In this weekly column, one writer will send another a new piece of writing about a film they have been watching and pondering over, in the hopes that this will prompt a connectionâ€”emotional, thematic, historical, or analyticalâ€”to a different film the other has been watching or is inspired to rewatch. This ongoing column will be in the spirit of many past Reverse Shot symposiums, in which writers found connections between seemingly disparate cinematic works, and it will also help us maintain personal connection among our writers and our readers at this uncertain moment.
Gas Food Lodging
I spent the first few months of this year programming â€śDiscomfort Food,â€ť a film series for BAMFilm reframing how viewers experience food on film. That assortment of 12 films, initially scheduled to run for a week in late April, has been postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic. To work through the vague sadness Iâ€™m feeling, Iâ€™ve been screening some of these films for myself, an exercise I find clarifying. Maybe itâ€™ll open up new ways of thinking about these films, so that if and when the series resumes, Iâ€™ll come to them with even greater appreciation than before.
I recently rewatched one of the titles that Iâ€™m most passionate about, Allison Andersâ€™s 1992 film Gas Food Lodging. Its inclusion in my lineup may raise eyebrows, because, despite the title, itâ€™s hardly about food, just the day-to-day realities of living in a family whose breadwinner waits tables. Few films have explored the interior lives of service workers with such care. The narrative focuses on a family of three women who live in a trailer park in Laramie, New Mexico. One has to squint to find overt references to food in Gas Food Lodging. There are scattered mentions of BLTs, and at one point the teenage protagonist, Shade (Fairuza Balk), orders a large glass of Slice with ice at the truck stop diner where her mother, Nora (Brooke Adams), works. She visits the restaurant in an early scene with her older sister Trudi (Ione Skye), who skips school and seeks out male company frequently. During this scene, Trudi rejects her motherâ€™s pleas to eat a hearty meal, as she doesnâ€™t want the stink of fish clinging to her before her date later that night. Gas Food Lodgingâ€™s depiction of labor in the food industry is precisely why I included the film in this series. For Nora (and later for Trudi, too, when she begins work as a waitress), food is backbreaking and unromantic work.
Though critics lauded the film upon release, history has treated Gas Food Lodging pretty shabbily. The movie resurfaced in an unfortunate way in 2017, when the filmâ€™s costume designer Susan Bertram leveled horrifying assault allegations against the actor Robert Knepper. There are heartening signs that ignorance of the film may be shifting, like a recent Criterion Channel feature on Anders, one of American cinemaâ€™s many independent female directors whose work has been unfairly ignored. Gas Food Lodging deserves wider rediscovery. Among Andersâ€™s many gifts is her refusal to patronize to her working-class characters. Thereâ€™s a deadening rhythm to life in Laramie. Each woman has hoped, or still wishes, for a better future. Shade and Trudiâ€™s biological father (James Brolin) abandoned the family when the girls were still young. Nora seems resigned to staying in town; Trudi tries to claw her way out. Shade seems the most hopeful of the three. She wants to make her life in Laramie work.
Shade is a curious creature, a misfit in every way. One can best describe her style of dressing as quirky: unlike her peers, she wears wide-brimmed hats and jackets so big that her arms disappear. Where others in her (predominantly white) social orbit seem to abhor Laramieâ€™s Mexican population, Shade sees humanity in boys like Javier (Jacob Vargas), disgusted by the casual racism of her friends. Shade fills her days watching movies in a theater where Javier works. She loses herself in the films of Elvia Rivero, a fictional Mexican movie star. It feels banal to reduce movie-watching to escapism, yet thatâ€™s the precise purpose the activity has for Shade: They allow her to imagine a more thrilling reality than the one she inhabits. When she sees dapper men court Rivero on screen, Shade starts to dream that sheâ€™ll find a companion for her single mother one day.
Shadeâ€™s rootedness in that town stems from her belief that she can repair her broken family, an ultimately futile pursuit. She doesnâ€™t seem to comprehend how cruel men can be, at least not yet. â€śYou just hate men!â€ť Shade barks at Nora in one scene. Shadeâ€™s belief in humanityâ€™s inherent goodness guides her through most of the film, until chaos destroys her fantasy of building a tranquil family unit. Trudi becomes pregnant and gives birth in Dallas, where she decides sheâ€™ll stay for good. Shade lets out a cry so anguished after hearing her sister wonâ€™t come back home that it seems as if Trudiâ€™s ripped Shadeâ€™s heart from her chest.
Balk was just about 17 when she filmed Gas Food Lodging in 1991, a fact that continually surprises me when I revisit the film. Shadeâ€™s supposed to be a bit younger. Balk captures her youth and its attendant naivetĂ© with piercing directness. She makes Shade into an eccentric, with her highly idiosyncratic voice and awkward carriage, yet Balk herself never comes across as affected. Each gesture seems to rise from instinct, not calculation. Her performance distills the disillusionment inherent in growing up.
Gas Food Lodging deserves to be discussed in tandem with American cinemaâ€™s other insightful portrayals of post-adolescence, such as Bogdanovichâ€™s The Last Picture Show (1971) or Gerwigâ€™s Lady Bird (2017). Following that rueful visit to Dallas, Shade tries to make peace with life and heads back home, where her sister wonâ€™t be back in that trailer bedroom. Shade returns to Laramie, and melancholy seems to crush her. Those flashes of sorrow, though, are tinged with hope: the very resolve that Nora and Trudi possess lives inside her DNA, too. Shade seems far too pure a soul to return to such a small-minded town, but itâ€™s impossible to imagine her living anywhere else. Sheâ€™ll be isolated with her own thoughts, no longer having access to the human company sheâ€™s known for so long. Itâ€™s an experience so similar to the one that I, like so many others, have come to accept as my new normal for the time being. â€”Mayukh Sen
Mayukh, Iâ€™d never seen Gas Food Lodging before, but immediately after reading your essay I put it on and want to thank you. I smiled, laughed, cried, and generally relished in the chance to reflect on that particular longing that is intrinsic to the experience of being a teenage girl in a small town. Shade had a line that stood out to me, which came after the double whammy of her failed attempt to set up a date for her mom and being rejected by her crush, â€śA lot of people say youâ€™re stupid to have expectations on anything, but theyâ€™re just afraid of disappointment. Me, I guess Iâ€™m more afraid of not having any daydreams left. Disappointment is easyâ€”you can get over disappointment, but what do you do if you canâ€™t imagine the future the way you want it to be?â€ť
This line hit me hard given the current state of affairs. Iâ€™ve found during these quarantine days an inability to see much beyond lunchtime; for better or worse, I canâ€™t feel the future anymore. While Iâ€™ll admit there is something oddly freeing about this state of being, itâ€™s also reminiscent of my teenage experience: that feeling of being trapped inside yourself with an undefined longing for something you donâ€™t yet know. That longing either can make you tender and curious, as it did for Shade (and me), or implode, as it seemed to do with Trudi. Maybe itâ€™s because you started out your essay by mentioning your series on food, but as I was watching Gas Food Lodging and thinking about all of this, my mind wandered over to Vera ChytilovĂˇâ€™s Daisies from 1966â€”arguably one of the most epic food-centric films in the history of cinema.
At the beginning of Daisies, the two protagonists, Marie I (Jitka CerhovĂˇ) and Marie II (Ivana KarbanovĂˇ), determine that since the world has gone rotten they have gone rotten too. Daisies is a critical title in the Czech New Wave, made during a brief period of creative freedom before the Warsaw Pact and ensuing Normalization in 1968. But even during the short, tolerant thaw that allowed for creative expression, the film ultimately was banned (for its depiction of food waste) and ChytilovĂˇ was blacklisted. She directed commercials under a different name to make it through the next decade. For the duration of the film, the friends embark on exceedingly hedonistic experiments, all the while checking in with each other before they commit each new act of destruction. â€śDoes it matter?â€ť Marie II asks as she cuts into Marie Iâ€™s black lace bustier. â€śNo, it doesn't matter,â€ť Marie I answers as she cuts Marie II's arm off in a playful game of visual dismemberment done in paper-doll-like animation. Throughout the film they are constantly eating, playing dress up, and posing as if theyâ€™re about to be photographed.
When I saw Daisies at age 19, it was the first time I'd ever encountered such a complete externalization of the undefined angst I'd felt growing up, but also of the pure joy and power of being a girl. The playful nihilism of the Maries, combined with the kaleidoscopic cinematography and frenetic editing, somehow embodied all of my frustrations with society, with men, with being underestimated for being small, friendly, and female. To see a film that was so overtly political, and that at the same time touched me so personally, felt like a revelation. Perhaps itâ€™s clichĂ© to say in retrospect, but at the time, it opened up a whole new realm of possibility to me, showing how powerfully cinema could give voice to indefinable, unspoken feelings. Daisies (along with AgnĂ¨s Vardaâ€™s The Gleaners and I, which I saw the same year) made me fully own the fact that I wanted to be a filmmaker, and helped me see that I could make films in the way that I wanted to, rather than having to fit the pre-existing Hollywood model. Itâ€™s ultimately why, a decade later, I went to study film at FAMU in Prague, where ChytilovĂˇ studied.
Despite how wildly influential the film was for me, I hadn't actually watched it in its entirety in over 15 years. I realized on this recent viewing that there might be another reason Daisies has been seeping back into my subconscious of lateâ€”every day in quarantine, you ask yourself, â€śDoes it matter?â€ť and most of the time, there's a nagging feeling that the answer is â€śNo.â€ť I also want to briefly add that the filmâ€™s final dedication hits particularly strongly at this time: â€śto all those whose sole source of indignation is a trampled-on salad.â€ť The text appears onscreen to the soundtrack of a firing squad. Of course ChytilovĂˇ was referring to the party officials who would be outraged by the food waste recorded on film but ignored a host of other atrocities happening in the country. Today that text canâ€™t help but call to mind the uneven displays of outrage we're seeing on the media: from the disproportionate coverage of a handful of people wielding guns because they canâ€™t get a haircut, versus the lack of airtime for the millions of African Americans in the United States who are making a life and death calculation each time they want to go out for a run. So what happens when you can't imagine the future the way you want it to be? Do you go rotten like Marie I and Marie II? Do you stay hopeful like Shade? Or do you just keep waiting until some unlikely clarity comes? â€”Emma Piper-Burket