The Times of Gus Van Sant
One of the best scenes in all of movies, in my humble opinion, is a simple one: the actress Heather Graham, in an act of equal parts exhaustion and defiance, picks up a worn leather cowboy hat and tosses it casually on a bed. It’s from the movie Drugstore Cowboy, directed by Gus Van Sant, and it’s a moment full of suspense over something so little.
What does the hat on the bed mean? It’s the king of all superstitions to a group of resourceful Portland, Oregon junkies who rob drugstores across the Pacific Northwest to feed their habit. Matt Dillon is the leader of the misfit family, whose life when not shooting up is ruled by curses, hexes and superstitions involving dogs, mirrors, and the infamous hat on a bed, which can cause a minimum of fifteen years of bad luck, and possibly even death. It marks a turning point in the film for the characters, and it becomes comic in ways that are thoroughly unusual. The matter-of-factness of the storytelling throws you off, and you find yourself laughing at serious things while having serious reactions to funny things. Your moral compass can’t find its bearings, and you are forced to look at the characters in new ways.
The great film critic Pauline Kael said, “Drugstore Cowboy keeps you laughing because it’s so non-judgmental.” That’s a good way to describe what Gus Van Sant does so well as a filmmaker. What’s right or wrong in his films is never a question, but his choice to make this an irrelevant part of his work is what allows his characters to shine. In the director’s first feature release Mala Noche, Tim Streeter plays a clerk at a dingy convenience store who is obsessed with a regular customer, a Mexican boy who shuns his romantic advances. In My Own Private Idaho, River Phoenix has one of his best roles as a narcoleptic street hustler who finds himself suddenly falling asleep at the oddest moments, scaring to death his confused customers. Nicole Kidman has her best role in To Die For, as a cable-access TV weather caster whose quest for fame leads her to mastermind an irrational plot to kill her husband. In that film, as one of the hapless teenagers she enlists, Joaquin Phoenix plays a horny, confused boy who has no idea what has just happened to him when he lands in jail for the crime. His scenes have the ache of first love that make Kidman’s character all the more monstrous.
These characters are all on the fringes of society, and they are all arguably pitiful people who find themselves in even more pitiful situations, but in overlooking class or society standards (and in some cases moral standards) they emerge as classic movie heroes, suffering from the pangs of real love, the desire to find a family, and the decision to finally grow up and take care of them-selves. In Drugstore Cowboy, Matt Dillon’s character Bob one day decides to simply stop taking drugs. The scenes make you laugh because it never occurred to you it could be that simple. His moment of clarity feels like a triumph, and it has the snap of a major movie moment. In Gus Van Sant’s films, his characters are inspiring in spite of themselves. I think that’s why we like them so much.
In his new movie Milk, his subject is the real-life hero Harvey Milk, who in the 1970s was the first openly gay man elected to a political office in the United States, and who in many ways was responsible for the beginning of the gay rights movement. In the film, he is played by Sean Penn in an uncanny performance that captures the flaws and charisma of the real-life Harvey Milk, who made up for his lack of political experience with his ability to connect intensely with the people he came into contact with. Like many Van Sant characters, Harvey Milk was always distinctly himself. His sexuality was never an issue for him personally, and it wasn’t until he moved to San Francisco’s Castro District and opened a small camera shop that he felt the first stirrings of a political life.
“Before 1969, you couldn’t be an openly gay man at all,” says Van Sant, from his home in Portland, Oregon. “You couldn’t hold hands with another man, walk down the street. In Oregon, you could be arrested for making a pass at a guy in a bar. When Harvey lived in New York, he had to cruise for other gay men in Central Park, and at the Opera of all places. But he didn’t want to have to do that anymore. What was missing was being able to be out at work, to his parents, his neighbors.”
After Harvey moved to the Castro District, he began seeing signs of injustice around him. He began to voice his opinion, and he kept getting louder and louder about it. He decided to run for a position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in hopes of making a change, but was largely unsuccessful until he courted the unlikely support of the Teamsters Union. They were in a battle with the Coors Corporation for using non-union delivery drivers, and Harvey Milk promised that he would get Coors beer out of every gay bar in the Castro. When he made good on his word, the union backed him, and gained enough support to be elected into office.
“I think Harvey had an awakening,” says Van Sant. “It happened step by step. It was a learning process in how to play the political game. But it was difficult because he was having to do that as an out gay person, which was a tough mix at the time.”
“Harvey had a very simple philosophy. He believed that if gay men and women just came out, then there would be less opposition. He believed if people suddenly saw that their close friends and sons and daughters were gay that they would have to change the way they thought. They would see how many gay people there were and start accepting the fact that they are regular people like anyone else in their lives. Simply coming out was his main rallying cry.”
Possibly his biggest victory politically was playing a key role in keeping the Briggs Initiative from being passed in California, a law that would make the firing of gay schoolteachers and their supporters (regardless of sexual orientation) mandatory. His public outcry gained national attention, and the then Governor Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter both publicly voiced their opposition to the law, citing infringement of civil rights.
“It was a slow, methodical job, but Harvey was a very charismatic person, and he learned to be good at it. A lot of the basic rights that have been won for gay people were won at that time by Harvey,” says Van Sant.
In November of that same year, one of Harvey’s fellow supervisors, a man named Dan White stepped down from his position over a salary dispute. He was a fireman and an anti-gay conservative who resented Harvey for not backing his bid for a raise. When he tried to return to office, the Mayor denied his request. But before he could make the announcement publicly, Dan White entered City Hall through a basement window with his police- issued service revolver and shot the Mayor. He then reloaded it and went into Harvey Milk’s office and shot him five times, twice in the head.
Not long after, White admitted to the murders. At his trial, the defense lawyers barred anyone who was pro-gay from the jury and then brought in a psychologist to testify that his diet of junk food – specifically Twinkies – accelerated his depression and lead to the crimes. The jury gave him only five years in prison, with parole. After the verdict was read, the city was outraged, and there was rioting in the streets.
“It was a crime committed out of frustration, and it changed things permanently,” says Van Sant. “Today, Harvey Milk’s influence can still be seen in politics. It just keeps evolving. Marriage is an issue now.”
Milk opened in theaters on November 26, one day before the thirtieth anniversary of his death. The film co-stars an eclectic cast of some of the best young talent in Hollywood in a decidedly un-Hollywood film. Josh Brolin (W., No Country For Old Men) plays Dan White. James Franco (Pineapple Express, Spider-Man) plays Harvey Milk’s lover, Scott Smith. Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer, Into the Wild) plays his longtime friend, Cleve Jones, and Lucas Grabeel, of High School Musical fame, plays a worker in his camera shop. It is fitting that the movie’s official premiere was in San Francisco and was hosted by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was the President of the Board of Supervisors at the time, and who was one room away when Harvey was shot to death.
Over the years, there have been many different scripts and directors attached to Harvey’s story in Hollywood, including Oliver Stone and Bryan Singer (in 1985, a wonderful documentary about his life, The Times of Harvey Milk won the Academy Award). But it’s fitting that it is Van Sant who ended up making the film. Harvey Milk is in many ways a quintessential Gus Van Sant hero. The film begins with Harvey on his birthday thinking, “I’m forty years-old and I haven’t done a thing.” This line begins his journey, his search for his own voice, which is something that most of Van Sant’s characters do. He’s a modern chronicler of lost people looking for a way out.
“It’s a preoccupation of mine, I guess,” says Van Sant. “I am attracted to characters who are introspective, who are searching for direction or meaning.”
Almost all of his films are concerned with the interior journeys of his characters. He is fascinated by the processes of searching and thinking and understanding, and his films come closer than nearly any modern director to capturing those intimate moments. Some critics have labeled him as a filmmaker who specializes in troubled youth, and some have gone further to say that it’s just a preoccupation with young, good-looking youth. His most recent film, Paranoid Park, released earlier in the year, told the story of a young teenage boy caught up in a violent and mysterious happening outside of a Portland skate park. The way his camera lingered on his main character, and seemed to swoon in such a dream-like way at kids flying through the air on skateboards forced you to connect with moods and images over a coherent, straightforward narrative. His acclaimed film Elephant also lingered over gorgeous high school kids to a degree that it sometimes had the quality of distracting you from the tragedy (a high school shooting) the film was about. There is no question his images are potent and beautiful and often sexual, but I would encourage those critics to look closer. His camera lingers not as a voyeur, but in a genuine desire to penetrate the surface, to go deeper into the minds and feelings of his characters. He uses his camera, and film as a medium, to get inside someone else’s shoes. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
“It’s not a style I have ever consciously thought about,” says Van Sant. “It’s something that has happened over twenty years of making movies. There has never been a design to it. It doesn’t come from me, but from the different characters in my films. It’s something I started out doing, and it’s something I still do. I try to see through their point of view. I did that with Harvey while making Milk.”
“My first three films, Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, and My Own Private Idaho were all basically diaries. Two were even written by the people who lived them. I find myself drawn to that diary aspect of storytelling.”
One might say that Gus Van Sant has been writing his diary on film too. Lately, he seems to be searching as a filmmaker right alongside his characters. After reaching indie notoriety with his first three films, he scored a major Hollywood breakthrough with Good Will Hunting in 1997. He was nominated for an Academy Award for it and it made over $100 million at the box office. After that, he tried his hand at another Hollywood film, the Oscar- baiting Finding Forrester, about an inner city youth whose basketball crashes through the window of a reclusive Pulitzer Prize winning author, played by Sean Connery, and discovers his own writing abilities. It was the type of film Hollywood hands to talented up and coming directors that usually dull their edge and ruin their careers.
But Gus Van Sant followed up the lackluster film with a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho. It starred Anne Heche as Marion Crane and Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. It was a major disappointment financially, but was an unheard of film-making experiment for such a high-profile project. He then shot Gerry, a movie starring Casey Affleck and Matt Damon as buddies who get lost on a hike in the desert and literally spend the entire film trying to find their way back to their car. Some people found it unwatchable, and others profoundly spiritual. Next was Elephant, based on the school shooting incident at Columbine High School, which featured long, languorous tracking shots through school hallways that slowly pulled you into odd moods that became menacing. The film won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year, but audiences either loved it or got lost in its dreamy qualities (the same was said of his recent Paranoid Park). He then took what he started stylistically with Gerry and Elephant and went even further with it in Last Days, which followed a Kurt Cobain-like rock star walking in a drug-addled haze through a house and the surrounding woods during the last hours of his life before he shoots himself. Almost nothing happens in the film. The concept is equally touching and frustrating.
“As audiences we have become so used to a kind of style that has been generated by an industry,” says Van Sant. “And we are still inside of it. We can’t see beyond it, and that’s not what film should be. It’s a very mysterious form, and it’s still relatively young.”
That’s possibly the best description of what his films have been lately – mysterious. He’s reminiscent of David Lynch or David Cronenberg in his ability to create dream-like moods and visual states of mind. But unlike those two filmmakers, his movies strive to communicate the pangs of changing, of being lost and capturing those first steps out. He’s a poet of self-discovery. Whether people like his films or not, they remain challenging, enigmatic and full of searching. And at this point in his career, he deserves to be recognized as the significant American filmmaker that he is.
With Milk’s wide release and its large recognizable cast, audiences will get a chance to see that as well.