Gas-s-s-s – Or – It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It.
1970 / Color / 1:85 widescreen/ 79 min. / Street Date October 18, 2016 / Gas-s-s-s / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring: Elaine Giftos, Robert Corff, Cindy Williams, Bud Cort, Ben Vereen, Tally Coppola, Lou Procopio.
Cinematography: Ron Dexter
Film Editor: George Van Noy
Original Music: Country Joe and the Fish
Written and Produced by George Armitage
Directed by Roger Corman
Roger Corman finally accepted himself as an iconic filmmaker for this, his final show for A.I.P.. Barely released and long considered a failure, Gas-s-s-s – Or – It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It sees Corman and his writer associate George Armitage attempting a Mad magazine- like amalgam of all the counterculture trends of the late 1960s. That tactical mistake becomes eighty minutes of unfocused and unfunny satire. Armitage’s script and dialogue might occasionally hit some serendipitous notes, if the show were an avant-garde musical revue for the stage. Corman’s attempt to film it ‘mad ball caravan’ style, wandering the highway between Texas and New Mexico, is a disaster. The director’s forte had previously been condensing a big idea or two into a microcosm with a few actors in an isolated, controlled environment. Something as loopy as Gas-s-s-s would indicate the need for some kind of stylization, if not the complete abstraction of an animated cartoon. Corman tries to film it on a nickel & dime budget, and the whole thing just sags.
1970 marked the collapse of the Old Hollywood, a wild time when the ‘suits’ gave up and green-lit all manner of flakey pseudo counterculture epics — misfire sexist comedies (Getting Straight) and lame-O musical fantasies (Zachariah), but also a big-budget ode to revolution by a world-class filmmaker, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point). A serial recycler of his own filmography, Corman here appears to be listening to the film critics calling him a genius. He might have been stricken with one of worst ailments of ‘sixties filmmaking, Fellini-itis. As did the much more expensive farce Candy, Gas-s-s-s ends with a reprise-parade of itself, as in Fellini’s 8½.
All might have been forgiven had Gas-s-s-s been blessed with anything like a witty screenplay. George Armitage’s outline is packed with references to topical issues, countercultural buzzwords and revolutionary jargon, but says nothing about them. Worse, almost nothing is funny. Roger Corman’s saving grace was his stance as a button-down straight shooter. His excellent civil rights movie The Intruder excels because he stays dead on target at all times. I can’t think of another picture where Corman tried out a ‘just let it happen’ freeform production method. The Wild Angels may have had an improvised shoot, but the screenplay is heavily structured.
Ten years before, writer Charles B. Griffith captured a workable style for Corman that lampooned beatniks, art film pretensions and silly movie conventions. I’m not sure Griffith could do better with Gas-s-s-s, but I don’t think he’d go for things like the title that imitates Dr. Strangelove, six years after doing so had already been exhausted. The accuracy of the satire in this show is often no more inspired than the now-insufferable goofery of TV’s show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.
Here’s an overlong synopsis: A cartoon prologue with a general speaking in John Wayne’s voice tells us that an experimental bio-weapon has precipitated the death of everyone over twenty-five, a story launch that combines Corman’s The Last Woman on Earth with the generation war premise of A.I.P.’s Wild in the Streets. Escaping a newly militarized Dallas in an Edsel roadster, liberated longhairs Coel (Bob Corff) and Cilla (Elaine Giftos) head westward to reach ‘The Oracle,’ a spiritual destination advertised on road signs, Burma-Shave style. Their car is stolen by Billy the Kid (writer Armitage), a cowboy who rustles cars. They re-energize at a Route 66 drive-in concert by Country Joe and the Fish, where Joe identifies himself as ‘AM Radio’. Coel makes it with a girl named Zoe (Juretta Taylor) under psychedelic lights, which Cilla accepts as ‘cool’. He’s discovered a new word for erotic nirvana, ‘Arrowfeather.’ The pair team up with two more couples to brave the lawless roads. Music-addled, perpetually pregnant Marissa (Cindy Williams) and Black Power revolutionary Carlos (Ben Vereen) are an odd pair, while shotgun-toting Hooper (Bud Cort) is hooked up with the amorous Coralee (Talia Shire, as Tally Coppola). They take back the Edsel with a shootout in which the gunslingers, instead of firing guns, shout the names of movie cowboys.
Along the way the group is observed by Edgar Allan Poe (Bruce Karcher), who says that they are like Prospero fleeing the Red Death, and that they will be corrupted by the same things they opposed before. The odyssey leads them to be captured by The Warriors, a high school football team morphed into an army of meat-eating raiders, who ride in dune buggies raping and pillaging. Their leader Jason (Alex Wilson) plans for our group to join in the sacking of El Paso, but they escape during a ‘pillage practice’ complete with cheerleaders. From there the six travelers are captured by a Hell’s Angels club that has traded their motorcycles for golf carts. Their leader Marshall McLuhan enforces a rigid society less palatable than the straight world wiped out by the Gas. The Oracle turns out to be a sham, but a possible utopia is found at Acoma, a Navajo dwelling atop a beautiful Mesa. The hippie leader Mort Catafalque (Raye Birk) amiably suggests that maybe they can make Acoma a paradise if they all work together. When Jason and the Warriors arrive to sack Acoma as well, Mort and Coel debate the right course of action: fight, or use passive resistance.
If that overlong synopsis makes Gas-s-s-s seem organized, it’s a mistake. It’s a genuine post-apocalyptic satire that can’t properly erect a satiric format. The show has no unifying style or viewpoint to tie together its mostly lame humor and tedious satirical barbs. Nothing matters, nothing pays off. The occasional gag that seems sincere or actually finds a target, drowns in the glut of things that don’t work.
The young actors put energy into their parts, but can’t do much with the material. For almost everyone it’s a first outing before a camera. The delightful Cindy Williams has a stupid character to play, running around with a preggers pillow under her dress and shouting excitedly, “We have twist records, the music that got white America dancing again!” Bud Cort’s skirt chasing character always wears shades, and shows none of the actor’s charm. Elaine Giftos hits the right note of smiling ‘let’s get it on’ charm, in an otherwise tasteless scene where she acquiesces to being raped. Robert Corff was seemingly cast because of his haircut and is unmemorable. Future star Ben Vereen is outfitted like Pancho Villa. He happily is not tasked with too much in the way of Black Power posing, although he does answer Corff’s peace sign with a power fist. Vereen finds a black girlfriend in Marshall McLuhan’s junkyard, just as Williams’ Marissa drops out to spend quality time with a juke box she’s encountered.
Of the supporting parts Bruce Karcher is an unimpressive Edgar Allan, even though he comes with a stuffed raven on his shoulder and his own Lenore, a biker mama. I don’t think that the Chas. Addams vibe had yet morphed into the Goth style. Lou Procopia doesn’t bring much to ‘Marshall McLuhan’, but Alex Wilson’s Jason is a nice combo of John Wayne and Patton, and Raye Birk hits a perfect note as the Hippie leader Mort. Just don’t expect them to have fun material to work with. As if riffing off of Robert Downey’s genuinely savage satire Putney Swope, at one point a ‘Raincoat Harry’ (Gary Caplan) runs around exposing himself to various cast members.
As a production, Gas-s-s-s is like a high school movie where nobody really fits their cartoonish roles, and nothing makes the effect it wants to. Even the Warriors’ cheerleaders chant of “Yay Fascism!” lays an egg. Corman hits us with references to his own movies, but he at least refrains from cutting in stock shots from older pictures. The use of dune buggies and golf carts leads to minutes of repetitive, shapeless chase scenes. The camera is seldom in a really expressive position and most of the film is simply unattractive. The exception to that is at the real Navajo village of Acoma, where Corman lays down camera tracks and comes up with much more pleasing footage, with moving camera shots that show off the area’s natural beauty.
The literature on the production of Gas-s-s-s, even Roger Corman’s autobio, recount a cursed shoot. Corman isn’t the type to make excuses but here the bitterness shows. He tried to film the show in late 1969, and was frozen out of Dallas by bad weather — a planned restaging (of some kind) of the Kennedy Assassination was reduced to a sound effect of gunshots. The shoot is based on cheapie deals made along the route, to film at a junkyard, at an obviously run-down golf course, and on the grounds of a school with a playing field. Back in The Young Racers, filmed in Europe in 1963, Corman could film at real Grand Prix racetracks, in cafes and on city streets, because his assistant Menahem Yoram made incredible ‘almost for free’ deals for camera access. But times had clearly changed for fly-by-night film companies. Corman’s close associates Frances Doel and Stephanie Rothman lost out when The Grateful Dead upped their rate at the last minute and had to be replaced with Country Joe and the Fish. The Navajos also refused to cooperate without additional cash, causing Corman (as reported by Paul Rapp) to lose his enthusiasm.
When Corman talks about things he likes in Gas-s-s-s we sometimes wonder what movie he saw. A major redressing of a freeway under construction is so poorly filmed – covered only in one or two lame zoom shots — that it’s nothing to brag about. But the director’s real upset occurred when he saw what happened to Gas-s-s-s in post-production. A.I.P. had recently gone public, and co-owner James H. Nicholson had, in Corman’s view, become very conservative. Nicholson and Sam Arkoff had meddled with the cuts of his previous four films, but here they went overboard, removing politically offensive material and cutting out an entire character called ‘God,’ who speaks with a comic New York Jewish accent. Corman also insists that N & A lopped off his final ‘money’ shot, a long zoom pullback from a kissing couple to reveal the entire main street of Acoma alive with a celebratory party of peace and happiness.
The present cut of Gas-s-s-s has the same running time listed in Variety’s September 1970 review. There is no massive pullback on the kiss, but ‘God’s’ voice does come in at least twice, and it does have an ethnic accent. In fact, the show ends with a fairly tasteless dialogue exchange between God and Jesus, right at the fade-out. I suppose this could all be different — perhaps there were more ‘God’ interruptions, with a coarser voice performance?
My ‘inside’ info on the title is limited: when MGM looked into restoring Corman’s cut, they found no materials except for an alternate mag that had an additional scene or two in Dallas (audio only), and a few alternate lines here and there.
I reviewed Gas-s-s-s, a movie I think not very successful, because I wanted to get a better picture of Roger Corman. The amazing trendsetter took giant steps with each of his pictures, only to reach the end of the line, pretty much at the same time that A.I.P.’s overall relevance has been expended. Corman again transformed his career, starting his own distribution company and financing exactly the exploitative pictures A.I.P. shied away from — soft core sex comedies, trashy Women In Prison epics, etc. He continued to successfully gauge the changing market and to stake out his niche where other distributor-producers feared to tread. And his importing of European Art pictures allowed him to reach a level of respectability previously denied.
I do have to say that I like one scene in Gas-s-s-s very much, and I’m not sure why. Right in the middle of the painfully flaky Peace & Love party atop the Navajo mesa, that hippie-painted army 4×4 truck opens up, and out come a series of famous people, actors with papier-mache head masks, like in a Mardi Gras celebration: Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, John Kennedy, Che Guevara and Martin Luther King. The little parade, crude as it is, hits a sentimental nerve untouched during the entire picture. It’s the only moment in the movie that achieves a kind of home-made grandeur. Few reviewers mention that the revolutionary (?) greats are followed by a similar masked character, Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman. If he’s a sarcastic attempt to undercut the impact of the other icons, it doesn’t work. I mention this effect realizing that it might be totally subjective… it’s not like it even begins to redeem the rest of this truly unfortunate mess of a movie.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Gas-s-s-s – Or – It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It is a dutifully accurate encoding of Roger Corman’s final A.I.P. opus. HD Blu-rays of The Wild Angels and The Trip showed us how handsomely filmed those movies actually were, after suffering decades of grainy, often pan-scanned TV prints. Gas-s-s-s can’t compete, what with so many haphazard scenes apparently shot second-unit. The concluding episode atop the Acoma dwelling looks quite good, though.
The only extra is an original trailer, which only serves to confuse us as to how many titles this show has — it’s spelled differently on the film, on the poster and on the trailer. It’s possibly not fair to label so much of the movie unfunny. The contemporary youth rebellion comedy Getting Straight is equally lame, although I remember laughing at it quite a bit — back when I was a so-called Yallow Couth. Gas-s-s-s has some fairly charming actors, a number of which went on to fairly busy careers. I think they do fairly well with a very tough assignment. As for writer George Armitage, I’m a big fan of his Orion picture Miami Blues, which has a marvelously off-kilter sense of humor. I’m glad his career enjoyed some impressive high points.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gas-s-s-s – Or – It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It. Blu-ray rates:
Video: Good +
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 17, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson