Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Gas! Or, It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It

Roger Corman is best known as the onetime godfather and reigning kingpin of the low budget feature film.  As founder of New World Pictures, which produced many exploitation movies in the '70s and '80s. Some of them were early efforts from Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, and Martin Scorsese. Prior to that, Corman himself directed many cheapies that delighted drive in audiences. There were several Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, a number of which starred a young Jack Nicholson.

Corman's second to last film as director was the 1970 curio GAS! (also known as GAS-S-S-S-S and not to be confused with a wretched comedy from 1981 with the same name), a film that makes me wonder if it seemed as wacky and disorganized to its original viewers as it does today. Unlikely? Maybe most of the audience that would come out for this sort of movie were under the influence? You know, like, maybe this film works best that way, man? GAS! was one of many Hollywood films of its day attempting to cash in on the counterculture. To make "important" statements within funky cinematic collages that eschewed old school narratives and maybe had some bad words and flashes of skin.  Maybe also trying to ride on the success of EASY RIDER.

Things get off to a bad start during the opening credits, which play over a poorly animated segment that sets up the story. An Army general takes the podium to announce that an accidental gas leak has permeated the globe, killing everyone over the age of 25. We'll follow footloose youths Coel and Cilla (Bob Corff and Elaine Giftos, who resembles Dana Delany) as they set off across America seeking other survivors. They'll meet an interracial couple (Ben Vereen and Cindy Williams), a group of Hell's Angels who act like Establishment types, and a football team whose scoring methods include how many women they can rape (but er, don't worry, dear viewer, it's all done lightheartedly and in the name of Satire). Rape was more apt to be treated this way in '70s films (see WHERE'S POPPA?), and is actually used effectively later on in GAS! when Cilla turns an attempted gangbang to her advantage, a scene that manages a hefty swipe at both the vulnerability of women in exploitation pictures and women's lib.

GAS! is a road movie, a series of blackouts/vignettes that resemble black box theater skits if they ventured outdoors. As expected, it's an uneven, seriously disjointed film that was apparently mutilated in the editing room against Mr. Corman's wishes. At nearly 80 minutes it nonetheless feels much longer as we slog from one variable episode to the next. As with any such enterprise, some ideas work, some don't.  The satire is mostly heavy handed and pretentious, as during a fake gunfight, when instead of firing bullets the participants yell out the names of macho film stars like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as their ammunition. Or the finale with several characters wearing Ghandi and JFK masks. I did like the use of Harold Robbins novels for firewood. Country Joe and the Fish appear in this movie, as does a young Talia ("Tally") Coppola (Shire).

Corman has a surprisingly steady hand as director, his individual scenes sometimes momentary gems, but they're mostly adrift within an unfocused stew of ideas. GAS! wants to be a stinging jab at hippie culture but ends up entirely embracing it. Those with a strong interest in the time period will yield the most enjoyment. Most will rightly shake (and scratch) their heads.
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