Critic's Notebook: Gus Van Sant Gets His Moment at the Cinematheque Francaise

Gus Van Sant Exhibition 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The director of 'Milk,' 'Elephant' and 'Good Will Hunting' is the subject of a career-long exhibition and retrospective at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.

With 16 features in a career spanning over 30 years, Gus Van Sant remains one of the biggest anomalies in contemporary American cinema. After all, how can one director be responsible for such diverse films as the minimalist masterpiece Gerry (2002), the Sean Connery tearjerker Finding Forrester (2000) and a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998), which is clearly the most bizarre narrative experiment to ever star Vince Vaughn? (Not counting the “rats” monologue from Season 2 of True Detective.)

Van Sant is behind some of the more influential independent films of the last three decades, first with his diptych of Portland-set streetwise dramas Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), then with the Columbine-inspired Cannes Palme d’Or winner Elephant (2003) – the movie that launched a thousand slow-moving Steadicam follow shots – and the mesmerizing Kurt Cobain semi-biopic Last Days (2005). He’s also made Oscar-winning crowd pleasers like Good Will Hunting (1997) and Milk (2008), whose fluid storytelling and easy appeal are a far cry from the stylized antics of a nonlinear skater flick like Paranoid Park (2007).

It’s hard to pin down what exactly brings Van Sant’s movies together, if it’s not a certain predilection, in his best work, for depicting the dreamy and perilous trajectories of characters who haven’t yet hit 30. But there’s also, especially in Gerry, Park and parts of his black-and-white 1985 debut, Mala Noche, a clear taste for the avant-garde side of moviemaking – for treating film as a plastic art form where images and sounds can sometimes prevail over story.

The latter trait is especially on display in the first-ever Gus Vant Sant exhibition, which opens this week at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris before moving on to the Museo Nazionale del Cinema in Turino and the Musee de l’Elysee in Switzerland. Alongside a complete retrospective and carte blanche where the director has programmed such films as Robert Redford’s Ordinary People and Todd Haynes’ seldom-seen Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, the show focuses primarily on Van Sant as a visual artist, with one room dedicated to his photography and another to his paintings, including a series of watercolors that were shown in 2011 at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles.

While Van Sant is often associated with his adopted hometown of Portland, the show’s biography segment reveals that he was born in Darien, Connecticut, and attended art school at the Rhode Island School of Design before eventually making it to the West Coast – first to L.A., where he assisted The Groove Tube producer-director Ken Shapiro. He settled in Portland in 1983 and came to the movies by way of other art forms, claiming, in an opening quote, that he “learned about cinema through films by painters,” especially via the work of experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage or the Canadians Norman McLaren and Michael Snow.

The other major influence on Van Sant was the Beat Generation – Mala Noche was based on an autobiographical book by Portland Beat poet Walt Curtis – and one room in the exhibition features such relics as a cartoon by Ken Kesey, paintings by Brion Gysin and a film of Williams S. Burroughs reciting his poem “A Thanksgiving Prayer.” Burroughs, who probably inspired Van Sant the most, played small roles in Drugstore Cowboy and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) while adapting his own story “The Discipline of D.E.” into one of the director’s earliest shorts (available for free streaming on the curated short film website Le CiNeMa Club).

More compact than previous Cinematheque shows on Martin Scorsese and Francois Truffaut, this one features far fewer clips from the film themselves – although viewers can watch some behind-the-scenes footage from Gerry and Elephant, both shot by the late, great Harris Savides, as well as a selection of music videos, such as one for the Red Hot Chili Peppers megahit “Under the Bridge.” (Yes, Van Sant made that. He also did the video for David Bowie’s “Fame '90”.)

If the lack of film excerpts should push viewers to see the movies on the big screen – all of the director’s features will be shown at the Cinematheque, except, conspicuously, last year’s Cannes flop The Sea of Trees, which opens in Paris at the end of April – original photographs by Van Sant and others, including masters like William Eggleston and Ed Ruscha, provide plenty of visual alternatives.

By far the most memorable of these pieces is a selection of the filmmaker’s own Polaroids that were shot on negative stock throughout the '80s and '90s. Initially used for casting purposes on Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy, the photos offer up individual portraits of hundreds of actors, artists and musicians, ranging from Dennis Hopper to Elton John and from River Phoenix to Keanu Reeves. The latter pair memorably starred together in the Shakespeare-inspired Idaho, and the Polaroids, like the movie itself, perhaps represent what Van Sant has always done best: using film as a medium to capture the faces, bodies and troubled reveries of American youth.     

Curator: Matthieu Orlean
Runs: April 13 – July 31, 2016
Location: Cinematheque Francaise, 51, rue de Bercy, 75012 Paris, France