Monday, September 7, 2009


Gus Van Sant has always seemed to me a filmmaker who refuses to be taken seriously. His films have either been unbearably pixilated, blatantly commercial or portentously obvious. Gerry (2002), however, is formally exceptional, even if it, too, is ultimately disappointing.

Assuming that they started with a premise, perhaps nothing more than the misadventure of David Coughlin and Raffi Kodikian in Rattlesnake Canyon, New Mexico in 1999 (1), Van Sant, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who are credited with the "screenplay", took a camera and crew to Death Valley and Utah (along with a sojourn in Argentina, thanks to a threatened SAG strike, which never materialized) and shot enough footage to illustrate the experience of two men who park their car and go for a hike in street clothes and without provisions (water, a map, a compass, a cellphone) on a "wilderness trail". After a remarkably short period of walking, and after nonchalantly departing from the otherwise well-marked trail, they find that they cannot find their way back to their car. What follows, though predictable (else why come this far?), is curiously absorbing, thanks to Harris Savides' camerawork, partaking of the ordeal like a participant, and because of Van Sant's refusal to indulge in any kind of dramatic emphasis, so that scenes, if one can call them that, occur without any sense of causation or connection.

Van Sant was probably just trying to demonstrate how the dialogue would probably have sounded between the two friends, without trying to use it as a means of our getting closer to them. The result is dire for the film, however. The problem with Gerry is that the characters are not delineated in any way. There is not even an attempt to give them names. Van Sant stated in an interview (2) that either character, or both, could be "Gerry" and that a working title for the film was The Actual Gerry. But to make a strained point, it would have taken very little to give these two men sufficient identity to make them resemble real people. It would also have helped if Damon and Affleck had tried to keep straight faces while delivering some of their purposely nonsensical and bootless dialogue.

Gerry reminded me of the Australian film, Japanese Story (2003), in which two people - a man and a woman - find themselves stuck (literally at one point) together in the Outback. One of them dies, by accident, and the other has to explain how it happened, first to the police, then to the man's bereft family. Whatever the shortcomings of that film, it at least invested the two people with identities, personalities, histories.

Van Sant, who remade Hitchcock's Psycho shot for shot, clearly believes (as Hitchcock himself believed) that as long as a film has formal integrity, other elements like story and character (i.e., "content") are unimportant. (3) The film is certainly formally interesting. It takes liberties with duration that remind me, irresistibly, of Antonioni. In a small way, Gerry could have been the film that Antonioni had made in America, if only the wrong people had not met him at the airport in 1968. (4) There were moments, watching Damon and Affleck walking in or out of the frame of such desolate beauty, that it seemed like glimpsing them on the surface of Mars. (5) Shot in three separate geographical locations, Savides works wonders bringing it all into a harmonious whole. Though time-lapse shots are used too much, who can object to so much throwaway beauty as the frame captures? There is a spectacular shot just after the murder when we see clouds racing away from us with the white ground alternating in shadow and light. The shot is a powerful metaphor of the ordeal that had just ended for one of the men and is just about to end for the other.

In the last scene of the film, Gerry (Matt Damon) is sitting in the back seat of another car, his face showing few traces of his perilous hike but a sunburn and a look of tired shock. He looks around him inside the car and sees a small boy beside him and a man driving the car. The man glances at Gerry in the rear-view mirror - and us, now looking from Gerry's perspective. I felt just like that man, wondering who on earth this Gerry in the back seat could be, no closer to understanding him at the end of the film than I was at the beginning.

(Here is something to ponder: what if neither Gerry was a smoker? What would they have used to make fire?)

(1) The NY Times review of a chronicle of the ordeal can be found here:
(2) The interview:
(3) The choice of Psycho was not, of course, a coincidence. Hitchcock made it in a hurry and it exposed the ugliness of much of his thinking about people - particularly women.
(4) I mean, of course, the Peploes.
(5) Roger Ebert wrote, with my, for once, full agreement: "We have lost the original eight hours of Greed (1925), Erich von Stroheim's film that ends with its heroes lost in Death Valley, but after seeing Gerry, I think we can call off the search for the missing footage."

No comments: