DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Gerry, My Own Private Idaho, Elephant, The Life Before Her Eyes, Paranoid Park, Last Days, Touching the Void, Japanese Story, Open Water, 2: Adrift, Deep Water, K2 , First Descent, The Endless Summer , Vertical Limit, Knife in the Water


Title:  Gerry

Release Date:  2002

Nationality and Language:  USA, English

Running time:  103 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  R  (should have been PG-13)

Distributor and Production Company:  ThinkFilm

Director; Writer:  Gus Van Sant with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck

Producer: Fus Van Sabt

Cast:   Matt Damon, Casey Affleck

Technical:  CinemaScope

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This film created a stir at the 2002 Sundance film festival, and has been anticipated for a long time.


This little two-part invention shows two straight male friends played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck (Ben’s brother) going on a casual hike into California’s Death Valley, getting lost and facing a tragic end. There was a tragic incident in New Mexico in 1999 where this happened to two hikers, one of whom killed the other as a “mercy killing,” That does not happen here, although the film does relentlessly meander towards tragedy.


And spectacular to look at, the film is. Landmark advertises the film as in the original CinemaScope, and the desert landscapes are breathtaking vistas of  color shades (exercising film-stock technology to be sure), clouds, rock, and brush. The repetitive style seems to call for the music of Philip Glass, but instead there is a sweet artsy piano and winds score that grows more menacing.


But the screenplay, or its pointillist Satie-like conversational simplicity, the lines often mumbled, generates some controversy.  Damon and Casey Affleck wrote it—rather improvised it as the film was being shot in short takes. And what struck me was the rather lack of real verbal communication between the men.  The silliness of their small talk (about a mutual friend “Gerry” who screws up everything, about who has what mountain, then about animal tracks leading to copulation and only then water) may contribute to their undoing. Army Green Berets would have survived this, and openly gay men probably would have survived because they would have articulated a plan much sooner. Instead Damon and Affleck meander aimlessly to their end, even as you gradually learn that Damon is the stronger character and more likely to make it. (But, then again, Matt Damon dominates every movie that he is in, whether or not he writes the script himself on his own PC, as he brags with Good Will Hinting.)  The men only become slightly intimate near the very end. Affleck whispers, “hey, how is the hike going?” as if he has no clue of his demise. This is a tragedy.


Some commentators will compare this film to Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (Fine Line Features, 1991), with River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves.  That film explored the bonding between a conveniently narcoleptic gay male hustler and a kid receiving an inheritance who felt drawn towards “going straight” to justify this “fortune.” That film has a campfire scene between the two men that is much richer in dialogue (talking about love and friendship) than two comparable scenes in Gerry. However, Idaho is a complex film with many different layers (some of it enacted in Shakespeare acted out by the street characters, some of it in flashbacks, and several locations).


The next day I went on a weekend expedition myself into the Minnesota prairies, imagining a Gus Van Sant film with shots of white-outs and snow blowing across roads in an eerie evening sun (not the same effect as Fargo), and then stop in a remote bar for coffee. This roly-poly friendly guy approaches me and tries to start a conversation about what I am doing passing through and nosing around in remote places.  So I start talking about Gerry and threatening to get my camcorder from the car, film our conversation, and submit it to Sundance. I tell him that he must be the Gerry of Matt/Casey. Then I won’t have to do the hard work of writing a real screenplay on my own hard drive. The female bartender laughs and begs for a part in my movie.


In 2003 Gus Van Sant directed the experimental film Elephant (86 min., Fine Line Features), in which he deconstructs in Pulp Fiction fashion (non-sequentially) a fictitious Columbine-style attack on a Portland, Or. High school. (I didn’t get the name of the film – the so called eponymous elephant (Shubha Ghosh’s review)--as David Lynch’s Elephant Man (1980) comes to mind with this title.) The filmmaking itself is fascinating, as Van Sant zeroes in with close-ups of a number of likeable teens in ordinary teen activities. The blond kid who will turn out to be a minor hero (though I don’t know why he doesn’t call 9-1-1) is shown teaching his dad to drive. There is the cute male photographer who honestly does only legitimate work—head shots-- for a real portfolio. There is the lifeguard. There is the homely girl too modest about her legs to wear shorts to gym class. Funny how Van Sant really focuses on attractive young males. Problem is two of them are bad seeds, and we finally see their hysterical plot unfold. And what we learn unravels indeed. One starts out as an Ephram-like piano prodigy, starts to stumble on Fur Elise, and then we see his fascination with, besides his boy friend, guns and Hitler. It seems like the gay Bonnie-and-Clyde pair seem to be setting themselves up as Hidden Hitlers, empowered to decide who is fit to live.  There is chilling talk of incredible evil, like having fun by “picking off kids.” Then there is that scene of revealing—two hairless-bodied teenage men go into the same shower stall and start kissing. Really, Van Sant provides no real explanation for his turning them into “gay monsters” for a horror film climax  Were they bullied for being gay? (Were they bullied for being Goths or different as in the real Columbine?) There is no evidence of that in the film, as all the other teens seem to be as upstanding and likeable as possible. This is not good in a single film. Maybe Van Sant and HBO plan some followup sequels to explain. They owe us that. Michael Moore, for example, provided a total political and social context for the real tragedy in his film, however left-wing his interpretation.  It would seem in this case that the victims would have a tremendous “Runaway Jury” style lawsuit against the assault weapons manufacturers for shipping these kinds of weapons to truant kids.  Alex Frost and Eric Duelen play the tragic pair. Frost gave an intriguing, sometimes understated, performance, making him all the more sinister in the end, yet reminding me in early scenes of another actor I knew in Minneapolis, and I had to look a couple of times to make sure it wasn’t him.


In The Washington Post, March 25, 2005, Blaine Harden and Dana Hedgpeth (“Minnesota Killer Chafed at Life on Reservation”) write that Red Lake High School shooting perpetrator Jeff Weise had bought a videotape of this movie and taken it to a friend’s house to watch the climactic violent scenes.


Gus Van Sant gave Outspoken an interview and comments, as in this article.


The Life Before Her Eyes (2008, Magnolia / 2929, dir. Vadim Perelman, novel by Laura Kasischke, 93 min, R, music by James Horner) also presents a Columbine-style high school attack in random order (sort of), in flashbacks from a woman Diana (Uma Thurman) fifteen years later, teaching art history at the same school, and dealing with her own family. The movie (2.35:1) has the big look of regular Hollywood film rather than one of indie origins, but the subject matter could have come from Gus Van Sant.  One peculiarity is that the kids in the flashback are or “look” likable, including the shooter Michael (John Magaro) and it is hard to see what bothers him (and them). (But that seemed the case in Elephant, too.)  There is the usual teen callousness, of course.  The lavatory scene in the flashback had confronted a teen Diana with a horrific existential choice and outcome that she now has to live with as a “survivor.”


Paranoid Park (2007, IFC / MK2, dir. Gus Van Sant) is a meditation about a teen skateboarder in Portland OR who gets involved with the accidental death of a railroad security guard. Blogger discussion.


Last Days (2005, Picturehouse/HBO, dir. Gus Van Sant, 97 min, R). Michael Pitt plays Blake, a realization of rock singer Kurt Cobain as he sinks into madness during the last days of his life, in a big house filled with other people trying to carry on “normally.” People come and go (including Mormon missionaries) and gradually disengage. Toward the end there is one rather improvised gay scene with a couple of other residents. The conclusion is, of course, expected and tragic.


The supplementary extras about making the film show that the script was improvised, as was the background music. The camera was often held still, and the scene simply unfolded. In some ways, this is like a Dogme 95 film. The extra shows Michael Pitt doing ape-like gymnastics on a tree, requiring enormous upper-body strength. The DVD also has a clip “Happy Song” by Pagoda (with Michael Pitt).


The movie had a 1.37:1 theatrical release as well as HBO, and the DVD offers both this and a 1:85:1 standard version.


Van Sant seems to like to make films about descent into the abyss. I wonder if he would consider a docudrama of the fall of Rabbi David Kaye, who was caught in a Dateline sting for Internet sex offenders, and then a delayed and agonizing federal prosecution and incarceration and perhaps treatment. It seems as though his personality collapse at mid life could have been relatively sudden, and the whole story is shocking. It could make compelling film. 


A British film with a premise similar to Gerry is Touching the Void (IFC Films, 2004, directed by Kevin MacDonald, apparently in widescreen high definition). This is a true story of a 1985 climb by British adventurer climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who climb the 21000 foot Siula Grande in Peru, not far from the land of Van Daniken. The scenery is stunning, with the details of the stark mountains—the colors a palette of metallic grays and beiges up close, becoming ice blue in the distance. Even at the equator, the climate at this elevation is arctic, and it can snow all the way down to 14000 feet.  Joe falls and gets multiple displaced fractures in one leg. A maneuver causes Joe to fall into an ice crevasse. Believing that they will both die, Simon cuts the rope.  (There was a scene in Gerry where Casey is almost stranded on a butte.) Incredibly, Joe inches his way out to a “happy” ending; but even at the end it is lucky that Simon and the other partner had not left base camp.  Since the reenactment is narrated by Joe and Simon, we already know the ending (except for whether he saves the leg); the journey is excruciating to watch. It’s interesting to compare MacDonald’s style to Van Sant with somewhat similar material. But a film like this is an economical day trip substitute for the real vacation trip to one of the most mysterious areas on the planet. 


I recall a similar if somewhat obscure film in 1992, K-2, (dir. Franc Roddam, Norsk Films) in which one friend helps another stranded on the world’s second highest mountain. Other readers may recall the story of this film, but I recall that it spoke to military-style male bonding.


The Australian film Japanese Story (Samuel Goldwyn, Fortissimo, dir. Sue Brooks, script by Alison Tilson, starring Toni Collette and Gotaru Tsunashima, R, 107 minutes, 2004), also presents a walkabout survival story. It is like a combination of Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabaout (1971), Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1977) and Gerry.  The geologist Sandy (Collette) is responsible to hosting a guest Japanese businessman Hiromitsu for an iron mining deal. Early on, the film, in extremely wide screen looking like CinemaScope (the credits mention high definition), shows stunning Martian landscapes from the Western Australian deserts, with weird inorganic colors and crystals and knobby shapes, giving the whole film a sci-fi look. The tour starts in the open pit mines that are tearing down the mountains in the northwestern part of the state. Australian geography has always seemed like a reduction of the United States, particularly for the western part of the country.  The “man and woman” drive out into the outback (the Pilbara mountains and desert region) to look for iron lodes, and it becomes clear that Hiromitsu is a bit of a flake or buffoon. Or is that just his family culture. Early scenes foreshadow the abortive romance to come, when he strips to his shorts, typically waxy and hairless in his body except for his legs. (Does he come from the Ainu people?) They get stuck with their Hertz SUV in what is almost quicksand, but, after a night camping out, he actually gets them out (despite the fact that the radiator seems to have burned out). Here the story becomes increasingly visual: the romance starts, and then he comes to a sudden and surprising, however accidental, demise. The rest of the film forces her to deal with the idea that his wife will find out what has happened. Her acting is exaggerated, screamy, almost ready for soap opera. This film is more an experience than a story.


Open Water (Lions Gate, R, 79 min, dir. Chris Kentis) is perhaps the ultimate stranded survivalist tragedy, shot in digital video reportedly for just $30000 (I’m not sure I believe that). In fact, it is reduced to bare essentials: a young husband and wife (Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan) left alone in open water by a tour boat after a careless head count. (The movie explains how this happens, as another passenger confuses things.) The last fifty minutes or so of the movie we agonize with them as their lives are chipped away by barracuda, jellyfish (not box jellyfish), and then sharks of increasing size, as well as seasickness (the motion in the water is shown effectively) and dehydration. Other critics point to a “Blair Witch” effect as the graininess of the film adds to the horror. But it is not so much horror as pointlessness—they have about 28 hours to live and really little or no hope of anything more because the outside world has deleted them.  Finally, there is a hopeless search—too little, too late—and an examination of sharks’ stomachs. As a movie, though, there was little to look at, and not much to experience but a dead end. This is more like a manipulation than a film. One viewer at the theater said, sarcastically, “This is the feel good movie of the year.” 


Open Water 2: Adrift (2006, Lions Gate/Summit, dir. Hans Horn, R, Germany, 94 min) really does seem like a screenwriting exercise. Some “kids” are partying and jump into the water, when the skipper hasn’t dropped the ladder. Soon their situation is desperate, and even passing boats don’t see what is happening. There are lots of workmanlike scenes, like when they make a rope out of trousers and the men don’t have enough “lesbian upper body strength” to climb back on. And there may be sabotage. A great line from the skipper, “I made a mistake.” It gets painful to watch. Add a baby and aquaphobia. With limited possibilities for scenery, they actually made this in Scope. Even Lions Gate can’t resist the easy money from a franchise sequel like this.


Deep Water (2006, IFC / Pathe / FilmFour, dir. Louise Osmand and Jerry Rothwell, book “The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst  by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall,”, 92 min, PG-13, UK) about the deception of an amateur sailor in a round the world yacht race in 1968 when he fell behind. The film has the desperation of some of the other “lost in the wilderness” films that are better known. Blogger. 


K2 (1992, Miramax, dir. Franc Roddam) presents a story of male friendship during a mountain climb on the world’s second highest peak which, of course, runs into storms and then potential tragedy. Michael Biehn and Matt Craven play the climbers (Taylor Brooks and Harold Jameson); Taylor has fought for a spot on the team, and then runs into a terrible accident with major fractures. This is a spectacular and relatively infrequently shown film.


First Descent (2005, Focus/Universal/Transition Productions, dir. Kemp Curly, Kevin Harrison, 110 min, PG-13) is a spirited documentary of not just snowboarding (the main offering), but a number of extreme sports (skateboarding, race driving, skeet shooting).  Filmed on with video retrospects in many locations, the mainline of the story (filmed in widescreen Arri) deals with a fortnight in the mountains around Valdez, Alaska, which don’t have to reach that high to become very steep and snow covered. 19-year-old Shaun White dominates the players, and other performers include Shawn Farmer, Terje Haakonsen, Nick Peralta, and Hannah Teter. There is a stunning shot where one of the snowboarders causes an avalanche but skis out of it.  I visited Alaska once, in August 1980, on a triangle trip flying up from Honolulu, and actually took a seaplane tour of Mt. McKinley. In the Twin Cities (where I lived until 2003) the local film community had quite a bit of interest in filming extreme sports.


The Endless Summer (1966, Bruce Brown Films, 95 min, G) was a famous cult documentary about surfing, looking for the perfect wave. The film was shot in 16 mm and at the time was a bit of a sensation as a “small film.” I recall seeing it in graduate school on a big screen in Lawrence, KS. It did look a little grainy.


Vertical Limit (2000, Columbia, dir. Martin Campbell, PG-13, 124 min) is a better known film involving a rescue on K-2 (as the film above). Peter Garrett (Chris O’Donnell) must risk his life to save his sister Annie (Robin Turney). Bill Paxton and Nicholas Lea play temmates. They get trapped in an ice cave at 26000 feet. This film was shot in standard aspect ratio, surprising given the scenery in the film.


Knife in the Water (“Noz w wodzie”, 1962, Janus, dir. Roman Polanski, bw, 94 min, Poland, PG-13) A middle aged sports columnist and his wife pick up a young male hitchhiler, and impulsively the columnist invites him on the yacht. They play games over male authority as the young man teases him with little games (like with the knife). Conflict ensues, and eventually the young man feints a drowning. The visual contrast between the male characters is striking, with the shaggy legs and smooth chest of the younger character, compared to the typical middle aged appearance of the husband. There is a bit of homoerotic tension, as the middle aged man may have an interest in the youngster, who is in turn interested in the man’s wife. Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka, Zygmunt Malanowicz.


Related reviews:  Good Will Hunting  Bowling for Columbine Runaway Jury Jerome’s Razor   Lords of Dogtown   A Film in Three Parts


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