At first glance, the subtitle of Gus Van Sant’s new biography of Katya Tylevich—The art of making movies— might suggest a lesson in technique from the director of My own private Idaho (1991).
But delve into Tylevich’s lengthy interviews with the legendary Portland filmmaker and this craft-focused suggestion takes on an almost comedic energy. Examining Van Sant’s career in these pages will not teach readers how to frame a shot, redefine a city’s cinematic reputation, or balance art and commerce.
On the contrary, the book (Laurence King Publishing, 288 pages, $25) paints a portrait of Van Sant’s artistic mentality, a mentality that changed with the wind during a 40-year career marked by subversion, acclaim, influence, failure and darkness. And even after reading, fans might reasonably debate which films in which of these phases.
“It’s the irony of writing a ‘how-to’ book about Gus Van Sant’s process: there’s no way to replicate his last-minute decisions, personality, unexpected experiences and outcomes or even nonsense,” says Tylevich, an arts and science scholar in Los Angeles. fiction writer who collaborated on projects with Marina Abramovic.
Tylevich first met Van Sant while on assignment for the art magazine Elephant in 2014. The interviews that feed into the biography took place over several years at Van Sant’s Hollywood Hills home, usually “surrounded by his paintings in progress.” , says Tylevich.
While the book touches on shifting interpretations of Van Sant’s work, his career survey will satisfy the curiosity of most cinephiles. There are delicious insider stories about everything from how River Phoenix’s improv changed the course of Idaho to the dangers of shooting the improvised Gerry (2002), which starred Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, in Death Valley.
Tylevich’s book delves into Van Sant’s difficult “Death Trilogy,” which includes Gerry, the elephant (2003) and Last days (2005). Although overlooked by moviegoers approaching his work from a Portlandian perspective, Tylevich believes this series of improvised narratives is crucial to understanding the length of Van Sant’s Hollywood subversion.
In writing, Tylevich says she became particularly attached to Last days, a portrait of a doomed and languishing analogue of Kurt Cobain (Michael Pitt). “The emphasis on boredom in a calamity belonging to the collective psyche – wow, that’s a bold move!” said Tylevitch. “I wanted the book to communicate some of the dark humor of Gus’ films.”
Tylevich also spotlights the comedy of Van Sant films like Cowboy Pharmacy (1989) and die for (1995), as well as the cosmic hilarity of his difficult studio dealings. His determination to strike the pose of an uncompromising artist may have led to such triumphs as the elephantwhich won the Palme d’Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, but also led to his much-mocked 1998 psychology remake, which still baffles followers of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 original.
As in Van Sant’s films, Portland is a notable presence in Tylevich’s book, especially in the chapter on Mala Noche (1985), a film about a convenience store clerk (Tim Streeter) who falls in love with a Mexican migrant worker (Doug Cooeyate). For Van Sant, the city has not only become a setting, but a crucial element in conceiving a new way of making films.
“I loved Gus’ memories of the old clergyman’s mansion in northwest Portland, full of movie fanatics and professionals,” Tylevich says. “It was a strong reference for me; he gave physical parameters to a very unique artistic atmosphere.
The modestly sized coffee table book also features rare and exclusive photos, including Van Sant’s Polaroids, images of his paintings, and art collages by cinematographers Eric Alan Edwards and Christopher Doyle. Shots of Van Sant working often seem disarmingly banal, showing him simply pausing or conversing with an actor in the middle of a process that would ultimately give rise to influential art.
Like so many GVS films, Gus Van Sant: the art of making movies offers an intimate experience, but not a meaningless delivery system. Anyone who treats it as a how-to guide would be just as likely to craft a transgressive, open-ended VR game on the moon as film a sequel to My own private Idaho.
“I love that Gus’ work is hard to define,” says Tylevich. “Ambiguity, metaphor, poetry…these are the qualities which, when done well, reach the audience for reasons that transcend rational explanation.”