Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
Gus Van Sant is a very streaky filmmaker. Not so much in terms of quality as in style, which defines what sort of quality a film is capable of achieving. When he forges a new style, he tends to stick with it for three or four movies, and then restlessly move onto something else. His latest, Paranoid Park, fits in with Elephant, Last Days and Gerry into his latest—and perhaps greatest—streak: Gus the Tone Poet. It’s a gorgeous film, starring mostly non-actors, filled with long, wordless sequences built to impart a subjective sense of what it feels like to be a teenager. It reminds you that there are still directors out there interested in using their talents to push the medium in places it’s never been before to explore the lives of real, identifiable human beings, rather than “re-imagining” familiar comic book characters for today’s audiences. But before we get into that, let’s identify Van Sant’s roughly four-stage career.
Early Gay Gus (1982-1987): Gus first made waves with his short films, plus a $25K feature called Mala Noche. I have to confess that I’ve never seen any of these (Mala Noche is the only one even available on DVD). From what I’ve heard, they centered around his identity as a young gay man. But I could be wrong. Mala Noche certainly does—at least according to the tagline on the IMDB. Keep in mind that he made these films in the early to mid-80s, when Queer cinema wasn't even on the map. It's still pretty underground, but it's at least somewhat more visible today. Subject matter was the first ground he broke.
Gus the Indie Feature Auteur (1989-1993): This includes his two indie breakthroughs— Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho—and a star-studded indie failure (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues). Cowboy and Idaho both centered upon the young and the tragically beautiful living at the margins of urban society. Cowboy stars Matt Dillon as a drug addict who robs drugs stores to feed his habit; Idaho is about young and tragically beautiful gay drug addicts living in Portland—one of them played by River Phoenix and the other by Keanu Reeves, the black sheep son of a prominent Portland society man–and is purportedly somewhat autobiographical (and it would be hard to see how it wouldn’t be, given how specific the milieu is). These movies are rock solid entries in the early 90s indie world, totally of their time, perhaps a bit dated, but interesting nonetheless.
Gus the Sellout (1995-2000): And I use that term as gently as I can. This is where Gus started working directly in the spotlight of the mainstream, a director-for-hire no longer writing his own scripts. This wasn’t as bad as it sounds. He got off to a great start with To Die For (admittedly only marginally mainstream), from a script by legendary writer Buck Henry (founding SNL writer, also penned a little-known film called The Graduate). To Die For legitimized Nicole Kidman as a serious actress, but I’m sure Gus didn’t know the kind of monster he was creating at the time, so we won’t hold him responsible for that. It’s a breathtakingly realized film about an overambitious reporter, filled with an attention to color and mis-en-scen several cuts above most working American directors. Van Sant continued this streak with his biggest hit, Good Will Hunting, written by…well, you know. This monster indie hit gave Gus the power to do whatever he wanted, so naturally he decided to spend the capital he had accrued on a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. This is what we call the Low Point in our story…well, either this or his next film, Finding “You the Man Now, Dog!” Forrester, a film so formulaic and unwanted that only a return to marginalized, experimental cinema could redeem Van Sant in the eyes of cinephiles.
Gus the Tone Poet (2002-present): Started with Gerry, a film in which Matt Damon and Casey Affleck wander around the desert, lost, for the entire movie, and continuing with Elephant, Last Days, and the film presently under discussion, Paranoid Park.
In the story in my head, one day shortly after the release of Finding Forrester, Van Sant looked around, realized that he was famous and respected enough as a director that, no matter what weirdness he made, he could still get it released in theaters, decided “Enough with this bullshit,” packed up his stuff, and left Hollywood. Years of cinematic ideas that had built up while he made more traditional Hollywood movies burst out of his skull, and he decided he’d follow his muse for as long as the gravy train lasted.
The films of Gus the Tone Poet have only loosely stuck to traditional narrative, using somewhat pulpy subject matters as pretexts to get into the subjective spaces of its characters. He’s employed mostly non-actors for this enterprise, prizing the strange beauty and relative inexpressiveness of "normal" people (often willowy teenaged boys, it has to be admitted) to become placid centers around which a floating camera drinks in the everyday environments they stalk through (a crumbling house in Last Days, high school corridors in Elephant and Paranoid Park, the streets as seen through the eyes of skateboarders in Paranoid Park). These environments—real locations not dressed up with any noticeable set design or expressionistic lighting—have become so unfamiliar in feature films that they almost look more fantastic than any CGI creation.
Excluding Gerry, which could be sold (such as it humbly was) on the strength of Matt Damon’s celebrity, Van Sant has stuck with a formula that ensures his movie star-less, slice-of-life experimental explorations will be salacious enough to get written-up and publicized in the press. Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park all center around lurid subject matter that he defamiliarizes by sticking with the banal minutia of everyday life rather than the heightened emotional events more conventional directors might opt to center on. Elephant is a recreation of the day of a Columbine-like massacre in a high school. Last Days is about the, well, last days before the suicide of a rock star obviously modeled on Kurt Cobain.
Paranoid Park does not suggest any familiar youth-gone-wrong media bombshells like Van Sant's previous two films. It’s based on a Young Adult novel by Blake Nelson, and is nominally about a “skater” teen named Alex (played by non-actor and real-life teenager Gabe Nevins) who is accidentally involved in the death of a security guard at a train yard and deals internally with his guilt as a detective circles around him.
I say “nominally,” because Alex’s wordless guilt is pretty obviously a metaphor for the isolation and loneliness that all teenagers feel as they go through momentous life changes (in his case, his parents divorce and the completely un-erotic loss of virginity) with no one they can talk to. Certainly not their parents, who have problems of their own, and definitely not their friends, who also have problems or their own and, being teenagers, don’t have the kind of maturity needed to help them deal with the emotional traumas of adolescence.
Van Sant uses Nevin’s inabilities inexpressiveness as an actor to great affect. He’s a blank canvas, unable to articulate his emotions to the world or even to himself. Van Sant (and legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the crazy Australian who shot a good deal of the great Chinese pictures of the last decade, including Hero, Infernal Affairs, and all of Wong Kar Wai’s best films) fixes his flowing camera on Alex’s face and body as he sleepwalks and skateboards between events in this most traumatic of weeks in his young life. Van Sant pairs ever-creative musical pieces to these rainy-day shots, most memorably including pieces from Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits and a couple tunes by the late Elliott Smith (another Portland native who Van Sant tore from obscurity by using his songs in Good Will Hunting). These sequences are abstract, generously long, and frequently beautiful. They're quite clearly what is exciting Van Sant's restless talent right now, and invite the audience into a contemplative mood it's not oft invited to at the multiplex.
Where does Van Sant go from here? His next film is Milk, a biopic about the life and assassination of San Francisco’s first openly gay mayor, Harvey Milk. This time around, it’s not exactly a non-actors delight: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch are all aboard, finding Van Sant back in Movie Star Land. Is this the start of a new phase? Will it be as fruitful as the last? Impossible to say, but I'm excited to find out.