If the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard talks about the possible, what would its opposite be? If the possible is that which offers hope against an onslaught of predictability, and thus choice, what does the unremitting offer? If in the possible Kierkegaard has his bourgeois taking his breakfast, reading the newspaper with his family, and then suddenly rushing to the window and shouting "I must have the possible, or else I will suffocate" (The Concept of Dread), in the 'unremitting' the world oppresses rather than releases: suffocation is the dramatic mode.
One of the great writers of the unremitting would of course be Edgar Allan Poe, with nightmarish foreshadowing that leads to horrible thoughts of death in stories like 'The Pitand the Pendulum' and 'The Premature Burial'. The former takes place in a dungeon where the narrator is tied to a table and a blade swings back and forth for days over his body. In the latter, the central character informs us of various atrocities through history including the plague of London, the Massacre of St Bartholomew and the Black Hole of Calcutta, before speaking of people buried alive, and his fear that this might happen to him due to "a tendency to trance". But the Poe sensibility has been cinematically explored in very different films like Gerry, Open Water, The Vanishing, Thirteen, Repulsion, The Tenant, Long Weekend, Don't Look Now and Meek's Cut-Off, perhaps much more so than in actual adaptations that often lend themselves to pulp fiction and low-key exploitation.
Yet the unremitting can take various forms, as evident in the examples offered. Don't The Tenant, Repulsion, The Vanishing, Thirteen and Don't Look Now interiorise the unremitting, while Gerry, Meek's Cut-Off, Open Water and The Long Weekend exteriorise it? The former examples are consistent with Poe's claim in The Premature Burial that "in all that I endured there was no physical suffering, but of moral distress an infinitude". In these film somehow the issue is human nature, with the characters unable to escape a problem in their head either as curiosity (in Thirteen, Don't Look Now and The Vanishing), or madness (The Tenant, Repulsion), while in the latter it isn't human nature, but nature that imposes itself, as the characters' idle or necessary sense of adventure leads them out of the possible to arrive at the impossible and the unremitting. In Gerry, two boys wander into a national park and get lost; in The Long Weekend a couple are confronted by the harshness of nature, in Open Water a couple are left adrift in the middle of the ocean after their diving boat tallies up the numbers inaccurately, and in Meek's Cut-Off, people looking for a better future west set off on a trail that leads nowhere as the vast landscape takes hold.
Our chief point of interest here, though, is Gerry, a film described by Time Out critic Nick Bradshaw as an "experimental folly", best seen "as a bone-headed expression of [director Gus] Van Sant's own state of mind: a sententious howl of aesthetic anguish". It is more useful, however, to see the film as the most demanding example of the unremitting in nature, and also a fascinating film that absorbs the unremitting into notions of the sublime. Opening on the car ride to the National Park, with Arvo Part's 'Fur Alina' playing non-diegetically on the soundtrack, the film opens plaintively, and could suggest a loss one of the characters is escaping from rather than a tragedy foretold. The music will turn up again much later in the film when the characters, both named Gerry (Matt Damon, Casey Affleck), realize how desperate their situation happens to be, and again at the end of the film. Though Estonian Arvo Part has become one of the most filmically popular of modern composers (Fahrenheit 9/11, There Will be Blood, The Officer's Ward, Since Otar Left andJapon are but a small number of films that have used his work in the last dozen years), Van Sant utilises his music against the grain. Its use during the film's opening indicates no loss, and later its deployment, during the characters' obvious desperation, is adopted where another filmmaker might seek something more pounding to indicate adrenalized despair.
The music in the film plays out quietly, as if beyond the immediately tragic, and hints at the vastness of the universe and the smallness of the characters contained within it. Now music in films might frequently be non-diegetic, but that doesn't mean it isn't personal. Indeed it often reflects the personal without the agency of the diegetic. In other words, if a character feels sad, that sadness can be more obviously captured through music at one remove. If the character puts the music on himself, their sadness is in danger of becoming risible. Usually, then, the music doesn't come from the characters' agency, but it does come from the characters' feelings. However, from where, we might ask, does the music from Gerry come?
In Van Sant's prior work, the high school shooting spree film, Elephant, the use of Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' non-diegetically as the footballer comes off the field and goes into the school is similar to the utilisation of Arvo Part in Gerry. The character is neither listening to the music, nor is the music reflecting his mood, but in each instance, in Elephant and Gerry, it is as though Van Sant wants to find a way of absorbing the remitting into the unremitting, to suggest a world beyond the character's lives, without creating optimism within the story itself. As the characters in Gerry try and remember their itinerary in the process of getting lost, so the music accepts the hopelessness of their situation over the sort of music that would propose active hope: the sort of music that plays up the characters' attempts to resolve the situation, and the audience's feeling that there is a chance they might do so. Out of such actions in many a mainstream piece - actions on the characters' part, feelings on the audience's, and the music that joins them together - we would have what philosopher Henri Bergson would call a cinematographic image, taking into account his comment, "each of our acts aims at a certain insertion of our will into the reality. There is between our body and other bodies, an arrangement like that of the pieces of glass that compose a kaleidoscopic picture...the cinematographic character of our knowledge of things is due to the kaleidoscopic character of our adaptation to them." (Creative Evolution)
But what would go beyond such a kaleidoscopic character, what would invoke not our restless struggle with life, but a position beyond this restless struggle, beyond our usual assumption of the cinematographic image? "Experience confronts us with becoming: that is sensible reality. But the intelligible reality, that which ought to be, is more real still, and that reality does not change. Beneath the qualitative becoming, beneath the evolutionary becoming, beneath the extensive becoming, the mind must seek that which defies change, the definable quality, the form of essence, the end." Part of the problem with this intelligible approach, though, an approach Bergson sees as central to the classic age of philosophy, and exemplified in Plato, is that it limits perception within function. "That is to say that we end in the philosophy of Ideas when we apply the cinematographic mechanism of the intellect to the analysis of the real." Of course, Gilles Deleuze would go on to use Bergson as the central figure in his Cinema books, but our purpose here is no more than to say Van Sant's use of music tries to find a place beyond the strife of life and towards a sense of duration, a sense of duration that can allow the immediate reality to be contextualized within a broader being than that of the characters. The function of character is irrelevant next to the containment of them within a broader perspective
This is true not only of the music, but also of the camerawork and the approach to self; and will prove vital to the film's conclusion. Van Sant and his Elephant cameraman Harry Savides film from a position that allows more for contemplation than identification. In the shots immediately following the boys leaving their car, the camera doesn't establish the space before the characters become our main point of focus, but instead occasionally allows the characters to move towards the camera and thus create a close-up, before drifting away from the camera as the camera pulls away from them. At various moments the camera continues moving away from the boys and behind a sign or behind trees, with the film creating the space for what some critics might regard as no more than aesthetic distance, but that we're more likely to see as an attempt by Van Sant to distinguish between life as lived experience, and life as contained less by the viewer's necessary aloofness but being's necessary smallness. This is not the aesthetic distance that leads to an aesthetic attitude "where aesthetic responses are alleged to occur when people 'distance' themselves from an object they perceive, suspending their desires and other feelings" (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy), but emotional immediacy contained by ontological distance, a concern for the characters whilst at the same time a concern beyond them.
This has something to do with the art work from the point of view of Kant and not at all from Brecht: of disinterest in the former instance and distanciation in the latter. For Kant there is the importance of aesthetic form over content: "Because he is trying to demote the physical appeal of the aesthetic, he claims that the formal properties of the observed object, not its physical and material properties, most influence judgements of beauty." ('Immanuel Kant', The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism) For Brecht, according to Martin Esslin in A Choice of Evils, the important thing "is the maintenance of a separate existence by being kept apart, alien, strange - therefore the producer must strive to produce by all the means at his disposal effects which will keep the audience separated, estranged, alienated from the action." Van Sant seems to want not simply the elevation of the form to the detriment of the content, nor a form that refuses the viewer engagement, but to create the space for an acceptance of the unremitting within the contemplation of a universe much greater than the terrible situation of the two characters. They are in an unremitting situation for them, but this does not make the situation beyond them at all unremitting. As Poe says in 'The Premature Burial', "the true wretchedness, indeed - the ultimate woe - is particular not diffuse. That the ghastly extremes of agony are endured by man the unit, and never by man the mass - for this let us thank a merciful God!"
Van Sant shows the singular but also allows for the perspective beyond this immediate tragedy, beyond even mankind itself. While the director hasn't been averse to making comments that suggest hints of the aesthetic consistent with the Kantian and the Brechtian, where he has talked of formal experimentation and the passivity of the audience, this is more relevant to others films than Elephant and Gerry. When he talks of his colour remake of Psycho he says, "one of the things we worked on in art school was appropriation, or finding a found object that we obsessed over and painted and redesigned and made copies of" (Simon Hattenstone interview, the Guardian), this suggests Kantian form. When he speaks about film he can say: "Cinema will become something completely different, where you are in it, and it's no longer theatrically based", a sort of Brecht meets advanced technology with the viewer no longer passively present but actively involved.
Gerry, however, is less formal experiment, more ontological enquiry. We're constantly aware of the containment of nature more than formal constraint. When Casey Affleck finds himself stuck on a large rock, the film refuses to dramatize it as a problem-solving action sequence, but presents it instead as a crisis for the characters but also an object of natural awe for us. Initially Affleck is seen from behind as he yells to Damon, wondering where Damon is, and Affleck has chosen this location because it gives him a good vantage point. Damon comes into view, small within the frame, and then the film cuts from Damon exiting the frame to a brief shot of an empty frame that Damon enters as he moves towards the rock where Affleck stands. The film doesn't cut back and forth but holds on a medium long shot as they talk about the ways in which he could get down. It isn't that we are at all indifferent to Affleck's plight, but neither are we at all indifferent to the geological as we can't help but notice the formation of this rock. This isn't an instance of awe but an image of it. We don't see the impressive image before cutting to the human problem, but hold to the geological dimension that throughout the sequence literally dwarfs the human one.
Shortly before this sequence, after the boys have split up and arrange to rendezvous later, the film cuts to a series of shots that function less as shots showing the passage of time from the characters' point of view, but more from nature's. There is no sense of where the boys are during these shots as we see the landscape from different moments of the day; it is as if the film has temporarily dislocated itself from the problem of character to indicate the beauty of nature. If the sequence with the rock dwarfs the characters, this one seems to ignore them altogether. If the sequence would have been there to reflect the length of time apart, then the film would have cross-cut with the landscape scenes and shots of the boys, but here the film contemplates nature to the very detriment of any dramatic function. It is consistent with Gilberto Perez's comments on Dovzhenko's Earth when he says the director "is perhaps less concerned than other any filmmaker with momentary appearances, incidental particularities that the camera happens to record. He seeks to photograph the essential shape of things, to reveal concrete objects in their enduring aspect. His images seldom give us the elusive impression, the passing glimpse, the oblique view; things squarely confronted, show us their full face, so to speak, and are held on the screen long enough for our eyes to go beyond the mere appearance and get a grasp of the substance." (The Material Ghost) Like Dovzhenko, Van Sant doesn't ignore the character, he seeks the means by which to contain him, just as we can see Dovzhenko's heritage in directors including Tarkovsky, Malick and Sokurov.
Thus the film undeniably possesses an element of Kant's disinterest, but it is closer to remarks he makes elsewhere in his work on aesthetics when he talks of the sublime. "Might is an ability that is superior to great obstacles. It is called dominance if it is superior even to the resistance of the something that itself possesses might. When in an aesthetic judgement we consider nature as a might that has no dominance over us, then it is dynamically sublime." Kant gives examples of lightning, volcanoes erupting and the high waterfall on a river, and these are all sublime if despite their enormity we are in a safe place in relation to them. Yet where Van Sant differs from the aforementioned filmmakers, and thus contains the unremitting, is in that nature does possess dominance over his characters. The majesty of the landscape that Van Sant shows, is also the labyrinth within which the two Gerrys are trapped.
Here the fear that overcomes the two boys chiefly concerns an enormity that they cannot comprehend within the context of their own immediate needs. As they try and get out of the situation they find themselves more and more lost. In one scene they try and follow an animal track hoping to find water, but lose their way still further. In the scene where they try and work out their itinerary, the low angle camera on their faces hints at madness, and soon they'll be seeing mirages and wandering aimlessly around the landscape. Yet while the film comprehends the horror for the characters it also functions off the sublime, with the director adopting a contemplative aesthetic, one that refuses the characters the agency that would put them in charge of their lives, an agency that could have possibly robbed the film of its contemplation on the sublime dimension of a life far beyond them. It isn't impossible to work this combination of agency and sublimity, and Akira Kurosawa's DersuUzala is a fine example of a film that shows a Mongolian trapper dealing with nature's daily demands whilst Kurosawa also shows nature containing those concerns. But Gerry is an odd film not least because it doesn't contain one within the other (agency within the enormity of nature), but separates them. It allows on the one hand for the unremitting despair of the characters' situation, where Affleck will die and Damon will be responsible for his murder as they try to strangle each other to death after feeling the hopelessness of their plight. But on the other hand, the sublime apprehension of nature.
If Poe stories like 'The Pit and the Pendulum' and 'The Premature Burial' are unremitting it lies not only in their sense of despair (no matter the relative happy endings of each), but in the claustrophobic dimension that is the opposite of the sublime which hints at an agoraphobic enormity. When Damon gets picked up by a car just after killing Affleck, he might not be able to comprehend nature but he might have to comprehend he's responsible for his friend's death. Though we may take the moment just before he is seen in the car as a mirage (we witness Damon moving towards a series of vehicles in the far distance), the following sequence where Damon sits in the car, his face badly sunburnt, suggests we can take his rescue as real. Here he is encased in the safety of fast moving metal, after searching out a sublime experience and arriving at an unremitting one.
Thus the three elements beyond the music that we have invoked: the camerawork, the characterization and the film's ending, all contribute to the sense of a film that presents the unremitting contained by the sublime. These are people we never really get to know, as Van Sant shows more interest in the nature of the landscape than in their human nature. Is this perhaps why Bradshaw is so dismissive of the film, seeing it as no more than an experiment in despair, or as a film that so escapes from human-centred expectations that it defies generic containment and seems a perverse play with Hollywood narrative principles? Better, instead of dismissing or praising it on the basis of its perceived failure or relative success, to find a way in which to incorporate it within a different problematic than narrative demand. Gerry is partly consistent with the films we mentioned at the beginning of this piece, but is also quite different as it proposes the unremitting it utilises so the film can open itself up to the possibility of the sublime. One reason why films like The Vanishing and Open Water feel so unremitting is because they have made us feel: they have created for us strong relationships. No matter the couple's bickering in the early stages of The Vanishing, we have been privy to their intimacies, their feelings for each other. Early in Open Water we see the couple going to bed together in easy, naked comfort. Frequently in Gerry the characters are not only denied moments that hint at back story familiarity, they are, as we've noted, often small within the frame or absent from it altogether. Numerous scenes start without their presence in the shot, and often they are viewed as specks crossing the landscape. This might serve dramatic function - the film determined to show how lost they happen to be - but at a certain point this becomes less dramatic underpinning than sublime awareness on the film's part that these are, to quote the title of a Joseph Losey film, figures in a landscape. It is the landscape more than the figures that count, as the film moves from the unremitting awareness of the characters' fate to one's awareness of our own inevitable smallness in the frame of existence. As the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard would say, "nature represents death in the future" (Amras). Gerry searches out the possible death in the present contained by a vast vista of existence, the sort of vista Bergson proposes when he talks of endless becoming, and Kant when he speaks of the sublime.
Such an approach surely has very little do with a 'sententious howl of aesthetic anguish', but instead with an aesthetic understanding of knowing one's place in being's firmament. The film isn't so much a shot in the dark or a crying in the wilderness, but a work that is unusual partly because it seem to be one thing and is also another thing at the same time. It is an unremitting work, a film close to a horror movie in its delineation of the characters' despair, but it is also a work that is 'indifferent' to its characters in a manner very antithetical to the horror movie trope of aloof disdain. How often do we see in a horror film a character's demise as dramatic irony or just desserts, where we notice, in Kim Newman's comment on psycho movies, "a deep callousness behind these films; for the human race in toto, not just the female half of it"? (Nightmare Movies) No less pertinent here would be Carol Clover commenting in Men, Women and Chainsaws that for her "I Spit on your Grave shocks not because it is alien but because it is familiar, because we recognize that the emotions it engages are regularly engaged by the big screen but almost never bluntly acknowledged for what they are." The deep callousness is usually subtly hidden, Clover seems to say, within generic demand. Many films, and especially horror ones, play up violence and revenge, but couch the emotions in all sorts of get-out clauses, and often position the viewer in derealized relationships with pain, the sort of pain existential horror tries to redress in films like Deliverance and Twenty Nine Palms, films that share some similarities with Van Sant's. Gerry though wants a dimension of aloofness too, as if it seeks not at all to be an existential horror but even more an ontological one: a horror film that taking into account Bernhard's comment alludes to the enormity of being rather than the 'real' pain of being. Poe might have a point when he talks of man as a unit and not as a mass, but Van Sant sees the mass beyond man. Gerry is a rare American film in asking us less to identify with characters than to project ourselves into the universe as this unusual film also shares similarities in its own less obviously ambitious way with such monumentally significant works 2001 and The Tree of Life. Here van Sant also offers himself up as a cinematic metaphysician.
© Tony McKibbin