Thursday, December 10, 2009

Directors of the Decade: Gus Van Sant

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 Sant

However, 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?


Joseph said...

Certainly one of the stronger candidates mentioned in this series so far for THE director of the decade. He's actually done more than just 2 movies, and more than one is pretty great. For me, Elephant and Milk are very fine pieces, and Paranoid Park is his masterpiece. The fusion of styles you mentioned (traditional narrative + arty aspects)worked wonders for me. I was concerned I'd find myself fidgeting around watching this one, but no. Paranoid Park is immensely affecting and engrossing--and visually stunning to boot.

FrenchGirl said...

the french journalists always are surprised when they meet him because he's "normal" for an experimental director(the contrary to David Lynch for example)

My fav is "elephant" because it's accessible and it's always Gus Van Sant

Jim T said...

Milk was the best film I saw in 2009.
Frozen River was second.

Glenn said...

Elephant and Paranoid Park are the flat out masterpieces, Milk is astonishing and I like that it's a well done biopic on somebody who actually deserves it, but it's traditionalness holds it back from being a masterpiece (I still don't really get the Dustin Lance Black for Best Original Screenplay thing, as lovely a moment that it was) and Last Days / Gerry are fascinating explorations. I haven't bothered with Finding Forrester, but if he'd swapped that and Psycho was this decade I'd say he was going 6 for 6 (oh yes, Psycho is a good one!)

His movies this decade have been endlessly fascinating and worthy of discussion. He'd most definitely rank as one of my three favourite directors of the decade, if not the no. 1!

Scott said...

He's had a strong decade, and I say that still having not seen Paranoid Park (just put it in my queue). For me Elephant is the masterpiece, and I liked Last Days quite a bit too (though I'm not a fan of Gerry). And Milk of course was a nice piece of work, though I maintain The Times of Harvey Milk was superior (though I'll also happily concede that there are problems with comparing the two).


Paranoid Park irritated me a bit at times (his aesthetic can sometimes feel stifling) but there are a couple of segments that just super glue themselves to your brain and I appreciated/loved those.

It's funny that so many people (including Robert) still hate on Psycho because it was one of my favorite filmic experiments of the past 12 years or so. I didn't have it worthless or disastrous or anything. In fact I feel like watching it again right now just talking about (and please note: Hitchcock's original is among my 20 favorite films of all time)

MovieGuy said...

I'm with Glenn and Nathaniel R on this one, and I'm tired of all the Psycho bashing (not that you've bashed it, but lets face it...we hear it all the time as if its a universally hated disaster). The man is an experimental director and Psycho is nothing if not one of the biggest film experiments of all time and a successful one at that. Not based on its critical success, but on its polarizing aspects. I did a big compare and contrast paper on the two Psychos ages ago in film class and gushed over it there. I still think the original Psycho is great (though my personal vote for Hitch's masterpiece goes out to Rear Window) and I don't think the remake diminishes it in the slightest. Your picks for this decade are top notch however! Milk was amazingly moving, I couldn't stop talking about it.

Glenn said...

Indeed, Psycho ranks as my #2 film of all time. You can't look at Psycho (Van Sant's) as a film so much as an experimental piece of cinema. People don't watch Andy Warhol films because they're entertaining and can be judged the same way one would judge, for instance, Hitchcock's Psycho so not view the remake of Psycho in the same way?

Robert said...

I think Psycho certainly fares better now that Van Sant has gotten back to the experimental (solidifying Psycho as an experiment) and not what it seemed like at the time, which was a promising director selling his soul.

Ed Howard said...

Fantastic. I recently set Dash Shaw's tribute to the death trilogy as my desktop background, and now every time I turn on my computer I think about these films. Taken together (with Paranoid Park as an equally compelling epilogue) they constitute one of the most enthralling and rich cinematic experiences of the decade.

Steolicious said...

It´s time for me to see "Paranoid Park" and "Gerry".

"Elephant" and "To Die For" are my favs! Followed by "Milk" and "Good Will Hunting".

What do you think about "My Own Private Idaho"?

George said...

I still think that Milk is mediocrity defined.