At the age of thirty Gus Van Sant managed to make a shift from the nurturing scene of underground film exhibition into a more public arena. The Discipline of D.E. was based on a short story by The Naked Lunch famed writer William Burroughs. It utilises a simple observational voice and the subject of retirement as a “do easy” guide to life, making a somewhat unexpected product from such a fresh and young filmmaker.
It would later become an iconic moment in Van Sant’s career as it was a product of its era. Although produced in a post Warhol film period, it maintains a similar notion of ease via sharp black and white photography and a boundless artistic form.
…Van Sant’s career maintains a boundless artistic form.
It was this form which Van Sant returned to four years later when he adapted Mala Noche. The novel of the same title did not receive the usual transformation into script form, instead the film was made with a makeshift paperback copy at hand.
Successfully producing a film from literary form, it was delicately lit and balanced beautifully in its poetic narrative. I was hesitant of this film’s appeal, discovering it after I had seen nearly every other Van Sant film, but I was still delightfully surprised as it resonates and remains un-aged by its originality.
… truly remarkable filmmaking.
If Mala Noche was anything to go by, anyone would have known that increasing the small, almost non-existent budgest that Van Sant was using would result in truly remarkable filmmaking. What followed was a string of classics. Van Sant never shied away from challenges and provocations, making him continually exciting.
The first of these was Drugstore Cowboy, a film which utilised its cast to the maximum potential. It was edited with a bold style and helped define the road movie genre. A theme which he touched upon briefly in his first film, the characters flee the home, challenge their borders and exhaust themselves as they attempt to collect drugs.
Van Sant delved into uncharted areas…
But not all is fun and games here. Much like his following film, My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant delved into uncharted areas, with a sudden plot twist which affects the interior psyche of the characters.
In Drugstore Cowboy the lifestyle depicted prompts the instant distaste of the illegal life and yet you fall for Kelly Lynch‘s character and even her terrorised relationship with her husband, played by Matt Dillon doesn’t dampen the empathy.
To Die For is the most graceful of Van Sant’s black comedies
In My Own Private Idaho you wish the two leads set within their Shakespearian tongue twisting lives would find what they are in search of. At first it is the lost innocence of childhood – which we re-visit in a dreamland etched film formant; and then it is the inevitable love triangles which develop. Watching River Phoenix‘s Mike Waters chase what he cannot have and knowing of his death a few years later contributes to what can only be described as a classic.
One of Van Sant’s more prominent traits is the performances he draws from his actors. Throughout his oeuvre the lead often has the opportunity to develop on screen in a way rarely depicted and usually never repeated in their other project choices.
…the tale of starting out in a world of fame couldn’t be served better…
In 1995 Van Sant made Nicole Kidman a killer TV presenter in To Die For: As she claws her way to celebrity stardom, we embrace a fresh cast including Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix and in the most graceful of Van Sant’s black comedies, poetry and the power of televised digitalisation of imagery brings a breath of life to death. Telling the tale of starting out in a world of fame couldn’t be served better and it was something Van Sant would truly get a taste for with his next film.
When Gus Van Sant made Good Will Hunting in 1997, no one could really predict how far it would rise. The film, which was written by two close friends, was something of a red herring on the outset. Robin Williams was cast in a serious role, one which would become the first of many; while Van Sant, fresh from making smaller independent films, seemed to be taking a step into the mainstream genre.
And what a step it was. The film was nominated for nine Oscars, and took home two, it surged in popularity – and now remains a timeless classic.
…a bit of a grey zone amongst cineaphiles…
It was infact the first Gus Van Sant film I ever saw, and although probably his least personal in my opinion, it remains somewhat fresh, and intimate; quietly reassuring the viewer that there is more to this film than the usual buddy outset and Hollywoodesque romance.
Following Good Will Hunting was of course not an easy career choice, as to many it seemed Van Sant had abandoned his underground roots, a doubling act of two films back to back were produced. First, and very controversially, was the colour remake of Pyscho, starring an odd cast of hardcore serious actors, and then some comedic grinners. Now, years later, it remains in a bit of a grey zone amongst cineaphiles, I for one think it is great – but by saying that, I do not believe it is superior to its original. But then, was it intended to be?
…a film just about education and genuine genius…
No matter what you feel towards the film, it does achieve something that all Van Sant films do; it forces the audience to reconsider a new view point to the circumstance/situation. For one, though, it allows a modern depiction of the crimes, and is closely linked in with what Hitchcock might have originally intended. And the effort to achieve that is flawless.
Like Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester is a sweet set up of education, miscommunication and the alienation of smaller social groups; here though, the mistakes which Van Sant made in his sophomore films have faded. Rather than making a film just about education and genuine genius, Van Sant manages to address several other issues, such as race, class, agoraphobia and the American dream. Nonetheless, this small gem from 2000 has disappeared, and I for one cannot recommend it enough; especially for its use of a brilliant cast headed with Sean Connery.
It is a film of great beauty and potency.
Moving on, and heading back to Van Sant’s origins, what followed were class acts, Gerry, the experimental Warholesque film, was written once again by the duo of Good Will Hunting, and much like the film which followed, was a dip into making new forms of communication through the medium of film.
Gerry, in all its beautiful landscapes, depicts two friends who go for a hike in a desert, soon to get lost and have their relationship tested to the maximum. It is a film of great beauty and potency.
And Van Sant’s experimentation didn’t stop there. After Gerry, and a distasterous event in Columbine, a new surge of commitment came to the production of a film that never really explains itself, it is, like Gerry, a direct translation of humanity onto the screen, seamlessly done with steadicam, edited with a pure passion, and made in a language beyond telecommunications; the art house Elephant earned Van Sant a truly disserving Palme d’Or. Its subject was one which couldn’t have been expressed better, making the high school shootings seem alien and provocative. I am left speechless after ever screening, and rightfully so.
One of the great aspects of Van Sant’s nature is his ability to experiment and perfect his technique. Elephant, much like Gerry, was one of these milestones and although each film in this catastrophic silent nature of drama stands alone, one can draw on a chain of comparison in these films.
Last Days and Paranoid Park are the two which follow in this digital transformation; they retain a certain level of silence, not using the usual Hollywood-esque scene-by-scene explanation or breakdown of character.
…a beautiful poem of a musician self-medicating art with alcohol and drugs.
Last Days is a beautiful poem of a musician self-medicating art with alcohol and drugs. Michael Pitt shines here, muttering to himself alone in the woods, eating a bowel of cereal and inviting Jehovah’s witnesses into his house for a talk – he becomes Blake through and through. Van Sant’s steady camera and slow-paced movements create moving portraits with this film, these characters come alive; encapsulated within the framing and incarcerated in time.
Between Last Days and Paranoid Park, Van Sant dipped into the ensemble film Paris, Je T’Aime (with his segment Le Marais), a small Lost in Translation love story. It, like most of Van Sant’s shorts, was like a miniature film and I can’t help but wonder what if it had been like if it had being developed further into a feature. A tease to the audience, it unfolds almost instantly, catching the viewer’s eye for being not only the least flamboyant short of the montage, but also the simplest and most pleasing temptation of love in Paris.
Using the same ‘teenage years’ theme, Van Sant made Paranoid Park next; a film which like its predecessors acts as an exploration into what can be described simply as ‘Pure Cinema’. Moments captured on camera which obtain meaning through their artistry, such as the slow motioned eye lines, the rough and ready digital footage of roller-skating and the shocking moment when a crime occurs for just a blink of the eye. Van Sant taunts his viewers through this film, making us fall with the character in several instances and gesturing at a greater notion of what is right and wrong and furthermore where do we fall into this society.
Following this, Van Sant made another short film; Mansion on the Hill. It is a small pin hole of information, which stands alone as a message for the audience rather than an entertaining narrative. To me, it seems rather amazing that Van Sant is able to do these smaller exercises, indicating that he is a true auteur, unafraid of simply working away regardless of what is expected of him; as long as there is paper, he will keep on writing.
…crisp photography, flawless performances from Penn, Franco and Brolin and an almost Elephant like recollection of murder…
In his restless nature, Van Sant takes on a project which would not only become a landmark of LGBT history, but a subject which is still rather controversial, thought provoking and a wakeup call to its audience for civil rights.
Milk is a return to form in terms of Van Sant’s earlier dramas (see Good Will Hunting), however it still feels as if it belongs to his later work too; with it’s crisp photography, flawless performances from Penn, Franco and Brolin and an almost Elephant like recollection of murder and its after-effect.
Van Sant whispers powerfully at his audience, using a flawless script and a perfected working ethos. This may be his greatest film and I cannot imagine what will top it.
Images courtesy of Gus Van Sant