Desert Solitaire

Gus Van Sant goes his own way with a stark survival drama

A bleak and beautiful drama about a pair of pretty boys (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who wander lost in the desert without food and water, Gus Van Sant's Gerry marks a triumphant return to form for a director whose recent round of goodwill hunting in Hollywood appears on hold. Not counting his cameo in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, it's the 50-year-old's first work since Finding Forrester--a Sean Connery vehicle that, like Van Sant's preceding trilogy (To Die For, Good Will Hunting, and Psycho), could have been made by someone else. Come to think of it, the director's shot-by-shot Psycho remake was made by someone else: Van Sant, borrowing not only from Hitchcock but from Warhol, simply put his name on it.

Albeit unique within the arid landscape of American film, Gerry represents another audacious act of appropriation--a movie directly inspired by the snail-paced, site-specific work of world-cinema giants Béla Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, Chantal Akerman, and Jacques Tati (give or take Derek Jarman). Whether or not it would qualify for extra credit at Van Sant's pomo alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design, Gerry earns the highest marks for being a star vehicle whose stronger impression is made by the supporting cast: blinding sunlight, waves of intense heat, endless rock and sand, the sky, the wind. What this thrillingly subversive movie 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.

Speaking by phone from the safety of his L.A. apartment, the filmmaker (who'll cap off Walker Art Center's current Van Sant retro with a Regis Dialogue on February 28) told me what it takes to survive on the desolate outskirts of Hollywood these days.

 

CITY PAGES: At least a couple of us critics at Sundance [2002] read Gerry as an allegory of roaming the barren "indie" wilderness: seeking nourishment against all odds, becoming delirious. In fact, one of the things that's enticing about the movie is that it seems applicable to all sorts of metaphors. Which are most interesting to you?

GUS VAN SANT: I guess the film does contain some things I'd had in mind about the [film] industry. But I never thought of the desert itself as being like the landscape of the industry. It's kind of a good comparison, though--I like it. For me, the foremost thing is that the film is a metaphor for life. When the characters get out of the car, it's almost like they're being born. They start to walk, and they slow down as the journey progresses. And of course the film is ultimately about death.

CP: It's a universal story. And yet at the same time, at least some of the film comes from your own experience, right? The unauthorized biography of you mentions that you rode the rails when you were younger. It quotes you as saying, "It's sexy in the sense that your whole job is to survive. When I traveled across country as a hobo I learned about survival."

VAN SANT: Yeah. The experiences are kind of similar. During that particular trip I took on the trains, I was out in the middle of the desert--although, in that case, you are on a moving vehicle [laughs]. So it's a little different. I had other experiences--about three or four--where I literally got lost in the wilderness and felt like I wasn't going to be able to find my way out. I think a lot of people who've had experiences like that can relate in a different way to the film. I know that [Robert] Redford--he came to the screening at Sundance--said that he had been lost in Palm Springs, in the desert, and he didn't think he was going to make it. When you're in that situation, like the characters in the film, it's very peculiar.

CP: Where were you when you had these experiences?

VAN SANT: Well, one time in Idaho, at Sun Valley, I skied off the wrong side of a mountain. I thought, Well, I'll just ski down this way, and there's a road over there that goes around. You're sort of thinking in general terms--that you can just walk around and get to the road [laughs]. But the road could be 10 miles away. You're not really calculating the distance. The road as you think of it goes around the mountain--but maybe it goes around a different mountain or a different hill. Anyway, I ended up very far away.

CP: Didn't you have something of a scare during the location scouting for Gerry?

VAN SANT: Yes. I was at the place where they shot [the original] Planet of the Apes--it's about an hour south of Death Valley--where there are those rocks that stick out of the ground. I had driven in there in a rental car, about seven miles off the main road, and I got a flat tire. It was 115 degrees. I tried to fix the tire, but there was no tire iron in the car. So I decided that I would walk and I loaded up water--about eight bottles of it in a pack. And I left everything else behind. I thought, It's just seven miles--it's not going to be that big a deal. I thought it was just going to be a nice walk.

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