For every perfectly normal flick in Gus Van Sant's repertoire, the director keeps another puzzling head-scratcher up his sleeve. As much as you love audience favorites like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, it's the in-between movies that truly reveal the director's style. Take the shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, for instance. What was that about? Or his latest film, Gerry, in which two not-particularly-talkative buddies drive out to the desert hoping to find "the thing," stumble off the path and spend the next few days (about 90 minutes or so in screen time) searching for some sign of intelligent life or, at the very least, a way to make it out of the wasteland alive.
Sure, Van Sant could make a movie just like everybody else. But why would he want to? He's much more interested in testing your expectations about what films should be. So think of Gerry as a dare. Can you follow along with a film that supplies no obvious narrative, with characters who forgo dialogue and communicate instead through expression and action? In the words of Will Hunting, "How do you like them apples?" According to Van Sant, films like this can actually say more than your average Tarantino-style talk-a-thon. Now, in his own words, Van Sant explains the movies that inspired Gerry and shaped his style as a filmmaker...
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
(1975, dir: Chantal Ackerman, starring: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte)
Chantal Ackerman is a very experimental art installation sculptor and filmmaker. I've seen some of her other things, and they're always quite different. Jeanne Dielman is about a Belgian housewife -- the husband's gone, and she's a single parent -- and it's about three days in her life. It's the first time that I had seen [a movie] that was so contemplative about things that were outside the ordinary action-driving ideas of what you would call a narrative. [Because] it was about a housewife, they gave very ample time to things that concern a housewife, like peeling potatoes. They are not necessarily the things that you would think of as character-developing moments, which in fact they are. They're just not the standard ones. I think in general you always expect a conversational movie. The talking, the intellectual discussion, somehow overpowers the simple action, and that's apparently more interesting to the viewer. [In Gerry, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck spend the whole film hiking.] When you're on a hike, there are long periods of time that are spent walking. Traditionally, you would chop all that out, but in our case, they stop walking and then they just walk some more, as opposed to using the device where they would stop walking and talk about what they thought of their relationship. We viewed the walking part as an equal to the talking about the relationship part. Sátántangó
(1994, dir: Béla Tarr, starring: Iren Szajki, Barna Mihok)
Sátántangó is about a commune of farmers in Hungary visited by two leaders who come back and tell them that they have to leave. The things Béla spends time showing you and the way he does that is pretty lifelike in the sense that you spend a lot of time on the farm with these characters in the same type of timeframe they are living. So, if there's a character looking out the window, you might watch him drawing a picture of what's out the window. It's never really "real time" because the story is taking place over a 10-day period, but it's able to go far enough in its attention to those types of details that it's no longer a cipher or a symbol. We get kind of lost when things aren't spoken. Words are so specific that we feel anchored, and it's like, "I know what's going on because it's told." But if [the meaning] is more interpretive because it's an image, the audience can feel like they're drifting, and their own minds start to work as well. With Gerry, we just try and take advantage of that rather than discourage it. At first there's an element of drifting, but then some people start swimming and other people just keep drifting. In some cases, an audience isn't thinking about the right things to be able to drift along, but there's also a good number of audience members [for whom] what they're thinking of is in collaboration with the movie's themes. They're thinking about the right thing in the sense that they're thinking about something that is illuminating them and not basically boring them. Citizen Kane
(1941, dir: Orson Welles, starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten)
The first influence was a very cliché influence, Citizen Kane, but it was true. My English teacher showed it to us when we were fourteen. It was an age where you were ready to see something that had more of an impact than a more passive film, than something that just had entertainment value, like James Bond films, which I think was my understanding of film to that point: just suspense or action. Citizen Kane just had a lot more that it was saying. It was starting to clue into all the metaphors and messages within the message, and the themes that sort of wrap around each other. Citizen Kane is like learning the film vocabulary. Dog Star Man
(1963; dir: Stan Brakhage)
Right after that, my main interest was not really as a passive viewer, but more stuff that I was reading about, all the '60s underground filmmakers of the time. The Kuchar brothers or Kenneth Anger or Stan Brackhage. The experimental filmmakers, they showed you different avenues of thinking about film. I don't think there was one film -- they're just an influence over all. [But if I had to pick one,] you could say Dog Star Man. I was a painter, so I watched '60s filmmaking. They were films made by painters. Brakhage was a painter. Warhol, who was making films a little bit later, was a painter. With Dog Star Man, Brakhage did all kinds of things to it, so there are different parts to the film. In one part, only one of the layers is going on, and in other parts, there are different applications of printing happening to make the image. It's so abstract. It's not narrative at all. It's a visual piece. I could draw it for you. It's really kind of like a painting in that way, a kind of abstract moving painting. Spellbound
(1945 ; dir: Alfred Hitchcock, starring: Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck)
In the '60s, I made films that were directly influenced by the experimental filmmakers, [but when it comes to the dream sequences in my films,] I probably shouldn't cite those filmmakers. They did sort of suggest uses of, they weren't really dreamlike images. I guess that came from the surrealist films that I saw at times. In Spellbound, Hitchcock had Salvador Dali design dream sequences for him. There's always been use of dream sequences through Hitchcock's films. But also other filmmakers, narrative filmmakers or Fellini, those were probably more of an influence on literal dream sequences. I think dream sequences have always been kind of like dream-making. The stuff in My Own Private Idaho would be more relatable to dream sequences in conventional films like Spellbound or Vertigo.