“Women are lonely in the ‘90s. It’s our new phase.”
July 10, 1992. Future Grammy-winner “Baby Got Back” had just hit #1 on the Billboard charts, questioning Eurocentric beauty standards in American culture and allowing Seattle’s best known rapper to perform on top of a giant fiberglass ass. In arguably more feminist news, we have our third woman-directed movie of the summer (following POISON IVY and A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN).
GAS FOOD LODGING* is another one from IRS Releasing (RUBIN & ED, ONE FALSE MOVE), and it’s the sophomore film from writer/director Alison Anders, whose debut BORDER RADIO (1987) (co-directed with Dean Lent and Kurt Voss) had been nominated for Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. This one’s loosely based on a 1971 young adult novel called Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt by Richard Peck, but it fits pretty well into this period of American indie cinema when Anders’ future FOUR ROOMS neighbor Quentin Tarantino hadn’t arrive yet and directors were more influenced by her former boss Wim Wenders (she was a production assistant on PARIS, TEXAS). It’s about two sisters growing up with their single mother in a mobile home in dusty (fictional) Laramie, New Mexico, and doesn’t try to bullshit you with much more of a hook than that. That’s what Anders is interested in.
Fairuza Balk stars as teenage protagonist and narrator Shade. Like many residents of Laramie she’s bored of her desolate town. Her way of escaping is through the films of an old Mexican screen idol named Elvia Rivero. She attends matinees at the town’s one screen theater, and we barely ever see another person there besides the projectionist. Though the movies are unsubtitled and she doesn’t seem to know much Spanish, she says that her idol Rivero “could put into words everything I was thinking.”
She does have a real friend in Darius (Donovan Leitch, THE BLOB, CUTTING CLASS), who works at some kind of vintage boutique and seems to share her taste for kitsch. She waves at him through the window as he puts a platform shoe on display. Remember what I was saying in the RUBIN & ED review about people my age obsessing over tacky disco era fashion in those days? Here’s more evidence. In keeping with the Lollapalooza era, Shade wears cut off jeans over long johns, the score is by J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. (who also cameos), and the soundtrack features songs by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Barry Adamson, Crime & the City Solution, and Velvet Monkeys (plus Renegade Soundwave, and Victoria Williams on the end credits).
Shade’s older sister Trudi (Ione Skye, RIVER’S EDGE) seems considerably less cool than her, because her impetuousness goes beyond constant arguments with their mom Nora (Brooke Adams, THE STUFF) to being a jerk to busboy Javier (Jacob Vargas, THE PRINCIPAL) and calling him a racist slur. Fuck that. Nevertheless, she built up my sympathies by holding her head through various indignities and mistreatments based on being “one of those girls with a rep.” Life hands her more shit sandwiches than any other character in the movie, not even including the crucial backstory about a violent assault.
Meanwhile, Shade embarks on two misguided quests: one, to find her mom a new boyfriend, and two, to reconnect with the father she only knows from the frames of an old reel of 8mm film. Her side of the bedroom has posters of David Bowie and Elvia Rivero, while Trudi’s has a Motley Crue poster and magazine clippings of men (including Fabio) that Shade looks at while thinking of her mom’s past boyfriends and says, “There are so many kinds of guys.”
(I swear I saw a Big John Stud doll in there somewhere too, but I can’t figure out which scene it was.)
Shade’s adventures in matchmaking include a funny scene where she sets Mom up with a guy she was already seeing but planning to stop because he’s married (Chris Mulkey, THE HIDDEN). Meanwhile, Shade reconnects with her father (James Brolin, PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE) who’s so damned charming and so damned pathetic when he tells her how he always meant to go see her and feels real bad about it. “I’m him. I ain’t shit, but I’m your old man, darlin’.”
Nora works as a waitress at a truck stop diner. I like that they sometimes have family dinners by coming there on her shift and ordering food. Trudi ends up getting a job there too, which is how she meets Dank (Robert Knepper), a British petrologist in town to search for rare rocks. He shows her rocks that glow in blacklight, they have sensual cave sex, she confesses that he’s the first person she had sex with because she actually wanted to. But she kind of waits for the other shoe to drop, and so do we.
It’s actually a triple romance here. Nora starts a cute relationship with Hamlet (David Lansbury, GORILLAS IN THE MIST), a goofball she met while he was installing a neighbor’s satellite dish. And Shade has a more chaste young person’s laying around in the grass type of romance with Javier, after he leaves the truck stop to become the projectionist at the theater she goes to. Mom’s is more like a happy moment in real life – sweaty and smiling together in bed in the trailer, while the daughters are experiencing a more fanciful cinematic type of romance surrounded by beautiful nature.
There’s social pressure against Shade dating Javier – her dumbass friend Tanya (holy shit that’s Julie Condra, who a few years later starred in CRYING FREEMAN with Mark Dacascos and then married him) won’t let her bring him to a party and claims “he is a chola. Pure gangster.” This is of course totally false, while the cool DJ from L.A. Tanya brags about coming to her party actually does turn out to be a dangerous sex creep. Let’s hope Tanya picked up the clues that she’s full of shit.
Before all that, though, Shade makes the comical blunder of deciding she’s in love with her friend Darius and trying to seduce him by dressing in rhinestone hotpants and blond wig to look like his “dream girl,” Olivia Newton-John. It’s kind of cute that Shade never figures out he’s gay, but weird that Trudi doesn’t.
The saddest part of the movie is that being with Dank and seeing the magical natural formations underground makes Trudi love life and Laramie again, until Dank says he’s going to Carlsbad on a rock hunting trip and never comes back. For a while she stands in front of the train tracks fondling the rock he gave her, but eventually she gives up. Worse, she finds out she’s pregnant. She decides to go stay at a home in Dallas where they’ll take care of her during pregnancy and then she’ll give the baby up for adoption. It’s very sad but also very sweet to see the sisters connect more before they’re separated.
SPOILER TO A BIG TWIST IN THE MOVIE (no, seriously): Near the end I joked that maybe Dank really hadn’t abandoned Trudi, but was in fact trapped in a collapsed mine. I couldn’t believe it when this turned out to be the actual direction of the story (except he’s not just trapped – he’s dead). I suppose that leaves us with a little more hope that love can be real, but a little more pessimism about how such things will turn out.
I liked this one. It’s simple and understated in a refreshing way. It’s quiet and sparse compared to Hollywood movies about similar subjects, but it’s not going for gritty realism. It’s a view of the world that fits Shade’s naive perspective and love of old movies. And it shows all these characters who don’t have the easiest lives – the single mother raising two daughters in the trailer park, the abandoned pregnant rape survivor, the barely closeted gay kid, the Mexican-American kid supporting his deaf mother – as regular people getting by and trying to be happy, not as objects of pity.
It was a small release traveling around for 905 days, eventually ponying up about $1.3 million. Which could be considered a success story in those days. It was really reviewed and nominated for Independent Spirit Awards for best picture (losing to THE PLAYER), best director (losing to Carl Franklin for ONE FALSE MOVE), best supporting female for Brooke Adams (losing to Alfre Woodard in PASSION FISH), best screenplay (losing to THE WATERDANCE) and best female lead for Balk, who won.
It was only Balk’s fourth feature film, following RETURN TO OZ (1985), THE OUTSIDE CHANCE OF MAXIMILIAN GLICK (1988) and VALMONT (1989). She’s about 3 years younger than Winona Ryder, and didn’t reach quite the same Gen-X icon status, but I think of her in a similar light. Her dad played guitar in the psychedelic folk band Kaleidoscope, and she was raised by her mom, a bellydancer. She had her precocious child star years (The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, RETURN TO OZ, THE WORST WITCH) and here she is playing a relatable and/or aspirational figure for young people who see themselves as outsiders. I guess the difference is that she excelled at the dark side of being a goth weirdo (and bizarrely contorting her lips over her large teeth) so THE CRAFT became her most memorable role, and her biggest Hollywood break was as the cat woman in THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. She also got some Adam Sandler money (THE WATERBOY) which may have funded her lifestyle of doing respectable work in plenty more indies.
I really like her and wish we got to see her more. I haven’t seen her in anything since THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEAN. But I guess that’s my fault – she’s done other movies (I just decided I will check out TRESPASSERS) and was on Ray Donovan and Paradise City and she’s a singer and mixed media artist. Which I suppose is what you would guess would become of the girl who played Shade.
*the movie was advertised as “GAS FOOD LODGING” (no commas) but the opening titles say “GAS, FOOD LODGING” (one comma), which I found repeated in reviews, including Variety’s. But Anders says in an interview on the blu-ray that they “couldn’t afford the second comma,” meaning it was a mistake but they didn’t have the money to redo it.
This is a horrible postscript that will be followed by something lighter (and then get dark again). In 2017, GAS FOOD LODGING’s costume designer Susan Bertram alleged that actor Robert Knepper sexually assaulted her when she was delivering costumes to his trailer. Soon, four other women accused him of assaults between 1983 and 2013. He denies them, of course. But that’s why I didn’t list any of his cool action movie credits after his name. I’m not about to celebrate the guy.
Okay. Enough about that asshole. As always I thought I should look up the theater seen in the movie – the Sunn Cinema in Deming, New Mexico – and find out what became of it. According to my research it opened as the El Rancho Theatre in 1942, refurbished as Sunn Cinema in 1979, closed in 1983, so I’m not sure what was going on with it when they filmed in 1991. The structure still exists, but they got rid of the box office to make it into Heaven’s Beauty Salon.
Deming is still a small town with a population of less than 14,000, but it was used to film the Area 51 hangar in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, the Themyscira scenes in BATMAN V SUPERMAN, and the training camp in CREED II. That’s cool! What’s uncool is that in 2014 the city and county settled a lawsuit for $1.6 million because their cops pulled a guy over for a rolling stop in a Wal Mart parking lot, decided he was standing up too straight so they took him to hospital to be x-rayed and cavity searched multiple times, given an enema, forced to have bowel movements in front of a nurse and given a colonoscopy, all while officers mocked him. They found, of course, that they were completely wrong to assume he had drugs up his butt, so they admitted their mistake and apologized profusely. Just kidding! They sent him a bill for the medical procedures.
It’s almost like the drug war and our country’s entire concept of public safety are irreparably broken systems that drag supposedly good people into performing acts of indefensible savagery on our citizens, and would have to be completely dismantled and reimagined from the ground up if we were ever to have a society that cared about actual justice and safety. But who knows? All we can really do is spend even more money on even more cops and give them even more weapons and hope that eventually the thing that has never worked will suddenly click for the first time and things will be great!
For what it’s worth, the first doctor they went to refused to do the cavity search and said it was unethical. But then they found two others .