huge, beautiful creature sliding over their hands and slipping into cold water. These are exquisite moments. The catch is the art, the release becomes a triumphant Zen moment, like a Tibetan sand painting, which once accomplished, is swept away. The difference is that monks celebrate the impermanence of existence; the fishermen are continually renewed by their own triumph, harmony, and attachment to nature.
The directors artfully build conflicts of personality into the structure of the film as the story progresses. The viewer takes on the role of the men’s confessor, sympathetically listening as they talk to the camera about what bothers each about the other. It’s a clever device, and there is a genuine respect and friendship at work in their passion for fishing and the solitude of nature. Whatever differences of lifestyle, temperament, or ambition that exist between J. T. Van Zandt and Xenie Hall, the constancy of nature prevails at the film’s center. Between the foibles and hopes of middle-age and the vast perfection of nature, the film finds its rhythm and its poetry.