“I’m not actually involved, but I’m observing.”
There is a remarkable scene in Elephant, Gus van Sant’s astonishing 2003 treatise of the Columbine High School massacre, with the camera resting still in an area on the school’s sports fields, students drifting in and out of the picture, voices and ambient sounds reaching in from beyond the frame. Nothing much happens, really, but it captures so quietly and perfectly a moment of everyday beauty, overshadowed by the vague knowledge of what’s to come.
Gus van Sant’s cinema is a little like that: a steady flow in time, as if it were encountering stories, characters, landscapes by chance. People and places and lives that float into the sight of the camera, attracting its attention for long enough to commit them to film before moving ever onward. Stories like fragments and memories, blending into a choir of life, into a unison body of work defined by the gentle and quiet gaze of the director.
It is a gaze that is attracted to the fragile and the excluded – to street hustlers, drug addicts, homosexual politicians, rock stars – and that returns again and again to youth, at that breaking point where innocence ends. It is a gaze drawn to darkness, where ambitions and lives are invariably crushed – by society, economics, politics, fame; by prejudices, desires, shortcomings; by the American landscape. But it is also a tender, empathic gaze, one that doesn’t judge or comment. It only observes. It shares time.
It is presumably the thematic undercurrents that earned Gus van Sant a large and dedicated following within underground culture and beyond, turning him into somewhat of a figurehead for independent filmmaking, even though his vast and varied body of work extends far beyond the confines of independent cinema.
Gus van Sant lives in Portland, Oregon – not too far from Los Angeles, but far enough to keep a distance. Born in 1952, he studied painting at Rhode Island School of Design and immersed himself into the flamboyant art scene of New York. He soon found himself creating experimental films, embarking on a straight and steady path from independent art house successes like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho to more popular Hollywood dramas such as Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester.
It is at the precise point of Gus van Sant’s Oscar nomination for Good Will Hunting that his filmography starts looping backward and sideways: following the expertly executed drama with a doomed remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho and turning his back on Hollywood after Finding Forrester to dedicate the next five years to the unscripted, low-budget, and decidedly noncommercial ‘trilogy of death’ including Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days, all exploring news items in a disorientating, noncommittal and highly personal style.
Nowadays, Gus van Sant is one of the only directors to work within and without Hollywood with remarkable ease and credibility, switching between small independent productions such as Paranoid Park and Restless to more commercial projects like Milk and Promised Land, working with non-actors and Hollywood stars with the same nonchalance. It seems like an enviable position of independence.
But independence is a state of mind and, if anything, Gus van Sant appears to be guided by intuition and curiosity, willing to take risks and opening himself to the possibility of failure. Arguably, some of his films might fare better than others over time, but they form a body of work that is surprisingly diverse and consistently courageous.
And yet, there is a dream-like quality that seems to run through all of Gus van Sant’s films – an almost laconic tranquility and slowness, where mood reigns over meaning, where what we see and hear doesn’t quite add up, leaving us wondering. It is a cinema of wide open spaces – with, sometimes, figures, bodies, voices drifting in and out of sight.