Sand Trap

Gus Van Sant’s desert folly. Plus: All the Real Girls.

In 1991, a day after Gus Van Sant finished post-production on his flaky Shakespeare/gay-street-hustler hybrid My Own Private Idaho, I had a chance to spend an afternoon with him at his home in Portland, Ore. He was tired and reflective, and he spent much of the interview staring vaguely at the clouds over the city. He said he missed the way he made his feverish first film, Mala Noche (1985), for which he’d needed only a handful of techies. Now that the size of his crews had tripled, he longed to simplify the apparatus, to put less distance between himself and his cinematic canvas. He talked about the William Burroughs’ story, “The Discipline of DE”—of doing things easy. Otherwise, he wasn’t in a mood to analyze or define himself: He seemed to crave blurriness, to want to drift away with those clouds over what was left of Mount St. Helens.

Damon and Affleck: gerried for sure

So, it was a surprise after My Own Private Idaho and the tediously discombobulated Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) to see Van Sant move to slicker and more disciplined studio projects: the tart black comedy To Die For (1995); the blue-collar-savant blockbuster Good Will Hunting (1997); and the taxidermist’s reproduction of Psycho (1998), which afforded the director the least freedom imaginable. Then came the Sean Connery monument Finding Forrester (2000), which could have been made by any studio hack in any era. I thought of Van Sant’s patchy last decade as I watched Gerry (ThinkFilm), which involves two actors, a few tech people, and a lot of desert. This, it seemed, was where the director wanted to be: in the middle of a vast landscape with little in the way of a script, with a skeleton crew, with a lot of clouds. A moviemaker’s Vision Quest.

Whether the audience will want to accompany Van Sant is a different question: Gerry is a bit of a narcotic. The director has said that it was inspired by the work of Bela Tarr, the Hungarian director of Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) and other films famous for their lengthy, meditative takes, as well as by the true story of two guys who got lost on a hike in the California desert. The movie opens with a long, long shot of a car by itself on a desert road: Sometimes the camera is right on its tail, sometimes it drifts back a bit, sometimes it stays at a fixed distance. Rocks go by. Hillocks go by. Mountains go by. The music, a scratchy violin and a piano, is like an endless loop. (The score is by the hypnotic Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.) As the minutes pass, you get the feeling you’re in for a lot of real-time filmmaking. You don’t know the half of it.

The stars are Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, brother of Ben (who’s busy in the superhero flick Daredevil, in which time has been treated in the opposite way: sped up and condensed in comic-book frames). Damon and C. Affleck refer to each other as “Gerry”—which might be their names, but is also slang for something like “spastic fuck-up,” and may also be used as a verb, as in, “You gerried the rendezvous.” This is what Affleck says to Damon when the two, in the midst of a trek in the rocky desert, fail to hook up at an agreed-upon mountain. Affleck has been forced to scale a 25-or-so-foot rock in order to spot Damon. Then, after five or 10 minutes in which Damon makes his way over, the pair discuss, for five or 10 more minutes, how Affleck should get down. (This is the high point of the movie: It’s like an abbreviated Beckett play, with a startling punchline.)

The problem is, we don’t actually know who these Gerrys are or where they’re going or even how they feel about their situation until they’re on the verge of perishing from dehydration: Their conflict is confined to a few stray “I hate you”s and “You’re a fuck-up”s. Van Sant is mulishly determined not to give us our dramatic bearings, to the point of adding facetious exposition: a campfire discussion (the majority of the words in the film) in which Damon talks about a goddess who made his fields infertile so that his sheep wouldn’t graze and his vassals attacked him—shortly after he conquered Thebes. Anyone hoping for some orientation—even bogus orientation—will be grateful for this little talk, although it doesn’t go anywhere. Van Sant has alluded to a homoerotic drama under the surface, with Damon increasingly the take-charge male and Affleck the passive femme, but Gerry is so underdramatized that it’s hard to work up any interest in either the masculine or feminine side of the equation.

The movie, which has been photographed with preternatural sensitivity to light by Harris Savides, is really about the Gerrys’ heads seen from the side as they trudge along, one or the other dropping back or moving forward, until the outlines of their noses and chins almost blur together. (It takes a minute or two before this optical illusion occurs—by which point you might also be seeing 6-foot rabbits.) The movie is about the clouds that swirl and scud and pour down from the mountaintops. It’s about the changing musical frequencies of the wind as it passes through the peaks. It’s about the two figures lurching in semidarkness as the sky lightens and sun rises implacably. It’s about the smallness of Gerrys in Nature. It’s about the expansion and contraction of space, physical and temporal—and maybe psychological, although a script would have helped on that score.

I imagine that a lot of people are going to make fun of Gerry as a sort of ambient movie, an arty exercise in withholding; and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t annoy the hell out of me for most of its 103-minute running time. But I might watch it again sometime and try a little harder to get on its wavelength. In some strange way, I admire the enterprise. Like his Gerrys, Van Sant doesn’t seem to know where he’s going to wind up when he embarks on these journeys. The ether that seeps into his head might be the price we have to pay for his keeping his mind so open. That and the occasional gerried movie.

The 27-year-old art-school graduate David Gordon Green has much in common with the middle-aged art-school graduate Gus Van Sant. His movies have a lurching, handmade quality that can tap into emotion so pure that it can sting you: It’s as if the apparatus of filmmaking has fallen away and you’re left with a window on the real world. That apparatus can sometimes be too visible, however. I didn’t share the prevailing critical view of Green’s George Washington (2000) as a rough-hewn masterpiece; I kept being thrown out of the movie by its gelid pictorialism, which seemed at odds with the fumbling-for-words dramaturgy. But it was clearly the work of a gifted primitive: a brashly confident film student willing to accept the limitations of his budget and amateur cast and set about mining the poetry of the moment—of mundane exchanges that can suddenly flare up into heart-rending confessions, of epiphanies that come like shock waves.

Real, real awkwardness

That same gift (and self-consciousness) is on display in Green’s newest ensemble drama, All the Real Girls (Sony Classics), which is set in a crumbling North Carolina mill town under a picturesque railroad bridge. The protagonist is 22-year-old Paul (played by the film’s co-writer Paul Schneider), who is famous for seducing and abandoning half the town’s female population, but who is brought up short by Noel (Zooey Deschanel), the sister of his best friend (and “partner-in-crime”) Tip (Shea Whigham).

Perhaps because of his buddyship with Tip, Paul doesn’t treat Noel as a disposable piece of ass. He finds himself oddly self-conscious and scared, unable to keep from confessing his past “ugly” actions; and Noel, a virgin, picks up on his fear and goes into a holding pattern, too. And suddenly this youthful romance is moving in slow motion, emotionally forward but physically tentative, each encounter interrupted by other people with conflicting interests: by Tip, who’s furious to discover that his friend and his sister are keeping company; by the nerdy Bo (Maurice Compte), who’s in love with Noel and isn’t shy about asking to be her “No. 2 choice” in the event Paul falls by the wayside; and by all the girls who’ve slept with Paul but haven’t been real to him—at least until he has had his own heart broken.

The scenes between Paul and Noel have a magical awkwardness, in part because of Deschanel’s bizarre cadences—a sort of sing-song iambic pentameter that somehow suggests ungovernable feeling. I can’t decide if she’s a brilliant actress or just a brilliant flake, but there’s a kind of soulfulness there, and she’s in synch with Green’s pacing, which is flat yet sneakily intuitive in just the same way.

Green is good enough to make his amateurishness look like a strong artistic choice, but All the Real Girls still goes on too long, and a lot of the scenes feel like filler for the sake of mood. I never figured out what the director meant to do with Patricia Clarkson as Paul’s mom, who works (sometimes with Paul) as a clown at children’s parties and hospitals. She and Paul’s uncle (Benjamin Mouton), a widower with an adopted Asian child, are tragically forlorn, but their scenes with Paul don’t have enough focus, and they seem peripheral. Are Paul’s vaguely incestuous grapplings with mom meant to explain his failure to commit (prior to Noel) to any girls?

Green and his cinematographer, Tim Orr, work with a very wide screen—so wide that the characters often look clumsily small in the landscape. The movie is very beautiful, with a shambling pace and slow fade-ins and fade-outs; and when it works there’s a tension between its characters’ scuffling small-talk and its majestically ruined rural setting. The young men wear cowboy hats and strike macho poses and tell jokes about women, but emotionally they’re babes; they lose control of themselves when the water gets too deep. Tip seems on the verge of murdering Paul for his interest in Noel. When he finally snarls, “We aren’t friends anymore. You aren’t even in my top 10,” it feels like a kind of stabbing. In the world of movies, the top-10 designation is pretty sacred.