That's what is so confusing about films that are constantly trying to build on a previous form of language. Is a movie an homage or a parody? Is it revisionism? For instance, I'm still unconvinced that Todd Haynes' commendably ambitious Far From Heaven doesn't fall into a booby trap of irony. And did Steven Soderbergh really believe he had something new to say in remaking Andrei Tarkovsky's meditative Solaris?
These are some of the questions that thump around while watching Gus Van Sant's Gerry (playing this week at Zeitgeist) and Peyton Reed's Down With Love -- by any other definition two very different films.
Gerry, starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, is an experimental exercise from the director of Good Will Hunting (where Van Sant worked with Damon and the brothers Affleck, Casey and Ben). Van Sant, who cut his teeth on such original works as My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy, has spent his recent years toiling in more mainstream fare before what appears to be a return his indie roots with Gerry and his recent Cannes sensation, Elephant. (Gerry, it should be noted, won the International Critics Prize at last fall's the Toronto International Film Festival.) Bully for him.
Inspired by more avant-garde filmmakers such as Bela Tarr, James Benning and even Andy Warhol, Van Sant seeks in Gerry to tell a sort-of non-story in exploring a misdirected desert hiking excursion by two friends named Gerry. What little the two young men say to each other is a kind of familiar lingo. "Gerry," to these friends, is another way of saying "messed up," and as the story progresses and the hiker buddies get more and more lost in the desert, the word becomes more than appropriate. It's as if their own language is symbolic of Van Sant's attempt here to create a different narrative vernacular.
Beyond that, Van Sant (working with the film's true star, cinematographer Harris Savides) uses long takes of long, medium and close-up shots against Western vistas -- constantly playing with image and perspective. In many ways, Gerry is a truly arresting work, a rebellion against the image explosion in the post-MTV world of filmmaking. Which, I confess, is also its most frustrating weakness, and Gerry can indeed be a frustrating film to watch. There's very little dialogue, everything that happens is more in subtext and symbolism; its disposal of traditional narrative drive can be both endearing and, well, flat-out boring.
Still, there's something to be said for a film that triumphs in burning images into your consciousness: a 360-degree study of a wilting Affleck, a parallel tracking shot of the two young men plodding onward (one alternately out-pacing the other), and so on. It's just disappointing that Van Sant can't go too far with this new language he's invented.
Conversely, we have Down With Love in all its early-60s, CinemaScope glory as Reed seeks to both spoof and honor the Doris Day/Rock Hudson non-sex comedies of the era. In a summer where we're under siege from the sensory assaults of the likes of X Men 2 and The Matrix Reloaded, I'll take death by pastel any day. And Reed, working with this film's true star, production designer Andrew Laws, is certainly up to the challenge. Not unlike Haynes in Far From Heaven, Reed is so meticulous with the look (and often, the sound) of Kennedy-era Manhattan -- with its swinging bachelor pads of remote control and clothes of primary colors and hound's tooth patterns -- that you understand why the word "retro" was invented in the first place.
But then, he has to take two leads, sink them into a story and hope they make it sizzle. He almost got it in Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger who were coming off celebrations of sights and sounds in Moulin Rouge and Chicago, respectively. Zellweger, sad to say, seems a little worse for wear compared to McGregor, whose shoulder-and-hip swagger capped by a devilish grin better recalls Cary Grant than the Rock. Zellweger clumps more than strides, her mid-pucker lips and allergic-reaction cheeks all ballooned to the point you have to wonder how words ever get out of there.
David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson provide the true chemistry in their respective roles as the leads' best friends, Pierce for honoring the almost-gay role perfected by Tony Randall (who earns a cameo here) and Paulson for her study in feminist self-doubt. But even that's just not enough for a film that can't transcend its talent for mimicry. It's Postmodernism Lite, and we deserve at least a little more than that, no?