Gus Van Sant’s Fading Career

Promised LandI seem to talk a lot about once great directors losing their edges. Most recently, I mentioned David Cronenberg. Last year around this time, it was the Coen Brothers. Ridley Scott is another example. I could go on and on.

Another good example is Gus Van Sant. Like all of the directors I’ve mentioned, it isn’t that what he does today is bad. Far from it. But all of these directors have polished their art to the point where it is dull. Van Sant’s first three films were marvelous—seething with the passion that he felt for his subjects. Mala Noche is kind of hard to watch these days because of its technical problems and narrative discontinuity, but it is also about as pure a piece of art as you ever seen. Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho are as fresh today as they were 20 years ago.

Then things started to go wrong. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was a worthy effort. To Die For really started to define a new style for Van Sant: polished and distant. And then Good Will Hunting came along. It wasn’t so much the direction. The fact that Gus Van Sant had decided to do such a trite piece of work is why it was so disappointing. Up to that point, Van Sant could be depended upon to make cheap films that performed pretty well at the box office. Good Will Hunting was a mega-hit. After that, we got bigger budgets and more of the same. Now if you go to see a Gus Van Sant film, you can bet it will be some variation on Finding Forrester.

Today, I watched Promised Land. Stiff characters, feel good theme, and a horribly predictable denouement. What’s not to like? But there is something that I especially didn’t like: the moral journey of Steve Butler (Matt Damon). It has to do with Faust. If we are to accept Goethe, Faust gets out of hell on a technicality. I’ve never liked that. In Dr. Faustus he goes to hell. That’s what a Faustian Bargain is all about. Once you accept it, you accept it completely.

If you spend 20 years screwing people over, you don’t wake up one day and decide to change. That whole period was one big training session for convincing yourself that what you are doing is right. Army Generals don’t wake up one day and decide that they are pacifist. They’ve spent too much time convincing themselves that while war may be wrong, if good men like themselves don’t blah, blah, blah.

I understand that someone can have an epiphany. True believers can react violently when their illusions are shattered. But Butler’s illusions aren’t shattered. He knows from the beginning that what he does is potentially harmful. But more important, he knows that his job is to not give the people all of the information. And what does he do at the end? He gives the people all the information. It doesn’t seem like the path his character was on. It seems like what the plot required for a happy ending.

On the plus side, watching Frances McDormand and Titus Welliver together was fun. Every scene with them lit up the screen. It was also great to see Hal Holbrook working and looking more than ever like Mark Twain. And of course Matt Damon was Matt Damon, and that ain’t bad.


There were films named “Promised Land” produced in 1973, 1975, 1986, 1987, 2002, 2004, and of course, 2012. Perhaps a better title would have been, “My Own Private Fracking Rights.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Gus Van Sant’s Fading Career

  1. Let’s say, tomorrow, some big studio exec gave you a ten-picture directing contract. How many movies would you make that you really cared about, that were burning holes in your head? Not all ten, surely.

    A quick look at IMDB tells me Van Sant didn’t write any scripts from 1993 to 2002. So that makes me think the movies burning holes in his head were the first ones he made. After that, he became a competent for-hire director, because, you know, it pays better than most jobs.

    As a Portland movie geek, I worshipped Van Sant like teenagers worship bands, and like those teenagers became personally offended when my hero "sold out" with "To Die For." I swore I’d never see a Van Sant movie again! (I saw "Milk," I liked it, and I thought it odd that Brolin’s Dan White had the same haircut Van Sant’s sported his entire adult life.)

    The same IMDB listing tells us Van Sant started writing again with "Gerry" in 2002, continuing with "Elephant," "Last Days" and "Paranoid Park." I wonder if any of those are good. It’s a bit painful going back to a teenage crush (which is, essentially, what fandom is), but maybe it’d be worth my while to see one or two of those. Off to the library website!

    (Dave Eggers, who wrote the story of "Promised Land," had his most recent novel, "A Requiem For The King," well-reviewed, so I read it. It was OK.)

  2. @JMF – Let me know about those films. I haven’t seen that much of his recent stuff. I understand what you’re saying about a director for hire. However, Van Sant is worth almost $50 million. So he could, if he really wanted, do anything.

    In his defense, Damon was supposed to direct the film and Van Sant was brought in at the last minute.

  3. Frank,

    Hey, I have seen all those movies JMF mentioned, "Gerry", "Last Days", "Elephant" and "Paranoid Park"-they are, I think, the movies Van Sant *really* wants to make. I think he’s doing the ol’ Coppola gig whereby he makes one ‘big budget Hollywood piece of tripe’ for every ‘personal’ one he makes. So in a way, he does make the movies he wants. They’re just always so obscure and nobody watches them (for instance both you and JMF haven’t watched even one), or seems to like them very much (but not because they’re a ‘sell out’) but they certainly look like labors of love to me. They’re small intimate and personal films. I enjoyed them all. Though he certainly seems to have been influenced by someone like Bela Tarr-they’re nothing like his early good films either, different but still, IMO anyway, good works.

  4. @Karl – Good point. I will check them out. I know that Van Sant wasn’t originally going to direct this film. In general, I haven’t liked Coppola’s films, but then, I don’t think he’s all that much a director, but he’s a fine writer at times. I’ve requested two of those films.

  5. @Frank-Well, I don’t know that you’ll like any of them? But, I think he definitely is, with those particular films, attempting to make the cinema he wants to? I’m no real fan of Coppola’s myself (tho, I think we both agreed that The Conversation was quite good and most underrated?) I only used Coppola as an example of Van Sant’s probable ‘method’. There are a number of directors who use a similar mode to create their ‘personal work’, Coppola was just the easiest for all to relate to. I could have used Andzrej Zulawski, but then I don’t think most people would know who the hell that is? Ha! I hope you post something about one of these films, either good or ill. Personally, I liked "Elephant" because it was eerily close to a film idea I proposed about the Columbine High shootings, literally months after it happened. Instead the filmmakers chose to make an awful low-budget gore/sarcastic humor fest about the event instead. Judging from the response to "Elephant", they were probably right to do so? Ha!

  6. @Karl – I’m so glad you’re back here and pushing against my prejudices! A couple of things. First, [i]The Conversation[/i] is not only a great film, it is in that small list of my very favorite movies of all time. As a result, I almost didn’t write that about Coppola. But I think the critical thing is that he is a great writer; the direction doesn’t so much matter. But I’ll take a great writer over a great director any day!

    I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t check to see what those films of Van Sant were about. I have to say, one thing I’m not is gay, and his interest in beautiful young men is not something I share. Just the same, as in [i]Idaho[/i], he always seems to transcend it with more universal themes. Of course, with [i]Idaho[/i] he also does absolutely the best job ever of turning a problem Shakespeare play into great art. And he does it by mostly taking out the one great thing in the play (Falstaff). I will definitely write about the films once I see them.

    BTW: I’d be really interested to know what you think of [i]John Dies at the End[/i]. I wrote about here:

  7. @Frank,

    Ha, I’ve been here the whole time, it’s only that 1)I’m pretty much a ‘political dolt’ and have little to say on those posts & 2) I’ve had ‘computer troubles’ and "more work/less play" to read, digest and comment. But, you can always count on me to ‘push against’-good title for a blog, ha!

    Anyway, I in no way meant to embarrass or make you feel embarrassed. I only meant to inform you Van Sant has been making these small, personal movies between his excursions w/’Hollywood’-admittedly, with little recognition or notice-but making them none-the-less.

    I wholeheartedly agree about The Conversation. It’s certainly one of Coppola’s best, even a great film in general. I like the ‘direction’ even! But, I understand why you say Coppola isn’t a ‘great director’. Regarding The Conversation tho, I think it’s expertly crafted, all around!

    I understand what you mean Re: Van Sant & his ‘interest in beautiful young men’, it was the first hurdle I had to jump viewing his work. But you’re right, he transcends it. I think it might be a little harder in these ‘personal’ films we’re discussing? But, I think he was able to w/them too? Admittedly, I’ve been a fan of Fassbinder and Anger’s since my early teens, both of whom are far more ‘homo-erotic’ than Van Sant, so perhaps I got used to ‘jumping that hurdle’ early? Joel Schumacher, whom I can’t stand, is more homo-erotic in his Batman series, IMO, ha!

    I’d like to hear more about how you think Van Sant improved upon Shakespeare’s play (within MOPI) by removing (admittedly) it’s best character-Falstaff. Perhaps, you wanna do it in an article here, I don’t know? But I’d be interested in reading it regardless.

    Funny you mention John Dies at the End, I literally watched it last night per the recommendation in your article. I loved it! Though, I’d like to watch it again to comment fully. It was a dense (though fun) film. Thank u for that article BTW, it absolutely lived up to the endorsement.

  8. @JMF – Speaking of embarrassment: you may not intend it, but it is much deserved! I just got Elephant and I see on the back cover it says, "Winner of the Palme d’Or…" I’m not suggesting that every film Cannes lays an award on is necessarily good, but they do have a hell of a track record–far better than the Academy. So I’m really looking forward to that.

    There are a few directorial ticks in [i]The Conversation[/i]. As much as I love (Love!) the dream sequence in the fog, it strangely doesn’t work in the context of the rest of the film. But I love that line coming off his core dump of childhood humiliation and near death, "He’ll kill you if he gets the chance." And like I said, I think it is a great film. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he isn’t Scorsese. He’s closer to Huston. In fact, I think that is a great comparison, because they were both great writers.

    I agree with you about Schumacher: glorified costume designer.

    I’d have to work on the [i]Idaho[/i] and [i]Henry[/i] comparison. But the main thing is that the plays jump all around. The film turns Poins (the River Phoenix character) from an asshole into a sympathetic character. Then it turns the play into Poins’ (sorry, I don’t know the names in the movie) story. In the play, it is more Hal’s (Keanu Reeves) story. And given what Hal does at the end of the play, it is hard to love him too much. Also, the movie does something brilliant at the end: it shows all that Hal has lost. In the play, we are supposed to be thrilled that Hall repudiates his old friends, because he will become the great Henry V. Those are some of the issues.

    I need to go back and watch [i]John Dies[/i] again, too. I mostly remember it at this point as a romp–which it is. But I also recall it is much more, but I can’t remember what exactly. (The trials of an old brain!)

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