It is Gus Van Sant’s birthday. When I think about my favourite directors the names that come to mind tend to be people with long and varied filmographies, and Van Sant’s name is right near the top of that list. You look through his back catalogue and you can’t help being impressed with the sheer volume of creative work he’s produced, not to mention the quality of it.
I think I first became aware of Van Sant’s name in relation to his 1998 remake of Psycho. I was a lover of the Hitchcock original and I went to see the film in the cinema. I remember through most of the movie being captivated by just how slavishly Van Sant had copied the decades-old classic and even though the film is far from his best work it marked him out to me as someone whose love of film shines through on screen.
I don’t think at that time I was aware that it was Van Sant behind the camera for Good Will Hunting (1997); all of the conversation surrounding that film had been about Damon & Afflek and I probably assumed that it was a studio director-for-hire who had been brought in to shoot it. There’s no doubting the film is well made, but it’s the script and the performances that are doing the heavy lifting; supporting evidence came a couple of years later when Van Sant essentially tried to make the same film again in the form of Finding Forrester (2000) with lesser results. These studio films pay the bills; they’re cinematically pleasant enough and clearly put together by someone with good instincts, but Van Sant only really shines when he’s free of their constraints.
Once the name was known to me I went back and watched some of the earlier work and it was clear that this was a director who didn’t belong in the studio system. His camera likes to linger and wander, scenes play out un-rushed, characters mumble and shuffle, often Van Sant movies are not pretty but they are stylistically flawless. When Elephant (2003) came out it seemed to me to be a singular artistic statement which expressed in one stroke a whole swathe of pent-up, suppressed and otherwise inexpressible thoughts and feelings that had been bubbling under the western liberal psyche since those twin millennium-straddling events: the Columbine high school shootings of 1999 and the attacks on New York and Washington DC in September 2001. The subject matter of the film is obviously more closely modelled on the former, but as someone who was moving into adulthood at the time of those events I remember a distinct feeling of things slipping, getting worse, and a confusion that went with it. Somehow Van Sant got that on film; he captured something which other artists in all mediums were finding elusive. Elephant feels to me talismanic in some way, a coherent expression of something inexpressible, comparable to the relationship of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ to the Spanish Civil War.
On a more personal level I had no particular desire to see the story of Kurt Cobain’s suicide put up on screen, but Van Sant’s 2005 film Last Days is touching, poignant, thoughtful and respectful in perfect measure. That lingering camera is the tool of a director who trusts his actors, and Van Sant’s confidence provides the film with a measured pace that gives the viewer opportunity to reflect whilst watching. Some directors work their entire lives trying to make sure that thought is the last thing inspired in their audience when the movie is still rolling, it takes great confidence in one’s abilities before one is willing to let the viewer have his own space within the film. Like Elephant, there is something crystalline-perfect in Last Days' exploration of loneliness and depression. Both films are perhaps difficult to watch in parts, but enormously rewarding.
Gus Van Sant is one of film’s true auteurs, and yet he has been smart enough to make films that have added stability and longevity to his career. 2008’s Oscar-winning Milk seems in some ways to be a perfect fusion of the two halves of Van Sant’s back catalogue: a deeply personal film made with studio-backing and an eye on the awards season. That it succeeded on every level and in all senses of the word is completely deserved for such a fantastic film-maker.