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Focus on Gus Van Sant - Program Notes

van sant with michael pitt on the set of last days
Gus Van Sant on set with Michael Pitt from Last Days

"Some people take your heart, others take your shoes, and still others take you home"
Mike (River Phoenix), My Own Private Idaho

Van Sant's filmic universe might appear to the casual observer to be a resolutely downbeat one, populated for the most part as it is - particularly in his early films - by street hustlers, illegal immigrants, dope fiends, disaffected teens and emotionally estranged young men inhabiting the margins of established society (typically set in and around Portland, Oregon, the director's adopted 'hometown'). Roads figure prominently too: sparse, desolate ones. Roads leading somewhere, or nowhere, or nowhere in particular, or just maybe, leading home (the most hard-won of destinations).

On the face of it, 'not a lot of happy chappies in a Gus Van Sant film', you might reasonably conclude. And yet, are we not all of us standing "in the gutter, [though] some of us are looking at the stars", as a famous Irish-born gadabout once said?  Van Sant's 'fringe dwellers' - Walt (Tim Streeter) in Mala Noche, Mike (River Phoenix) in My Own Private Idaho, Bob (Matt Dillon) in Drugstore Cowboy - may embody a particular kind of spiritual (and more literal) vagrancy, but where they transcend the lacklustre reality of their day to day lives is in their undefeated and ultimately heroic compulsion to keep moving, to keep searching, to keep reaching for that ideal of self acceptance, of romantic love, of brotherhood, of family.

mala noche
Mala Noche

Maternal figures appear from time to time in this unspoken striving, though their presence is often elusive or problematic. In Idaho, Mike's absent mother is a phantom holy grail, glimpsed only fleetingly in fractured flashes of memory that replay in his addled mind. Bob's mother in Drugstore Cowboy (the wonderful Grace Zabriskie) is summarily dismissed by her prickly, freeloading son, despite the obvious concern she has for his well-being.

Grand sentimental quests notwithstanding, unrequited love sure gets a work-out in the Van Sant oeuvre. In Mala Noche (1985), Walt, a young gay would-be writer working in a liquor store, sets his sights on a young Mexican 'alien', Johnny, who, Johnny's friend Pepper bluntly clarifies for Walt, "doesn't sleep with queers". Unbowed, Walt makes a play for Johnny in a self-proclaimed "dramatic macho act" that ends, unsurprisingly enough, in a rather more pragmatic choice of partner. A neon sign in the liquor store brightly announces 7Up Likes You, as if to wryly mock Walt's romantic naivety.

In My Own Private Idaho (1991), Scott (Keanu Reeves) is the elusive object of desire that fellow rent boy Mike struggles to connect with. "Two guys can't love each other", Scott asserts. "Yeah well, I don't know, I mean for me, I could love someone even if I, you know, wasn't paid for it. I love you don't pay me", Mike disconsolately affirms for the benefit of his ambivalent friend.

my own private idaho
My Own Private Idaho

This halting exchange - in one of the key scenes that go right to the heart of Idaho - plays out between the two men at night around a campfire, another familiar motif that recurs throughout Van Sant's films. In Idaho and Mala Noche and later in Gerry (2002), campfires typically operate as sites of verbally spare, emotionally loaded conversations between males. "I hate you", Gerry 1 (Matt Damon) tells Gerry 2 (Casey Affleck) early in their trek. "Not really, right?", Gerry 2 uncomfortably presses him.

Only Blake (Michael Pitt) in Last Days (2005) breaks the convention. Blake is alone when he wanders across the green expanse of his sprawling estate, finds a spot to light a fire, settles in and plaintively intones the words to Home on the Range to himself. His is a figure deliberately set apart from others; rather than seeking the connection or solace yearned for by a figure like Walt or Mike or Gerry 2, Blake is reconciled to the irony that his palatial, sparsely furnished home is devoid of anything approaching familial comfort, warmth or security. Its sole 'inhabitants' are members of Blake's band that have crashed for the night with respective girlfriends in tow, and who quit the scene with nary a look back over their gormless shoulders when Blake's body is discovered the next day. 

The spectre of death is a consistent presence in Van Sant's films, though, again, Van Sant isn't inclined to labour the point. Death unsentimentally asserts itself in measured, deliberate strides in almost all the director's films: in recent films such as Last Days (a Valentine of sorts to Kurt Cobain), certainly, but even in films as early Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993). Death wears a more tartly sardonic mask in To Die For (1995) and bears the weight of cinematic hagiography in Psycho (1998), but is no less shocking in its finality.


In Gerry, death creeps up, finally, to rudely dispel the almost meditative degree of ambient abstraction Van Sant and his regular cinematographer Harry Savidis and sound designer Larry Shatz achieve up to the last frames in the film's experimental 'narrative'. In Elephant (2003) (as in Last Days), death draws its inspiration from sensation-generating headlines, but Van Sant and his creative team choose to deploy it with the gravity and invitation to contemplation that should be death's due. (Van Sant isn't averse to a little intertextual play, however: in Elephant, one of the teen sociopaths set to wreak havoc at school 'limbers up' by playing a video game in which the pixellated human targets are the Matt Damon and Casey Affleck characters from Gerry.)

In Paranoid Park, death is a catalyst, a 'cameo' rather than the engine of the film's central drama: it lurks in the shadows, with only one key moment of exposition. When it comes - as it does in a brief scene that rivals James Ellroy or Brian De Palma for shock brutality - the effect is gasp-inducing.     
Re-watching My Own Private Idaho now, some fifteen plus years since its initial release in cinemas, River Phoenix' tragic, accidental death (in October, 1993) imbues this most elegiac of Van Sant films with an ineffable imprint of loss. It's a sense seemingly unconsciously reinforced by the casting of River's siblings in later films by the director: Rain Phoenix in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, a film dedicated to River, and Joaquin Phoenix in To Die For. It is as if Rain and Joaquin's material presence in these 'posthumous' films, in some unspoken way, stands in for their absent brother, and yet, in so doing, also reaffirms the loss.             

The opening night feature of our season, Van Sant's most recently completed feature, Paranoid Park (production of his upcoming Harvey Milk film, with Sean Penn and Josh Brolin in lead roles, kicked off on January 14) continues Van Sant's exploration of themes of youthful disquiet, longing and self-doubt: a rich dramatic vein the director has mined in all his films. Paranoid Park also reveals a director in full technical and stylistic command of the medium; Van Sant has re-teamed with Christopher Doyle, his director of photography on 1998's Psycho, for this, their second feature collaboration.

paranoid park
Paranoid Park

Considered in light of the thematically sympathetic and yet increasingly experimental films that have led to Paranoid Park, Van Sant's collective body of work affirms the director as a steadfast, prolific and ever more challenging chronicler of the human condition. If comparisons to nineteenth century French realist writer, Honore de Balzac - whose robust imagination, enquiring mind and social commentator's eye found rich expression in his series of stories and novels known as La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy) - seem too grandiose, then by way of a final reflection, I'll leave the last word to Noah Cowan, co-director of the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival:

"Paranoid Park feels like a provocative continuation of Van Sant's recent, extraordinary trilogy of films: Gerry, Elephant and Last Days. This new work shares with them a fragmentary, ethereal quality, trading on quiet nuance and atmosphere.considering them as a whole, the films show more and more moments of intersection, languidly yielding hard-won truths about the nature of hope and fear, especially as they relate to the inner lives of young men in the modern world. It appears that Van Sant is creating a sprawling, ambitious work about the human condition, one stealthy chapter at a time".    

Roberta Ciabarra, Australian Centre for the Moving Image
© January 2008

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