by Harlan Kennedy



IT HAPPENED at Cannes in 2003. In the Palace of the Festivals, Gus van Sant walked up to collect the Golden Palm for Best Film for ELEPHANT. Putting one foot in front of the other with artful and practised expertise, until he reached the dais presided over by jury president Patrice Chereau, the American auteur held up the guerdon won for a movie about life, death, horror, revelation and – above all – walking.

In the afternoon of his career Van Sant has gone for an epic constitutional.  His two latest films ELEPHANT and GERRY are both about people going walkies, people practising the ancient telluric art of ambulation. The two-footed activity by which Homo Erectus defined his kinetic difference from his forefathers can also be a mode of locomotion favoured by movie-makers redefining, or reinventing, themselves by getting back to terrene fundamentals.

The earth, or the desert.

The halls, the walkways, the corridors.

Think Wenders and PARIS, TEXAS (another Cannes Golden Palm); think Bruno Dumont and TWENTYNINE PALMS (should’ve been a Venice Golden Lion); think Stroheim and the mazy outdoors of GREED or Welles and the mazy indoors of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. Think of Werner Herzog, in a metafilmic context, walking from Munich to Paris to pay tribute to that Sybil of European silent criticism, Lotte Eisner.

Think of the climax of so many screen action melodramas in which the necessary ritual of Tragic Reductivism manifests itself in the spectacle of two guys deprived of guns, horses or other defensive accessories who must now stand on their feet and fight with furled fists, earthlings planted firmly on the earth.

We also think of upright, uptight Colonel Nicholson doing his liquid-kneed but defiant walk away from the punishment oven in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI; of Chaplin timelessly walking down a road towards the converging lines of ‘The End’; or of those characters in Hitchcock who walk into horror or incomprehension, whether it is Janet Leigh’s boss walking in front of her car for that moment of pivotal puzzlement or those brave but ill-advised snoops who wobblicam towards Norman’s gothic mansion in POV/reverse POV while their safe, safe cars sit too far away for retreat and will later, after their death, be shoved into a pond.

Walkies. Dangerous walkies.

Well, Gus Van Sant knows all about PSYCHO. He ‘wrote the book,’ or more exactly rewrote it. And perhaps his weirdball Hitchcock homage was what helped to get him out of the Hollywood limmo – the chauffeured cumfiness from which he directed the mainstream morality flix GOOD WILL HUNTING and FINDING FORRESTER – and onto the ground again.

For walking movies are also a proud gesture of disencumberment and regrouping. They say, I don’t need trains, planes or automobiles, I barely even need sets, I just need two or three human beings willing to touch the ground and move upon it, to happy or tragic end, of their own vim, virtue and volition.



1.     Elephant Walk


ELEPHANT, we all know, is the story of the Columbine High massacre: although names and specifics were changed to protect the innocent. For the film is about innocence, good and bad. The halls and corridors of a Portland public school are a treadmill for teenagers exercising their legs and minds and also their right to grow up in a cool, uncontaminated detachment from the lives around them, possibly including their own. These are the cloisters of the School of the Immaculate Perception. The motto: ‘See No Evil.’ Everyone is a novitiate in the academy of learning how not to look around.  

The corridors turn corners, double back, intersect with other corridors, play tricks with space and time. Yet – until too late – they never check the forward-looking solipsism of the walkers. There are many forms of perpetuum mobile here. The song without end of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is ladled over two scenes. Time rewinds to replay chance meetings – even though the story seems still to be advancing – as if these deja rendezvous’s are recurring dream-stations on a single forward trajectory. And even when the movie stops walking, to sketch in three schoolgirls who’ve formed a bulimia club and chat happily while throwing up in the school bathroom, or to give an at-home glimpse of the two boys we will learn are the killers, we sense the treadway still moving, off screen, and waiting for us to rejoin it.

Walking is Life, here and in GERRY. And life doesn’t stop. Nor does life’s indifference, whatever obstacles we strew in its path to alert, arouse or imbue it with moral consciousness. In ELEPHANT the walking stops with the killing, yet at the same time it doesn’t. The killers themselves take up the rhythm, they foot on through the halls, canteens, corridors, bathrooms. Like the earlier walkers they subsist on chance meetings as existential feeding-times, only this time the feeding times are literally that, consuming and fatal.

The horror of ELEPHANT is the fresco it paints of a world that hasn’t learned by growing up. Or isn’t learning enough from the very institutions that should aid and enable that growing-up.

Walking in the film is Van Sant’s pessimistic tool for discovering that primitive untutored man still lives under the camouflage of notionally-educated man. We are all prowlers, stalkers, nomads, unfocused seekers of unfocused dreams, however much we affect the combustive purposefulness and armoured vehicularity of a meta-walking epoch. (Is it a coincidence that ELEPHANT begins with a man unable to control the car in which he is driving his son to school?)


‘Education’ – to ‘lead out’ or ‘lead forth.’  But in ELEPHANT we can never be sure whether the command to keep moving is issued by those who would do us good, who have something improving to lead us towards, or just by blind generals of destiny who demand we reenact forever the wanderings – the each-for-himself wanderings – that have been humanity’s lot ever since it first stood on two feet.



2.     Gerry-meandering


GERRY is about two young guys both called Gerry who get lost on a nature trail somewhere in Somewhere. (The film was shot in Argentina, Death Valley and the Utah salt flats. Take your pick). They leave the car, walk a mile or two, try to double back, lose their path, cannot find a way out. Or only one can, finally. The other dies in the survivor’s arms.

As in ELEPHANT, walking is a reduction to motory essence, performed by guys who – again as in ELEPHANT – belong to a modern world that has lost the ancient art of peripheral awareness. Primitive man instinctively scoped the landscape and sensed his bearings. Modern man trying to re-bond with nature is an unfit thing, used only to going forward, whether his view is framed by a car windscreen, the rectangle of a school or office corridor, or the tunnel vision of his ambitions.

But in GERRY, which is as unreal as ELEPHANT is real (or reality-based), the hero/heroes begin to refind  that vastness of vision. Unlike ten-a-penny movies about urban man or woman undone by the wilderness (DELIVERANCE, THE RIVER WILD, BREAKDOWN) GERRY moves its fable to a higher and more exalting mesa altogether.

Yes, these guys are walking into danger. But the film isn’t about the imperilments of the wild. It’s about two guys entering a surreal dimension where they touch history, even prehistory, and become walker-gatherers, hunter-trackers, citizens of All-Time, before separating to track different fates as the future beckons. Even the private slang they speak roams over centuries, cultures, vernaculars. “I almost did succumb, but then I turbaned up”. “I had crow’s-nested up here because you gerried the rendezvous.” One Gerry begins a speech by a nighttime campfire with “I conquered Thebes…” and goes on to explain how he has offended the goddess Demeter.

Crazy movie! Unless we see it as a partner picture with ELEPHANT. Here is another ticking-clock story about timelessness (though a contrasting one). The hours pass semi-realistically – the desert sky lyrically modulates through blues and blue-greys and cloudy mauves and deepening sunset coppers – but there is nothing realistic about the landscape. Now brush-and-cactus desert, now undulant sand-dunes, now rock canyon, now salt-flat, now valley of verdant tumbleweed, it’s like some mixed-up time-lapse fable of geological evolution.

The two Gerries, who at the film’s metaphorical heart are clearly the same Gerry, the grown-up finally sloughing the child as surely as the present and future slough the past, relive a planet’s growth in 103 minutes.

Walking is the simple choreography of this theme-journey through time and change. Dazzlingly simple, because so primal. (Walking is the one thing you don’t do in any self-respecting futureland or fantasyland). In one almost ten-minute take – a shot as defiantly, exultantly minimalist as any in the movies of Hungarian avant-gardist Bela Tarr (Van Sant’s main avowed inspiration here) – the camera tracks alongside the boys’ overlapping profiles as those outlines bob through the landscape with only the scrunch-scrunch of the characters’ perambulating feet for sound.

GERRY is at once more frightening and more affirmative than ELEPHANT. Its characters are genuinely lost, in a vaster and more elemental emptiness, and death is a payoff as certain as the murders in the companion film. But GERRY also celebrates the lost art of being lost. Modern man lives in a signposted world where disorientation is a vanished voluptuousness. That vanishing has taken with it much of both the lyric and the epic. That GERRY is a lyric movie we witness from the poetry of its skies and landscapes. That it is also an epic – with a cast of two – becomes clear as the classical/historical/folkloric invocations sit more and more assuredly in a story that opens up time and space like a voyager probe.



Walking away with the Cannes Palme d’Or


Great film. Two great films. They should dwell together. They should no more be separated than Scylla and Charybdis, Paolo and Francesca, or the zodiacal Gemini.

The 2003 Cannes Golden Palm was for ELEPHANT, but good Gus Van Sant fans will surely regard it as being for both ELEPHANT and GERRY.

It was noticed by many, that May night in southern France, that Gus Van Sant walked away from the prize platform with the happy but laden gait of a man carrying two prizes.

As before, the filmmaker put one foot in front of the other with artful and practised expertise. But walking is an activity in which deep subtexts and smiling subtleties can be read. The slightly bowed shoulders, the tilted-sideways carriage, the tension of the tuxedo’d arms all proved that in addition to a real aureate frond for the trisyllabically titled Cannes competition entry, a ghostly guerdon of equal weight was being transported by the victorious American auteur. 

Gus Van Sant was also now walking in a different direction from the one in which he had walked before.

So is cinema.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.