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Time Waits for Nomads: Casey Affleck (left) and Matt Damon wander the wilderness.

Gerry Meandering

Gus Van Sant returns to the avant-garde with 'Gerry'

By Richard von Busack

IT ISN'T ABOUT ROMANCE. Is it about death? The reviews of Gerry are as peppered with question marks as the Riddler's waistcoat, but most agree that it's more honorable for director Gus Van Sant to have made something really strange than to have delivered something entertaining. Van Sant could have taken the money and made Good Will Hunting Has a Baby, you know. An ordinary avant-garde artist's two-men-in-the-desert film is less worthwhile than a picture by someone who snaps his fingers at Hollywood's wealth and stands his ground: "Two men, desert, no story!" That's the good old Puritan spirit speaking, reminding us that entertainment is essentially sinful.

Gerry stars Casey Affleck and Matt Damon (both credited as writers) as a pair of hikers who get lost in the desert. The script probably reads, "They walked, and they walked, and they walked." Van Sant composed this desert out of a composite of three wastelands, including one in Argentina. Brothers or lovers, the two speak elliptically as they wander, with private slang. Both are named or nicknamed "Gerry." but they use the word as a verb. To "gerry" means to make a mistake or to take a wrong turn, just like the "gerry" that got them lost deep in the desert. One of them talks about them "berrying" [barreling] down the road, because they were "gerrying" at an advanced speed. They have no background, but they're well educated. Affleck's Gerry tells a long campfire story about Thebes and Knossos and a temple of Demeter that was profaned with a lava flow. The dramatic highlight is the question of whether one of the party is going to jump off a rock. Well, it's a big rock.

When comparing Gerry to Samuel Beckett, please recall that Beckett is actually funny. I mean absolutely no disrespect to gay people, when I repeat one clue: a friend told me that if I'd been gay, I might have appreciated Gerry. In this world, where each man's hand is raised against the other, the subject of how men trust each other as intimates is badly underexplored onscreen. Van Sant's early film Mala Noche is one of the few that delves into that particular sense of romantic risk. Maybe what this friend meant is that if I'd found Affleck or Damon vessels of erotic tension, I'd have found Gerry more compelling. But I never wonder what makes Casey Affleck and Matt Damon tick, because I never really heard the ticking in the first place.

In Gerry, Van Sant credits the influence of director Bela Tarr. There's a context in Tarr's work that Gerry lacks. There are historic and cultural reasons why Hungarian film brings out a spirit so attuned to deliberation, slowness and futility. This spirit translates badly in the open spaces of the Americas. I'll be a philistine. I don't think this is the particular intransigent film to endorse. I ran for the exit, right before the two Gerries resolved their differences in what I've heard was a climactic act of violence.


Gerry (R; 103 min.), directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Casey Affleck, Matt Damon and Van Sant, photographed by Harris Savides and starring Affleck and Damon, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.


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From the March 13-19, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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