The Wanderers

Seeking Signs of Civilization--and Artistic Sustenance--at the Sundance Film Festival

But if you're going to borrow, why not borrow from the best? And besides, what Van Sant has accomplished here--better than anyone since Jim Jarmusch with Dead Man in 1995--is to import (or smuggle, really) the rhythm and texture of the more rivetingly snail-paced and site-specific world cinema into an American commercial feature perversely toplined by a major Hollywood hunk. Yes, Gerry is an act of subversion--damn right. Cast as a pair of hopelessly naive recreational hikers--both named Gerry--who immediately stumble off trail and then drag themselves in near silence through an immense and unforgiving wasteland (the film was shot in remote Argentina and in Death Valley), Damon and Affleck are, of course, the ostensible stars. (They also co-wrote the script, such as it is, with their director.) But the infinitely stronger impression is made by the supporting cast: blinding sunlight, waves of intense heat, endless rock and sand, the sky, the wind.

What Gerry communicates to the audience seeking pleasant diversion--another Good Will Hunting, perhaps--is precisely what the situation itself communicates to the characters: How dare you take the natural elements for granted. Van Sant's film, comprising a mere 100 shots (most of them long enough to make one ponder their duration), is suffused with the inevitability of death. Nothing lasts: not a reel of film, not a walk without food and water, not a famous movie star, not a friendship--not anything. What's initially shocking and then exhilarating about Gerry is how matter-of-factly it exposes the essential truth that commercial art and entertainment so often seeks to conceal: The basic narrative of all our lives is that we wander, desperately seeking sustenance and occasionally finding it. And then we die.


Let's get lost: Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in 'Gerry'
Savides/Van Sant
Let's get lost: Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in 'Gerry'

Gerry would seem a haunting movie in most any context (except, perhaps, at home on videotape). But at Sundance, where arrogant adventurers roam rough terrain in search of something, anything to consume, its surreality began to look like vérité. If last year's fest appeared to find the industry in a creative economic and artistic rebound from the dot-com crash, this year's suggested an aimless journey without a map, slow to reveal any kind of mission or trend either onscreen or off. (Eventually I noticed an alarming number of movies in which depressed young female characters ritually cut themselves with sharp objects. Make of that what you will.) Indeed, everyone from critics to stargazing tourists toting $5,000 festival badges seemed to agree that the quality of American movies was down this year. Yet the high-priced sales of those movies to mini-major distributors (e.g., Miramax, Sony Classics, Lions Gate) were up, as befits a time when the boutique divisions of mega-conglomerates are eager to prove that they're still flush--and wouldn't really know what to do without a checkbook anyway. (Even in a recession, shopping is still the best cure for a hangover.)

Halfway through this year's annual endurance test, a publicist acquaintance of mine talked to me about "the climate of fear" at Sundance--guardedly, of course. He was trying to explain how one company after another proceeded this year to shell out millions for movies--including the heavily hyped Tadpole, which offers the slight suggestion of Whit Stillman remaking Rushmore in digital video--that will likely frustrate both marketers and ticket buyers in lower altitudes. The rationale for these corporate acquisitions seems to have been: If we don't buy it, we'll be afraid that someone else will. There were other theories to explain the flurry of cash: the frustrating interruption of purchases at the Toronto Film Festival by the events of September 11; the suspension of new production last year by the threatened writers' and actors' strikes; the embarrassing failure of execs to recognize the commercial potential of Memento, which premiered at Sundance last year but didn't sell until March (and then went on to gross an astonishing $25.5 million); and the recent gravitation to medium-budget Indiewood of bankable stars such as Jennifer Aniston and Robin Williams.

All these explanations for profligacy make perfect sense, I suppose--but less so in light of Filmmaker magazine's latest charts listing box-office receipts for films that premiered the previous year at Sundance. Rarely if ever offering proof of anything like a bona fide "indie" gold rush, these dispiriting figures seem strategically timed to offer a wake-up call to spendthrift acquisitions people--who invariably choose not to heed it. But this year's results are particularly grim. Not counting Memento, the average box-office take last year of a Sundance-premiering movie was less than a million bucks--measured against the untold millions spent by mini-major distributors to release these turkeys.

So why on earth do these companies continue to invest their fortunes in a losing proposition? Is it because their corporate parents--whose annual reports are hardly dependent on the successes of a few medium-budget movies--need them to appear "edgy" and "arty" for the purpose of titillating like-minded shareholders? Is it so that executives can have a place to ski and schmooze every January? Or--the least likely theory--do they actually believe that they're making the world a better place by subsidizing great works of art?

I guess I have to say that I don't really know. One thing I do know, however, is that my favorite Sundance documentary this year is--conveniently--a highly personal response to corporate ignorance and greed. In Blue Vinyl, co-directed by Judith Helfand and Daniel Gold, what initially appears as a classist poke at suburban domestic kitsch (Get a load of the tacky vinyl siding on those Long Island ramblers!) peels away to reveal something far more textured and humane. And no wonder. Helfand's entrée into the topic of "poison plastic" is, well, two-sided: Her own parents are among those North Americans who account for a new vinyl-lined home every three seconds; and her own bout with cervical cancer (profiled in her earlier film A Healthy Baby Girl) informs Helfand's mission as an activist documentarian specializing in issues of chemical toxicity. The fact that she and her colleague Gold apply a thick sense of humor to their storytelling structure gives Blue Vinyl yet another layer of substance.

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