Sean Doherty: 'Morning of the Earth' Broke Free From the Concept of Time, Albe Falzon in 1970

22 Aug 2020 10 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY | BOOK EXCERPT

The following is an excerpt from Sean Doherty's new book – Golden Days: The Best Years of Australian Surfing – which tells the story of Australian surfing through the lives of the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame members, one year at a time from 1915 to today. Last week met Kong in 1982, before that we jumped into the story of 1990 World Champ, Pam Burridge, as a 13-year-old Manly grommet in 1979, this week we time-travel to Albe Falzon in 1970.

'Morning of the Earth' Broke Free From the Concept of Time

Albe Falzon’s 1970 was consumed by two rolling creative projects, both of which were set to profoundly shift surfing culture in Australia and beyond. In October of that year, the first issue of Tracks magazine hit the newsstands, featuring – with just the slightest hint of irony – the Newcastle steelworks on the cover. Tracks was an irreverent, counterculture surfing tabloid modelled off the Oz… the Oz having just been subject to the longest obscenity trial in British legal history. Founded by Albe, John Witzig and David Elfick, Tracks was part hippy rag, part radical surf manifesto which tapped perfectly into the pulse of the times.

Albe’s other project was Morning of the Earth. Once each issue of the magazine left the Tracks office – an old house on Sydney’s Whale Beach – Albe would hit the road north to keep shooting for his film. The lines between the projects occasionally blurred but while Tracks ran on monthly deadlines, Morning of the Earth broke free altogether from the concept of time. The movie was as a spiritual trip as much as a surf trip. It showed the world Bali for the first time, but most of the escaping was done on the NSW north coast… and in the minds of the surfers who’d watch it.

‘Well, it’s all still a bit hazy,’ offered Albe later, ‘but none of the shooting was ever planned. There were no storyboards or anything, but there’d be times when I’d go up the coast with David [“Baddy” Treloar] and Steve Cooney. They were just grommets and we’d be this triangle of energy. I’d be driving and over would come the chillum and I’d have a toke. It was a fantastic time. I mean, I was in the flow of whatever was happening and those moments were magic cause we wouldn’t stop laughing all the way up the coast. We didn’t have a plan, so we’d drive out to whatever headland we were at and pull up, make a fire, camp out, smoke a chillum and wake up in the morning and go surfing.’

It was David Elfick, Albe’s co-owner at Tracks who tipped him onto Bali, the island at that point unknown to surfers. ‘We’d heard whispers,’ recalls Albe. ‘I think David had heard of it from Russell Hughes who was a quiet adventurer, a mystery man. Once we got to Bali we camped at Kuta and the swell was flat, but I could see this headland and nobody knew much about it, so I grabbed a motorbike one day on my own and rode out there. I walked along the cliff at Uluwatu from the temple to the cave, along these bush tracks. When I got to the cave here was this perfect little two-foot wave. I didn’t have a board with me and I thought, fuck, I wonder what it would it be like if it got some swell? As soon as Kuta jumped in size to four foot we thought okay, this new place might be four foot too. Of course we got out there and it was eight-to-10.’

‘Getting from Kuta to Ulus was a trek,’ remembers Albe. ‘You had to get a bemo out there and then walk in, which was a mission. There were no shops, no tarred roads, women walking around bare breasted, lots of chickens and pigs on the road. Heading out there was an adventure for us. I remember a shot of Steve [Cooney] and Rusty [Miller] walking through the rice fields on the way out there and Steve was so small next to Rusty and he had this tiny board with him. He was a grommet. He was tiny with no leggie but out he went, paddled out at eight-foot Uluwatu, no worries.’


Morning of the Earth (1972) - TRAILER from Origins Archival on Vimeo.

The Bali sequence would shift the thinking of Australian surfers in the years ahead. ‘The focus of surfers everywhere at that time though was to head to Hawaii,’ says Albe. ‘No one looked to Asia for waves – no one – and I think the film changed that. Those guys who were really tuned in just went, wow, that island’s right there. And there’s another! And another! When you went to Hawaii it was already heavily Westernised and not too different from home, but you went to Indonesia and there were different languages, different religions and cultures weaved all through there. You were surfing perfect waves in the midst of this rich culture and that intoxicated surfers.’

While Albe had clear ideals for the movie, much of the shooting came together organically and many of its defining sequences happened by sheer good luck. ‘Right place, right time,’ offers Albe. ‘Floated in and floated out again.’ The Michael Peterson sequence would, in time, become iconic, but Peterson had simply wandered in front of Albe’s camera one day at Kirra in winter 1970. “I can’t ever remember having a chat with Michael and orchestrating it. It’s funny how Michael seemed to be the only guy in the water. I don’t remember it being crowded or other people hassling for waves, but when Michael was in the water really there was no one else in the water. He was so dynamic. I had no footage of PT or Rabbit from those sessions, only Michael. My camera just went to him every time. I had no choice.’

While being fortunate to capture Peterson in his natural element, Albe would harbour regrets over missing another surfer who by 1970 was proving harder to find. ‘Midget was my idol as a surfer. Midget was radical. I remember pre-Morning of the Earth, he came up to the Central Coast one day sporting a Mohawk haircut and I looked at him and thought, wow, too good. He was with the Maroubra guys and his surfing that day was magic.. By the time I started filming Morning of the Earth though he seemed to be in hiding. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but he didn’t want to be there. I filmed a lot around that area on the Northern Beaches but he was never in front of my camera. That was about the point where there was a clear separation in the tribes. There was a strong leaning towards Nat’s aggressive, dynamic surfing, and Midget got left out of the picture, and the further he got left out the more reclusive he became.’

Albe had a saying about sprawling, creative projects, that you never entirely finish them, you simply walk away from them at some point. Into a second year of shooting on Morning of the Earth, Albe was close to walking away but still had one great sequence to shoot. ‘That session of Nat at Broken Head I just got by the skin of my teeth,’ recalls Albe. Nat Young had been invited on the Bali trip but had already committed instead to travelling to South Africa with Paul Witzig to film Sea of Joy. He’d been living at Whale Beach at that point, but by the time Albe finally shot the sequence he was living up at Broken Head. ‘He was one of the first people to get land up there and I remember staying at his place soon afterward,’ recalls Albe. ‘What Nat was doing, living on his property up there, building his house and living a simple surfing life, that tapped into the higher purpose of the movie. I remember it was on the back end of a swell, there was no one out at Broken and Nat paddled out for that one session and we jagged those incredible rides for the film. The movie was already done, but it was too good and had to go in the film.’

Albe today. Photo: kjane

Albe today. Photo: kjane

That just left the editing, and while the filming had taken almost two years, the edit flowed. Albe crafted the movie in the garage of the Tracks house with a mantra repeating in his head. ‘Albie Thoms came up to Whale Beach to help me,’ recalls Albe. ‘I had no idea about editing at all, but I was really interested in putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Albie sat me down and showed me how to work the Moviola. I was living upstairs and I had this little editing room under the garage to cut the film, which was fantastic because I could see the surf from the window as I cut the film. We started editing and by the time he came up the following weekend I’d cut a lot of the film. Albie was part of the underground film movement in Sydney and they were connected to the San Francisco movement, and one of the guys there was a guy named Jonas Mekas. I tuned into the underground film movement because I loved what they were doing creatively and stylistically. I started absorbing some of that energy, but the most important thing I got was a quote from Jonas – "We are the measure of all things. And the beauty of our creation, of our art is proportional to the beauty of ourselves, of our souls." The surfing and the music in Morning of the Earth became merely tools after that, because that quote became the central idea. That was the most important part of the film because for me that said it all.’

The first public screening of Morning of the Earth took place at the Manly Silver Screen on February 25, 1972. ‘I remember I walked in and looked around it was like I was looking at a family,’ remembers Albe of the night. ‘My biological family was there, my surfing family was there, but what was more important was my spiritual family was there. I looked at everybody and I knew everyone and I looked at them all and they were all radiating. I looked at them and I looked through their physical form. The lights went down and I looked over and there was a glow, and I was like, whoa, what is that? And now I reflect back on it I remember that moment so clearly. It was just incredible. We started the film and there was silence in the theatre. It was deadly silence and I didn’t know how to interpret that because I had no expectations about how the film was going to be received. I didn’t make the film for the accolades; I just wanted to make this beautiful film about surfing.

‘Anyhow, during the film I walked out. I walked out of the theatre onto the street in Manly and there was no one around, it was dead quiet, no traffic, and there’s Wayne Thomas pacing, smoking a cigarette.’ G. Wayne Thomas was a Kiwi musician who’d produced and contributed songs to the film’s soundtrack. ‘I went, “Fuck, what are you doing out there?” He was the opposite to everyone in the theatre, he was totally anxious about how it was going to be received. He went, “Let’s go for a drive” so we drove up to North Head. We got out of the car and leaned against the railing and it was this beautiful starry night and we just took a moment to enjoy what we’d just done. It was really poignant. We were young and we were ambitious and we both wanted to create something beautiful. We had no idea where the film was going to go, but we’d created this movie and it was a first for him and a first for me. There was an after party but we didn’t go back. We said goodnight and I drove home to Whale Beach and that was it.’

‘I remember waking up the next morning and there was a clarity and an emptiness and it was amazing. There was nothing there. You know sometimes when you surf you paddle out with a head full of thoughts but each wave washes one of them away till there’s nothing left but the waves? You’re in a perfect void. I lay there with my head on the pillow and that’s exactly how I felt.’

*                      *                      *                      *

Almost 50 years after it was released Morning of the Earth is today revered as one of the purest statements of the surfing spirit. It had a profound effect on surfers around the world, none more so than Albe himself. He’s been up the coast pretty much ever since, living on a parcel of hinterland behind a stretch of still-empty coastline and living the ideals of his movie. Albe hadn’t watched the movie in years until recently when he got the news that Baddy Treloar, one of talismanic stars of the movie, had just passed. Baddy’s sequence in the movie had been shot at Angourie Point, where he’d moved soon after and made a life for himself, fishing and surfing. Baddy, poetically, had died shortly after surfing the point, just as he’d done in the movie. He caught one last wave, came in and sat under a pandanus tree, and peacefully called time.

Baddy’s passing prompted Albe to pull out the original master and watch the movie for the first time in years. ‘I sat here by myself and I just watched this film and it took me into this space. Baddy had died a week earlier and it transported me back. The music was warbly and the original scratches and dust were there and it took me straight back to that time when we were travelling up the coast together shooting it. Baddy and I both lived that life. We both moved up here soon after the film. We lived that life and shared that life over a lot of years. He’d drive down from Angourie every so often and say g’day and we’d surf and talk about life. I thought about him a lot as I watched it.’

‘My treehouse is only 40 minutes drive from Crescent Head, down the back road along the Belmore River. The road comes out near Crescent and it’s always been one of my favourite drives on the east coast of Australia. I actually shot a few scenes from Morning of the Earth there when we were cruising up the coast with Stephen and Baddy.

Even today you’ll only pass three or four cars. As you drive at sunrise the light is incredible, the river is alive and there’s birds everywhere and animals and there’s honesty boxes and classic old farms that haven’t been renovated. It’s like time has stood still there. That was the attraction for me and that was the attraction for Baddy.’

‘I had a morning recently where I went down and surfed Crescent on a full moon. It was an hour before sunrise, and the moon was still 30 degrees off setting. There was half a dozen people out already – “The Mushrooms” crew who are there every morning – just five or six of us. It was magic. The surf was phenomenal. It was head high, maybe bigger on the sets, and you’d surf these waves straight into the moonlight. You surfed into the moon and along the path of light across the ocean. It was like being on acid. Then as the moon set and the sun rose and broke through the clouds everything turned golden. Everyone in the water, I looked at them and they were all gold, everything was gold… the water, the waves, the surfers. It was all I could do to stay grounded on my board. It was such a trip.’

‘I just keep saying to people who go, “You should have been here five years ago,” I go, “Sorry, but for me it’s just as good if not better. Everything gets better if that’s how you see life. It’s a state of mind. I mean the journey isn’t the exterior journey it’s the one inside that counts. I think surfing makes you aware of that. Once you get down the path a bit you become more aware of it and your life expands accordingly. It’s feels sometimes like I’m just going to leave my body totally. I’m sure one day I will.’

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