A Relic from the Past: Gas Food Lodging (1992)

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When people think of old movies, they think black and white, grainy, studio-driven and set bound. It’s a common go-to for most casual movie fans but for a film lover, there are no old movies, only classics. There are, however, relics. Movies from not just a different time but a different state of mind, and for me, the independent films of the 1980s and the 1990s are now the relics of cinema. Movies made decades before them seem less dated, movies made just a few years after them seem a century ahead. But I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way. For me, the movie most representative of what I’m talking about is the 1992 independent feature Gas Food Lodging, directed by Allison Anders and starring Brooke Adams, Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk. Filled with promise, it went nowhere and the cast, with the mild exception of Ms. Balk, got no real boost from its acclaim. Shortly afterwards, independent movies starting getting higher budgets, bigger celebrity star turns and technology put them on the same plane as the studios.

 Allison Anders based her movie on a young adult fiction book by Richard Peck titled Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt and adapted the screenplay herself. Like any truly independent movie, this one was driven largely by one person and that person was Anders. She cast Brooke Adams, former model and one time movie star with works like Days of Heaven and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both 1978) under her belt, in the lead role of a single mom working as a waitress in a desert town while raising two daughters. The two daughters were played by Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk, both having already made a splash in previous films, most notably Say Anything… (1989) and Return to Oz (1985) respectively.

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The story of  Gas Food Lodging is a coming of age story for Shade (Balk), with her sister, Trudi (Skye), and mother, Nora (Adams), battling it out as Shade tries to figure out her place in the world. Like the independents of the 1980s and 1990s, Gas Food Lodging keeps its sets minimal, its locations spare and the special effects budget to the penny jar. It’s a story about three women coming to terms with each other and life and, as you might expect, made almost no impact at the box office. But in terms of career resurgence, well, okay, it didn’t do too well there either.

Though Brooke Adams gives the best performance of her career, as does Skye, it is Fairuza Balk that truly stood out when I saw the movie for the first time back in 1992. I was sure that all three of them would have strong offers following the film’s release but was positive that Balk, especially, would have a career filled with awards and acclaim. I still view her performance here and in Imaginary Crimes (1994) as two of the best young actor performances I’ve seen but Hollywood, never one to know what to do with anything that cannot be easily prepackaged and sold, was clueless about Balk and her fiery eyes confused the living hell out of them. She got The Craft (1996) and a small role in American History X (1998) and then, later, an even smaller role in Almost Famous (2000) before it became clear that no big career lay ahead of her (yet… she’s still active and doing great work).

By the 2000′s independent features were pulling in big names and The Sundance Festival had all of Hollywood rushing to buy whatever movie got the most applause. Independent features looked more and more like regular studio productions and the definition of what an independent film was became murky. Everything from Pulp Fiction (1994) to District 9 (2009) fits into the schemata of “independent film” but when I think of the nineties, and movies like this, Smoke Signals (1998), Daughters of the Dust (1991), and Bottle Rocket (1996), the term “independent film” actually means something. Although I can’t help but notice that Allison Anders, Chris Eyre and Julie Dash didn’t go nearly as far with their careers as Wes Anderson. Is that just because Hollywood didn’t really know what to do with stories of women’s lives and Native and African American culture and heritage or did they just not care? Probably a little of both. Not to take anything away from Wes Anderson of course. His talents were as obvious then as they are now, it’s just that independent film was a chance for anyone and everyone to make movies but it turns out it didn’t mean that much in the end.

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Gas Food Lodging is a relic from the past now. It belongs to an era in which making a movie without studio support was an uphill climb with little room for error. A young director couldn’t just pull out her phone, shoot a movie, edit it on her laptop and add special effects with Adobe After Effects. She had to get backing, and equipment – heavy, expensive equipment – and a crew, and a cast, and pay for film processing and rent out time and space for editing, and then try to get someone, anyone, to see it. It meant commitment and dedication and was a clear signal you loved the craft of making movies because who in their right mind would go to that much trouble if they didn’t? And when it was over, the only thing to do was sit back and hope. The problem was, since independent movies like this were, by definition, low-budget, they didn’t draw in big distributors willing to put money on the line for a small, simple yet complex story of a young girl and her mother and sister.

Fairuza Balk received the Independent Spirit Award for Best Actress for the movie and Anders received the Best New Director award from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. But Adams and Skye deserve mention as well for their excellent work. They don’t make movies like this anymore but if you want to see what a truly independent movie from the 1990s looks like, look no further than Gas Food Lodging, streaming under the Single Moms theme on FilmStruck until April 7, 2017.

Greg Ferrara

6 Responses A Relic from the Past: Gas Food Lodging (1992)
Posted By swac44 : February 22, 2017 12:21 pm

Lovely film, and three actors I wish I saw more of these days.

As a footnote for Allison Anders fans, you can find her giving mini-commentaries about some of her favourite films over at Trailers From Hell.

I also recommend listening to the album that gave Anders her title for the film: Green on Red’s Gas Food Lodging.

Posted By George : February 23, 2017 3:48 pm

I loved indie movies in the ’90s. If not for them, I might have stopped going to movies at theaters. Most of the Hollywood studio product was utter crap. (Quentin Tarantino regards the ’80s as the worst decade for mainstream American movies. For me, the ’90s was the worst.)

Too bad the indie boom fizzled out about a decade ago, around the time the studios dismantled their boutique labels. (Remember Paramount Classics? Warner Independent Pictures?) They still get made, but rarely provoke the cult-like devotion of 20 years ago.

My theory: the young adults who went to indie films in the ’90s are now middle-aged adults who stay home and watch Netflix and “quality TV.” The current crop of young people seems satisfied with CGI-packed franchise films. And, unfortunately, a lot of indie films these days are blatant calling cards from directors who want to make the next installment of Iron Man or X-Men.

Then again, we occasionally get a MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, a LA LA LAND, a GREEN ROOM, a HELL OR HIGH WATER, or THE WITCH, to remind us that good movies are still made outside the studio system. Support them, people!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 24, 2017 10:40 am

George, thanks for commenting on this. It’s a subject I thought was worth talking about but clearly no one else agreed.

The technologies for making movies have become so easily accessible (the steadi-cam app on my Galaxy is pretty damn good, quite frankly, and that came with the phone!) and special effects software so readily available for a few hundred bucks or less (After Effects, which you find in the credits of major movies, can be rented for a mere $19.95 a month and produces amazing results) that most independent movies now look visually similar to fully budgeted studio productions (I’m talking about basic dramas and comedies here, not big budget action movies). So the independently produced movies now have a chance at a much bigger audience than they did before, even it’s only a life on streaming.

Hell or High Water is a great example of the kind of movie that had the feel of a nineties indie. The pacing was beautifully patient and methodical, and character observation seemed the most important aspect of the whole thing. One of my favorites of the year.

Posted By George : February 24, 2017 5:41 pm

“So the independently produced movies now have a chance at a much bigger audience than they did before, even it’s only a life on streaming.”

Even with more readily accessible technology, you still need a good script, good actors, and a good director. And a director who understands human behavior, not just the technology. Those are still hard to come by.

I haven’t seen MOONLIGHT or LION, but they’ve been mentioned as great independent movies. They were not developed or made at any studio.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 25, 2017 10:31 am

I always try to see all the Best Pictures nominees before the Oscar’s but this year I failed pretty hard having only seen two, Hell or High Water and The Arrival. I’m very excited to see Moonlight though, which is next on my list.

Posted By George : April 20, 2017 6:13 pm

Sad news: Streaming and VOD crippling distributors of small independent films.

“With an explosion in so-called “peak TV” offered by cable and streaming services and a deluge of video-on-demand cinematic choices (to say nothing of Netflix’s ravenous appetite for feature films) each and every weekend offering the same kind of smaller-scale fare as the likes of Broad Green and Bleecker Street, it is harder than ever to get consumers to actually go to a movie theater to see something that isn’t a blockbuster.”

https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2017/04/20/as-netflix-and-vod-steal-away-moviegoers-small-distributors-struggle/#1299d16231d0

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