GERRY (Gus Van Sant, 2002)

Gerry comes as a great and welcome shock because Gus Van Sant has lately wasted his time on melodramatic, sentimental trash: Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000)—commercial films that splintered him from his independent spirit. (I have yet to see his 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—an experiment, I am told.) Van Sant is back among the living, and more brilliant than ever.

The word is out that, at the Sundance Film Festival and at showings since, Gerry has been dividing audiences between those who love it and those who hate it. Pity those in the latter camp.

The film, formally, is a highly abstract achievement, given to portraying its two characters in a minimalist fashion highly reminiscent of the nature of characterizations in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, and placing these characters, often in extreme long shots, in ravishing, otherworldly landscapes that tend to lose them to the eye as correlative to their own lost status and topographically indeterminate state. What emerges is a metaphor of the human condition with much the same force and depth as Alfred Hitchcock achieved in Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960).

Van Sant isn’t “going abstract” in the sense of doing something cinematically alien to him. On the contrary, the bourgeois sentimentality in which he has lately been wallowing is as foreign to him as it would be to any genuine artist. Van Sant, instead, has always held a fascination and temperament for the abstract. Consider: the gray landscape whipping by as Mexican illegals huddle in a train car taking them to the blighted heart of the elusive American Dream in Mala Noche (1985); or the “fucked-up face” of the indeterminate road that the narcoleptic homeless boy travels, and periodically falls down upon, in My Own Private Idaho (1991). Indeed, their abstractness is one of the features of Van Sant’s films that have always imparted to them a certain “Europeanness” of pace, formal design and emotional texture. The difference is, however, that while other films of his significantly contain an element of abstraction, in Gerry abstraction is the tenor of the film’s tenure. It’s pretty much the whole show here.

Thus have reviewers rightly compared Gerry to the films of Béla Tarr, the Hungarian genius who has Tarkovskied his way through such immense cinematic canvases as Sátántángó (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). (At the close, Van Sant lists Tarr among those to whom the project is indebted.) But the opening on the road, as the camera records the men’s auto trip to the point of their on-foot adventure, as easily recalls Vertigo, where the camera follows the detective in his automobile, or road films by Wim Wenders; the desert landscapes recall the east-coast African ones in Claire Dénis’s transplanted Billy Budd, the hypnotic, ritualistic Beau travail, not to mention the Argentine desert in Pablo Trapero’s Mundo grúa (both 1999), where in fact Van Sant may have shot some of the film. One may also be reminded of the prehistoric and the Jupiter landscapes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) and The Passenger (1975), William A. Wellman’s Yellow Sky (1948), and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990)—other films containing lost-in-the-desert elements. For all this, though, Gerry is a perfectly distinctive work of art. It’s Van Sant’s and nobody else’s.

The two young men, both named (or nicknamed) Gerry, begin with a frolicsome sense of confidence in their desert sojourn. They know where they have parked their car—or think they do; they know what they are about. They’re in no danger—or think they aren’t, and they can leave, or think they can, once they have taken in a day’s pleasant outing. One ties an undone shoelace as if to assert his level of control of the situation that the environment imposes. Even when they realize they’re lost, the two Gerrys initially seem competent and quite capable of finding their way out. Their divergent and complementary searches, like those of the two fog-bound warriors in Akira Kurosawa’s tremendous Throne of Blood (1957), however, lead each back to the other, compounding their sense of lost bearings. Their time in the desert degenerates as they become increasingly aware of how utterly lost, how vulnerable they are. The style of the film shifts from absurdist comedy to absurdist tragedy, telescoping the human journey from life to death and, as Van Sant uncompromisingly sees it, from hope to futility. One dies; the other is rescued. But clearly the fate of the lost Gerry, along with the desert sun, has burned deep into the surviving Gerry, whose eyes at the end bear the weight of loss of his same-named companion. The scene on the road, in the car belonging to the family that has rescued him, invites us to recall the opening when the two Gerrys, leaning in unison from the force of their own car’s motion (recalling the love birds in Hitchcock’s 1963 The Birds), conspiciously shared the same human condition.

There are two quintessential moments in the film, one epitomizing the beginning comedy, the other epitomizing the closing tragedy. The first, in deceptively humorous homage to the closing bell-tower shot in Vertigo, finds one Gerry unaccountably atop a huge rock formation from which, like a cat, he now cannot come down. The other Gerry, on the ground, alternates between coaxing the lofty Gerry to jump and warning him against the attempt. It is a scene of perfect ambivalence on the part of both Gerrys. The irony is that Gerry’s fall, in itself a decisive act resolving the crisis of ambivalence, does nothing to alter the status that he shares with his companion. They remain as lost as ever. One might say, then, that this ambivalence resolves back into the ambiguity of their previous state, the default of the human condition, thus giving the appearance of progress where in fact there isn’t any. We are laughing, in part because we are relieved that jumping Gerry hasn’t broken his neck; but, ultimately, it’s no laughing matter.

The other quintessential moment—overtly tragic—accounts for one of the most agonizingly moving scenes in cinema. It portrays one Gerry’s death as he tries to take the other with him as the other, on the ground with him, attempts to wrestle him away from death as though his own life depended on it. (As it does.) The whole film, like desert sand, pours into this moment, becoming one of those rare instances of the most expressive art where the viewer emotionally participates in the artist’s creation of metaphor. The birth of the star-child at the close of 2001—“instant Ingmar [Bergman],” Andrew Sarris contemptuously called it—is an attempt at such a moment that doesn’t work for me. Van Sant’s moment does.

However much an artistic failure color in cinema has largely proven itself to be, Gerry, like Antonioni’s The Red Desert (1964) and The Passenger, is among those rare works justifying the experiment. The gorgeousness of the landscapes—Van Sant’s color cinematographer is Harry Savides, although the visual effects of Mamie McCall must share in the credit—is essential to the film’s expressive achievement, because it encapsulates the sheer value of life as ironic accompaniment to the human suffering and anguish attending the gradual weakening of physical strength and the gradual loss of life. The distancing achieved by Van Sant’s remarkable use of long shots, abetted by his use throughout of a highly discordant soundtrack, has the ongoing effect of separating human life from the living of it in order to convey the self-alienation wrought by our persistent mortal awareness. It is this awareness that we, the audience, bring to the film early on when the characters themselves seem blissfully free of it.

The script is credited to Van Sant and his two excellent actors, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who I presume improvised dialogue. All three edited the film. The discordant music, as distancing as Van Sant’s use of long shots, is by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

Gerry restores Van Sant to a place of honor among American artists. Good Will Hunting: forgiven!

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