What if they showed a movie and nobody came? That's pretty much what's happened with Gerry, Gus Van Sant's latest film.
In six weeks of limited release around the country (I'm talking the U.S. of A here, kids), it has earned a whopping $184,000. While that's big money for you and me (the latest Weekly reader survey indicated that nearly .1 percent of our readership is billionaires, give or take .1 percent), for a movie featuring actual stars by a well-known director, it's roughly the equivalent of the money that falls out of your pocket when you go to sleep on the couch.
What a shock, though, that a film that features no female characters, no love scenes, no plot and no exploding man-beasts from the planet of racial stereotypes should fail to reap financial reward. OK, it's not so shocking, but it is a bit shocking that such a beautifully photographed and inventive film, headlined by a big star (Matt Damon; I'm using "big" and "star" somewhat loosely, but hey, he was in The Legend of Bagger Vance and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back--were you?) and directed by a guy who is a personally acquainted with Sean Connery and Busta Rhymes should be so neglected.
So what went wrong? Well, in keeping with the theme of protest that has swept our cities and towns in the last few weeks, I blame America. This is exactly the kind of excellent and aesthetically progressive filmmaking that will never catch on in a country that produces pre-mixed peanut butter and jelly. Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about.
What I'm talking about is that Gerry is a film that has high expectations of the audience, including patience and the capacity to find interest in areas of filmmaking other than plot and story.
Damon and Casey Affleck play two guys who like to call each other Gerry. Gerry and Gerry go for a walk in a sort of dream desert that encompasses every desert everywhere, and, within a few minutes, they become hopelessly lost. They then spend the next few days trying to find their way back to the parking lot. Yes, it's like an art-film version of Dude, Where's My Car.
However, unlike that masterpiece, Gerry has three things that make it one of the most interesting films of the year (again, using "interesting" in a somewhat attenuated sense that would include films that feature 10-minute-long shots of the sky). First, it's incredibly beautiful. Second, the acting is so natural it looks like it just blossomed out of the ground. And finally, the sparse dialogue is up there with that of Clockwork Orange in its inventive use of language.
As Gerry and Gerry walk through the shifting desert, going from Sonoran scrub to red rock to white sand to salt flat (the film was shot in at least four different deserts around the United States and South America), they talk in the manner of two guys who spend way too much time together. Lines like, "You totally Gerry'ed the rendez-vous after the rolling-hill scout-about and I had to crows-nest up here. Now I need you to make a dirt-mattress with a shirt-bucket," are weirdly compelling, and make perfect sense in context. This invented tongue is used sparingly, though, as the vast majority of the movie is silent except for the wind, the sound of footsteps and a minimal soundtrack by Arvo Pärt.
The long silences are made interesting by the gorgeous and unsettling cinematography. The camera takes in not only the characters but also their surroundings with an eerie eye for the beautiful. Cinematographer Harris Savides has never previously shown this level of talent, but then he's never been given this kind of opportunity before. In one of the best shots in, oh, let's say the History of Cinema, Affleck and Damon are walking side by side through the desert. The camera remains in close-up on Affleck's profile, and as they walk Damon's head bobs in and out of view behind him. They start in lock step and slowly go out of phase, creating a kind of visual music through the motion of their heads. This alone is worth the price of admission. Hell, you should pay twice just to see this scene.
But please, at least pay once. Let's let the world know that we in America--which is, after all, the greatest country in the world, at least in terms of it's storehouse of weapons of mass destruction--also have an aesthetic sensibility that takes delight in finely crafted art, even when that art refuses to pander to our love of breasts, violence and shiny, shiny things that go boom in the night.