Gas, Food Lodging
Director / Screenplay: Allison Anders (from novel by Richard Peck) / Editing: Tracy Granger / DP: Dean Lent / Music: J. Mascis
Cast: Brooke Adams / Ione Skye / Fairuza Balk / James Brolin / Robert Knepper / David Lansbury / Jacob Vargas / Donovan Leitch Jr. / Chris Mulkey / Leigh Hamilton
All trailers, no trash…
Gas, Food & Lodging. Gas, Food & Lodging.
Drive enough of the roads in New Mexico and I guarantee that, with every trailer park & motel you pass, these three words will become as ingrained as a mantra.
Gas, Food & Lodging…
But they also speak of impermanence. Of a transient state of being, in which you never truly belong anywhere. So it is, that the film bearing such a title, features characters who’re always looking to ‘move on’, whether in life or just in their heads. Had I encountered ‘Lodging on its release back in 1992, I daresay I might’ve balked at the idea. ‘An honest drama about a single, hard-working Momma, struggling to raise a pair of daughters, both growing-up too soon…’ I mean, where’s the fun in that?
That was then, this is now: watching a sparkling Blu-Ray edition of the picture, courtesy of Arrow Academy. The wheel has indeed turned full-circle. All I can say at the outset, is that it’s been worth the wait, for the film is that rarest of pictures: a heartfelt look at Real Life, as directed by a woman – Allison Anders.
Things began, when independent producer Bill Ewart, acquired the rights to Richard Peck’s novel ‘Don’t look and it won’t hurt’. Ewart had been aware of Anders’ work, since his time at UCLA, when she’d been a contemporary on its Film School and had won rave reviews with her first feature Border Radio (1987); an ultra low-budget expansion of her graduation project. When the opportunity came to adapt & direct the novel, Anders was Ewart’s first choice.
Originally set in Chicago, the producers quickly altered its location to a small town in New Mexico and gave a free hand in its adaptation to Anders; since graduating from UCLA, she’d become a confident screenwriter in her own right. Peck’s tale had the mother raising three kids, but Anders realised that just two, would be enough to tell her story & keep things focussed. In addition, the hassled mother was a very lonely creature in Peck’s novel, so Anders bestowed upon her, a little physical diversion, to round-out her character.
The film opens with a simple shot, from a camera mounted on a vehicle that’s moving through a flat New-Mexican landscape populated by trailer parks & chainlink fences; a road on which every other vehicle seems to be an articulated truck that’s going in the opposite direction: and all witnessed under a sky of crystalline-blue. After the melodic country-rock instrumental has twang-serenaded our progress, the film proper opens in a small fleapit of a local, Spanish-language cinema, where a young girl’s watching a ‘movie-within-a-movie’. Shot solely for the main feature by Anders, it’s a B&W pastiche of a period Mexican melodrama, starring the equally-fictitious Elvia Rivera (Nina Belanger): an enigmatic heroine beset by melodramatic conundrums, i.e. ‘Which of the men shown in these photos, should I marry in order to please my parents?’
Watching Rivera, out in the dark, is Shade: an appropriately-named girl in her early teens, played by Fairuza Balk; an actress who got her first break when she was plucked from a casting-call, to play Dorothy in the ill-starred Return to Oz (1985). Mainstream recognition would come later, in the teen-witch movie The Craft (1996), but Balk is quoted in IMDB as saying that ‘Lodging remains her favourite role. Watching her canter through a complete emotional spectrum as the film plays-out, it’s not hard to see why…
Lost in Rivera’s movies, Shade will return to them throughout her own story, gaining both inspiration and respite from a difficult home life. That’s apparent when Shade enters a gas station’s diner with big-sister Trudi, played by Ione Skye. A British-born actress, Skye’s better-known for her role in the romcom Say Anything… (1989) opposite John Cusack, but she’s comfortable taking the lead here, for make no mistake: Trudi is the meatiest part in the piece, offering Skye the chance to explore her range, whilst negotiating a difficult set of emotional hurdles (she clears most of them).
The sisters are in the diner to meet their mother, Nora, who works there as a waitress and their mutual antipathy is clear, thanks to Anders’ lucid, witty script. Brooke Adams inhabits Nora with a world-weariness, leavened with a quick and ready wit. An actress with a respectable CV spanning film & TV, I first encountered her work in Terrence Malick’s mesmerically beautiful Days of Heaven (1978), in which she starred opposite Richard Gere. That said, Anders’ DP – Dean Lent – and the director herself, aren’t afraid of using the camera to capture their own grace-notes: one shot of a Jeep against a bruising, unforgiving line of hills, being a particular highlight.
It’s clear that Trudi won’t be staying to eat: the menu doesn’t inspire her, a clumsy waiter has spilled a drink and besides, she’s got a date… Her abrupt departure leads Nora to tell the cook within to ‘Eighty-Six the Red Snapper’. Ironic, given that Trudi has a frizzy mop of reddish hair and possesses an abrasive, ‘snappy’ nature herself…
That same night, we get a well-observed taste of the sourness between mother and eldest daughter, when they row over Trudi’s late return. Anders knows, perhaps all-too-well, that while these two women might be blood relations, that often counts for nothing!
In response to Nora’s ultimatum, that Trudi either gets a job to help with the rent, or leaves entirely, Trudi inevitably ends-up at the same diner and, soon enough, comes to realise just how hard waitressing can be: a point reinforced when, on her first day, she mixes-up two orders. One of those facing a meal he hadn’t ordered, is a young, British geologist called Dank, played by the very American Robert Knepper, with a crap accent that appears to be an impression of George Harrison, circa Yellow Submarine…
Tired of the endless rows at-home, Shade’s soon lost in another ‘Rivera reverie’. Not that it lasts long, as no-one’s changing the unspooled reel… Being a naturally curious girl, she ventures into the booth, only to encounter the clumsy waiter from the diner. She wastes little time in berating his skills as a projectionist, yet Javier (Jacob Vargas) carries himself with a degree of self-assuredness I found convincing. Here’s someone at ease in their own skin; someone aware of their worth as a person, despite the opinions of others. I suspect that even Shade will come-around in good time.
With both daughters thinking about boyfriends, it’s only right that Anders should have Nora doing the same, except Nora’s on the wrong side of forty, with a history of bad choices and dashed hopes littering the road behind her. She’s in her car now, talking to Raymond (an excellent Chris Mulkey), an old friend from the diner whom she’s known some thirty years or so. Her response to his suggestion of reigniting an old fling? ‘Women are lonely in the Nineties. It’s our new phase. We’ll live. I’ve been lonelier.’ She might be lonely, but she’s resolute; strong enough, to drive away with the mildest of pangs…
Despite Shade’s emergence into light and Nora’s insulation against the world about her, may I remind you that it’s really Trudi’s picture. Change comes hot on the heels of another humiliation, via a daft meet-cute with Dank once again, over a mislaid flask of coffee. In his woollen jacket and black Fedora, Dank looks like a refugee from Singles (1992), a Cameron Crowe picture of the period (come to think of it, with their Dr. Martens boots & baggy flannel shirts, the girls are also creatures of the early Nineties).
An oddball in a small town that’s so busy it has tumbleweed rolling through its streets, Dank stands-out: and not just because he delights in gazing at his hand under a UV lamp, when he’s not using it to scan cave-walls for his primary source of income: fluorescent rocks. They eventually become lovers, thus answering the age-old question: Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?
In the afterglow of first love, Trudi confesses her darkest secret and the reason for her chippiness throughout the picture: her virginity had been lost through a nasty sexual assault; an event she didn’t report at the time, yet which had led her to become promiscuous in her short-lived liaisons with local boys.
I found this particularly touching. Anders’ writing is so clear-headed here, as Trudi tells her truth for perhaps the first time. Skye’s performance, is all the more effective for having its shrillness dialled-back. Of course Trudi’s self-esteem would be bruised and diminished as a result of such assault. Her subsequent promiscuity would stem from resigned acceptance that ‘all men are like it’, as much as a way of ‘blotting out’ painful memories. That redemption for Trudi might lay in the company of this strangely-accented Brit, is as plausible as the idea they might create something of lasting worth together.
Shade’s also going through an awakening of her own. At first, she thinks her fantastical Rivera-fuelled delusions, will be reciprocated by her friend Darius (Donovan Leitch), who seems to run the unlikeliest store in this hickest of hick towns: a retro music & fashion outlet specialising in David Bowie posters and platform shoes. On seeing it, I didn’t know what surprised me most: that it was here at all, or the fact it hadn’t yet been firebombed…
When Darius turns-out to be, well, a ‘damp squib’ under close inspection, Shade leans-in to Javier; someone who quickly dispels any notions she may have believed, of him being ‘a gangster’ who ‘steals money from pizza delivery boys’. That just leaves Nora, who’s prospects are restored by repeated attentions from Hamlet; an unlikely installer of satellite dishes and much more besides…
Along the way, Shade concludes two sub-plots. First, is finding a man for Nora. That one ends hilariously, when the very man she invites to dinner, turns out to be Raymond… Neither he or Nora can admit to knowing each other, so they exchange dull small talk at the table, for Shade’s benefit. Again, yet more ‘knowing’ writing & simple direction from Anders, who’s on-top of the material. Shade’s second quest ends with her reconnecting with her long-lost father – John – played by James Brolin, who looks like he came hotfoot from filming tobacco ads as ‘The Marlboro Man’. In the end, he helps Shade twice and, on both occasions, Brolin gives the guy an air of someone happy to be ‘doing the right thing’ at-last; this, despite evident disapproval from his ‘new’ partner Kim: a woman unfazed that another of his children has popped out of the town’s warp and weft…
Despite scenes involving a deaf woman dancing to vibrations felt through a wooden floor, or a hippy couple being gently interrogated over someone’s disappearance, this remains Trudi’s story. Only at the death, do we feel she might be able to put all this behind her and move on.
Throughout the picture, I was struck by a number of observations. First and foremost, is how antiquated it seems, seeing these characters without cellphones. They’d be along in due-course and forever change the nuances possible in such claustrophobic, searching pictures as this. Yet in ‘Lodging, any gossiping is reserved for face-to-face encounters. These people get bored. They go out and meet people. Or collect unusual rocks. If it sounds a trite thing to say, I think it’d be hard to rewrite this for a contemporary audience, given how dependant on our smartphones, most of us now are…
It also occurred to me, how flawed its adult male characters are. With the possible exception of Dank, they’re all either trying to rectify past wrongs or leap into making new ones. They’re also non-essential to the lives of these women; all of whom are written with strong, independent cores. They might get lonely, but they don’t need a man to validate their existences; a position I found refreshing.
When Anders’ film was released in ‘92, she was the highest-profile female director at the vanguard of a renaissance in American ‘Independent’ film production, along with Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch and others. Anders’ work here, also represents a ‘Post-Feminist’ position, reflecting a situation where the original battles for acceptance fought by – and for – women in the Seventies, had been superseded by a broad acceptance – and consensus – around principals in society at-large, leaving individuals to fight their personal battles.
I’m generalising, of course.
In the film industry of the early Nineties, the hope was that the tiny number of mainstream female directors of the likes of Penny Marshall, Jane Campion and others, would blossom. Alas, the years since have shown such hope was held in-vain: just imagine the films we MIGHT have seen! Allison Anders might’ve won awards and critical plaudits for ‘Lodging, but a creatively-fulfilled career in the mainstream was to elude her, along with so many others.
Those years would also show-up ‘Lodging’s shortcomings. First and foremost, there’s not a lot going on here. Characters enter, then leave. Find love, lose love, with little else to show for it. It might come draped in feminist trappings, but the central trio are measuring their worth against how they’re perceived – and treated by – men. If ‘Lodging were to be re-written for a contemporary audience, my guess is that this aspect of the narrative would be the first thing to be changed, in-favour of their greater self-empowerment & realisation.
Given its low budget, some of the supporting cast are also less-than-convincing at-times. I was also struck at the script’s abrupt conversion in Nora’s outlook, from being resigned celibate one minute, to yielding to unexpected temptation, the next. While I understand Anders’ rationale here, I think more time could’ve been given to the development of her late-flowering romance. As it plays, the very brevity of the chase, diminishes its credibility. At its heart, this is a conventionally-plotted family drama enlivened by sparkling writing, some winning performances and little else.
Sometimes, that’s all you need.
It’s also honest, bittersweet and an occasionally tough watch.
Again, sometimes, that’s all you need.
Nora: “I’m a brain surgeon, Raymond. How about you?”
Raymond: “I’m a grave-digger, myself. I’m digging my own as we speak.”
Nora: “Well that makes TWO things you do quick.”