Lately upgraded from grungy indie stalwart to Oscar-baiting Hollywoodian, Gus Van Sant promises a return to austerity with his upcoming, ultraminimalist feature, Gerry. To welcome back independent cinema’s prodigal son, MOMA’s survey of his shorts and early features preps audiences with a crash course in the Portland auteur’s more poetic offerings.
Van Sant’s sly, three-minute Junior the Cat (1988) provides a fine single-shot synecdoche for the obsessions of his pre-Good Will Hunting period. In a sun-strewn corner of a house, face to camera, a youthful, guitared Gus explains that his cat has trouble distinguishing between three-dimensional and two-dimensional objects “because he’s a teenager.” After leaning out of frame, Van Sant strums a countrified rock tune; as if on cue, Junior scurries frantically to the beat, chasing a light spot reflected off Van Sant’s guitar.
Like Junior, Van Sant’s heroes become fixated upon impossible objects of devotion; some protagonists are actual teenagers, while others are stuck in the eternally adolescent pathos of amour fou. His first feature, Mala Noche (1985), remains his purest foray into lyrical abjection. Shot with the gritty monochromatic poverty of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and based on Walt Curtis’s semiautobiographical novella, Mala Noche spins an enthralling, lolling yarn about a gay liquor store clerk’s infatuation with a straight Mexican migrant. My Own Private Idaho (1991) casts River Phoenix as a narcoleptic hustler who pines for both his lost mother and a fellow rent boy, played by Keanu Reeves. In the short My Friend (1988), Van Sant blithely stalks an unseen “good-looking” guy and ends up with a black eye. The most recent feature in MOMA’s series, To Die For (1995), adds mainstream gloss to Van Sant’s scrappiness. In this Buck Henry-scripted media satire, Joaquin Phoenix plays a mumbling dirtbag teen tragically crushed out on local “weatherperson” Nicole Kidman.
Though he is associated with the early-’90s rise of New Queer Cinema, Van Sant’s ethos is closer to the soul-churning dissoluteness of pre-Stonewall writers like William S. Burroughs, a recurring presence in Van Sant’s works. Burroughs cameos in the junkie caper Drugstore Cowboy (1989), and Van Sant directed a music video for Burroughs’s anti-patriotic Thanksgiving Prayer (1996). One of Van Sant’s finest shorts is based on a Burroughs story, The Discipline of DE. A mock primer of the fastidious Zen philosophy of “Do Easy,” the film encourages followers to redo everyday motions until flawless, “just like retaking a movie shot till you get it just right.” First shown in 1982, it foretells Van Sant’s subsequent decade, spent perfecting small, carefully composed productions.