Gus Van Sant: the “beautiful and damned” films of the American director

I made Mala Noche to do something that was out of the box, because I myself was out of the box and deliberately chose material that Hollywood would not have touched in a million years.

A portrait of Gus Van Sant

Inside and outside the box, in fact: he is a ‘two-faced’ filmmaker, Gus Van Sant, like very few others on the contemporary scene. A director who has always been fascinated by what is on the margins of society and culture; this is probably why most of the protagonists of his films are outsiders, characterized by a malaise that condemns them to feel different or out of place. But Gus Van Sant, born in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 24, 1952, has also shown himself capable of adhering to the trends and codes of Hollywood cinema when necessary, while maintaining a peculiar look at the stories he has chosen to tell: Proof of this are the rare but important commercial successes of his career, alternating with more sophisticated and complex projects.

Cowboy Drugstore

Drugstore Cowboy: an image of Matt Dillon

Raised with a passion for painting and Super-8, Gus Van Sant practiced working on images from a very young age, and at the 1986 Berlin Film Festival he presented his first feature film, Mala Noche, shot at a very low cost in 16 mm. . The film, which recovers the spirit of cinéma véritéearns him a certain consideration in the festival circuit and in 1989 allows him to realize Cowboy Drugstore, portrait of a group of drug addicts based on the autobiographical book by James Fogle. Starring a twenty-five-year-old Matt Dillon, Drugstore Cowboy gained a wide consensus and established itself among the leading titles of American independent cinema at the end of the decade, confirming Van Sant as one of the most promising authors of his generation: a ‘promise’ that, from there to short, will be fully maintained, despite some hiccups, including the no-appeal fiasco of Cowgirl in 1994 or her bizarre Psycho dated 1998.

My Own Private Idaho Ujni5Xl

Beautiful and damned: an image from the film

A director always ready to take risks or to embark on new challenges (including the choice of tracing Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece scene by scene), Gus Van Sant allowed himself to be wooed by Hollywood without renouncing to devote himself to ‘smaller’ films as well. personal, often in balance between canonical narration and experimentalism. The result is a heterogeneous production within which we have selected, in chronological order, some of the best movies directed by him in almost four decades of activity behind the camera.

1. Beautiful and damned

Beautiful And Damned

Beautiful and Damned: Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix

Absolute milestone in the New Queer Cinema trend, Beautiful and damned (but the evocative original title is My Own Private Idaho) recovers elements of William Shakespeare’s historical tragedies (Henry IV and Henry V) to decline them in the West Coast scenario and in the street life of two boys who make ends meet through prostitution: Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), rich scion who has renounced his family, and Mike Waters (River Phoenix), more insecure , suffering from narcolepsy attacks and deeply in love with Scott. Mixing storytelling, avant-garde cinema and drama on the roadwith Belli e Damati Gus Van Sant signs his masterpiece: a sincere and poignant film, in which a twenty year old River Phoenix, awarded as best actor at the 1991 Venice Film Festival, gives the best interpretation of his short career.

Beautiful and damned, 25 years later: the memory of the film with River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves

2. Will Hunting

Will Hunting

Will Hunting: Matt Damon and Robin Williams

Welcomed by the Hollywood studios and strong of the good response for the black comedy To die for (1995), in 1997 Gus Van Sant was hired by Miramax, at the request of co-writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, to direct what will prove to be far his most viewed and most popular film ever: Will Hunting. Focused on the relationship between the eponymous protagonist, a boy from the Boston suburbs with extraordinary intellectual abilities, and his psychologist, Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), Will Hunting is a more traditional drama than Van Sant’s previous works. but still crossed by his sensitivity and a strong empathy for the characters. The film attracts fifty million viewers worldwide, transforms Matt Damon into a star of the first magnitude, wins two Oscars and earns Van Sant a nomination for best director. In 2000, Van Sant will also direct a very similar film, Discovering Forrester, again based on the friendship between a very talented young man and an older figure who will help him find his own way.

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3. Elephant


Elephant: a picture from the film

But the beginning of the new millennium marks above all the return of Gus Van Sant to a cinema with a more markedly authorial cut and very far from the logic of the market: first with Gerry (2002) and immediately after with one of his most acclaimed titles, Elephant, born from the proposal of Diane Keaton (here as producer) to make a film inspired by the Columbine massacre. Played by young non-professional actors, Elephant adopts a minimalist style that adheres in all respects to the gaze of the characters (starting with the use of long sequence shots) to describe the placid everyday life of a high school in the Portland suburbs and the sudden bathroom of blood caused by two students, Alex and Eric. Rewarded with the Palme d’Or and with the prize for best director at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, Elephant proposes itself as an investigation as lucid as possible on the “banality of evil”, without any concession to spectacularity or emphasis.

4. Paranoid Park

Gus Van Sant Paranoid Park

Paranoid Park: an image of Gabe Nevins

The restlessness and sense of alienation of adolescence and youth, key themes of much of Gus Van Sant’s cinema, are also at the heart of Paranoid Park, based on the novel of the same name by Blake Nelson and presented at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Also belonging to the more experimental and innovative side of the director’s filmography, Paranoid Park is built around Alex (Gabe Nevins), a 16-year-old from Portland passionate about skateboard and responsible for a fatal accident that will result in the death of a man. By fragmenting the chronological linearity, the work thus transports us into the mystery of Alex’s personality and his contradictions, without imposing judgments on the viewer.

5. Milk


Milk: an image of Sean Penn

More linked to the perspective of the Hollywood system of genres, but still able to rise well above the average of biographical films, Milk will mark another critical and public success for Gus Van Sant, who in 2008 brought to the screen the true story of Harvey Milk, gay rights activist and San Francisco city councilor. The film traces the political rise of the protagonist, to whom an intense Sean Penn lends his face, his relations with the gay community of San Francisco, the campaign against the aberrant Proposition 6 and finally his murder at the hands of his colleague Dan White. (Josh Brolin). Animated by a pathos blending in well with the militant nature of the film, Milk receives two Academy Awards, including one for Penn’s performance, and will earn Van Sant a second Best Director nomination.

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