Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Gerry-Meandering" or Suddenly Understanding Existentialism

It's getting more and more frustrating to contend with "canned" sites on the Internet that make me feel that they don't deserve to receive my attention any more. Yeah, I guess we really are just "advertising fodder" for them all so that they can earn Google money. They just want your presence, but they're not really interested in your content. (And sites like Facebook just keep tabs on everything you do on line so that they can sell the information to the government.)

I used to love to write movie reviews for the Internet Movie Database, but normally won't do it anymore unless I am an earlier writer in the process (such as when a movie first comes out). Who will manage to read what I write when there are hundreds and hundreds of other reviews?

But I recently watched a movie that I had ordered from Netflix that really stuck with me, a movie that apparently most people hated, but that I loved. That seems to be becoming a pattern with me...a movie that most people loved, I hated, and movies that most people hated, I love. (There are exceptions to that, of course...I am not completely perverse.) Well, one example of that was the Gus Van Sant movie, Elephant, which I viewed as an outstanding work of art, but that a shocking number of people hated (and definitely failed to understand). The usual complaint from haters is that a certain movie is "boring". Well, in response to that, I would like to quote a line from a Pet Shop Boys song, which seems appropriate here: "We were never bored because we were never boring." So, these people are bored, because they are boring, which I take to mean that their mind runs along the same shallow and simple channel and so anything, such as a work of art, that doesn't run down that same shallow and simple channel "bores" them. Their mind isn't engaged, because they are unable to grasp what is in there.

So, the movie that I recently watched was also a Gus Van Sant movie, Gerry, that I also took as being a great work of filmmaking art. I had no thought of writing a review of it, though, until I saw so very MANY negative reviews of the movie on the Netflix site. I mean, many people really, really HATED this movie, thought it was the absolute worst they had ever seen. They couldn't even imagine how anyone could possibly like it, and if they did claim to like it, there simply had to be something very wrong with them. Oh yeah, projection much?

So, against my better judgment, I decided to write a positive review of the film for the Netflix site, and I don't bang these things out, I take a great deal of time with them, so imagine my dismay when I finally got it the way I wanted it, and submitted it, that the site wouldn't take it because it exceeded its 2,000 words limit. I have no idea how many words long the review actually is (they don't even extend you the courtesy of giving you a running word count to help you out), but I don't really care; if they have to put an arbitrary limit on it, then they won't get this review from me, it's that simple. I don't need them to edit, or abbreviate me. Nobody would read it, anyway, as they already have something like 300 reviews. It was just my perverse pleasure to post a good review of the film in contrast to all the bad ones, but no, they lose out.

But I had written this thing and didn't want my whole evening to have been a waste, so I went over to the Internet Movie Database to post it there (despite their also having several hundred other reviews, so, again, nobody would really read mine), only to discover that they had an arbitrary word limit, as well, even worse than the Netflix site, 1,000 words (and, again, did not offer the courtesy of providing an actual word count). I didn't even bother to check out Amazon.com (who, maybe, HAS no limit, but I don't even want to check anymore), I was so disgusted by all these sites that I decided to heck with it, I will post it HERE on my OWN site, even though of all places, this has the least chance of any that anyone will read it, especially since this isn't even a site, like Netflix or IMDB, where a person is curious about this movie and maybe wanting to read a review of it!

Oh well. Maybe somebody WILL read this and actually be interested in renting this movie and watching it. (But they'll probably hate it!)

First, though, I better explain a little bit of what the movie is about (which was not part of my original review, since that would already be explained on Netflix or IMDB). The movie is deceptively simple. Two guys (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck...Casey Affleck was also one of the writers of the film), both calling themselves by the same name of "Gerry", are on some kind of a road trip, driving across the desert. After a long while of silent driving (the entire movie has no more than about two paragraphs of dialogue), they pull over and go on a little hike into the desert. There is a sign that says "Wilderness Trail", and apparently they allude to having some kind of a destination, which I am guessing is something like an interesting view point that they have decided to go look at. But they also decide to veer off the trail, either to take a short cut or they are simply interested in making their own way to the point.

They walk a while, and then become aware that they aren't really sure where they are. They have somehow lost sight of where the normal trail was, which, of course, would be totally easy to do, out there in the desert. So they deviate again in an effort to rejoin the original trail, but really, all they do is make their situation worse. As they continue to walk along, they kind of deflect from bringing into full consciousness the idea that they truly are lost. Instead of, say, sitting down and thinking the situation through logically, such as determine which directions were which, or setting up an awareness of various landmarks, they decide to split up and search for various higher grounds from which they may get their bearings, and then rejoin each other, but their plan sounds kind of vague and unclear, so, of course, this plan isn't successful but I guess there was some small victory in that at least they weren't permanently separated, which could happen, also.

This is pretty much the gist of the whole movie, they're attempting to find their way and putting a great deal of energy into the task, but their situation just continues to get worse and more desperate but without them ever actually squarely facing up to the full reality of their situation (as if to admit it would be to succumb to it). Watching this, I kept thinking of "Jews wandering in the desert for 40 years in search of the promised land", and deciding that that HAD to be a metaphor, that no tribe of people could actually manage to DO that. (FORTY YEARS?) I don't think that had anything to do with this movie, that was just what was going through my mind.

Okay, now starts the review that I tried to write for Netflix:

I'll start with my favorite scene of in the movie, which I view as "pure Gus Van Sant" just the way I like him. It was the eternally-long trudging scene, crunch crunch crunch, while they still had the energy to power forward, two vital guys, in which the two Gerries were filmed close-up on the side of their faces with one of them just slightly in front, but then he would sometimes briefly fall back, but they both nevertheless were kept right in the frame as they continued forward, for such a long time. To me, who has been an actor in films, this was the very essence of acting at its most difficult, and really shows the ability of Casey Affleck and Matt Damon to keep this up for such a long shot. It is so much easier to play a part and to naturally animate your face when you are having something to say, when there is a give and take in a conversation, but here, there was none of that, just two guys walking in a steady but desperate rhythm with various thoughts running through their head and the situation realistically playing across their faces.

I love Gus Van Sant's tracking shots, so amazingly beautiful, and the little short at the end of the DVD (if that's how you saw this movie) that showed them filming a scene with the "camera dolly railroad tracks" going almost infinitely across the white salt flats gives some hint of how this kind of camera work was achieved. But it was the actors that truly showed the magic of THEIR craft in this amazing scene. YOU think it is easy...but it's like a staring contest with yourself, and unless you are of that level, you will lose.

From Elephant I had fallen in love with Gus Van Sant's style of filming close-up to his performers' faces to the extent that you become totally smitten by their humanity, and so I was entranced by this particular scene in "Gerry", which made it anything but boring. Maybe one has to have actually acted in a movie in which a camera was held close to their face for ten minutes like that to truly understand the power of such a shot and the skill of the actor who can deal with it.

Many of the "hated the movie" reviewers couldn't believe "how stupid" these two guys must have been to "go off on a hike in a desert with no water," blah blah blah, (how easy to pass that judgment while sitting comfortably in your living room or safe in your civilized movie theater) yet it was clear to me that this was just meant to be a short hike, maybe a half-hour's walk over to a particular view point...YOU wouldn't bring along anything, either. (They were smokers, so yes, they did happen to have matches or a lighter, so at least they could make fire, but this had nothing to do with "preparation".) And how VERY easy it is to get lost if you aren't paying attention and it can happen in the dense woods as well as in a stark desert where there really is no clear trail. Or anywhere, for that matter. I submit that the vast majority of the people in the world are just as lost, they just aimlessly trudge through life without any understanding of anything at all, and when things get bad, they just keep making them worse, having no clue as to what else to do. The whole state of our country, today, is a perfect example of that (any
country...just pick one).

I also loved the cinematography, and the views of the great vistas and rolling clouds and so on perfectly reminded me of a situation I had gotten myself into, in which I was attempting to drive between Reno and Sacramento one late December evening when a sudden "Donner Party Killing" snowstorm came up that caused the closing of both I-80 and US 50 over the mountains, but I heard trucker's conversing on my CB radio, telling each other that the way was clear if one went north on 395 and then
took California 70 west over, so I tried that. Unfortunately, the blizzard overtook us all on that route, too, with snowfall shooting onto the windshield so heavy you could hardly see to drive, so all the trucks simply pulled over to the side of the highway to hunker in for the night. I could not do that in a small-sized convertible, with the closed soft top, I would probably freeze to death, so I had no choice but to soldier on, blizzard or no blizzard.

Ultimately, along California 70, I could no longer even see where the road was any more, the snow was so heavy, I was just driving across white snow through the woods in a car that was not a four-wheel drive. I understood that my situation was desperately dangerous, yet there was no solution other than to just keep on going the best I could and hope that the car didn't break down or the way become entirely impassable.

Who knows if I was even driving in the correct direction any more. But there was one magical moment when I happened to look sideways into the snowy woods and was amazed at how beautiful it was, which I thought was ironic to suddenly perceive that while I was actually in the midst of serious danger. The beautiful scenes in this movie reminded me of that experience. I felt that my awareness of that beauty kept me going, gave me hope, but humans do have an amazing ability to continue when they
have to and often that dogged determination is ALL you have.

I suddenly felt in this movie a desperate fear that these guys simply would NOT make it, because it had gotten to the point where I could see no way out for them. I was actually praying out loud for them to finally stumble onto the road, because it would be INTOLERABLE if they did not make it! One might wonder why I would even care, but I consider this an example of the filmmakers' genius that I DID care, that I was made to see that their human frailty and being tired and lost and having no idea what to do about it yet still trying while there were still some twitching muscle fiber left to move them was my own, as well. I was filled with great compassion, and imagine being brought to that in a movie where "nothing" happens and it is "boring", yet few among us have any kind of life that, if seen from a distance by a stranger, is any less boring than what we were watching in this film (yet how precious it is to us).

Maybe this is why so many people hated and couldn't stand this movie; because it did not offer them the escape that they so desperately attempt to keep right in front of their face so that they won't fully get how tenuous their own situation is. Instead of a "momentary hike over to a view point," this movie rubbed their face in the hard, gritty sand of their life's actual helplessness. Just what tiny little change could occur in their life that would suddenly ruin everything? I think the nagging fear of that, whatever it is, runs very, very deep in our human nature. The truth is, we thought we'd "conquered Thebes", but maybe it'll end up we're just "rock-marooned" without a "sand mattress".

Oh well, that was my "too long for the movie sites" review, ending with some terms and situations that were mentioned in the movie, which would make some sense to anyone who sees the movie.

I decided to look up the meaning of the word "existentialism" (which I felt like this movie had to be the essence of), and lo and behold, oh wow, yes it is!

Here is what the Wikipedia says about Existentialism: "...philosophical thinking begins with the human subject--not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. In existentialism, the individual's starting point is characterized by...a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world." Also, the entry states that existentialists felt that "traditional academic philosophy was too abstract and remote from concrete human experience", and that "Soren Kierkegaard, regarded as the father of existentialism, maintained that the individual is solely responsible for giving his own life meaning and for living that life passionately and sincerely, in spite of existential obstacles and distractions including despair, angst, absurdity, alienation, and boredom."

That's exactly what this movie was about. When Gus Vant Sant focused his camera on the faces of these two lost boys trudging energetically across the desert in extremely long, steady, tracking shots, he was showing the acting, feeling, living human individual, and being lost in the desert, they for sure were disoriented and confused in a world that was alien to them (meaningless and absurd). What could be a more concrete example of human experience than walking, walking, walking...I mean, mankind covered this entire earth in search of...whatever, all at first done on foot. These boys in the film were actually trying to save their life, which, again, I would say, would be an expression of passion and sincerity in a most basic way, and they certainly were faced with despair, angst, absurdity, and even boredom (walking, walking, walking)...it was BOREDOM that was most experienced by the film's viewers (those who didn't understand the richness of what this film was offering).

I think it may be too much for people to be made to experience their own desperation and so they fight to reject it. Yet it was these same people who rejected this movie who also dissed the boys for not "preparing for their trek in the desert"; yet what preparations can one make when they don't even know that they are in trouble?