Thursday, June 27, 2024

Now that you are sole heir to our world, you will have every opportunity to achieve wickedness

aka Gas-s-s-s

Directed by Roger Corman
Written by George Armitage and Roger Corman

Spoilers: moderate

To be really sure how I feel about Roger Corman's 1970 film, which announces itself as  Gas! -or- It Became Necessary To Destroy the World In Order To Save It. (we'll be calling it by the shorter, also-pretty-neat name on the poster, Gas-s-s-s), I would absolutely have to watch it again; yet I have worries that watching it again immediately would not do it justice.  To forward an opinion early, I'd call it great no matter how I wound up slicing it; so this is not some conundrum of "bad" and "good," but merely "how good," and it's ultimately only going to matter to the numerical score I give it, something I probably take too seriously anyway.  But here's the thing: Gas-s-s-s is a Goddamn slop of a motion picture, made that way on purpose, and what I'm having trouble with is exactly how much to punish it for the slop that doesn't work, and how much to reward it for being slop that almost entirely does work, on the basis of most of that slop being incredibly funny comedy.  The caveat is that I can't be sure that I found it so incredibly funny because it's actually well-built, robust comedy, or simply because it kept taking me by surprise, over and over, for all of its woozily-irreverent 79 minutes.  Hence my suspicion that an immediate rewatch, though I'd be up for such a thing in principle, might not be good for it: so much of it is dumb as fuck, but so gloriously unexpected, that driving it into the ground couldn't possibly do it any favors.  But I bet if I were to come back to it in, say, a year, I wouldn't hesitate to kick that old numerical score up another notch.  Odds are I'll break before I even finish writing this (and it turned out this was the case).

The exact chronology of its development history is a little hard to pin down, but the basic thing is that in the late 60s Corman had an idea, prompted by the "don't trust anyone over 30" meme and the general impression of youth in revolt.  In Corman's generosity, he would give the hippies what they said they wanted: a whole world to themselves.  As the shorter poster title with the sound effect implies (somewhat ineptly, even if I like it*), the mechanism for the adult apocalypse is a leak of an extraordinarily potent U.S. military nerve gas that blankets the globe; in a remarkable turn, considering that only at very few points afterwards will the movie even vaguely bother to maintain your suspension of disbelief, Corman and his screenwriter George Armitage actually try to make this semi-credible, running with the then-current (and likely inaccurate) idea that the human brain stops producing new neurons after adolescence, and for anyone already on this downward slope, the gas accelerates the natural decline enormously, until soon dementia and death set in.  Thus, within a few days, basically the only people still left are under 25 (even if I have my doubts about a number of these actors), and now, as all institutions and most economic activity break down, they're going to have to manage on their own.

Obviously, I don't think Corman would've required any further inspiration for this, beyond simply being a Californian who read the newspaper from time to time, and by 1970 the director-producer had already transcended just being a purveyor of the raw material for youth culture, but had attempted to be a chronicler of it.  His 1966 outlaw biker polemic, The Wild Angels, and his 1967 LSD advertisement, The Trip, exist in a certain manichaean tension with one another, the latter an endorsement of the "good" counterculture, the former a disapprobation of the "bad," and Gas-s-s-s, reasonably enough, found him getting annoyed with the youth's narcissistic grandiosity, and ambivalent about their chances, while also realizing that despite hippiedom's belief that they represented their entire generation, there wasn't just the one "youth."  There was counterculture youth, there was reactionary youth, there was plum-don't-give-a-shit-youth, and a lot of them weren't just naive and idealistic, but out-and-out morons.

But whether he had the idea beforehand, it's very hard not to assume that the biggest incentive for Corman to do Gas-s-s-s was just an earlier hippie movie from American International Pictures.  In 1968, Wild In the Streets had made a real box office impact, and while it takes more than a full hour's worth of "why the hell are you showing me this?" legislative procedural (it is astounding that I have to describe an exploitation movie as "a legislative procedural"), eventually it does arrive at its pointa variant of the premise of a world run by young people, which, there, was basically the immediate but morbidly-amusing downfall of civilization.  From the evidence of this film, Corman didn't really truck with that, either: Wild In the Streets doesn't have any idea in its head besides generational warfare; as noted, it also barely even explores its own speculation, because it takes the whole movie for the hippie dictatorship's new world to get set up.  Meanwhile, by an hour into Gas-s-s-swhich is, admittedly, almost time for it to endwe've seen, like, half a dozen new worlds already.  Gas-s-s-s contains multitudes, and it's fundamentally a very unserious film; but eventually, we do get an optimistic one.

In a nod to efficiency and budget alike, that nerve gas backstory arrives by way of a neat piece of animation (so limited that one would describe it not so much as "sketchy," but out-and-out "scrawled"), courtesy Jimmy Murakami and Fred Wolf, which doodles in the military-industrial incompetence that leads to the catatrophe; now cut to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where young Coel (Robert Corff) is leading the campus police on a merry chase, involving a weapon and a belltower (!), but which he resolves, in the film's first gesture in live-action that it's all going to be a cartoon, specifically by pretending, with Bugs Bunny-like aplomb, to be an Irish priest.  I feel like if I walked through everything, it would take longer to describe than it takes the movie to show it: so, in short order, Coel gets himself in a romance with fellow student Cilla (Elaine Giftos), but the gas is already killing their elders left and right, and as Dallas falls to a no-longer-silent majority militia of deadly moderate youth, Coel and Cilla flee westward in the former's primer-peach Edsel.  They have their car stolen by the next scene; they team up with some other refugeescosplaying Black Panther Carlos (Ben Vereen) alongside his pregnant white girlfriend whose primary concern is nonetheless the pop hits of the 50s, Marissa (Shirley herself, Cindy Williams), who've already made common cause with frustrated lover Hooper (Bud Cort), and his girlfriend Coralee (Talia Shire)and they get the car back, then they lose it again, and continue westward, encountering a variety of strange, offbeat manifestations of youth culture unchained by adult supervision, though probably the most important one is the football warlord.

Maybe that sounds almost straightforward, and I suppose it sort of is, with their direction of movement almost invariably maintaining a westerly motivation, and each vignette designed to showcase a conceptual joke and several elaborations upon that joke, and a surprisingly large and varied number of devices that give the movie somewhat more than just the illusion of structure.  The latter includes the voice of the actual God (who speaks, fairly enough, as a lower-middle-class Brooklyn Yid; eventually Jesus does, too); a series of roadside signs, which our heroes are implicitly following, to an "Oracle" that promises answers (try not to be disappointed it doesn't); a Mystery Machine-like van that we constantly notice is following them, but which they don't seem to notice at all, which finally disgorges its cargo only in the denouement (it turns out it's carrying a bunch of guys in a collection of horrifyingly-low-effort parade masks, each representing our principals' favorite political hero, all of whom met their gory end in an assassination, except for the very last one... who turns out to be the new world's truest prophet, Alfred E. Newman); and, revealingly, Corman's own hero, Edgar Allan Poe, alongside his babe, Lenore, on the back of a Harley-Davidson.  (So we get that, too: a certain valedictory turn for the filmmaker.  There's likewise the premise, which wasn't Corman's first post-apocalyptic rodeo; he even tips his hats to his Westerns, never his most beloved works, or at least he tips his hats to Westerns as a genre overall, in a media satire shootout that's weird as hell and which I won't spoil.)

There is, I perceive, more than just randomness here, although a lot of it is randomness.  Corman, musing on the film after its release, might've only been teasing to say that everything in the movie has a meaninghe said that while it represented the very apex of his pursuit of the intellectual side of the filmmaker's art, he could see how his instinct to coat it in the thickest lacquer of borderline-incoherent and nominally-crowd-pleasing comedy had rendered it so opaque to anybody else that maybe its own maker was the only one left who could still "get" itbut this part, at least, seems pretty purposeful and clear.  Every structuring device in the film is, however goofy-assed, representative of the structuring devices of life itself, and they've been, by and large, unhelpful.  The one who comes off the best, besides the cameo from MAD Magazine's mascot, is probably Edgar Allan (or "Edgar Allen"I mean, I get the joke), whose only contribution before the end, even so, is to show up and make drearily pessimistic comments nobody asked him for.

That sounds overly severe, but it's actually (I apologize) a gas, and while I have even less desire than usual when reviewing this comedy to overdescribe its individual jokes, it's Corman's sensibility, and Armitage's screenplay's go-to move, to mine their punchlines from a psychological or sociologicalsometimes outright biologicalimpossibility, not so much a cartoonish exaggeration of reality as something at a complete tangent to it, so that the primary mode would probably be best-described as "good-natured dadaism."  A really fine example is when Marissa, presently in labor, confesses to Carlos that she can't in good conscience bring a child into this horrible post-apocalyptic world, and the expectation is some kind of extremely fraught engagement with the do's and don'ts of abortion (such as was presently wending its way through the courts).  Incorrect.  She just doesn't give birth; she stays pregnant for the whole rest of the movie.

It's good at this sort of slantwise social commentary that's more an excuse for absurdismdelightfully funny absurdismbut just meaty enough to maybe prompt some thoughtfulness on whatever issue it's talking about.  (Another example: the Hells Angels, whose motorcycle club now runs a country club, and the expectation there is that they're violent barbarians, and instead they talk like the middle-classest motherfuckers you've ever heard, up to the point that they have their own Hells Angel hippie protesters, protesting the club leaders and their diverging vision for the sport of golf.  The satire is pretty on-point with this one, but such is not the end of their usefulness: I would not dare spoil my single favorite "what the fuck did you just say?" line.)  Of course, sometimes it is just simple exaggeration, and that's still good, too, notably with the college football team that's become a wasteland rape gang, and maybe that should be expected, though it's channeled through wacky nonsense, including rape practice wherein the warlord critiques his soldiers' tackling technique.  (Your mileage will, obviously, vary a great deal on the various provocations that are more-or-less inherent to a 1970 absurdist comedy; it's not a particularly lurid film, and I wouldn't say it jams on this particular subject to a distracting degreeit would stop being surprising if it did, and surprise is all herebut either way, this isn't even the best rape joke in the movie.)  It's not exactly conducive to acting, at least not in any sort of serious way, but the we're-all-having-a-good-time, variety-show-like commitment to the bit from all the side-players is, I think, invariably charming; I'd even call Corff and Giftos affirmatively good, indulgent of all the humor in a jugular vein swirling around them, with a highly flexible degree of actual attachment to the movie's "stakes."  It makes them good audience stand-ins for a comedy operating with a distinctly low interest in being taken seriously.

If there's a downside, it's that this plainly recommended itself to Corman as one of the purest larks of his career, and he approached it with less of his customary planning and a lot more improvisational flair.  In other words, the screenplay was more like a loose guideline, and Gas-s-s-s was, to an unusual degree for Corman, just going out into the country and dicking around till he got enough footage to make a movie.  That sounds fine, and ultimately it really is probably to the movie's benefitI wouldn't risk the sudden inspirations this obviously occasionedbut this rough-and-tumble approach (distinct from his fast-and-dirty approach, though it's that, too) means a movie that constantly feels like it's in a state of collpase, as if at any point a really terrible idea is going to find its way in, and Corman's going to run with it, and it's going to ruin everything.  That doesn't even happenand for this reason, a rewatch would, potentially, be a boonbut the movie is in such a state that ruination always feels eminent, and it feels most eminent right at its climax, which is an amusing shrug, but not a wholly satisfying ending.  Maybe kind of chickenshit, too.  (Or maybe, camouflaged, the bleakest joke of the film: that only the intervention of literal God can save us.  But I don't think it's going for that in terms of mood.)

Of course, it affects what it looks and sounds like; it's not "bad" on the former count (Corman's whole deal, after all, was working with minimal infrastructure, to the point it made him unsuitable for studio filmmaking), but it's not tight.  Since Corman's evolution throughout the 60s had been to make him an ever-tighter storyteller, it's hard for it not to suffer in comparison to The Wild Angels or The Trip, even if that comparison's unfair, and the "playtime" mood is undoubtedly good for this film's energy.  Still, I separated "visually" for a reasonthough I don't believe this is a movie where, discounting a rad magic hour sunset, or a smartly-done, slightly-sarcastic whip-pan to a Jesus statue that equates the Christ's persecution with that of hippies (or Early Christianity with self-righteous dilettantism), you'd ever say, "lookit that brilliant shot."  But the sound recording is such that the entire movie comes off ADR'd, adding a formally hallucinatory cast that's as responsible as anything for that sensation that things are going to rattle apart completely.  And sometimes Corman will just lose track of tone: there's a free love sex scene between Coel and some hippie, with psychedelia self-plagiarized from The Trip, that's presented with bizarre sincerity, including the telepathic parts.

But even my criticisms have to be considered in terms of a movie that should feel like anarchy reigns.  It was, unfortunately, not a success, not even by the reduced standards of a movie that cost only $100,000; and I'm not really sure why.  The counterculture was getting sullen by 1970, but I wouldn't call Gas-s-s-s "out of touch"; its similarities to Mel Brooks and ZAZ seem to dispel that notion.  Corman blamed it in part on AIP, whom he never worked with again.  They mishandled its release (possibly purposefully) and fucked up its final cut (Corman was especially livid about an expensive and self-reportedly masterful epic shot being removed), but evidently not that much (Corman also complained about the voice of God being downplayed, but the version I saw had God and Jesus bloviating away over the end credits, so who knows).  He was willing to accept some of the blame himself.  I think it's hilarious, but it's understandable how it might've been too obtuse to be a hit.

Whatever the reason, it stung: for all its foolishness, Gas-s-s-s was a genuine passion project.  Corman's status was such that it couldn't have possibly ended his directorial career, except by his own volition, but he does appear to have consented to exactly that; it was his next-to-last movie for two decades (in case that implies a comeback, it was his third-to-last, overall).  Gas-s-s-s makes me sad in this respect.  Given the very different parameters of his actual next-to-last movie, Von Richthofen and Brown, it was effectively a final statement on filmmaking and society from one of the most valuable voices of American independent cinema in the 60s.  Still, that's no reason to be mad at Gas-s-s-s, which is terrific.  It's as complete and even deliberate a final statement as you could ask for from any director, and especially Corman, who'd ridden the counterculture to such great success over the previous few years.  The thing about the idea behind Gas-s-s-s is that it just sped things up; of course, the kids were eventually going to get the world and run it how they wanted.  I love Gas-s-s-s, even its ending, which hopes so hard that its "what, me worry?" pseudo-utopia is a possibility that it stops even having a story anymore; too bad it didn't work out remotely that well for us, huh?

Score: 9/10

*Having been vaguely aware of the movie for many years, I spent a long time assuming that the title referred to gasoline; but as farsighted as Corman could be viz. The Trends, he didn't actually anticipate the oil crisis, nor invent Mad Max movies.  Well, he sort of invented Mad Max movies, but I don't think George Miller or Mad Max fans would appreciate that claim.

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