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Life of iconic, schizophrenic surfer Michael Peterson explored in documentary now touring Southland

October 14, 2009 |  8:46 am


Any fan of iconic surf films will know the footage of rising Australian icon Michael Peterson in the movie, “Morning of the Earth.” Shot during the cyclone season of 1970 in Kirra, Queensland, the breakout performance of “MP” has been a point of obsession for almost 40 years; in it, he is supremely confident, handsome, animated, clearly a gifted athlete who, like the warriors in the Homeric epics, has the “shine” on him and is leading the field in a new direction.

It was an auspicious debut that not only foretold MP’s total domination of Australian surfing from 1972 to the 1977 Burleigh Heads contest that was the birth of the modern competitive surf tour – but also gave a glimpse of his strange and soon-to-be legendary intensity. That intensity gave way to bizarre and antisocial behavior, like hiding in the bushes after winning the 1975 Bells Beach contest and letting Ian Cairns accept his prize check for him.
That intensity that would also later find its root and bloom into uncontrolled paranoid schizophrenia, a brooding life as a recluse, drug use, a chaotic car chase to prison, and finally a life of relative obscurity. In his wake, MP left one of the strangest legacies of any modern sports champion.

A moving new film about MP, “Searching for Michael Peterson,” is making its debut tour and is in Southern California this week. Because Peterson rarely gave interviews, and when he did they were strangely brusque, Australian filmmaker Jolyon Hoff rightly focuses the piece on outstanding footage from the contests of the era and interviews with many of MP’s Australian contemporaries.

The film strikes the right balance between telling the outrageous stories – such as the time it took 35 cop cars to stop MP when he was driving erratically, or getting electroshock in psychiatric detention – and displaying the genuine tenderness that these otherwise tough surfers lavish on the man.

"Searching for Michael Peterson" trailer from jolyon hoff on Vimeo.

Surf legends Wayne Lynch, Peter Townend, Nat Young and Mark Richards weigh in with their attempts to understand his physical prowess, with valuable insights from “Morning of the Earth” director Albert Fazon, surfer Frank Pithers, and MP’s brother Tommy Peterson. Surfboard shaper Joe Larkin compares MP’s surfing to his persona and says: “There’s no anger there. It’s just going off into the distance at 100 miles an hour and it was beautiful. It was art.”

Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew, who has really turned out to be one of the more generous and reliable personages of the 1970s Australian surf scene, gives the movie an upbeat turn when he explains that he still sees MP all the time at the house he shares with his mom, which is just up the street from Bartholomew’s own house, and that he doesn’t think he’s doing so bad.

 “Searching for Michael Peterson” is showing Thursday at the Stronghold, an event space at 1620 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, at 8 p.m., with special guest musicians Danny Aaberg and Beau Young. Tickets are available for $15.

-- Dean Kuipers

Photo of Michael Peterson by Peter Crawford