This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine Gerry, directed by Gus Van Sant.
Gerry (2002, dir. Gus Van Sant)
The moment when Gerry and Gerry (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) choose the path less traveled — which turns out to be no path at all — and enter the void. An eerie noise creeps its way into the film, like some growling metallic beast, casting a terrible spell over the landscape. Do the Gerrys introduce madness into the void, or does the void do something to them, infect them with some inscrutable purpose? At this moment, it seems to be the Damon character who leads:
Gerry (Affleck): Hiking moms on the trail? [They have just seen the last human beings, on the trail proper behind and to the left of the Affleck Gerry.]Gerry (Damon): It’s just gonna be … it’s just tourists up there.
Gerry (Affleck): Well how far’s the thing?
Gerry (Damon): I don’t know. We’re like halfway there. Let’s go this way man. It’s gotta … everything’s gonna go to the thing. Everything’s gonna lead to the same place.
Gerry (Affleck) stands in his black shirt emblazoned with a yellow star. What does this star signify, or is it completely random, something Affleck chose at the last minute before shooting? Does the yellow star mark him as a victim? Is it a celestial signal? Is the star a stand-in for the movie itself, which we follow expecting and dreading that some wayward scrap of dialog or image will solve the mystery? Gerry (Damon) is already on the move, his back to us, the camera hovering gently, as if floating in heavy syrup, the frame divided by the carcass of a fallen tree. The film is about many things. It is about power. The power of the natural world and its secrets. The power of one man over another. In this frame, as in many others, it is Gerry (Affleck) who follows the other Gerry, dressed in black, the traditional signifier of “evil” in western narrative, a dark force that prompts the Damon Gerry to do something positively sacrificial at the end.
Gerry (Affleck) trapped on a high rock, as Gerry (Damon) prepares a bed of soft dirt to cushion his jump. In this frame, we see Gerry (Affleck’s face) as the other Gerry works and says: “You really only need to hit it with two feet, on one spot. So if we can get the spot, and if you can hit it, that’s all the cushion you need.” The look on Gerry (Affleck’s) face is sinister: it is a look that we see, but that the other Gerry does not. The shot is weirdly suggestive of a “from-the-grave” shot, as if Gerry (Damon) was digging his own grave, with the yellow-starred (the corrupt sheriff?) other Gerry watches. Gerry is a film of clues, of breadcrumbs that we follow as our minds race to fill in the gaps, and frames like this are the clues. What are Gerry (Affleck’s) intentions, the film seems to ask, by showing Gerry grinning down at his toiling Other. The camera approximates the viewpoint of Gerry (Damon), but does not match it: Gerry (Affleck) does not gaze down directly into the camera, but off to the side, at the other Gerry. Here and elsewhere the camera is a third presence, almost a character, accompanying the Gerrys on their terminal hike, but refusing to comment on the blank mystery of the characters’ intentions, which remain inscrutable.
“The [film] still offers us the inside of the fragment” Roland Barthes wrote in his 1970 essay “The Third Meaning.” And what are we inside of, here, dear readers? We are inside of a trap, but a trap designed for whom and why? Do the Gerrys carry the trap in their heads, snaring the natural world, or are they themselves snared?
A frame from the long tracking shot that circles around Gerry (Affleck). Wordless. Gerry stares into the void. The casual, cryptic bantering between him and the other Gerry has ended. They are lost in every possible way that there is to be lost, and we sense that Something Bad is going to happen. Although the shot itself lasts just minutes, in real time with no edits, there is a feeling that enormous amounts of time have passed, huge swaths of it, eons, wiping out all ideology and all the old moralities. The Gerrys are ancient now, deep into nature’s demonology, beyond time.
The film, as many have noted, is haunted by the work of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. But it is also part of a spooky American tradition of disoriented realism. For there is an eerie connection between Herman Melville’s obscurely great novel Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852) — which a reviewer at the time called “one long brain-muddling, soul-bewildering ambiguity … without beginning or end” — and Gerry. In a fantastically weird section near the middle of Pierre, a fragment of a pamphlet by the fictional Plotinus Plinlimmon is introduced. It’s a portion of a lecture on chronometricals and horologicals (time-keeping instruments), and a send-up of the growing standardization (of time, of factories, of the work day, etc.) of Melville’s era. Greenwich Mean Time (“railroad time”) was adopted by Great Britain and then other nations beginning in the late 1840s. Here, from the supposed pamphlet:
Now in an artificial world like ours, the soul of man is further removed from its God and the Heavenly Truth, than the chronometer carried to China, is from Greenwich. And, as that chronometer, if at all accurate, will pronounce it to be 12 o’clock high-noon, when the local watches say, perhaps, it is 12 o’clock midnight; so the chronometric soul, if in this world true to its great Greenwich in the other, will always, in its so-called intuitions of right and wrong, be contradicting the mere local standards and watchmaker’s brains of this earth.
Gerry and Gerry have entered into Nature, with its own “local standards” relativity, which preceded postmodernism by hundreds and hundreds of years. As strange a film as Gerry is, it succeeds unsurpassed in capturing the plain old banality of time, which expands and shrinks according to our own temperament. Gerry (Affleck), in this frame, is lost in time. The only way to render this on film is by showing nothing, which is what his face is. Nothing. Expressionless, Blank. And therefore terrifying, because we do not like think of our fellow human beings as blank. We expect signs from them, signals. A gesture, a smile, a wave, a tic. Something that demonstrates their camaraderie with us, their fellowship. In this frame, all we have is Gerry’s blank stare and the annihilistic music of Arvo Pärt and the feeling that time is rushing by at 1,000 years a second and that somehow whatever has cast its spell over the Gerrys is not yet done with them, or us.