Stan Brakhage, arguably the single most important and visible figure in the history of American avant-garde film, succumbed to cancer earlier this year. But one imagines that if he had ever been given the chance, or had the desire, to make a feature-length "narrative" film employing Hollywood stars, it might have been something like Gerry, the latest vehicle from onetime indie icon Gus Van Sant, which stars Matt Damon and Casey "brother of Ben" Affleck.
The film opens with three long, mostly silent tracking shots, each showing the same action from a different perspective. First there is a shot, from the rear, of a car as it snakes along a highway running through a deserted wilderness in what we take to be the American West. After several minutes, the film cuts to a shot of the car's silent inhabitants --Damon and Affleck --holding this shot for several minutes. Then it cuts to a point-of-view shot through the windshield, watching the road unfurl ahead. The soundtrack is a soft, hypnotic mix of piano and strings, drops of sound falling like a light rain. It feels like the visual equivalent of a palette cleanser, and it reminds me of a story I once read about the punk band Flipper, who would reportedly begin shows by playing the same note over and over until they'd weeded out everyone in the crowd who wasn't fully committed. The difference with Gerry is that the note never changes.
Van Sant, a wonder boy of American movies back during the days of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, has fallen into an odd groove, alternating crowd-pleasing Hollywood fare with formal experiments that masquerade as commercial movies. Thus, Good Will Hunting was followed by his shot-by-shot remake of Psycho, and Finding Forrester has been followed by this, another questionable attempt at stretching his art.
Damon and Affleck are both named Gerry, seemingly longtime friends (hinted at by the comfortable, nonsensical banter that exists between them) who stop along the road for a hike in the mountains and get lost. The rest of the film is their increasingly desperate and bewildered attempt to find their way back. There are no other characters, very little dialogue, and long stretches of silent, unbroken shots, often long shots tracking the Gerrys as they trod across a landscape that seems the more epic for its many changes, a result of shooting in three different locations -- the deserts of Argentina, Death Valley, and the tundra-like white salt flats of Utah.
One of Van Sant's primary formal concerns lies in using his long takes to explore real time in a manner that films rarely do. By slowing things down to the extreme, he is, in theory, forcing the viewer to look at a film in a new way, to concentrate more, to let the eye roam over the frame rather than focus on something a director is making you look at. But it isn't like Van Sant is the first filmmaker to have such a notion. As with Psycho, he is partly taking the fan's role of retracing the paths of his personal icons. Van Sant has even mentioned the work of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, whose long tracking shots over bare land are the stuff of film-snob in-jokes, and Hungarian Béla Tarr, whose films I've never had the opportunity to see but who reliable sources assure me earns the hype. Another recent example of this strategy is Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark, a 90-minutes-plus digital video feature that is one continuous take, though Sokurov's highly theatrical film is in other ways the antithesis of Van Sant's minimalism. And the granddaddy of this style may be Michael Snow's classic avant-garde film Wavelength, is a 45-minute-long zoom shot across a room to a photo of waves on the opposite wall.
Van Sant employs these familiar avant-garde techniques with the enthusiasm of a film student shooting a thesis, which has its charms. And one supposes that Van Sant's film may be seen by more people than any of the above, a result of having the name "Matt Damon" on the marquee, though one doubts that even Damon can sell this Outward Bound Beckett to the masses.
Ultimately, Van Sant seems to have bitten off a bit too much. Even at his peak he didn't seem quite as momentous an artist as American indie contemporaries Jim Jarmusch and Richard Linklater. And while those filmmakers have recently pushed the boundaries of their work to wild success, at least artistically, with Dead Man and Waking Life, respectively, Van Sant's work comes across as more pretentious because his follow-through doesn't match his concepts. Rather, Van Sant's experimentation is more in line with another of his contemporaries, Steven Soderbergh, who experimented to grand effect with the almost Dada Schizopolis but who came crashing down to earth with last year's Full Frontal, which provoked walkouts, as Gerry reportedly has.
There is a cumulative effect to the film, with so much time spent with eye-popping landscape cinematography dwarfing the film's human protagonists: By the time the Gerrys reach the end of their journey, the viewer can feel the hard weight of the ordeal. That is, if the viewer has made it to the end as well.