Robert here, continuing my series of the directors that shaped the past 10 years. Most of the directors I’ve written about have been either newcomers or have taken their earlier success and continued it into the aughts. Not many have reinvented themselves for this decade. But today’s man did: Gus Van Sant
Number of Films: Six
Modern Masterpieces: Oh who’s to say. I don’t expect this to be echoed but I’m going with Gerry.
Total Disasters: No. Psycho was last decade.
Better than you remember: All three entries in the death trilogy have gotten somewhat of a bad rep.
Awards: Nominated for Best Director for Milk and the Palme D’or for Elephant
Box Office: With over 51 mil, Finding Forrester understandably tops the more experimental fare.
Critical Consensus: With a Rotten Tomatoes score over 90%, Milk understandably tops the more experimental fare.
Favorite Actor: Matt Damon in two movies (even though one was a cameo)
Let’s talk about:
Death. Not that anyone wants to talk about death. But Gus Van Sant directed the “death trilogy” this decade so we don’t have much of a choice. But first we should dispense of Finding Forrester. Forrester is a fine movie but as a part of Van Sant's filmography it's mostly a leftover from the late 90's. Mostly it suggested that Van Sant was headed toward prestige picture hell, destined for a career in predictable Oscar-bait despite his early art house hits. Luckily for all of us, Van Sant quickly decided it was time to turn a corner. Van Sant’s desired a return to the simplicity of film making (both financially and narratively). Naturally, it lead him to minimalism.
When taken separately, the films that make up the "death trilogy", Gerry, Elephant and Last Days are unique, ponderous and fascinating movies. When taken together as a trilogy, you’ll find even more layers. Remember those basic conflicts you learned in school? Man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. himself? Well Van Sant presents us with minimalist, unbiased death in three ways: lost in the desert, at the hands of murderers and suicide. Nature, man, himself; Gerry, Elephant, Last Days. And what does it mean? It all fits in perfectly with Van Sant’s career-long exploration of youths out of place in the world. We watch them wander and die… too young. But if they’d lived full lives would they have ever done more than wander and die?
Gus Van SantHowever, the trilogy isn’t just a thematic statement. Van Sant is making a cinematic statement about amount of context needed to frame these characters and their lives (and deaths). There’s little in the form of written scripts here. Yet where there’s no text there’s usually plenty of subtext. Van Sant is demonstrating that the camera, lighting and aesthetics can tell us all we need to know about the characters’ lives in order to contextualize their deaths. And he credits the work of John Cassavetes and Bela Tarr with bringing him to this new understanding.
Now we’re up to Paranoid Park, a film that shares much in common with the preceding three but also has a more direct narrative. It continues Van Sant’s interest in the young and death plays a big role indeed, but there may be something else going on. Some have suggested that the film is a metaphor for a young man’s first gay experience (an interpretation that Van Sant has not rejected). But more so it seems to encompass the entirety of the confusion, ambivalence and guilt that comes with being a teenager.
And after all that we come to T.S. Eliot. "the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Gus Van Sant returned to prestige pictures with Milk and his time spent wandering in the desert, studying at school and channeling his inner conflict allowed him to create one of the most thoughtful, honest biopics of the current biopic craze. And chances are Van Sant’s films will continue to benefit from the experiences he gained by returning to indie-dom in the aughts. His next (as yet untitled) film is described on IMDb with one sentence “A tale of a two young people who share a preoccupation with mortality.” Fantastic, where do I buy my ticket?