The Echopeople: Reflections on the Concept of Echolocation in Gerry: Part 2

by Randolph Jordan Volume 7, Issue 3 / March 2003 30 minutes (7457 words)

Echolocation: choreographing a formal metaphor for cinema itself

Gerry can be understood as a joining of the concepts of echo and location. The film explores various manifestations of reflection and recontextualization through the positing of two lost souls trying to find their way in a disorienting spatial environment. The film follows them through a formal strategy of blending the two characters together at certain points and isolating them in others, a strategy echoed by the treatment of sound and image in the film. The metaphor of choreography works very well when considering the dance that the two Gerries perform around one another throughout the film, the dance of the camera around them, and the dance of sound and image around each other. Walter Murch says it best:

Image and sound are linked together in a dance. And like some kinds of dance, they do not always have to be clasping each other around the waist: they can go off and dance on their own, in a kind of ballet. There are times when they must touch, there must be moments when they make some sort of contact, but then they can be off again. There are some films where the contact is unbroken: the image leads and the sound follows – it never deviates from what you actually see, what is directly indicated. Other films are way out there – what you are hearing has only the smallest physical relationship to the image. Yet there is – there has to be – some kind of connection being made, a mental connection. Out of the juxtaposition of what the sound is telling you and what the picture is telling you, you ( the audience) come up with a third idea which is composed of both picture and sound and resolves their superficial differences…The relationship is always shifting, though, in any film. Sometimes it is very close and then it will open way up and the sound will do something completely off the wall, and then zoom back in again. But that’s where it starts to be like a dance. I mean, they’re dancing together and then they go off, and then they come back, and cross, and go in different directions again 1 .

Murch might has well be describing Gerry – not only in terms of image/sound relationships, but in terms of the relationship between the two Gerries themselves, and the trajectory of the narrative which has them constantly moving apart and coming back together, and finally going in completely different directions once and for all (or perhaps finally travelling together as one being).

Thinking of the two Gerries as stand-ins for sound and image is facilitated by their characterizations. As Donato Totaro observes, Damon’s Gerry is positioned as the dominant male figure who takes charge and decides the courses of action throughout the film, while Affleck’s Gerry puts forth more stereotypically female qualities of passivity, sensitivity, and even a possible predisposition towards dementia 2 . Joachim Ernst-Berendt notes: “To the ancient Chinese, the eyes constituted a yang type of sense organ: male, aggressive, dominating, rational, surface-oriented, analyzing things. The ears, on the other hand, are a yin sense: female, receptive, careful, intuitive and spiritual, depth-oriented, perceiving the whole as one” 3 . The fact that both the yin and yang characters in the film are gendered male further suggests that these two realms can be understood as being part of the same thing – a suggestion that could be made of sound and image in the context of the cinema as a whole.

Composing: Music

A useful way of approaching cinema from a holistic perspective is to extend our understanding of “music” to envelop the entirety of cinema’s audiovisual relationships. I will be running the risk of further engaging in the ongoing application of musical concepts to the study of film, which theorists like Rick Altman and Michel Chion have tried to move away from in recognition of the limitations of Western music theory in understanding the complexities of the totality of film sound. Indeed, Western music theory is not a particularly useful model for application to film study. However, as David Bordwell suggests in “The Musical Analogy,” there is a persistent desire to think in musical terms when discussing film. While acknowledging the pitfalls of drawing on Western music theory, he notes that there is also a very good way to understand music such that it does justice to the complexities of the totality of film sound, and to the totality of sound/image relationships within film as well.

Bordwell draws on Noël Burch’s correlations between certain cinematic forms and the concepts of atonality and serialism. Basically, serialist composition argues for a form that treats all its elements as equal, instead of engaging in the hierarchy of melody and accompaniment 4 . Bordwell describes Burch’s suggestion that, in the serialist vein, film be considered “an organized interaction of all pertinent dimensions, a cellular structure” 5 . The major implication of this idea is that in such a governing system no one element need dominate another. As we know, the image in film has dominated since the medium’s birth. Within the soundtrack, dialogue has dominated. Within the form that image and sound take on, narrative has dominated. Bordwell suggests that filmmaking and film analysis alike would benefit from a more holistic understanding of the medium where all elements are treated with equal importance.

But he poses the question: “What particular principles will organize the entire work? If no hierarchy determines the function of each parameter, what makes the work distinguishable from disorder?” 6 . Burch’s answer: “open form.” Bordwell describes Burch’s conception of open form as follows.

Burch conceives each parameter as an opposition: hard focus versus soft, spatial continuity versus discontinuity, direct sound versus studio recording, and so on. If we grant all these parameters equality, we can combine them in strictly varied ways. One scene can use soft focus, discontinuity editing, and direct sound; another scene can retain direct sound but use hard focus and continuity editing; a third scene can retain sharp focus but use continuity editing and studio sound. The result is a rigorous combinatoire that resembles the variation form in its “repetition, alternation, elimination, progressive proliferation 7 .

If ever there was an open form film by this description, Gerry is it. As I will illustrate, the film alternates between a variety of differing approaches to sound/image relations throughout the film, as though rolling through the options available and examining their potential for combination and recombination on both formal and thematic levels. So it is no surprise that the music Van Sant selected for the film was composed out of a conscious effort to pursue some of the very serialist ideals Bordwell suggests would make for a more equitable cinema within Burch’s conception of open form.

While not strictly serialist, Pärt’s two pieces in the film do take minimalist principles as their foundation. Minimalist composers in the vein of Steve Reich and Philip Glass were interested in the distillation of music down to its most basic components, and then experimenting with what could be accomplished through the exploration of these components – these basic ideas can be seen in the film works of Michael Snow as well. Antony Pitts explains Arvo Pärt’s thinking leading up to the composition of Für Alina (the second of the two pieces found in Gerry):

[He] began to understand afresh the vast sonic possibilities within a single note, and the importance and omnipresence of the simple triad (a chord of three notes). These two discoveries were first made public in the tiny piano piece Für Alina (1976), where one voice moves by step from and to a central note, first up then down, and the other voice articulates the three notes of a triad 8 .

Out of this compositional strategy emerged Pärt’s tintinnabuli principle, which, in the composer’s own words: “is the rule where the melody and the accompaniment (accompanying voice)…is one. One plus one, it is one – it is not two” 9 . Thus the choice of Für Alina for the film starts to become clear, especially when considering another of Pärt’s statements: “I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener” 10 . Indeed, the connections we make between sound and image in film are the result of our own perceptual processes, or "spirit." I believe the same can be said of our perception of the two Gerries in the film. Van Sant presents them, but it is up to us to decide if they should be understood as one, as two, or as a combined metaphor for the dance between separation and unity that puts their simultaneous singularity and plurality constantly into question. Pärt’s connection to serialism is made clear here as well. The lack of hierarchy between melody and accompaniment, the two becoming one, is one of the primary tenets of the serialist approach. As we will continue to discuss here, Gerry is very much an open form film in the way that it posits dualities that continually alternate between sameness and difference, exploring the ways in which things often kept separate can come to be understood as one and the same.

Both pieces used in Gerry are found on Pärt’s CD Alina. In his essay “White Light,” found in the liner notes to the ECM New Series release of Alina 11 , Hermann Conen responds to Pärt’s evocation of the prism by noting that it can not only refract the singleness of white light into its constituent components, but also bring these components back together. He suggests that the role of the second composition on the Alina disc, Spiegel im Spiegel (the piece that opens Gerry), serves as a prism which both refracts and reconfigures Für Alina. On the disc, two variations on Für Alina are sandwiched between three renditions of Spiegel im Spiegel. So a formal pattern of alternation between versions of the two compositions is set up as the structure for the disc as a whole. Conen finds this structure interesting given the dissimilarities between the two pieces. Though both composed in the tintinnabuli style, Conen suggests that this similarity serves to throw the differences between the two into stark relief. First, there are the most basic oppositions that find the major key duet of Spiegel im Spiegel giving way to the minor key solo of Für Alina. But more importantly for Conen is the contrast between the stringent tempo of Spiegel im Spiegel vs. the temporal indeterminacy of Für Alina. So the two pieces act as reflections of one another, their differences being the recontextualizations that an echo might undergo after separating from its source, while in some respects remaining true to that source all the while.

Let’s examine how the similarities and differences between the two pieces relate to their usage in Gerry. Their similarities are grounded in the tintinnabuli principle, which is relevant to the way that the film seeks to maintain a unity between form and substance, the two Gerries, and, as being discussed right now, sound and image. The differences in the two pieces as outlined by Conen are also echoed in the film as part of this integration between music and visuals, neither accompanying the other but both existing as parallel explorations of the same things.

First of all there is Spiegel im Spiegel string and piano duet that opens the film, juxtaposed with the Für Alina piano solo which occurs much later. The opening shots of the film suggest a duet in more ways than one. The very first shot has the camera following the car driven by the two Gerries before we get a close look at them. Right from the outset there is a feeling of dual presence. As Peter Rist observes, this opening shot gives us the feeling that the camera is the point of view of a following car: “Normally, in a situation like this, we are meant to experience the view like an invisible observer, but, in this case, I became very aware that I am being put in the position of “travelling,” so that when, finally, there is a cut to a reverse angle shot looking at Damon and Affleck (now clearly recognizable) through their car windscreen, I felt cheated that no following car was visible” 12 . This reversal of axis is the first of many throughout the film which, as already discussed, set up the themes of echoing, alternation, and spatial discontinuity that are so important to the film. In this instance, the axial shift disrupts one duet in order to present another: the duet of our two Gerries driving the car. Indeed, the opening shot feels like a dual presence: one car following another. This dual presence is maintained throughout the film, yet Van Sant shifts the way the presence is represented – and this first cut is the primary example of how these shifts occur. Just as the two Gerries are continually being positioned in ways that bring them together and break them apart, so too does the film regularly posit the audience as an implicit presence only to have that presence removed through cinematic sleight of hand. This is achieved primarily through the cinematography, which at one moment has us keeping pace with the hiking duo from across some bushes as though we were stalking them, only to have the next shot remove us to a vast distance, peering at them from a decidedly less participatory wide shot encompassing the grandeur of the landscape and their miniscule stature within it. However, as will be shown in the next section, the sound also plays a big role in this alternation between audience engagement and distanciation.

“Für Alina”

As the film progresses, the initial togetherness of our heroes gives way to longer instances of separation as they scout individually for a way out of the desert. Their emotional separation also grows stronger throughout the film as their mental states begin to deteriorate. Für Alina, the second piece of music, arrives just as they try to retrace their steps up to this point. After a bit of brainstorming on the matter, the two are presented in shots that emphasize their isolation from one another more than at any other time in the film. Damon’s Gerry is shown sitting alone, which then cuts to Affleck’s Gerry standing awkwardly in a wide shot that suggests his own aloneness in the desert. He is then shown seated as the camera moves 360 degrees around him, followed by a 360 degree pan of the empty desert landscape, Damon’s Gerry nowhere to be seen. These shots emphasize the idea of one, as does the music here. Not only is Für Alina a solo piano piece, it is structured such that two notes are always played in unison, simultaneously emphasizing their duality and singularity.

These two 360 degree shots remind me of Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale, which itself is a film that embraces the simultaneity of singularity and plurality. The film is named after the camera mount which is the central region of the film. This central region is never shown, but its presence is most certainly felt. As with the opening shot in Gerry, the camera makes itself known through the way that it presents its subject. In the 360 degree shots, Van Sant begins by showing the central region, in this case Affleck’s Gerry, followed by the perspective embodied by that central region. Perhaps Affleck’s Gerry is ground zero, and it is Damon’s Gerry that is constantly circling around him. There is a universe in which all the action in the film could be represented in this manner. However, as it stands, Van Sant would have us alternate between the two Gerries as occupants of the central region so that we are never quite sure who is coming and who is going, if either.

The shots immediately following the conclusion of Für Alina take the piece’s principle of simultaneous singularity and duality a step further. The two Gerries are shown seated side by side, with a third figure approaching in the distance. Two successive shots, one from the rear and one from the front, begin with the two-shot and pan to isolate Affleck’s Gerry in the center of the frame. In the second of these shots, the third figure enters the frame, revealing himself to be Damon’s Gerry, followed by a reverse angle shot which confirms that Affleck’s Gerry is actually seated alone. This is the most overt suggestion of the possibility that one or the other of them may indeed be undertaking this little adventure alone, and talking to himself to fill the void left by the “despair of uniqueness.”

The second major distinction that Conen draws between Spiegel im Spiegel and Für Alina is their difference in temporal rigidity. The opening piece has a distinct metre, while the second does not. The use of these two pieces at their given points in the film is very interesting given this difference. Gerry is surely concerned with temporal indeterminacy; taking a long take aesthetic as it does, the film deliberately juxtaposes the real time feel of this approach with its obvious lapses in time which have our heroes wandering through the desert for two or three days – perhaps. So it is significant that the film begins with the strict though lyrical tempo of Spiegel im Spiegel in conjunction with a few very long takes of the initial highway drive suggesting real time. Then, over an hour of screen time later, after we have passed through various ellipses and confusions, and when the identity and perhaps even existence of the characters begins to break down, Für Alina is brought in with its temporal ambiguities. It is no accident that the very first notes of the piece are heard in direct conjunction with the first of what I will call the “highway flashback” shots. Whether or not they are flashbacks in the usual sense of the word is unimportant. They are, clearly, subjective memory shots of driving through the desert, and occur in conjunction with the two Gerries trying to remember from whence they have come. The highway shots are presented in time-lapse, mirroring their discussion which yields conflicting memories of how much time they have been wandering around. The act of remembering itself can also be understood as a time-lapse where many hours and days are recalled in the space of seconds. These temporal variations and indeterminacies are well positioned in conjunction with the music here.

Further, as Conen observes: “an additional point of [temporal] indeterminacy is introduced by the fact that the pedal point struck at the beginning combines with the other sounds to produce humming overtones and shadowy resonances in the piano” 13 . The idea of humming overtones mingling with each other as the piece progresses highlights the central concern of this paper: the echo. Memories are echoes of the past being recontextualized by the present. Again, Für Alina’s structure incorporates this idea of echoes of the past mingling with the present through the use of the pedal, and in so doing is all the more significant a musical choice for this section of the film, strongly suggesting that the two Gerries are shadowy resonances of each other. This conjunction of music and visuals also brings together the concepts of echo and location more clearly than anywhere else in the film. They struggle to ascertain their location in relation to their point of origin, and they draw on echoes of the past to do so – echolocation.

A final note about the music should be made about the importance Pärt places on the simple triad as a foundational structure in music. As Pitts describes, Pärt explores the concept of the triad in Für Alina by having one of the two voices articulate three-note configurations suggesting the ubiquitous triad. The triads here are presented one note at a time, yet the concept of three is always present. This calls to mind the idea of the third mind, that new entity created out of the juxtaposition or crossing over of single elements. This is not unlike Murch’s suggestion that the conjunction of sound and image must always create a third idea in the audience’s mind out of the simultaneous processing of the two individual elements. This “third idea” is, I believe, present in the film through the interactions of the two Gerries; there seems always to be some third presence there, either through them crossing over one another or in the sense of presence Van Sant’s camera sometimes allows us through its movement and positioning. If we buy into my reasoning that the two Gerries be considered metaphors for the interaction between sound and image in the cinema, then the “third idea” might be that middle ground we occupy between their dance around each other, just as we occupy the middle ground between sound and image and must put the two together before we can understand the totality of the experience cinema offers us. Such abstractions aside, the film does present one particular instance where “the third” is manifested very concretely on screen: the shot that has the two Gerries seated side by side with a third Gerry approaching in the distance. This is the nexus of the film’s articulation of the triad, and it comes just after we hear Pärt’s exploration of similar concepts in Für Alina.

Designing: Sound

So what is the difference between composing a piece of “music” and designing sound? Not very much, if you ask me. The sound design for Gerry by Leslie Shatz is a case in point. The progression of sound in the film not only works perfectly with the concept of echolocation that I have been building here, but also moves quite consistently from ambient soundscape to a finale that seems much more “composed” – as a piece of music might be. But before we get any deeper into Shatz’s sound for the film, let’s try to get a handle on the word “compose.” Like “Gerry” itself, the word “compose” seems to be a somewhat ambiguous term. If we go back to the latin – where “com” means “together,” and “pose” means “to put” – we have a basic understanding of composing as “putting together.” In this most broad sense, there is scarcely a thing on Earth and above that isn’t a composition of one kind or another. This is the way I would have it, so that we might recognize the beauty of compositions all around us, whether in the chemical sense, or, more typically, in terms of art. Western music theory has elevated the notion of composition to some kind of “putting together” of notes that denies the potential for other materials, like blocks of sound that cannot be notated, to be equally composed. This is the central debate around sampling in the electronic music world today. To take bits and pieces of existing recorded material and put them together in ways different from their original configurations is not understood as “composition” in the same way that taking existing notes and putting them in some new order is deemed to be. Film sound is one of the key areas that has the potential to break us free from ideas about Western musical composition and recognize the putting together of sound for film as no less of a compositional act than designing a symphony. In either case it is up to the composer to do something interesting or not. What Leslie Shatz and her mixer, Felix Andrew, have done in Gerry is interesting, to say the least.

Composing sound for film is very much akin to the kinds of processes used by sample artists in the music world. Bits of recorded sound are taken and mixed together. This basic process is in line with the principles of the echo that I have described here. Van Sant’s practice of homage is a kind of sampling, practiced for a similar effect to that sought by many sample artists: simultaneous recognition and defamiliarization of the bits and pieces put together – the familiar made strange. From the very outset, Leslie Shatz’s soundscapes for the desert environment are at once realistic yet subtly bizarre. Take the first few minutes of the hike as an example. Just after diegetic sound is eased in towards the end of Spiegel im Spiegel, we are confronted with the sound of the Gerries’ footsteps, oddly loud in comparison with the ambient soundscape which at this point is almost silent. As soon as they pass the Wilderness Trail sign and begin the first of the crossing over shots described above, the soundscape becomes very rich indeed. The sounds are hard to place. There is a kind of rumbling/whooshing that could be distant thunder, or a nearby waterfall, or even traffic. In the following shot, a host of birds and crickets seem to erupt out of nowhere, and end just as quickly. Very often the soundscape will be very present in one shot, and cut out completely with the next. This is often in conjunction with a visual cut that changes the landscape, yet also seems odd at the abruptness.

The most striking example of this comes in a three shot sequence which occurs just after Affleck’s Gerry is chastised for crying, and then descends from their hill to be followed by Damon’s Gerry. After Damon’s Gerry has caught up with his partner, there is a cut to the most darkly lit shot of the film. The two are barely visible as they walk, but their footsteps are very loud amidst the nearly complete silence of the rest of the soundtrack. Then cut to a wide shot of the two from the rear as they continue to walk. Suddenly there is a fullblown ambient soundscape while their footsteps have been completely silenced. Then cut to the third shot – the Satantango shot – where the camera follows the two as they march with a gale force wind howling at them from the rear. The sound of the wind dominates, yet here their footsteps are again audible. While there may be causal factors for the differences in the presence of the footstep sounds, given the changing terrain of the three shots, there is also clearly a logic behind the sound here that defies strict representation and seeks more to illustrate the disorienting spatial environment in which they have become increasingly immersed up to this point.

There is another moment in the film which seems to directly address Noël Burch’s description of open form. The moment I speak of posits a juxtaposition between location recording and post-production sound design, just as Burch suggested might be the case in an open form film. When our heroes are discussing whether or not they should follow the animal tracks to water (or the mating grounds), the sound is dominated by their dialogue. There is very little in the way of ambient soundscape, save for bursts of wind that can be heard crossing the microphone creating the kind of wind distortion that is usually considered unacceptable for professional productions. It is a very raw wind sound, and occurs in tight synchronization with the visible effects of the wind on their clothing. The next shot, however, cuts to a wide angle of the two walking in what seems to be a similar environment, yet the theatre fills once again with the nuanced and highly polished kind of soundscape that we have heard in several spots throughout the film. The difference between the two is striking, and I can’t help but think of this as a deliberate juxtaposition between two approaches to film sound that is yet another illustration of the differing perspectives that find a mutual home here. As well, this is an example of the kind of alternation between formal approaches that the film explores throughout, lending weight to our consideration of Gerry as an open form film.

This strategy calls a few things to attention. First of all, there is the tendency in mainstream Hollywood film to bridge visual cuts with sound that flows over them. Abrupt simultaneous cuts in both sound and image are not the norm, especially not when the cuts are to similar environments. A cut from a daytime street scene to an interior at night would facilitate such a direct sonic cut, but not from one part of a street to another. So the sound here serves to highlight the fact that the desert is not a consistent environment at all – and the visual representation of it certainly attests to that fact.

It is in the representation of space through sound that the clearest links to Tarkovsky can be found. I think particularly of Stalker, a film that posits the journey of three men through a space that is in constant flux. Tarkovsky frequently used soundscapes that change from shot to shot, and sometimes even within a single shot (like in the bunker next to “the room” when the relative silence suddenly gives way to the sound of birds chirping, or when the men move across the waterfall which uttered not a peep until it was in the camera’s view). He also presented dual points of view, showing the characters in long wide shots while having the sound of their footsteps in auditory close-up (like when they first start to move in the zone after disembarking from the handcar). These strategies, examined in some detail by Andrea Truppin 14 , posit a space that shifts around the characters – or conversely a space that is perceived by multiple characters simultaneously. Either way, the sonic representation of the space suggests its instability.

This is certainly the case in Gerry as well. Our heroes get lost next to a major highway and a trail that should be fairly easy to keep track of. Okay, so perhaps they’re just idiots. More importantly for the film, however, is the fact that they get lost in the context of this ongoing suggestion that they are one and the same, yet occupying different spaces in relation to one another. This dual substance of Gerry is an ideal way to suggest the simultaneous co-existence of multiple perspectives. In fact, dual perspective is what makes stereoscopic vision and echolocation possible. We need two eyes to perceive depth. So it is with sound. The bat finds its way in the dark by projecting sound, then perceiving its echo in three dimensional space through the use of both its ears. The two Gerries are somewhat like this, echoing each other as they try to use their duality to find their way out of the desert more effectively.

A key example of this comes when the two decide to split up for the first time, and then reunite. They each climb a hill and then face each other, bouncing their ideas for further scouting off of each other, Affleck’s Gerry repeating in paraphrase the instructions put forth by Damon’s Gerry: “higher hilltop, find the spot, or fuck the spot, meet there.” When Affleck’s Gerry doesn’t find anything on his scout, he then returns to what he thinks is the spot, only to find nobody there. Further scouting, calling “Gerry” as he goes, he then finally reconnects with his partner in a canyon ravine. Further establishing their status as echoes of one another, reverb does not enter Affleck’s voice until he makes contact with Damon. As soon as he sees his friend in the ravine, an echo accompanies his voice which is reciprocated by the other. There is a diegetic cause for this echo, since it is calling into the ravine that creates the reverberation. However, it is also a significant symbol of their echoic relationship to one another.

There are two other key moments in the film involving the voices of the two Gerries as they relate to the notion of one echoing the other. The first comes in the series of shots following the completion of Für Alina that present the two Gerries seated next to each other, with a third figure approaching in the distance. Damon’s Gerry has his head in his hands, “turbaned up” with his t-shirt, and thus blocking our view of his face. Affleck’s Gerry is in the process of telling him that they should go, because he knows where both water and the car are. Damon’s Gerry responds to his partner in single word utterances, his voice very restrained, almost whispering. At this moment the voices of the two Gerries are almost indistinguishable; there is only a hint of a lower register on Damon’s Gerry which is not in keeping with the way his voice sounds at most other points in the film. Indeed, the difference is made clear following their interchange here when the third figure approaches and says: “It was just another fucking mirage.” The figure is then revealed to be Damon’s Gerry, the voice matching what we expect from this character. This sequence suggests that Affleck’s Gerry was actually seated alone, conducting a discussion with himself, or perhaps with a reflection of himself as some sort of mirage. This idea is further supported by the fact that we could not see the face of Damon’s Gerry while he was shown seated, the voice maybe not having come from him at all, and perhaps existing only in Affleck’s mind. The similarity of the two voices from the seated Gerries, contrasting with the sound of the voice supposedly coming from the standing Gerry, is a clear example of how the film uses sound to suggest the blurring of the boundaries between the two characters, and is another formal exploration of how the two may be understood to be reflections of one another.

The other important vocal moment in the film comes when the two are lying on the salt flats. They have a brief verbal exchange, consisting of Affleck’s Gerry asking “how do you think the hike’s going so far?” followed by Damon’s Gerry responding “pretty good.” Again, their voices here sound almost identical to each other in their weakened states, a fact which further supports the two-in-one line of thinking. But in addition to their similarity, there seems to be a slightly strange quality to the voices beyond their crackly dehydrated texture; it sounds very much like each individual voice is actually two, pitched slightly differently yet played simultaneously to create a subtle sense of doubling. While I can’t prove this and may well be reaching here, this technique has been used quite often in the cinema, usually to thicken up a sound. Certainly, such a doubling up of the voice would be perfectly in keeping with the simultaneous unity and separation – as exemplified by the double note approach of Für Alina – that has been the ongoing theme examined here. Each Gerry is a unique entity, yet embodies two souls at the same time. This vocal interchange is their last before the two finally do become one, so it seems fitting that such an effect of doubling would be applied to the voices here to further emphasize the ongoing tension between their uniqueness and similarity.

Sound plays an important role in the film’s representation of memory as well. As discussed earlier, Pärt’s Für Alina comes in as the two Gerries are trying to remember which way they have come. They are one, but they are also two; the two Gerries have differing perspectives on what has transpired, and so we have a full on stereoscopic memory tracing of the events leading up to that moment in the film. With the time-lapse highway shots, driving becomes a visual metaphor for tracing the pathways in the mind. So it is no surprise that sonic representation of driving becomes an important element towards the film’s end. Aside from the brief moment at the end of their initial drive when we hear the tires on the dirt road, no directly identifiable car sounds have been heard. It is not until the salt flats, after the two have collapsed and Affleck’s Gerry has given up the ghost, that something resembling a car engine is heard. As Damon’s Gerry lies unconscious, more time-lapse highway shots are seen, only this time they are accompanied by a stylized motor sound – like something out of one of the many video games our heroes seem to play. After a few shots racing down the road, Damon’s Gerry appears in the distance and the car whose perspective we are seeing pulls up to him and stops (in a shot uncannily similar to one from Lynch’s Lost Highway when, during the metamorphosis sequence, we get a POV driving shot which pulls up to a stationary Pete Deighton (Balthazar Ghetty) at the side of the road). The sound, however, carries on into the next shot, which is a pan across the salt flats up to a close-up on Damon’s face as he lies. The stylized motor gives way to a different motor sound as he opens his eyes. This new sound is not identifiable, though it is distinctly a motor of some kind, perhaps that of a small go cart or even an ultra light aircraft or lawnmower.

It is impossible to know if the sound is diegetic or not, but given its contrast with the highly stylized video-game car sound, it seems to be something that could come from the represented environment. Its potential as diegetic sound is further enhanced by the fact that the video-game motor sound gives way to the new sound just as Damon’s Gerry opens his eyes, suggesting a transition from dream sound to real-world sound. Given this sonic transition taking place with Damon’s Gerry moving from unconsciousness to consciousness, one might suspect that the highway shots and racing car sounds here take place in a dream state. Not that it is particularly important whether or not he’s dreaming, since the whole film could be nothing more than a reverie. But it is the first time that either character is shown unconscious, and it is also the first time that highway driving shots are accompanied by driving sounds. They say that dreams are the mind’s sorting out of the events of the day. So it would make sense that sound and image are finally unified here, at the same time that the two Gerries have finally become one. That the highway turns out to be right next to where the two collapsed gives causal credence to the motor sound that has infiltrated Gerry’s dream, as well as having woken him up. So the soundscape of the film finally makes sense, their location in relation to the highway finally established, and the game finally drawing to a close.

Indeed, dreams are often the arena where seemingly random information processed during waking hours becomes formalized, little nuances of the quotidian becoming symbols and metaphors for larger life concerns. The sound throughout the film, sometimes abstract, sometimes highly realist, often alternating between the two poles in ways that subtly disorient the audience, culminates in the shot just prior to the collapse of our heroes on the salt flats. The two are shot from the rear, walking in a very peculiar manner, decrepit and worn out from their epic meanderings. The camera follows as they walk, ever so slowly, the light changing from very low to quite bright as if catching the very earliest light of day. The sound here presents some material that has been suggested throughout the film, combined with some new, and formalized into a composition made up of four distinct layers of repeating loops. The cycle begins with an airy, Eno-esuqe high pitched ambient tone. Then a watery kind of sound enters that I associate with a rainstick gradually being lowered in pitch and filtered through various levels of processing. Then there is a series of electronic sounds, beginning with two sustained tones, one high and the other low, both fluctuating in pitch until a distinct pulse is released at the end of the cycle, reverberating for several seconds, recalling the early electronic work of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Finally, there is a more naturalistic soundscape, recalling some of the windblown environments elsewhere in the film. Twice this naturalistic windscape comes in while the rest of the sounds in the cycle die down, suggesting that diegetic sound is re-emerging out of the hallucinatory combination of the equally out-of-context water and electronic treatments. And twice we are held just on the verge of this diegetic sound, only to be pulled back by the re-emergence of the electronic tones until finally the shot cuts to a side view of the two, and the environmental sounds take over completely.

This 10 minute shot contains the most formally composed of Leslie Shatz’s sound in the entire film. The piece is organic yet clearly structured, and plays with the duality of electronic tones and environmental soundscapes in an echo of the various other dualities explored throughout the film. The composition here also acts as an echo of sound heard before. Many of the distant thunder sounds elsewhere in the film came with a feeling that water was nearby, but without enough tangibility to really place it as such. It is not distinctly watery here either, but is suggestive enough of liquidity that there is an oddness to it within the context of the salt flats seen on the screen. Most important, however, is the fact that the piece echoes itself over the course of its three cycles. In many ways, this is the most serialist moment in the film, with the basic layers of sound coming and going in regular cycles which interact with each other but do not dominate. It is this serialist context of the film, supported by the equal partnership of form and substance, Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli principles, and the treatment of sound by Leslie Shatz, which makes the film’s final moments so poignant. If the two Gerries are to be understood as yin and yang, or stand-ins for sound and image, are we to understand that Damon’s Gerry finally wins the day in some metaphor for the impossibility of sound and image to co-exist as equal partners within the cinema? Or, as I have suggested, can we understand the ending as suggesting that the duality is finally put to rest, and that the two finally become one and no longer require the distinction that necessitates two bodies?

Indeed, the question is more important than the answer. We all know that cinema is a long way from being a truly equal partnership between sound and image. Ultimately, I like to think of Van Sant’s film as being a positive step in the right direction, exploring the potential of the open-form film to equalize all of cinema’s elements. The more such steps are taken, the closer we’ll get to that highway which seems like it should be so near but remains elusive when going about the search the wrong way. Van Sant knows where he’s going here, looking back to the rest of us saying: “Hey, Gerry, the path.” It’s up to us to follow until we are caught up to speed and can finally walk in step.

Now, given all of this, I suggest we induct our heroes into the clan of the Echopeople. But one last question remains: do they worship cats? Stay tuned for our next installment to find out…

Read Part 1 Here.

See Also: The Yards, Gerry et Birth. Harris Savides, directeur de la photographie


  1. Paine, Frank. “Sound Mixing in Apocalypse Now: An Interview with Walter Murch.” Film Sound: Theory and Practice. Elizabeth Weis and John Belton, eds. New York: Columbia UP, 1985: 356.
  2. Totaro, Donato. “Gerry, or ‘All Roads Lead to the Thing.’” Offscreen. March 31st, 2003.
  3. Berendt 1987: 5
  4. Bordwell, David. “The Musical Analogy.” Yale French Studies. No. 60. 1980:150.
  5. Ibid:151
  6. Ibid:151-152
  7. Ibid:152
  8. Pitts, Anthony. “Liner Notes.” Arvo Pärt. Passio. Naxos, 2003: 2
  9. Ibid: 2.
  10. Conen, Hermann. “White Light (Liner Notes).” Arvo Pärt. Alina. ECM New Series:1999: 7.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Rist, Peter. “Gerry.” Offscreen. March 31st, 2003.
  13. Conen 1999:10.
  14. Truppin, Andrea. “And Then There Was Sound: The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky.” Sound Theory, Sound Practice. Rick Altman, ed. New York: Routledge, 1992: 235-248.

The Echopeople: Reflections on the Concept of Echolocation in Gerry: Part 2

Randolph Jordan is a Montreal-based film scholar, educator, and multimedia practitioner. His research lives at the intersection of acoustic ecology, film studies, and critical geography. He teaches in the Humanities department at Champlain College, and has previously taught film, media literacy, and environmental philosophy at Concordia University, Ryerson University, Dawson College and LaSalle College. He is co-editor of the Sound, Media, Ecology collection (Palgrave 2019), and his monograph Acoustic Profiles: A Sound Ecology of the Cinema has just been published by Oxford University Press (2023). He has been covering Montreal film, music and new media festivals for Offscreen since 2001.

Volume 7, Issue 3 / March 2003 Essays   Film Reviews   film style   film theory   gerry   gus van sant   peple_van_sant   sound