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DVD Review: Searching for Michael Peterson

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The oceans of the world have been charismatic and hypnotic to the majority of the peoples of the world since man’s first steps on the Earth. When man took to the seas, it was a natural progression of the love affair. A person’s first time sailing on the sea, whether it’s on a surfboard or on a magnificent yacht, is a love affair consummated. The sea tolerates us most of the time, but she can also be an unforgiving host who does not suffer fools.

Searching for Michael Peterson is a film about one particular Australian surfer, but it brings into play many other Australians from the sport throughout the course of the movie and the extra features on the DVD.

Watching MP, as Michael Peterson was known, on a wave is akin to watching the Flying Wallendas in action; the fastest gun to ever live; Manet painting flowers; and Dame Margot Fonteyn gliding across a stage, all rolled into one. His performance was poetic and heart-stopping at the same time.

Peterson was reclusive even when he was standing next to you. People also said he had this phantom-like ability to suddenly appear. Several surfing contests were on the verge of being forfeited to a contender due to Peterson’s apparent no-show, and suddenly, there he was, a perfect ride on a perfect wave, and not a soul had seen him enter the water.

Mister Smooth, the Mad Monk, MP, Darth Vader, the Syd Barrett of surfing — these were some of the names Peterson earned. Mister Smooth, for his acrobatic moves while seemingly cemented to his board; the Mad Monk, for his vicious verbal attacks and intimidating stares, and for the “long gangly killer orangutan paddler arms and the primitive psych-out vibe that ‘the missing link’ was capable of;” Darth Vader, for his brooding, threatening persona; Syd Barrett, for his meteoric rise and fall due to a combination of mind-altering drugs and his crushing birthright — schizophrenia.

But the saltwater was his therapy, allowing him to show off his artistic, uncanny ability on a surfboard, while simultaneously withdrawing deep within himself, both of these as soothing as a balm to his tortured soul. On the big waves, tons of water crashing around him, he was a combination of a primitive and a skilled technician: “Aloof, awkward, and monosyllabic on land, Michael Peterson was transformed upon immersion into saltwater. His surfing was frenetic and savage, a personal blitzkrieg on the idyllic green walls running down into Rainbow Bay.”

From 1972 to 1977, Peterson won literally every Australian surfing title. Surfer magazine pegged him as #16 in a list of the “50 Greatest Surfers of All Time.” His shrill whistle warning off those in his path, combined with the zeitgeist he embodied, and his reputation, all melded together to form a bigger-than-life persona that he did his best to ignore, ditching awards ceremonies, showing up later, after everyone had tired. He was a living god to thousands of loyal followers and fellow surfers, but he would use every iota of his frighteningly creative mind to avoid the spotlight that he earned.

Peterson was in on the ground floor of the short board generation, causing a sea change in surfing and boards both, all coupled with the supernatural chi which surrounded him. Many call him the founder of high-performance surfing, transforming an almost genteel sport into a vicious, combative war for superiority. Another surfer said, “If Slater is the Michael Jordan of surfing, Peterson was certainly its Van Gogh.”

His reputation, however, was almost limited to Australia. He couldn’t seem to transfer those skills onto the world stage, Hawaii, in spite of being one of the first surfers to master Backdoor, a hollow-barreling, treacherous stretch of water near Sunset Beach on Oahu. MP’s usual routine of burning a doobie in the parking lot, paddling out to a crowd of 20,000, and leaving a younger Mark Richards in his wake, then taking the prize money and melting away, no longer fit, however.

Suddenly, one day he awoke to find himself unwelcome into the new, “clean” surfer cadre that seemed to have taken away the glory and fame of the rough-and-tumble, unpolished rebels who had dominated the sport, even before it was recognized as such by most of the world. Peterson, along with many others, were detritus in the annals of tube-riding.

The deadly combination of inherent chemicals and street chemicals finalized his descent in one brief encounter: a hundred-mile chase by lawmen. He was jailed for nearly three years before finally being admitted to an institution, the damage of incarceration further exacerbating his combined physiological and self-induced destruction. Startled awake while sleeping alongside the road by sirens responding to an emergency, his protests to lawmen of outrunning pursuing aliens fell on deaf ears in the courts. His combined spectacular talent and rat cunning had failed him when he most needed them most.

His self-induced isolation after release from the institution fueled the fires of his reputation, while a daily cocktail of prescription drugs abated the torment of inner voices, making him even more withdrawn for more than 20 years. Simultaneously, his legend took on a life of its own. During one of his later brief public appearances, he clearly showed his quick mind and wit, but most of the time he kept his “windows to the soul,” his eyes, masked behind the ever-present aviator glasses. Get behind those glasses, though, and one sees a slightly different story. His eyes rocket and flit from side to side, scoping out the perceived “threats,” and betray his calm look.

Other high points of this insightful examination of a living legend include the music of the Aussie group the Brown Birds, a funky, bluesy, surf-punk rockabilly mix. The producer, Jolyon Hoff, takes an easily seamy and degenerative script and transforms it into a candid yet sensitive look into Peterson’s life, a Clark Kent/Superman life if ever there was one. The archival footage and the extras on this DVD add tremendous depth to the story. A distinct plus to the public screenings of this film is Australian singer/songwriter/former two-time world champion surfer Beau Young in concert.

Characters, in both the literal and figurative senses, include Wayne “Rabbit” Batholomew, Mark Richards, Albe Falzon, Joe Larkin, Peter Drouyn, Wayne Lynch, Bob McTavish and Phil Jarratt. Rabbit’s footage in the story is the funniest, along with Wayne Bartholomew’s recounting of his first trip to Hawaii with MP in ’72, a masterpiece.

Other extras include the long-lost cult classic Dogs Run Free, not publicly seen for 30 years, and a terrific new soundtrack by Tim Gaze and Peter Howe.

This 55-minute documentary has a track record of sellouts and awards around the world, including film festivals and viewings in Australia, Japan, Spain, the UK, including London, Brighton, Cornwall, and Wales, and selected spots on the US’s East Coast. It’s now showing on the West Coast.

For some instant gratification check the movie trailer, see high-resolution photos, another clip, and Beau Young’s website. The film is available for purchase at the official website.

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