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Inyo Film Journal No. 280: ‘Gerry’: Where in the world are we, whether watching or walking?

March 20, 2014

Two guys named Gerry – played by Casey Affleck (back) and Matt Damon – make their way across the unforgiving desert toward a destination never revealed to the viewer in Gus Van Sant’s polarizing 2002 film, “Gerry.” Photo courtesy THINKFilm

The landscapes used in “Gerry,” directed by Gus Van Sant, begin in Argentina, progress to many places in Death Valley, and end in Utah on a salt lake. There are two characters, friends, both named Gerry who take off for a hike and end up getting lost. They don’t talk too much in the rest of the film, and when they do they use a slang particular to their long friendship.
Mostly they walk, and walk and walk.
The film has little action, and with most audiences, half of them walked out before the middle of the film had been reached. A few critics panned the film, but many searched and found important things in the film. That is a critic’s responsibility.
We begin with an anonymous critic who hated the film. “Gerry is ragingly bad art that contributes to a definition of independent film as something no one would want to sit through.” The writer continues, “But Van Sant has nothing going on here but bluff, and if he’s bluffing himself, too, that’s even worse. The screenplay would have been too thin for a short, much less a feature. Not only does nothing happen, it happens to no one. The characters are not developed or even sketched. It’s just two guys.” Those last few sentences introduce qualities of the film that several other critics saw as jumping off places to tease out important meanings to the film.
J Hoberman titles his review “The Searchers,” and adds the subtitle, “The Influence of Anxiety.” He writes, “The dreamy opening is designed to prank the audience expectations. For six minutes or so, the two principals, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, drive along an otherwise unpopulated highway somewhere out West. The background music is serene, the light drops like liquid honey on the dirty windshield, and despite a few reverse-angle shots, the movement is soothingly continuous.”
I have argued in other writing (“Dark Desert Highway:” www.desertdispatches.com) that the desert highway keeps us from experiencing the desert in anyway other than a series of pictures passing by as a changing landscape. Very diminished mental traces of memory or understanding are created about the desert. Getting out and walking along the desert is the only way to neurologically process your experience as “land.” Walking and having your body engaged does this. Driving along the “dark desert highway,” to quote The Eagles, does not.
Hoberman sees this as a virtual trail they set off on, in a virtual film, with a narrative based on making up narrative. The episode with Affleck on a rock with no apparent way of getting up there is an example. He continues, “Getting in their Boy’s Life Beckett scenario, the Gerrys make their way through a tricky montage of scrubby woods, rocky deserts, misty mountains and parched salt flats.” Hoberman uses a postmodern “writer’s shield” to confronting the meaning of the film. He concluded, “Exercise in existential tedium that it is, Gerry isn’t without devotees.” Hoberman has upped the ante on the meaning of this film by choosing this route.
Roger Ebert, instead, is quite cautious, wanting to have his critical “chops,” and eat them too. He realizes the sheer guts the movie shows. “And yet and yet – the movie is so gloriously bloody-minded, so perverse in its obstinacy, that it rises to a kind of mad purity. The longer the movie ran the less I liked it and the more I admired it. The Gerrys are stuck out there, and it looks like no plot device is going to come along and save them.”
Ebert recounts an encounter with three women who thought the film “existential.” He argues that the characters do not have a choice of whether to live or die as one of them had suggested. One of the women said, “They wait and wait and Godot never comes. In ‘Gerry’ they walk and walk and they never get anywhere.” Samuel Beckett’s work is mentioned in several of the reviews I read.
Stephen Holden writes in the New York Times, “Peppered with profanities, their sparse, broken dialogue sounds like a self-conscious grunge parody of Samuel Beckett, although no humor is intended. As they set out along a wilderness trail, minus any supplies, including food and water, there is talk of how everyone is going in the direction of ‘the thing,’ but we are never told what or where it is.” He claims that the film is gradually taken over by the landscape and “at the halfway point, ‘Gerry’ has succeeded in conveying a sense of forsakenness as intense as Tom Hank’s desert island solitude in ‘Cast Away.’”
Then Holden jumps to reference brilliant Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami in “Through the Olive Trees.” “At the same time, the shimmering, craggy majesty of the desert begins to weave its spell. Its desolate grandeur recalls the earthquake-ravaged terrain explored by the Iranian director … The soundtrack catches the rush of wind along with rumbles of distant thunder. Implacable and stone-faced, murmuring its own impenetrable language, nature stands sentinel over human frailty.” He cites the surrealistic cinematography with speeded up clouds and shadows.
He ends, “With its quirks, “Gerry’ seeps into your pores like the wind-whipped sand that stings the faces of these disoriented hikers … as the movie stretches out, they (the audience) may find themselves as befuddled and directionless as its foolhardy outdoorsmen lurching across the wasteland without a compass or a canteen.” Cinema that helps audiences experience what they never cannot or should not is one of its magical powers.
Jeffrey M. Anderson writes, “But without a cut, we’re basically left stranded on our own. What do you think about while watching this for so long…? But the weariness of the scene weighs on you until the most mundane thoughts take on heavy resonance. ‘Gerry’ is truly a film that wants its audience to be part of the process instead of just a big ticket-buying, popcorn-munching machine.
“Yet there was a point where ‘Gerry’s’ relentless minimalism began to strike me as amusing. And another point where I could not deny the sheer physical beauty of Van Sant’s desert. And another point where I adopted the Zen-like patience the film requires and found myself getting caught up in its oddly compelling rhythm. And by the end of the film I looked back and realized this is a film about two guys lost in the desert.”
The effect of the film forces you to look within and have the writer meditate more on his own mental state than on what was flickering on the screen in front of his gaze.
Carl Langley (no relationship) talks about the effect of the length of the continuous shots. “Van Sant has ostensibly kept long, continuous shots to help the viewer process what is actually occurring on the screen, which oddly, is an ingenious decision. The best aspect of ‘Gerry’ is the nifty camera shots, such as the speechless, synchronized pacing of the two characters.” He adds, however, the more this occurred, the less he liked the film.
We’ll give director Gus Van Sant the last word. Speaking of an extended scene that ended up seven minutes on the screen, he answered, “There is a rhythm, but it’s so elongated that it’s more like an impressionistic rhythm. Other types of rhythm, when they’re like under 20 seconds, it’s more like a musical rhythm.” Of his rules, Van Sant admitted, “… and we shot in order. That was one of our little rules. We had our own little rules: No traditional coverage, no traditional screen play, and to shoot in continuity.”
I think the film has enormous depth, but only if you will abandon your expectation of being entertained. You cannot open up the meaning and value of this film, without a lot of mental work. It is not for most people, but for those who will engage the film with patience and reflection, it is a film like few others.

(Chris Langley is an independent writer and film historian living in Lone Pine. He can be reached at 760-937-1189 or at lonepinemovies@aol.com.)

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