Respect Your Shelf: Gus Van Sant (AU Magazine, Issue 59)
November 12, 2009, 1:27 am
Filed under: Features, Movie Features


Words_John Calvert

There are only a handful of directors who have carved an impression of America that’s all of their own, fewer still over the course of 30 years and 15 features, and only one quite like Gus Vant Sant. Guardian of counterculture cinema, one-time Holywood populist and avant-garde maverick, his is the gritty poetry of the itinerant, the unclaimed and the discarded.

So imbibe on these his selected works; a rite’s of passage dream; a mainstream masterpiece; not one but two generation-defining Indies; and part two of a ‘death trilogy’. Wherever, Whatever, have a nice day.

Drugstore Cowboy


Under the dreary pall of North-western skies, Matt Dillon’s classic anti-hero ‘Bob’ and his posse live amongst the squares as a family in dowdy Portland suburbia. To stay high they undertake daring raids on dispensaries, taking stock of their Technicolor booty on a grubby formica table.

Trading in stylized beatnik-jargon and druggy proverbs (“When you’re hot, shoot the world’), Bob and his slacker bandits have an unapologetic commitment to bohemian exile. Their philosophy was completely out of sync with the decade’s obsession with citizenship, meritocratic ambition, standard of living and goal-orientated mineral water. Bleakly funny and doused with an insouciant cool, Drugstore was a bona-fide missive from a surviving counter-culture, tweaking with a jazzy energy and flow, under a patina of dopamine sweat.

The right-wing presses were aghast at the film’s irreverent take on drug addiction. Interspersed with the crew’s misadventures, serene sequences have an addled Matt Dillon relating the ecstasies of chemical adventuring and ultimately Bob’s change of heart is more about pragmatism than repentance. In the end, got by ‘the T.V baby’, he travels by ambulance on the State’s buck, towards the largest drugstore in town, devilish hunger intact. Much like in Trainspotting, it depicts abuse as a lifestyle choice for non-conformists, rather than the plague of put upon have-nots.

Drugstore chimed with Alt-rock’s deification of the Wild West’s drifter outlaws as olden-day punk retreat-ists. The set began to flood their aesthetics with elements of folk and country, equating the chief tenets of redneck mythology, – rootless-ness, isolation, weary romanticism – to Generation X’s suburban ghost towns and ennui-afflicted folk-heroes.

La Trivata: Seven years before Trainspotting, Drugstore got into similar strife for its scenes of ‘instructional drug use’.

Best Bit: William S Burroughs makes a logical cameo as junky clergyman Tom The Priest, who after a period of bonhomie with a reformed Bob is gifted the score of his life.

My Own Private Idaho


The strange and lyrical My Own Private Idaho all but whispers the story of street hustler and genteel narcoleptic ‘Mike’ (an iconic turn from the late River Phoenix) and wayward Mayor’s son ‘Scott’ (Keanu Reeves), who bid farewell to their family of fellow rent-boys and escape Portland in search of Mike’s estranged Mother. The tagline went: ‘Wherever, Whatever, Have a Nice Day’ – the film’s freewheeling, hazy, ineffable tone in a nutshell.

Van Sant’s defining film, Idaho compounded Independent cinema’s fixation with anomie, rural surrealism and bleary-eyed waifs. Wholly displaced from the forward momentum of everyday life, Mike roams a nexus between loneliness and existential freedom, both banal and poetic at once and evoked with a transporting combination of time-lapse photography, extreme close-ups and sprawling 35mm wide-shots. Refracted through the fuzzy synapses of Mike’s perspective, the dislocated structure abets Idaho’s unparalleled expression of liminality.

The two part ways in Rome, where after, Mike’s fits, presaged by home-video memories of his mother, return him to the road in Idaho alone, stranded and asleep. Unlike a conventional road movie in which the protagonists repatriate to normality after a process of self discovery, there is no final destination for Mike, only Idaho. “This road will never end…” he narrates ‘It probably goes all around the world’. My Own Private Idaho just as vividly betokens alt-culture’s brief entry into mainstream America as Nevermind, released three weeks later in October 1991.

La Triviata: The title was taken from the B-52’s song of the same name.

Best Bit: The most peculiarly filmed sex scene in cinema (until Fight Club), Mike and Scott’s threesome is conveyed in what first appears to be still photography, but which is actually a series of held poses.

Good Will Hunting


Challenging Shawshank and Jerry Maguire for the title of feel-good great of The Nineties, Van Sant saw Good Will Hunting as his contribution to ‘anonymous community art’.

Suppressing his experimental tendencies and aided by Jean-Yves Escoffier’s autumnal lensing, no one could have predicted how intuitively Van Sant would craft the kind of Hollywood all-rounder that verges on story-telling perfection, urging you to involve your friends and family in an uncomfortably protracted group hug.

The story is of troubled blue-collar genius Matt Damon’s Will (another of Van Sant’s lost boys) and widowed psychiatrist Sean (a never-better Robin William) tasked with thwarting Will’s path of self-destruction. If that all sounds a little Hallmark for you, the threat of smaltzy insincerity is eradicated by a down-to-earth script, sold by a gallery of pitch perfect performances. Mainstream drama has since rarely been as rich and rewarding.

Portlandian Elliott Smith populated the soundtrack, cutting a lonely figure on stage at the Oscars in a performance that must rank as the ceremony’s most uncomfortably real and sincere ever.

Best Bit: Dawn breaks as Will and friends drive home from their night out. Van Sant matches the mood with Smith’s quietly devastating ‘No name # 3’, to divine effect.

La Triviata: Sean’s story about his beloved wife’s flatulence was improvised and Matt Damon isn’t the only corpsing, with the frame trembling as the camera operator loses it.



As with Van Sant’s Last Days, Elephant is a stark, impressionistic reconstruction of a hysterically reported media event; in this case, Columbine. A self-contained world, the school is made wholly three-dimensional with arterial tracking shots. So much so that by the time the boys (Eric and Alex) undertake their miserably banal rampage, these somnambulant odysseys, filmed in an oppressive 1:33 aspect ratio, have built such a vivid impression of the school’s schematics, and furthermore the location of the various characters within that matrix, that the shootings become queasily close at hand.

Bullying, gun culture, violent video games, Elephant alludes to very nearly all the common theories as to why American teens resort to mass-murder. What most consistently emerges, however, is the dull drift of alienation. On the morning of the massacre, Eric tells Alex that he’s never kissed anyone before and they have an exchange in the shower, in a mundanely-lit, static long-shot that frames them in their mutual isolation. Ultimately though, the climate of atomisation is conveyed most potently, not in the lonely ways of the killers, but in a scene in which nerdy-girl archetype ‘Michelle’ crosses a deserted gymnasium.

Best Bit: In a scene replayed a second time from a diametric perspective, the camera passes the killers as they near the school. They address the character Van Sant has been tracking, warning him to “Get the fuck out and don’t come back”.

La Triviata:The title was taken from Alan Clarke’s acclaimed film about violence in Northern Ireland.

Paranoid Park


You wonder why it took until Paranoid Park for Van Sant to make a rites-of passage film. Coming to terms with his part in a horrific tragedy, skater teen Gabe relays the events in jumbled succession. Typically of the director, it’s a solipsistic, vague and weightless depiction of childhood at its end.

As cinematographer Christopher Doyle vapor-trails the polyurethane poetry in Super-8, Van Sant captures Gabe as he sits on the lip of the ramps and the cusp of adulthood, unsure whether to drop in. He tells his friend he isn’t ready for Paranoid Park to which his friend replies: “Yeah, but no-one’s ever really ready for Paranoid Park”.

It’s widely speculated that the film also presents a portrait of burgeoning homosexually, with the graphic death scene at it’s centre symbolizing the alien trauma of Gabe’s first gay experience. There are the lingering shots of Gabe’s friend as Gabe seems to peer at him with curiosity and tentative lust, the hint of sexual danger when he’s befriended by an older teenager at the titular skate park, and so on. After the pivotal event, he removes his clothes, followed by a protracted shower scene in which he seems to retreat into himself with shame. As he loses his virginity to his girlfriend, an effect is created by Van Sant’s deft composition that Gabe feels nothing.

Best Bit: Gabe’s journey through the school corridor slow-mo’s to a virtual standstill to Elliott Smith’s ‘The White Lady Loves You More’.

La Triviata: The young, untrained cast was entirely recruited through My Space.

Guides By Choices

There’s the also-rans in debut Mala Nochea, his most recent (and disappointingly conventional) entry, Milk and deliciously caustic Neo-Noir To Die For. There’s the mis-steps; Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and the Psycho remake. And then of course there’s the stinker (hey, even Spielberg has Hook) in the Good Will-a-like Finding Forrester. But it was Gerry and Last Days that were the most difficult to purge from a starter-pack for curious Van Sant virgins (a new generation of mid-adolescent Idaho fans will have come of age, born after it was made). Primarily because, out of the losing contenders, both expand on the auteur’s signature themes, but also, whilst many condemned them as faux-artistic twaddle, there is much to recommend of both films – bookends to his so-called ‘death trilogy’. From Gerry, the tracking shot of their car with Arvo Part’s ‘Spiegel Im Spiegel’ played almost in its 8 minute entirety, is one such jewel. As awe-inspiring an opening as any in cinema history, somewhat recalling Kubrick’s ominous approach to the Overlook Hotel.

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