The Searchers

The Influence of Anxiety

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.

A walk to remember: Affleck and Damon in Van Sant's Gerry
photo: THINKfilm
A walk to remember: Affleck and Damon in Van Sant's Gerry


Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Van Sant, Casey Affleck, and Matt Damon
Opens February 14, at the Angelika

All the Real Girls
Written and directed by David Gordon Green
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens February 14, at the Angelika

Stone Reader
Written and directed by Mark Moskowitz
February 12 through 25, at Film Forum

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."

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