“Gerrying the Rendezvous:” Spatialized Time and the Elusive Search for the Point in the Cinema of the Desert
There is such an ambiguity at play in the early moments of the previously mentioned shot from Lawrence of Arabia, which Roger Ebert’s description of the moment emphasizes and which is worth quoting at length for the metacinematic implications it uncovers:
- There is a moment in the film when the hero [. . .] has survived a suicidal trek across the desert and is within reach of shelter and water—and he turns around and goes back, to find a friend who has fallen behind. This sequence builds up to the shot in which the shimmering heat of the desert reluctantly yields the speck that becomes a man—a shot that is held for a long time before we can even begin to see the tiny figure.
This simple description leads directly into a somewhat more profound discussion of the origins of cinema. Ebert’s mention of “the speck that becomes a man” in Lawrence of Arabia recalls Mary-Anne Doane’s discussion of the point as the essence of the photograph, which is itself the essence of cinema. Doane’s theory responds to Henri Poincaré, who argued for the non-actualizable-existence of the point but who saw its usefulness as a geometrical abstraction, and Etienne-Jules Marey, who, in “contracting the image to a point,” while not his intention, provided “the condition of possibility [. . .] for cinema” (Doane 217). Doane argues, however, that “in the cinema, the image as point is precisely what the spectator does not see, what is not accessible. Just as the line conceals its ontological dependence upon the point, the projected illusion of continuity in cinema hides the independent existence of the photogram” (217). Cinema is particularly crafty, in other words, about concealing its own origins; the point in Lawrence of Arabia, therefore, cannot remain a point for long. It must move from the abstract to the concrete form of the man (or else be lost or scattered, which, as we will see, is precisely what occurs in Nostalgia for the Light and Gerry), just as cinema as a whole arises from the photograph by transforming its stillness to motion and its point to linearity. Ebert’s talk of “becoming” also brings to mind Henri Bergson, who asserts that reality is experienced as a “continuity of becoming” rather than “a discontinuous multiplicity of elements, inert and juxtaposed” (171). The same continuity is also essential to cinema, as we can see from Lawrence of Arabia as well as the following examples. Cinema cannot persist in stasis, but must, along with the point, become.
One scientist in Patricio Guzman’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light brings up the fact that light does not travel from its source to our eyes instantaneously. Light from the sun, for example, takes eight minutes to arrive to earth. One thus always sees an image at least slightly mediated by time; everything has past by the time we see and process it. This scientific fact should serve to destabilize even the securest notions of present. We are always involved in a process of becoming and never just are. The point, as posited by Marey and questioned by Doane, cannot, therefore, really exist in a Bergsonian view of the world that entails continuity. Marey aimed paradoxically to study movement by ceasing it from moving, isolating it via chronophotography into discrete slices of recorded time. While this allowed Marey to determine extremes of movements that might not have been readily apparent before the advent of photography, as well as a way to chart the trajectory of a moving object and calculate speed, his phrase “characters of a movement” seems disconnected from reality (54). These “characters of a movement” are precisely what Thierry de Duve had in mind when he explored “the paradox of the unperformed movement and the impossible posture” (115). De Duve notes that there can be no stasis in movement, reality, or events:
- Either the photograph registers a singular event, or it makes the event form itself in the image. The problem with the first alternative is that reality is not made out of singular events; it is made out of the continuous happening of things. In reality, the event is carried on by time [. . .] the discus thrower releases the disc. In the second case, where the photograph freezes the event in the form of an image, the problem is that that is not where the event occurs. (115-16)
Bergson, de Duve, and Doane all seem to be in agreement that there is a fundamental disconnect between the lived experience of time and what the photographic image makes of it; the photograph puts a disturbing halt to temporal continuity and cannot depict events because events proceed and are not locked within static images. Perhaps this is why cinema—even cinema that takes as its subject the clear, uniform space of the desert, where time seems most free to exert its presence without man-made or even much natural distortion—struggles to find its way back to the point (in its many manifestations); there never really was one (in more than an abstract sense). The desert, it seems, can become as temporally and physically obscure as any more topographically complex landscape when it enters the cinematic realm, which creates a mirage effect that often serves to obscure the point in its numerous instantiations.
In Nostalgia for the Light, the desert is established at the outset as an ideal vantage point from which to look in at what lies beneath the surface of the earth, and to look far out at the vastness of the cosmos. The Atacama Desert in Chile, with its clarity and spaciousness, presents the possibility to the real people in Guzman’s documentary of unearthing the past on a personal and astronomical level in order to find a stable present and possibly push toward a future by understanding where we came from. How much can we really uncover though? In Nostalgia for the Light, we experience multiple time-scales, from the deepest recesses of the astronomical past, which are clearly observable and interpretable with the aid of the telescope, to the more recent past, which should be more accessible but which is, in reality, obfuscated by political manipulations. Can that link to the personal past be recovered? The women in Nostalgia for the Light, who search out in the sand for their loved ones killed in Pinochet’s concentration camps during the brutal period of his regime, their body parts strewn haphazardly across the Chilean sands, struggle in vain to piece together the bodies of the deceased and thus their own personal past, which leads to the impossibility of emotional closure. The archive represented by the skeletons cannot be completely reformed (some bones and fragments remain out of reach), pointing to a broader failure of the cinema to adequately capture history and political reality despite its inherently factual basis. Sociopolitical truth, in the form of the bone fragments, gets lost, along with the point, in the illusory, incessantly unspooling mechanics of the cinema.
The point in Nostalgia for the Light is not singular, then, but indeed almost unimaginably multiple and diffuse, represented on screen by the infinite number of stars at which the astronomers gaze and ponder; the bone fragments of the victims strewn about the desert that may be impossible to reconfigure into a whole skeleton, a suitable and total entry in the archive; and even the fine grains of dust and sand that whip about the Atacama Desert and, in a handful of poignantly beautiful shots, twinkle and flit about the frame with glittering intensity as the astronomers and interviewers go about their work. The pointillist multitude embodied by various figures in Nostalgia for the Light points to the irretrievability of the past, at least in its entirety, and yet it is not actually reflected in Guzman’s technique; his shots, rather than suffering from any visual indistinctness associated with this lack of focus, have an almost piercing clarity, and the movements of the camera are always slow, controlled, and steady, never uneasy. Genevieve Yue skillfully sums up Guzman and cinematographer Katell Dijan’s approach as “elegant and exacting,” marked by a “patient gaze” and “steady pans.” Guzman’s precise, slow and steady technique is uniquely well-suited to his topographical subject—the desert, with its dry, cracked earth extending out to the horizon beneath shimmering blue sky and blazing, ferociously bright sun, has its own clarity and its own precision, and exerts its own exacting influence on the life that comes into contact with it.
How do we reconcile the extreme destruction and diffusion of the point in Nostalgia for the Light with the vividness of its technique, wherein nothing seems logically able to hide? If we follow de Duve’s reasoning, Guzman’s technique presents no hurdle at all, and indeed enhances the tragedy of the film’s (and its characters’) likely futile searches for the origin. De Duve asserts that, “the aesthetic ideal of instantaneous photographs is sharpness,” and that, in contrast with blurrier photographs of longer exposure, the snapshot is inherently traumatic: “the photograph is not traumatic because of its content, but because of immanent features of its particular time and space” (119). Its sharpness makes Nostalgia for the Light analogous to the snapshot (“time-lapsed stars” notwithstanding), and, if we follow de Duve’s reasoning, thus serves to amplify the traumatic impact of its futile searches (Yue). Like de Duve’s example of a quintessentially traumatic photograph, a shot of a South Vietnamese general about to execute a Vietcong officer, Guzman’s film deals with acts of politically-oriented killing. Both are deeply unsettling events to consider, but there is another, deeper layer to the traumatic nature of both photograph and film. “Although the traumatism seems to be generated by the depiction of the atrocities of war and assassination,” argues de Duve,
- it depends instead on the paradoxical ‘conjunction of the here and the formerly.’ [. . .] Rather than the tragic content of the photograph, even enhanced by the knowledge that it has really happened [. . .], it is the sudden vanishing of the present tense, splitting into the contradiction of being simultaneously too late and too early, that is properly unbearable. (119-21)
The traumatic nature of Nostalgia for the Light extends far deeper than its explicit content of political atrocities: we watch the film knowing that we are too late to rescue these disappeared souls from their dismal fates but too early to see their loved ones at peace, just like we are too late to save the Vietcong soldier but too early since his assassination has not yet occurred at the moment when the photograph was taken. De Duve’s suggestion that the snapshot represents a “vanishing of the present tense” squares with that aforementioned notion that light always arrives from the past, and thus by the time we see and experience an event, it has already dissipated, obscured behind the veil of time. This is why Nostalgia for the Light is such a magnificently ironic title; light, with its seemingly instantaneous rate of transmission, should be the one thing for which we should not need to have nostalgia, the one thing that cannot be temporally obscured—yet time dims even the brightest, nearest light. The formal sharpness of Nostalgia for the Light, rather than making the retrieval of a stable past—and thus a steadying of the present—easier, only pushes it further out of reach.
The ‘too-late’ need not be considered wholly negative, though; while de Duve gleans traumatic implications from it, Deleuze sees something hopeful and maybe even redemptive about the ‘too-late’-ness of photography and the cinematic image. It can lead to an entirely new way of understanding and appreciating the world. For Deleuze, the too-late becomes “the sign of the time-image in the place where time makes visible the stratigraphy of space and audible the story-telling of the speech-act” (270). If we can navigate these layers and learn from these stories that the too-late reveals for us, we need not feel hopeless but indeed can advance and thus be right on time for life’s next event. In the most basic terms, the ‘too-late’ can slide into the ‘too-early’ and finally to the ‘right-on-time’ as time marches on and loops back on itself. The climactic sequence in Gus van Sant’s Gerry demonstrates just such a process in action, as we are initially unsure whether the dim light through which our protagonists stagger towards the horizon will become a sunset (suggesting they are too late) or into a sunrise (suggesting they are too early). Gradually, it is revealed to be the latter option as the light gets gradually brighter, and, finally, as noon rolls along (the right-on-time, in van Sant’s formulation), redemption arrives, although it is clearly not without trauma. Gerry thus synthesizes Deleuze’s and de Duve’s conceptions of the ‘too-late.’
“Memory has a gravitational force,” Guzman tells us in Nostalgia for the Light, with echoes of Bergson, and indeed, memory, along with time, is given a sense of weight and spaciousness here. The act of recalling the past implies not just the formation of mental pictures here; it involves a more total bodily engagement, sensory processes, and a spatial as well as a temporal dimension. An aging architect—certainly no stranger to the blueprint in his line of work—and one-time political prisoner of Pinochet, memorizes through measurement, sketching out the dimensions of his prison cell and retracing the length and width with his feet in order to better hold onto the memories the terrible experiences that occurred therein. The sensory process of memory in Nostalgia for the Light recalls Bergson’s dictum, “To picture is not to remember;” there needs to be a more intensive bodily process involved in “pure memory,” if such a state can ever be truly approached (173; 170). “[A] recollection [. . .] tends to live in an image; but the converse is not true,” Bergson asserts, and indeed memory and time move beyond and envelop mere images here (173-74). Memory surrounds the characters in Nostalgia for the Light, becoming external to them rather than residing in their psyches; they embody Deleuze’s suggestion that “[m]emory is not in us; it is we who move in a Being-memory, a world-memory” (98). The architect’s retracing of his steps, as well as the searches in the desert show just such movement in a “world-memory.” It is not enough for the women scouring the desert for the remains of their loved ones to simply recall an image of them; they need something more—a physical remnant achieved through their own physical exertion, a purer memory—before closure can be achieved. The astronomers can look far into distance and the past, yet they will never quite find, with any definitiveness, the point they seek—the spatial and temporal origin of the universe. “Science is never resolved,” notes one of the astronomers in Guzman’s film, and science is indeed revealed here to be yet another facet of life caught up in the endless cycle of becoming. Nostalgia for the Light maps time onto its terrain: the deeper into the sand one digs, the farther out into space one looks, the further back in time one reaches. You may not ever quite be able to find precisely what you are looking for, though: these physical retracings may come closer than mental images to achieving “pure memory,” but it is an asymptotic approach that never quite meets its final target.
As in Nostalgia for the Light, a spatialization of time—and a sense of hopelessness at the unnavigability of the archive—occurs in Gerry. Our lost wanderers, both named ‘Gerry’ (identity is evidently blurred here as much as time), are not merely trying to return to a specific location but to a specific time. In doing so, they traverse quite literalized Deleuzean “peaks of present and sheets of past,” yet they are pulled irrevocably, via van Sant’s excruciatingly long takes, into the future, with violent consequences (Deleuze 98). The desert is again set up as an ideal site for spatial as well as temporal discoveries at the beginning of the film (our heroes are quite eager to get to “the thing”—i.e., the end point of their hike—and indeed “everything leads to” that “same place”), but eventually the terrain begins posing devastating problems for the characters who discover that they can no longer find their way back to the starting point. The point remains singular in Gerry, not multiplied and spread out as in Nostalgia for the Light (although it takes on both obvious spatial as well as less obvious temporal dimensions). Instead, the problem for the Gerrys is that the point is obscured by geological formations like hills, mountains, and boulders, as well as the sheer vastness of the topography. In temporal terms, the point remains irretrievably on a sheet of past which they cannot access, to which they cannot return; they must either remain stagnant (in the present) or march forward (to the future), however slowly they might proceed. Indeed, the relentless focus on the point seems eventually to be the very thing that dooms the Gerrys; it keeps them from moving forward towards the future and salvation.
As much as Gerry emphasizes its characters’ hopeless circular movements, it is in this sense an immensely forward-oriented film. Its climactic scene features just such forward motion, described vividly by Devin McKinney: “Little Gerry [Casey Affleck], skinny and spectral, is in the foreground, while Big Gerry [Matt Damon] leads the way to the vanishing point, which is forever vanishing as the shot grinds on and the death march continues” (44-45). McKinney’s mention of “the vanishing point” opens up some compelling possibilities: perhaps in their search for the point, the Gerrys have simply picked the wrong point, and it is merely a matter of reorienting themselves towards this new “vanishing point” that arises towards the end of the film. Yet the fact that it is a vanishing point carries with it sinister undertones. The Gerrys, as they march ever closer towards this new point, are in danger of vanishing along with this point, their bodies not only expiring but merging with their surroundings, enveloped by the vastness of the desert and by the cinematic machinery that contains them.
The threat of death and—worse—complete disappearance is omnipresent in Gerry, permeating various elements of its production. Often, the framing emphasizes the sheer scale of the desert, and the smallness of the Gerrys embedded within it, to the point that they become nearly invisible. The direction of the climactic “death march” has disorienting connotations: the Gerrys, after shambling along for so long from left to right, suddenly reverse course and move from right to left. This is an “inexplicably tense and uncomfortable” reversal that destroys the convention of left-to-right movement earlier established, along with the sense of psychological and temporal* stability this more intuitive staging choice generates in the viewer (Giannetti 104). (Admittedly, the jury is still out on whether or not this left-to-right screen direction only seems more intuitive for Western viewers, given that we read left to right, while many Asian and Arabic cultures read in the opposite direction.) The directional reversal marks a “jam or break” in the “sensory-motor schemata,” and thus this sequence, with its minimal formal embellishments, counts as a “pure optical-sound image” that carries with it an excess of both “horror” and “beauty” (Deleuze 20). The music undergoes a dramatic shift in this sequence; the natural diegetic soundtrack is gradually invaded by gentle, subtle, yet unnerving electronic music, almost reminiscent of a video game-style ‘game over’ theme. (The subtlety of this minimalist electronic score also differs from the earlier, more omnipresent piano melody that was more obviously sombre and despairing; the death march theme seems all but drained of emotion, which makes it, paradoxically, eerier.) The mechanical quality of this music reflects the linear movement through space, which seems, under the stresses of time (the length of the shot combined with the pace of the walking), to turn the Gerrys into machines. In continuing with its spatialization of time, Gerry’s linear death march realizes a linear conception of time that goes hand in hand with industrialized society but is revealed to be tragically out of place in these natural (rather than mechanically constructed) surroundings and under this more fluid, undulating, and circular regime of time.
Under the relentless heat of the desert sun and the relentless duration of van Sant’s takes, time and space infect each other over the course of Gerry to the detriment of its protagonists. This spatiotemporal comingling affects not only the music and staging of scenes, however; it throws identity and language into disarray as well. The language utilized sparingly by the Gerrys matches their circular spatiotemporal motions; consisting of vagaries (the references to “the thing”) and in-joke-like jargon (they often use “Gerry” as a verb to mean “fail” or “mess up”—i.e., when one Gerry fails to meet the other at the agreed-upon place and time, the other complains, “you ‘Gerry’d’ the rendezvous”) that keeps going in circles and does nothing to clarify and keeps the audience from attaining a full comprehension of what they say. (One cannot help but think of Deleuze and his love of the hyphenate, though, when Damon proposes using a “shirt-basket” to make a “dirt-mattress” to help Affleck safely dismount from an impossibly high boulder.) Identity becomes a sort of mirage in Gerry, a site where “the imaginary and the real become indiscernible” (Deleuze 7). Why are both men called “Gerry?” Could there simply be one Gerry, while the other is a mere figment of his imagination? Do the two Gerrys represent two sides of the same identity? Late in the film, there is a peculiar sequence that suggests one of the Gerrys is experiencing an actual mirage: Affleck is seated beside Damon, talking to him, then the camera angle shifts and Affleck is peering ahead at another Damon walking towards him from a few yards off. But who is experiencing the mirage? Is Affleck falsely seeing a double Damon? Or is Damon, the one approaching the two seated figures, seeing a mirage of himself and Affleck? (McKinney seems to conclude that Damon is the ‘real’ Gerry and that Affleck is a figment of his childish imagination that must be suppressed before he can move on, and so would probably support the latter conclusion.) This is a split from the usual form of mirage, wherein a stable subject views an object that blends illusion with reality, since the mirage here erodes even this subjectivity and we are no longer certain who is observing and what is being observed. Mirages become a sort of doubling, wherein the real landscape is observed to be simultaneously itself and an imagined landscape. This doubling extends to Gerry himself, who splits into two when he enters the desert, his real self now coexisting with an imagined self. This is perhaps why Affleck’s Gerry must be killed before Damon’s can find his way out of the desert—the mirage that he represents must cease to exist when the landscape of the desert is at long last transcended. It ultimately does not matter whether Damon or Affleck is the ‘real’ Gerry, and it may even be deliberately impossible for us to ascertain the fact of the matter, since Gerry, in its Deleuzean way, conflates the actual and the virtual by way of the mirage. That the virtual self dies is no less tragic than if the actual self had died, as they are one and the same to cinema.
The actual and the virtual weave together elsewhere in the film. The film opens with a tracking shot wherein the position and focus of the camera suggests the simultaneity of past and present that Bergson suggests is at the heart of our real experience of time, that Deleuze suggests lies at the heart of his “crystal-image,” and that recalls that ever-so-slight delay associated with the viewing of light emphasized by the scientist in Nostalgia for the Light (Deleuze 78-79). ‘Tracking shot’ is a misnomer, actually, since it eventually ceases to track anything, as it moves from showing the moving car in which our two Gerrys travel to the hiking site from behind, then looks at the Gerrys in the car, and then looks ahead at what lies in front of them on the road. This gradual overtaking of the car by the camera shows as much temporal as spatial bravura; it shows the past creeping up on the presence of the Gerrys before looking forward to the future, which they will soon reach and surpass. “The present is the actual image, and its contemporaneous past is the virtual image,” Deleuze tells us, and this is precisely what van Sant’s crystal-image captures, although he goes even further in suggesting a future as the camera zooms on (79). A sped-up ‘instant replay’ of that same opening shot late in the film is revealed to be a dream when the car suddenly halts and Damon is seen standing directly in front of the vehicle, then Damon wakes up. The crystal-image thus expands into a dream-image, and this time, instead of looking forward to an empty future, Damon is front and centre before the camera. In that it presages the outcome of the film’s plot (that Damon is the last one standing, and that he will find the highway again), the dream-image is also a prophetic image, as well as a catalyst for Damon to take action, the ‘actual’ original image virtually doubling and redoubling itself in new directions.
Modern cinema under the regime of the time-image is, for Deleuze, essentially characterized by this sort of ambiguity and doubling, and such uncertainty and duality permeates nearly every aspect of Gerry. Gerry is split into two distinctly observable entities; space attains double meaning in its correspondence with time; time wavers between natural, undulating forms and mechanical, linear, straightforward forms; and the mirage creates a Deleuzean indiscernibility of the virtual and the real. Yet in the real world, this ‘doubleness’ cannot stand, which perhaps explains why, before the film ends and the viewer returns to reality, a single, unified Gerry must emerge, even if it means Affleck’s Gerry must perish and be left behind. “We hate this ‘both’ shit,” according to David Foster Wallace, speaking specifically about David Lynch but also about the doubling potential of the cinema in general, because “it require[s] of us an empathetic confrontation with the exact same muddy bothness in ourselves and our intimates that makes the real world of moral selves so tense and uncomfortable, a bothness we go to the movies to get a couple hours’ fucking relief from” (Wallace 211). Yet far from being antithetical to the function of the cinema, as we have seen, movies are indeed uniquely aligned with “muddy bothness” in their conflation of such binaries as the actual and the virtual, space and time, and the point and the line. It also tends to explode and double seemingly stable concepts like identity, subjectivity, language, and history. Rather than presenting a brief reprieve from ‘bothness,’ Gerry demonstrates that movies can instead serve as a crucible where this ‘bothness’ is ignited and burnt away into singularity. By the end of Gerry, there are no more missed connections, no more ‘Gerry’d’ rendezvous, and the ‘too-late’ has become the ‘right-on-time’ as the two Gerrys finally connect with violence, with only one emerging from the desert and from the endless search through time and space for the point. Yet in the final scene, a rear-view mirror in a car continues the process of doubling. The mirror looks back not only in space but in time and a forward glance becomes simultaneously a backward glance, since Damon’s Gerry is looking forward at the mirror, which looks back at him, and then the camera itself looks back at him. At last, the camera returns to regard the landscape that has proved so perilously double, and the credits roll. In a sense, the landscape finally dominates Gerry even though he escaped it, since it is the last thing we see—his “sacrifice of bothness” leading to “a surrender to nothingness” (McKinney 46). Cinema is either double or nothing. The final crystal-image of Gerry suggests that the doubling impulse of the cinema can never be wholly overcome, and the lingering traumatic sense of an unstable temporality will always remain.
Cinema is eager to hide its origins. The desert-as-spatiotemporal cinematic landscape would seem to allow the viewer a clear path back to the recovery of the point that is the root of the motion picture, yet this possibility is revealed as a mere mirage in Nostalgia for the Light and Gerry. Even in Lawrence of Arabia, which seems to maintain its endorsement of the actualizable presence of the point, not splitting and diffusing it as in Guzman’s film or obscuring it as in van Sant’s, the point is involved in an unstoppable process of becoming; it must be revealed as either mirage or man. As cinema evolves from the early sixties of Lawrence of Arabia to the early twenty-first century of Gerry and Nostalgia for the Light, it gets even further away from its origin. (I have not even had time to mention medium specificity or consider the implications of the digital revolution that occurred between those two dates. Ebert touches on this in his essay on Lawrence of Arabia—he notes that the speck becomes the man far more slowly on TV than it does on the big screen, retaining its ‘pointness’ longer—and Laura Mulvey suggests that the DVD freeze frame might allow us to recapture the photographic root of cinema, the line retreating back to the point. Is this a true return, though, a “look back to the ‘before’ [. . .] of the indexical image, in the changing light of the ‘after,’” or simply another mirage layered atop the previous cinematic devices that gets us further than ever from the point [Mulvey 21]? These are important subjects for another discussion.) The point becomes scattered and diffuse in Nostalgia for the Light, with its stars, infinite in number, and its plethora of unreconfigurable bone fragments. The point is obscured between literal hills and valleys and Deleuzean “peaks of present and sheets of past” in Gerry. Characters in the cinema of the desert look far out, deep in, and all around but cannot recover their spatiotemporal origins. The doubling at the heart of cinema—space simultaneously becomes time; the actual functions at the same time as virtual in the form of the mirage; too late becomes too early; even identity and language comes to operate on two levels—cleverly, cruelly masks these origins. Nostalgia for the Light and Gerry are visited by the spectre of death not only because of their deadly subject matter because of their investment in the cinematic process that covers up its beginnings in favour of a more teleological focus.
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