On its lovely, rugged surface, the dramatic documentary “Low & Clear” seems like a roustabout buddy movie with fly fishing at its center. But in the tradition of the greatest of all fly-fishing movies, “A River Runs Through It,” this documentary is beneath its surface about so much more.
Like all good sports stories, it pays masculine homage to the rough ritual of play that so often exposes with compelling urgency those strengths and failings that make us fully human. And like all fine literature it carries the weight of myth rooted in everyday things – like friendship, rivalry and a shared journey.
The movie tells the tale of two lifelong but estranged buddies – J.T. Van Zandt and Alex “Xenie” Hall – as they reunite for a trip to the roiling rivers of British Columbia to catch fish and rekindle their friendship.
Two more unlikely fishing partners would be hard to imagine. Van Zandt (musician, boat builder and eldest son of the late Texas music legend Townes Van Zandt) is the prototypical Zen angler – more attuned to the peaceful pace of nature, the soothing rhythms of the cast, the organic luring of his prey, than to the carnivorous taking of fish. “Xenie” Hall (itinerate firewood salesman) is the very model of the gonzo wild man – lustfully counting his catch, restless and impatient with quietude, always dashing off to pursue bigger and bigger fish.
The two men’s angling styles aptly reflect their lives – one contemplative, patient and philosophical; the other brash, jittery and impulsive. “The biggest mistake made about fishing is that it is about catching fish,” Van Zandt says cryptically. Hall just plunges headlong into the river, never questioning why he does what he does.
Directors Tyler Hughen and Kahlil Hudson deftly capture the dynamic tension between the two men in their rough moments of levity, their warring philosophies of sport, their easy camaraderie and largely unspoken rivalry. As Xenie catches loads of fish, Van Zandt’s laid-back ethic is sorely tested. And as the two josh and bicker, underlying resentments perk to the surface. But by and large, J.T and Xenie are inextricably bound by their shared love of nature, of trout and of fly angling.
Amid all the rowdy buddy bonding, Hughen and Hudson are not afraid to let their cameras linger (on the pearly ripple of cold water over rock, on the wafting green overgrowth of a riverbank) and paint the lovely stillness and majesty of the world where men and fish coexist.
Not surprisingly the breathtaking, painterly nature of their cinematography has won cheers wherever the film has played. Its trailer alone won the 2010 “Movie of the Year” award from The Drake Magazine, and the full 70-minute film went on to premiere at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival, where it won the “Audience Award.” In October, it screened at the 21st Annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.
- Dennis King