Sunday, April 23, 2006

Gerry (Van Sant, 2002)

For his past three films, Van Sant has been crafting his own film syntax, one relatively free of dramatic manipulation or overt expressions of thematic and emotional concerns, and one that offers many more questions than answers. It is all of these, particularly the last, that infuriates and alienates many viewers. Some expected him to, for example, know the cause of the shootings in Elephant (i.e. Columbine), yet one gets the feeling that people would be even more infuriated, and more deservedly, if he did claim to know the cause. But, that's a different film and a different topic.

This trio of films concerning death in the modern world (in Gerry, homicide that is potentially a mercy killing, potentially a smothering of embarrassing or unfortunate memories, potentially a Darwinian triumph after a reversion to animalistic needs to survive, in Elephant, a mass killing, and in Last Days, a likely suicide) begins with Gerry. The two characters, both named Gerry, become fixtures of the landscape as they walk endlessly and without direction (despite futile shows of control, as when a map is drawn in the sand or they retrace their steps, their mistakes). A story is told early on about a Wheel of Fortune woman who has to solve the puzzle "BARRE_ING DOWN THE ROAD" and thinks the answer is "Barreying down the road." The answer may as well be Gerrying down the road, for it is a similarly simple mistake that utterly dooms the two Gerrys.

It is important that, when lost in nature that they were until recently commenting upon as great and beautiful, they revert to discussion of their electronic experiences. Perhaps they are unable to see the picturesque landscapes without the aid of an electronic media, such as film. Would the viewer see the desert in the same way if it were not a part of the film?

A second such reversion is during a campfire sequence (a motif in Van Sant's work, second only to time-lapse clouds), when a Gerry announces "I captured Thebes the other day." He is, of course, talking about a video game (Age of Empires or Civilization, or something like that, I presume), and there is a wonderful disharmony in hearing a normal guy lost in the desert cast himself as an emperor in charge of a Thebes-capturing army. This is another comment upon the modern world's dependence upon electronic media. He then gets to a point when he says he needed twelve horses to save his city, but had only eleven. So the other Gerry asks "So you didn't capture Thebes, then?" to which the initial Gerry replies "No, I had already captured Thebes, and then that happened." He had been dwelling on what he lost, on his failure, rather than his triumph. Despite his feeling the need to anounce it, his victory in the video game meant nothing. Electronic experience cannot replace real experience, and it breeds negativity. He brought this anecdote up not out of pride, but out of a need to converse. Indeed, it is after they cease talking about either immediate matters or past modern-world experiences that they cease to have anything to say, and a fissure erupts between them. This scene is a very subtle but very rich one, exploring concepts that are in plain sight every day though few acknowledge them. Gerry is in many ways a film about the price of life in a modern world.

Gerry is an endless bounty of beauty and provocative starting points for discussion and personal thought. Only a fraction of its depth has been touched upon here. Gerry is the film that propelled Van Sant from "good" to "great," and he has since been proving his worthiness of this leap.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having only previously seen his "commercial films" (Finding Forrester and GWH), I finally caught Elephant on the DVR over the weekend. I was left bewitched, bothered, and bewildered (groan) by the power and immediacy of van Sant's filmmaking. There was an edge and vibrancy to every shot, and it's forcing me to go back and queue up the other two in this triology


9:06 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home