Why ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Bush Mechanics’ are the two greatest depictions of Australian car culture

An examination of how the two onscreen productions have helped shape our attitudes toward automobiles

One item stood out from the new centrepiece exhibition at the Australian Centre For The Moving Image, in which machines, screens, artefacts and strange doodads document the world of film, TV and video games: a brilliant and preposterous automobile, split down the middle, that is on either side a replica of cars from Australian productions. Mad Max’s slick black Interceptor is on one, and on the other a white Ford ZF Fairlane featured in the final episode of the cult comedy Bush Mechanics.

It was only after I left the ACMI that I realised that the creators of this work of art – Francis Jupurrula Kelly and Thomas Rice – hadn’t just crafted a strikingly cool monument to the aforementioned films. They have tributed, in the one work, the two greatest depictions of Australian car culture ever committed to the screen.

Shiny & chrome

We’ll start with the smash-hit, tectonic plate-rearranging title first. Mad Max roared into cinemas in 1979 as an Australian film from the wrong side of the tracks – a visceral, face-melting dark horse of a movie, rocket-propelling audiences into a dystopian world where hoons and ferals go to war over “a tank of juice”. The original film famously begins with a chase scene involving the Night Rider, “a fuel-injected suicide machine” (does he put that on his CV?) tearing down the road with the cops in pursuit.

You probably know the gist of the story: stoic hero Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) loses his wife and child, emerging as a lone warrior who stomps across the landscape participating in various intense adventures involving men in BDSM outfits. So let’s not retread that here. Instead, we’ll look at real-life circumstances that inspired the film and informed its themes. One of which can be described in two words: road carnage.

“These petrol-guzzling contraptions do not necessarily have a place in the natural order of things”

To fund the time spent writing the script, which George Miller co-authored with journalist James McCausland, the director and his producer and close friend, Byron Kennedy, drove around operating an emergency radio locum service (essentially an ambulance). Miller, a medical doctor, tended to victims of road accidents, later recalling that he remembered “the feeling of working in casualty at St Vincent’s hospital and being quite disturbed by the violence, and the road carnage, the way we kind of processed it”.

When Kennedy (who died in a helicopter accident in 1983) looked back on this period, he observed that “you could see that people had come to accept the fact that people could die on the road. And yet it didn’t seem as horrific to them as, say, someone falling out of a 15-story window. So we thought there’s probably some sort of basis for a feature film in that.”

These views fuelled a hard-headed view of gung-ho car culture as a destructive and intensely illogical human activity that kills without rhyme or reason. This point is alluded to in an image of a yellow sign we see early in the film – before we meet Seniore Night Rider – announcing that there had been 57 road fatalities so far that year.

Mad Max Bush Mechanics
Exhibition at ACMI. Credit: Shannon McGrath

Making a freaky-deaky critique of Australian car culture through the lens of an exploitative movie and featuring weird fuel-guzzling monstrosities had been done before. Peter Weir’s 1974 curio The Cars That Ate Paris, for instance, was about a small town with an economy that relies on an ongoing supply of wrecked vehicles. But Mad Max was different, and it took off at the box office like a bat out of hell.

The sequels were not as explicitly a polemic about, or satire of, car culture, but there are hints throughout. In the outrageously macabre designs of the cars in Road Warrior, for instance, and in the way the War Boys in Fury Road literally worship cars, embracing steering wheels as if they were a symbol as potent as the cross. No other Australian films – no other films, full stop – depict car culture like Mad Max.

A beast of burden

The same can be said of Bush Mechanics: an on-the-road (or on-the-dirt-track) action/comedy that offers a critique of car culture from a different and fresh perspective. Consisting of five half-hour episodes, one of which aired on ABC in 1998 (and can be considered the equivalent of a pilot) and the others in 2001, the show garnered a small cult following of appreciators taken in by a series for which there is genuinely no equivalent.

Bush Mechanics may sound unimpressively simplistic on paper. Starring Warlpiri people and filmed in and around Yuendumu, a town a few hundred kilometres north west of Alice Springs, the show is almost entirely comprised of a group of chatty men (Steven Jupurrula Morton, Errol Jupurrula Nelson, Simeon Jupurrula Ross, Junior Jupurrula Wilson and Randall Jupurrula Wilson) either riding in a car, fidgeting with a car or standing around one. But there is a genius at play here – subtle in some senses, rambunctious in others – that takes western attitudes and assumptions and tips them on their heads.

The first, pilot-ish episode is bookended by an elder recounting a story about something strange that occurred in his youth. The show flashes back to a younger version of himself looking for food in the desert, following kangaroo tracks. Continuing the search, he happens across another set of tracks: this one made by tyres, which he reckons “must be some sort of monster!” Soon the aforementioned group are fenging it down a dirt road in a faded green, beat-up rust bucket sans windscreen, with a dead kangaroo tied to the bonnet.

“George Miller’s films take on the obscenity of car culture, while Bush Mechanics take a wider view, rethinking the nature of cars in the first place”

The plotlines are slight: in the first post-pilot episode, the group for instance purchases a car and stuffs it full of band equipment, travelling to a town to put on a gig for children. En route it breaks down and the group tends to their vehicle in various creative ways – mixing Omo and water to create ad-hoc transmission fluid, recharging the battery by heating it next to a fire they create using alligator clips, and even transforming the vehicle into a convertible by hacking its roof off with axes.

Some of the footage is sped up, with an artificially fast frame rate evoking a slightly Benny Hill-esque vibe, visually reiterating an absurdity always implied but never directly articulated. It’s strangely entertaining, given how simple the format is. But there’s something else rare and special going on, which can be observed from two seemingly contradictory perspectives.

The first is that Bush Mechanics is making a point that cars are abnormal creations; that these petrol-guzzling contraptions are human inventions that do not necessarily have a place in the natural order of things. The second is that they are just another form of strange thing to be reckoned with, like any number of other creatures or occurrences one encounters in the outback.

Mad Max Bush Mechanics
Exhibition at ACMI. Credit: Shannon McGrath

Either way, the men’s rough-and-ready attitudes towards vehicles and their upkeep exists light years away from the usual consumerist mindset, whereby new parts are bought, additional services paid for etcetera. Their hands-on, sometimes ingenious solutions are remedies for the moment, implemented with the awareness that cars – like people – don’t stick around forever.

Which brings us back to Mad Max – a series littered with corpses and cars. George Miller’s films take on the obscenity of car culture; how lives are thrown away for nothing more than the act of a foot pressing down on an accelerator. Bush Mechanics take a wider view, rethinking the nature of cars in the first place, rejecting the idea that they were an inevitable aspect of human evolution.

Both productions play like visual rock’n’roll. Two sides of the same coin, you could say. And certainly two sides of the same car: that magnificent, four-wheeled creation at ACMI.

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