Cautiously eyeing the mainstream

Special to The Times

The most arresting image in Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park" is that of a man cut in two by a passing train, his severed torso crawling across gravel.

Van Sant's career has been marked by a similar, if less painful, split.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, films such as "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho" won Van Sant praise for their dreamily transgressive depictions of transient life. But after the critical and commercial drubbing of his pansexual picaresque "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," he morphed into a successful director of mildly edgy mainstream fare, culminating with nine Oscar nominations and two wins for 1997's "Good Will Hunting."

Then, with 2002's "Gerry," Van Sant took a sudden swerve toward the avant-garde, favoring long tracking shots, nonlinear chronology and soundtracks laced with disorienting musique concrete. The films that followed restored his critical reputation, with "Elephant" taking the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2003.

His latest project, "Paranoid Park," which premiered at the festival last year and which IFC Films is set to open in limited release here Friday, retains the languorous rhythms of its recent predecessors. But unlike the largely improvised films that preceded it, "Park" was shot with a conventional script, adapted from Blake Nelson's novel about a teen skateboarder (Gabe Nevins) whose trip to the wrong side of the tracks has fatal results.

Van Sant himself views "Paranoid Park" as a transitional film, moving him once again toward the mainstream. The director is currently shooting "Milk," a biography of openly gay San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was gunned down by a disgruntled ex-supervisor in 1978. The biopic, due to open through Focus Features next year, stars Sean Penn as the title character, with a supporting cast featuring the likes of Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin and James Franco. It is almost certain to guarantee him safe passage back into the realm of the commercial.

"It's the end of a certain way I was making films," he says, during a break from the "Milk" shoot.

Like the so-called death trilogy of "Gerry," "Last Days" and "Elephant," "Paranoid Park" is a study in youthful disengagement. Christopher Doyle's camera drifts over the concrete mounds of the titular skate park like a low-flying helicopter, or a vision of adolescent liberation. He shoots Nevins drifting through school hallways in ultra-slow motion, or with a shallow depth of field that reduces the background to an indistinct blur. Leslie Shatz's sound design surrounds the movie's protagonist with a wash of foreign noise, as if he is never quite present in the world around him.

Shatz, who has known Van Sant since the "Drugstore Cowboy" days, says the approach Van Sant introduced with "Gerry," favoring wordless scenes and improvised dialogue, was "a total departure. He just felt, 'Well, why do I need a script?' It's not that he wants to improvise, Cassavetes-style. He feels the film is its own essence, and the script maybe forces you into going one direction or another, when he would rather be spontaneous and figure it out on the spot."

From the beginning, Van Sant has worked to keep his crews small and flexible. "He likes to move fast," says cinematographer Harris Savides, who first worked with Van Sant on 2000's "Finding Forrester." "He doesn't want the filmmaking to get in the way of the film."

Logic, Van Sant says, can only take you so far. He draws an analogy between directing and playing chess, pointing out that in order for computers to beat human players, they first had to be taught to reason intuitively. "There's a huge number of chess moves, possibilities of meaning and interpretation," he says, "too many to go in there intellectually and discuss each one. You're more doing it by your gut feeling and hope that your gut feeling is attuned to what your ideas were when you were first discussing the film."

Gutsy decisions

Van Sant often leaves his collaborators to their own devices. But Shatz says he can also be firmly resolute when something strikes him the wrong way. "He's very intuitive, but he's also very decisive. There's only one reason for anything, which is what his gut tells him."

The filmmaker's distrust of neat explanations is woven into the fabric of his recent work. The films in the death trilogy are all drawn from real events, but the situations don't quite match up. While "Elephant" is transparently inspired by the Columbine massacre, its teen killers are never named. The news reports at the end of "Last Days" are drawn from the coverage of Kurt Cobain's death, but the doomed rock star who shambles wordlessly around a secluded house is named Blake, after the poet William Blake. "Paranoid Park's" story is fictional, but the movie is similarly reluctant to link cause and effect.

"It was kind of a reaction to that preconception that fiction has no business investigating anything, that it's only for our amusement," Van Sant says. "I think that we've grown up enough with journalism to see that it's as fictitious as a Tennessee Williams play, and maybe not as investigative as a Tennessee Williams play."

Van Sant often blurred the line between fiction and reportage. "My Own Private Idaho" breaks away from its protagonists to interview real-life rent boys, and "To Die For" is loosely based on the case of a New Hampshire schoolteacher who conspired with her teenage lover to murder her husband. But with "Milk," Van Sant is obliged to tell a true story without changing the names.

"You can never really get there," Van Sant says, referring to the truth. "So you might as well have an analogy rather than a biographical depiction. But that was never really the way this movie was conceived."

Although he has been trying to film Harvey Milk's story for many years, Van Sant seems ambivalent about returning to a more conventional way of working. "It's a cast of well-known actors, and the script is more conventional in the way it goes about telling a story."

Although Van Sant says he is dutifully replicating the political aspects of Dustin Lance Black's script, what energizes him is re-creating the texture of gay life in 1970s San Francisco. "One of the most exciting things is the creation of a gay class of people, from nothing, or from a subclass that was below the surface," he says.

"Milk" also deals with the creation of an ad hoc family, formed in this case around Harvey Milk's camera shop. "It's about this new group that's formed on Castro Street, making up their own rules."

With a larger budget and name cast, Van Sant is under more watchful eyes and consequently more pressure than he has been in years. But he is sticking to his stripped-down methods as best he can.

"We're bringing some of the things we've grown to love on these last few movies to this party," Savides says. "Sometimes we find it's not working. And sometimes it works."

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