Reviews

Two Very Different Responses to 'Easy Rider': 'Gas-s-s-s' and 'Little Fauss and Big Halsy'

Gas! (1970)

American drifters aim for the vanishing point in these films.


Gas!

Director: Roger Corman
Cast: Robert Corff, Elaine Giftos
Distributor: Olive
Year: 1970
Release date: 2016-10-18

Little Fauss and Big Halsy

Director: Sidney J. Furie
Cast: Robert Redford, Michael J. Pollard
Distributor: Olive
Year: 1970
Release date: 2016-10-18

Now on Blu-ray are two 1970 road movies influenced by the previous year's hit Easy Rider, though in very different ways.

Producer/director Roger Corman didn't need to respond by making a biker film, because Easy Rider was already a response to his own 1966 biker film The Wild Angels. Still, his road movie with the onscreen title Gas! or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It, which has alway been advertised with multiple S's in "Gas", does have a two characters on a cycle: top-hatted dandy Edgar Allan Poe and his hippie chick Lenore. As the best characters in the film, they pop up at odd times to comment on the action, with or without editorial input from the voice of God, who sounds like a Jewish Borscht Belt comedian.

As you'll gather, it's in no way a realistic or even reasonable movie but a series of skits and one-liners in the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd, the Theatre of Cruelty, and TV's Laugh-In. The first scene is hand-drawn animation and the rest merely cartoonish. The premise is that the military-industrial complex has accidentally released a gas that kills everyone over 25. Without pausing to worry about it, the characters begin an odyssey through various youthful tyrannies from Texas to New Mexico: a police-controlled Dallas, fascism via football players and cheerleaders, a nouveau Billy the Kid who rustles cars, and a golf club run by Hell's Angels who quip lines riffing on the Vietnam war.

At a pueblo village devoted to non-violence, Coel (Robert Corff) instructs the kiddies on hallucinogens. "I rather thought of it in terms of some our largest film studios becoming drug pushers," he explains of the dynamic between cinema and narcotics, and Corman had been thinking something of the same since his LSD-influenced The Trip (1967). This film is even more free-floating, largely improvised as they went along, such that it's difficult to credit George Armitage with having to work very hard at the screenplay.

The dismissal or deriding of convention is apparent, for example, in the bloodless "shoot-out" when people point guns at each other without actually firing them, instead calling out the names of western movie actors. This ritual causes phony shooting effects on the soundtrack; "John Wayne" has the most firepower. In an effort to avoid having the villagers resort to violence in defense against tyranny, the movie tosses in a deus-ex-machina with a nod to Fellini, confirming that nothing in the movie intends to be serious, not even its social critiques.

This is a movie in which a rock-music-besotted white girl (Cindy Williams), pregnant by a black revolutionary (Ben Vereen), decides not to bring a baby into this world yet, "maybe later" -- and so chooses to remain pregnant indefinitely. Along for the ride are Bud Cort, Talia Coppola, and Native Americans who are glad to repossess the country.

Even in this surreal and impertinent context, modern viewers will have a hard time with politically incorrect rape humor, specifically when Cilla (Elaine Giftos) gets carried off by three men and decides to control the situation by assigning their turns and exhausting them with dialectical lectures, leaving them prone while she ambles away after "laying back and enjoying it". While symptomatic of an era trying to "shock" viewers and puncture middle-class respectability, it doesn't wear well.

Corman uses the improvised nature of the project to dabble in all kinds of stylistic freedom, from the flash-edit transitions of Easy Rider to handheld antics to the psychedelia of a desert concert with Country Joe McDonald & the Fish. He has complained about AIP's final edit, especially dropping what he considered an excellent ending. Instead it ends when Lenore asks, "Aren't they going to rape, cheat, steal, lie, fight and kill, Edgar?" and the stuffed raven on his shoulder croaks "Nevermore!" Then we hear God and Jesus trade jokes over the credits about returning to Earth in a fiery chariot. "You first this time," says the Son. "You should live so long," says the Father. Perhaps this could only have been made in 1970.

Robert Redford and Lauren Hutton in Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970)

Also reeking of 1970 is Little Fauss and Big Halsey, a study of character and milieu along the dusty backroads of American motorcycle racing. The opening shot of a distant cloud of dust kicked up by a rider in a majestic Arizona desert is very Easy Rider. Although it belongs to the era's rash of biker movies, it's also a cross of two 1969 films: Winning, in which Paul Newman's character is a selfish racecar competitor, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a buddy movie with Newman and Robert Redford.

This time around, Redford plays the selfish racer who manipulates others and discards everyone like tissues, and his "buddy" relationship remains unsentimental down to the ending. Redford is Halsy Knox, first seen strutting shirtless with a black cowboy hat, sunglasses and a jagged scar down his spine, a wound later described by a girlfriend as his broken integrity. Knox hooks up with Little Fauss (Michael J. Pollard, most famous for Bonnie and Clyde), a shy mechanic with round little glasses and two loud, doting, countrified, equally bespectacled parents (Noah Beery, Lucille Benson).

It's an exploitive relationship allowing Knox to use Fauss' license and name to race, but Fauss knows he can get something out of it. When he later beds one of Knox's many girlfriends and sneaks out the next morning, she accuses him of learning all the wrong things from his boyfriend.

Although the frequently shirtless Redford is the film's most consistent sex object, most of the women are there to flash some T&A as well. Most prominent is the beautifully named Rita Nebraska (Lauren Hutton), who shows up in a striking manner by running naked into the boys' pick-up truck, apparently after a stoned sexual encounter with bikers.

It's possibly rape, but she never explains and goes into her yoga exercises, declaring she has to stay straight from now on and not move from her center. This has all the makings of an empty, thankless role, but Hutton's self-contained demeanour, something like a hardbitten hippie, both accepts and judges what she finds around her and turns the tables on Knox after re-hooking him with the estranged Fauss.

Director Sidney J. Furie and photographer Ralph Woolsey use widescreen vistas with lots of crane and helicopter shots. The most decisive aesthetic voice is that of Furie's regular editor during this period, Argyle Nelson Jr. He strings together these plotless and disjointed scenes, credited to writer George Eastman, with a consistent pace, and racing sequences are collages of fragmentary shots that mix documentary details with propulsive montage. Whenever a transition or change of mood is necessary, Johnny Cash sings another song on the soundtrack, as written by himself or Carl Perkins or Bob Dylan.

As with many films of this period, you get a vision of America as populated by down-market drifters, whether searching or bluffing or running away, drawn to the concrete laid down through wide open spaces that exist for its tiny figures to get lost in, an arid and unpromising world of flat tires and crushed beer cans within flashes of natural splendor -- a world of indifference really. The speed and competition, and even the crack-ups, are ways of feeling alive while aiming for the vanishing point. It's an attitude at least partly defined by the shadow of Vietnam, as mentioned once in a brief, crucial exchange.

This is a minor example, yet the decades give it all the sharper a contrast to what gets made today. The posters for this Paramount picture declared "Little Fauss and Big Halsy are not your father's heroes." They might have added "or your grandchildren's", for today's studios don't greenlight many movies about deliberately unappealing people in fruitless lives. In the New American Cinema of the early 70s, however, it was par for the coarse.

Olive Films has released both movies on good-looking Blu-ray remasterings without extras.

5

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