Fully known as Gas-s-s-s, or It May Become Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It this free spirited counter culture comedy stands as Roger Corman’s second to last picture as a director. The times were a changin’ and Corman’s brand of low-budget horror was no longer as marketable. He had ventured into psychedelia with The Trip, but that wasn’t satire. Gas-s-s-s was targeted at the same tuned-out minds, but with a sense of humor. The only trouble is the jokes don’t connect. If the answer to Corman’s troubles was floating in the wind, it floated right on by. What he delivers instead is a faux flower child day dream where everyone over 25 is quickly killed off by a chemical gas accidentally released by the Pentagon.
The freaks have inherited the Earth, but an adultless world is no utopia as divergent factions of left-behind youth for control of the future. A band of hippies lead by Coel (Robert Corff) decide to make their way to see “The Oracle” who lives near a commune in New Mexico. Along the way Coel and his band of merrymen and women – who include Bud Cort, Taila Shire, Ben Vereen, and Cindy Williams – run into cowboys to rustle used cars, militaristic football squads, and even God himself. God has a very Jewish accent, which sort of makes sense. The troupes travels finally lead them to their new Garden of Eden where a final show down between the new aged peacelovers and the shoulder padded warmongers breaks down into a dumbfound finale that delivers no clear ending.
That the film is so scatter shot, bouncing from one gag to the next, is partially due to the loss of editorial control that Corman suffered in post-production. Even so, it’s hard to imagine this film making much sense if Corman had been given final cut. The troubles start with the script. Armitage wobbles between two or three worlds. First, you have the world of youth culture films. Whether or not Armitage understood what kids of 1971 really wanted is highly questionable. His overt hipness feels extremely dated by today’s standards and it’s a good guess that the jive attitude, drug induced visuals, and au courant lingo would have felt forced even in 1971. Armitage’s hippies are as related to real hippies as Maynard G. Krebs was related to the Beat authors. Armitage also oversteps his own limits by attempting to infuse Gas-s-s-s with a wild Godardian blend of pop-culture and politics. The aftermath of Gas-s-s-s is eerily similar to the wrecked world of Godard’s 1967 picture Weekend, but with none of the intellectual weight.
Finally, Armitage tries to use gags, not plot point to push the story along. This turns a quest story into an elongated episode of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Most of the gags now feel dated or disastrous. At best one has to hope that original audiences were so stoned that they would have laughed anyways, as it is nearly implausible to think of anyone not under the influence to find much amusement in this picture.
So, what is good about Gas-s-s-s? Well, it’s a real head scratcher, that’s what. From today’s perspective one can either be thankful for Nancy Reagan’s war on drugs or you can start to ask yourself, “Thirty years from now are films how will we feel about today’s comedic films?” Few, if any of today’s mainstream comedies are as unconstrained as this film. Whether this is a good or bad, I am not sure. Comedies today are run-of-the-mill, fish out of water stories or capitalistic salvation stories pitting the wealthy against the weird. New Hollywood’s addiction to drug altered lives has been replaced with an addiction for money. No one is willing to make a film as wild as this, for fear of a loss at the box office. Sadly, that means Gas-s-s-s maybe your only chance to see hippies and cowboys sling the names of western actors at one another rather than brandish weapons. That’s right, Lee Van Cleef can wing you, but John Wayne will rip right through your heart. Other nonsense you won’t see today – a country club over run by bikers in golf carts, a chase scene on heavy construction machinery, fascists football players in dune buggies, and Country Joe and the Fish. Honestly, Country Joe’s appearance as A.M. Radio is rather good, compared to the rest of the film. And, I normally hate hippie rock. Perhaps my hatred stems from ignorance or misunderstand, but Gas-s-s-s is just one of those films that makes you wonder what the fuck passed for entertainment during the Age of Aquarius.