HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN Gus Van Sant? One of the most notable directors to come out of the American indie boom of the late ’80s and early ’90s (and the hands down breakout success of that era’s New Queer Cinema sidebar), Van Sant’s career has alternately inspired shouts of praise and sighs of confusion, and then, increasingly, both at once. I should confess up front that I’m a longtime fan. I am wowed by the narrative boldness of his shaggy digressions, blackout ellipses and dilated long-takes. I swoon at the aching intimacy of his visual portraiture and the contrapuntal density of his ambient soundscapes. I am fascinated by the tender affection and hang-back ambivalence of his alignment with junkies, hustlers, and disaffected drop-outs.
These style-points and thematic obsessions were stunningly apparent from the films that established Van Sant’s directorial signature: Mala Noche (1986), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), and especially My Own Private Idaho (1991), the last since enshrined as a pinnacle in the too-brief career of lead River Phoenix. Van Sant’s ascendence next hit some major turbulence with the cameo-heavy, Uma Thurman-headlined disaster of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (an essayistic-episodic-sketch-comedy-romantic-drama-radical-theater-ish thing; 1993) but his plummeting critical cache bounced back with the satirically tabloid-esque black-comedy To Die For (1995), which boasted a pitch-perfect Nicole Kidman in the leading role.
But what happened next, in the mid-to-late 90s, with Van Sant’s staid turns as crowd-pleaser and Mirimax’ed Oscar baiter? The underdog uplift of Good Will Hunting (1997) and the eerily similar follow-up effort Finding Forrester (2000) were, for many of the director’s supporters, triumph-of-the-treacle betrayals of an authentically off-the-map talent. (Former Van Sant booster Jonathan Rosenbaum on the screenplay for Forrester: “Not even D.W. Griffith, Steven Spielberg, and Stanley Kubrick working together could succeed in making this pandering piece of nonsense work dramatically on any level except the most egregiously phony.”) Freewheeling narrative subjectivity and cinematographic poetry seemed to yield to the polished competence of a studio journeyman–or, less generously, a sellout. And how do you explain that head-scratching retread of Psycho (1998), a shot-for-shot remake that was not-for-not enjoyed by the majority of crtics and the minority of audiences who saw it by accident on opening weekend (though it’s lived a ghostly afterlife as critical parlor game, renewing interest in the irreducible mysticism of mise en scène).
Gus’s cultural capital ticked up this past decade with his turn to stripped-down, visually-rigorous tales of drifting souls–the so-called “Death Trilogy” of Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005)–a cycle of films that scored him paired Palme d’Or and Best Director awards at Cannes (for Elephant) and decidedly mixed reactions at home. (For the moment, we’ll leave aside the Trilogy’s 2007 half-sibling, Paranoid Park, and the prestige-picture perfection of 2008’s eight-round Academy Award winner Milk.) As told by Van Sant, the inspiration behind this career renaissance came when he took in a BAMcinematek screening of Béla Tarr’s seven-hour Sátántangó and had a revelation regarding the artistic possibilities of Tarr’s slow-burning narratives and fluid long-take tracking shots. It’s a neat little story. But does this guileless admittance of bolt-from-the-blue inspiration frame Van Sant’s slow-cinema revival as little more than the faddish appropriation of art cinema technique?
Every notable American director who’s been working as long as Van Sant has had their share of artistic black-sheep and commercial cash-ins. But Gus’s career is curious for how his shifts in aesthetic rigor and financial success have come in such easily cordoned-off movements, such that they can’t be dismissed as one-off misjudgments or financial stopgaps. And the director has offered strikingly little explanation for these periods other than a general curiosity to, you know, try something new. Here’s how he describes Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester to Slant’s Ed Gonzalez: “I was doing them because I wanted to see what it would be like to do them. Just as a curiosity…. I didn’t know if I could pull that off because I had always made films about anti-heroes.” Does this make Van Sant sound like less of an auteur than an art tourist? His attitude defies the value that critics have come to place on inescapable fixations and distinctive visual styles. To which Van Sant gives a what-the-hell shrug and wonders on.
But key preoccupations do indeed crop up throughout Van Sant’s filmography. He is fascinated with dislocation and the lives lived in liminal spaces: emotional, geographic, psychological, temporal. While displacement is for Van Sant much more than a theoretical issue to be academically explicated, it’s clear (not only from his aesthetic chnage-ups, but from the very themes of his films) that he views self-definition as a flexible and porous notion. His career has had lots of labels slapped on it, like an old suitcase covered with luggage tags from foreign destinations: artist, voyeur, maverick, craftsmen, sell-out, poet, poser. But for me, the one that sticks is the one that both recalls his own shifting, shiftless anti-heroes and manages to encompass all the rest: wanderer.
LET’S FIRST PLAY the biography game, shall we? It’s easy to draw a straight line between Van Sant’s peripatetic chilhood and his free-ranging career moves. Though the man is closely associated with his adopted home of Portland, Oregon, the boy was born in Louisville, Kentucky in the year 1952. (Crazy that he’s now pushing 60, no?) Gus Van Sant, Sr. was a traveling salesman for a clothing manufacturer so the family moved about the country as his career dictated, landing in Darien, Connecticut for an extended stay before transferring to Portland, where Gus Jr. graduated high school. A precocious interest in painting and Super-8 movie making led him to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970, where exposure to the wide-open creative ambitions of America’s narrow-gauge avant garde (Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and other romantics of the Underground resistance) irreversibly fixed his sights on cinema.
But this undergrad interest in fringe film making did not immediately extend to his professional choices. He moved to Los Angeles in 1976 to work as a production assistant for writer/director Ken Shapiro, only to find his own ideas for projects consistently shot down. His unreleased 1981 feature, Alice in Hollywood, reportedly—and, given his own career trajectory, fascinatingly—tracks a young actress’ loss of idealism after coming to Tinseltown. Van Sant’s Hollywood day job contrasted ever more strikingly with the marginalized Los Angeles subcultures he haunted by night. Van Sant next moved to New York in the early ’80s to work for a commercial advertising agency, saving up his money for personal projects. Eventually, he got together enough cash, returned to Portland, and shot Mala Noche.
Van Sant put himself out on a limb with Mala Noche, and not just financially. Adapted from the autobiographical novel by the Portland-based poet Walt Curtis, this gritty black-and-white portrait of an even gritter downtown milieu dramatizes the asymmetrical infatuation and unreciprocated advances between Walt (Tim Streeter), a white, thirty-something store clerk, and Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), a Mexican teenage hustler. Van Sant was himself a thirtysomething white gay guy at the time, pointing his camera at a cast of peach-fuzzy young faces, and the impulse to lyricize Walt’s one-sided affections and bask in Johnny’s smirking, unknowable otherness seems irresistibly romantic and instantly, obviously wrong.
Van Sant finds great textural poetry in the dingy enclaves of lower-class Portland. DP John Campbel’s 16mm cinematography grounds us firmly in the ground-down milieu of grimy motels and unkempt little apartments, even as his nimble camerawork traces arrows-of-desire trajectories through a scene, pinning down delicate minutia of physicality and performance. Single-bulb chiaroscuro slices those desolate rooms into sharp planes of blown-out whites and inky blacks, a stylized checkerboard of exposure and revelation in which power struggles play out like a dance of desire and guilt. When hard, low-key light half-illuminates Cooeyate’s full lips and lightly acne-scarred cheekbones, it evokes the mocking, mysterious sensuality of the femme fatale as much as the hustler’s mad brollick braggadocio. Johnny is at once twinky soft and rough-trade tough and so inaccessibly no hablo ingles that you can project on him whatever you like, which is, of course, the problem.
Van Sant counterpoints this politically incorrect eroticism with a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the economic and social inequities that undergird Walt’s lust. He picks up Johnny and friend Pepper (Ray Monge) off the street, and when he gives them a hot meal he expcts a cheap fuck in return. Johnny flatly refuses. As in My Own Private Idaho, the object of queer desire falls back upon hereto posturing, leaving the homo in a slightly masochistic state of sweet-ache unfulfillemnt that only strokes their desire. Walt settles for the physical affections of the more-willing Pepper, who nevertheless plucks ten dollars from Walt’s pocket after their Vaseline-assisted session on Walt’s floor. The two enter into an ambiguous state of genuine but unsettled intimacy, their affections intertwined with unresolved questions of economic dependence and cultural divides. Van Sant does not demonize Walt’s desires. (It’s so easy to condemn.) But Van Sant does make sure to underline the more unseemly, “that’s just how they are” ethnic assumptions that cross Walt’s mind, as revealed in his voice-over. Van Sant grapples with broader political in immediately personal terms, acknowledging society’s deep structural determinants even as he pursues the fleeting potential for their transcendence. This dichotomy filters its way into the film’s visual syntax and narrative structure. Quasi-documentary encounters with Portland’s down-and-out in stale-smoke taverns and on broken-bottle street corners alternate with impressionistic scenes of sexual union and wind-swept Northwestern beauty.
THE DYNAMIC MIX of vérité gravity and dreamy flights of fancy, the moral viewpoint that refuses judgment and glorification in equal measure–with Mala Noche, Van Sant had landed on the elements of a distinctively personal style that blossomed even further in Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho.
Drugstore Cowboy coolly examines the sub-cultural rituals of a quartet of 70s-era Portland drug addicts: the grab-and-go pharmacy robberies, the barren rental houses and motel rooms, the horse-trading for pills amongst fellow junkies. Narrating from the back of an ambulance, Matt Dillon’s Bob ruminates on the small-time successes and daily strains of his existence. Dillon speaks with an earnestness that provokes much droll laughter, but offers the occasional glimmer of flinty, tragic self-awareness. Van Sant takes his cues from this affectless sincerity. The tensions and eventual dissolution of the film’s cobbled-together druggie family—Bob’s unrepentantly-addicted wife Dianne (Kelly Lynch), affable friend Rick (James LeGros), and Rick’s naïve girlfriend Nadine (Heather Graham)—occurs in scenes of unsentimental economy. Lest the film fall into the inevitable-downfall-of-the-junkie clichés, Van Sant offers occasional swerves into Bob’s pleasantly spacey heroin hazes. William S. Burroughs (playing a disgraced junkie priest) becomes the film’s gravelly-voiced conscience, offering a trenchant if out-of-left-field disquisition on the moral and political faults of U.S. drug policy.
This willingness to exit the general storytelling flow and follow an intriguing narrative tributary found full flower in My Own Private Idaho, whose original screenplay Van Sant stitched together from two separate scripts and a short story. This tale of a narcoleptic hustler (River Phoenix) and his search for a lost home represents the apex of the filmmaker’s own wanderings through visual styles and storytelling practices. My Own Private Idaho bobs and weaves through surrealist comedy, social commentary, dirt-under-the-fingernails realism, and ambiguous dream states. It’s an intoxicating blend. The film’s gambits and sidesteps spring from Van Sant’s genuine attempts to grapple with a swarm of ideas and impulses. Throughout, Phoenix’s graceful performance provides a welcome anchor. I hadn’t seen the film until recently, but heard much about the moment when Phoenix’s Mike confesses his love to fellow hustler Scott (Keanu Reeves), a petulant rich boy slumming on the streets. So subtly had Mike’s affections for Scott been placed within the film’s forays into Shakespearean grandiloquence and life-on-the-street confessional, though, that its eventual eruption blindsided me. Phoenix’s anxious, terse face and downcast eyes as he mumbles his plaintive desires feels both cathartic and revelatory. So much of My Own Private Idaho is like that, full of moments that seem to come out of nowhere yet build upon an intuitive logic that quietly loops its way through the film’s artful web of digressions and asides. It’s a hard film to wrap your arms around, and an easy one to embrace.
THIS RESTLESS, SEARCHING quality becomes less apparent throughout the remainder of Van Sant’s 90s films. You can sense the shift over the course of his two mid-decade projects, both rare forays into the world of female ambition and desire. Given its much-maligned reputation, it would be great to recuperate Even Cowgirls Gets the Blues (1993) as some kind of ill-judged gem. No such luck. This adaptation of Tom Robbins’s novel about big-thumbed professional hitchhiker Sissy Hankshaw (Uma Thurman) and her acceptance into a cadre of radical feminist cowgirls attempts to balance gimlet-eyed social commentary and fantasy-laced subjectivity, but dissipates into a weightless muddle. Once again, Van Sant turns to voiceover to set the tone. Unlike the slippery, revealing first-person records of the director’s previous films, Robbins himself offers a dry, distancing third-person commentary on Sissy’s adventures, and this feels like a mistake. Van Sant clearly has sympathy for Sissy, lover Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix, sister of River), and the rest of the cowgirls, but we watch them through a pane of quasi-satiric glass that doesn’t complicate so much as confuse.
To Die For (1995) suffers from the opposite problem, even if it’s the more clearly successful movie. Van Sant’s first feature for a major studio (Columbia Pictures), the film follows the machinations of Suzanne Scott (Nicole Kidman), a career-obsessed blonde whose dream of becoming the next Diane Sawyer lands her a gig as a local television weather woman. Kidman plays her with wide, intense eyes and a frozen toothy grin that can barely hide the disdain she has for anyone who doesn’t share her fanatical ambition. Affable husband Larry (Matt Dillon) indulges her ambitions to a point, but finally insists that she take on the traditional role of supporting his family’s restaurant. Van Sant captures her reaction to Larry’s demands in a tight, extended close-up. Disbelief, self-delusion, anger, and genuine hurt break through Suzanne’s impeccably made-up features. It’s a rare humanizing moment for a character who’s mostly defined by starry-eyed ruthlessness, and the film could use a few more of them.
To Die For often works on its own black-comic terms. We learn of Suzanne’s successful scheme to kill Larry through post-facto television news interviews, talk-show appearances, and Suzanne’s own confessional/audition tape: noir-ish flashbacks as refracted through the prism of media saturation. But that measured sympathy for Suzanne quickly evaporates as the film progresses. She becomes a satiric object and little more, the figurative (and, in the end, literal) icy blonde as avatar for mid-90s fame-mania.
IT’S FAIR TO SAY that Van Sant achieved his stated goal of “pulling off” the conventional uplift seen in Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. Both undeniably work as low-key, hopeful tales of male bonding and the balance between aspiration and loyalty. Many have remarked upon their remarkable similarities of plot. Hunting chronicles the intellectually-gifted but emotionally-stunted janitor Will (Matt Damon), who clings to his South Boston roots until an encounter with an older psychiatrist (Robin Williams). Forrester follows Bronx-born high school basketball player Jamal (Rob Brown), who hides his writerly gifts from the world until he meets a reclusive aging novelist (Sean Connery). The performances are skillful, with particularly nice showcases for then-newbies Damon and Brown. Sprightly pacing still leaves room for sprinkles of authenticity-upping regionalism, and moments of prickly rapport between the films’ respective mentor-mentee pairs. Shot/reverse shots highlight talk-heavy scenes effectively, lighting is atmospheric but unshowy, endings are upbeat yet not unduly sunny…
Okay, depressed yet? Defending these films for their skillful adherence to high-tone studio prestige formulas feels like a back-handed compliment. I admire Van Sant’s modest successes here, even if I still wish that he made two more My Own Private Idaho’s instead. But Van Sant does leave a shy visual mark upon the material. Dull, golden light gives Will’s cluttered apartment the feel of a hidden sanctuary from a world that judges and misunderstands him. The dusty late-afternoon sunshine working its way through Connery’s dwelling suggests a man whose last years have played out in a perennial twilight. (Forrester marked the first collaboration between Van Sant and DP Harris Savides, a crucial player in the director’s recent long-take experimentation. Despite this, the Museum of the Moving Image chose not to screen the film as part of its nearly-complete Van Sant retrospective, even as it includes double-dip screenings of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho.)
As for what Van Sant saw in these particular stories, there’s the obvious preoccupation with sensitive young men adrift in a sea of conflicting expectations and desires. But there’s something more particular going on here. Both Will Hunting and Jamal Wallace face the conundrum of how to share intellectual and artistic prowess while still remaining true to lower-class milieus that stereotypically do not value such gifts. Will’s ascendency into academia or consulting would inevitably mean leaving behind raucous Friday nights at the local bar. Jamal’s decision to leave his Bronx public school to attend an elite Manhattan academy has immediate effects upon his social standing within his neighborhood friends. Is there a way to have it all?
In the tradition of so many Hollywood films about class pressures, both movies posit optimistic situations in which their heroes take the best of both worlds: the unpretentious grit of the working class and the thoughtful sensitivity of the academy. Might both these central conflicts and their resolutions prove appealing to a celebrated indie director consciously diving into the mainstream? Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester may not be canonical works in le cinema de Gus Van Sant, but they are decidedly better films—at once tougher and more delicate—for having been directed by Gus Van Sant. There’s something admirable in that.
BY COMPARISON, perhaps no other film in Van Sant’s career illustrates the shortcomings of this art/commerce tension than Psycho. This nearly shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s 1960 classic can be viewed as both a craven commercial cash-in and a brow-furrowing thought experiment in the boundaries of authorial intention and viewing experience. The dialogue, camera angles and movement, and editing patterns? All faithfully reproduced from Hitchcock. The color scheme, costuming, and acting style? Riffing off the original, but essentially Van Sant and company. The director’s stray original additions—a non-diegetic insert of a cow here; a stifled masturbatory grunt there—only underscores his otherwise fanatical adherence to the original. Given the complaint by some that Van Sant fails to maintain a consistent visual style, Psycho fascinates in the way the filmmaker at once subsumes his directorial viewpoint into Hitchcock’s template and defies the Master’s black-and-white austerity with Fassbinderian bursts of color and other florid deviations. Norman Bates seems to fit snugly into Van Sant’s collection of sexually-ambiguous lost boys, but the connection extends here to become a weird sort of kinship. Just as Norman is at once himself and his tormenting mother, Van Sant is at once himself and Hitchcock. Who wins out? It’s shocking the frame doesn’t combust with theoretical and aesthetic tension.
That’s the problem. It doesn’t. Psycho is a really fun film to think about and pretty much a drag to watch. This partly lies in the vicissitudes of screen performance. Anne Heche’s twitchy Marion Crane and Vince Vaughn’s mincing-yet-macho Norman Bates give their scenes together a more aggressive edge of oddball flirtation yet crucially loses the original’s edge of plaintive, creeping loneliness. Mostly, though, the film flails because Van Sant never seems interested in really delving into the project’s bipolar insanity. His recreations are as dutiful as his interventions are muddled.
Take the film’s rejiggered queer subtext. Van Sant casts then out-lesbian Heche as Marion and lingers longingly on the naked body of Viggo Mortensen as Marion’s married lover Sam. So why neuter Norman’s queerness—among the most slippery and intriguing aspects of the original—by making Norman’s peephole spying on Marion into an explicit hetero jerk-off session? Taking on a film so open to theoretical interpretation only underlines how little Van Sant seems interested in exploring abstract notions of spectatorship and semiotics. He is a smart, engaged filmmaker, but Todd Haynes he ain’t. When he plays around with narrative and formal conventions elsewhere, the ultimate purpose is an in-the-moment blurring of subjectivity and objectivity, not the creation of conceptual distance that would be so beneficial here. Faced with the twin possibilities of energized reproduction or tradition-tweaking deconstruction, Van Sant commits to neither.
VAN SANT’S NEXT CROP of films began to experiment with extreme shot duration and an almost-obsessive focus upon commonplace events as observed from a distance. (It should also complicate the notion that Van Sant imported his long-take aesthetic wholesale from Tarr.) However, Psycho’s final frames offer another intriguing connective thread between Van Sant’s would-be discrete periods of commercial capitulation and artiste aestheticism. The unique suspense derives from the tension between the lack of activity on screen and the outside expectations that the viewer brings with him or her to the film itself. It’s a move that Van Sant would continue to use as he moved into his “Death Trilogy” phase. Elephant’s meticulous tracks through mundane high school hallways gain a clammy suspense almost immediately, given the much-publicized fact that the film graphically recalls the Columbine school shooting. Similarly, Last Days’ stringy-haired zombie urinating in the forest and stumbling through his decrepit mansion isn’t just some random rock-star burnout. He’s Kurt Cobain; or, at least, a thinly-dramatized version of the deceased Nirvana singer.
The frisson produced between Van Sant’s ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter and rigorously de-dramatizing aesthetic evokes a frequently rewarding (and occasionally dubious) set of reactions within the viewer. What’s notable at the outset, however, are the ways these moves affect our understanding of Van Sant’s return to the indie fold. Depicted by some as a renunciation of mainstream temptation in favor of the art-house desert, this shift contained within it topical hooks and artistic strategies seen in vestigial forms within his more commercial 90s oeuvre. The formal boldness of Van Sant’s most recent movies cannot be disentangled from the topical, verging-on-lurid content he depicts—content that provides a fair amount of press coverage and pre-packaged viewer interest.
Gerry (2002), the first entry in the “Death Trilogy”, lacks such an obvious grabber, though its narrative is based loosely on the real-life story of two friends who got lost in the desert. Co-writing the screenplay with stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, Van Sant took this wisp of a story and left it a wisp. The relationship between the two men (Damon and Affleck), both of whom call the other Gerry, is never explained. Neither is their initial reason for coming to the desert. (Cryptic talk about going to see “the thing” points to a faux-Beckettian existentialism that the film thankfully swerves away from early on.) Mostly, we watch the two Gerrys walk, walk, slowly realize that they have no idea where they are…and then walk some more. Savides captures this in fluid long takes that manage to alternately sketch the minute tensions between the men and dwarf them amidst parched, monumental landscapes. When you consider that Gerry came out two years after Finding Forrester, its demanding aesthetic and unblinking view of physical desperation feel nothing less than revelatory. But let’s keep things in perspective. Part of the film’s pull lies in seeing then-rising Hollywood stars Damon and Affleck being put through the ringer. (It certainly helps explain how the film got made in the first place.) More so, all those multi-minute tracks of Damon and Affleck huffing and puffing through the mountains are grounded in a story that’s almost elemental in its visceral simplicity. Gerry invokes pit-in-your-stomach dread with a queasy effectiveness. Approaching death’s door has rarely felt more vivid in its banal inescapability.
Van Sant’s ambitions grew with Elephant and Last Days, as did the complexity—and occasional problems—of the interactions between his morbidly compelling subject matter and his austere formal design. This proved especially true of Elephant. The film received a fair amount of raised eyebrows in its elliptical, willfully obscure treatment of the school-shooter duo it depicts. Personally, I find the buffet of potential motivations behind the teenagers’ violent acts to be a refreshing riposte against those demanding linear, easily-digestible explanations. Mediocre parenting, easy gun access, confused sexuality, social ostracization, even a few shots of a Nazi documentary: in its overload of hot-button bullet points, the film seems to flatten and dismiss all of them as “the reason.” More troubling is the film’s structuring of the shooting itself. Elephant shows the killer’s entrance about twenty minutes into the film, only to continually cycle back and re-arrive at the fateful moment, examining the morning through multiple students’ limited sightlines. It’s a structural gambit with an implied ethical charge: no event can be understood wholly from one perspective, least of all something as random and horrific as student-on-student murder. Still, it has the risible side effect of investing much of the film with a queasy suspense that flirts with outright manipulation. Would it have been better to spring the attack on the audience at the very end, rather than making us cycle through our memories and attempt to locate the moment when the inevitable will occur? I’m honestly not sure.
What Elephant unequivocally succeeds at is evoking the singular geography of a high school building. As we follow from behind, Van Sant and Savides track various students as they move from athletic field to cafeteria to bathroom to parking lot…and hallways, always empty, echoing hallways. Their journeys evoke the odd freedom-within-containment that one feels when traversing through space that is usually bustling but has temporarily fallen into repose. School regulates movement like few other institutions, yet here is a moment of freedom, all the more precious for its banality. Some have claimed that these mobile long takes underline the crushing monotony of high school, but I think there’s a lot more nuance to them than that. Van Sant’s school grounds encompass both the lonely echoes of footsteps in abandoned corridors and the giggly cacophony of voices in a GSA meeting, the retching of teenage girls as they vomit up their lunch and the murmurs of burgeoning photographers as they swap pictures and notes. Boredom and possibility both exist within Van Sant’s frame. When the violence finally arrives, the tragedy comes both from the bloody carnage on screen and the wrenching reclassification of those once-open spaces for a single purpose: a pitiless shooting range.
Last Days offers similarly nuanced explorations of space as it tracks the slurred final hours of Cobain stand-in Blake (Michael Pitt). More than any other of his recent films, though, Last Days offers a moment to appreciate Van Sant’s rich explorations of sound as a subjective window and contrapuntal instrument. This proves particularly true of a film about a gifted musical mind that’s mostly succumbed to drugged-off isolation but sparks with the occasional flash of sonic brilliance. There’s an extraordinary scene mid-way through Last Days when Blake begins to stalk around a room filled with musical equipment. He finds an electric guitar and strums out a repetitive string of notes. He puts it down and picks up another, but we hear the first musical line continue over the soundtrack. He plays the second guitar for a while, the instruments layering and looping over one another as he sets that down, howls, skulks around some more, and bashes out some beats on the drums. A song forms, seemingly from thin air, thrashing and hypnotic. It’s a tribute to the artist at work, yet it’s also a fantasy of creation. All those repeating lines and simultaneous instrumentals exist either solely in Blake’s mind or in some Van Sant-ian fantasy space. This is underlined by the visuals: a distanced framing that spies on Blake through a window, and inexorably pulls back. We enter his vibrant creative mind even as his limp body becomes dwarfed and obscured by the surroundings.
It’s among the best things that Van San has ever filmed. And regardless of its occasional sentimentalizing of the Cobain legacy—I could never really connect with that ghost-crawling-to-heaven shot late in the movie—Last Days remains a very watchable examination of decay, loneliness, and the slim, stubborn possibility of transcendence.
VAN SANT’S BEST YEAR as director came in 2008, with the release of two films that seemed to neatly encompass the wandering aesthetic and industrial positions that Van Sant has been exploring—or, depending upon your point of view, wavering between—for the past 20 years. First came Paranoid Park (technically on the festival circuit in 2007 but released theatrically in the spring of 2008). This adaptation of Blake Nelson’s novel follows Portland skate kid Alex (Gabe Nevins) who accidentally kills a train yard security guard while riding the rails. It’s familiar territory for Van Sant, to be sure: the hazy, temporally-scrambled experience of a fresh-faced lost soul. But it also represents an intriguing move away from the rigor of the “Death Trilogy” films and a return to the more diffuse, unpredictable combination of dreamy visions, jittery home videos, and single-take observation seen in My Own Private Idaho. Van Sant’s empathy for youthful confusion remains as intense as always, and it’s paired with an ambivalence about Alex’s crime and its aftermath that lingers long after the final skate punk launches himself through the air in poetic slo-mo.
Later that year, Van Sant hit the prestige circuit with Milk, his biopic of slain San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. The film tracks a familiar path through Milk’s career highlights and personal travails, including a pair of lovers that proves gay and straight historical subjects alike are both suspectible to that most nagging of biopic clichés: the fretful, “humanizing” romantic partner. Mostly, though, Milk is thrilling to watch. It’s the rare film about a politician that seems genuinely jazzed by the political process. Van Sant’s directorial presence is felt more forcefully here than in the 90s films, but he largely cedes the stage to his large and talented cast. Sean Penn won a justly-deserved second Oscar for his Harvey, a performance of irresistible playfulness and boundless joy. In a just world, the Academy would have spread the love to Emilie Hirsch, whose turn as Castro hustler turned burgeoning political activist Cleve Jones gleams with mischievous wit. When Cleve leads his first protest down the streets of San Francisco, it’s a truly stirring snapshot of a radical’s first harnessing of the flame within. Together, the 2008 diptych offers perhaps the most satisfyingly cohesive moment that we’ll get in a career as peripatetic as Van Sant’s. The skillful, earnest purveyor of Hollywood prestige and the adventurous explorer of cinematic subjectivity could at least co-exist satisfactorily within the same calendar year—even as the films’ proximity only highlighted just how disparate Van Sant’s predilections and ambitions remain from film to film.
Such fluctuations come at a certain cost. We like to think that we know our favorite directors—not just their personal backgrounds and production histories, but tastes, biases, opinions, obsessions. For all its theoretical complications, auteurism retains its appeal in large part because it invites us to enter into a relationship with a filmmaker based in equal parts revelation and concealment. Their filmographies become acts of covert memoir to be read by those with enough perceptiveness and dedication to decode the recurring signs and piece them together in some kind of fractured mosaic otherwise known as a director’s “vision” or “worldview.” The dedicated fan finds—no, recognizes—it because they insist not only upon looking at the larger picture, but insisting that there is a larger picture to begin with.
IT’S THIS IDEAL of the coherent personal image hidden in plain view that ultimately explains the undertow of uncertainty that shadows my ardor for Van Sant’s films. That he denies me the comfort of a singular identity doesn’t stop me from wanting one now and again. Is the “real” Van Sant showing himself in My Own Private Idaho or Good Will Hunting? Elephant or To Die For? Milk or (say it ain’t so!) Psycho? It would certainly be easier if he stuck to a given aesthetic path: easier to defend him against charges of flavor-of-the-week opportunism; easier to plunk down money for each new film and know roughly what we’re getting ourselves into. But there’s something so intoxicating—and, yes, occasionally maddening—about the frayed-around-the-edges quality of Van Sant’s career. The spirited, lurching gear shifts between the well-worn satisfaction of the mainstream and the exciting, treacherous topography of the margins give his work an exciting, unpredictable verve that one doesn’t always feel in the work of more well-defined auteurs.
Watching Paranoid Park again recently, I recalled the director’s distinctive use of perennial favorite Elliot Smith’s “Angeles” over a key concluding scene. Vintage Van Sant, it’s a long take framing of the troubled youthful protagonist as seen through the flames of a bonfire. Smith’s plaintive vocals and nimble rhythms fill in some of the emotional blanks left by Alex’s ambiguous actions and leave others hauntingly opaque. But, wait, haven’t we heard this song before? The same tune crops up in none other than Good Will Hunting. It hums in the background as Will bids a terse goodbye to ex-girlfriend Skylar (Minnie Driver) over the phone and later bails on his therapy session. A far more conventional usage, it harnesses the song’s melancholy to underscore Will’s darkness-before-the-dawn setbacks and emotional lethargy. Why the repeat? In Smith’s catalogue, was there no other song that fit his newer work, especially one that wouldn’t explicitly recall his earlier, ever-so-commercial efforts? For another director, I might view it as an act of cleansing, re-positioning a favored song in a more personal context. One can only speculate, but I don’t think that was Van Sant’s goal here. I’d wager he saw little contradiction in finding accessible emotional beats in “Angeles” one decade and wistful ambiguities the next. Why settle for one meaning? Why not keep pushing, keep exploring?
It’s a pleasing irony that Van Sant’s next film is called Restless. Who knows where it will fall along the spectrum of Van Sant-ian tropes, motifs, and obsessions. Indeed, who’s to say what final parameters could even be drawn to define such a spectrum. No matter. The title alone tells you everything you need to know about Van Sant: a director for whom both triumph and misfire feel like just another pit stop on the winding, wayward road to…
Matthew Connolly is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen.
A retrospective of director Gus Van Sant is playing at the Museum of the Moving Image through September 3oth.