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.


The Good, The Bad and The Weird: Songs From The Movies (AU Magazine, Issue.41)
October 25, 2009, 7:06 pm
Filed under: Features, Movie Features

Words_John Calvert

Music and Cinema, the great love affair of the popular arts. They go together like Fred and Ginger, like Joany and Chachi, like nachos and that cheesy-tasting ming they give you at the Odeon. Whether it’s ‘Born To Be Wild’ with Jack Nicholson riding pillion on Peter Fonda’s hog or Michael Madsen butchering Kirk Baldz’s doomed cop to the strains of Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck In The Middle’, many of the greatest moments in celluloid history have been as a result of a sublime marriage of sound and vision.

Of course its not all gold. In the eighties, when a disparate team of lovable misfits improved at a chosen sport they did so with the help of the montage, home to many of cinema’s most sublimely unfortunate passages. Where would you be without your favourite music monthly protecting you from the evils of Montage Rock. Presenting the A.U guide for those L.O.S.T in the world of the O.S.T. Role V.T.

The Good

Kurtz like a Knife

A/V: The Doors – ‘The End’ / Apocalypse Now (1979)

Set the Scene: Assigned for the assassination of renegade Colonel, Walter E. Kurtz, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) travels up the river towards his mission and through the insanity of the Vietnam war. In the greatest opening salvo in cinema history malarian phantasmagoria merges with Willard’s 1000-yard stare. as Morrison’s epic 60’s psychedelica rages cacophonously. As images of burning Vietnamese countryside and helicopter blades dissolve into Willard’s ceiling fan, no longer was the film complete without song and the same true in reverse. An auspicious curtain-raiser to a film thats as much about the end of a film-making era as the end of the world.

Best Bit: Fading from black to a jungle tree-line, swirling flare-smoke and distorting sounds of helicopters intermingle. Mute napalm fury erupts just as Jim utters his opening declaration. ‘This is the end, Beautiful friend”. Unforgettable.

Quite Interesting Fact: Behind the scenes documentary ‘Heart of Darkness’ revealed that Willard’s tormented dance to The Door’s’ free-from climax was not staged. Martin Sheen, drunk as the devil, punches out a mirror in a crazed act of performance art. Real booze, real blood, real madness.

Peanut Butter on my Pants!!!!


A/V: Deluxxe Folk Implosion -‘Daddy Never Understood’ / Kids (1995)

Set the Scene: 24 hours in tow of Aids-infected teenage lothario ‘Telly’ and his wayward friends, ‘Kids’ so frightened audiences and critics alike at the time that one reviewer deemed it as ‘a warning to modern society’. Featured on the soundtrack and clocking in at under 1 min 15 seconds ‘Daddy Never Understood’ is a snotty, sneering bit of post-modern punk that will tell you everything you need to know about the short, sharp gut-punch which is Clarke’s apocalyptic vision. As dumb, thuggish and unruly as the teenaged Manhatten-ites ‘Kids’ depicts.

Best Bit: Ghoulishly cut to the theme tune to ‘Casper The Friendly Ghost’ The kids stamp a fellow skater to near-death.

Quite Interesting Fact: One of several NYC pro-skaters to star as themselves, Jeff Pang later claimed the party scenes were authentic with teens and pre-teens alike getting brained for real before Director Larry Clarke’s leering gaze.

Gold Turkey


A/V: Lou Reed – Perfect Day / Trainspotting (1996)

Set the Scene: The first plaintive keys of Reed’s love-letter to Heroin begin as junkie anti-hero Mark Rent-Boy’ Renton descends into overdose through a coffin-shaped hole in the floor. Every time Director Danny Boyle marries song with scene in Trainspotting it’s exhilarating, but it’s Lou Reed’s wastoid melancholia that reveals the film’s beat-up soul.

Best Bit: Reborn into a new world, Mark returns from hospital with his parents, frail and sheepish. Carried up to his childhood bedroom by his father, Reed sings a final warning to his junkie brethren “You’re going to reap / just what you sow”, vanquishing iany doubts surrounding the film’s intention to glamorise heroin.

Quite Interesting Fact: Boyle credits The Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’ video as a major influence on the opening sequence. Directed by video promo wunderkind Spike Jonze, the video features bad-ass maverick cops cavorting around L.A, generally raising hell.



A/V: Elliott Smith – ‘Needle in the Hay’ / The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Set the Scene: Rejected by his sister-by-genius Margot (Gynneth Paltrow), Luke Wilson’s former child tennis prodigy Ritchie attempts suicide in a blue-hued bathroom. Proving that no one does sad quite like Smith, his sombre / edgy tale of druggy anonymity compliments beautifully Wes Anderson’s mellow direction. The scene echoes Smith’s sad demise at his own hands two years later.

Best Bit: Discarding his Bjorn Bjorg-esque sunglasses and removing hair and beard, Ritchie says to his reflection “I’m gonna kill myself tomorrow” before digging deep. To Smith’s hushed vocals Black-red blood forms tributaries down wrists and through shorn hair.

Quite Interesting Fact: Wes Anderson named the Tenenbaums’ dog ‘Buckley’ after Jeff Buckley.

The Bad

I Just Wanna Dance!

music-scene-breakfast-clubThe Good, The Bad and The Weird Songs from the Movies.

A/V: Karla DeVito – ‘We are not Alone’ / The Breakfast Club (1985)

Set the scene: After coming to terms with themselves and each other the mythical Brain, Athlete, BasketCase, Princess and the Criminal smoke a little bit of John Bender’s ‘pot’. Fuelled by the crazy injection of energy that Marijuana affords a person, the detentionees take to the library and dance like there was no tomorrow. Cue liberal shots of naff footwork (Bender has a bandana on his shoe?!) and gloriously 80’s rug-cutting. Irrelevant to the point of being surreal.

Worst Bit: The boys form a kind of loose man-kebab and do a weird Genesis-style march in perfect unison.

Quite Interesting Fact: The song that Bender sings by way of a diversion to let the others get back to the cafeteria is partly ‘Turning Japanese’ by The Vapors. Apparently a metaphor for slapping a ham.

Simian Mobi Disco


A/V:OutKast – Hey Ya / Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

Set the scene: After crash-landing in the Mobi Desert and fast running out of food and water, the crew attempt to rebuild the Phoenix before it’s too late. But, as always happens in these situations someone gets the old Ipod out. The gang take a break from dying of thirst to indulge in Outkast’s catchy floor-filler, bonding through the medium of dance.

Worst Bit: As Andre hits his chorus you’re just waiting for a less enthusiastic member of the group to suggest they maybe get back to work because malnutrition sets in.

Quite Interesting Fact: Umm. Did you know that you can fit a baby squirrel monkey in a milk bottle?

The Weird

Lip Kink


A/V:Roy Orbison – In Dreams / Blue Velvet (1986)

Set the scene: After Dennis Hopper’s unforgettable sociopath finds his Mrs on the job with Kyle McClachlan, he takes them to see master hoodlum and flamboyant homosexual ‘Ben’. Within the typically Lynch-ian lounge area (all red carpeting and noirish lighting) Ben performs a lip-synch to Roy Orbison’s languorous Americana, with nightmarish results. David Lynch’s preternatural affinity with the dream-state reached a high water mark as the amyl-nitrate-chugging Frank watches his friend, at once aroused, teary and repulsed.

Weirdest Bit: Orbison’s opening line is mimed by Dean Stockwell’s under-lit dandy ;Ben’: “A candy-colored clown they call the sandman / tiptoes to my room every night”.

Quite Interesting Fact: Lynch would repeat the trick in Mulholland Drive (2001) with Rebekah Del Rio singing a Spanish version of Orbison’s “Crying”. Equally unnerving.

Fade Away

A/V:Michael Pitt – ‘That Day’ / Last Days (2005)

Set the scene: In Gus Van Sant’s largely word-less depiction of Cobain’s final days, Michael Pitt’s Kurt-a-Like ‘Blake’ wonders from room to room in a dilapidated mansion, mumbles to himself incoherently, has a brief conversation with a yellow pages salesman, makes a bowl of macaroni and cheese and then dies, climbing up to heaven on a ladder. In what might be described as the centrepiece of the film ‘Blake’, all alone, composes by looping 5 instruments and drums, adding them one at a time, building an eerily Nirvana-esque racquet that was written by Pitt himself on the spot. It serves as one of the only real musical interludes within an unsettlingly minimalist soundtrack that aims to replicate Blake’s irretrievable psyche.

Weirdest Bit: From outside in the garden looking in at Blake, a extended dolly-shot sees the camera retreat slowly from the window, resting at a distance from the mansion. It is an instance of slow-dawning objectivity that conveys effectively Blake’s absolute isolation.

Quite Interesting Fact: The fan Blake meets in a local club is played by Harmony Korin who wrote the screenplay for Larry Clarke’s ‘Kids’.


A/V: Aimee Mann – ‘Wise Up’ / Magnolia

Set the scene: Parading medicine ball-sized cajones, director Paul Thomas Anderson arranges his lonely hearted L.A characters in a metaphysical sing-along. Each alone in their bed/kitchen/car the troubled Angelinos, strangers to one another, each take a line of Mann’s song.

Weirdest Bit: From ten-year-old child to dying septuagenarian to Juilanne Moore’s overdosing suicide attempt, everyone gets a turn on the mike.

Quite Interesting Fact: Anderson claims that the entire film was inspired by a single line from an Aimee Mann’s ‘Deathly’ -“Now that I’ve met you / Would you object to / Never seeing / Each other again”.