Don’t Move Gertrude

for AR and SEG  

My favorite show during that important year was “Don’t Move Gertrude,” where a character named Gertrude, dressed modestly in a heather herringbone skirt suit with a visage and posture something of a roman emperor, stood motionless at a seashore facing away from the viewer in one-quarter profile. I found the complete series boxed-set at the local public library book sale while looking for affordable books on law and psychology. The box art for the DVDs used bubble text for the titles that contrasted with the dark and overly dramatic sequences of the title character in several poses that I would never see in the actual show, which was common for releases in the 1990s. Fortunately, I still had a portable DVD player I had been given as a gift by an aunt. As I found on my first watch-through, Gertrude ostensibly never moved throughout each episode, but each one did feature a different seascape, sometimes bordered by beaches of white sand, a tarmac, an industrial sluice, a gated lawn, or grey rocky shores with turbulent surf. And as the seasons of the show progressed, beginning with season three, Gertrude would be found standing in green grasses shimmying in the wind, or in tan grasses of some shorn crop, amid a busy city street or slow village road, or standing facing tall white chalk cliffs. The days and weather likewise varied from clear and sunny, to windy and cloudy, loud and stormy, or quietly snowing, and yet Gertrude never changed clothes, posture, or attitude throughout the eighteen seasons, and throughout my repeated viewings, I felt a strange thrill whenever the seasons in the show matched the progression of the seasons outside, as if the moment was occurring right then, and if I could go out without consequences I had brought on myself, I could find and stand next to Gertrude and take in the day there, unmoving.

What was it that kept me watching over and over? There were the times when there were occasional collisions with stray frisbees, balls, dogs, or distracted tourists looking at maps or, later, staring down at cell phones, or running children who, each in their turn, would sometimes end up toppling Gertrude. These moments of interaction were rare, and I couldn’t say why the directors had left them in, except that each had their own style, I suppose. Or perhaps for the very reason that I couldn’t help laughing when it did happen, even though I simultaneously felt a certain indignation for Gertrude.

Eventually, it was all I watched. I enjoyed the atmospheric uncanniness of it, waiting for the next unexpected drama to unfold somewhere in the background or just taking in the whole of the episode, the colors, the sounds, and the ever calming presence of Gertrude amidst it all. Suffice it to say, the show calmed my nerves and helped me to not think of what I had done, this is until I got to the infamous twelfth season, which, maybe in response to some misguided viewer polls or maybe the demands of television executives bent on novelty and staying relevant, the once calming and insistent format was updated: it seemed that a number of plots had been loosely pulled from Alexandre Dumas novels as a general structure, but the producers had added some edginess to the show by remaking each one as a dark and gritty contemporary police procedural. So Gertrude was no longer Caesar-like, but dressed as an off-beat and rakish homicide detective named Gertrude d’Artagnan, with a team of three misfits from some fictional special devision: Marathon Athos who is an old-world forensic analyst and parental figure, the grunge inspired Imogen Aramis who is a street smart crime scene specialist and can reel off facts at an unrealistically frequent drop of a hat, and finally Sammie Porthos who is a pragmatic cop of the old school and a clear foil to Aramis. While Gertrude turned d’Artagnan, it is true, still never moved, the supporting cast was constantly in motion: in and out of the framed landscapes and frequently interacting with the silent but strong detective, Gertrude d’Artagnan, or otherwise going through the motions of the plot by removing corpses, chasing suspects, inevitably falling in love, uncovering betrayals and conspiracies, or substance abuse as a way to cope with the stress of the job. Each supporting character took a turn at the center of their own story line, and at the end of each episode, depending on which character’s storyline was in play, they delivered a climactic monologue by interpreting the stoic and immovable Detective d’Artagnan’s unspoken but nevertheless convoluted and improbable deductions to reveal the identity of the killer or killers and the often weak motives. This strange transmogrification lasted only one season before the original format was restored, but not fully: the filming had been relocated to a soundstage using, instead of green screen, a variety of rear-projected landscape and minimal props scattered around Gertrude, the immovable figure who stood once again clad in heather herringbone.

While watching the show through a second time, I found out that this strange twelfth season has come to not be considered canon and as such is often not included in the home-video or streaming releases of the complete series and that the boxed-set I had managed to purchase was a rare item indeed, selling for a surprisingly large amount of money, even though the disavowed season still exists on the web, episodes have been uploaded to different social-media platforms. However, these pirated episodes versions are often reduced to small boxes surrounded by solid colors or clip art, or in full screen versions that are oddly close-cropped as if that rather than reducing the picture by seventy percent, they have expanded it by as a much, so that a roaming eye seemed to bob and wander around the scene alighting on the fabric of the close cropped and greying hair, or sometimes just a blade of grass or stone; still other uploaded versions seemed to clip the frame rate and loop it so that the twenty-four minute episode became a two hour long feature, and in that way escape the bots searching ceaselessly for copyright infringements. These equally curious permutations of the already anomalous season are now considered a show in its own right, and many who watch them prefer the cropped and re-framed versions of “Don’t Move Gertrude” to the original, arguing in some cases, that they are nearer to the intent of the original writers and as such, the re-framed versions were not a corruption but a restoration.

Regardless, I spent that year watching the show from season one to eighteen over and over again, including the controversial twelfth season, until I’d seen it all the way through perhaps four times over but individual episodes from the ‘classical period’ many times as one might play a song while reading or cooking; then, in a strange mood of experimentation, I watched the whole series in reverse order, but only once. Each time the show got more interesting: some seagull, some pigeon, some curl of water or off-camera voice caught on the wind occupied my thoughts beside the others that cycled there relentlessly culminating in a static that made them diffuse. Furthermore, when I decided to start drawing, I inevitably chose Gertrude as my subject and it was then, after spending so much time trying to get the gesture and stance correct that I made a profound discovery: Gertrude defied the axiom of the show, that is Gertrude did in fact move. It occurred that each time I started a drawing, first capturing a general blocking of the scene, and foremost Gertrude, that by the time I went to add definition and firm up the picture, there was some small discrepancy. Sometimes it was the thumb slipping from between one finger to another and then another, or a toe slowly rotating to and fro as if on a dial and after noticing more such nuances, I began to feel that there was a whole level to the show that I had missed and that had been revealed through my capricious decision to draw out of self care. I found nothing on the subject of these shifting gestures, everyone it seemed had accepted that Gertrude did not move, even the various defenders and detractors of season twelve, and so there were no attempts, that I could find, to determine what, if at all, each slow gesture meant. But I had a strange sense that the gestures held not just some secret message, but embodied a whole narrative of gesture of its own. In the end, however, I had to rid myself of Gertrude, as the signs outside indicated the possibility of a closing in, and so one night, wrapped in a wool blanket, the edge draped over my head, I set my antiquated portable DVD player and rare boxed-set of the show on the lid of a dumpster in order to come to terms with an unrelated matter in my life, and within ten minutes, all of it was gone.

Rowland Saifi is the author of the books, The Minotaur's Daughter, Lit Windows, and most recently, the collaborative novel Swerve (with McCormick Templeman and Vincent James).