Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Focus on Gus Van Sant

I mentioned late last year that ACMI will be screening a Focus on Gus Van Sant. Today I received further details, posted below. While I saw (and liked immensely) and To Die For and Good Will Hunting, it was after seeing Elephant that I really took notice of this guy's work. I was in the US at the time, and had received no information about the film at all. I sat there in the cinema watching these kids being filmed from different perspectives, intrigued at what the story could be drawing towards. I had no idea that this was a story based on the Columbine school shootings, and as the plot began to become clear, my partner and I started to sink into our seats first with dread, and then horror. I found the film beautifully filmed, with terrific performances from mostly non-professionals. The impact was amazing. It was a graphic example of how much better a film's impact is when seen without any pre-empting. It was my favourite film of 2003 (though it was released in Australia in 2004).

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
Paranoid Park is distributed by Madman Cinema and opens in cinemas on 6 March in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and 13 March in Canberra. Its Australian premiere is at ACMI on 21 February.

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
Paranoid Park
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
Mala Noche
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
Drugstore Cowboy
Gus Van Sant, 100 mins, USA, 1989, 35mm
Set in Portland and the Pacific Northwest in 1971, Matt Dillon, (in a career-defining role) plays Bob, a “shameless, full-time dope fiend” who’d rather hit a drugstore than cosy up to his (dissatisfied) wife (Kelly Lynch). When he and his on-the-lam ‘crew’ (James LeGros and Heather Graham) check into a motel hosting a sheriffs’ convention, Bob reads the signs and decides it might be time to turn over a new ‘leaf’. Key Van Sant motifs – dryly self-aware yet spiritually exiled first person narrators, time lapse photography, trippy point of view shots, Super 8 ‘inserts’ – are all on show in this, the director’s break-out indie hit. A brilliantly caustic William Burroughs appears as a philosophising priest with patently unsanctioned views on the role of narcotics in society.

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
Last Days
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


Marina said...

My knowledge of Van Sant is sadly lacking. The only films of his I've seen over the year have been "Psycho" and "Elephant". I recently picked up "Gerry" used at the local video store for all of a few dollars but haven't had a chance to sit down with it yet.

Soon though. Very soon.

Cibbuano said...

I saw Gerry at the cinema, and while it had a few moments of earth-shattering cinema, I found it tedious to sit through.

Perhaps if I watched it now, I'd like it a whole lot better.

Paul Martin said...

Marina, those three titles are so different from each other that it's testament to the diversity of the man's work.

Cibbuano, I would expect Gerry to be difficult for most viewers. I think my respect of Van Sant enabled me to show some patience that perhaps I may not otherwise have had. I would like to see it again, as this style of film has really grown on me since I saw it a few years back. It was interesting to watch it, not really knowing what was going on. It'll be a different experience the second time around.

Paranoid Android said...

Paul, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho are possibly his 2 best films, so make sure you don't miss them. I haven't seen them for years, and never on the big screen, so I'll be queuing up myself.

I'm afraid I failed to see the value of either Gerry or Last Days. Elephant at least had some topical basis, but these other parts of the "walking" trilogy seem pointless to me. Each to their own, but I feel that if anyone went out and made the exact same films they would be ridiculed, yet by having Gus van Sant on the poster they become "a masterpiece".

I'm hoping that Paranoid Park will restore my faith.

Paul Martin said...

I want to catch those two, PA, as well as many of the others I can (that I haven't seen). I can understand others not liking Gerry or Last Days, especially Gerry. I don't know whether my liking them (a lot, mind you) is more because of the films on their own merits or whether it's part of my appreciation with the director's work as a whole. There is a common aesthetic in many of Van Sant's films that I really dig.

As for Paranoid Park, the buzz isn't that great, but I don't judge a film on the buzz.