I was fortunate enough to attend the Brisbane International Film Festival representing Fantastic Fest. While I was there I saw a hugely entertaining and thought-provoking program of surf films. These are my jet-lagged notes on them.
Each ride is thrilling, unique and necessarily brief. Some surfers seem to exist in a state of grace for the duration of their ride. A great ride of three or four minutes can seem like an eternity in grace. It’s not surprising that the surfers who have found these moments of transcendence keep paddling back for more.
This year at BIFF I caught a few titles from the amazing “Let’s Go Surfing” program curated by Kate Howat. While I hope to catch up with all of the titles offered, the ones I saw were:
HIGH ON A COOL WAVE (1967): A Bruce Brown style ‘surfari’ film featuring several excellent but orthodox surfers traveling around Australia and to Hawaii, catching waves and competing in tournaments. This film seems to straddle a boundary line between the relatively square ‘weenie roast and longboard’ style surf movies of the mid-60’s to the brain melters that followed the psychedelic revolution. The theme song is from Jefferson Airplane’s “After Bathing At Baxter’s” and several other heady tracks from the likes of Paul Butterfield and Ravi Shankar are intercut with more traditional jazz and bossa nova tunes. The narration, reminiscent of a newsreel, has some unexpected cosmic and poetic shadings to go with its dachsund jokes and generous appraisals of young women on the beach.
DOGS RUN FREE (1972) By 1972, surfing and surfing films had been drinking the electric Kool Aid for several years and it shows. In DOGS RUN FREE, (shot on Super 8!) there is zero technical polish at all, a cameraman muddles around in the water filming the prodigiously gifted Michael Peterson blurrily riding some killer tubes and then turns his camera on anti-Vietnam War protests. As raw documentation it is interesting. It lacks style but not charm.
MORNING OF THE EARTH (1972) This is the big one. Psychedelic consciousness drips off of every frame of this movie. Even a cockfight observed in Bali is given the full stroboscopic treatment. There are scenes of endlessly curling waves in bold solarized color, Aquarian travelogue footage of Hawaii and Bali, some great sunset lens flares, and sequences showing the planing and shaving of a short board but mostly this movie is ride after brilliant ride by eminent surfers including the seemingly divinely inspired Michael Peterson, set to a ripping soundtrack of progressive rock and freak-folk music which plays continuously throughout. These surfers climb Everests of blue glass and are borne down by the very hand of God. It’s amazing. If you are bored by this, and many will be, you’re probably not high enough. Really. Watching this without psychedelics or strong weed is a little like watching a 3D movie without glasses. I didn’t have anything beforehand but my body must have been able to pull from some deep-tissue reserves because I totally felt it. MORNING OF THE EARTH is so not for everyone but if you are able to appreciate the music and images of the era on their own terms it may really, really be for you.
SEARCHING FOR MICHAEL PETERSON (2009) Virtually every Australian surfing tournament during the early and middle ‘70s was won by the enigmatic Michael Peterson. He was a surfer of such profound talent - genius, really - that the only real controversy in surfing circles was about who will finish second. His desperate shyness led him to become a kind of mystery man. Competitors recall Peterson seeming to magically appear in the water, not even bothering to enter tournaments but winning anyway and then disappearing without collecting his prize money. On the water his fluid cutbacks and climbs are bold, audacious yet entirely in balance. You can’t help but laugh when you see how smooth and cool he is. Like the work of all geniuses, we see it and say “Of course!” when only a second before we could never have conceived it. Tragically (you knew that was coming, right?) after leaving surfing, Peterson succumbed to schizophrenia and after leading cops on a harrowing cross-country chase he was imprisoned in a mental hospital where he received shock treatment. At the end of the film we see crude camcorder footage of Peterson with his mother who still takes care of him. He is heavy and lost. It’s over for him but he still haunts the beaches, gazing off into the distance.
A non-film highlight, not only of the retrospective, but of my trip to Oz and my life in general, was the Surfin’ Saturday program of music and discussion. The songs were provided by the great Peter Howe and Tim Gaze, whose soundtrack music for MORNING OF THE EARTH has more or less reshaped my ears. They are still in excellent form and played a 40 minute set of music that gave me an intensive appreciation of the spiritual and musical values of Soul Surfers. The discussion period afterward with HIGH ON A COOL WAVE star and surfboard innovator Bob McTavish, DOGS RUN FREE filmmaker Gil Scrine and PALM BEACH writer/director Albie Thoms was tantalizingly brief, but it probably would have been too brief at 2 hours, so I was grateful for what I got.
As a sidebar to LET’S GO SURFING there was a SILENTS OF THE SURF program featuring a restored Annette Kellerman film and a retrospective screening of several Albie Thoms shorts and his feature PALM BEACH, which touches somewhat on surfing culture. All of these were truly fascinating but not strictly germane to these notes.