Film

The Infinite Variations of Gus Van Sant

Reinvention has been a guiding principle of the American writer-director’s body of work, which is being celebrated with a Metrograph retrospective

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After exploring the morbid mythology of Japan’s Aokigahara forest in The Sea of Trees (2015), Gus Van Sant returns to the familiar confines of his near-and-dear heartland — Portland, Oregon, where he has long resided and shot several movies — with an adaptation of the artist John Callahan’s autobiography, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. In honor of this new release (out July 13), Metrograph has curated a series celebrating the filmmaker’s protean oeuvre. Excluding Van Sant’s more recent, critically divisive works (2011’s Restless, 2012’s Promised LandThe Sea of Trees), as well as the director’s first feature (1986’s Mala Noche), the retrospective of nine films offers an introduction (or reintroduction) to the multitiered Van Sant canon: visual masterpieces such as My Own Private Idaho (1991), Paranoid Park (2007), or the criminally underseen Gerry (2002); beloved commercial hits like To Die For (1995) and Good Will Hunting (1997); and unpopular or unidentified objects such as the strange Kurt Cobain–inflected character study Last Days (2005) or the seemingly pointless shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1998). Short and sweet, the program is an efficient entry into a delightfully hybrid and generous thirty-plus-year career.

In addition to Joaquin Phoenix (as Callahan), Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’s star-studded cast includes Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill, Udo Kier, and Kim Gordon. The movie marks Phoenix’s second collaboration with Van Sant, twenty-three years after he played Nicole Kidman’s much younger lover boy in To Die For. These two films, the first ones screening in the series, provoke a dialogue about the centrality of acting and screen presence in Van Sant’s work. A fetishistic supporting player in To Die For, Phoenix now commands the space of a lead role in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot — a notable background-to-foreground trajectory. Whether established or nonprofessional, actors have forever been a paramount dimension of Van Sant’s movies, reflecting at once his true love for classical performance style and his desire to challenge the conventions inherited from it. In some of his most exciting movies, these divergent impulses — the clash between the experimental and the mainstream — exist inside the same frames.

In the case of To Die For, the film seems purposefully constructed around the diabolically innocent Barbie face and voice of Nicole Kidman. She plays Suzanne Stone, a superficial and fame-fixated weather reporter who manipulates a band of teenagers (including Phoenix and his piercing blue eyes) into killing her husband. The film retraces the story through flashbacks, from Suzanne’s first encounter with her husband, Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), to the ensuing sets of decisions that lead her to organize his murder. Van Sant approximates the form of a mockumentary — with Kidman and the rest of the cast addressing the camera frontally — in a parody of warts-and-all talk shows like Jerry Springer. Danny Elfman’s mischievous score blends heavy metal strings with drums, while editor Curtiss Clayton pursues an explosive comic montage that involves slow-motion, abrupt inserts and nonsensical cuts. The inaugural commission in Van Sant’s Hollywood cycle, To Die For boasts a darkly comic tone and a critical stance on television and the media that makes it a singularity in his filmography.

A caustic tone can be found in Van Sant’s second feature, Drugstore Cowboy (1989) — most specifically in the voice-over and insolent attitude of its main character, Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon, in his post–Rusty James phase). An adaptation of James Fogle’s autobiographical novel, Drugstore Cowboy follows a band of young junkies — led by the superstitious Bob and his wife, Dianne (Kelly Lynch) — through their carefully staged robberies and the law-enforcement scrutiny that forces them to be constantly on the move in the Pacific Northwest region. Van Sant at this early stage avoids the visual punchlines that he would sprinkle throughout To Die For, but the humor is not nonexistent — only delicately woven into the melancholic fabric. Orchestrated by Officer Gentry (James Remar), the police investigation inspires burlesque situations and lines, as when the authorities’ first raid leaves the junkies’ home completely ravaged. Bob, trying in the aftermath to reassure his friends — who are all sitting naked in the ruins — utters: “Man, I love cops. If there were no hot shit cops like Gentry, the competition would be so heavy, there’d be nothing else to steal, right?”

Amused but not sardonic, Van Sant films everyone with the same tender, empathetic eye that characterizes all his relationships with his fictional characters. Drugstore Cowboy sees him propelling his beatnik affinities and influences to something approaching the mainstream. (It includes a special cameo by William S. Burroughs, who collaborated in the writing.) The film also continues the auteur’s extrasensory exploration of an alternative Americana, through the doped and existential jolts of a doomed youth — an exploration that would achieve its peak expression in My Own Private Idaho. The director’s Nineties jewel, this classic of queer cinema combines Van Sant’s love for experimental cinema, theater, and underground culture. A degenerated road movie driven by the barricaded loneliness and narcoleptic breakdowns of River Phoenix’s Mike, a gay hustler in search of his lost mother and home, My Own Private Idaho is a dense and personal film with an engulfing sadness. There is, at the heart of it, a sublime campfire scene during which Mike awkwardly professes his love for Scott (Keanu Reeves), the bourgeois and rebellious son who speaks in an old-fashioned manner.

My Own Private Idaho stands as Van Sant’s first artistic peak, a perfect synthesis of formal inventiveness and narrative generosity. Nonetheless, his stamp of institutional acclaim didn’t come until 1998, when Oscar nominations abounded for the beloved melodrama Good Will Hunting. Written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, it stars Damon as the eponymous character Will Hunting, a troubled mathematics genius whose gifts of intellect are thwarted by his unwillingness to face his troubled and abusive past. A captivating tale of redemption, Good Will Hunting is mainly a narrative vehicle guided by its actors’ performances. (It is no coincidence that Academy Awards went to the Affleck-Damon writing duo and Robin Williams, for his mournful performance as Will’s psychiatrist; Van Sant left the ceremony empty-handed.) Van Sant’s Hollywood experiment overall was a curious exercise in dissimulation — and, in the case of his 1998 Psycho remake, we can even talk of total dissolution, as the director seems to ask with that maligned exercise: What can possibly remain of one’s particular style when getting involved in such pastiche?

His next feature, Gerry — a tipping point in Van Sant’s career — doesn’t provide an answer but suggests an exhaustion with the conventions he had embraced in the previous decade. Gerry unsettled audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered in 2002. Starring Good Will Hunting’s Matt Damon along with Casey Affleck, the film is a radical aesthetic departure from its predecessors and the first of the formally daring features that would make up Van Sant’s death-themed tetralogy (the others being 2003’s Elephant, Paranoid Park, and Last Days). Based loosely on a true story, it centers on two friends, both named Gerry, as they get lost in their search for an unnamed thing. The plot’s minimalism is reflected in the stripped-down structure of the film — all tracking shots (from the late, great cinematographer Harris Savides) and stark dialogue. Just like the disoriented characters, we get lost in the magnificent landscapes and endless deserts of Death Valley. Gerry was like nothing Van Sant had done before, a welcome provocation in line with the work of the Hungarian director Béla Tarr.

More than just a predictable reunion between former collaborators, the casting of Gerry communicated a subtle hint about the direction of the next stage in Van Sant’s body of work. This wasn’t Casey Affleck’s first appearance in Van Sant’s cinema — he had done secondary roles in To Die For and Good Will Hunting — but it heralded his evolution to leading-man status. His mumbling, awkward presence seems to inspire the resolute strangeness and formal gravity of Van Sant’s reinvigorated approach to Gerry. Van Sant maybe saw in Casey Affleck, an actor more opaque and less limited than his brother, the same candor and purity he would later seek in the sublime nonprofessional actors of Elephant and Paranoid Park. It’s these untrained, free-of-technique faces that would provide the perfect canvas for Van Sant’s output during the Aughts — yet another extended reinvention in a career stocked with them.

‘Gus Van Sant’
Metrograph
June 27–July 1

 

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