In the summer of 1999, two young men, driving cross country from Massachusetts to California, stopped to camp for the night in the desert of southern New Mexico. They hiked for several miles into Rattlesnake Canyon carrying three pints of water and a bottle of Gatorade and set up a tent just before dusk. Attempting to return to their car the next morning, they lost their way. When a park ranger found them three days later, one of the two men was buried beneath a pile of rocks, killed by a knife to the heart. The other, faint with dehydration, claimed it was a mercy killing.
It was the sort of story that excites television reporters and feeds the American imagination: a glimpse of desperation breaking through ingrained habits of decency. It gratified a taste for the mythic, assuring us that the west is still wild, nature still a formidable adversary, and modern man still capable of primal struggle. And it tapped into a morbid curiosity. The facts of the case were clear enough, but beyond those facts spread an eerie, impenetrable silence: the silence of the dead, and then the silence of the killer who, even once he spoke, could not quite explain what he’d done.
These pockets of silence haunt the news. Every night at 6 and 10, every morning in the papers, they float up from poor neighborhoods, from freeways and back alleys, out of the bedrooms of unfortunate celebrities, out of gutters and ravines and the ditches alongside dark country roads. These silences hover over distant cities where buses have been bombed and cluster hideously, like clouds, over regions at war. Reporters are trained to fire questions into their depths—How? Why? What for?—and drown them out with information, but they persist.
“Why would a 25-year-old man stab his best friend in the heart?” asked CNN’s Anderson Cooper when interviewing Jason Kersten, the author of a 2003 book on the Rattlesnake Canyon incident. “Murder motivated by jealousy? Or was it a mercy killing brought on by an agonizing ordeal that almost killed them both?”
In the book, Journal of the Dead, Kersten poses Cooper’s questions himself, then pretends to step out of the way, promising to leave conclusions to the reader. Mostly he offers information—chapters and chapters of it, piled on like flowers and snapshots at the site of a memorial. He gives the back story, introduces friends and acquaintances, maps the terrain, prowls the halls of courthouses and law offices, digs for historical precedent, and calls in a panel of experts. Kersten catalogues the items strewn across the ground of the men’s campsite when they were found, and follows the prosecutor down one trail after another in an attempt to uncover a malicious motive. And when Kersten doesn’t have information, he improvises, extrapolating emotions, sensations, motivations, even dialogue to craft a novelistic reenactment of the men’s road trip and their experience in the canyon.
The problem is that none of this brings the reader any closer to penetrating the silence that’s buried under those rocks, or even the reticence of the survivor, Raffi Kodikian, who gave only one interview (on 20/20) and never spoke to Kersten himself. Indeed, in his detachment from the flurry of commentary surrounding the case, the young man comes across less as a protagonist than a foil. When we do hear him speak, in a passage quoted verbatim from court testimony, he upstages Kersten altogether. Heartrending in its clarity, his account underscores the self-importance of Kersten’s prose and gives the lie to his energetic journalistic maneuverings. Read this paragraph and you needn’t bother with the rest of the book:
He said, ‘You know they’re not coming.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I know they’re not coming.’ And he said, ‘So then get the fucking knife.’ So I did, and he said, ‘Put it through my chest.’ I was bawling. He said, ‘Get next to me and put it through my chest.’ He said, ‘Don’t fuck up.’ I got next to him and I pushed it through his chest. But I fucked up and I hit his lung, because when I pulled the knife out, air came out. I told him I had to do it again. And he said, ‘Okay.’ And this time I thought I hit his heart. Blood came out and he said, ‘Pull it out.’ I did. I asked him if he was still in pain and he said no, that he felt a lot better, and he smiled.
I held his hand the whole time. He started getting weak and I covered his face with a T-shirt. And then he died.
Kodikian’s advantage over Kersten as the teller of this story is clearly his proximity to the event in question: the potency of the account is its immediacy. In the urgency of the awful moment, back story falls away; there are no other characters; there is no geographic or physiological explication; there’s little mention even of emotion. What’s left, and what Kodikian conveys with instinctive, almost helpless eloquence, is a pure and profound sense of presence.
Ours is a culture notoriously uncomfortable with death. We’ve minimized and sterilized our rituals for processing it; we pack it away in Styrofoam and plastic wrap at the grocery store; we worship our children and pour our resources into the fantasy of postponing old age. Yet it courses into our collective consciousness with renewed insistence every day. Death in Iraq, death in New Orleans, death in Sudan, Afghanistan, Israel, Indonesia. Death on local streetcorners and in apartment buildings down the block. More death than it seems possible to comprehend.
Traditional journalism processes death rationally and methodically; it contextualizes, investigates, interrogates, and exposes so as to situate death in the broader context of human activity. Kersten’s brand of death journalism does something else: it speaks to the need to understand death personally. Its logic is not political but emotional and psychological. The spectacle of mass death—war, genocide, natural disaster—creates in us a constant diffuse anxiety; we think about death all the time without ever actually contemplating it. What the lurid journalism of the isolated murder or suicide does is attempt to placate this anxiety by concentrating it, by presenting us with death on an individually conceivable scale.
The psychology of dying and killing might seem the province of art, not journalism, but the line between the two has blurred in recent years. News programs narrow to the experience of the individual; they elicit the commentary of psychiatrists and set up pseudo-therapeutic chat rooms. Dramas (on TV and in theaters) mine current and historical events and mimic the pace and character of news shows. Both rely on traditional literary conventions of character and plot and both go about their investigations with the same, standard questions: What is the back story? What was the motive? These are crucial considerations in a political, sociological, or legal context. But for the most part we don’t follow stories of murder and suicide as concerned citizens; we follow them as human beings capable ourselves of killing and dying. We’re drawn to these stories—whether the pseudo-fiction of books like Kersten’s or the pseudo-fact of dramas like CSI, The Shield, and Wonderland—out of fascination and fear, and they cater, ultimately, to both. They indulge fascination by immersing us in images of death, and they contain fear by packaging death neatly in the apparatus of traditional storytelling. Death becomes the apex of a plot, an expression of motivation, the climax of a particular relationship between characters.
Left intact is the essential, nagging problem, the root of both the fascination and fear, the yawning mystery that compelled the telling of these stories in the first place: the essential unknowability of a killer’s motive and the enduring silence of the dead themselves.
Gus Van Sant’s vastly underappreciated 2002 film Gerry, the first in what you might call his “sensationalized death trilogy,” is based on the same incident that inspired Kersten’s book but takes a radically different approach. Like the two subsequent films—Elephant (2003), based on the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, and Last Days (2005), a fictionalized account of the death of Kurt Cobain—Gerry cuts through the shock, the bafflement, the extravagant displays of empathy and moralistic hand-wringing that invariably characterizes Hollywood and the media’s treatment of death-stories by dispensing with the basic conventions of narrative and character. Van Sant does not sensationalize. Instead, in each film we see plot distilled to a single, profound arc: the slow, strange transition of a body from being alive to not being alive. Taking the silence, the mystery, the essential unknowability of death as a given, Van Sant makes no attempt to interrogate or explain. He simply enacts this transition and encourages his viewers to watch.
The result is closer to meditation than to storytelling, and the films are difficult in the way that meditation is difficult, which has made them—Gerry in particular—a hard sell. In a marvelously absurd demonstration of promotional overcompensation, the text on Gerry‘s DVD cover contains no fewer than seven exclamation points. (”[A] suspenseful and highly provocative story of two men pushed to the limit!” “Visually spectacular!” “A Triumph!”) Most critics, however, met the film with a rather unbecoming degree of impatience. Alongside the few positive blurbs the production company was able to dig up, they might have added: “desiccated,” “defiantly uncommunicative,” “an endurance test,” “vague and fraught with bogus allegorical weight,” “an exercise in existential tedium,” a “mumbly mood piece,” “ingenious without being very interesting,” and “ragingly bad art that contributes to a definition of independent film as something no one would want to sit through.” Both responses—the publicists’ compulsion for amplification and the reviewers’ hasty dismissal—not only miss the point of the film but underscore the persistence of what it’s attempting to counteract: our profound discomfort with silence—the silence of the dead being here compounded by the filmmaker’s minimalism.
But set aside the impatience, set aside the expectation of action and revealing dialogue and explication of motive, set aside the need for psychological comprehension and—as in meditation—something else opens up: perception sharpens; habitual responses fall away; time loosens its hold; themes shift and settle into a fresh configuration. Most of Gerry‘s defenders in print have been timid and half-apologetic, allowing that this sort of film isn’t for everyone. But I’m inclined to agree with the user on metacritic.com who declared: “It’s not made for you, but for itself. And it doesn’t have to apologize for what it is. And if you think it does, if that is your attitude, you don’t deserve cinema.”
Because this is cinema in a rare state of purity. Gerry is closer in some ways to the early films of Edison and the Lumiere brothers than to the crime films and biopics that Van Sant’s death trilogy might be classed with today, or even to the filmmaker’s own mainstream movies such as Good Will Hunting and Finding Forester. Van Sant has explained his return, with Gerry, to the art house methods of his earliest films as a result of his desire to return to the use of a small crew, to a more flexible and immediate experience of filmmaking, and one senses this return to the elemental in the bare aesthetic of the films. Their intense visuality recovers a moment in film history when the sight of a train barreling down a track, a dog jumping into the air, a woman feeding her baby, or two men dancing was enough to hold the camera in thrall and fill the theaters. Of course, the moment was short-lived: as the novelty of moving pictures began to wear off, and new technology enabled longer running times, filmmakers turned to narrative—specifically theatrical and literary conceptions of narrative—to feed the audience’s attention. What the film scholar Tom Gunning has called the “cinema of attractions,” a cinema based primarily on “its ability to show something,” gave way in the early twentieth century to a cinema of storytelling, a shift completed by the introduction of sound in the late 1920s.
The cinema of attractions didn’t disappear entirely, but it went underground into avant-garde practices (of the Dadaists and the Surrealists, for instance) while American studios codified what’s now known as the classic Hollywood style. When the studio system began to collapse in the 1950s and ’60s and the dominance of its style began to fade, a new avant-garde emerged in Europe, more visible than any before or since. Godard, Truffaut, Antonioni, Fellini, Buñuel, Bergman—their films varied widely but were generally distinguished by an interest in the dismantling of narrative, the disruption of Hollywood-style continuity, and, above all, in the intrinsic cinema-ness of cinema, manifest in what Pasolini characterized as the “felt presence of the camera.”
It’s Van Sant’s investment in this cinema-ness, in the presence of the camera and the question of what the camera can “show,” that aligns him most clearly with this European lineage, and separates him from so many of his American counterparts. In his death trilogy, Van Sant sets psychology aside, not, one gathers, because it’s unimportant, but because it’s something the camera can’t know. And yet these not are cool and unemotional films—far from it. Van Sant is a sensualist. One of the things the camera can know is the body, and the body can be as emotionally eloquent as the speaking voice, if not more so.
Gerry is about as spare and slow as a film could possibly be while still retaining the semblance of a plot. Essentially: two young men drive into the desert; they park; they walk; one dies, the other makes it to a road and finds a ride out. Mostly, they walk. As one disparaging critic described it: “In the beginning they walk fast, and later they walk slowly. Sometimes they walk on sand, sometimes on dirt, sometimes on hills.” There’s no back story; there are no other characters; there are no internal monologues; we know nothing about the two men’s prior relationship; they carry nothing; and we never know where they’re going—they refer to their destination, which they abandon early on, simply as “the thing.” (“Fuck this,” one says after they’ve been walking for a while. “Fuck the thing?” “Fuck the thing!” “It’s just going to be the fucking thing at the end of the trail—let’s go back.”) There is no apparent rationale for their actions and no clear sense of motivation. Time is ambiguous: sometimes it’s dark and sometimes it’s light; there’s no telling how many days go by.
The men themselves, moreover, have been stripped of nearly every conventional signifier of character. “Not only does nothing happen,” one critic complained, “but it happens to no one.” They have no names, but refer to each other mutually as Gerry, a word they also use to mean “fuck up,” as in “you gerried the rendezvous.” Otherwise they hardly talk, and when they do, their speech is loaded with an obscure private slang.
Gerry is the most rigorously minimal of the three films in the trilogy, but the others are similarly conceived. Elephant follows a handful of students—most of whom are named but only vaguely defined as characters—through the halls of a middle-class high school in the hours leading up to a Columbine-like massacre. Last Days follows a young rock star named Blake around the grounds of his upstate New York mansion in the hours, perhaps days, leading up to his death in the greenhouse studio, presumably from a drug overdose. The key word in all three cases is follow: Van Sant’s camera is quiet, curious, patient, attentive, and persistent. The characters—or, more aptly, figures—are in near-constant motion, ambling through a landscape from which they appear to have become dangerously detached (even the students in Elephant seem aimless, as if no longer bound by a class schedule), and the camera treks along beside like a rapt companion. Back story, motivation, and the other traditional appurtenances of character fall away. It’s the raw presence of these figures that interests Van Sant: their bodies, gestures, expressions, ways of moving, tones of voice—the only aspects of their character, again, that the camera can really know: their cinematic identity.
Sociologically, Van Sant’s focus is notably narrow: the objects of his camera’s adoration are virtually all young white men. It would be tempting to hold this narrowness against him, but for the sensitivity he brings to this particular category of person. No one films young white men more beautifully. Hollywood is full of handsome boys, but in most cases their treatment remains fraught with ambivalence. Pretty sells, but too pretty and a young man skirts femininity, risks sliding from subject to object of desire and losing hold of his claim to the gaze and thus his narrative agency. Pretty boys in most films have action to back them up: women to woo, criminals to prosecute, enemies to battle. Their beauty is passed off as incidental lest it cast doubt on their heterosexuality.
The young men in these films, on the other hand, do very little and the camera follows them anyway, lingering unabashedly on faces, shoulders, limbs, hair, gestures, strides, and expressions in long, uninterrupted takes. The question of the figures’ individual sexual orientation—which Kersten, for instance, goes to great lengths to settle—is not so much obscured as ignored, and masculine and feminine thus cease to function as reliable poles. An inclusive sort of friendship, not exactly erotic but not devoid of eroticism, takes the traditional place of romance in Gerry and Elephant. In Last Days, Blake is alone—the only major figure in the trilogy to be alone—but shifts continually between men’s and women’s clothes, as if dislodged from gender altogether.
Most of Van Sant’s films, from the overtly gay Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho to the buddy film Good Will Hunting, have revolved around male characters, but what emerges here is a consummation: a kind of poetics of young masculinity. Pared down to their most basic elements, though not actually simplified or stylized, these characters have a surface immediacy that gives on the profound. From the banality of their dialogue, a strange lyricism emerges; from their slightest movements, an almost balletic grace. Indeed, Michael Pitt’s performance as Blake in Last Days is closer in many ways to dance than to acting. His movements are slow and subtle and mostly inexplicable, but extraordinarily focused. In the dreamy pouring of a bowl of cereal or the childlike cradling of a kitten, in an absurd Elmer Fudd-like romp through the house with a rifle, in the deliberate changing of clothes, and especially in simple, apparently purposeless motions like the long, slow descent, in the middle of the floor, from standing to kneeling, his body is mesmerizing.
Far from hampering emotion, Van Sant’s rigorous minimalism frees it up. In the absence of distractions, a flicker of expression speaks volumes.
As the two Gerries shuffle through the desert, one (Casey Affleck) begins to flag. They crouch over a map they’ve drawn in the sand, debating the direction of their path so far, and his reasoning begins to skip notes: pieces of information drop out, he stumbles over recollections. With a blue t-shirt turbaned around his head and face, the other (Matt Damon) watches his friend’s disintegration with a hard, blue eye, and the core of sanity that remains there is chilling. He knows that he will make it and his friend will not. Whether the hardness in his eye is pity, grief, compassion, anger or disgust, whether a cold assessment of a dire situation or a dawning awareness of human isolation and the essential, lonely finality of death, is ambiguous—the expression is big enough to hold all of these things. In this moment more than any other, the film’s peculiar monumentality emerges. Though a slight work in many ways, with only two actors, no props, relatively few shots, hardly any dialogue, and a slender 103-minute running time, I think of it as an epic.
We postpone thoughts of death by filling our lives with distraction.
Van Sant’s focus on faces, bodies, words, and, in Blake’s case, music is a focus on presence about to become absence. He knows from the beginning what is going to happen; we know it—we’ve seen these stories in the news; and most of his young men come to know before long. With the tension of suspense removed and the end assured, there is nothing to do but savor time. If you were told you had only twenty-four hours to live, what would you do? You’d pay attention, for one thing.
The deaths themselves are virtually drained of drama: they’re quiet, reverently observed, and oddly peaceful. In Gerry, the murder comes in a single, relatively swift gesture that might just as likely have been an embrace; it’s violent and tender in equal measure. As in Last Days, the weapon involved in the original story (Raffi Kodikian’s knife like Kurt Cobain’s rifle) has been removed: the stronger Gerry simply rolls onto the weaker one and strangles him. In Elephant, the guns are there, but they’re sickeningly quiet: none of the lively rat-a-tat-tat of typical Hollywood gunplay, just a flat, dull, chillingly precise thut, thut, thut. In the first few moments of the onslaught, there is some commotion—girls scream, boys run—but this fades quickly to an eerily placid silence. It is in these moments, with the camera following the two young killers around the school, that Van Sant’s stripping of character is most disturbing. Looking into the face of an unfathomable crime, the imagination gropes for explanations, but Van Sant refuses to ascribe meaning or motive.
Of the three films, Last Days is the most elegiac. There is no murder, no apparent suicide even: just the silent spectacle of Blake peeling away from his life. In the film’s first scene, he treks to a swimming hole, as if to a private baptism. He spends the night in the woods and when he returns it’s clear that he’s already half a ghost. His house is a ruin and the hangers-on who’ve moved in barely see him. The people to whom he should be connected—a wife, a daughter, his manager and bandmates—reach in via telephone, even dispatch a private investigator, but he dodges their grasp. The one time they actually get him on the phone, intending to discuss the details of an upcoming tour, he says nothing. Even Van Sant’s persistent camera keeps its distance. There are only a handful of close ups; Blake’s hair covers his face in nearly every shot; and his voice is an incoherent mumble. His one gesture of real, active, vivid expression—when he sits down in a room full of instruments and plays—the camera records from outside the window, slowly backing away. When he dies, the camera remains outside the door of the greenhouse where he lies. And when the police arrive in the morning, it watches from behind the trees.
Everyone wants into the life of a rock star. But the rock star, in this case, wants out, and Van Sant is content to let him go. As we watch from outside the door of the greenhouse, he literally rises out of his body, naked, unmistakably reminiscent of a painting by William Blake (surely his namesake), and ascends what appears to be a ladder. The moment should be corny but isn’t, quite. Blake is the only character in the trilogy to die alone, which gives Last Days a pathos the other films don’t have. It was the best received, at least among American critics (Elephant won the Palme d’Or at Cannes), and is probably the most fully realized, all in all. It is also the saddest. What develops over the course of the three films is not insight but compassion. Faced with the silence of death, Van San eschews the furious psychologizing of death—journalism and mainstream filmmaking, resists the desire for explanations and justifications, and simply gazes at an open mystery, leaving it intact. There is none of the hysterical static that typically overtakes our discourse about death. Van Sant’s “death trilogy” is a meditation in the literal sense of the word. These are films are not about reading or speculating; they don’t answer questions. They simply illuminate by watching. That’s what cinema can do.