Every art form exists in a tension between the means of producing the image, whether of sound or sight, surprise or familiarity, means or ends, and the actual image. Paintings don’t normally have sound tracks (why not?) and symphonies don’t usually smell except for those folks who have synesthesia, the displacement of one sensory system into another. Okay, we’ve got that now.
In my 1950’s undergrad philosophy of religion class, no less, Paul Schilpp used a definition of art that went this way: “art is the expression of the relationships between man and the universe.” (He was sneaking up on religion as art, eliminating the theos.) Of course, the “man” word got shot down in a few decades, but my struggle was with the idea that art should not just be an “expression” but a “communication.” That is, it should convey the meaning to someone else, an audience, a reader or listener. The context was that I was taking acting classes where some recreated the characters they were portraying in such an interior way that they were just boring. Maybe they were having a great “method” experience of the character, but wasn’t that just therapy or self-indulgence?
Now, of course, none of that matters because the preoccupation is with making money, which means a conflict between what was done profitably before and what one can reasonably predict will achieve that again: repetition or innovation? Gus van Sant takes advantage of that dilemma by going back and forth: one hugely popular movie for the market and one deeply felt movie for himself.
Some people find that both “Elephant” and “Gerry” are of that latter kind, just plain uncommunicative. I myself find them poetry in image, universal in message. That is, they have something to say and they say it in a way that speaks to me and -- I’m betting -- most perceptive others. Both films affirm a relationship between the artist (us) and the universe that is characteristic of our philosophical problem: “what does it all mean?” Or “where is God”?
These movies are not about just “waiting for Godot.” Anyway, Godot or God may turn out to be a terrible monster who comes with a flame thrower, as in “Elephant,” which some interpret as being the joke about the elephant in the room that no one will talk about (violence?) and others think is about the blind men feeling the elephant and arguing over its nature. A certain amount of ambiguity is good artistic strategy, allowing room for interpretation. The plot is horribly familiar: students who flip out and shoot a lot of people, a repeated phenomenon that people try over and over to take apart with the compulsion that if they can just get a kind of psychological autopsy right, they can prevent the “disease.” This movie will not give you much hope, except in the counterpoint of the boy who is trying to save his alcoholic dad. The hints are (mail order assault weapons, violent videos, bulimia) that the causes are society-wide. So this movie has a polemic dimension.
The script and shooting strategy are looped: we see the same thing from different angles, recognizably repeated -- then a surprise as a new dimension is revealed. Our attempts to figure out chronology and motives are helped, then dead-ended. The powerful black “other” figure looks to be a rescuer, but he is not. The class “discussing problems” literally goes out the window. The boy with the camera doesn’t see anything. Lovers become meat. The administrators who might have insight say nothing meaningful.
The setting, those long locker-lined halls, make perfect shooting galleries, looking very much like simulated environments in a video game. Since I was a little kid, I’ve had nightmares about them with their chemical smells, strange light, echoing sounds, and “trapdoors” all along the way where anyone might pop out to say “you’re late,” “you’re unprepared,” “why aren’t you wearing any clothes?” This movie was filmed in Portland where the park-like environment is also familiar to me, though not quite so color-hyped as this.
“Gerry” was shot in a dry environment but Utah has never looked more beautiful, even when it’s just a salt flat. Beginning innocently, two guys park and walk where there is brush and trees. Other people are around. As often happens in the West, innocence becomes inadequacy and a trail becomes a labyrinth. They follow the strategy of “keeping on keeping on.” Both have the same name and seem about equal in other ways, so the relationship between them is that of companions or possibly of two inner selves in dialogue. This story is also based on a true event full of ambiguity where two friends went into the desert and only one survived. There are no explosions, no bandits, no accusations, no rattlesnakes. A few mirages, mistaken perceptions.
Viewers of these two movies are best off not struggling to “figure them out.” They are experiences: stay open, let them happen to you as they unfold on the screen. Save the intellectual arguments for later. I found it helpful to look at the films at about the same time so I could keep both in mind to compare. And contrast. That old routine.
Many of the comments on imdb.com are eloquent and wonderful. They point out that some viewers became very angry, which is a tip-off that something is being touched that they don’t want to acknowledge. They speak of the threat of becoming separated from each other and the echo of the famous campfire scene in “My Own Private Idaho.” They testify to their own desert experiences. Impossible predicaments like being stranded on top of a natural monolith -- there must be a geological name for it. Remember those car ads with a jeep up there?
It has been proposed that in our time we have killed God in the sense of a big person in the sky and have relocated sacredness in creation rather than the creator. God is absorbed and subsumed into nature, which we nearly worship as “beautiful” and “restorative.” But this film reminds us that even the creation can make a terrifying judgment.
If one grants that this is a version of “Pilgrim’s Progress,” a cautionary tale about salvation, then the DVD “additional” short piece about the making the film makes the discussion even more interesting. A huge crew, a sci-fi contraption of camera, boom and track, an all-terrain vehicle delivering people and supplies (no trudging), and the human element is STILL dwarfed and threatened by the turning of the planet under a blood red sun. There is no sound track. The people are nearly whispering.