Harold Rosenberg imagined a work of modern art as an “anxious object,” unsure whether it was “a masterpiece or a piece of junk.” Gus Van Sant’s new film, Gerry, is an anxious movie-object that might well wonder whether its minimalist aspiration is a matter of ambitious purity or empty pretense.
The dreamy opening is designed to prank 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. Then the guys park in the middle of nowhere, get out of the car, and start walking. It’s another several minutes before either of them speaks—and somewhat longer before their banter is intelligible. Then, they find the “trail.”
The audience never really sees this alleged path: It’s a virtual trail, created by the moving camera. Gerry too is a virtual film, which is to say, it’s a movie about appearing in a movie, with a narrative based on making up a narrative. The purposefully inane dialogue was largely improvised by the actors, who both play characters named Gerry (and use “gerry” as their all-purpose word, the way the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack used to deploy the term “clyde”). Suspense is a given. There is, Damon assures Affleck, a “thing” at the end of the trail—it’s called the end of the movie.
Mystically attuned to audience mood, Damon and Affleck presently grow tired. Then the fog rolls in and the two Gerrys realize that they are lost. It was at this moment, when I first saw Gerry in Toronto last year, that individual members of the audience began a slow but constant exodus from the theater. (Spoiler alert: The deserters missed an ever deeper journey into the photogenic wilderness, an ever more quarrelsome relationship between the actors, and a dull ache of dramatic tension and its absence. There is a moment when one Gerry gets stuck atop a rock. After a while, he jumps . . . unexpectedly, leaving you to wonder if there will ever be another event.)
For all the mounting hysteria, the Gerrys mainly seem lost in the space between their ears. Still the romping pup, Damon brings the confidence of a proven matinee idol to his character. Affleck is more tentative and whining. He’s obviously less of a box-office draw than Damon, so in one comic-book touch, Van Sant has him wear a shirt with a big yellow star. Trapped in their Boys’ Life Beckett scenario, the Gerrys make their way through a tricksy montage of scrubby woods, rocky deserts, misty mountains, and parched salt flats.
Meanwhile, the repetitive situations and languid pacing allow ample time to find analogies—from L’Avventura to The Blair Witch Project to every survival drama ever made. At best, Gerry is a live-action version of the Chuck Jones cartoon Duck Amuck, in which the backdrop keeps shifting and hapless Daffy is subject to the whims of an unfathomable creator. There’s no direct address, but toward the end, Gerry‘s coy references to the presumably watching audience become increasingly apparent: “How do you like the hike so far?” one Gerry wonders.
Such smug self-consciousness suggests Michael Haneke’s loathsome anti-thriller Funny Games, except that here the audience-directed aggression is largely passive—which is why, although Gerry may be as hollow as George Bush’s rhetoric, I can’t say I found it a more difficult movie to sit through than Good Will Hunting. (This is something like Bad Willful Punting.) Even more than Steven Soderbergh, Van Sant deserves props for an unusual career. But, as Karl Marx warned us and Gerry also suggests, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Only superficially more experimental than Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Psycho, Gerry may be, as the filmmaker suggests, a tribute to Béla Tarr’s use of real time in Sátántangó, but if so, it’s only a tepid approximation.
Exercise in existential tedium that it is, Gerry isn’t without devotees. In a recent issue of Artforum, John Waters declared his allegiance in the most basic terms, admonishing his readers, “Don’t sleep with anybody who doesn’t love this film.” Gerry is an undeniable curiosity, but to follow this advice, perverse even by Waters standards, may mean taking a de facto vow of celibacy.
Indie director David Gordon Green’s first feature, George Washington, was another anxious object. Green’s haphazardly lyrical, heavily symbolic account of a tragic incident involving a group of kids on the outskirts of a small Southern city seemed at once brilliant and inept. It was difficult to imagine what he might do for an encore, but All the Real Girls—opening fresh from Sundance—demonstrates that, tonally at least, George Washington was no fluke.
Alternately poignant and ridiculous, opaque and garrulous, All the Real Girls recapitulates its predecessor’s taste for absurd gravitas and useless beauty. Essentially a two-hander, set in a North Carolina mill town, it tracks the unhappy romance between a teenage girl and a somewhat older boy. They’re introduced staring at each other. “What are you looking at?” Paul (Paul Schneider) demands. (Since he developed the story with Green, he really ought to know.) Archly, Noel (Zooey Deschanel) asks why he never kissed her. Paul ponders the question and the long, static take continues. Later, Noel will tell him, “I had a dream that you grew a garden on a trampoline and I was so happy I invented peanut butter.”
The generally adorable Deschanel gives Noel an impish pre-sexual innocence. This cute and perky li’l fox even plays the trombone. The less expressive and generally unreadable Schneider is supposed to be the town stud. (“You go down in every girl’s history book as the asshole ex-boyfriend,” a buddy tells him.) His seeming depression is compounded by a number of scenes with his mother (Patricia Clarkson), who entertains sick children at the hospital and frequently wears her clown getup around the house. Noel wants to give her virginal self to Paul. He’s freaked out by her trust—plus, she’s the kid sister of his best friend (Shea Whigham), another layabout who sports the highest pompadour in town. Paul and Noel go to bed several times, but he’d rather wait—with predictable results.
This earnest love story is borderline insufferable, and yet there are moments that, in their bold incoherence, have a startling emotional truth. Midway through, the star-crossed couple throw a mutual tantrum, which continues to resonate long after the movie ends. With its stunning Smoky Mountain vistas and sunset landscapes, All the Real Girls is often as gorgeous as Gerry and nearly as dumb—the difference is that Gerry is, heh-heh, really “dumb” and here you never know. Green manages to suggest true unhappiness in a peaceable kingdom where retarded children speak in folk poetry and a crippled dog is surely the reincarnation of an ancient sage. The final shot of the town’s upside-down reflection could break your heart.
The docu-discovery of last year’s Slamdance Film Festival, Mark Moskowitz’s Stone Reader has received much pre-release publicity, as well it might. For writers, the premise is irresistible. The filmmaker goes searching for the one-book author of a virtually unknown, long-out-of-print, 600-page novel, which he alone seems to have read. Indeed, Moskowitz insures his solitary mission by purchasing every copy he can find of Dow Mossman’s 1972 The Stones of Summer. (He’s not a bibliophile—he’s a reader of remarkable devotion.)
Moskowitz, whose day job is making political commercials for the Democratic Party, spends a year pursuing Mossman, following cold leads, grasping at straws, and entertaining the viewer by consulting literary wise men ranging from Professor Leslie Fiedler to editor Robert Gottlieb to The Stones of Summer‘s lone reviewer. This hunt is nearly as much a man’s world as Moby-Dick. (Stone Reader is strikingly homosocial: Mrs. Moskowitz will not permit herself to be filmed, and the filmmaker’s mother aside, women barely speak.) Flaubert’s ideal novelist is one who disappears behind the work; Moskowitz is a filmmaker who places himself front and center, but without vanity. Stone Reader doesn’t make a case for The Stones of Summer as a great novel—from what can be gleaned, Mossman’s book may be yet another anxious object, oscillating between compulsive overwriting and convulsive over-reaching—but Moskowitz does convince the viewer of his own obsession. What’s more, he turns it into a great literary mystery.
As filmmaking, Stone Reader can be rough-hewn and sometimes crass, but Moskowitz’s self-imposed mission is moving in a way that completely eluded the Masterpiece Theatrics of Neil LaBute’s genteel Possession. “You’re way past an ideal reader—you’re in another dimension,” the object of Moskowitz’s quest tells him. Amen. I’ve never seen a movie that paid more heartfelt tribute to the power of artistic invention.
“The Desert of the Real: Gus Van Sant Gerry-Rigs the Road Movie” by Ed Halter
J. Hoberman’s review of David Gordon Green’s George Washington