(1952 - present)
Three Key Films: Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1991), Milk (2008)
Underrated: Mala Noche (1986). Self-financed by Gus Van Sant for a mere $25,000, Mala Noche would become a pioneer film of new queer cinema and remains a fascinating work full of the director’s fascinations and thematic elements. Like many of his films, Mala Noche is set in the street world of Portland, featuring on-the-margin characters. Walt (the film is based upon an autobiographical novel by poet Walt Curtis) is a scruffy store clerk, played by Tim Streeter, in a ratty T-shirt and trench who unabashedly falls hard for Mexican drifter Johnny (Doug Cooeyate). Like many of Van Sant’s films, it doesn’t wallow in the despair of those in impoverished circumstances nor does it attempt to be political—many political themes besides queerness could be discussed here, including racial fetishism—instead, he lets the story play out organically, with voice-over narration, and sparse dialogue (characters often misunderstand each other and deride each other in their native languages). Shot in black-and-white on 16mm, Mala Noche has an arresting mood and grimy texture which captures the lives of its characters well. It’s quite impressive as a debut and oft-forgotten but really shows Gus Van Sant’s strengths as a filmmaker.
Unforgettable: The porno magazine display in the My Own Private Idaho (1991). In a seedy little Portland store, the covers of gay porn mags literally come to life with their muscular young men of various types moving slightly and then beginning to converse with one another. “I never thought I could make it as a real model,” a never-better Keanu Reeves intones from Male Call. With its bright yellow cover and headlines like “Ready to Ride” and “Homo on the Range,” the visual establishes a punchy, homoerotic subversion of the traditional Western. The actors were simply filmed behind sheets of vinyl-lettered Plexiglas with different backgrounds. It’s a thrillingly extravagant little scene that encompasses the literal entrapment and yearning of Van Sant’s characters, his visual talents, and his adventurous spirit. My Own Private Idaho owes much of its heartache and power to River Phoenix’s stirring performance, including a poignant campfire scene, but the film is peppered with many different moments like the magazine display which give it an unpredictability and distinct texture.
The Legend: Gus Van Sant continues to show remarkable versatility as a contemporary filmmaker. Unlike some of his pictures, in documentaries and interviews, Van Sant is a bit laconic and endearingly low key. He began in the visual art world and was exposed to experimental and avant-garde cinema at the Rhode Island School of the Arts. He moved to Los Angeles and then to Portland where he financed Mala Noche and showed continued interest in marginalized characters and street culture.
His films are often set in the Pacific Northwest such as Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho, and the verdant Washington wood of Last Days (2005). His films are distinctly American: the rich and poor neighborhoods of Boston in Good Will Hunting (1997) and New York City in Finding Forrester (2000) to the emotionally desolate suburban high school setting in Elephant (2003). Even his most conventional and financially successful films such as Good Will Hunting and the powerful Milk (2008) have a unique stylistic flair, a rough-around-the-edges atmosphere, and compelling insight into character. He is known to take bold risks. After the financial success of Good Will Hunting, including an Academy Award nomination, he infamously attempted a nearly shot-by-shot of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Van Sant’s version is a curiously inert oddity but shows his boldness as a filmmaker. His films may share similar traits but rarely does he make the same movie twice.
Stylistically, Van Sant employs a lot of visual detail and experimentation. His breakthrough Drugstore Cowboy is a reference point to the style that Van Sant continues to develop. Color is often important (his only novel to date is entitled Pink) as it is in Drugstore Cowboy where green abounds. Usually a color denoting life, green in Van Sant’s film suggests death. The color is mentioned in that context by the mother of drug-addicted Bob: “… never knowing when there’s going to be a knock on my door telling me my baby’s dead—green, with an overdose.” Another stylistic stamp are his time-lapse clouds—gorgeously on display in Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. They not only symbolize the smallness of his characters under the sweeping passage of time but often reflect a sort of modern flair in rural landscapes.
His films are not all about style. One of the few openly gay directors, Van Sant’s characters are sometimes overtly and sometimes ambiguously queer. Van Sant has an extraordinary gift of making films with compelling antiheroes, misfits and outcasts. Whether they are the hustlers and drug addicts of his early films to the psychotic weather girl in To Die For (1995) to the skateboarding teen in Paranoid Park (2007) to the brave activists and the repressed, frustrated assassin in Milk, Van Sant films often go within the lives of characters rarely portrayed in cinema. His films neither moralize nor glamorize terrible things, which make his works both so human and starkly ambivalent. Jeffery Berg