Profile - Gus Van Sant

Paranoid Park

Suzanne Black considers the work of one of Queer cinema’s great auteurs as two of his key films are released on DVD


Gus Van Sant is one of a handful of directors to have crossed from arthouse credibility to mainstream pennies and back again. The DVD release of his first and most recent films seems the perfect opportunity to doff our caps to an illustrious back catalogue by an accomplished auteur, who is openly gay to boot.
His 1985 feature debut, Mala Noche, is a sweltering, black and white tale of grappling with sex and the male body across the boundaries of language and class that foregrounds the heartlessness of love/lust.

Skip forward 22 years, bypassing the weirdness of Psycho and the Oscar-baiting smaltz of Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, and his idiosyncratic aesthetic (a jaded, faded Americana) and central themes of loneliness and alienation have blossomed. From the seminal Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho to the ‘Death Trilogy’ of Gerry, Elephant and Last Days, Van Sant enters a long tradition of Pacific Northwesterners, like Todd Haynes, who strive to push the boundaries of commercial art. Encompassing the influences of Bela Tarr and John Cassavetes, he situates man against the vastness of wide open spaces. In his most recent feature, Paranoid Park (pictured), the brutality of life is distilled into a winsome teenage skater who accidentally offs a security guard and must face the subsequent emotional fallout alone.

Queer cinema-goers are used to identifying away from themselves, overlooking the specifics of a character (gender, age, sexuality) to find an object of empathy. Van Sant’s open and vague narratives, characters and structures require that the viewer work to find their own meaning; natural silences and hypnotic imagery become tools for a kind of guided meditation. In a way, he extends the tools that outsiders used to identify themselves to include, and implicate, everyone.

Mala Noche and Paranoid Park are released Mon 28 Apr on Tartan Video.

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