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Gus, unwrapped

Local filmmaker Van Sant makes movies that are burs in Hollywood's hide

Film director Gus Van Sant has been trying to change the system for the last 25 years. It suddenly looks like he's getting somewhere.

Sure, he started out pursuing his artistic dream of making movies about good-looking boys, but over time his dissatisfaction with how Hollywood works has become the most important part of his aesthetic.

The partial retrospective of Van Sant's films that rolls through town for the next two weeks makes a perfect homework assignment for understanding his new film, 'Gerry,' which finally will be released in Portland on March 21.

Take his attitude toward screenplays. 'Gerry' is about two buddies lost in the desert, played by Casey Affleck and Matt Damon. It has little plot and less dialogue, and the latter was worked out between Van Sant and the actors during improvisation sessions. Sometimes they mumble or ramble, and the image blurs.

According to the Web site RottenTomatoes.com, which aggregates movie reviews, the critics are evenly divided on 'Gerry.' Half dismiss it as boring and pretentious; half hail it as a beautiful new departure in American cinema.

When asked last week by the Tribune whether he would continue alternating between making Hollywood crowd-pleasers, such as 'Good Will Hunting' (1997) and 'Finding Forrester' (2000), and press-infuriators, such as his shot-for-shot remake of 'Psycho' (1998) and 'Gerry,' Van Sant replied, 'I probably will.' Then qualified: 'I don't know what (mainstream) offers are coming in because I'm not really open for business. That's because I've been trying to generate my own stuff. I'm not in the business of selecting screenplays.'

He thinks the script is a throwback to the old factory style of filmmaking whereby the only reason to have one is so that the investor has something to approve before handing over the money. Van Sant said he is trying 'to break the pattern of the division of having a screenplay already written and then the film made from that. Why are we doing it that way still?'

His 1991 classic, 'My Own Private Idaho,' is the result of merging three different works in progress: one about two boys who go to Europe to find their relatives, another about a hustler and a German auto parts salesman, and a third based on Shakespeare's 'Henry IV, Part One.'

That was a way to fill out the story, but with 'Gerry' he abandoned the script to break with the Hollywood system. Van Sant criticizes the studios, which are today mere subsidiaries of corporations, for trying to operate like the movie factories of the 1930s and 1940s.

Inspired by the static shots of Hungarian director Bela Tarr in movies such as the seven-hour 'Satantango' (1994), long stretches of 'Gerry' consist of single shots. (It takes Matt Damon's character about 10 minutes to make a 'dirt mattress' for Affleck to jump onto from a high rock.) The director is trying to break with the visual grammar, established by D.W. Griffith at the dawn of cinema, which used medium shots, wide shots, close-ups and cutaways to tell stories.

But he's also trying to break with the 'nervous' film style of the MTV era, as typified by movies such as 'Moulin Rouge,' which leave no time to think or feel.

He also admires other ways of seeing, such as Harmony Korine's use of multiple cameras in 'Julian Donkey Boy' (1999), saying, 'It's film as a spectator sport, like surveillance.'

'It's nice to see if you can jump out of the system Ñ that's what 'Gerry' was,' he explains.

Experiment travels well

As Van Sant told a conference of college newspaper reporters last week in Seattle, Tarr and other East Europeans 'wouldn't get nervous about being boring. They would allow something to stay on the screen because different things happen in your head.'

Van Sant still used star actors, though. Affleck, who was his neighbor in New York before Van Sant returned to Portland in early 2002, and Damon were both keen to try something different. The shoot took 29 days, starting near Jujuy in northern Argentina until cold drove them out. Looking for someplace warm, and inspired by 'Lawrence of Arabia' (more long shots), they went to Wadi-Ram in Jordan, but the crew was too afraid to follow. 'So we went on the Internet and found Death Valley.'

He said the movie was inspired by a news story of two hikers getting lost and one of them being suspected of murdering the other, but that they tried to draw on their own experiences.

'I got lost during location scouting (in California) when my car broke down,' Van Sant says. 'It was 115 degrees. I was very scared, I was overcome. I thought I was going to die.' The word 'Gerry' is Affleck-Damon slang, meaning to mess up, or someone who messes up. 'I thought the final Gerry was that we ended up in Death Valley, and I wasn't going to make it to the end of the road. This is why the film's called 'Gerry,' 'cause I'm going to die during the making of it.'

While he resists the idea of turning books and scripts into films, he still values prose. Van Sant is always quick to work with young writers whose work he admires and readily champions J.T. Leroy ('Sarah,' 'The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things') and James Frey ('A Million Little Pieces').

Life imitates art

'Gerry' is devoted to the late Oregon prankster and writer Ken Kesey. Van Sant tells of going down to Kesey's place near Eugene to discuss filming a Kesey book. He took LSD and ended up back at the local hotel in the midst of a police party, eerily like a scene in 'Drugstore Cowboy.'

'The police seemed like they were snarling, 'Yeah, they've been out there with Kesey taking drugs,' ' he says with a laugh. 'Kesey was at the center of what appeared to the government to be a revolution, so who knows how odd and devious and strange and wiretappy it could get. I fantasized how heavy it would be to be him, almost a Russian existence, with double identities.'

He later told Kesey and Jerry Garcia about what he thought he heard. 'Both those guys said whether you imagined it or not, you were picking up the vibes,' he says.

Van Sant's next release, 'Elephant,' is about high school violence. It's another modestly budgeted experiment, conceived by the director himself, and filmed locally with nonactors. HBO has purchased it, and if it does well at the Cannes Film Festival, he thinks it might make it to theaters.

How it will fare with the 'Dawson's Creek' demographic is anyone's guess. But Van Sant has a way of remaining sympathetic with youth while wrestling with the gray-hairs who run corporate America. He has said that 'Gerry' also is a metaphor for the way cinema has lost its way. Is he worried about disappointing the 16-year-old girls who will just go to see Matt Damon and his cargo pants?

'I saw the Matt Damon fans at (a showing of) 'Rounders.' They basically talked the whole time,' he says. 'They didn't watch the movie, they just looked at him, talked among themselves and called on their cell phones.'