Sunday, May 29, 2016

Finding meaning

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2003)

Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth isn’t as much fun as you’d want it to be, but it has a persistently anachronistic feel that’s at least semi-endearing. This is evident in the title itself – when did you last see a phone booth? Well, the film explains that we’re dealing with the last one in New York, the day before it’s slated to be replaced. Press agent Colin Farrell picks up the phone, and finds himself talking to someone who knows all about him (i.e. who knows he’s a liar, a cheat, etc.) The unseen voice is nearby, watching, and he says he has a rifle with a telescopic sight – a claim proved true when a nearby pimp suddenly takes a bullet. Now the cops are swarming around the booth, but Farrell can’t get out, because if he does, his antagonist will shoot him too.

Phone Booth

Phone Booth was written by Larry Cohen, who hasn’t directed a movie since 1996’s Original Gangstas. He used to be a prolific low-budget semi-genius, turning out movies with strong concepts, bracing wit and punchy visuals, but also with a fairly high quota of cardboard dialogue and mundane linking material. Phone Booth falls comfortably into the Cohen mould – a great premise that plays itself out in increasingly dull plotting. And, brevity being an essential B-picture attribute, the movie lasts less than 90 miuutes.

Without giving away everything about the sniper’s motivation, Phone Booth seems to be intended as something of a morality tale, about a sinner who gets severely tested and thereby at least partly redeemed. But from what we see of him, Farrell isn’t actually that bad – he’s well within the acceptable scuzziness parameters of Hollywood protagonists.  The movie fleetingly reminded me of the 1930s Hays Code, under which socially unacceptable behaviour had to be shown to earn its comeuppance. The aura of moral scorekeeping is accentuated by Kiefer Sutherland’s casting as the sniper’s voice – delivered in ultra-authoritative tones that never quite seem to be emanating from the world of the movie.

Gus Van Sant’s Gerry ought to be far more interested than Phone Booth in existential contemplation. This film has only two cast members (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) as traveling companions who park in the desert to go and look at some unidentified “thing,’ then quickly get hopelessly lost. Van Sant constructs the film in relatively few takes, many of them lasting several minutes.


Van Sant’s last film was Finding Forrester, just over two years ago. Here’s what I wrote about him at the time:

“Around the time of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant was regarded as a pretty cool director, but I doubt anyone’s too excited about him now. Good Will Hunting was effective enough, but a thoroughly mainstream picture, with sell-out alarms flashing all over it. Van Sant then decided to make an almost shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho – a project of considerable conceptual obscurity. One could certainly imagine how this could have yielded something interesting, and maybe it did, if you take the time to look carefully enough, but the world was otherwise occupied and probably always will be.

Finding Forrester is thematically similar enough to Good Will Hunting that you suspect it’s a variation on the impulse that drove the decision to remake Psycho – except here Van Sant’s remaking his own movie rather than Hitchcock’s, and making it slightly less obvious. Or maybe it’s a disguised commentary on that project, with Forrester playing Hitchcock and (the boy he mentors) representing Van Sant. Whatever. The sure thing is that trying to figure out Van Sant’s decisions is more intellectually rewarding than watching the films themselves.”

All of which still sounds right to me. And now we have Gerry. Van Sant has been positioning himself on the high art road, referring frequently in interviews to Hungarian director Bela Tarr, a master of the long-take approach to filmmaking. He says: “Tarr’s style takes a lot of things that you’ve learned for cinema and ignores them.” As Van Sant points out, long takes are more likely to “force the audience to consider what it is they’re watching, and it also allows time to put the audience into the same space as the characters.”

But that experiment’s been amply tried and tested by now. If the long take and stripped down narrative serve to reveal something of value, terrific; otherwise it’s just an affectation. For example, consider how different Phone Booth would have been, shot in one long take, with the camera never leaving Colin Farrell’s face, and all other characters (not just the sniper) only heard, never seen. The impact of the morality play might surely have been more profound that way. The movie would have been a more existential experience, perhaps more susceptible to multiple readings (as a fantasy, as pure abstraction). On balance, it would probably have been a more interesting film. But, with a little less clarity of purpose, it might also have been the dullest, most pretentious thing you ever saw.

Take me to the meaning

Gerry works along the same lines as that hypothetical alternative Phone Booth, but it’s never clear what Van Sant seeks to achieve through his technique. Those who rate Tarr as a genius (personally, I haven’t seen enough of his work to know) aren’t just yielding to a particular way of moving the camera – it’s about the way his technique reveals something, about ourselves, or the world, or art. When I saw Gerry, the audience seemed to find the movie intermittently comic (although this could have been the over-compensation of people starved for entertainment, as Letterman puts it), with at least two of Van Sant’s scene transitions serving as the cue for a ripple of laughter. In part, this is clearly deliberate: Affleck in particular has some silly monologues, about something he saw on Wheel of Fortune and about some computer game he’s been playing. For a while I thought the movie might be on to something – a knowing deconstruction of youth-speak. But I can’t extract a particularly coherent intellectual direction from what follows.

The film isn’t at all without interest. Visually, it’s often beautiful. The characters’ downward trajectory, enacted with very little overt emotion or recrimination, is inherently fascinating, and Van Sant populates the movie with enough idiosyncrasies to keep surprising the viewer. But when he talks about forcing the audience to consider what it’s watching, I want to throw the question back: did Van Sant truly know what he was making? Of course, inherent mystery, the accidental way meaning is created: these are central to the power of cinema. But a great director would do more to lead us there.

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