My Own Private Van Sant

Idaho goes public: Sean Connery and Gus Van Sant

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.

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.  

"A lot of times I felt like I could always direct anything I wanted," he adds, pointing out the freedom displayed in his first three films--the very first being the story of a twentysomething grocery-store clerk who falls in love with a 16-year-old Mexican boy. "The kids that we tried to get in [Mala Noche] from Mexico didn't understand what we were making. They might understand gay sex, but they didn't understand how you could make a film that had this subject, because to them the cinema was more like a church. It's similar in our culture, too. I was just breaking away from what you'd normally see in a theater."

By contrast, Finding Forrester is everything you'd expect to see in a theater, as the movie's ever-game director readily admits. The pitch goes something like this: See the uplifting story of a shut-in, eccentric, Fitzgerald/Shaw/Salinger-type author (Sean Connery) who's brought out of his agoraphobic shell by Jamal Wallace (newcomer Rob Brown), a black teenager and self-made writing genius from the Bronx. Life lessons are learned. Old guy comes to terms with his past. Youth learns to love. Sound familiar?

I should admit that the script by Mike Rich isn't quite as bad as its droll racial interplay might suggest. ("You're the man, now, dawg," goes one Connery line.) And the first third of the film unfolds like a good mystery, despite glaring Good Will parallels. The virtually untrained Brown has a quiet, pregnant presence that's a good foil for Connery, and he has one great, delicately realistic flirting scene with a now-college-aged Anna Paquin. Oh, and there are some cool basketball sequences, too (further cluttering the plot, Brown's genius is also a jock). As for Connery, who wasted the entirety of his last self-produced movie licking his chops over Catherine Zeta-Jones, he wraps himself in scarves here and summons a vulnerable, decidedly non-iconic performance--aided, no doubt, by Van Sant's naturalism, which feels looser than ever. Yet all is weighted down by a schoolmaster (F. Murray Abraham, doing his best Salieri once again) who suspects the kid is a plagiarist, and by a Scent of a Woman-smelling finale that has poor Busta Rhymes (as the older brother), who's made to articulate that The Man Will Always Find Ways to Keep You Down. And then, in its last reel, the movie devolves into full-scale matinee melodrama.

Hence the New Queer Cineaste, having once set out to "change film vocabulary," as he puts it, now masters the grammar of the Oscar vehicle. Still, Van Sant remains true to form by characterizing these moves in typical art-school terms. "Because I really hadn't done anything like Good Will Hunting, it was new for me," he says. "The only reason not to do something like that is because you're preserving a point of view that people have of you. I think it was something I was never expected to do, and assumed I couldn't do. And I wasn't quite sure whether I could do it, either. So it was experimental in a formulaic way: It was experimental as a form, not necessarily as a result, but the idea and the action of doing it were, for me, experimental."

There's another reason Van Sant considers Good Will Hunting and its Bronx stepchild avant-garde. "I was always under the impression that it was harder to make the ones that were perhaps socially unacceptable or dangerous," he says. "So making Good Will Hunting was an exercise in finding out whether that was true: Is it the subjects that prevent the audience from going? And Good Will Hunting indicated that, in fact, it's true. If you make something that is acceptable, is uplifting, and is for the people, you know, then more people will go, and actually they did. And Forrester was [meant] to back up that idea: Like, did it just happen [the first time] as a fluke, or was it actually true? If they go to Forrester, it's an example to me of saying that it is in fact harder to make those films that are challenging social morality, and that's kind of one of the experiments to me: to see whether or not it is easier to be mainstream than it is to be against the mainstream."

Which is kind of like saying that he experimented with crack cocaine to see whether it felt good and was addictive. Gus Van Sant has been bought to the degree that he, like every other Hollywood director, will now be expected to make films that are less about himself and more about the people who produce them. And given how intimately he once spoke to us, that's a shame.

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