In Defence Of… Gus Van Sant

Posted: July 23, 2011 in Gus Van Sant, Masculinities, metrosexuality, Uncategorized

Gus Van Sant is my Jarvis Cocker of cinema. If he’d have only made My Own Private Idaho and then retired, or died, like its star River Phoenix, I’d have been happy. If Jarvis had realised that he would never ever match the pop genius that was Babies, and had just given up there and then and pursued his natural career as a Radio presenter, I would have been happy. But try telling an artist to stop. It just makes them worse. You don’t have to tell me that.

So now when I remember that perfect scene where River is shown in close up, nearing climax, with the bank notes thrown on his scrawny body and the shot of the wooden house coming crashing down like an orgasm, I also have to remember Good Will Hunting, Milk, and the remake of Psycho. I haven’t seen any of those films. Why would I? I know they are no good.

But I love Gus Van Sant. And I think some respect is due for the following reasons:

1) He turns a very cold, very clinical eye on the alienation that is contemporary America (or rather he did, once). He shows how pretty it looks, whilst also being desolate and on the edge of barbarism.  Think of Elephant in particular, and its hyper-real, mediated, extra shiny colours that you saw in Idaho- autumn golds and yellows of the trees. Here, turned into bright t shirts and hairstyles of soon-to-be massacred kids. And he brings out the ‘nothingness’ of American culture. There is no cultural focal point to his best films- Elephant features a deathly high school with no cheerleaders, no sports days, just lost children. Idaho, the road is the main character. ‘I’ve been on this road forever’ says Mike. And Jerry, Jerry is the end times. America as zombie apocalypse desert.

2) He does not judge. In the best Gus Van Sant films, not just characters, but societies are shown to be complex and difficult to find a set morality within. In Idaho, rent boys and pimps live alongside each other in a confused state of mutual dependence and even love. In Elephant, the boys who conduct the Columbine massacre are shown as real people, bored, lost, as desolate as the suburban landscape they live in. We are not asked to love these villains, like, say we are Travis Bickle. We are just asked to see them in the context they find themselves in . And he doesn’t even judge that context. He’s not Michael Moore. He doesn’t blame ‘America’ for Columbine. He doesn’t blame anyone. He just paints a picture of the kind of abject conditions in which it was able to happen.

3) He knows the power of a pretty boy. If you are a filmmaker in Hollywood, you ignore the power of a pretty boy at your peril. Pretty boys sell movie tickets. But Van Sant (again in his best films which I think are Idaho, Elephant and in a kind of topsy turvy way, Jerry), shows how pretty boys are dangerous. Our fixation on them is an element of our voyeuristic, mediated, metrosexual society. Maybe in Milk, he wasn’t only renaging on the complex version of gender and sexual identities he portrayed in Idaho, and replacing it with a Gay Is Good message. Maybe he was also avoiding some of the challenges that come with recognising the chill wind of metrosexual masculinity as it blows through visual culture. In Jerry, Casey Affleck and Matt Damon get lost on a road trip and end up in a surreal desert landscape, looking beautiful and facing their imminent demise. Nothing happens. It is like Blair Witch without the woods, without the witch, without the girl, without the video project. Just the lostness, and the pretty boys.

4) He implicates the viewer. If we now live in a voyeuristic society, then surely we have to question our role as voyeurs, in that society and its morality (or lack of). Just as Hanneke does, again in his best films, Elephant in particular, Van Sant asks us to ask ourselves why we are looking. What harm can it do? As another massacre has just occurred in Europe this time, and we all turn to our TV sets to see the latest on the death toll, and to wonder if the killer was in fact wearing a wig, it is worth remembering Elephant, and its repetitions of moments in a day that seemed like any other. Its utter, disgusting, disgraceful, murderous beauty. I couldn’t keep my eyes off that boy with the white blonde hair. I didn’t care if those kids were going to die or not, I just wanted to see him again, and again, from a different angle this time. like the images of the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre. The classic which everyone else is copying.

So that’s my defence of Gus Van Sant so far. I probably have more. I mean Jarvis didn’t just have Babies did he? I could write an essay on the power and glory of Wickerman… I could defend my faulty heroes to the death.


  1. I’m curious to know what you thought of “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.”

    • It’s a long time since I saw it. I found it very surreal. I think, on balance, Van Sant just can’t do women. He really is very Gay with a capital G, psychologically. But visually and cinematically, I think he has a sense of the contemporary metrosexual world. I sometimes think his films like Elephant and Jerry scared him (they scared me) and he retreated into safer territory.

  2. I’m pretty partial still to “Drugstore Cowboy”, with “My Own Private Idaho” a close second. “Good Will Hunting” and “Finding Forster” were his absolute low points, but they were clear “box office” movies to earn some money in the middle of his filmmaking career. His minimalist direction since then has been interesting, and I found “Elephant” a great deal more engaging than I thought I would be. I still haven’t seen “Last Days”. “Milk”, eh, OK as biopics go, and I guess *somebody* had to do one about Harvey Milk. It captures San Francisco in the 1970s pretty well, but so did “Zodiac”.

  3. Elise says:

    Thanks to “My Own Private Idaho,” River Phoenix’s death was the only celebrity death that ever remotely touched me. Until today.

  4. Jody says:

    So when are you going to defend Gus Van Sant’s ‘music career’ like “18 Songs about Golf”? and then Jarvis Cocker’s direction of We Are Raving?

    “To Die For” and “Private Idaho” were my favorites. I love them Phoenix brothers. ‘Elephant’ is love/hate. First time I saw it, I was disturbed which was a good thing. A few days later, I thought it was crap. Maybe that’s the point.
    Btw, that yellow bull t-shirt worn by John in Elephant was popularized by Jarvis in the early 00’s (at least in the indie scene). It’s a mirror image of Jarvis’s shirt. A bit of silly connection there.

    • “Btw, that yellow bull t-shirt worn by John in Elephant was popularized by Jarvis in the early 00′s (at least in the indie scene). It’s a mirror image of Jarvis’s shirt. A bit of silly connection there.”

      I’ve always thought that t-shirt has an odd visual resemblance to the “Open Range” signs one sees all over rural Nevada:

      Which in turn ties visually with “My Own Private Idaho”. Odd series of connections to make, I know.

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