Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Shorts & Videos of Gus Van Sant

Throughout the career of Gus Van Sant, the filmmaker has been known primarily for his feature films such as Good Will Hunting, My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy, Milk, and an array of films. Yet, Van Sant is also known for making music videos and shorts. The shorts and videos Van Sant has made is among many of the ideas he has done that includes a novel and two albums that he made. Yet from his first short in 1967 to his most recent short in 2008, there are a lot of material that Van Sant has made but some of it is unavailable. Still, the shorts and videos he’s made are examples of why he is considered one of the best filmmakers working in film today.

The Shorts

Not counting short segments for anthology films, Van Sant has made 15 short films from 1967 through 1996 though a lot of them aren’t available publicly as they’re hard to find as two of them are available on YouTube. The first is the 1982 short The Discipline of DE, a nine-minute short that was adapted by Williams Burroughs’ short story The Exterminator with narration by Ken Shapiro. The black-and-white short is about how to live a life easy with a bit of discipline and not rush into things as Van Sant does it with subtle humor in his approach.

The second short available on YouTube is also a music video for William Burroughs’ Thanksgiving Prayer where Van Sant has Burroughs recite his controversial prayer through dissolved images of American symbols. It is truly a short that isn’t for everyone due to what Burroughs says but it does contain a lot of harsh statements that is unfortunately true about America.

For the three shorts Van Sant contributed to anthology films from 2006 to 2008, each short allows Van Sant to explore different subject matters relating to the anthology films he’s contributed. For 2006’s Paris Je T’aime, Le Marais is one of the most touching shorts about a young man (Gaspard Ulliel) who falls for an American kid (Ellas McConnell) while working with Marianne Faithfull. What’s great about this short is that it takes Van Sant’s themes of longing and love that had been explored in earlier films like Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho.

For 2007’s Chacun son Cinema, Van Sant’s three-minute segment entitled First Kiss is a simple story about a young film projectionist (Paul Parson) who falls for a woman (Viva Las Vegas) that appears on the movie. It’s among one of the decent shorts that isn’t as great as some of the others in this collection of 34 short films. Still, it’s Van Sant just making something simple about what power cinema can do for anyone. For 2008’s 8, the Mansion on the Hill segment has Van Sant taking on one of eight subjects of the Millennium Development Goals as he chooses to make a story about the reduction of child mortality rate. The short has Van Sant explaining the facts of the morality with words on top of gorgeous images of kids skateboarding around Portland. While the short might seem to be leftovers from his 2007 film Paranoid Park, the beauty of those images with the information Van Sant puts is truly mesmerizing.

The Videos

From 1990 to 2007, Van Sant has directed 15 music videos for different artists and different genres of music. Some are commercial while others had a personal element to those videos. The first of which was David Bowie’s 1990 remix of his 1975 hit song Fame for the Changesbowie best-of collection. The video has Bowie singing, playing, and dancing with Louise Lecavalier, of the Quebecois dance troupe La La La Human Steps. The video also has various clips of Bowie being surrounded by an array of old clips from Bowie’s past as it’s one of Van Sant’s most imaginative videos.

The video for I’m Seventeen by Tommy Conwell & the Young Rumblers is a mixture of performance and a road film, with bits of cheesy special effects, that has a look that would be reminiscent of Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho.

One of the most famous videos that Van Sant has done that’s garnered him lots of praise is the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Under the Bridge. The video was part of Van Sant’s collaboration with the L.A. based funk-rock group as he also did pictures for the sleeve of their 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik while bassist Flea starred in a couple of Van Sant film. The video is poignant for its colorful imagery and reflective tone as Anthony Kiedis sings in the city of Los Angeles while band members play inside a soundstage as the video won two MTV Video Music Awards for Breakthrough Video and Viewer’s Choice.

The second video Van Sant shot nearly 15 years later was for the song Desecration Smile from their 2006 album Stadium Arcadium. While this clip is an alternate version of a more simpler, one-take version of the video. The video for Tracy Chapman’s Bang Bang Bang is a video where Van Sant helps translate the themes of what Chapman says through a collage of images including a bullet going through various objects as she performs to a fake desert backdrop, as she’s later joined by her band.

The video for Runaway by the 90s dance-pop group Deee-Lite is another of Van Sant’s road-inspired videos that features lot of clouds and gorgeous landscapes. The only difference with its other videos is that it tries to impose the NYC club culture into that landscape and it doesn’t really work. Not to mention that the song is very unimaginative and repetitive as it’s one of Van Sant’s more uninspired moments.

The video for Elton John’s ballad for The Last Song is one of Van Sant’s most beautiful video as he has John performing the song while the video has a narrative of a father visiting his dying son with super 8 images. The video was made at a time when the awareness of the AIDS virus was becoming more public as Van Sant used this personal story and John’s song as something more without displaying any kind of overwrought message. While Van Sant wasn’t the first choice for what Elton John wanted to direct the video, the understated approach Van Sant chose proved to be the right choice despite John’s distaste towards music videos.

The video for the Seattle grunge band Candlebox’s Understanding was a video that received lots of attention as it feature the band playing on water while singer Kevin Martin lip-synced underwater. During the production of the video, Van Sant was stung by a jellyfish where he was taken to a hospital though he managed to get the video done.

In tune with Van Sant’s fascination with literary figures like Williams Burroughs, his video for Allen Ginsberg’s Ballad of the Skeletons, with musical accompaniment by Paul McCartney, Phillip Glass, and Lenny Kaye, is a truly a work of genius as Van Sant has Ginsberg recite his poem to an array of images displaying the world in chaos from the turmoil of 1960s America to the war in Bosnia in the mid-1990s. Wearing a decayed Uncle Sam top hat, Ginsberg acts as a man reflecting a world where its problems are still happening.

Paul Jefferson’s Check Please is among one of Van Sant’s more obscure videos which has Jefferson dealing with TV star Bobbie Eakes in a series of bad dates. It’s a video that is presented in a much simpler yet humorous manner as it’s simple approach to style is great in contrast to the more commercial-driven country music videos of the times.

Hanson’s Weird is a video that is definitely one of Van Sant’s best. Though there’s not a lot of people who liked Hanson in their hey-day as teen-pop stars, this video is definitely one of the most creative. Shooting on location in Times Square in New York City and in subways where the band is performing, there is also a wonderful scene of the band playing inside a room as their walking on walls and ceilings. There’s a lot going on but it truly expresses the song about the idea of feeling weird and alone as Van Sant manages to capture it perfectly without being too overbearing.

The last video that Van Sant has directed, as of 2007, is Who Did You Think I Was? by the John Mayer Trio. The video is simply the band playing inside a studio as it’s one that doesn’t have a lot of imagination as it’s more about a simple presentation of performing. It’s not a great video at all as well as the fact that it’s a video from John Mayer who just plainly fucking sucks.

There’s three other music videos that don’t appear on YouTube or Dailymotion as they’re hard to find. One is k.d. lang’s Just Keep Me Moving that was from the soundtrack to Van Sant’s 1993 film Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. There is a remix of the song that appears on YouTube but it’s not the right version of the video. The videos for Chris Issak’s San Francisco Days and an alternate video version of Stone Temple Pilots’ Creep are also unavailable. The latter of which was unreleased due to its subject matter that prevented it from being released.

These shorts and videos that Gus Van Sant has made throughout his career are a testament to why he is revered as a filmmaker. He’s someone who is willing to create little gems whether it’s through a piece of music, poetry, or to exemplify some kind of message. He is a filmmaker that can truly bring something different to the table while allowing the artists or whatever subject he wants to tell unfold. There’s a few duds here and there but the ones that are truly glorious really help make the case into why he is one of the best filmmakers working today.

© thevoid99 2011

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