Monday, January 26, 2015


Hey guys, I made another appearance on the Inside The Phoenix podcast with my friend Warren Anderson. Listen as I embarrassingly ramble on about David Fincher, Gone Girl, overrated things in film, Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh, Music and other fun stuff.


Saturday, January 24, 2015


Last night I went to the movies with my fiancee in hopes of finally watching Blackhat. But to my surprise, the screening was cancelled because no one bought tickets to the show before we had the chance to purchase ours. Now...the theater we went too was the kind of theater were patrons are more prone to support the latest bi-monthly Kevin Hart project or a throwaway trashy thriller like The Boy Next Door (the movie my fiancee & I ended up watching). But this still adds to all the negativity surrounding Michael Mann's latest film (almost all the reviews are negative and/or snarky).
Listen, I understand people's skepticism about this film (...kinda). Mann's last few efforts have been either misunderstood (Miami Vice) or problematic (Public Enemies). And Chris "Thor" Hemsworth as a computer hacker? Eh, I get it. But if we can buy the 300lb version of Forest Whitaker as a samurai hitman (Ghost Dog) or a puny framed Ryan Gosling as an ass-kicking baddass (Drive), why can't we accept Hemsworth as a hacker?
So in an effort to try and counter all this negative press, I'm sharing a piece that was originally posted by PINNLAND EMPIRE contributor Nathaniel Drake Carlson on his facebook page a few days ago.
Also make sure to read his recent piece on Mann's The Keep (R.I.P. Edgar Froese)


(I'll see you all in 10-15 years at a nearby upscale repertory theater when film comment suddenly decides that all of Michael Mann's post-Collateral work is suddenly misunderstood & underappreciated)

As noted earlier I loved this and found it a quite thrilling experience (both thematically and aesthetically/viscerally). In truth, I would have been surprised if I had not given my own predispositions toward what Mann is doing here. Still, I have little doubt that what I appreciated most was much of the reason why many others have been put off. It is or can be an assertively alienating picture, but that's not a mistake or an error in judgment--it's the inevitable result of this narrative mode and the formal experiments Mann is conducting. Because this is most certainly an experimental picture for Mann. It's an attempt to find a way of fusing his early style with his later or more recent one--not so much a middle ground as whole new form and that alone is sufficiently impressive. The fact that he pulls it off so splendidly makes it even more so. He does this I think by very wisely establishing the picture with one mode (that of the later mode, flatter and more muted all around) and then using that as equivalent to a narrative "slow burn" before things explode into his more famous High Mythic style. It's a fascinating choice once you recognize it as it works well to shift between the modes and find a way for them to co-exist. It's hard to imagine how such an attempt at integration or fusion could work otherwise. The late Mann style, with which this movie starts, is really perfected here to a kind of peak point and made me think most of his superb early 00's CBS series, Robbery Homicide Division. These two are closest in accomplishment and this feels like the natural progression or extension of that. In both cases, character and plot as well as visual scheme are pared down and flattened so that there are only the most minimal pronounced elements and all is cast with equal prominence against the same canvas (a not incidental and also apt analogy for the cinematic screen). It is its own kind of iconography to be sure but far from the Baroque expressiveness of earlier days (or the latter half of this picture). The sketchiness of characterization equates to an essentialism that contributes to the mythic as well. It's how Mann has found a more modern and less ostentatious way to communicate those same core principles and ideas that have suffused all of his work. But rather than the immediately palpable thrill of it, it's a slow, evenly paced sinking in, a truly hypnotic form that smuggles across its contents in almost subliminal, subconscious fashion. 

The specifics of Mann's formal compositions always amaze and compel and find an appropriate way to complement his ideas, but the radical nature of the overall formal and narrative accomplishment here matches that. The ultra subdued flattening or evening out subsumes all narrative detail and character detail to the primacy of an undisturbed surface, a steady flow (a template inaugurated with the now famous bravura opening sequence in Ali). All that is recognized as mattering or not mattering exists then as subconscious detail, recognized as primary or ultimate detail. Again, what matters to Mann however is keeping the surface level and all distinct detail functioning on a level below that, a more foundational level. This is also the level, the source, of the archetypes and it's a subtle means of linking the modern to pre-modern as well as establishing a perspective which accommodates both, accommodates all. It's a perspective of ultimate abstraction, the far reaches of where to go with any narrative form. Then of course this steadiness flares out in sudden flashes that are also superficially flattened, the space between objects rendered superfluous, irrelevant. And yet the impact is still felt, transmitted, transmuted.

The shift back to Mann's more famous mode of more obviously heightened expression is gradual and nuanced but it is there and I really do think he's trying to explicitly work out a way to keep both modes relevant and vital. He doesn't ever shift fully out of the new back into the old--it's not as schematic as all that--but he does emphasize the difference in register, in tonality or scale. Those measurements are also abstractions but they're more clearly discerned and related to the objects on screen, the character's experiences as such, the "plot". So you get the extraordinary forced angle image of Hathaway's cell phone majestic and obtuse, not dissimilar to the 2001 monolith. And the very brief image of a skyscraper seen by Viola Davis's character at a pivotal moment. The mythic or iconographic signifiers are more legible as well here within this context though their reality, their truth, has always been with us. It's just more clearly understandable in the latter section of the picture when talk and tech and complex details are swept away by pure motion, pure movement, the expressivity of visceral emotions, all those things that the first half has kept in check and subdued (all this still exists only and ever as streaks of color against the sky, against the screen, and Mann never lets us lose focus on that either). Hemsworth himself is Mann's idealist alter ego writ large and complete with Mannian accent. It's suddenly clear why he is a perfect casting decision as someone more supposedly appropriate superficially would be incomplete for the character as Mann sees him, someone who must represent both intellectual acumen and physically demonstrable strength or sheer presence. This requirement too is a "superficial" one but Mann makes us realize how little is diminished and how much can be enhanced by decisions made on this level, taking all implications fully into account. It's not subtle though but nor is it meant to be. The romantic angle functions in a similar way, shorn of all pretext and reduced to the purity of essence yet again. Interestingly it recalls the Scott Glenn-Alberta Watson relationship in The Keep which was severely truncated with or without Mann's involvement but most definitely functions as mythic component regardless. Here he seems to have embraced that particular super succinct presentation as formally apt.

The narrative itself eventually culminates in a confrontation both climactic and dialed down, our attention diverted as fast work is made of the opposition. And this is fascinating and revealing as well because here yet again we have this most familiar trope of so much contemporary pop cinema, the antagonists revealed as dualist mirror image inverses of one another and yet virtually equal in a an anti-social or sociopathic disconnect (another recent example of this being Fuqua's hugely underrated and similarly unappreciated The Equalizer). The villain in this case is made as minimalist as all the rest--his monetary motives being so familiar as to be almost incidental, a pretext again to something more foundational, at once simpler and more vast, an elemental figuration. He is made distinct by the motive for his violence and his underlying ideology (e.g. "When I close my eyes everything else ceases to exist"). Hathaway, meanwhile, is a figure of similar existentialist solitude but (as with McCall in The Equalizer) capable of being reached by love and motivated by it even if that results in a rush of torrential vengeance or justice doled out with presumed due force. He exists as a solitary figure with all allegiances understood as inevitably transitory ones but he is more interested in removing himself than others, the assertion of an ultimate freedom. So we get the final awesome set piece in which Hathaway attempts just such an assertion, dressed in white against a white airport wall, calling up the emptiness of the canvas with the implied fullness of all possible meaning. It's an appropriately formal and aesthetic act of being blanched out, white upon white, or, to be more precise, a nihilist erasure set against the ultimate. It's the kind of move described beautifully by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky as "so hard-boiled existentialist that it verges on mysticism."

-Nathaniel Drake Carlson (Januray 21, 2015)

Friday, January 16, 2015


Hey all,

check out my review of Spike Lee's latest film Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus over at

it's currently available on

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


I find it strange that something like A Most Violent Year got me to (momentarily) appreciate New York City again (for those of you who haven’t seen this yet, it doesn’t exactly paint the nicest picture of the big apple). This film plays in to two of the most commonly used phrases that are associated with NYC.
On one hand, “City Of Dreams” could describe A Most Violent Year because it’s about a guy trying to make his dreams a reality. But on the other hand, “The Rotten Apple” also describes certain aspects of the film because it shows an uglier side of the city.
New York City has an interesting mystique in that whenever something great happens, you hear the phrase; “Only In New York”. But when certain negative things happen in New York (that could honestly never happen anywhere else) you hear “well, that could happen anywhere” (truly old school New Yorkers would probably say something like; “You don’t like it? Get the f*ck out”). I guess that’s what makes NYC so unique (I do honestly appreciate true New Yorkers who love & embrace both the beautiful & ugly qualities of their city). 
The negative events that take place in A Most Violent Year definitely couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world outside of possibly old school Detroit (some of the grittiness, crime & corruption we see in this film are pretty similar to the events in Paul Schrader’s Detroit-based Blue Collar).

Much of the same stuff has been written about JC Chandor's A Most Violent Year (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, power, corruption, the testing of ones manhood, the American dream, etc). I don’t see many critics commenting on the spiritual connections it has with other classic New York City-based movies outside of Goodfellas & The Godfather.
In the film there's a chase scene that takes us from the inside of a speeding car on to a subway platform just like the iconic chase scene in The French Connection (both scenes take place in Brooklyn). About 50% of A Most Violent Year is covered in the same kind of graffiti seen in classic early 80's hip-hop films like Wild Style & Style Wars (both movies are shot exclusively in the Bronx & upper-Manhattan). Throughout the movie, news reports of murders, muggings, flashings & rapes play in the background as if someone is reading off the synopsis of an early Abel Ferrara movie. And I can't exactly put my finger on it but James Toback's Fingers also seems to be a direct influence.
I feel like had this movie been made 30 years ago it would have starred the likes of Harvey Keitel, Danny Aiello, Cathy Moriarty & Victor Argo.
A Most Violent Year doesn’t share the same grittiness as the movies that possibly influenced it (and I would never expect that) but J.C. Chandor certainly tried his best to be as authentic as possible.

The French Connection
Paul Schrader's Blue Collar explores corruption within unions which is something A Most Violent Year touches on more than once.

Style Wars
Ms. 45
It makes sense that Ms. 45, Abel Ferrara's NYC-based vigilante crime thriller, was made the same year that A Most Violent Year takes place: 1981 (this also happens to be the year I was born). New York City had such a strangely negative outside reputation that John Carpenter's conveniently titled Escape From New York was released that year. But what people need to understand is that this film doesn't try to touch on every issue concerning NYC at the time (racial tension, police brutality, drugs, etc). That would be too big of a task. Chandor does make it a point to have some of these issues in the peripheral of the film in a Robert Altman-esque kind of way where even though things are out of focus or almost off camera, they still hold importance. In the French Connection-inspired chase scene I mentioned at the beginning of this review, we get a glimpse of a young mohawked punk on the train standing near Oscar Isaacs. And outside of the traditional graffiti artwork we see, there's a million black sharpie tags in what seems like every other frame of the movie.
But the focal point of the film is about "Abel" (Oscar Isaacs) a businessman trying to advance & expand his (legitimate) fuel business (and protect his family) amidst the opposition of his dirty competitors who seem to be conspiring against him.
A unique aspect about this film is that it's probably the most non-gangster gangster film I can think of. What I mean by that is the language & violence within A Most Violent Year would have you think you were watching a mob movie, but we never see any actual mobsters or traditional gangsters. There is always the heavy implication that they're right around the corner (it's heavily implied that Jessica Chastain's character comes from some kind of connected mob family that are just a phone call away). There are two scenes where Chastain's "Anna" handles a gun and you get the sense that she's been around firearms before and she isn't just Abel's housewife.

It seems fitting that days before I saw this I caught a screening of Sydney Lumet's 1958 TV adaptation of All The Kings Men (at Anthology Film Archives) which also deals with power & corruption among questionable characters who either start out “good” and end up “bad” or straddle the line between good & bad through the entire film.

A Most Violent Year shies away from clichés like stereotypical shots of midtown Manhattan, the statue of liberty or the empire state building (I imagine there were budgetary and/or permit reasons that kept them from shooting in populated areas, but it works out in the film's favor). And if you look back at some of the classic New York City films that I’ve mentioned in this write-up so far (most of which were directed by or starring native New Yorkers like James Toback, Abel Ferrara, Harvey Keitel & Zoe Lund), those movies didn’t really feature too much of that either (outside of shots of old school midtown Manhattan which was a much different place back then). Any time we see a recognizable shot of NYC in A Most Violent Year, it’s usually from afar (the film was shot mostly in Queens). That’s right folks – this is one of those rare recent occasions where a movie set in New York City ventures outside of Manhattan & Brooklyn (there were a few scenes shot in Brooklyn but I believe for the most part, A Most Violent Year was filmed/set in Queens neighborhoods like Rego Park & Long Island City).

And all possible influences aside, A Most Violent Year is still very much it's own movie. I wouldn't want to present this film as a Tarantino-esque movie mixtape of "cool" non-stop movie references that only movie nerds would get.

Also before we go any further, I don’t mean to downplay the influence that Coppola & Scorsese had on this film. The sub-plot about the trucks being hijacked comes right out of Goodfellas (which is loosely based on true events). And some moments where Isaacs & Chastain argue with one another reminded me of the chemistry between Ray Liotta & Lorraine Braco. Certain moments where our characters meet with one another to work out some kind of business deal in the back of a darkly lit restaurant comes straight out of the first Godfather (I'd even be so bold as to compare Oscar Isaac's performance to Al Pacino's).

Had my fiancee not suggested we see this, I would have probably waited years down the line when it was streaming on Netflix. You see, between American Hustle, The Iceman & Argo, I have a tough time sitting through recent films set during the late 70's/early 80's because for whatever reason filmmakers have to shove all the nostalgia, bad hair, mustaches, pony-tails & tacky clothes down our throats in an obnoxious way (A Most Violent Year also seemed like Oscar-bait before I saw it). Authenticity is important for me in these kinds of movies and it certainly doesn’t help when an actor is rocking a ridiculous wig...

American Hustle
That's not to say American Hustle & Argo are bad films (The Iceman is pretty awful tho) but they're all still tainted by tackiness to a certain degree. The wardrobes & backdrops in A Most Violent Year are a little more toned down. There isn’t an abundance of 80's music blasting throughout the movie in an embarrassingly transparent way either (Alex Ebert's borderline ambient score is way more fitting than any 80's mixtape). And even when things get a little over-the top and super tacky, it's believable mostly in part to Jessica Chastain who comes off pretty stunning in a performance that's reminiscent of Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface in terms of attitude & wardrobe...

Although I consider Amherst, Massachusetts to be my hometown, I still lived the first seven years of my life in Queens, New York which certainly left a lasting impression on me. My family also visited New York City (specifically Queens & Harlem) on a regular basis while we lived in Amherst so I remember the boom-boxes, graffiti, empty crack vials, giant glasses, strong cologne, the '86 Mets, homeless people trying to clean your windshield with dirty sponges, addicts nodding off on the corner, big cars, dirty trains and all the other cliches most people associate with New York City. Because of my own experience I'm always skeptical when something is dubbed an authentic New York City film. But A Most Violent Year joins the ranks of recent authentic NYC movies like Mother Of George (Brooklyn), Newlyweeds (Brooklyn), Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer (Brooklyn) or even Gimme The Loot (Bronx/Queens/Manhattan) and, YES, Frances Ha (Manhattan/Brooklyn).

As you all know I've already put out my best of 2014 list before seeing a handful of movies, including this one. I don’t know if A Most Violent Year is good enough to make me redo my top 10, but it certainly falls in to that strange limbo area between top 10 & honorable mention along with films like Nightcrawler & Guardians Of Galaxy (actually without giving too much away, A Most Violent Year & Nightcrawler have similar endings and both deal with the twisted/dark side of chasing the American dream).
The ambiguous note that J.C. Chandor ends the film on is perfect in my opinion. 1981 was only the tipping point as far as I'm concerned. There was a lot more to come. By Reagan's second term (1984) "Reaganomics" were in full swing, drugs had completely taken over certain pockets of all five boroughs (see New Jack City or listen to Public Enemy's Night Of The Living Baseheads for further examples), and between Bernard Goetz (1984) & Yusef Hawkins (1986), racial tension had reached an all time high (my family ended up moving out of Queens by the late 80's due to issues ranging from my grandmother getting mugged, to us getting caught in the middle of gunfire).
Any film that brings up these kinds of personal memories is a success in my book so I highly recommend seeing this.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Friday, January 9, 2015


I’m the proud owner of 214 Criterions (my two most recent acquirees are A Christmas Tale & Safe).
Regular folks just don’t understand us criterion addicts. Over the years I’ve been asked why I spend so much money on these movies (prices range from $29.99 to over $100) and I respond with these examples…

Besides the fact that both Stranger Than Paradise & Slacker are timeless modern films (Stranger Than Paradise being a personal favorite of mine) the special features on both supplementary discs are LOADED with some great documentaries (the made for German TV documentary on Jim Jarmusch is pretty important as it marks the last time he worked with cinematographer-turned-director Tom Dicillo and started working with Wim Winders cinematographer Robby Muller). Plus each movie comes paired with an additional (equally enjoyable) feature-length film (Permanent Vacation & It’s Impossible To Learn To Plow From Reading Books, respectively)
*Richard Linklater's commentary track on It's Impossible To Learn To Plow... is excellent  

Ok, all special treatment aside (Lodge Kerrigan is a PINNLAND EMPIRE favorite) for a single disc criterion this is one of my favorites. And not even so much for the movie itself (long before Clean, Shaven made it to the collection I was already a fan of the film and had seen it a million times). This disc contains my all-time favorite video essay (courtesy of critic Michael Atkinson) in the form of A Subjective Assault: Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven (this analysis is so great it makes me angry!)
*George Washington is another great single disc criterion that features two of David Gordon Green’s early short films (which directly rubbed off on his first feature) and a rare short film directed by Clu Gullagher that also had an influence on Green’s early work.

This is easily the best box set in the entire collection. Cassavetes fan or not, you have to admit that most of these films were incredibly influential within the world of independent cinema (Opening Night is definitely a solid film but I don’t think it holds the same importance as the other four films in the set) and prior to the criterion treatment, they weren’t given a proper release (in the U.S.) on video

The movie of discussion is another example I like to hit people with (the cover art alone is beautiful). Ever since Yi Yi was put out by Criterion, interest in Edward Yang has grown quite a bit in the U.S. (he wasn't really known amongst your casual American cinephile prior to 2005/2006). 

It’s already been established in older reviews (Love Streams & Stories We Tell) that I’m incredibly fascinated by (good) films concerning large immediate families and/or siblings because I never had that growing up (I’m an only child) so it should come as no surprise that I’m a huge fan of Yi Yi. Edward Yang's 2000 family drama recently crept into my psyche because it shares a few interesting similarities with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Although Boyhood follows one main character over the span of 12 (real) years, it’s still very much a film from the school of Yi Yi. Both stories explore young boy characters going through a "coming of age" period, mothers going through a depressive mid-life crisis, the relationship between siblings (specifically the older sister/younger brother dynamic), and the relationship between grandparents (specifically grandmothers) and grandchildren. However Yi Yi is a much longer film (over three hours) so it delves a lot deeper in to those issues and it also touches on other things like life & death (Yi Yi starts with a wedding that soon produces a baby, and it ends with the passing of an elder family member). Boyhood never really gets in to that (I have very few criticisms of Boyhood but it is strange that the main character went that long without ever really dealing with the passing of a family member, loved one or acquaintance).

In the film we follow a middle class (upper-middle class?) Taiwanese family made up of Mother (Yin-Yin), Father (NJ) and their two children; Ting-Ting & Yang-Yang. Ting-Ting is in the midst of a teenage love triangle with her best friend and a boy from school they both like, while Yang-Yang has to deal with being bullied by both his fellow classmates as well as his teacher who has it out for him. Like Ana in The Spirit Of The Beehive, Ting-Ting learns about honesty (and dishonesty) among those close to her. And like Ana in Cria Cuervos, Yang-Yang quietly observes the world around him (he takes to photography to document everything he sees). Meanwhile, their mother Yin-Yin falls in to a depression after her mother has a stroke, and their father NJ is also having a sort of internal crisis (at work) coupled with an old ex-girlfriend who suddenly resurfaces. In an effort to find some meaning in life, Yin-Yin goes on a spiritual retreat while NJ quietly coasts through life in a half depressive existential state throughout a good chunk of the film.
The Spirit Of The Beehive / Yi Yi 

In addition to the four main characters, Yi-Yi branches off to extended family. Yin-Yin’s somewhat immature younger brother (A-Di) just married a beautiful & semi high maintenance woman (who brings along her own large extended family) but he can’t shake his clingy ex-girlfriend who’s trying to sabotage his marriage. A-Di is also faced with being a father for the first time and can’t seem to manage his money very well which all becomes too overwhelming for him.

Good Morning / Yi Yi

Besides Boyhood, The Spirit Of The Beehive & Cria Cuervos, Yi-Yi also shares the same DNA as other family-based films like The Secret Of The Grain (another criterion film centered around a large multi-generational family). The influence of Yasujiro Ozu is also pretty evident as Edward Yang focuses on multi-generational families in a similar fashion as Ozu.

Like most fans of Yi Yi, I found Yang Yang to be the most interesting character. He's practically the poster child for the film (when you do a Google search for Yi Yi his images are always the first to pop up and he’s not even the sole “main character” of the movie). Edward Yang could have easily made the young protagonist out to be a slightly unrealistic, super cute little kid character who says forced one-liners but instead he made him quiet, observant and a bit of an old soul (although he is occasionally precocious). He delivers poignant dialogue that you’d think would come from an adult, but because he’s an old soul it comes off as believable (perhaps reminiscent of the kinds of things we've said to/asked our own parents growing up)...
Yang-Yang (left) in a discussion with his father NJ (right)
side note - this scene always reminded of a part from The Spirit Of The Beehive (in an abstract way) when Ana has a somewhat similar exchange with her mother...

Yang Yang' maturity is exemplified in the final moments of Yi Yi. At the beginning of the film when Yin Yin's mother suffers the stroke she stays with the family instead of in a nursing home. Throughout the film each family member is required/expected to talk to her while she's in a coma in an effort to comfort her. One by one, each family member unloads their problems/dreams/concerns/daily news on the unconscious grandmother. However the one family member who won’t speak to her is Yang Yang. At first you're just supposed to think he won’t speak to his grandmother because he’s confused & afraid (like any 6 year old would be in that situation). But at the end of the film the grandmother passes away and we finally learn, through Yang Yang's powerful eulogy, why he didn't want to speak to her...

I’m sorry, Grandma.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to you.
I think all the stuff I could tell you you must already know.
Otherwise, you wouldn’t always tell me to “Listen!”
They all say you’ve gone away.
But you didn’t tell me where you went.
I guess it’s someplace you think I should know.
But, Grandma, I know so little.
Do you know what I want to do when I grow up?
I want to tell people things they don’t know.
Show them stuff they haven’t seen.
It’ll be so much fun.
Perhaps one day I’ll find out where you’ve gone.
If I do, can I tell everyone and bring them to visit you?
Grandma…I miss you
Especially when I see my newborn cousin who still doesn’t have a name.
He reminds me that you always said you felt old
I want to tell him that I feel I am old too

What makes this film so great is that it transcends race which is a pitfall that quite a few popular family dramas have succumb to (sorry but I can’t really relate to something like American Beauty). I'm black but when I watch Yi Yi there are so many things I can relate too even though the characters are Taiwanese. 
Edward Yang could have taken the typical family drama route by implementing tons dysfunction but he didn't (we all know dysfunctional parents & fucked up children are common within this genre). Sure there’s plenty of drama & dysfunction around the family (infidelity, money issues, attempted suicide, etc) but throughout the film the family stays a fairly tight unit (and they become even tighter by the end of the film).

Friday, January 2, 2015


Once you're directing, you're kind of in a certain mode, where you're taking whatever is on the page and forming it into the film that you think it might want to be - Gus Van Sant

Although he’s one of the least explored directors on PINNLAND EMPIRE, Gus Van Sant is still a personal favorite of mine (whats strange is that for a GvS fan I can safely say I dislike 40% of his feature filmography and I'm indifferent towards another 20%). From low budget indie maverick (Mala Noche & Drugstore Cowboy), to mainstream academy award nominated director (Good Will Hunting & Milk), to slightly experimental improvisational art-house auteur (Gerry, Elephant & Last Days), Gus Van Sant has gone through quite a few different stages in his three decades of filmmaking.
I chose to explore Van Sant because ever since Milk (sorry, but I think The Times Of Harvey Milk is a far superior film and didn’t need to be revisited or "redone") I’ve been falling more & more out of love with his movies (I thought both Restless & The Promised Land were pretty flat) and I needed to remind myself why I loved his work so much (next to Abel Ferrara & Takeshi Kitano, this is the largest body of work that we’ve looked at so far and EVERY feature film is represented).

Also make sure to read the one & only Gus Van Sant review on PINNLAND EMPIRE which holds a special place in my heart: Gerry


The Open Road
When you think of the road movie genre, Gus Van Sant isn’t usually the first name that comes to mind (often times we think of folks like Jim Jarmusch & Wim Wenders). But every now & then Gus Van Sant’s cinema takes us across the American landscape (and sometimes beyond) in either a crappy car (Good Will Hunting), a second hand motorbike (My Own Private Idaho) or even on foot (Gerry & Even Cowgirls Get The Blues). At the end of Good Will Hunting, we see Matt Damon driving from Boston to Berkley to win back his lady. In My Own Private Idaho, he takes us from Portland to Italy and back. And hitchhiking is a huge part of the story in Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (the protagonist in the film lives a nomadic lifestyle)
Even Cowgirls Get The Blues
Good Will Hunting
My Own Private Idaho
Mala Noche

Various Phases: Indie, Mainstream, Arthouse & Beyond...
Next to Richard Linklater & Steven Soderbergh, I can’t think of too many other modern American filmmakers that have gone through so many different style changes. Van Sant has the kind of filmography that makes you go “oh yeah, he did direct that, huh?” or “really, he directed that?” or “the same guy who made this made that??” As you’ll see in this write-up, GvS obviously has many common themes that run throughout all of his movies no matter how different they may be from each other, but he's proven that he can adapt to almost any style or genre.
Indie: Mala Noche / Drugstore Cowboy / My Own Private Idaho
Mainstream: Good Will Hunting / Psycho / Find Forrester
Arthouse: Gerry / Elephant / Last Days
???: Milk / Restless / The Promised Land

Recurring shots, imagery & themes...
Gerry / Last Days / My Own Private Idaho
My Own Private Idaho / Gerry / Elephant
Gerry / Elephant / Last Days

Cameos from indie & counterculture figures...
William S. Burroughs (Drugstore Cowboy)
David Cronenberg (To Die For)
Harmony Korine (Goodwill Hunting)
Harmony Korine (Last Days)
Kim Gordon (Last Days)

The (usually naked or half naked) human body...
My Own Private Idaho
Mala Noche
To Die For
Last Days

Homosexuality in mainstream cinema
Prior to Milk (a film about a gay activist); homosexuality was never really “the issue” or main focus in GvS' films. This is pretty progressive in my opinion and it continues down the path that Rainer Werner Fassbinder kinda pioneered in the early/mid-70’s (Fassbinder was another filmmaker to have homosexuality in his work without making it the main focus or “issue”). A lot of the characters in Van Sant’s films are either openly gay (My Own Private Idaho, Mala Noche, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, Last Days, Milk) or questioning their sexuality (Elephant, My Own Private Idaho). And what’s more important is that his work has seeped its way in to mainstream cinema (along with the likes of Todd Haynes & Lisa Cholodenko) without having to compromise anything.
Mala Noche
My Own Private Idaho
The Discipline Of D.E. (short)
Even Cowgirls Get The Blues

Surrogate families, father figures & mentors
Parents (especially fathers) of Van Sant's young characters usually aren't around (Finding Forrester, Goodwill Hunting, My Own Private Idaho, etc). And when they are, they're usually irresponsible (at the beginning of Elephant, one of the few adult characters in the film is seen driving drunk and is eventually reprimanded by his teenage son in a strange kind of role reversal) or they usually go unseen (almost all the adults in Paranoid Park are shown just off camera or out of focus in the background). Most of the his young characters are "on the outs" (Goodwill Hunting) or they live on the fringe of society (My Own Private Idaho & Drugstore Cowboy) and have to rely on each other by making a sort of surrogate family of brothers & sisters.
Goodwill Hunting
My Own Private Idaho
Drugstore Cowboy
Even Cowgirls Get The Blues
Good Will Hunting
Finding Forrester
The Sea Of Trees

The presence of young people
As corny as it sounds, young people are the backbone of GvS’ cinema. Even the films that aren’t represented with images below (Mala Noche, My Own Private Idaho, Restless, Good Will Hunting, Last Days) feature young characters trying to figure out life or are coming of age just like the characters in the films shown below. From the music & clothes to skateboarding & slang, Gus Van Sant’s fascination with children, teenagers & young people is more than evident. 
Finding Forrester
Mansion On The Hill (Short)
Paranoid Park
To Die For

Dream zone achieved
Van Sant’s cinema sometimes features characters that are dreamers (Mala Noche & Even Cowgirls Get The Blues), deep thinkers (Finding Forrester) or are prone to zoning out or drifting off for various reasons ranging from drug use (Drugstore Cowboy) & narcolepsy (My Own Private Idaho) to dehydration from being stranded out in the desert (Gerry).
Drugstore Cowboy
Last Days
My Own Private Idaho
Mala Noche

Loneliness, Depression & Despair
There’s an understated sorrow within half of Van Sant’s filmography. There’s usually some type of looming anxiety (Paranoid Park), major depression (Last Days), pressure (Finding Forrester) or despair (Gerry & Last Days) weighing on half of his characters. And often times these characters lose the battle (Last Days, Elephant, Gerry) or things are left ambiguous or open ended on a slightly negative tone (Paranoid Park, Mala Noche)
Finding Forrester
Last Days
Paranoid Park
The Sea Of Trees

Influences, True Stories, Adaptations & Remakes
Like Stanley Kubrick (GvS’ personal favorite filmmaker), almost all of Van Sant’s films are derived from pre-existing books (Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, Mala Noche, Tulsa), true stories/true events (Milk, To Die For, Last Days, Elephant & Drugstore Cowboy) or older films (Psycho). But no matter what, he puts his own unique stamp on everything he does…
Drugstore Cowboy (some of the events in Drugstore Cowboy were loosely based on Larry Clarke's photography book Tulsa)
The Wizard Of Oz/Drugstore Cowboy/My Own Private Idaho
Even Cowgirls Get The Blues
Columbine (Elephant)
Kurt Cobain (Last Days)
Pamela Smart (To Die For)
Mala Noche
Harvey Milk (Milk)

Like Todd Solondz (New Jersey), Abel Ferrara ( New York City), vintage Michael Mann (Chicago), Terrence Malick (Texas/Oklahoma) and a handful of other modern filmmakers, Van Sant always makes it a point to rep his hometown (8 of his 15 films take place in Portland). From His very first feature (Mala Noche) to his more recent work (Restless), Portland has always remained a consistent backdrop.
Drugstore Cowboy
My Own Private Idaho
My Own Private Idaho
Mala Noche
Paranoid Park


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