Not a double feature: Gerry and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Over the weekend I saw two radically different films. Gus Van Sant’s Gerry and Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls are no one’s idea of a double feature. But I enjoyed them just the same – though clearly with two different parts of my brain.

Gerry is the quiet film, as Van Sant noted the first of his self-described “death trilogy.” The more critically acclaimed Elephant and Last Days followed but I think I enjoyed Gerry more than both of those combined. Gerry stars Matt Damon, Casey Affleck (who also wrote the film with Van Sant) and the desert. The two human actors speak little and nothing is explicitly revealed of their past (aside from Affleck’s briefly noted pride at his video game accomplishments.) Gerry pushes the Samuel Beckett buttons a little too hard (the reference to the unnamed “thing” that they search for on a wilderness trail before getting lost in the Utah scrubs) and the film as a whole is lousy with pretension but the actors earnestness and nature’s incomprehensibility are hypnotic. Especially noteworthy is the camera work of one of my favorites, Harris Savides. Static and patient long shots of the sun rising, setting and clouds passing both in real time and sped-up. Profile dolly shots at the speed of the duo’s ever-slowing gait as the days pass. There’s one particularly devastating extreme long-shot wherein Affleck’s Gerry, exhausted and despondent, slows and slumps forward, encumbered by the empty expanse and the beauty around him that may prove to be his end.

The film’s implications of the smallness of man in the larger world isn’t terribly novel but an old idea reinvigorated with this sort of artistry is always worthy. Especially appreciated is the subjective climax of the characters’ journey – an act of malice, love or compassion? It’s up to you. Warning: Don’t see this if you don’t like films where “nothing happens” for tens of minutes at a time.

At the other end of the spectrum, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (or BVD as it’s screenwriter, the critic Roger Ebert, dubs it) is a twisted image of late 60s LA cum sexploitation dominated by some of the fastest cuts this side of a Mountain Dew ad along with head-spinning dialogue and rapid-fire plot exposition.. I’m not really one for most “camp classic” films (the early films of John Waters leave me yawning.) What BVD has that saves it from it’s otherwise muddled self full of plot points dropped midway through and patently misinformed “hippie” cultural references (Ebert says neither he nor Meyer had any depth of knowledge of the counterculture) is the last 30 minutes and Z-Man Barzell (ahem, I mean Superwoman) – a music Svengali based loosely on Phil Spector. Here film goes wonderfully off the rails as characters dress up as superheroes, take various substances, screw and then apparently lose their minds. Meyer denied his actors requests to act as if they were in on the joke, instead insiting on straight acting throughout. This is a tribute to Meyer’s understanding of what I consider the key to the best camp films: earnest acting. (See Tommy Wiseau’s The Room for an even greater example of this tried and true tactic.)

Note that I watched this film while completely sober – its entertainment value is apparent even to the straight observer – no “marijuana cigarettes” required.

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