Tag Archives: Gus van Sant

CAPSULE: GERRY (2002)

DIRECTED BY: Gus Van Sant

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Two young men become lost in a desert, and wander aimlessly in search of a way out.

Still from Gerry (2002)

COMMENTS: The plot synopsis above may seem unhelpfully brief, but there’s the very real possibility that I’ve actually said too much. Describing Gerry is an almost futile task, because very little actually happens, and that’s very much the point. Even before they get lost, the two men motoring down the highway aren’t really doing anything. Their sojourn into the desert is a vague trek to see “the thing,” a goal they dispense with pretty early on. They don’t even speak for the first eight minutes of the film until Damon reminds Affleck to stick to the path, as blunt a piece of foreshadowing as one can imagine.

Gerry is largely a sensory experience. Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides capture a some truly spectacular, desolate vistas (a mélange of Death Valley and Argentina), against which Affleck and Damon seem puny and immaterial. Meanwhile, the soundscape of designer Leslie Shatz is cranked up to the maximum, with every trudge and scrape slamming into the red. It’s not just that these two men are lost and doomed. It’s that we’re right there with them.

For a story about people walking blithely into harm’s way, Gerry is unexpectedly entertaining. Affleck and Damon improvised much of their dialogue and they have a casual repartee, best exemplified by a scene where Affleck manages to get stuck atop an enormous boulder and the pair has to figure out a way to get him down. (Affleck also nails the film’s most brutal slice of gallows humor: “How do you think the hike’s going so far?”) They exude a surprising amount of personality for as little as they say, and as little as we know about them. Even their names are a mystery; they might both be called Gerry, but they also use the word as shorthand for making a dumb mistake, so the very title of the film could just be a way of busting their chops.

Van Sant marries this non-story with potent visuals that would be comically overwrought if they didn’t serve the film so well. A perfectly framed closeup of the men slogging through the desert almost resembles a horse race, until you realize each ear-splitting crunch in the dirt is leading them ever closer to nowhere at all. A long, slow dolly around Affleck, capturing his utter dejection is paired with a similar dolly looking outward, taking in the stunning scenery that is doing him in.

Gerry kicks off a sort of unofficial Gus Van Sant trilogy about young death. This film’s death-by-misfortune is followed by Last Days (suicide) and Elephant (murder). Uniting the three films is a sense that that last day of life is not momentous or weighted with significance. The days are just days. And there is beauty and terror in them, just the same.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you can imagine Dude, Where’s My Car? rewritten by Samuel Beckett, you have some idea of what this intriguing, ferociously austere, but subtly and unlocatably humorous picture feels like… Gerry requires a leap of faith and an investment of attention: but with its fascination and weird exhilaration it handsomely repays both.” Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Motkya, who called it “ a masterpiece of minimalism” and argued “[t]his movie deserves to be in the List, if only for its uncompromising refusal to be a traditional cinematic experience.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)   

LIST CANDIDATE: MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: River Phoenix, , William Richert

PLOT: A young, narcoleptic gay prostitute searches for his mother, with the help of a slumming fellow hustler who is heir to a fortune.

Still from My Own Private Idaho (1991)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: My Own Private Idaho weaves two weird premises together: the story of a narcoleptic searching for his mother and a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part I.” The movie then adds surreal touches and sets it all inside the world of gay street hustlers.

COMMENTS: Sometimes the line between a “glorious mess” and a plain old-fashioned mess can be very thin, and very personal, indeed. I couldn’t really argue with anyone who sees Idaho as an eccentric gem, but the film has always seemed more like a failed experiment to me. A “Henry IV” adaptation set in the world of street hustlers might have made a good movie (although Idaho suggests that a different approach, with less actual Shakespearean dialogue and no Keanu Reeves, may have been required). Similarly, a bittersweet indie about a narcoleptic hustler searching for his lost mom might have made a good movie. But when slapped together, the two storylines don’t really work; Idaho feels like an interesting story that keeps getting interrupted by a high school class’ Shakespeare rehearsal.

River Phoenix, only two years away from his fatal overdose, is beautifully cast as the fragile prostitute who falls into a spontaneous slumber when stressed (and the life of a street hustler does tend to arouse the occasional stressful situation). He’s dreamy, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. Keanu Reeves, on the other hand, isn’t very good—but in this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At this point in his career, the world did not yet know that Reeves was a bad actor, and the same pseudo-sophisticated mannerisms that would earn him well-deserved jeers for his portrayal of Jonathan Harker in Dracula play here as a campy stylistic choice. Since his lean torso and boyish sensuality suit the character physically, his weak-jawed, ersatz Prince Hal somehow fits into the entire subplot’s unreal design. It’s a case of a director turning an actor’s weakness into the film’s strength. William Richert is fine as Bob, the Falstaff substitute. Regular readers will want to keep their eyes open for weirdo favorites (in a rare seductive role) and (in a more substantial and stranger part).

Mild surrealist touches (the hustlers carrying on a conversation from the covers of male jerk mags) jostle with gritty street realities and scenes lifted almost wholesale from “Henry” to form a concoction that is occasionally interesting and touching, but which also feels cobbled together and frustratingly inconclusive. Idaho does, however, unquestionably tilt toward the weird end of the spectrum. The Criterion Collection upgraded this catalog title to Blu-ray in October, 2015.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…cracked and beautiful… a strange duck of a film, beyond comparison: street-boy angst intermingled with Shakespearean conceit.“–Stephen Hunter, Baltimore Sun (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: RESTLESS (2011)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Henry Hopper,

PLOT: A moody boy with the ghost of a kamikaze pilot for a best friend and a hobby of attending funerals falls in love with a girl who’s dying of cancer.

Still from Restless (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Remaking Harold and Maude as a teen romance with a hot Maude and a ghost sidekick sounds like a bad idea, but Restless is even worse than you might imagine.

COMMENTS: An unquenchably perky dying woman convinces a boy with a morbid fascination for death that life is a precious gift not to be wasted. If you’re going to use a plot that’s so well-worn and sickly sweet, then by God you’d better find a pungent spice to add some flavor to the treacle. What if you made the love interest an octogenarian Holocaust survivor, and had the thanatophilic teen stage elaborate fake suicides? What, it’s been done before? Well, at least we could have them meet cute at a stranger’s funeral. You’re kidding, they already did that, too? Well, we’ll just do it anyway, and market it to teens who haven’t seen it before. Oh, and let’s throw in a ghost… make him a Japanese kamikaze pilot… they didn’t do that one yet, did they? Despite attempts to gussy up the doomed material with an infusion of quirk, if you’ve seen a dozen or so romantic movies, then Restless is one you’ve seen before. Henry (son of Dennis) Hopper puts on his best brood, but bad boy he ain’t; this pallid dreamboat is more Robert Pattison than James Dean. Despite being graced with a truly tragic backstory that gives him ample excuse for bitterness, Hopper still manages to come across as a whiny brat, and it doesn’t help matters that he’s scripted as kind of dumb, too. Ryo Kase (understandably) doesn’t appear to have a clue why his ghost character is in the story, so he hedges his acting bets and plays Hiroshi totally deadpan. (By far the film’s best—in fact, its only—joke is Hiroshi’s skill at the board game “Battleship.”) In 2011, Mia Wasikowska proved she had pro acting chops by taking the lead in Jane Eyre and an admirable supporting turn in Albert Nobbs; she comes off the best here, but there’s not much she can do to give grit or texture to such a perfect, unrealistic, idealized character. Annabel isn’t scared of dying, she’s always upbeat and positive, and she doesn’t get visibly upset even when her boyfriend dumps her on her deathbed. Chemo makes her hair look really darling, and even when she’s convulsing, she looks like a cutie-pie. Mia is pleasant and brings a life to the role, but her eternally sunny character makes no sense—shouldn’t the movie be about coming to grips with the reality of mortality, not glossing over the ugly facts of death? Mia never appears the least bit sickly, but the same can’t be said for Jason Lew’s anemic screenplay. This script is wired deep into teen paranoia. Why are all the adult authorities against the kids? Why does the funeral director care so much about Enoch respectfully attending memorial services of people he doesn’t know? Why do security guards tackle him when he’s leaving the hospital peacefully? Why does no one understand him? Despite, or rather because of, tailoring itself to teens’ distorted views of reality, this isn’t a good movie for teenagers. It’s pure pandering, and it’s either cynical, or incompetent. Restless isn’t reprehensible or badly made, but it’s worse than many movies that are, because it doesn’t really try: it merely spiffs up tired platitudes with a few quirks and fresh faces, and assumes its unsophisticated audience will eat up the result. The lack of effort or ambition is depressing. Why do so many movies that consciously set out to be life-affirming make smart people despair after watching them?

Gus van Sant is a director who’s hard to peg: he’s all over the map, making everything from gritty indies (Drugstore Cowboy and Elephant) to Oscar-bait (Good Will Hunting and Milk) to kinky would-be cult films (My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) to true WTF head-scratchers (a “shot-for-shot” remake of Psycho?) God knows what attracted him to this material, which seems tailored for a hack director. Directing Restless is like being the makeup guy at the funeral parlor—the best he can do is to make the lifeless script presentable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…they may be a little too weird for the rest of the world; they are the perfect kind of weird for each other… a movie that is as heartwarming as it is strange.”–Matthew DeKinder, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PARIS, JE T’AIME (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Doyle, Oliver Schmitz, The Coen Brothers, , Wes Craven, , and others

FEATURING: Steve Buscemi, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, , , Seydou Boro, Aïssa Maïga, , Elijah Wood, Olga Kurlyenko, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazarra, , Li Xin, and many, many more

PLOT: Eighteen short films (averaging about six minutes each), each set in a different Paris neighborhood and each focusing loosely on the theme of amour.

Still from Paris Je T'aime (Christopher Doyle's "Porte de Choisy" segment) (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Of the eighteen shorts, only Christopher Doyle’s offering is actually weird (although a few others have some mildly weird elements).

COMMENTS: Like any anthology film, Paris, Je T’aime is a box of chocolates, with some bittersweet bon-bons, a few of the dreaded coconuts, and one oddly shaped piece with a taste you can’t quite place.  Putting the most curious confection aside for last, there are a few novel flavors in this box of sweets.  The Coen brothers serve up an absurdly paranoid—and laugh-out-loud funny—sketch.  A bemused and horrified Steve Buscemi stars as an American tourist who unwisely forgets his guidebook’s advice not to look Parisians in the eye in the subway, with strange, unfortunate, and hilarious results.  Impossible teleportations and lusty Gallic vindictiveness remove this one from the realm of reality.  Climbing a rung down the weirdness ladder brings us to Vincent (Cube) Natali’s offering, a stylized, silent eroto-vampire number starring Elijah Wood and luminous Bond girl Olga Kurlyenko; shot in faux black-and-white with hyperreal pools of red blood, it’s a mood piece tapping elegant cinematic myths.  Further down, Juliette Binoche is a grieving mother who dreams of cowboys in “Place des Victories”; and Sylvian (The Triplets of Bellville) Chomet brings us a slapstick story of love among mimes that won’t change your view of those despicable creatures, but offers respite from the reality of the surrounding tales.

The most memorable segment of all, it should be mentioned, isn’t one bit weird: Oliver Schmitz’ “Places des Fêtes” is the account of an injured Nigerian immigrant who wants to share a cup of coffee with the cute paramedic who comes to his aid.  His story is told in flashback, and the piece ends on a quiet but shattering image.  Compressing a lifetime’s heartbreak into five minutes of film is an amazing achievement.

The one fully weird sequence comes courtesy of respected cinematographer Christopher Continue reading CAPSULE: PARIS, JE T’AIME (2006)