At the age of thirty Gus Van Sant managed to make a shift from the nurturing scene of underground film exhibition into a more public arena. The Discipline of D.E. was based on a short story by The Naked Lunch famed writer William Burroughs. It utilises a simple observational voice and the subject of retirement as a “do easy” guide to life, making a somewhat unexpected product from such a fresh and young filmmaker.
It would later become an iconic moment in Van Sant’s career as it was a product of its era. Although produced in a post Warhol film period, it maintains a similar notion of ease via sharp black and white photography and a boundless artistic form.
…Van Sant’s career maintains a boundless artistic form.
It was this form which Van Sant returned to four years later when he adapted Mala Noche. The novel of the same title did not receive the usual transformation into script form, instead the film was made with a makeshift paperback copy at hand.
Successfully producing a film from literary form, it was delicately lit and balanced beautifully in its poetic narrative. I was hesitant of this film’s appeal, discovering it after I had seen nearly every other Van Sant film, but I was still delightfully surprised as it resonates and remains un-aged by its originality.
… truly remarkable filmmaking.
If Mala Noche was anything to go by, anyone would have known that increasing the small, almost non-existent budgest that Van Sant was using would result in truly remarkable filmmaking. What followed was a string of classics. Van Sant never shied away from challenges and provocations, making him continually exciting.
The first of these was Drugstore Cowboy, a film which utilised its cast to the maximum potential. It was edited with a bold style and helped define the road movie genre. A theme which he touched upon briefly in his first film, the characters flee the home, challenge their borders and exhaust themselves as they attempt to collect drugs.
Van Sant delved into uncharted areas…
But not all is fun and games here. Much like his following film, My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant delved into uncharted areas, with a sudden plot twist which affects the interior psyche of the characters.
In Drugstore Cowboy the lifestyle depicted prompts the instant distaste of the illegal life and yet you fall for Kelly Lynch‘s character and even her terrorised relationship with her husband, played by Matt Dillon doesn’t dampen the empathy.
To Die For is the most graceful of Van Sant’s black comedies
In My Own Private Idaho you wish the two leads set within their Shakespearian tongue twisting lives would find what they are in search of. At first it is the lost innocence of childhood – which we re-visit in a dreamland etched film formant; and then it is the inevitable love triangles which develop. Watching River Phoenix‘s Mike Waters chase what he cannot have and knowing of his death a few years later contributes to what can only be described as a classic.
One of Van Sant’s more prominent traits is the performances he draws from his actors. Throughout his oeuvre the lead often has the opportunity to develop on screen in a way rarely depicted and usually never repeated in their other project choices.
…the tale of starting out in a world of fame couldn’t be served better…
In 1995 Van Sant made Nicole Kidman a killer TV presenter in To Die For: As she claws her way to celebrity stardom, we embrace a fresh cast including Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix and in the most graceful of Van Sant’s black comedies, poetry and the power of televised digitalisation of imagery brings a breath of life to death. Telling the tale of starting out in a world of fame couldn’t be served better and it was something Van Sant would truly get a taste for with his next film.
Image courtesy of Gus Van Sant