Monday, November 27, 2006

Wild in the Streets (1968) and GAS-S-S-S (1970)

In the late 1960’s, small-time studio American International Pictures became notorious for their exploitation pictures; movies that appealed to the new “youth culture.” Two such, Wild in the Streets and GAS-S-S-S, are included on an MGM “Midnite Movies” DVD release, and despite similar subject matter the juxtaposition displays very different attitudes towards the films’ audience.

Wild in the Streets, the more famous of the two, was made in 1968 and adapted from a short story in which 15-year-olds win the right to vote, vote “old age” out of power, and end up electing a 25-year-old rock star president. 30 means mandatory retirement; 35 internment at LSD concentration camps. The movie is billed as a satire aimed at youngsters; a sort of fantasy in which the newly mobilized young get power. The poster boasts Jim Morrison’s exhortation that “we want the world and we want it now,” and the reputation the film has is as a youth cry to arms.

Watching it, though, reveals a hateful attitudes towards youth that runs contrary to any rebellious image I previously had of the film. The “kids” are ineffectual, write really bad music, and are unable to govern themselves. Youth-in-power doesn’t result in an American utopia but a fascist nightmare. Adults may be opportunistic and ridiculous, but the new wave just seems stupid and unfocused. Their platform has one plank: since the marketing whizzes say the under 25 crowd makes up 52% of the population, we’re the majority. Once held, this majority does nothing but smoke pot, put LSD in the water, and deploy their might to keep adults corralled in acid-flooded camps that have nothing of the groovy communal about them. President Max Frost doesn’t seem to learn anything either, or benefit from his ascendancy; and the end of the film predicts a bitter reprisal.

In sum, this film is a mockery, a sadistic fantasy, of the youth movement’s desires for political voice.

The antidote to this bad-acid trip is on the other side of this disc: the delightful, pop-culture rich, Roger Corman-directed GAS-S-S-S (1970). In a similar scenario, all adults over 25 are simultaneously wiped out by a freak accident, leaving the youngsters to fend for themselves. The premise occurs right at the beginning, without the wading through nonsensical exposition Wild requires. A band of long-hairs travels across the newly-depleted American landscape, encountering exactly what you’d expect if half the population had been wiped out—small bands of power-hungry survivors, just trying to get by. Of course each group represents a different manifestation of power, be it communal, fascist, or just plain thievin’. But at no point does the movie contend that it’s the youth themselves causing the mayhem. This is the system they inherited, and with no law and order and society would break down.

The script is rife with gags of varying degrees of cleverness and crammed full of cultural references. On top of that, it’s just absurdly fun. A shoot out in a junkyard (shades of The Chase?) involves hurling the names of Western stars at each other. Our hero finally deploys “John Wayne,” but regrets it later. “Maybe I coulda winged him with a ‘Clint Eastwood,’” he muses. Edgar Allen Poe shows up on a motorcycle to dispense doom-filled wisdom, proto-goth Leonore riding bitch. One very pregnant character has a bizarre-yet-contagious fixation on “the golden oldies” that supersedes all other thought of survival. (“I can’t bring a child into this world,” she eventually decides, and so remains pregnant.) Fascist loot-and-pillage gangs are run like football teams, complete with cheerleaders, uniforms, and marching band.

While its satire is less barbed (the ending, especially, is rather hopeful and hippie-friendly), GAS-S-S-S is actually a much more rational response to the youth-power sentiments of the time, not to mention a much more appropriate candidate for cultdom. For one thing, it’s a better movie (with far better music, provided by Country Joe and the Fish, than the rock-star-oriented Wild gives us). For another, it doesn’t crudely insult the very demographic it’s marketed for. Wild in the Streets doesn’t live up to its title. GAS-S-S-S, luckily, outstrips its own.

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