Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label Gus Van Sant. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gus Van Sant. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


If I have a reservation about Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry,” (discussed elsewhere on this blog) it’s that he, or his cinematographer, makes the desert look a little too picturesque.  Of course, I’m not going to deny that the desert is visually beautiful, that’s what first attracted me to it, and of course I love a broad stretch of unspoiled, pristine desert as much as the next man, and I’m very glad indeed that Death Valley or Joshua Tree survive as preserved patches of territory that are as close to “virgin” as we’re ever likely to see, and of course they are meticulously “managed.”.  But the fact is, I also love a spoiled, less than pristine stretch of desert.

And when it comes to on-screen depictions of the desert I’m drawn to Werner Herzog’s “Fata Morgana,” his early “documentary” that traces an inscrutable journey down through the Sahara desert.  Certainly the film does have some gorgeous desert imagery, including this shot of a little boy walking his fennec fox on a leash across the sand dunes.

But “Fata Morgana” also shows the desolate edges, the areas scarred by human activity, not least military and industrial.  Herzog is smart enough not to simply revel in the beauty of ugliness, and I think he’s not indulging in the pleasure of ruins either, but he does show us that the wrecked and the damaged may be every bit as compelling as the pristine.

My own attitudes have changed over time.  When I first started visiting deserts I wanted them clean and empty and devoid of human presence (well, any human presence except mine, naturally).  And of course I still like those grand vistas of Joshua Tree and Death Valley, and I regularly go and walk in them, but on the way there I know I’ll pass through some scrubby, frayed bits of desert, the outskirts of towns like Barstow, Boron or Baker, and I’ll be drawn to deserted motels, abandoned houses, evidence of human presence as well as absence.

This has been on my mind a lot recently.  I’ve been reading a book titled Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, a couple of British poets who go wandering around what the subtitle calls “England’s true wilderness,” the non-spaces that fail to appear either on topographical or mental maps: sewage works, parking lots, airports, scrap yards, and so on.

They write, “Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully managed wilderness and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists … complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard.”

This is great stuff and certainly it doesn’t apply only to England.  And I don’t the guys are just being perverse, like going to the Sistine chapel and admiring the floor.  One of the most basic functions of writing is to point out things that otherwise might have been missed, and these guys do it royally.  

The book also it made me realize that I have spent large chunks of my life walking in and admiring edgelands.  For instance I love great Victorian railway architecture, the stations, the bridges, the engine sheds, but I’m actually more at home wandering along disused railway lines admiring those strange little shacks and huts that grow up alongside them.

And one of the things I’ve realized is that not all edgelands are at the edge.  Sometimes there can be junk spaces right in the middle of things.  My favorite non-space in that sense is shown in the picture above, an alley right in the heart of Hollywood, that runs off Las Palmas Avenue, just below Hollywood Boulevard.  It may have a name but I can’t find it on any of the maps I’ve got.  It goes down the side of Miceli’s Italian restaurant, but as the sign indicates, it belongs to somebody else “Supply Sergeant” which is an army surplus store nearby.  And of course the absolute joy of it is the precision with which somebody has measured, recorded, and sign-painted the dimensions of this otherwise thoroughly nondescript space.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Sometimes you watch a movie and you think, “Wow, this movie has been made with exactly me in mind.”  The corollary may be that sometimes you think you might be the only person who actually wants to see it.   In the case of Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” this isn’t literally true: the Internet reveals a few diehard fans, but there are a great many more who hate it with a hard and gemlike flame. 

If imdb is to be believed, it cost $3.5 million to make and brought in $26,000 dollars on its opening weekend, which will surely come as no surprise to anybody who’s seen it: this is not a movies destined to pack them into the multiplexes.  The most amazing thing may be that the movie ever got made at all.  According to some sources, people “walked out in droves” at early screenings.  I don’t believe I’ve ever “walked out in a drove”

The movie was recommended to me by a reader of “The Lost Art of Walking” - Will Stone, a man who works for the Morning Star – and he thought, rightly enough, that I would be intrigued by a movie, the “action’ of which consists almost entirely of walking in the desert (actually several deserts).

The plot is pretty straightforward.  Two guys – Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who refer to each other as Gerry though that may well not be their "real" names - go for a walk in the desert, going down a “wilderness trail” in order to see “the thing” at the end.   They get lost, try to find their way back – and that’s pretty much it for the next 90 minutes or so. 

There’s a lot of walking and not much talking. The guys have no food or water with them, and they don’t find any, and although it’s not clear how long they’re actually lost, you can’t help thinking they’d be dead, or at least incapacitated, very soon indeed, in which case there’d be no movie.  But that’s an over-literal response.  This desert walk is metaphysical rather than geographical.  One wag on Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “Hiking With Godot.”

They walk in certain desert places that are recognizable to me – Death Valley and the salt flats of Utah.  However, and I only worked this out afterwards from the credits, they actually set out in Argentina, which was where they started shooting the movie, but Van Sant was dissatisfied.  Certainly the desert in the early part of the movie is much less picturesque than that in the States.

The movie is probably genuinely and intentionally “boring,” though I’ve certainly been more bored by movies in which much more happened.  However, since the two stars are Hollywood actors, I kept fearing that they, or Van Sant, or somebody, would lose their nerve and the movie would go all “Hollywood” at the end.  It doesn’t.  Everybody keeps his nerve; more or less.

Another surprising thing is that the movie was “based on a true story,” that of David Coughlin and Raffi Kodikian, two hikers who in 1999 got lost (rather less symbolically, though no less existentially) in Rattlesnake Canyon, part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

Kodikian and Coughlin were actually better equipped than the Gerries of the Van Sant movie. They had three pints of water and a pint of Gatorade, and they did have a map, though it seems they didn’t know how to use it. And they got far more desperate than the Gerries; licking rocks, eating cactus fruit, drinking their own urine. Anyway it all ended very badly in a “mercy killing.”  After 3 days Coughlin was dehydrated and vomiting and begged Kodikian to kill him, which he did. 

According to Kodikian’s journal “I killed & burried (sic) my best friend today. Dave had been in pain all night. At around 5 or 6, he turned to me and begged that I put my knife through his chest. I did, and a second time when he wouldn't die.”  The general opinion of the autopsy reports is that this was very premature.  Both guys were dehydrated, but survivably so, as Kodikian demonstrated.

Kodikian was found guilty of second degree murder, sentenced to 15 years, all but two of them suspended, and he actually served 16 months.  At the risk of a spoiler, this isn’t exactly what happens in “Gerry.”

Having been lost (mercifully, briefly) in the desert I'm not at all smug, and I’m well aware how quickly a casual walk can turn into a nightmare, but the word online is that Rattlesnake Canyon is an amazingly benign piece of territory, an easy trail, with water and toilets nearby, easily walkable with your nine year old grandson.  Interestingly, nobody seems to mention the presence of rattlesnakes.

Of course this apparent benign quality is often part of the problem, and I’m not being metaphysical here. I simply mean that when you know you’re walking somewhere dangerous, you tend to be on your mettle, to be careful, tend not to take chances.  Any damn fool who visits Death Valley, for instance, is surely well aware of the distances, the isolation, the punishing and potentially lethal heat.

Which brings me to the four German tourists who died in Death Valley in the summer of 1996.  There always seem to be quite a few Germans driving around the American deserts, but few of them to do it with such reckless abandon as Cornelia Meyer and Egbert Rimkus, and their two children.  They were on vacation in the States, rented a minivan in Los Angeles and headed for Death Valley.   They disappeared in late July, in a week when temperatures reached over 120 F.

In October that year their van was found in sand in a ravine off Anvil Spring Canyon, probably not a route to tackle in a minivan.  All four tires were wrecked: the van was locked.  Clothes, sleeping bags, rolls of exposed film, and a couple of beers, had been left in the vehicle, but the tourists had taken their personal belongings - such as passports, wallets and air tickets - with them.  They had evidently decided to walk out of there.  There were no tracks showing which way they’d gone, although a beer bottle, similar to the ones in the car, was found half a mile away.  A major search operation began, that included the use of horses and helicopters, but all involved would have known they were months too late, and in the event they found nothing.

And indeed nothing was found at all for the next 13 years until late 2009 when a couple of hikers, actually two members of the Riverside Mountain Rescue team, found skeletal remains and identification, just a few miles from the abandoned van, which only goes to prove that a full scale desert search is not guaranteed to find, much less save, you.

 Reports said the remains were found southeast of Goler Wash, and of course some of us can’t read the name Goler Wash without being reminded of Charles Manson.  The Goler Canyon Road leads to the infamous Barker Ranch where Manson and certain members of his “family” were eventually captured.

A piece appeared online recently about Manson getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  It was a satire, but you couldn’t help thinking there were probably some people in the world who might not think it was such a bad idea.  An unsatirical (as far as I can tell) petition was set up to protest against the star.  I'd have signed it.  I suppose Manson isn’t doing too much walking these days, at least not outside of the exercise yard.  In 1970 he did say, “I am the beast. I am the biggest beast walking the face of the earth.”   But you know that was just self-aggrandizement.

When I tell people that I like walking in the desert, even alone, they sometimes ask, “Isn’t it scary?  Aren’t you afraid you’re going to encounter some Charles Manson type?”  The answer is no, I'm really not scared of that.  And the truth is, you’re far more likely to meet some Charles Manson type on Hollywood Boulevard that you are in Death Valley.  Out there in the desert you have far more to fear from yourself and your own failings. 

Here is a photograph of your blogger, in Death Valley, in the snow, reflecting that sometimes walking may be preferable to driving.