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Gas
(1981)

Director: Les Rose
Cast:
Sterling Hayden, Howie Mandel, Helen Shaver, Donald Sutherland


One of the most interesting - and notorious - stories about the Canadian film industry is the tax shelter era. It's a story worth telling for seeing how close Canadian filmmakers got to having a strong domestic film industry, but blowing it. The story starts in the year 1968, when the Canadian government established the Canadian Film Development Corporation, an agency that with a $10 million fund was determined to kick start a domestic film industry. It was the hope of the CFDC that the films they would fund would make enough money that the corporation's coffers would be constantly stuffed and enable them to fund even more films. But as it turned out, the corporation ran out of money after a few years; the films that they funded turned out to be far from moneymakers. Some blamed the fact that theater owners in Canada were too reluctant to book Canadian films. While there seemed to have been some prejudice by the theater owners, most of the fault that these Canadian films were box office failures can be blamed on the films themselves and their distributors. Most of the films the CFDC funded were simply not that commercial at all. And the distributors of these films - just like modern day Canadian film distributors - seemed clueless about marketing these films properly enough to make them attractive to theater owners and the mass public. Perhaps deep down realizing that private investment more often than not makes more commercially successful films than governments do, a tax write-off option was offered to potential investors. However, since the write-off was only for a mere 30% of an investment in Canadian films, it didn't attract much interest.

It was decided to give the CFDC (which later became Telefilm Canada) additional money, but eventually it was decided that the best thing to do would be to increase the tax shelter so that investors could write off a whopping 100% of their investment. Did this work? Well, to a degree it did. In 1979, thanks to the increase of the available tax write-off, Canada made a whopping sixty-six films. Just a few years before, Canadian filmmakers had just made a mere three films a year. But it wasn't long before obvious problems were popping up. Although Canadian may have made sixty-six films in 1979, it turns out that over half of those films never got any kind of release. Many of those unreleased films were never intended to be released; they just got made so that their investors could get a tax write-off. As you can probably conclude from that fact, with many tax shelter films, quality was the least of anyone's concern. Producers would gleefully snap up much of the budget that was raised, leaving little left over to making the films. But there were also problems for tax shelter films that were made with the best intentions. For example, there was a strange rule that the makers of these films could not sell the rights to these films until they were completed - and anyone in the film industry can tell you it's more often easier to sell a film before it's made rather than after. There were additional problems with the tax shelter system, but instead of adjusting the system here and there to prevent abuse and to help get the finished films out there, in the early 1980s the government decided to take a big step and slash the tax shelter by half. While the government hoped this would then just attract legitimate film productions, it chased away pretty much all private interest in investing in Canadian films.

Eventually, the remaining tax shelter that was available for investment in Canadian films was eliminated entirely. And today, private investment in Canadian films is extremely rare; most Canadian films are cobbled entirely from funds from Telefilm Canada and other government grants. And Gasto get such grants, the film projects that are approved tend to be uncommercial. As you can probably see, the Canadian film industry desperately needs a proper tax shelter system if it is to become strong, commercial, and embraced by the public. The past tax shelter system, as flawed as it was, did at least produce some commercial films. Some even got picked up by major American distributors, which is more you can say for almost all Canadian films made today. Gas was one such tax shelter film that got picked up by a major American distributor (Paramount Pictures). Though I have to admit that while watching it, I had to ask myself how this was possible. Before explaining that, a look at the plot. Naturally, this being a Canadian film, the evens of Gas take place in the United States, in a moderate metropolis. In the city, there is a millionaire named Duke Stuyvesant (Hayden, Venom), who has made his fortune in the oil industry. But he is not satisfied by his present wealth, and he decides to make even more money, he will create a phony gas shortage. However, local news reporter Jane Beardsley (Susan Anspach, Blue Monkey) decides to investigate once there are lineups at the gas pumps. While this is all going on, we meet various other residents of the town moving in and out of the story, including a prostitute (Shaver, Shoot) the local mob boss (Vincent Marino, Billy Madison), a salesman (Mandel, Gremlins), a brother (Peter Aykroyd, brother of Dan) obsessed about his sister, and a helicopter-flying DJ named Nick the Noz (Donald Sutherland, Dan Candy's Law).

When I sit down to watch a movie made by Canadian filmmakers, the main way I look at it is the same way I look at movies made by Americans or any other nationality on Earth - that being how entertaining the end results are. However, while watching Canadian movies, more often than not I also watch them carefully to see how "Canadian" they are - especially Canadian movies that attempt to disguise themselves as being American. Gas is one of many Canadian movies that try desperately to be perceived as American. In the first few minutes of the movie, we hear the Chuck Berry-penned song Back in the USA, and the character of Nick the Noz declares he's from a radio station whose call letters start with a "W" instead of a "C". Through the next ninety or so minutes, the movie adds many additional American elements, such as characters being from the American military. But in short notice, seams begin to show. For example, we see CN railway cars, Canadian license plates (or often than not no license plates at all on vehicles) and the architecture of buildings doesn't look terribly American, since the movie was shot in Montreal. Even worse is that the movie has that crude look and feel associated with low budget Canadian cinema at the time. Several times the camera crew can be seen reflected on the sides of vehicles, props or full sets have a cheapjack and unnatural feeling to them, and there are continuity problems, such as streets being wet with rain on one shot but then being bone dry in the next shot. About the only thing the movie manages to capture that looks American is the fact that they managed to completely shoot the movie in sunny and bright conditions, an amazing fact when you consider the dreary lighting conditions of so many Canadian movies.

Since I have seen so many Canadian movies trying (unsuccessfully) to pass themselves off as American, I was able to shrug off this slipshod aspect of Gas, being used to it. That is not to say that there weren't aspects of the movie that irritated me. In fact, pretty much all of the rest of the movie was pretty painful for me to experience. That includes the characters in the movie, who are all written terribly. I think a lot of this is due to the fact there are way too many characters in the movie; the movie continues to introduce new primary characters beyond the 30-minute point, and ultimately there are so many characters that none get enough time to be properly developed. The character of Nick the Noz constantly wanders in and out of the fracas, and it doesn't take you long to realize that his character adds absolutely nothing to the story, and could easily be edited out without harming the narrative. But even the characters who get to do more are unsatisfying. Duke, the villain of the movie, is off the screen so much that you never feel that he is a real threat or problem to the other characters or the (unnamed) city. The character of the brother obsessed with his sister never gets a resolution of any kind to his obsession, and just seems to be there to show that the whiff of repressed incestual desire is hilarious. The only character who has some dimension is Howie Mandel's salesman character. Though Mandel is saddled with a character who is written to be a somewhat braggart guy with an eye for the ladies, Mandel in his performance manages to give his character a little genuine charm so that he isn't a completely annoying and empty figure.

It might have been possible for many of the other actors in Gas to show what talent they might have had, but with the terrible screenplay and shoddy direction, they didn't have a chance. The screenplay is terrible in many ways, such as with many plot details not being fully written out to be understandable, like how exactly the character of Duke ultimately plans to make money by not providing gasoline for the city for several months. And when the movie finally makes it to the closing credits, it has an ending where pretty much all of the various plot threads have not been properly concluded. But the worst way the screenplay fails is that it is not the least bit funny. Among other things the movie feels are funny are multiple ethnic (and pretty much racist) stereotypes, overflowing toilets, people being kicked in the groin, people using real guns for arcade shooting games, animals being abused, multiple car crashes, people giving their impressions of the Three Stooges, people falling fully clothed into swimming pools... need I go on? The humor in the screenplay certainly isn't imaginative, tasteful, and funny, which may explain why director Les Rose (Hog Wild) seems more often than not hopeless at his task. Scenes start up and end almost immediately afterwards, longer scenes sometimes abruptly end before you feel they should, and inappropriate camera angles and movements are the rule more than the exception. It shouldn't come as a surprise then that Rose also couldn't milk any humor out of the sorry screenplay, unless you find things like speeded up footage a la the Keystone Kops still hilarious after all of these years. Instead of being madcap and hilarious, the feeling you get from this movie is instead that of pure hostility. It seems that nobody in front of or behind the camera was having a good time. What the movie ends up being is a bad case of Gas.

(Posted March 21, 2019)

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See also: Find The Lady, Flush, Love At First Sight

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