Thursday, 12 August 2010
(Sandy Harbutt, 1974)
“All law is based on violence, man, and any cat who breaks the law gets clobbered. Only difference is, our law only applies to us. Your law sends young blokes to somebody else’s country, to fight people they know nothing about. As long as you keep on shootin’ em, they hang medals on you. When you won’t shoot ‘em any more, they shut you in jail. And now somebody’s knocking off our mates, and you tell us we’re not supposed to do anything about it? That’s bullshit man.”
- The Undertaker
“Stone is a trip”, the ads promised, and for once they weren’t kidding.
I watched ‘Stone’ for the first time last month, at the end of a pretty exhausting day spent lugging a heavy backpack & guitar-case around the outskirts of Cambridge in relentless mid-summer sunshine and making my way home via rush hour public transport.
After dinner and a much-needed shower, I still had a couple of hours of the evening left for a movie, and figured something pretty fun and easy-going with just a bit of a kick to it to keep me interested was the way to go. What’s that you say? Cult Australian biker flick from the early ‘70s? Sounds like just the ticket! So I poured myself a tumbler of whisky for slow sipping, and settled down for some quality time with “Stone”.
The movie opens, in hilariously literal fashion, with a close-up of a stone – a boulder engraved with a plaque commemorating the founding of New South Wales. An eerie, high pitched vocal drone plays as the camera shakily pans out, revealing an over-saturated, hyper-real landscape as two kids on bicycles cycle past in background. Panning close to 180 degrees across a deserted, windswept bay, the camera hones in on a bright, red sign reading “NO SWIMMING – EXTREME POLLUTION”, and stays there, as ear-splitting electronic feedback floods the soundtrack. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
Twenty minutes later, I paused the movie, went to the kitchen and got the rest of the bottle. It was gonna be that kind of night.
In those twenty minutes, I had witnessed:
• Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter from ‘Mad Max’) freaking out on LSD (trippy camera-work on overdrive) amid a maze of brutalist imperial architecture and stumbling upon a sniper preparing to make a hit.
• Said sniper bloodily gunning down an environmental campaigner as he addresses a rally – slo mo, screaming faces of fleeing hippies as the body falls.
• A classic wire-stretched-across-the-road biker decapitation, like the one in HG Lewis’s ‘She Devils On Wheels’.
• The most extrordinary piece of driving-over-cliff-edge stuntwork I’ve seen in my life.
• An awe-inspiring biker funeral procession, in which about one hundred riders in mirror-visor helmets ride in precision down a deserted highway, following a specially converted low-rider/sidecar thing bearing the coffin… with the dead man’s helmet sitting on top of it.
• A funeral service in a bucolic cemetery full of bright yellow poppies, that begins with a bikie priest in a top hat, cape and an eye patch yelling “SAAAATAAAN!!!” at the top of his lungs…
• …. before he explains that they’re burying the poor guy upright, “so that ya won’t have to take anything from the evil one lying down”!
• All of the above accompanied by the wildest, most disjointed collection of noise-saturated acid rock-meets-avant garde soundtrack music I’ve ever heard.
Clearly, one shot director Sandy Harbutt must have approached ‘Stone’ in either complete ignorance or conscious denial of David Friedman’s famous ‘sizzle not the steak’ maxim for exploitation filmmaking. Instead, he seems to have been determined to make a meteor-strike sized impression on the nascent Australian film industry by any means necessary, delivering a movie so loaded with hyperkinetic action, raging counter-cultural fury and audio-visual overload that it not only lives up to the hyperbole of it’s ‘70s drive-in style publicity campaign, but actually surpasses it, roaring off into unknown vistas of two-fisted lunacy, leaving the poster designers standing.
I probably won’t be mortally offending many movie fans if I suggest that the glut of American biker movies that emerged in the genre’s golden age in the late ‘60s were, by and large, pretty crappy. That’s not to say I don’t still find them endlessly entertaining and wouldn't happily watch pretty much any of them at a moment’s notice of course, but y’know what I mean. Even the best ones were pretty bottom-of-the-barrel fare in the wider scheme of things, and god help anyone who sits down to watch ‘Hells Angels On Wheels’ or something with high expectations.
We can probably safely assume that whoever it was who once declared Al Adamson’s “Satan’s Sadists” to be “the Citizen Kane of biker movies” (see: every DVD release of that movie ever) must have been either an abject simpleton or stoned out of their freakin’ mind, but nonetheless, the fact that an Al Adamson movie could ever conceivably be hailed as the Citizen Kane of ANYTHING probably tells you something about the overall level of quality within the biker sub-genre.
If there is to be a “Citizen Kane of biker movies” though, then fuck it – I vote ‘Stone’. It may have been made a few years too late on the other side of the world, but if the aforementioned critic is still out there somewhere searching for a film that applies the audacity, innovation and artistic vision of a young Orson Welles to the tale of a bunch of unwashed guys in leather riding around and getting wasted… well this is about as close as you could hope to get. Throw in the fact that ‘Stone’ is also just plain mad as a bag of snakes, and we have a movie that almost challenges Don Sharp’s immortal ‘Psychomania’ for the coveted position of the Number # 1 All Time Weirdo Biker Movie.
Which means I should try to tell you more about it I suppose, but where to begin…?
Boiled down to humble plot synopsis level, ‘Stone’ doesn’t really differ that much from yr average biker flick, I suppose. Our protagonists here are The Grave Diggers. Led by Harbutt himself as formidable leader The Undertaker, the gang also includes Keays-Byrne as loose cannon Toad, Vincent Gil as ‘spiritual advisor’ Dr. Death (he was the one conducting the funeral), and a whole troop of other salty dogs from weirdo central casting (ozzie division) portraying such lovable rogues as ‘Stinkfinger’, ‘Zonk’, ‘Pinball’ and ‘Captain Midnight’. And in essence, The Grave Diggers basically spend most of the movie doing what convention dictates biker gangs are supposed to do - riding around aimlessly, hassling squares, giving the cops the runaround, starting brawls, getting high, carousing with their ‘mamas’ and waxing lyrical about the outlaw lifestyle and the freedom of the road.
It appears that, for reasons that still kinda elude me after two viewings of the movie, some high-powered bad guys are trying to kill off The Grave Diggers. I’m not sure whether they’re sorta gangster property developers who want to claim the gang’s hideout, or whether it’s got something to do with the members of the gang who witnessed the assassination of the environmental campaigner in the opening sequence, or a little bit of both? Anyway, as a result of all this, the local cops send Stone (Ken Shorter), their resident suave, maverick man of action guy, to infiltrate the gang and find out what’s going on. Surprisingly, the Diggers decide to let Stone ride with them after he saves some of their lives during an explosive-tipped cross-bow attack (?!), and he soon finds himself learning the ways of the outlaw bikie.
We know Stone must be a suave, maverick man of action guy, partly because he’s a cop with long hair in 1974, and partly because he lives in a beach house with a hot international supermodel who expresses her displeasure at his “always pissing off on these boy scout adventures”. But sadly, Shorter lets the film down pretty badly, sleepwalking through his scenes and appearing utterly devoid of the charisma his character demands. (It’s just as well the rest of the cast cover for him by going so overboard it scarcely matters.) And as it turns out, I’m not sure Stone really ever DOES find out what’s going on, as from this point on the film more or less degenerates into a long series of disjointed escapades and violent showdowns with coherent plotting but a distant memory… but everybody has a wild old time, and that’s what matters, right? It’s hard to get too hung up on plot deficiencies when watching a movie in which the entire cast get stoned and go skinny-dipping together at dawn, with the director, co-writer and composer leading the pack.
Probably not the most enthralling plot synopsis you’ve ever read I’m guessing, but beyond that, what can I say…. every detail of “Stone” is just so different, so much more lively, crazy, ENGAGED (mm, good adjective) than any other biker movie I’ve seen. Beyond Sandy Harbutt’s obvious dedication to the cause of making a fucking good movie, perhaps the key to ‘Stone’s singularity lies its emergence from a culture and set of circumstances far removed from the other entries in the genre.
I mean, is it just me, or has Australia always fostered a certain element of eccentricity and extremity in it’s manifestations of youth sub-culture? Maybe it’s something to do with the harshness of the landscape, the relative isolation, I dunno, but just watch this footage of Melbourne ‘Sharpies’ hanging out the same year ‘Stone’ was being filmed over in Sydney, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to see movements like that as a precursor to the random punkoid lunatic gangs seen in ‘Mad Max’ and the subsequent rash of dystopian desert flicks, and even Richard Lowenstein’s celebrated Melbourne punk scene drama “Dogs in Space” gives a distinctly post-apocalyptic air to the lifestyles of its teen drop-out characters.
‘Stone’ fits proudly into this outsider lineage, presenting its own unique take on the biker – sorry, BIKIE – mythos. Unlike the uniform Harleys and unprotected heads of their American counterparts, the bikies in ‘Stone’ ride sleeker, more modern Kawasakis (hey, cheaper to import I guess) painted in bright primary colours, and wear black, mirror-visored helmets, giving them a menacing, anonymous look that would go on to be echoed by whole legions of warriors and bad-asses in subsequent action and sci-fi movies.
Within the limited visual palette of the biker movie, these minor aesthetic differences play a huge role in creating ‘Stone’s visual impact, instantly setting the movie apart from its genre contemporaries, just as much as the art-damaged directorial style and lunatic soundtrack.
Speaking of which, I can’t go any further without a few words on the soundtrack, which is… how best to put this? ‘Absolutely fucking bananas’ just about covers it, I think. Queasy, assaultive assemblages of multi-layered noise and howling echo chamber mentalism that sound more like a ‘90s Japanese noise record than a ‘70s movie soundtrack; blazing, jazz-infected heavy psyche blowouts; sweeter, more biker-flick appropriate bar-room rock grooving; swirling, psychedelicised folk guitar picking; utterly indescrible mixtures of shuddering bass feedback, lurching electronic farting and droning didgeridoo; a deranged hard rock reworking of Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle"; you name it, ‘Stone’s got it.
Music credits are limited (rather awesomely) to “rock n’ roll by Billy Green”, but assuming Mr. Green was indeed responsible for all the noises herein, he certainly expanded on his stated remit pretty considerably, even given the widest possible definition of ‘rock n’ roll’. In addition to all of the above, there are even moments (such as the funeral procession) where he changes tack entirely, laying down some beautifully austere, modernist string pieces and faux-classical vamps, each time letting them gradually slide back into the realm of whacked out rock, as bass and drums slowly cleave into the mix – a neat trick that’s utilised several times over.
To think that all this madness is the work of one man frankly boggles the mind, but hey: rock n’ roll is by Billy Green. Who are we to argue? (Green also turns up in the movie, playing ‘69’, the silent biker who is often seen strumming a guitar, and sleeps next to his amp.) To call this soundtrack - recently reissued on the endlessly amazing Finders Keepers label - ‘innovative’ or ‘eclectic’ would be something of an understatement, and the music’s unhinged bravado matches Harbutt’s style of film-making perfectly.
Whereas most American biker flicks pay lip service to an ‘outlaw’ philosophy whilst simultaneously portraying their characters as simpleminded stoners and layabouts, Undertaker’s gang are a little more, well, committed to their chosen lifestyle. Sure, the Grave Diggers do their fair share of getting stoned and lazing around, but rather than just roaming around aimlessly and avoiding the fuzz, these guys are more actively concerned with maintaining a situation that allows them to exist on their own terms.
The gang live together in a fortress – some kind of ex-military clifftop bunker? – and keep armed guards on duty. In fact, they seem to have a pretty formidable arsenal, and a willingness to use it when threatened. They live communally under the joint guidance of Undertaker’s strict anti-authoritarian philosophy and Dr. Death’s semi-serious Satanic rituals, and, as they repeatedly state, they’re not going to take any shit from the pigs, gangers or anyone else. A more can-do bunch of post-‘60s radicals you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere in movies, let alone in real life; Abbie Hoffman and John Sinclair would be proud.
Actually though, there’s something slightly uncomfortable about the film’s relentless idealisation of the bikie lifestyle. This idealisation continues even as they give people a hard time, casually man-handle their ladies, beat the shit out of complete strangers etc, and at several points even sees the gang’s victims/enemies grudgingly admit that they’re ‘cool guys’, denying the film even a routine b-movie level of conflict or ideological question-raising.
Perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that Sandy Harbutt himself was a dedicated bikie, and that ‘Stone’ can be seen at least in part as a wildly exaggerated celebration of the lifestyle he was immersed in at the time. I mean, I’m assuming that Harbutt and his mates probably didn’t actually go around trashing bars, worshipping Satan, staging elaborate funeral processions and orchestrating climatic machine gun battles with criminal gangs, but the real key to what makes “Stone” such exhilarating viewing I think is Harbutt’s unique, almost contradictory, mixture of bizarre pop art excess and ground level realism.
The former aspect we’ve already covered in detail, but how often do we find a film in which such garish and outlandish situations are presented in such a no bullshit, shot-from-the-hip fashion?
Obviously most of the film’s principals (Shorter, Keays-Byrne, Gil) are professional actors, but when we get to the second tier bikies and assorted extras, it’s pretty hard to tell who’s a professional and who’s.. y’know, just a dude essentially playing him/herself. In the excellent Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood, interviewees recall that for the ‘Wild One’-esque sequence in which the Grave Diggers scuffle with a rival bikie gang, Harbutt did actually get members of two rival gangs together, waited until they got juiced up, and had his crew filming as things naturally kicked off.
All of the stunt and bike-racing footage meanwhile has a brilliant, unfakeable seat-of-yr-pants quality to it that speaks of cameras wedged on dashboards, wielded by passengers, swung across the road etc, as guys genuinely speed around like loons.
You know that incredible bike stunt I mentioned earlier, in which we see a guy driving a bike over the edge of a hundred foot high cliff straight into the ocean at top speed? Well there’s no dummy or trick editing there. What we’re seeing is legendary Australian stuntman Peter Armstrong, driving a bike over the edge of a hundred foot high cliff straight into the ocean at top speed.
Interviewed in ‘Not Quite Hollywood’, he says he passed out on impact with the water and nearly broke his back, but he reckons the shot was worth it. And not that I’m any cheerleader for reckless endangerment of life, but I’m inclined to agree – the result is more jaw-dropping than any amount of CGI-heavy action movie goonery.
I probably don’t even need to point out what a vast impact this combination of wild n’ woolly automotive carnage and bright, flawless cinematography had on Australian cinema in the decade following ‘Stone’s release, and on George Miller’s ‘Mad Max’ in particular. (Perhaps there was even more crossover between the two films than merely sharing a visual style and a few actors – I couldn’t help but notice that ‘Stone’ features a character called “Bad Max” who’s referred to several times but never appears on screen..?)
Action scenes aside though, EVERYTHING in Harbutt’s film is shot with a try-and-fucking-stop-me intensity that speaks of a genuinely driven director, from crowd scenes and brawls that play out like extracts from one of Peter Watkin’s quasi-documentaries to mind-raping psychedelic freakouts, to vistas of the kind of serene, terrifying beauty that directors like Nicholas Roeg and Peter Weir have also been able to capture in the Australian landscape.
However vague and unsatisfying ‘Stone’ may be on an intellectual or narrative level, you won’t notice whilst watching it. As a piece of pure cinema, it’s an absolute knock-out - self-defined, punk rock film-making at its finest.