Friday, October 20, 2017

GAS-S-S-S (1970)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*


GAS-S-S-S, a movie with an absurdly long alternate title that I'm not going to type, was the third-to-last film officially directed by Roger Corman. Going by remarks cited on Wikipedia, Corman blamed the failure of GAS-S-S-S at the box office on AIP's cuts and marketing strategy. Thereafter he largely abandoned directing and continued as a film producer because he found that job easier. He defended the "intellectual" content of GAS-S-S-S-S even though he admitted he might have kept keep the film's concepts too well hidden under its humorous content.

The title of GAS-S-S-S is also the source of its only metaphenomenal content. By accident the U.S. military unleashes a poison gas that slays only people over the age 25. Presumably it affects the whole world, though the movie only focuses on a handful of young Americans trying to sort out their place in the new scheme of things. As is often the case with post-disaster films, the characters don't have to deal with piles and piles of dead bodies; it's more as if the gas has simply erased the older generations from existence. The film's focal characters are a romantic couple, male Coel and female Cilia. Their names are so similar that I suspect writer George Armitage was indicating some shared nature, perhaps thinking they had a shared "celestial" (derived from Latin "caelum") nature. Coel and Cilia jaunt about the country, meeting absurdities like golf-playing bikers and a crazed football team. They even run into a man who seems to be a reborn Edgar Allan Poe, riding a motorcycle with a black-clad babe behind him. "Poe" warns that the younger generation is doomed to make the same mistakes as the older one. Even God is a running character, intruding to comment on the action, and apparently bringing back a small coterie of dead people near the film's end. It's an almost plotless "road movie," and despite a number of violent altercations-- including one or two rapes-- the film ends on a note of affirmation, predicting that the young people will defy the odds and forge a more positive world.

GAS-S-S-S's alleged humor usually falls flat. The only joke that works fairly well is one in which a bunch of young guys duel one another with imaginary guns, as if they were kids playing cowboy games, and as they fire at each other, they yell out the names of famous western actors, ending the duel with the portentous name of John Wayne. This seems aimed at liberal-minded kids who rejected the ethos of the American western, but scripter Armitage didn't have the first idea as to how to extend this concept through the rest of the film. Coel and Cilia, along with a few friends they pick up along the way, also encounter other hostile, male-centered societies, like the crazy football team. Yet there's no clear indictment of male privilege. If anything, the aforementioned rape-scenes loosely validate male privilege. In one of the scenes, the girl being abducted yells that one victim yells that she wishes she's taken karate lessons instead of needlepoint, or something like that. In an even stranger scene, a gang of rapists are defeated by a victim who enjoys her assault so much, and so often, that she leaves them all exhausted, and for good measure lectures them on the greater sexual capacities of women. Even in 1970, it's awfully hard to imagine any women in the audience being amused by this jape.

Corman, born in 1926, became an independent film director in 1954. Although he didn't make films with explicit teen appeal until 1957, when he directed both CARNIVAL ROCK and ROCK ALL NIGHT, much of his product became associated, rightly or wrongly, with the teen-centered drive-ins of the decade. Throughout the rest of his career, Corman often catered to what might be loosely termed "the youth market," and even though he was in his early thirties when he produced his first rock-and-roll films, I hypothesize that he took some pride in his ability to suss out what young audiences wanted. Often this came down to the formula called "blood, beasts and breasts," which would also suggest a greater focus on young male, rather than female, viewers. I certainly am not faulting Corman for being a commercial filmmaker, or even for making films that tended to appeal mostly to guys. But his reputed tendency to have loose scripts even during filming, and to inject gratuitous sex-and-violence scenes in haphazard fashion, goes a lot toward explaining why GAS-S-S-S turns out so poorly.

Despite the presence of a comical Creator, there's no sense that Corman and Armitage had any sense of the metaphysical implications of an apocalypse. Thus the only Campbellian function I cite is that of the sociological, as the film is defined almost entirely by a notion of young people wishing that they could remake the world if only all those old people were out of the way.

No comments:

Post a Comment