Gerry (2002) – Gus Van Sant

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What a trip.  The first of Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy”—the second being Elephant (2003), the third being Last Days (2005).  Written by Gus Van Sant, Casey Affleck, and Matt Damon; starring Casey Affleck and Matt Damon.  Two friends, both named Gerry, find themselves lost in the desert with no food or water.

This film was very Van Sant.  I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but it has stuck with me all day and I think it deserves a re-watching.  Dialogue is sparse, and a great percentage of the film is just the two men walking across the anonymous landscape in silence.  Van Sant follows them with tracking shots, and most of the scenes are filmed in single takes.  I have to admit that I found a lot of it pretty hard to watch, but conceptually it was really fascinating.

The dialogue provides little explication, and we know only that the two Gerries are hiking towards “the thing”.  Eventually they abandon their journey and decide to head back, ultimately losing their way.  There is a Samuel Beckett feel to the film, the two men moving meaninglessly through their confined world, a “thing” drawing them in and leading them into destruction.  The dialogue also feels very Beckett to me—lighthearted and mundane, but somehow taking on new meaning in their unique and dark situation.

The use of the name “Gerry” in the film is bizarre.  The characters share the name, and in an anecdote Affleck’s character mentions speaking to a third Gerry, the only person mentioned outside of the context of the plot.  The two men also use the word in casual conversation; Damon points out that “we totally Gerried the scout-about,” and Affleck accuses Damon of “Gerrying the rendezvous”.  Their entire world seems to be connected by this one word.  There is a moment in the film when a man appears in the distance walking towards the two Gerries, but when he finally reaches them he reveals himself to be Damon’s character, Affleck having been sitting beside a mirage version of his friend.  Everyone and everything is Gerry.

Of course, I was especially interested in the way the film connected to Elephant (because analyzing Elephant is my favorite thing to do).  And, to my delight, Gerry filled in some holes for me.  There is a moment during the actual shooting in Elephant where Eric says, “Anyway, Mr. Luce, whatever. You know there’s others like us out there too. And they will kill you if you f-ck with them like you did me and Gerry.”  There is no character in Elephant named Gerry.  Presumably Eric is talking about Alex, his partner in crime, but there is no explanation for why he slips the wrong name.  There is the impression that the world of Gerry, the vast tundra of death (!), extends out of that film and into the death and destruction of Elephant.

Additionally, in relation to Elephant, at one point Eric plays a video game that allows him to shoot down figures walking across a barren wasteland.  The video game uncannily parallels one of the final scenes in Gerry.  One of the figures in the game is even wearing a t-shirt with a star on the chest, which is what Affleck’s character wears for the entirety of the film.  The game is called “Gerrycount”.

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I was obsessed with the concept of Gerry as a video game in its own right.  Towards the beginning of the film, Affleck’s character has a long monologue about a video game where he “conquered Thebes”.  This is one of the longest sections of dialogue in the film, and through its monotony, it presents an interesting frame for the narrative that follows.  Van Sant frequently uses long shots to film the two men, reducing them to small, anonymous figures.  To me, it seems as though the two men have fallen into a video game, trekking across landscape that is being programmed before them.  The concept of a teenage boy from another film shooting them down in this wasteland is particularly troubling.

The ending of the film is dark.  Alfred Hitchcock was once quoted saying, “Film your murders like love scenes, and film your love scenes like murder scenes.”  I was forcibly reminded of that quote during one of the final scenes of the film, where the two Gerries lie together on their backs, exhausted from days of walking without food or water.  Affleck reaches for Damon’s hand, but Damon pulls away.  Eventually Damon rolls on top of Affleck, and the camera pulls back ambiguously—are they kissing?  Are they strangling each other?  Are they hugging?

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The fact that the film ends bleakly should come to no surprise to us.  Between the playful dialogue comes a loaded silence between the two men, and as their situation becomes more dire, the film becomes more and more uncomfortable to watch.  All in all, it is not a fun film, but it holds its own.  Great performances by Damon and Affleck, and as always, Van Sant’s camerawork is present and deliberate.  If you’re a Beckett fan, you might actually love it.

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The Idler Wheel… (June 2012) – Fiona Apple

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Fiona has always been a love of mine.  I remember several years ago making a playlist of all the artists I wanted to explore that summer—Fiona Apple, Peter Gabriel, The Smiths, The Cure (what a random mix)—and I ended up having to put the other artists on hold because every time I hit a Fiona song, I just wanted more.  There was something about her that demanded my full attention.

Seven years since her last album, Extraordinary Machine (2005), and she has finally come out with something new!  The Idler Wheel… is perhaps her most musically whimsical and experimental album yet.  The first track, “Every Single Night”, starts off with what sounds like a child’s music box.  Throughout the album she plays around with multi-tracking her own voice, sometimes in unison and sometimes in harmony, and the final track, “Hot Knife”, is almost entirely a cappella.  (Fun fact: her sister sings on that track. Cute.)  She also experiments a great deal with percussion.  There is a quick patting like a lap being hit in “Daredevil”, the sound of shoes scraping the ground in “Periphery”, and what sounds like the rhythmic tapping of kitchen appliances to keep the beat in “Jonathan”.  She even adds a slamming door to the end of “Regret”.  These percussive choices really change the feel of songs that otherwise feature only a piano and maybe a cello.

Lyrically, I was impressed.  It is so interesting to see how Fiona has developed over her career, which has been drawn out because of the luxurious amount of time she takes between each album.  On her first album, Tidal (1996) (I was six when that came out), there are songs like “Never Is A Promise” and “Sullen Girl” that are thick with heartbreak and bitterness.  Although her newer album still deals with heavy emotional content, there is a dark humor to her new songs that was not there before, a self-deprecation.  In “Werewolf” she sings, “I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead / But I admit I provided a full moon. / And I could liken you to a shark the way you bit off my head / But then again I was waving around a bleeding, open wound.”  The piano swings in three-quarter time like an old folk song, a little melancholy but still lighthearted.  She seems older and wiser in these songs, less willing to take herself too seriously.

And, as always, the vocals are remarkable and incredibly versatile.  Throughout the album she goes from a hushed and sultry lower register, to a childlike upper register, to a rant through gritted teeth, to an angry growl, to a shaking, shivering vibrato.  These are definitely the songs of a frantic, agitated mind, and she sings them unrestrainedly.  It is also just wonderful to hear a female singer who proudly swoops to lower notes, and they are beautiful.

Best song on the album: “Valentine”.

In the end, probably not my personal favorite of her albums, but I did enjoy it.  I really respect her musically.  I think she is a crazy person (on NPR she talked about how she buys parenting books so that she can practice “parenting herself”—what!!), but in a way, I think that that feeds into my respect for her music.  She is completely genuine and unafraid.  Her voice is beautiful, and there is a rawness and sincerity to her music that makes it enjoyable even if you are put off by the scraping, tinkling, and whistling in the background.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) – Wes Anderson

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Wes Anderson is so consistent.  If his style weren’t so quirky and likeable, I would say he was in danger of becoming a caricature of himself.

Setting: A small New England island in the 1960’s.  Synopsis: Two pre-teens—Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphaned khaki scout; and Suzy (Kara Hayward), a troubled schoolgirl—fall in love and decide to elope.  Their disappearance prompts the formation of a search party, consisting of the rest of the khaki scouts, Suzy’s parents, and the chief of police.  Wacky, Wes Anderson-style high jinks ensue.

For me, this film had a lot going for it right away because of the cast alone.  Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Edward Norton are all actors who can pretty much do no wrong in my book.  Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman are also favorites.  Bruce Willis, I am neutral towards you, but you did a great job in the film as well.

Overall, this movie was sweet.  We see in a montage of clips of Sam and Suzy’s letters back and forth that they are both social outcasts of sorts.  Suzy goes “beserk” sometimes and loses her temper at her parents, her teachers, her fellow students.  She is upset because she has found a book entitled Dealing With The Troubled Child hidden on top of the refrigerator in her house.  Sam has been asked not to return to his foster home because he is too difficult to look after, and he is the least popular khaki scout “by a significant margin,” according to the Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton).  It is heartwarming that these two lonely kids have found each other and fallen in love, and there is something enchantingly sincere (albeit odd) about their interactions together when they are alone.  Sam makes Suzy earrings out of fishhooks and dead beetles, and they pierce her ears with them.  Suzy reads aloud to Sam from her favorite books until he falls asleep.  They have found a sort of haven with each other in a world where no one else particularly likes them.

At the same time, there is a certain darkness to this film that is hard to identify but hard to ignore.  First of all, there is a bizarre theme of violence that makes an appearance every once in a while.  When the Scout Master Ward rounds up the other scouts to form a search party for Sam, one of the boys asks if they are allowed to use force to bring him back.  The answer is no, but the boys still bring a variety of weapons, including a bow and arrow, a BB gun, and a very alarming homemade club with sharp nails sticking out of the end.  (YIKES, I could barely look at it, please do not hit me with that.)  When the scouts and the two runaways finally come face to face, Suzy stabs a scout with her lefty scissors, and the scouts’ dog Snoopy is a casualty of war.  “I guess I do go beserk sometimes,” Suzy says.  Ha ha, but oh my god!

These kids are constantly in physical peril throughout the film.  At several points, angry groups of scouts chase them around.  There is a lot of play with lighting, and I have to say that I kept worrying Anderson would insert some deus ex machina and have them all killed in the storm.  This weird sense of peril and violence served to undercut the sweetness of the story, making Sam and Suzy’s successful escape literally a matter of life or death.

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I thought Suzy’s character was fascinating.  I didn’t find her particularly likeable.  She is completely stoic, even when she is alone with Sam, and there seems to be a sadness to her and a desire to grow up and escape her hateful childhood.  Specifically, I found her to be very sexual for her age.  She wears a good deal of make-up throughout the film, and she lies seductively on her side in her underwear so that Sam can paint her.  When the two slow-dance in their underwear on the beach, Suzy asks Sam if he knows how to French kiss, and she explains to him how it’s done.  She then tells him to put his hands on her chest.  There is a sense of her acute awareness of sexuality, both in achieving it herself (initiating the canoodling with Sam) and in perceiving it going on around her.  She is the only person who notices that her mother (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and she shamelessly calls her out on it.

Suzy’s solemnity, thus, is mirrored in the behavior of the adults around her.  Her mother is not happy either—she also desires an escape from her life, and tries to find that escape in her affair.  Suzy’s father (Bill Murray) is vaguely suspicious of his wife’s infidelity, but he does not seem to know how to act on those suspicions.  The behavior of the adults, in a way, validates the behavior of Sam and Suzy.  The film does not treat these children like children.  Their feelings and their choices seem very adult, and their sadness and loneliness pervades the entire film.

In the climactic scene, Suzy and Sam stand on the steeple of the church in the rain, planning to jump into the flooded graveyard below and to swim to freedom.  Sam tells Suzy that he doesn’t have his life preserver.  I expected Suzy to tell him that she will help him swim, but instead she tells him that if the water is shallow they will break their necks anyway, so it does not matter.  Sam says that in case this is a suicide, thanks for marrying me.  They prepare to jump.  Luckily, the young lovers do not succeed, but there is still something dark and upsetting about watching two young kids about to jump to their deaths, even if it is mostly by accident.  (Another “ha ha but oh my god” moment.)

I think there is more to this film than just a sweet love story.  Anderson has really perfected the art of creating microcosms, and in the microcosm of this little island we are able to see the details of the characters’ lives.  Some of those details are sad, and some of that sadness is not resolved.  Luckily, the Wes Anderson quirkiness is able to make that melancholy easy to swallow, so you leave the theater feeling thoughtful and hipster-fabulous.

Fatal Attraction (1987) – Adrian Lyne

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I think that 80’s thrillers are a good genre for me.  I’m too sensitive and fragile to watch anything actually scary; I learned that the hard way in the ninth grade when I checked out Stephen King’s Rose Red and Children of the Corn.  But movies like this—I’m thinking also of Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill—are just scary enough for me to get into it, but I don’t have to hold my pee in the middle of the night because I’m too scared to get up to go to the bathroom.

That being said, Fatal Attraction is absolutely nuts, and I am never going to speak to a stranger again, let alone have a one-night stand with one.  In the film, Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is a married man who, on a whim, has a brief affair with Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), a woman he met at a work party.  Alex initially shows herself to be charmingly energetic, spontaneous, and persistent in her seeking of Dan’s affections, but she eventually abandons all pretenses in her quest to become “a part of Dan’s life” at any cost.

I thought this movie was great.  Glenn Close’s performance as Alex was really brilliant.  First of all, the 80’s hair was killing me.  You are a mess, Glenn!  Beyond that, in terms of her physical appearance, she dresses only in a binary of black and white.  When we first meet her at the party, she is dressed in glittering black.  The next time she and Dan run into each other, she is wearing an all-white suit, and she continues to wear white almost primarily throughout the weekend that they spend together.

Significantly, through all her black and white outfits, she always has long, venomous red nails.  No need to beat anyone over the head with what that symbolism might mean.

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I think the black and white wardrobe establishes a kind of Black Swan-esque duality in her character.  What I found the most impressive about Close’s performance was her mastery of this duality.  She really nailed the nuances of Alex’s normal-on-the-outside, crazy-on-the-inside personality.  For the first half hour or so, Alex comes off as charismatic and animated, and we don’t really see any hints of her psychotic behavior until she violently grabs Dan’s shirt and tells him that she won’t let him leave.  As the film continues, obviously, these displays of her twisted interior become more and more terrifying, until she is trespassing on Dan’s property, kidnapping his daughter, and trying to kill him and his wife.  And yet, even as we become aware of her bizarre violence, we still see glimpses of that glossy, normalized exterior. When she comes to Dan’s apartment with feigned interest in buying it, we see her snap back into her charming performance for Dan’s wife.

I kept noticing the presence of water throughout the film, especially surrounding Alex.  She seems to emerge from water the evening of their affair, walking down a rainy street to offer Dan an umbrella.  When they sleep together for the first time (the sex scenes in this movie are so outrageous!!), they are up against the sink and Alex turns on the faucet and spreads the water over their bodies.  Later, she boils the rabbit’s corpse in a pot of water on the Gallagher’s stove, and ultimately she sinks into their bathtub as she dies.  I don’t really know what to make of that.  There is a lot of uncontrolled, overflowing water in this film, which certainly is appropriate to Alex’s uncontrolled and overflowing personality, so maybe that had something to do with it.

For me, the question I’m left with is why does Dan sleep with Alex in the first place?  I actually quite liked Michael Douglas in this film, and I found his relationship with his family to be believable and moving.  He clearly cares about them so much.  But when he tells Alex that he has a “whole relationship with someone else”, Alex replies, “Whole means complete. If your life’s so damn complete, what were you doing with me?”  That was a question that resonated for me throughout the film.  I don’t understand why he chooses to be unfaithful when he seems so satisfied and committed to his wife.  The impetus just doesn’t seem to be there.

Whatever the reason is behind his initial act of infidelity, Dan pays the price for his crimes for the duration of the film.  And Alex never lets us forget that Dan was initially as much to blame as she was.  After chasing her through her apartment and preventing her from stabbing him, Dan places the guilty kitchen knife on the countertop so that the blade points towards her.  He leaves the apartment.  When Alex then appears in their bathroom in the final scene, she is holding that same knife—a reminder of Dan’s complicity.

Throughout the film, Alex wraps her actions in feminist jargon.  Dan says that he pities her, and she snaps, “Why? Because I won’t allow you to treat me like some slut you can just bang a couple of times and throw in the garbage?”  Almost a fair point…?  She has several lines like that, and each one made me stop and think for a moment.  I don’t really know what we’re supposed to get out of this movie.  Is it just a man’s concept of female insanity—emotional, attached, psychotic?  Maybe.  Or maybe it is just a fun, freaky thriller.  Either way, definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for a rush.

Shooter Films

Last week a couple of friends and I watched Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) back to back.  It was a heavy night.  Not the type of activity I usually consider fun.  But it ended up being really interesting to watch the two films side by side, and to see what the two directors did with such loaded (no pun intended) material.  How are you supposed to depict a school shooting without sensationalism, melodrama, or just “getting it wrong”?  I think both films were pretty successful in doing this, although they did it in extremely different ways.

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I always feel a little awkward when I say that Elephant is one of my favorite movies.  It’s certainly not a film you want to say you enjoyed.  Based loosely on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, Elephant is about an ordinary high school day that quickly escalates into chaos when two students come to school with guns and explosives.  I think for me, the reason this film appealed to me so much was because it was the first “artsy” film that I could really appreciate.  Throughout the film, Van Sant uses long tracking shots to follow individual students as they go about their day.  There is little scripted dialogue and almost no non-diegetic sound, and the narrative is not presented in chronological order.  Van Sant establishes a slow pace at the beginning of the film, and he maintains that pace until the end—so the same slow tracking shots that follow the students as they go to class are then used to follow the two boys as they gun down their classmates.  I found this style of filming alienating at first, but eventually I came to really appreciate it.  Instead of trying to assess judgment or meaning, Van Sant depicted this inexplicable act of violence in an inexplicable, befuddling way.

This film is the second in Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy”, the other two films being Gerry (2002) and Last Days (2005).  I’m planning on watching both of those films soon, so stay posted, yo.

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Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver (I have, admittedly, not read the book), takes on the perspective of Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) and her struggle to raise her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) while becoming increasingly troubled by his displays of bored cruelty.  This film is formally more conventional than Elephant, but content-wise it is comparably disturbing.  The relationship between Kevin and Eva is really interesting.  He targets her in particular, seemingly hating her from the moment he comes out of the womb, while maintaining a superficially positive relationship with his father Franklin (John C. Reilly) and his sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich).  At the same time, the film draws parallels between Kevin and Eva both physically and, occasionally, mentally.  When Eva makes a derogatory comment about fat people, Kevin says to her, “You know, you can be kind of harsh sometimes.”  “You’re one to talk,” she says.  He answers, “You wonder where I got it?”  The film raises the troubling question of how responsible Eva is for her son’s violent actions.

I was struck by the fact that both films used temporal scrambling to some extent.  Elephant obviously takes this to an extreme level—scenes are repeated, skipped, and shown from multiple angles.  One scene in which three students pass each other in the hallway is shown three separate times from the three respective perspectives.  I found this decision to be really clever.  To tell the story straightforwardly would be to simplify it.  The killers are first shown entering the high school maybe ten minutes into the film, and we are not shown their massacre until the end of the film.  Thus, everything takes on a nightmarish quality as we follow these students around the labyrinthine halls of the high school, unsure where or when we are, expecting the killers to appear at any moment.

We Need To Talk About Kevin also does not “settle” in time.  The film is a montage of several stories that are told semi-chronologically.  There is the story of Eva after her son’s crime, and her dealing with the bitterness and abuse directed at her from the community.  This is cross-cut with the story of Kevin’s childhood and his relationship with his mother, which moves chronologically towards his crime.  Further cross-cutting shows us memories out of chronological order: injured and killed classmates, Celia with an eye patch, Eva running to the high school.  There is an unsettling sense of fragmented time—we don’t really have a “present” to which we can anchor ourselves, but instead slide from memory to memory.

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I think what is the most interesting about both of these films is their depictions of the killers themselves.  Van Sant offers two killers, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), but it is clear that Alex is the mastermind behind the massacre, and Van Sant focuses the most on him.  For me, Alex makes Elephant. He is undoubtedly disturbed.  His face is hauntingly blank as he hunts and kills his fellow classmates (including, in the end, Eric), and at one point he even smiles as he jogs down the halls.  But there is also a sympathetic side to him, when we see him being pelted with spitballs in class, and when he and Eric share a surprisingly vulnerable moment in the shower together.  (Gus Van Sant, you simply cannot resist putting gay things into your movies.  I love you.)  The parts of him that seem cultured and sophisticated – his beautiful piano playing and his Arc de Triomphe t-shirt – are contrasted with his disturbed and sadistic qualities – his violent video games and his haunting line before the shooting: “Most importantly, have fun, man.”

Within Alex, Van Sant presents every stereotype of a high school shooter and then pairs it with a sympathetic quality, making it impossible for the viewer to settle on a “reason” for the shooting.  I thought it was a brave and stunning decision to give Alex so much complexity and depth, rather than taking the easy way out and simply making him violent, disturbed, and small-minded.  You can’t ignore the human qualities in the monster.

On the other hand, there really is no reason for us to identify with Kevin.  He is like a machine.  He is significantly portrayed as having a lack of personality; he is a void.  His room is spotless and completely nonspecific.  As Eva goes through his things, she finds a disc labeled “I love you” in Kevin’s handwriting.  When she pops it into her disc drive, the screen flashes “YOU LOSE” and wipes her computer.  Later, Kevin tells her that he “collects” computer viruses.  She asks him what the point is.  “There is no point,” says Kevin, pounding at his keyboard.  “That’s the point.”

Indeed, this seems to be Kevin’s mantra throughout the film.  We don’t really see any aggression building in him as we move closer to his final act of violence.  Instead, it seems that he does it out of boredom. While Elephant actively evades an explanation for Alex and Eric’s senseless acts of violence, We Need To Talk About Kevin provides an explanation: there is no explanation.  In the final scene, Eva says to him, “Two years. Plenty of time to think about it. I want you to tell me why.” Kevin looks at her for a long time.  “I used to think I knew,” he says slowly. “Now I’m not so sure.”

This scene is the first and only time that we sense any vulnerability in Kevin.  He is eighteen and about to transition into adult prison, and there is real fear in his eyes as he looks at his mother.  When she stands up to leave, the two embrace.  There is a final sense that despite everything that has happened (or perhaps because of it), they are still inexorably linked to each other.  This scene also takes us back to the haunting question of Eva’s role in the person Kevin became.

A lot to be said about both of these films.  I was impressed by both of them.  Definitely worth seeing.  I think there’s something to be said for exploring the human capacity for evil, and both these films do a tasteful and compelling job.