My Frustration With Gus Van Sant

There are filmmakers out there who turn anything that they touch into gold. As far as the modern era is concerned, men such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and even Clint Eastwood come immediately to mind as those who would fit into this category. There are arguably a few others, I’m sure, but then there are the filmmakers who demonstrate undeniable talent only to sometimes squander it with incredibly poor motivations and decisions that result in projects that can be downright contemptible. Director Gus Van Sant is such an individual for me. Here’s a man whose career started out with incredible success, as he turned out a host of winners in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. However, since the late ‘90s, I’m not sure there has been a director who has vacillated between creating films that are so brilliant and alternately insipid, with such volatility as Mr. Van Sant.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must make it known that I haven’t seen every one of Van Sant’s films (though, probably more than most). His debut feature, Mala Noche, I believed to be unavailable on video. That isn’t the case, so I’ll have to put it on my long list. However, the only other feature that I missed, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, sadly isn’t available on video. Anyway, Van Sant’s second feature Drugstore Cowboy was my introduction to his work, and it’s about as gritty and effective a movie one will ever see concerning drug addiction, without being preachy or judgmental. Matt Dillon leads a “family” of addicts across the country robbing drugstores to get their fix. Van Sant got all-around incredible performances from his cast, and this movie not only made my list for overlooked but worthwhile drug films, but also put the director on the map for me as someone to watch, when I initially saw the release years ago.

From there, Van Sant followed that up with My Own Private Idaho, about two male street hustlers (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) making their way in the Pacific Northwest. I don’t think this one is as good as Drugstore Cowboy (though, many may disagree), and I’ve already briefly discussed the film in my commentary on Reeves. However, it is a moving effort and a cult classic, and it further showcased that Van Sant was an admirable writer and director with something to say.

More great releases followed, with To Die For and Good Will Hunting. To Die For, largely inspired by true events in 1990, concerning the case of Pamela Smart—a woman who was convicted of conspiring to kill her husband after seducing a teenage boy and convincing him to do the deed—is a delicious black comedy, with tremendous performances from Nicole Kidman as the evil manipulator and Joaquin Phoenix as her troubled teen whipping boy. Good Will Hunting is actually one of the best dramas of the ‘90s, thanks in part to a brilliant Oscar-winning screenplay from co-stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. (Yes, Ben Affleck! Off topic, for someone who takes a ton of abuse, at least in the circles I travel in, Affleck is due more credit than he gets. Those who have seen GWH, his effort in founding the Project Greenlight series with friend Damon, and his recent work on the co-writing and directing of Gone Baby Gone and The Town, can attest that Affleck knows what he’s doing more often than not). Van Sant admirably combines the script—about a janitor (Damon) at MIT who’s actually a genius, but who needs help from those around him to escape his emotional scars and tough Boston roots in order to earn a better life for himself—with more top-notch acting work that he gets out of Damon, Minnie Driver, and especially Robin Williams (who won an Oscar as Damon’s broken-hearted counselor) to nab himself an Academy Award nomination for director. It’s just too bad that he followed that up with an ill-conceived idea to do a primarily “shot-for-shot” color remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Alright, so it’s widely regarded by most that Van Sant’s Psycho is a complete waste of time, so there’s not a huge need to go into any great depth about it here. It’s enough to say that part of the problem is that it’s doubtful that Hitchcock’s masterpiece needed an updating in the first place, but it’s just funny that an intended “shot-for-shot” remake of the film still managed to strip out all the tension that the original had, highlighted by a terrible performance from Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. It just goes to show that there’s more to a movie than simply setting up the camera. Vaughn completely missed the vulnerability inherent in Anthony Perkins’ character. That’s one of the reasons the release didn’t work. Viewers just couldn’t feel for the Vaughn portrayal. When Van Sant was asked about the supposed bright idea to make this film, he replied, “…so that no one else would have to.” That’s peculiar, but somewhat unsurprising since this is the time where Van Sant began to lose his way a little bit.

Finding Forrester is a decent enough film, about a very intelligent young black youth (Rob Brown) from the inner city who earns a scholarship to an esteemed prep school. However, his aptitude is in conflict with the culture that surrounds him, where basketball is what’s important and considered the way out of the ghetto. He eventually befriends the title character played by Sean Connery, a reclusive novelist who winds up mentoring the young man, to help him live his dream as a writer, during an uneasy relationship. Sound familiar? Yes, the movie is somewhat similar to Good Will Hunting, only not as good, even though the films are ultimately different. Also, the movie’s conclusion is very reminiscent of Scent Of A Woman, and much of the script’s drama is derivative and a touch heavy-handed. Though, this is far from Van Sant’s worst film.

Finding Forrester in 2000 marked the director’s last mainstream effort for the better part of the decade. His next project, Gerry, was the first in a string of independent releases by Van Sant helmed in an effort to be free of outside interference and restrictions, so that he could exercise his artistic spirit. That sounds great, in theory, and honestly, I must state that I truly enjoyed Gerry, though I may be the only one. It’s not a film that I can heartily recommend to anyone. Here’s the premise: Casey Affleck and Matt Damon go for a hike in the desert and get lost… That’s it. The film seems largely improvised, with Affleck, Damon and Van Sant sharing the writing credit, and there are long stretches without any action or dialogue. However, while the movie will test the patience of many (and most viewers certainly aren’t patient), at its core it’s about true friendship, which is something that’s missed by many critics, and the talent of the two actors mixed with creative and beautiful camera work really makes for an original and likable effort that I completely identified with. Not to slight Van Sant, but I must point to Affleck and Damon for giving the production most of its charm, because as evidenced by Van Sant’s next couple of ventures, when left to his own autonomy the work is decidedly less successful.

The film Elephant is a complete fraud. I know, I know, there are plenty of people who appreciated this movie, and it miraculously even won the Palme d’Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. I don’t have any idea how that happened. I guess people convinced themselves that the film was vital in the wake of the Columbine shootings. However, the film is really just a boring journey through an average day at a high school, with a Steadicam following the kids around without providing any kind of characterization or insight into their lives, until a couple of kids decide to shoot up the place. Some folks will say that the bare-bones approach provided a feeling of dread and illuminated the senselessness of such a massacre, but I disagree. Van Sant forgot a key element of drama: emotion. If he was trying to make the audience feel anything, he probably should have provided the viewer with a reason to care about the victims. I mean, sure, of course it’s awful when anyone is senselessly slaughtered, but simply documenting a disturbing but fictitious event without any back story isn’t enough to create an impact in the realm of film. Van Sant squandered a real opportunity here to do something audacious, and the film just winds up being a complete waste of time. Sadly, it’s not even his worst movie.

Van Sant’s Last Days is such a pointless, pretentious, and extremely tedious experiment that it’s almost impossible to get one’s head around. The film is largely inspired by the death of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain, and while Van Sant makes sure to tell viewers that the production isn’t intended as a documentation of events, his intentions are evident. Anyway, the movie follows a young rock star named Blake (the very talented Michael Pitt, who does his absolute best with a thankless role) as he wanders around the woods and an isolated house, and ruminates what the “last days” of such a Cobain-like rock star (drug-addled, troubled and depressed) must be like before his eventual suicide. Remember, it’s inspired by the late Cobain, so I didn’t really ruin anything. This film meanders so much that anything the filmmaker was trying to do just gets lost in nonsense. For those who thought Gerry was pushing the envelope with its lack of dialogue, this one will really make the brain start spinning, and this time there aren’t likable characters such as Affleck and Damon to offset the emptiness. Additionally, does anyone really need such a film? Kurt Cobain killed himself. That’s all anyone really needs to know. Meditating on one’s pointless activity before he does the deed is, well, pointless. The only positive thing I will say is that Michael Pitt’s song, Birth to Death, that he wrote and performs in the middle of the film is amazing. So, there’s that.

Things get a little better, and perhaps Van Sant learned from previous mistakes with Paranoid Park, but it’s still likely that many will be wondering, “What’s the point?” after watching it. Utilizing unknown and for the most part first-time actors like he did in Elephant, Van Sant offers a fragmented tale told out of sequence that follows a young skateboarder (Gabe Nevins) and how he deals with a tragic and horrible accident at a rail yard behind a skate (Paranoid) park. While the release’s identity is as disjointed as its camera work and soundtrack (though, these elements do tend to help aspects of the film at times), it is a more engaging project than Van Sant’s previous efforts. One can feel for and like the lead character. However, I found myself once again unmoved by the end result. Maybe that was Van Sant’s intention. This film is obviously not about the consequences of one’s actions. It’s more a commentary on modern youth culture and the difficulty inherent in “growing up.” Are the teens in Paranoid Park lost and hopeless souls, or are they actually good kids without direction who just make mistakes, much like anyone? It’s difficult to tell where Van Sant’s thoughts lie. Maybe he doesn’t know, either. Maybe that’s Paranoid Park’s problem. It seems to lack conviction, and therefore, impact.

Van Sant would finally return (perhaps thankfully) to the mainstream with Milk, about the life of openly gay activist Harvey Milk, that would garner him his second Oscar-nomination for direction and Sean Penn’s second Oscar for his portrayal of the late politician. The film is brilliant, and it’s a reminder of Van Sant’s immense talent. It also just goes to show that a film is only as good as the sum of its parts. It’s not just about a director or an actor. It takes all aspects of production to make a worthwhile film. Van Sant would probably be best served to walk a fine line between the Hollywood machine and his creative and artistic instincts. He once stated that he admittedly was going in a “weird, I-don’t-know-where direction,” but that he preferred it to anything that standard filmmaking has become. I certainly admire his love and enthusiasm for the true art of filmmaking, and his heart is in the right place. However, no man is an island. One needs the talent of others to make things work in this medium. I’m sure Van Sant knows that. It’s maintaining a balance between his ability and others’ that’s going to be the trick.

A character in Paranoid Park notes that it’s important to write things down just so one can get them out of their system. Hopefully, that’s what I’ve done here. Have I been frustrated with this director’s career? Sure. Will I continue to anticipate his work? Yep. Am I looking forward to his next film, Restless, about the relationship between a funeral crashing oddball and a sick girl? Not really. Will I watch it? Probably. I may need to get more frustration out of my system.