Sunday, July 17, 2005

REV: Gus Van Sant on filmmaking

Gus Van Sant's Own Private Hollywood
By DAVID EDELSTEIN, July 17, 2005, The New York Times


FOR a guy with one mainstream smash - "Good Will Hunting" - and strong ties to major stars, Gus Van Sant remains uncannily inner-directed. At 52, he still approaches movies like a graduate school conceptual artist dabbling in modes of perception. Every film, even the major-studio ones, is a potentially disastrous experiment. If you've seen his last two, "Gerry" and "Elephant," you might be puzzled or exasperated by shots that go on and on (and on), and by what seems like a perverse refusal to provide psychological explanations. Or you might be turned on by how he lets you drift through time and space, dispensing information in tiny increments and allowing you to arrange the pieces in your head.

His new film, "Last Days," which opens Friday, is the third successive work to revolve around sensational deaths in the least sensational manner imaginable. Mr. Van Sant has said that he wants to use fiction to explore what happened in cases with huge gaps in what we know. But he's going to leave gaps of his own.

"Last Days" is inspired by the final week in the life of Kurt Cobain, but its protagonist, Blake (Michael Pitt), barely manages to mumble a complete sentence and, until his last minutes, has his hair in his face. You can't see his bloody face! For long stretches, he wanders through the woods or stares into space inside his rambling, run-down estate, ignoring the parasitical hangers-on. The "text" is largely irrelevant: Ricky Jay, as a detective, tells a vaguely related tale about a (perhaps) suicidal magician, and a Yellow Pages salesman - played by a real one, Thadeus A. Thomas - shows up to deliver a pitch while Blake stares at him blankly. It's the sort of film that tests one's tolerance, yet somehow leaves an indelible impression.

The last time I met Mr. Van Sant was in 1991, at his house on a hill above Portland, Ore. He had just finished filming "My Own Private Idaho" - that bizarrely disjunctive blend of naturalistic drama (about gay prostitutes) and Shakespeare. Exhausted from the shoot, he sat on his porch with the topless Mount St. Helens in the distance, and spoke of how he hated the size of the crews on "Idaho" and the superb "Drugstore Cowboy" compared to his micro-budget (but intoxicatingly beautiful) first feature, "Mala Noche," in 1985. He talked of shedding that "apparatus," and invoked William Burroughs's essay "The Discipline of DE" - the letters stand for Do It Easy, which means performing all tasks with a mixture of absolute attention and absolute relaxation. Then he went off and made bigger and bigger movies, studio projects with even larger crews: the unwatchable "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" (1993), the perky black comedy "To Die For" (1995), "Good Will Hunting" (1997), the shot-for-shot remake of "Psycho" (1998) and the formula feel-good flop "Finding Forrester" (2000). Now he has worked his way back to the realm of the small and the smaller, invoking nonnarrative filmmakers like Bela Tarr and Chantal Akerman and hammering out shots on the spot with his brilliantly flexible cinematographer, Harris Savides.

In an interview in June in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel in SoHo (still reverberating from Russell Crowe's assault with a deadly telephone), Mr. Van Sant was serene but much savvier about the machinations of Hollywood - the deals, the distribution, the stars. When he had spoken to me the first time, he said, he wasn't even sure what an agent did. Now he sure does - and he's happy for the moment to leave that world behind. His films, he said, are still bigger than he'd like them to be. ("Last Days" was made for $3 million.) He wishes he didn't need makeup people or caterers. It's harder to Do It Easy. "I think I'll eventually get there," he said, smiling - perhaps in the knowledge that "Last Days" isn't exactly blockbuster material.

"Good Will Hunting," which won two Oscars, gave him the clout to remake "Psycho" - a failure on every level. I suggest that even though he used the same script, staging and camera angles as the Alfred Hitchcock original, what was missing was the underlying directorial "gaze." Hitchcock regarded women with desire and guilt for that desire and a compulsion to punish. Mr. Van Sant, a gay man whose work seems most alive when he's devising shots on the fly and letting his actors improvise, has an entirely different psychology. Mr. Van Sant couldn't have agreed more. "You can't copy a film," he said. "If I hold a camera, it's different than if Irving Penn holds it. Even if it's in the same place, it will magically take on his character. Which was part of the experiment. Our 'Psycho' showed that you can't really appropriate. Or you can appropriate, but it's not going to be the same thing. "I have this new theory about films. It's almost like astrology, where if we started on a Tuesday the film will be different than if we started on a Wednesday. Not because of the planets. It's that sometimes you start with the wrong balance and the whole thing gets messed up."

The cliché-strewn "Finding Forrester," a vehicle for Sean Connery, also bore little trace of Mr. Van Sant's personality. "Part of me believes in anonymous art," he said. "I got that from a writer named Jamake Highwater, who wrote about painting before the Renaissance. The way people related to art in, say, ancient Greece. How it was about the community for the community and not the self-expression of the artist. I thought of 'Good Will Hunting' and 'Finding Forrester' as doing it for the people, and wanted to speak without the hindrance of my own style. I'm not sure if that's possible, but it was my rationale."

"Gerry" - based on the real and tragic story of two men, played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who got lost in the desert - was at the opposite extreme in terms of its (non-) structure. "The last three movies," Mr. Van Sant said, "have been about tossing away hang-ups."

The first shot of "Gerry" features a car driving on a desert road. Sometimes the camera is right on its tail, sometimes it drifts back a bit. Rocks go by. Hillocks go by. Mountains go by. The music, a scratchy violin and a piano, is an endless loop. This goes on for about five minutes.

"The amount of time that you're watching a car going down a road was a way to really watch what it is," Mr. Van Sant explained. "Because we're used to making films and observing films with a sort of shorthand. You see the car going down the road. O.K. Got it. Then it's the next shot. Usually what happens then is people start talking about something that will relate to the story instead of something random and more lifelike, like dental work. We learn in English class not to have it be about dental work. But maybe watching the car going down the road is important. To really watch it - as if you were in the car."

What about the danger of the viewer drifting off?

"That's a part of it, too. You start to think about things - you start to bring stuff to it. If you're sitting in this room waiting for somebody, your thoughts start to become a part of your environment. But in movies, you're supposed to be fed fast enough that you don't ever do that."

"Elephant" was inspired by the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado, and with its traveling camera and real-time student comings and goings, it purged the element of melodrama and made the viewer present. It was extraordinarily shocking, but it was also a bit of a Rorschach blot: you could project what you liked on it.

"Yes, but not anything you like," Mr. Van Sant said. "There's information, actually. But it's in a minimal way, with much more time going by. You're seeing clues, but you're not being driven to a particular result. You start to develop your own reasoning behind what you're seeing. Like a small amount - like a tincture being put into a big bowl. The tincture is not a strong medicine, it's supposed to elicit a reaction within you."

"Last Days" is the third in the tincture death trilogy. (On Wednesday, the Museum of Modern Art is showing all three: "Last Days" in its New York premiere, "Gerry" and "Elephant.") "The movie is about putting you in the moment with a man who has lost all sense of time - whose grip on the present is "decomposing," Mr. Van Sant said. He met Cobain once, but the film is more of an abstract meditation on the loss of the natural world than it is about the real suicidal rock star.

It's hard to imagine anyone more comfortable than Mr. Van Sant with his present artistic course. He looked so serene, even in the face of viewer confusion. He told a story about "Gerry," a film whose narrative arc was difficult to discern, even for its stars, Mr. Damon and Mr. Affleck.
"I had to talk Matt and Casey into signing off," he said. "Because they were, like, 'Let's go back and shoot more stuff.' That was their reaction to watching the movie. And I said, 'Well, we could.'

And Casey said, 'Maybe next Tuesday?' And I said: 'We could. I'm not sure. I really like it.' And Matt said, 'You mean you're fine with the movie like this?' And I said: 'Yeah. I think I really like it a lot.' And he said, 'Oh.' And Matt and Casey looked at each other and said, 'Huh.' And then they said, 'Hmmm.' They said, 'So we're not telling anybody what happened?' And I said, 'Yeah, but that's great.' Fortunately, I had people who were on my side. Because Casey and Matt, they wanted to make sure that the movie wasn't insane. Which it kind of is."

There's really nothing you can say to that, except "Huh." And "Hmmm." And maybe "Cool."

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