I next saw Gerry, which from memory screened in Melbourne only at the Lumiere, whose demise has meant we rarely get to see films of this calibre. It has a raw austerity about its narrative that makes it difficult to watch for the conventional movie-goer. I missed Last Days on its theatrical release, which I think was quite brief, so I saw it on DVD. Again, this film challenges some audiences, but rewards the patient.
I'm hoping to catch as many of the other titles screening as I can, especially and Drugstore Cowboy, Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho as well as the Australian premiere of Van Sant's latest film, Paranoid Park.
The Focus on Gus Van Sant screens at ACMI from Thu 21 - Fri 29 February, then tours nationally as follows:
- Sydney: 29 February - 4 March
- Brisbane: 6 - 9 March
- Canberra: 7 - 12 March
Following is program information of the retrospective as well as film synopses provided by ACMI (or check out the Calendar of Film Events in the sidebar):
Thu 21 Feb 7 pm (Australian premiere) Sat 23 Feb 9.30pm
Gus Van Sant, 91 mins, USA/France, 2007, 35mm.
Van Sant’s latest film, which garnered the Anniversary Prize at the 60th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, is set in Portland, Van Sant’s adopted ‘hometown’ and frequent setting for his films. Alex (Gabe Nevins) is a slow-burn teen whose uneventful life takes a dramatic turn after a visit to a local skate park. Van Sant’s stylistic preoccupation with layered sound and visual design finds full expression in a film that is artfully constructed and whose emotional impact is precisely calibrated. “Despite its formal experimentation and its melancholy tone, this is also an emotionally direct, frequently very funny exploration of the effects of a single unimaginable disaster upon a single ordinary life” Edinburgh Film Festival
Thu 21 Feb 9 pm, Mon 25 Feb 9 pm
Gus Van Sant, 105 mins, USA, 1998, 35mm.
When Van Sant announced he was set to remake Alfred Hitchcock’s venerable Psycho (1960), the kindest response anyone could elicit was that his intention was “heroic and suicidal”. Aided by his mercurial director of photography, Christopher Doyle – most closely associated, up to that point, with the brilliant colour spectrums he devised and shot for Wong Kar-Wai – Van Sant’s Warhol-worthy shot-for-shot appropriation incorporated formal experiments with lighting and rear projection, re-workings of Bernard Hermann’s score and Saul Bass’ titles, with a trademark subliminal insert here and there for Van Sant purists. Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn play it straight to great effect. “Norman Bates is alive and well, and just a tad kinkier than you remember” San Francisco Chronicle
Fri 22 Feb 7 pm, Sun 24 Feb 3.30 pm
Gus Van Sant, 87 mins, USA, 1985, 35mm (new print)
Based on a story by Portland-based writer Walt Curtis, Van Sant’s debut feature is direct, unsentimental and lingers hauntingly for its lack of guile. The director imbues the narrative with themes – longing, the burden of unrequited love (Walt philosophizes on “the impossibilities of love” with a straight Mexican ‘alien’ who has no interest in him) and both the metaphorical and more literal ‘homelessness’ of characters on the fringes of society – that will reverberate through later films, most poetically in My Own Private Idaho. Originally shot (in black and white) on 16mm, Mala Noche will be presented in a new 35mm print with digitally restored sound.
Fri 22 Feb 9 pm, Tue 26 Feb 9 pm
My Own Private Idaho
Gus Van Sant, 102 mins, USA, 1991, 35mm
“If I had a normal family and a good upbringing then I would have been a well adjusted person” Mike (River Phoenix) plaintively tells Scott (Keanu Reeves) in a rare exchange of awkwardly articulated truths between the two street hustlers. Scott is the son of Portland’s mayor and his Midnight Cowboy ‘phase’ no more than a calculated rebellion before he takes up the mantle of social prestige he assumes as his birthright. Mike’s path is less clear; a sensitive narcoleptic nursing a deep sense of maternal abandonment, Mike’s ‘fortunes’ rely far more precariously on the kindness – or otherwise – of all too random strangers. “An essential testament to the beauty and [acting] chops of the late River Phoenix” Rolling Stone
Sat 23 Feb 5 pm, Mon 25 Feb 7 pm
To Die For
Gus Van Sant, 106 mins, USA, 1995, 35mm
Nicole Kidman actively courted Van Sant for the role of Suzanne Stone, the cravenly ambitious and celebrity-obsessed wannabe TV ‘personality’ whose devious machinations propel the storyline in this jagged black comedy. (Kidman was rewarded with a Golden Globe for her bravura turn.) Matt Dillon, Dan Hedaya and Illeana Douglas contribute spikily nuanced supporting roles, with Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck and Alison Folland note perfect as the disaffected teens cynically recruited by Suzanne for her Teens Speak Out video project. David Cronenberg appears in an intriguing cameo. “Sparked by a volcanically sexy and richly comic performance by Kidman...prime social satire and outrageous fun” Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
Sat 23 Feb 7.30 pm, Tue 26 Feb 7 pm
Gus Van Sant, 100 mins, USA, 1989, 35mm
Sun 24 Feb 5.30pm, Thur 28 Feb 7 pm
Gus Van Sant, 98 mins, USA, 2002, 35mm
Van Sant’s existential ‘buddy’ movie begins with a bravura opening sequence that is audaciously Beckett-like in its deliberate lack of narrative exposition. It sets the tone for the film to come. The two Gerrys (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) make cryptic references to “the thing” they are striving towards on a wilderness trail, then change their minds and lose their way in an increasingly sparse and foreboding landscape. Van Sant ‘regulars’ Harris Savidis (cinematography) and Leslie Shatz (sound design) add immeasurably to the texture of the film, particularly as the characters’ perceptions begin to give way to hallucinatory abstractions. “Could well be Van Sant’s masterpiece” San Francisco Examiner
Sun 24 Feb 7.30pm, Fri 29 Feb 7pm
Gus Van Sant, 81 mins, USA, 2003, 35mm
Van Sant drew inspiration for key protagonists in Elephant from the real-life Columbine tragedy, but his highly stylised, consummately crafted evocation of a day in the life of a ‘normal’ American high school conveys a surface ordinariness that in its very universality, disturbingly taps into a pervasive undercurrent of unease beyond the specifics of that notorious event. Long, rhythmic takes and tracking shots of students going about their day in the corridors, cafeteria and sports ground of a generic high school almost subliminally map a topography of the school in the viewer’s mind that is later chillingly revisited by the student killers. “Gripping and superbly made. An outstanding film” The Guardian
Thu 28 Feb 9 pm
Gus Van Sant, 97 mins, USA, 2005, 35mm
Michael Pitt (The Dreamers, Delirious) cuts a hauntingly familiar figure in Van Sant’s meditation on the final days in the life of a famed musician retreating from the clamour of the world and its myriad, insistent demands. (The film is dedicated to Kurt Cobain.) “Success is subjective” a kindly Yellow Pages rep tells Blake, before inviting him to consider how a directory listing may best serve his “business needs”. Blake prefers to wander the woods on his sprawling estate, build himself a campfire and ironically sing Home on the Range to no one in particular. “An opaque masterpiece” Dennis Lim, The Village Voice