- Retrospective: February 12–28, 2003
- Regional Premiere: Gerry
What makes a film director an artist? The two terms, though allied, are not synonymous. There are directors who aren’t much more than channelers of audience taste, and then there are the auteurs, whose films are said to contain common themes, stylistic traits, and choices of subject matter.
But to work as an artist while working in film means something subtly different. The distinction is a meaningful one because it points to the fact that the apparatus of contemporary filmmaking—the technical complexities, imbalance of power, labor requirements, financial risks, etc.—is tremendously resistant to the artist’s hand. The writer can put his or her words directly onto the page; the filmmaker has to spend years overseeing the construction of the factory that produces the paper.
These thoughts come to mind when surveying the films of Gus Van Sant. As auteur theorists would note, his movies display common themes (the creation of alternative families, personal journeys, a belief in art and art-making); stylistic traits (a blending of realism with subjective points of view and fantasy, gently inflected absurdist humor); and choices of subject matter (friendship, mentor-student relationships, lives lived outside of the mainstream). But what is less remarked upon is Van Sant’s extraordinary—and, yes, artistic—skill at transforming the unwieldy way of making films in the 21st century into its own expressive canvas. As he has developed his career, Van Sant has realized the extent to which today’s film storytelling is shaped by larger forces. “For me, the film [narrative] process is based on industry,” he has said. “One of the things that was attributed to D.W. Griffith, which I think was done by a group of people, was a sort of industrialization of cinema—allowing cinema to fit into the industrial model. And either you perfect the model, or you figure out ways to work outside the model, to subvert it or change it or deconstruct it.”
Subvert it, change it, deconstruct it—that’s what Van Sant has done to the Hollywood way of making movies. Arriving at film through photography and advertising and after studying painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, he has consistently challenged the subject matter, thematic preoccupations, and structures of Hollywood cinema. In Mala Noche, his first film, Van Sant took a semiautobiographical novel by a local Portland writer, Walt Curtis, and made a delicate and moving poem. With Drugstore Cowboy, he furthered his technique, working with stars while expanding his cinematic vocabulary. In the films that followed, he has experimented with the form of film storytelling, whether through second-act forays into Shakespeare (My Own Private Idaho), channel-switching through time and points of view (To Die For), or questioning the logic of the Hollywood remake by rigorously subjecting it to the conceptual art strategy of appropriation (Psycho). Amidst it all, though, Van Sant has not lost sight of the pleasures of character and performance. In the two films in which he has most consciously worked within the “studio model,” Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, he found the grace notes that allowed these classic Hollywood tales to ring fresh and true.
While other American filmmakers have been influenced by European directors, few understand that the power of their films derives from an alternative way of making movies. With his latest film, Gerry, a hypnotic and transcendent tale of friendship and mortality, Van Sant was inspired by Belgian-French filmmaker Chantal Akerman and Hungarian Bela Tarr. To create his own version of the “long-take” cinema both practice, he did a 180 from Finding Forrester, obtaining German financing, stripping his crew down, working improvisationally, editing the film himself—in short, reshaping the filmmaking apparatus in order to create a new kind of “Gus Van Sant movie.” We may not realize it when we watch them, but it’s Van Sant’s willingness to extend his creativity through all aspects of filmmaking—to not be trapped within one particular model or method of working—that makes him such a restlessly creative and continually vital force within American cinema.
Scott Macaulay is the editor of Filmmaker magazine and the producer and copresident of Forensic Films, one of New York’s most prolific independent production companies.