I don't do well with empathy.
I found Punishment Park an upsetting viewing experience for many reasons, not the least of which being its ability to force an emotional connection between myself and hippie culture. For a man with Cartmanian opinions on the movement, this was nothing short of a triumph in filmmaking. Longhairs and Commies, spouting free-love rhetoric and getting bashed over the head with nightsticks? "Comedy gold!" thought I. Two hours of man-weeping later, I feared Brock Wilbur might be broken.
Today is about correcting this discomfort, by diving into a film which celebrates my nightmare scenario: yippe take-over. Apocalyptic stakes indeed. Let's set the world right.
Gas! or Gas-s-s-s! or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It was a 1971 film, and schlock-master Roger Corman's last directing credit for eighteen years. My love of Corman knows no bounds, so I revel in this excuse to watch him rip off Wild in the Streets, which was produced two years earlier by the same film studio, AIP. While that film shares a concept, and could easily have been a double-feature for this entry, Gas-s-s-s! projects a more post-apocalyptic vibe.
Change of plans, guys. I'm ten minutes in and I have little to no understanding of what's occurring. This is… just a disaster. Uh. Okay. Let's… I don't know. I'll just describe what I'm seeing and we'll put it together later?
We open with an animated sequence in which top military brass accidentally release a deadly gas into the air. They were opening a new facility and tried to crack a bottle of champagne on it, but used a bio-weapon container instead? Some kind of — all these voices are super over-the-top and silly? That's like a bad John Wayne impression, and a Mr. Magoo homage? Credits. But now, there's talking over the credits, where they're joking about dying. The lab's motto is: "To you it may be deadly, but to us, it's really a gas!" Okay. It's going to be that kind of movie.
A hippie is running through the SMU campus, being chased by police officers. Are they harassing him for listening to rock-and-roll? Nope. He's sporting one hell of a crossbow. A giant, all-white crossbow, that he never uses. And this chase sequence just got very Scooby Doo; we're running up and down opposite stairs and the cops trip when they see a pretty girl.
Now the hippie has hidden in a church, where, with the proper robes and a weird Irish voice, he's convinced the cop to join him in the confessional. The framing keeps wanting to make a connection between a long-haired troublemaker and the many images of Jesus, but this potato farmer voice is driving me insane, and I want to know where we've stashed the giant crossbow. A pretty girl is anxiously waiting in the other confessional, and she's the lab assistant slash mistress of a famous scientist and prattles on about chemical exposition while the cop keeps asking for forgiveness. Our lead tells him to teach bicycle safety at the Black Panther rally in Mobile, Alabama.
Our two leads, Coel and Cilla, make out in a car at a drive-in movie theater. I don't know what I'm watching. Where's the crossbow? They compete to make up new, beautiful words for love-making: Turquoise. Manatee. Rainy day. Ferment. Fantasia. Figs. Orgasm. That last one seems a bit of a cheat.
Back into the plot… yay! This gas (or Gas!) (or Gas-s-s-s!) kills anyone over the age of twenty-five by immediately striking them with old age. Kinda cool. Some powerful shots of Americans, suddenly turned elderly, holding their dying loved ones in the streets of Dallas. Younger kids stealing clothes off the backs of the deceased. So that's where we get hipsters…
Our leads bounce around the school, getting opinions from different social groups on how to handle this situation. The stoners want to relax until "the whole world blows over." Young Republicans want to keep everything soldiering onward, and some intellectual reactionary cries out for everyone on both sides to be put to death while simultaneously decrying division. Luckily, the frat quad has the best policy of all: a sex-and-beer party.
The entire soundtrack is written by Country Joe & The Fish, and like Drive, each song describes exactly what we're seeing on screen. Going to predict now that we have more party sequences in the future, with songs that tell us we are watching a party.
Coel and Cilla are in a suburban backyard, while a shirtless Nazi with a whip yells at them. I think this guy has placed himself in charge of giving travel permits, but don't hold me to that, because the completely unsync'd dubbing has given him a high-pitched but also incomprehensible and gravely voice. If Bane ever fought Secret Squirrel… they'd both be annoyed by this.
We're leaving Dallas, and there's a nod to the JFK assassination. And from the book depository… wait. Okay, our leads are in their own car, but some kind of Mystery Wagon van is following them, and they don't seem to notice. Whose hallucination am I in? It's a giant multi-colored vehicle and they're the only other people on the road, trailing right behind them. They see them, right? Roger Corman doesn't care? Fine, then I don't care.
May have been right about that travel permit thing. The car breaks through a line of a dozen guys at a checkpoint, all armed with large automatic weapons, who, I suppose, have no idea how to use them? Coel and Cilla find a deserted town, and burn books from the local library to keep warm, offering a chance to make some jokes about Harold Robbins that have aged very well.
Driving the next day, two guys on horseback with six-shooters get them to pull over. And have just stolen the car and the supplies. Wait. Fifteen hours ago, you drove through a military blockade, and now you can navigate horses and pea-shooters? The lead bandit is named Billy (some people call him The Kid), and he operates a used car dealership. He rides a horse named Pretentious. He rides a horse named Pretentious. He rides a horse named Pretentious. Billy decides he doesn't have to kill Coel and Cilla because they can't dance.
Shoot me in the face.
Coel and Cilla walk to a nearby city where they play kickball with children in the street, then enter a record shop where they encounter pregnant Zooey Deschanel. Cindy Williams? Shirley of Laverne & Shirley is doing incredible work here. She's totally the pre-Zooey, and she is into the indie rock like a mofo. She's also got a black militant boyfriend. That's quirky, right? Coel asks the militant black guy why he's dating a white girl, and he says, "Back off man, we all have inconsistencies! But that doesn't stop the revolution!" Oh, this movie just gets better and— F me, that's a pre–Harold and Maude Bud Cort! Holy crap, that's Talia Shire! ADRIANNNNNNN! I saw Talia Coppola in the credits, forgot to put it together that this was back when even Nic Cage was a Coppola. Also, he was probably five when this movie came out, so he didn't know yet.
Bud Cort and new black friend join Coel to take the car back. Guns in hand, they surround Billy the Kid and his gang — my God. Before each combatant fires, they shout the name of a different Western actor? Tim McCoy! Gabby Hayes! Burt Lancaster! Roy Rogers! Greatest fight sequence of all time. Take note of this, Brett Ratner, you hack. Tonal shift to mourning the looters they've slain — whatthe — OHMIGAWD YES. You guys. Edgar Allan Poe just drove up on a yellow motorcycle.
A lady behind him, also dressed in Victorian Gothic garb. A raven perched on his shoulder.
Everyone knows who he is.
In the works of H.P. Lovecraft, characters often unwittingly read from some ancient tome and their confused utterances wake the elder gods from out of time and bring about the destruction of existence. Roger Corman, was that your intention with this film? If I hit stop now, do I save the planet? Or just myself, from the creeping madness?
Back on the highway, they keep passing signs telling them the Answers they seek lay with the Oracle. Cannot wait to meet the Oracle. THE VAN IS BACK AND THEN GONE AGAIN. Do we not notice — seriously, you just did a Chinese fire-drill. It's right behind you. Just acknowledge that it exists. For me.
Everyone gathers for a big concert… featuring Country Joe & The Fish. Good. This is good. Now Country Joe is doing some acting? "I'm God's road manager. I'm the God-head. Get it? God? Head?" Bud Cort yells at Cilla until she'll agree to be raped by him. She opts to keep cooking a microwave dinner over an open flame instead, and he storms off. Coel sexes up some random girl (Zoe) in an acid sequence, and they come up with the beautiful word "arrow-feather" to describe love making. Coel meets up with Cilla later and she's happy for him having slept with someone else, even though he won't share his new secret word, like a dick. But his words are echoing in her head the next day, so I guess she's not as cool with this as she's acting? Also, there's a song about "making it with a stranger" so we're just flat telling me — God Himself speaks to the crowd. To ask whoever was driving a dark blue Mustang convertable to turn off their parking lights. God also sounds like some miserable bastard doing the worst Mel Brooks impression in history.
Crap. What is this? A whole town overrun by a football team? There's a marching band, and the team drives dune buggies with guns attached — THE MYSTERY VAN JUST DROVE THROUGH TOWN AND NO ONE NOTICED. Oh. The team is pillaging the town they run — and they're raping. They're raping everyone. And stealing meat. So meat and rape. It's just like Friday Night Lights, in that way. That's what I'm seeing now. Our core group stops a rape, but the lead football player throws a flag and penalizes them five yards for being off-sides. Rape prevention isn't worth ten yards? This lead guy — he dresses like Dick Dastardly from Wacky Races, but he looks like Jason Segal. Oscars in '71 overlooked a serious power player. He's leading the team in rape practice, in preparation for their next big raid. And then we watch the instant replay of rape practice, with commentary: "You call that a rape? You'll never score! Do that again!" The cheerleaders agree.
Our leads escape in a wacky dune buggy chase, but the pregnant girl goes into labor, so they track down a doctor. While he tries to help her, with a flasher in trench coat wandering around aimlessly behind them, Cilla gets kidnapped by three dudes. I — No. Stick with me here? They take her to a house where she gleefully takes control of the situation, picking the order she'll be raped: "I'm the rape-ee. I should have something to say. You're first, and then you."
Later, when her friends come to rescue her, she's sitting triumphantly over the three aggressors, whom she has completely warn out via sex, explaining how contemporary women can alter male sexual drives by meeting or exceeding them. They put up no fight, and reunited with Coel, she shares her philosophy of "If it's going to happen, why not lay back and enjoy it?" Is this… what someone thought empowerment looked like? If so, they immediately undercut it by using a flashback to Coel's sexual encounter, implying that Cilla used her sexual violence victimization as revenge, as she dances about, celebrating.
This isn't as fun as it used to be. Nothing like thirty minutes of "silly rape" to alter your perceptions of a cartoonish film. At least Irreversible knew what it wanted to be…
The group is enslaved by punk rockers who operate a golf course. They escape later, when course rules dictate they cannot be pursued over a water hazard. We're mining the depths of anger-inducing dumb.
Talia Shire explodes while eating anchovies. I don't know. I don't care anymore. I think this happens but it's off-screen and Bud Cort can't explain, so we move on. "It sounded like a bomb. No, it sounded more ironic than that." If something gets raped in the next scene, I'm out.
Almost as bad: the group comes upon a Native American who, I think, tried to do this scene very seriously, and has some decent point to make. But just like the Nazi guy earlier, the actor has been overdubbed by a ridiculous voice that never matches his mouth, and we're just talking about being high and calling the group "round-eyes."
At Pueblo, a peaceful commune has gathered, led by a terrible Jewish stereotype with frizzy hair and glasses. He looks a little like the warden from Superjail. When does that show come back? I would rather be watching — Goddamn, I am annoyed by everything they are saying. Coel is now teaching children, and there's a semi-interesting exchange about pills that would allow you to watch movies on your eye-lids, and how science made it as far as recreating musical films of the 30s, but only in lab mice. I'd rather be listening to Phantogram's Eyelid Movies album. I hate this. I hate myself so much right now. Does Filmpocalyse end here? I just don't give a shit.
Hope! On the horizon! The players of Team Rape are preparing to sack Pueblo. This is tricky. I definitely want to see some hippies get murdered (hooray, I'm cured!) but more than that I don't want to see any more hilarious rape. I have put myself in a stupid place. Let's see what No Win scenario I'm gifted.
Everyone in Pueblo magically puts on Red Cross hats, and the football captain can't go against his military training and attack them. Huh. Okay? Then God sends lightning to blow up a gazeebo and a tunnel opens up and everyone from every other scene in the movie shows up and we all have a party while a song about having a party plays. I hate. I just hate. It oozes from me like — THE MYSTERY VAN. It's here! It's opening up! OHMIGOD I GET RESOLUTION! Who is getting out? Who was hunting our leads for— It's Abraham Lincoln. It's a big papier-mâché–headed Lincoln. And Gandhi, JFK… Alfred E. Neuman? What. The. Dammit.
Then we have three endings:
Poe is back. "Aren't they all going to rape, lie, fight, and kill, Edgar?" asks his companion, Lenore. "Nevermore," squawks the Raven. "What do we do now?" inquires Cilla. "Arrow-feather," responds Coel. She smiles, even though she has no idea that "arrow-feather" is his secret work with the other girl he screwed. Wasn't she mad about that? Isn't that why she had such a good time being — nope.
Finally, over the credits:
God: Hey Jesus, shall we fire up the gold chariot and finish this off? Jesus: Sure, pop. Why don't you go first this time? God: You should live so long!
What does this movie have to say about the Apocalypse? Kids are idiots. I hate the Seventies. Country Joe had a terrible band. Whatever. No message this round. Maybe some kind of meta-message about wasting your life, but I don't feel I should put any more effort into this film. Bail.
The entire seventy-seven minute experience is on Youtube. Wow. What a gift to you. Enjoy.