Gas Food Lodging: “a quintessential 2018 indie movie made in 1992”

There’s a certain sadness that comes from living in a place that’s meant to be driven through. Allison Anders’s Gas Food Lodging, reissued on Blu-Ray by Arrow Academy, starts with Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk as sisters Trudi and Shade, sat in the New Mexico diner where their mother Nora works. It’s a place that only exists because of the highway next to it, a place where people stop off but never stay for long, a place where there’s always travel but no real escape. For escapism, you have to turn to the local cinema, where Shade whiles away the hours watching the fictional Spanish melodrama star Elvia Rivero.
Rivero’s films are one of Gas Food Lodging‘s most delightful indulgences. You could strip them all out and the movie wouldn’t be terribly different, but the glee Anders takes in pastiching 1940s cinema is quite infectious. So is the joy Shade takes in watching them. Balk, whose cheerfully wayward career has taken in everything from American History X to The Island of Dr. Moreau, is absolutely wonderful in this rare lead role. Despite Shade’s name, the role sees Balk playing against her usual Goth-punk type. Shade is as innocent and vulnerable as Trudi is worldly and aggressive. This, too, is a surprise coming from Skye, who at this time was depicted as a glamorous dream girl in everything from Cameron Crowe movies to Red Hot Chilli Peppers album artwork. The angry, promiscuous, troubled, complex Trudi is a refreshingly different proposition.
Is she likeable, though? Modern viewers may balk at her loosing a casual racial slur at Jacob Vargas’s Javier in her first scene, though the way this subplot unfolds makes it clear Anders doesn’t approve of this. “Likeability” has been one of the major battlegrounds in current debates over female representation in cinema, with many pointing out that “likeable”, when applied to women characters, often just means submissive. Gas Food Lodging‘s three female leads aren’t submissive, but they’re not one-dimensionally strong either. They’re spirited and messed-up, and the film is at its most satisfying when their flaws reflect on each other.
Balk, Skye and Brooke Adams (as Nora) are a believable family in the sense that they look uncannily similar, but they’re also a believable family in the sense that they spend all their time at each other’s throats for being too similar. Nora is enraged that Trudi keeps her sex life a secret from her, but she also goes on secret dates herself, unaware that Shade is scouring the local bars for men to set her mother up with. These three interlocking plotlines bring the women into contact with a pleasing variety of well-drawn male supporting parts, from David Landsbury’s irksomely cheerful neighbour to Robert Knepper’s petrologist. Knepper, the future star of Prison Break and Twin Peaks: The Return, is equipped with a surprisingly good English accent and a character name – Dank – which might suggest a stoner these days.
If I’ve talked a lot here about what modern audiences might make of Gas Food Lodging, it’s because it’s been a while since I’ve seen a reissue this timely. Anders had a patchy career after this; her music industry roman a clef Grace of My Heart still commands a cult audience, but she also directed the most embarrassing segment of Four Rooms (it had Madonna in it) and her debut Border Radio is one of the most divisive things on the American Criterion Collection. Gas Food Lodging, though, feels like a film that was made to be watched now. Its barbed but tender portrayal of mother-daughter relationships bears comparison to Lady Bird, and Anders’s mining of a young adult novel (Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt by Richard Peck) for 15-certificate drama aligns it with one of this year’s best films, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Desiree Akhavan.
Even when the film is dated, it’s dated in a pleasurable way. There’s a grungy but tender score from Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, as well as quality soundtrack cuts from Nick Cave and Victoria Williams. The film as a whole feels like a time capsule of a particular moment in American independent cinema, a point where the Tarantino-led move to the mainstream was getting underway but you could still make a tough, serious, non-genre film about people living in a trailer park. Anders’s film has all the confidence of the directors who would come after her, but it also has the subtlety and attention to ordinary life that American indies would lose as they became either genre calling cards or quirky Oscar contenders.
Speaking of time capsules: the most interesting extra is an archive documentary by Chris Rodley (Lynch on Lynch) about women behind the camera in Hollywood. Anders takes her place here among a top-notch selection of interviewees, each addressing the subject in their own particular way. Rose Troche is animated and funny, Kathryn Bigelow is measured and eloquent, Gurinder Chadha is pleasingly DGAF and Sally Potter is as galaxy-brained as ever. It’s a snapshot of a very different era, not just one where far fewer films were made by women, but also one when British television regularly produced serious documentaries about cinema.


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