May 05, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Film Treatise of Gus Van Sant

If you don’t know about 826 Valencia, my guess is that you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years. Started by local author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari, the tutoring center and pirate supply store has my vote for the best combination of community activism and creativity the world ’round. (You can watch Eggers talk about it at the TED Conference here.) It’s proof positive that writing and all of the arts should be an integral part of K-12 education, and lucky us that these centers have started to pop up all over the country in cities like Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, and Ann Arbor, too.

I was lucky enough to attend an 826 Valencia fundraiser breakfast this morning with the celebrated filmmaker Gus Van Sant, late of Milk and Paranoid Park. Eggers introduced the director and warned that he was going to read a 50-minute treatise on film without any accompanying imagery. Nervous laughter ensued as Van Sant took the podium and, instead, briefly introduced two short films. The first, “Ballad of the Skeletons,” is a politicized music video from 1996 that features the late Allen Ginsberg reciting his poem of the same name over music by Philip Glass and Paul McCartney. Ginsberg, wearing his familiar American flag top hat, addresses the camera directly, cut into a film collage backdrop of politicians, rallies, moon landings and mushroom clouds.

Van Sant’s second film from 1989, “Junior,” (sadly, unavailable online) is the polar opposite of “Ballad.” The camera is immobile, focused on the wall area below a window in Van Sant’s home. After a brief introduction of his “teenage” cat, Junior, to the camera, Van Sant moves off screen to play his guitar. The guitar’s shell catches the sun from the window, creating a blob of moving light that Junior, not knowing any better, chases back and forth to the tune of Van Sant’s strumming. It’s a simple (borderline banal) scenario with which any cat owner is familiar. In the director’s hands, though, the film takes on an unexpected and humorous poignancy, which provides a sliver of illumination into Gus Van Sant, the person, not just the filmmaker.

The first rule every burgeoning writer hears is “show, don’t tell,” and Van Sant’s film treatise “lecture” today did exactly this. He didn’t need to say a word. Viewed together, these two films confirm that Van Sant, in the quest to make meaningful work, is constantly combining and careening between the personal and the public. For him, or anyone trying to create resonant art, approaching it any other way would be a moot exercise.

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