My Own Private Van Sant

Finding Forrester's director used to make art--now he uses art to justify fluff

Los Angeles--

Around the time of My Own Private Idaho's release in 1991, you had Madonna's big dick in one ear, "we're here, we're queer" politics in the other, and alternative culture in full flower everywhere. Take a moment to remember how the Gulf War galvanized an opposition that soon started channeling its energies into zines (ah, zines), performance art, and "independent" everything. Naturally, a gay Portland writer-director's gritty visual psychedelia--let's call it "grunge" just for fun--became a pop totem, the cinematic corollary to all that racket coming from Van Sant's immediate north. And in the few seconds it took River Phoenix's homosexual hustler to suck off a john--which, quite memorably, took about as long as an old house did to plummet from the sky--the new counterculture had landed its archetype: tenderhearted, disheveled, dislocated, narcoleptic, looking for Mom, and in no danger of taking over the world.

Nine years later, as Phoenix's moment fades into glum memory, Gus Van Sant retains the unusual distinction among auteurs of being loved more than admired. And loved most of all for that signature Nineties road movie, which, for all its experimental gaffes (only Kenneth Branagh could appreciate Keanu doing Henry IV), struck a barré-chord that still rings loudly. (Euphemistically filed under "Special Interest" in my local video store, Idaho still seems permanently checked out, regardless.) Among a smaller audience, the director became equally loved, and even more admired, for 1987's grainy black-and-white melodrama Mala Noche, and 1989's junkie travelogue Drugstore Cowboy. Taken as a triptych, these early movies announced a directorial voice as unique in tone as in imagistic whimsy--non-exploitative, non-cynical, non-moralizing, bemused, generous. Van Sant picked outlaws and drifters off society's underbelly with uncommon empathy, and he knew the difference between lyricism and romanticism.

Idaho goes public: Sean Connery and Gus Van Sant
Idaho goes public: Sean Connery and Gus Van Sant

This was certainly the sensibility of a gay man--indeed, B. Ruby Rich lumped Van Sant in with Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki and called it the New Queer Cinema. And one can only imagine how the complex tenderness between men in his 1997 mainstream bid Good Will Hunting would go to sap under Nora Ephron--perhaps with R.E.M. replacing Elliot Smith on the soundtrack. That said, every Gus Van Sant movie made since 1994's universally unloved Even Cowgirls Get the Blues could have been made by somebody else. This includes the innocuous spoof To Die For, the excruciating shot-by-shot remake of Psycho, and the mediocre new Sean Connery vehicle Finding Forrester. As Van Sant admits in interview, he is now "a hired gun."

Then again, who am I to accuse my favorite director of selling out? It's ten in the morning, and I'm fresh off three hours' sleep on soft Four Seasons linen, maxed-out on a $100 hotel per diem--plus the $27 I convince the front-desk clerk to forget about. I'm bleary-eyed from a night on West Hollywood watching Harry Dean Stanton croak "Mustang Sally" at the Mint; ducking the velvet rope at the Viper Room (where, you'll recall, River Phoenix breathed his last); and hitchhiking to a Jamaican after-bar before flirting with fake-everything, cell-phoning club girls at the Palace, then stumbling back into the lobby just before dawn to scrounge a Sunday Times and elicit a "Sir--are you sure you're a guest of the hotel?" All courtesy of Columbia Pictures, proprietor of Finding Forrester--which really isn't all that bad, or so I've decided after a night of non-reflection. Publicists, here's your pullquote: "Easily the best Gus Van Sant movie of the past two years."

In other words, I have been bought to the degree that I, like every other junket journalist, will now be expected to write less about the art and more about the people who made it. And people are inherently hard to pan, especially Van Sant, who has the warmest, softest handshake that God must have had available, and brightens rather than bristles when I offer him this challenging question: Do you think it's fair when fans of your first three movies say you've been increasingly subsuming your creative voice in other people's work?

Van Sant ponders this loaded gun with a smile, perhaps wondering whether it's uphill from here. "You can look at other artists' careers, and there's always some sort of change," he begins blandly. "Like when the Beatles stopped recording, everybody just said, 'Why can't you just get together and play?' They had a reason, and I guess now I know it: You can't go back."

But this is no answer, and he knows it. So he digresses for a minute of defensive maneuvering. "I mean, Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester bookend Psycho," he says, "which is not necessarily more conservative than Drugstore Cowboy--maybe less, you know?" Yeah, I know: Van Sant has previously justified Psycho in art-school terms that I almost buy. Critic R.J. Smith compared the whole-cloth color re-shoot to Talking Heads (Van Sant's old classmates at the Rhode Island School of Design) lip-synching "Mustang Sally" on video--an act of appropriation more complete, and thus more Warholian, than Harry Dean's cover of the same tune last night. And anyway, Van Sant's claim that his films don't represent a specific direction does stack up.

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