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On June 17, 1999, an estimated 200 motorcycles invaded Oxford Street Sydney and it definitely wasn
ʼt Dykes on Bikes. This phalanx of apocalyptic choppers was riding for Stone. Led by the filmʼs director, Sandy Harbutt, and the filmʼs executive producer, David Hannay, they parked, in parade ground order, in the block stretching from South Dowling Street to Greenʼs Road, Paddington.

The event was the revival of that piece of Film history, Stone (1974), by the Sydney Film Festival. The foyer of the seedy but normally middle class Academy Twin was full of Viking look-a-likes, and a motorcycle (a BMW, not a Kwacka.)

STONE: Take the Trip.
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It was 1974, I was walking out of the ABC staff canteen when I first saw the Kawasaki KZ900 turn past Harry the Commissionaire. Oblivious to Harryʼs pantomimic arm flapping that suggested strong disapproval, the rider moved quickly toward me. Then I noticed her, a beautiful woman waiting at the kerb side. The motorcycle swung past her and, without the rider slowing down, the woman effortlessly mounted the pillion seat. The Kwacka picked up speed and accelerated rapidly away past the still enraged Harry - cool. A few inquiries and I discovered that the two bikies were actors from the ABCʼs production of The Rise and Rise of Arturo UI. (Bikes and Brecht - very cool.)

A few months later I was in Melbourne at a loose end, and I attended the Forum cinema as the only audience member of a mid-morning screening of Stone. There, on the screen, were the two people I had seen outside the ABC canteen. Three months later, I bought my first motorcycle.

Twenty-five years ago, the movie left me with some vivid impressions:

  • Obviously, the portrayal of bike culture.
    The utopian dream of the tribe of outlaws: a dress rehearsal for the way we would all have to live after the certain nuclear holocaust. The bikie as Nietzschean Ubermensch; a new type of human breaking away from the herd mentality.

  • The political tone of the film.
    Here was the first screen representation of all of the issues that were rotten in the Nation. The murderous, ruthless developers (shades of Frank Theeman and the battle for Victoria Street). The cops as lazy, corrupt and unreliable buffoons: if you wanted justice do it yourself.

  • The editor was Ian Barry who had been working at the ABC before cutting the film.
  • Ian was living testimony to the fact that there was life and work outside of the ABC.
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    STONE: Take the Tripe

    Film Culture apparatchiks donʼt love Sandy. Sandy pulled off a coup that left them stunned. He made a film and he did it in spite of their advice. You could say, though, that heʼs paid the price. Sandy hasnʼt been offered one dayʼs film work in the intervening 25 years. The Gravediggers take on the rival bikie gang, The Australian Film Development Commissioners, and get a kicking. But as Stone (Ken Shorter) says at the end of the film, just after heʼs been stomped to near-death by the Gravediggers: ʻNo Cops!ʼ  If Sandy has no regret and no recrimination itʼs because he believes that if his film had achieved Critical and Cultural approval then it would have been a failure. However, it is successful, and it is the nature of that success that is interesting.

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    At a time when the industry was still coming to grips with the notions of what was to be represented, Stone burst onto the screen with all the confidence and assurance of a film that had something to say and damned well knew how to say it. It was also a time when nice filmmakers didnʼt represent or endorse anything that opposed or contradicted the conservative, cultural elite. Think period films (the past is always safe - especially for conservative historians), think heroes/heroines (sheep shearers and stoic bar maids). When you see the officially endorsed, contemporaneous (1974) competition, Beresfordʼs The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and Burstallʼs Alvin Purple, you can see the mentality; earnest bourgeoisie churning out Lowest Common Denominator stuff for the plebeian masses.

    Sandy maintains that his film, Stone, is one of the relatively few commercially successful Australian films of contemporary times. This viewing of Stone, along with the recent documentary, Stone Forever, certainly reinforced the view for me that here was a worthwhile film, if not a great one. Stone Forever is a worthy companion piece to the movie. The documentary explains rather important details that seem to be absent from some of the existing prints of Stone. If you have seen the print that channel Ten runs it has quiet a few major story line omissions. The print that was shown as part of the festival screening also seemed seriously abbreviated. I thought I must have made up and embellished all the things I could remember from 25 years ago. This was the value of the documentary, it reassured me that those bits I remembered had been in the original print.

    Over the years, Sandy has made some emendations. Sandy had never seen the film in one continuous run during postproduction. They couldn
    ʼt afford to have a screening. When he saw it for the first time at the premiere, he could see it was too long. Therefore, over the years heʼs tried to cut the film down. It would seem to me that heʼs cut out the wrong bits. No Sandy, itʼs the good bits you keep and the bad bits you cut out. I would guess that Sandy anticipated that the film’s biggest fans were more interested in bike culture and so the philosophy was the thing to dump, but the documentary seems to suggest otherwise. Biker film fans in the documentary seemed to be saying that they love the philosophical arcana in the original.

    Based on story structure alone, it would be difficult to argue that Stone is a good film. For instance, the film could start fifteen minutes in and you wouldn
    ʼt have missed much. Or would you? The first fifteen minutes are all about bike culture and provides the clue as to why the film has such a strong following among bikers. So what if it imposes a deadly pall over the story? Even if that hiatus is so protracted that, by the time the main narrative line kicks in, (Slim De Grey: ʻStone, I want you to see whose going after that bikie gangʼ, Ken Shorter: ʻ Oh great, Inspector, You want me to ride around with those drongos, Iʼll end up a paraplegicʼ) you no longer care.

    ʼs cut out all the political references as well. One notable reference had gone from the print we saw. The point of the gang name, Gravediggers, is that the gang members were all ex-servicemen. This is an important philosophical point but Sandy seems to have dropped those bits for more bike stuff, viz. Hugh Keays-Byrne: ʻI like to ride really fast bikes really fastʼ. The music is almost unbearable and the makeup leaves a lot to be desired. As an interesting sidebar, the documentary shows the original trailer. None other than John Laws reads the voiceover. Maybe he worked cheap in those days?

    Meanwhile Sandy has a positive outlook on life, has a mega-cult following amongst bike fans, and has an enduring and obviously close relationship with the cast and crew after 25 years. As Sandy Harbutt says:
    ʻMaybe thereʼs more to life than a Baz Luhrmann runaway success.ʼ

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    This film does not exploit bike culture (even if it does tend to over-romanticise it). Sandy certainly won
    ʼt exploit bike culture: He loves them and they love him. 30,000 Stone fans rode the Newcastle expressway on the 1998 Stone commemorative bike run. Geez, even Stanley Kubrick doesnʼt get this kind of acclaim. A celebration of dirt ball culture I hear you say? I would argue that Stone epitomises what constitutes a successful film.

    Is film a disposable commodity? An ethnographical insight into strange cultures? A way of killing a few spare hours? A fabulous communal experience? A cynical and artless exploitation of the world? A rapacious devouring and spitting out of everything? It could be all those things but what I think Stone demonstrates is that good and worthwhile cinema is about something a little more esoteric. What it is chiefly about is a passionate group of committed professionals putting their talents and heart into the entire process.

    The film community may not endorse Sandy
    ʼs approach, mistaking his subject and his production technique for the real thing. (It always amuses me how some people operating within film culture are forever failing to distinguish the difference between art and life). The only thing that seems to be relevant though is that Sandyʼs film, and its endorsement by bike fans everywhere, is living proof that a loved-film comes out of a love of life and a commitment to the subject. By that measure, films like Stone are few and far between.