Hit or Miss: Gus Van Sant

[An ongoing series of posts demarcating the highlight and lowlight of a particular theme, body of work, or significant category of film. Feel free to offer alternative suggestions in the comment section]

No doubt there are many people thinking the placement of these films ought to be reversed, and on the spectrum of Gus Van Sant there are those who respond more to his more conventional Hollywood cinema than to his Béla Tarr experimentations. The usual suspects of what are considered misfires in his body of work are to me inoffensive: I like Good Will Hunting a lot and for all the uproar over his remake of Psycho I found it fascinating as an experiment. To me Van Sant is one of the few filmmakers I am willing to plunge into the unknown with; if his name is on it I will watch it. While I have not yet seen Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (which I hear is awful) nor Mala Noche, there is enough of a spread of his films that I have seen that the verdict bears some weight behind it, even if it’s only my opinion, man.

HIT: Gerry


Gerry comes up a lot on Row Three, it’s a go-to film for several of us ardent fans of Van Sant’s sparse mortality poem. When defending languid pacing, or the purest of experimental cinema, Gerry is usually the first film we bring up. Widely criticized at Cannes, when Gerry premiered at TIFF there was a strong split in opinion on whether it was a masterpiece or wankery. When I finally caught it in the cinema I obviously leaned toward the opinion of the former. The first in his life cycle trilogy (followed by Elephant and Last Days) and the first of Béla Tarr’s influence on Van Sant, Gerry struck me like a bolt of lightning. The effect was not so immediate of course, but my expectations felt jolted, the very act of what it is to watch movies came unstuck in this depiction of two guys walking in a desert. The narrative impetus set aside, the tacit experience became more emphatic, the rhythm of walking, of repetition keeping me mesmerized. Not a fan of Andy Warhol’s experimental films of excessive pacing and static focus, nor of Vincent Gallo’s empty repetition in Brown Bunny, Gerry felt full of import in every shot. What seems sparse and drawn out has, for me, an inner fire to it that keeps me riveted (I have watched it three times in the cinema, and is a film that works best when one is prevented from any interruptions). What exactly it is that calls to me, I can scarcely put into words other than to say it is on a tacit level that I feel drawn in by the lived-in experience of mortality, of futility in the face of an unrelenting mother nature (a feeling I also get strongly from Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line). Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel is an added bonus, the song being one of my all time favorite pieces of music, and for what little Matt Damon and Casey Affleck say or do anything in the film, they enrich the experience. Mostly it’s in the editing, the use of landscape, the slowing down of consciousness.
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Hit or Miss: Jim Jarmusch

[This is the first in what is to be an ongoing series of posts demarcating the highlight and lowlight of a particular theme, body of work, or significant category of film. Feel free to offer alternative suggestions in the comment section]

HIT: Mystery Train

Yokohama Mystery Train

Mystery Train, more so than the meta-mash-up, Limits of Control, best captures the Jarmuschian universe. The movie is unmistakably auteur, the kitsch set design, lived-in locations, chaptering of short segments intersecting around a common motif, and, most importantly, the hipster deadpan that hangs drolly like a cigarette from Jun’s permanent scowl. Here we see Memphis as a decaying memorial to the spirit of all things Elvis, with three groups of characters finding refuge in a low-rate hotel night clerked by none other than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Like Tarantino’s films, Mystery Train revels in creating a cinematic universe with its Memphis, every billboard, and poster carefully alluding to its own alternate reality. This in addition to the use of three stories told out of sequence and choice pop culture references peppering the script make Mystery Train a clear precursor, if not inspiration for, Pulp Fiction (the similarities are almost unmissable). With the exception maybe of Limits of Control, Mystery Train is Jarmusch’s most visually sumptuous outing, the neon Memphis nights bursting with colour (not to mention Hawkins’ fire engine red suit). The choice of actors is also top-notch, the comedic beats hit more from expression than dialogue, particularly with the ‘Far From Yokohama’ segment where the actors playing Jun and Mitsuko are damn near vaudevillian in their delivery. Mystery Train is the perfect culmination of all that is great in Jarmusch’s work; if an auteur is always redoing the same film, this is where he nails it.

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