“The only way you could get anywhere was with decibels,” Paul Van Doren recollects in “Never Catch Pigeons: And Eleven More Hard Lessons from Mr. Paul Van Doren,” referring not to the $4 billion dollar business he created with the shoe company Vans, but the family grew up in where it isn’t long before his sister Bernice all but proves his point by interjecting, “We were all little volcanos.” Approaching 90, Paul may be a little quieter these days than he once was, but still knows how to attract and keep one’s attention, relating a history of his entrepreneurial success that honors a company associated with fun.
Van Doren’s gift of gab may make some of “Never Catch Pigeons” framing a little unnecessary, organized, as alluded to by its subtitle, into the hard-won education that Van Doren received over the years after picking up the trade from dropping out of school to work alongside his mother at a shoe company, rising through the ranks by spotting its inefficiencies and ultimately starting his own enterprise once he outgrew the place. But it’s true to Vans, which grew in popularity by tailoring their wares to the needs of skaters who enjoyed a little extra decoration, and even though the film is strongest when Van Doren is directly addressing the audience, director Doug Pray gracefully maneuvers around a story that’s anything but straightforward. Eventually getting a grip on the skater community with the waffle soles that could stick to boards, Van Doren couldn’t have possibly known how the skills he picked up from his father making sparklers for sale, a head for math and a penchant for betting would make him uniquely suited to build a shoe brand that continues to appeal to teenagers the world over, yet he trusted his instincts to serve him well, giving him something in common with the daredevil clientele he served.
“Never Catch Pigeons” may lead with its bold-faced names first, trotting out the likes of Vans-sponsored athletes such as skating legends Tony Alva and Christian Hosoi, snowboarder Hana Beaman and surfer Dylan Graves to speak to what Van Doren enabled, as Vans transcended footwear with the encouragement of Van Doren’s son Steve to create an entire culture around the shoe with events such as the Warped Tour and endorsements that could sustain sporting careers. However, as it wears on, the film quickly feels less like another product of Vans and a rollocking warts and all oral history as it gives more and more time over to Van Doren and his family, who were taught that they were stronger working together but nearly imploded due to Paul’s single-minded focus on work.
One suspects the Van Dorens would be candid under any circumstances, but when “Never Catch Pigeons” was filmed in what would be Paul’s final days – he passed away in May of 2021 – it takes on extra poignance when it’s the last opportunity for a definitive history and in fact, Pray is able to meet that challenge and then some. With the film making its way into the world as the opening night film at the Newport Beach Film Festival, “Never Catch Pigeons” holds a special appeal for those in Southern California, joining last year’s “The Donut King” as an endearing celebration of local ingenuity — like that film’s Ted Ngoy, who gave the donut its signature pink box because as a largely unused color, it cost less, Van Doren invented the modern shoe box with its conjoined lid because the lone box manufacturer in the area sided with his previous employer — but surely, it’ll travel as Vans have around the world, demonstrating their durability isn’t only in the vulcanized rubber recipe that Van Doren concocted, but everything else he poured into them.
“Never Catch Pigeons: And Eleven More Hard Lessons from Mr. Paul Van Doren” does not yet have U.S. distribution.