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Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant     The media are missing out on a hot story, with a local Boston angle: how does Cambridge's Casey Affleck feel about becoming J-Lo's brother-in-law?

     Poor Casey, Ben's overlooked sibling. He finally steps to the plate as one of the same-named titular duo (also Matt Damon) in Gus Van Sant's ultra-minimalist feature, Gerry. It's Casey with the film's most daredevil moment: an homage-to-Buster Keaton plunge off of a high wall. Was it as scary as one of Keaton's legendarily dangerous stunts?

     "There were boxes breaking Casey's fall," Van Sant revealed, when we talked last September at the Toronto International Film Festival. "He's not killing himself."

     Up front of our interview, I thanked Van Sant for having the sense to call a movie Gerry. That's how I spell my first name. Van Sant laughed, because the title was an "in" joke from Casey and Matt, and was meant pejoratively.

     "There are Gerrys in their lives," Van Sant said.

     "They found a really funny photo of a gold-chained lounge singer, Gerry Woo, and they would refer to themselves as Gerry. Another Gerry was a theater teacher. Some Gerrys were good, some bad. It ultimately meant, 'Wrong!' The wrong image: askew, fucked-up. They called each other Gerry, like, 'Hey, screw-up!'"

     Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting, etc.) started with art-school short films, from his time at the Rhode Island School of Design. He has retreated to that conceptual aesthetic with Gerry, on the trail of the Sean Connery-starring Finding Forrester (2000). Van Sant credits the shift to his becoming enraptured by the dense, demanding, extreme long-take cinema of Hungary's Bela Tarr.

     "I'd seen his Satan's Tango in New York, and I met him in Toronto. We had drinks after a screening, and I helped Bela get at introduction at Sony Classics. A year-and-a-half later, at a MOMA retrospective of his work, I told him I'd made a Bela Tarr film. I showed Gerry to him and his wife, Agnes, and they liked it and were happy with it: a very simple film."

     So simple that some have accused Gerry of the emperor-has-no-clothes syndrome. Casey and Matt drive an auto in silence, then take a walk in the wilderness and get deeply lost in near-silence. Does anything really happen in Van Sant's movie?

     "To me, a whole lot happens in Gerry," Van Sant said adamantly. "If you don't like it, it might drive you crazy. It doesn't drive me crazy. We're not trying to compete with the regular cinema next door. A lot of movies don't want you to have space to drift off, and reflect on what you are thinking. Or for you to get lost, which is what this film is about. It's really like taking a hike in the desert. I know we won't be welcomed with open arms, but D.W. Griffith wasn't either, when he brought in the closeup.

     "If you mean distributors, they want some action. But audiences have been great."

     OK, so much for Gerry. What I really wanted to talk to Van Sant about was his much-loathed remake of Psycho (1998), which I kind of like. As I suspected, Van Sant sort of likes his version also.

     "People who deified Hitchcock's Psycho felt that it was blasphemy. My idea – an appropriation of images, a frame-by-frame remake of a celebrated filmmaker-originated after Drugstore Cowboy. At Universal, there was a Vice President in Charge of Remakes who said, 'Here's our catalogue. We can redo anything.' I found the concept horrifying with lesser works, but what if we remade a great movie? Psycho! We could make it in color and update it with stars. It was a kind of wise-ass thing to suggest, but after Good Will Hunting, during the week of the Academy Awards when I was hot, they were willing to have me try.

     Is the new Psycho exactly the old? "No, my scenes are shorter. What is quite different is that I'm not obsessed with the thriller genre. I'm more interested in how characters get along than in how they are menacing. My remake was too fey a version of the Psycho story. I was too fey. But people who hadn't seen the Hitchcock were scared. They fell into it.

     "Psycho did make some money, but not enough to encourage further such projects. My desire had been: something like a computer virus, in which all studios would remake their old films!"


GERALD PEARY
(Boston Phoenix – March, 2003)

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