[15 January 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
A few years back, when it seemed like every mainstream media outlet was jumping on the Giuseppe Andrews bandwagon, the unpredictable auteur announced the unthinkable. After working almost exclusively in the domain of the trailer park, after focusing on the residents there and the relationships he forged, he was abandoning everyone’s favorite surreal cinematic backdrop for ‘greener pastures’. Having gained his regal reputation via his doublewide workouts, leaving behind the setting for something else appeared antithetical to his overall aesthetic. More disconcerting, where would he go next, and what would this new direction look like?
Fans needn’t have worried. While recent efforts have indeed moved to motels and interesting homesteads for their locations, Andrews remains the Salem Cigarettes of the marginalized. In essence, you can take the director out of the trailer park, but you can’t take the trailer park out of the director. Two new films - the vegan variety act Garbanzo Gas and the poignant portrait of one man’s misery, Cat Piss, proves that even when devoid of an RV vista (as in Gas), there is still enough of the filmmakers’ fascinating spirit to propel his passions forward. Indeed, as with the Americano Trilogy, these newer offerings suggest a growing confidence that is occasionally frightening to behold.
When a lucky cow wins an all expense paid weekend at a local hotel, it can’t believe its good fortune. It gets to relax, unwind, and avoid a trip to the slaughterhouse - at least for a few days. Of course, it couldn’t imagine the menagerie of madmen it would run into. Down the hall is a pair of drug addled dimwits who are desperate for something to eat. The cow becomes their main focus. Meanwhile, two different spree killers are wrecking havoc. One murders at the command of some erroneous bath linen. The other listens to a voice inside his shoe, the instructions resulting in even more dead bodies. All the while, our contented animal tries to accommodate everyone’s needs, which typically revolve around a room service meal of meat and potatoes.
Garbanzo Gas is either the most brilliant pro-vegetarian film ever made, or the most maddening deconstruction of meat’s magical allure since the Sawyer clan discovered the value in human hamburger. Centering on the mythical, mouthwatering promise of steak (and a fully dressed baked potato side dish), and using the actual source of such succulence as the pro/con catalyst, Andrews expands outward, taking on suicidal tendencies, homicidal madness, insanity, and fixation. Overflowing with the filmmaker’s trademark deranged dialogue, and incorporating a tender performance from Andrews’ staple Vietnam Ron, this well-meaning message movie is far more effective than a perverse PETA rally in reiterating the value of animal life, and the uselessness of human existence.
Every person we meet in this stunning celluloid statement is an asshole. The two tweaking lowlifes awaiting the hotel’s check-out time to literally do the same are desperate dope fiends, foaming at the mouth over vending machine chips and in-room coffee. They are so hapless and hungry that they even go down to the seashore and try to catch some fish. On the opposite end are two serial killers - one driven to his deeds by a talking towel, the other who imagines he’s mandated by a shoe promising chili cheese fries. While the premises seem laughable, the analogy is crucial. All man wants to do is kill - be it for sustenance, or to fuel some insane psychological desire. And thanks to the performance of Walt Dongo, Matt Dougal, and Tyree, we get that concept loud and lamentably clear.
On the other hand, Vietnam Ron’s quiet, considerate cow is projected as the voice of reason and accommodation. Anything these vacation interlopers want, he is more than willing to provide. Even when faced with dealing out free versions of himself (not literally), he happily obliges. It’s a brilliant casting step by Andrews. Ron is, without a doubt, a subversive superstar. But he’s also an inherently interesting actor, and a man seemingly incapable of outright anger. Sure, he’s been malevolent in the past, but it has always been a put on. Here, his genuine personality comes through, and it’s a stunning display. It makes his last act conversation with a man from the slaughterhouse all the more emotional. Any other member of the Andrews’ crew would not have worked. Garbanzo Gas needs Vietnam Ron to resonate.
And it really does work. While he avoids the standard abattoir shock treatment (no blood and guts here), Andrews uses shots of sunbathing bovine - and another one of his amazing songs - to finalize the attitude. Yet it’s a cleverly confused conceit. Because of the main characters fascination with steak and all the trimmings, because of how dedicated they are to their misguided mastication, Gas seems to suggest that, while murder, meat is pretty damn tasty. Sure, the contemplative animals argue against the senseless slaughter of same, but when recognizable archetypes scream for slabs of cow carcass, the carnivore in everyone is tantalized. Of course, as a staunch vegetarian, Andrews would argue with that assessment, but when it comes to his art, Garbanzo Gas is more intricate than a standard protest piece.
If you’re looking for simplicity, Cat Piss is the answer. Hailed as a literal return to the trailer park, it centers on Andrews’ newfound friendship with resident Wally Lavern. Under the premise that he would live with the man 24/7 and record their “relationship”, Piss provides the kind of retro-realistic view into the world of the marginalized that few films - let alone filmmakers - would ever dare discuss. As our director helps out around the decaying trailer, as Lavern has imaginary political debates with a broken TV, as flutes are practiced and cats are comforted, this is what the end of one’s days really looks like.
Equally heartbreaking and hilarious, Cat Piss calmly revises our view of Andrews’ environ. Where before, everything was scatology and sexual drive, the implied gimmickry of seeing old people prance around in the all together, here is the way things really are. Matter of fact, unexaggerated for the looming, omniscient camera, this is the very fringes of what we consider to be civilized society. Lavern is not viewed as a joke, or something to be pitied. Instead, Andrews uses his own goofball grace to turn his costar into a perturbing poster boy. It’s the kind of portrayal that we can feel - we can smell the dank air inside the trailer, taste the featureless food bought on a carefully controlled budget. If they were smart, political candidates would hire Andrews to create their pro/con economy ads. No one has a better eye for the travesties of retail existence.
Indeed, this is one of the filmmaker’s most ideological offerings, perhaps even more than Gas. Since Lavern is allowed to rant at the blank boob tube, selling sentiments that may disturb a more liberal mindset, Andrews must counter said caustic conservatism with visuals: the unhappiness on the man’s face; the docile pleasures of playing a plastic flute; the look on a friendly feline’s face. It’s the haves vs. the always have nots all over again. While Gas may have taken the trailer park out into the real world, this is the literal landscape Andrews understands best. It makes what could have been maudlin and morose into an uplifting and quite special experience.
This is true of all of Andrews work, no matter how smutty or silly. His desire to delve beyond the limits of so-called “legitimate” cinema to seek art where it is ample is commendable. Painters know that the imitation of life - any life - is better than a faked foundation. Why shouldn’t filmmakers follow the same inspiration rules? Giuseppe Andrews understands this all too well. This is why his oeuvre is so outstanding. This is why, no matter the pronouncements, he’ll never fully leave behind his trailer town roots.
Scores: Garbanzo Gas
Scores: Cat Piss