Gerry posterGus Van Sant’s Gerry is an homage to the power of landscape: the camera endlessly pans slowly over deserts and mountains in a series of long takes (the film averages a staggering sixty seconds between cuts) that emphasize the vastness and imperturbability of the environment in which the movie’s two protagonists find themselves lost. Stitching together scenes shot in California, Utah, and Argentina, with a range of different terrains from scrubland to canyons to saltpan, Gerry unfolds an almost mythical panorama of inhospitable (perhaps better, indifferent) grandeur. The two would-be adventurers who traipse through the frame are doubly lost: not only do they have not the slightest idea of where they are and where they are headed; also they have increasingly to recognize their insignificance against this magnificent natural backdrop.

And yet the film is also touchingly human. For it is equally, and perhaps even more importantly, the depiction of a friendship.

We first meet the two young men (played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) in a long opening sequence in which they are driving through what looks to be the US Southwest. Arvo Pärt’s sparse piano music sets a stately, unhurried mood. Inside the car, neither occupant talks to the other. It’s only later that we realize that they don’t talk because they don’t need to talk: nothing needs to be said. Theirs is a silence of long mutual familiarity.

When the couple do speak, it is in a short-hand born of what is evidently a history of in-jokes that have created something like a private language. They both call each other “Gerry,” but also use “gerry” as a verb with multiple meanings. It’s as though English had too many superfluous words, and they feel they can get by with a pared-down version of the language. Yet their idiolect hardly lacks creativity and humor: they happily come up with neologisms such as “dirt blanket” and “shirt basket” as they try to figure a way out of a predicament in which one of them finds himself stuck on a prominent rock.

They refer to their initial objective, for which they’ve set out on this journey in the first place, as “the thing.” But the point of their jaunt in the country seems to be more mutual silent companionship than any well-defined telos: soon enough they abandon their half-hearted quest, because the thing is just a “thing” after all. It’s not then as though they see more importance to the objects to which words are rather precariously attached. What’s important is a shared affect that lies somewhere between words and things, between their deliberately curtailed discourse and the thing itself.

Gerry still
It’s on the return from their soon-abandoned mission to find the thing that they gradually realize that they are lost, and increasingly so with every attempt to extricate themselves from their predicament. But this realization doesn’t bring with it any reminiscence, confession, or reflection on their lives together or alone. They exchange anecdotes about TV shows or video games. And at the one point at which recrimination or blame seems about to surface, it’s defused with the simplest of ironic denunciations: “Fuck you,” says one Gerry to the other. “Fuck you,” the other replies. And then they walk on, still together.

Even at the last, they maintain an understated humour. The two are lying side by side in the middle of a salt desert whose featureless whiteness carries echoes of polar ice. This could be a contemporary reworking of the last moments of Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition. And one says to the other: “How do you think the hike’s going so far?” “Very good,” the other replies. What follows shortly thereafter is a final embrace whose very finality, we know without (now) needing to be told, is going to haunt the one Gerry who survives the experience for as long as he lives.

See also Thomas Clolus, “Gerry, ou le corps Deleuzien de Gus Van Sant”.

YouTube link: the film’s trailer.


Colonial logic often suggests that the further one travels from the metropolis, the further one returns back to a semi-forgotten past.

ChristchurchThe Commonwealth semi-periphery, for instance, is cast as a redoubt of mid-century English innocence. Writing in The Times, Arnie Wilson cites what he calls “that traditional Kiwi joke: ‘We’re about to land in Auckland — please put your watches back 50 years.'” Victoria, British Columbia, has also been described in similar terms.

In the periphery itself, travelers are apt to find Dickensian exploitation, feudal simplicity, Stone Age barbarism, or even prehistoric lost worlds, depending upon inclination.

Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps (Los pasos perdidos) is a classic narrative of this spatialization of time: its narrator has to undertake a tortuous journey through a maze of Amazonian waterways in his quest to find the origin of music, the primitive foundation of melody and rhythm. At each turn he peels back decades, centuries of time passed and forgotten by “civilized” man.

But, as Mary Louise Pratt shows in her reading of Alexander Von Humboldt’s travel writings, precisely the same gesture positing the Third World as some primal past also frames it as the site from which the future will be born. If Latin America was “a primal world of nature, an unclaimed and timeless space [. . .] whose only history was the one about to begin,” then it could also be envisaged as “point of origin for a future that starts now, and will rework that ‘savage terrain'” (Imperial Eyes 126, 127).

It is because America is our past that it can be, in Hegel’s famous words, “the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World’s History shall reveal itself.”

For Pratt, it is Humboldt who most persuasively and influentially articulates this sense of the Americas as a continent pregnant with possibilities for investment and growth:

On the eve of Spanish American independence and the eve of a capitalist ‘scramble for America’ not unlike the scramble for Africa still to come, Humboldt’s Views and his viewing stake out a new beginning of history in South America. (127)

Humboldt’s portrayal of the American landscape in terms of its dynamism, worked over by the “occult forces” of geology and climate, resonates as much with “industrialism and the machine age” as it does with the “spiritualist esthetics of Romanticism” (124). The region’s immense forests, mountains, and plains constitute a natural factory: a complex mechanism characterized above all by its productivity.

After all, doesn’t Humboldt’s sketch of Chimborazo resemble nothing so much as a nineteenth-century factory, complete with its innards dissected and delineated according to the natural division of labour, and its serrated roof topped by a chimney belching smoke into the blue sky?

Pratt quotes from the Preface to Humboldt’s Personal Narrative, which predicts an age in which:

the inhabitant of the banks of the Oroonoko will behold with extasy, that populous cities enriched by commerce, and fertile fields cultivated by the hands of freemen, adorn those very spots, where, at the time of my travels, I found only impenetrable forests, and inundated lands. (qtd. 131)

And as she notes, in this description of an “ecstatic future counterpart” who will see the results of “rapturous nature” harnessed to industrial commerce (131, 130), Humboldt’s discourse is ultimately affective. “Humboldt sought,” Pratt tells us, “to pry affect away from autobiography and narcissism and fuse it with science” (124).

In the jungles of Latin America–and this is how its landscape differs from the English Lakes or French Alps beloved of other Romantics–affect is envisaged as combining with science and harnessed to capital in the name of a utopian future of industrial enrichment.