Release Date: 2002
Nationality and Language:
Running time: 103 Minutes
Distributor and Production Company: ThinkFilm
Director; Writer: Gus Van Sant with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck
Producer: Fus Van Sabt
Cast: Matt Damon, Casey Affleck
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This film created a stir at the 2002 Sundance film festival, and has been anticipated for a long time.
This little two-part invention shows two straight male friends played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck (Ben’s brother) going on a casual hike into California’s Death Valley, getting lost and facing a tragic end. There was a tragic incident in New Mexico in 1999 where this happened to two hikers, one of whom killed the other as a “mercy killing,” That does not happen here, although the film does relentlessly meander towards tragedy.
And spectacular to look at, the film is. Landmark advertises the film as in the original CinemaScope, and the desert landscapes are breathtaking vistas of color shades (exercising film-stock technology to be sure), clouds, rock, and brush. The repetitive style seems to call for the music of Philip Glass, but instead there is a sweet artsy piano and winds score that grows more menacing.
But the screenplay, or its pointillist Satie-like conversational simplicity, the lines often mumbled, generates some controversy. Damon and Casey Affleck wrote it—rather improvised it as the film was being shot in short takes. And what struck me was the rather lack of real verbal communication between the men. The silliness of their small talk (about a mutual friend “Gerry” who screws up everything, about who has what mountain, then about animal tracks leading to copulation and only then water) may contribute to their undoing. Army Green Berets would have survived this, and openly gay men probably would have survived because they would have articulated a plan much sooner. Instead Damon and Affleck meander aimlessly to their end, even as you gradually learn that Damon is the stronger character and more likely to make it. (But, then again, Matt Damon dominates every movie that he is in, whether or not he writes the script himself on his own PC, as he brags with Good Will Hinting.) The men only become slightly intimate near the very end. Affleck whispers, “hey, how is the hike going?” as if he has no clue of his demise. This is a tragedy.
Some commentators will compare this film to Van Sant’s My
Own Private Idaho (Fine Line Features, 1991), with River Phoenix
and Keanu Reeves. That film explored
the bonding between a conveniently narcoleptic gay male hustler and a kid
receiving an inheritance who felt drawn towards “going straight” to justify
this “fortune.” That film has a campfire scene between the two men that is
much richer in dialogue (talking about love and friendship) than two
comparable scenes in Gerry. However,
The next day I went on a weekend expedition myself into the Minnesota prairies, imagining a Gus Van Sant film with shots of white-outs and snow blowing across roads in an eerie evening sun (not the same effect as Fargo), and then stop in a remote bar for coffee. This roly-poly friendly guy approaches me and tries to start a conversation about what I am doing passing through and nosing around in remote places. So I start talking about Gerry and threatening to get my camcorder from the car, film our conversation, and submit it to Sundance. I tell him that he must be the Gerry of Matt/Casey. Then I won’t have to do the hard work of writing a real screenplay on my own hard drive. The female bartender laughs and begs for a part in my movie.
In 2003 Gus Van Sant directed
the experimental film Elephant (86 min., Fine Line
Features), in which he deconstructs in Pulp Fiction fashion
(non-sequentially) a fictitious Columbine-style attack on a
In The Washington Post,
Gus Van Sant gave Outspoken an interview and comments, as in this article.
The Life Before Her Eyes (2008, Magnolia
/ 2929, dir. Vadim Perelman, novel by Laura Kasischke, 93 min, R, music by James Horner) also
presents a Columbine-style high school attack in random order (sort of), in
flashbacks from a woman Diana (Uma Thurman) fifteen
years later, teaching art history at the same school, and dealing with her
own family. The movie (2.35:1) has the big look of regular
Last Days (2005, Picturehouse/HBO, dir. Gus Van Sant, 97 min, R). Michael Pitt plays Blake, a realization of rock singer Kurt Cobain as he sinks into madness during the last days of his life, in a big house filled with other people trying to carry on “normally.” People come and go (including Mormon missionaries) and gradually disengage. Toward the end there is one rather improvised gay scene with a couple of other residents. The conclusion is, of course, expected and tragic.
The supplementary extras about making the film show that
the script was improvised, as was the background music. The camera was often
held still, and the scene simply unfolded. In some ways, this is like a Dogme 95 film. The extra shows Michael Pitt doing
ape-like gymnastics on a tree, requiring enormous upper-body strength. The
The movie had a 1.37:1 theatrical release as well as HBO,
Van Sant seems to like to make films about descent into the abyss. I wonder if he would consider a docudrama of the fall of Rabbi David Kaye, who was caught in a Dateline sting for Internet sex offenders, and then a delayed and agonizing federal prosecution and incarceration and perhaps treatment. It seems as though his personality collapse at mid life could have been relatively sudden, and the whole story is shocking. It could make compelling film.
A British film with a premise similar to
Gerry is Touching the Void (
I recall a similar if somewhat obscure film in 1992, K-2, (dir. Franc Roddam, Norsk Films) in which one friend helps another stranded on the world’s second highest mountain. Other readers may recall the story of this film, but I recall that it spoke to military-style male bonding.
The Australian film Japanese Story (Samuel Goldwyn, Fortissimo, dir. Sue Brooks,
script by Alison Tilson, starring Toni Collette and
Gotaru Tsunashima, R, 107
minutes, 2004), also presents a walkabout survival story. It is like a
combination of Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabaout
(1971), Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1977) and Gerry. The geologist Sandy (Collette) is
responsible to hosting a guest Japanese businessman Hiromitsu
for an iron mining deal. Early on, the film, in extremely wide screen looking
like CinemaScope (the credits mention high
definition), shows stunning Martian landscapes from the Western Australian
deserts, with weird inorganic colors and crystals and knobby shapes, giving
the whole film a sci-fi look. The tour starts in the open pit mines that are
tearing down the mountains in the northwestern part of the state. Australian
geography has always seemed like a reduction of the
Open Water (Lions Gate, R, 79 min, dir. Chris Kentis) is perhaps the ultimate stranded survivalist tragedy, shot in digital video reportedly for just $30000 (I’m not sure I believe that). In fact, it is reduced to bare essentials: a young husband and wife (Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan) left alone in open water by a tour boat after a careless head count. (The movie explains how this happens, as another passenger confuses things.) The last fifty minutes or so of the movie we agonize with them as their lives are chipped away by barracuda, jellyfish (not box jellyfish), and then sharks of increasing size, as well as seasickness (the motion in the water is shown effectively) and dehydration. Other critics point to a “Blair Witch” effect as the graininess of the film adds to the horror. But it is not so much horror as pointlessness—they have about 28 hours to live and really little or no hope of anything more because the outside world has deleted them. Finally, there is a hopeless search—too little, too late—and an examination of sharks’ stomachs. As a movie, though, there was little to look at, and not much to experience but a dead end. This is more like a manipulation than a film. One viewer at the theater said, sarcastically, “This is the feel good movie of the year.”
Open Water 2:
Adrift (2006, Lions Gate/Summit, dir. Hans Horn, R,
First Descent (2005,
Focus/Universal/Transition Productions, dir. Kemp Curly, Kevin Harrison, 110
min, PG-13) is a spirited documentary of not just snowboarding (the main
offering), but a number of extreme sports (skateboarding, race driving, skeet
shooting). Filmed on with video retrospects in many locations, the mainline of the story
(filmed in widescreen Arri) deals with a fortnight
in the mountains around
The Endless Summer (1966, Bruce Brown
Films, 95 min, G) was a famous cult documentary about surfing, looking for
the perfect wave. The film was shot in 16 mm and at the time was a bit of a
sensation as a “small film.” I recall seeing it in graduate school on a big
Vertical Limit (2000,
Knife in the Water (“Noz w wodzie”, 1962, Janus,
dir. Roman Polanski, bw, 94 min,
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