I have decided to do a director focus regularly, mainly because many films that I enjoy can be clustered into directors so, it makes sense and will (hopefully) give some continuity.
I’m starting with Gus Van Sant not because he is my favourite director, but because his body of work is sometimes overlooked in the auteur annals (if you still believe in such a thing post-Barthes). I am looking at my four favourite Van Sant’s films (and no, I don’t count “Good Will Hunting” for example).
My first Van Sant viewing was ‘My Own Private Idaho”, a wonderful little film that starred River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. Phoenix plays Mike, a gay, narcoleptic street hustler while Reeves plays Scott, who is also a street hustler and Mike’s friend. During his narcoleptic episodes, Mike dreams/experiences being comforted by his mother – in the guise of home movies. Scott and Mike are destined for very different futures however as Scott is due to inherit a fortune through his father while Mike’s path is very uncertain. Mike truly cares for Scott and assumes that Scott will continue to drift and live the life they have built for themselves while Scott, who does not believe it is possible for men to truly love each other, has different plans altogether.
My Own Private Idaho is a dreamy, road-movie take on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and it is considered by many to be Van Sant’s best film: it is certainly a seminal work and for those who were lucky enough to catch it in the cinema in 1991, it was a marker from which other films were measured for a very long time. My Own Private Idaho began my personal love affair with Van Sant and for that, I will always be grateful. If you are not familiar with Van Sant’s work, this is the place to start.
Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
The next film I adore by Van Sant is Drugstore Cowboy. This is actually probably my favourite Van Sant film and one that I watch annually, it stars Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, Heather Graham and a great cameo performance by William Burroughs.
Lynch and Dillon play Bob and Diane, a couple who rob pharmacies for their drug supplies. Set in the 1970’s, an age where pharmaceutical supplies were more readily available, the pair often score big and use their stash to get by until they need to rob again. Bob and Diane befriend a young couple (Graham as Nadine and James Le Gros as Rick) and who they show the ropes to and the foursome initially continue their foray into drugs and crime.
The film is primarily shown through the eyes of Bob who is the patriarchal figure of the group. Bob’s nemesis is a cop named Gentry who he takes delight in subverting and humiliating along the way, but Bob seems to recognise that the shadow of Gentry draws ever closer and, after tragedy inevitably strikes the group, Bob leaves Diane to try to give up his hedonistic drug-fuelled life, only to find that giving up drugs and giving up the lifestyle are two very different things.
One of the best parts of this film is a cameo by William Burroughs which adds a contemporary social comment and an extra element of cool to a text that is already a testament to drug culture and the outlaw experience.
To Die For (1995)
Another wonderful film that I re-watch regularly, To Die For stars Nicole Kidman in one of her better roles (I usually can’t stand her), Matt Dillon again and a very young Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck.
To Die For focuses on Suzanne Stone (Kidman), a beautiful but spoiled and vain woman who dreams of making it big in the media as a news journalist. Suzanne meets and marries local lothario Larry Maretto who she soon sees as standing in her way on her path to ‘inevitable ‘stardom as he desires nothing more than a domestic life filled with children. Suzanne manages to land herself a job at a local cable station and persuades the station manages to allow her to make a documentary “Teens Speak Out”, taking her idea to the local high school, Suzanne recruits three local misfits; Jimmy (Phoenix), Russell (Affleck) and Lydia (Alison Folland). When Suzanne begins to develop a plan to get Larry out of her life for good, she uses her influence and sexuality to get Jimmy to do her dirty work.
To be honest, Kidman is perfect in this role, I’m not sure if my dislike for her lets me see her as the fame-hungry, stupid and vapid Suzanne easily but as she won a Golden Globe for this role, I am perhaps being too harsh. Phoenix and Affleck are both sensational as working class and neglected teens who are ensnared in Kidman’s ruthless ambition and the young Alison Folland also more than holds her own. Ultimately a dark little tale, Drugstore Cowboy is a tale of amorality and is, ultimately delightfully wicked.
Elephant won Van Sant the Palm d’Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. It is a difficult film to describe adequately most notably due to treatment – Elephant is based loosely on the Columbine school massacre, but Elephant does not interrogate the reasons or lack thereof of such events, but rather ponders the banality within which they occur. shot using mostly non-actors and told through repeated scenarios from alternate perspectives, Elephant perhaps best succeeds in looking dispassionately upon the all-too-typical events that lead up to and ultimately include the shooting/s themselves.
Elephant is understated in every sense of the term, it rarely shifts from its low-key pace or dispassionate gaze at the clique-driven (fictitious) everyday American high school. As the audience knows what is to come, there is a claustrophobia to the long corridors and classrooms and the looping time frame creates a disturbing sense of ominous violence-to-come without ever resorting to cinematic tricks.
Elephant is not going to be to everyone’s taste or sensibilities, its lack of reasons or answers for the crimes it depicts leave many feeling unsatisfied. I happen to think this is its greatest strength for, while we can blame ‘the media’ or ‘parents’ or ‘bullying’ on such acts as it is all-too-easy to do, it is perhaps a more powerful idea to grapple with the senselessness of what has become a too commonplace contemporary phenomena. Elephant is just one of those films that can’t really be recommended – but I strongly suggest you check it out.