The long and winding road to the Walker

Gabriel Shapiro

In the pantheon of American movie directors, Gus Van Sant stands out as one of the brightest stars to have emerged in the past twenty years. From his edgy indie pictures to an Academy Award-nominated blockbuster, he seems to have run the gamut since releasing his first movie in 1985. However, counter to industry wisdom, instead of moving from low-budget to major studio work and staying there, Van Sant has continually alternated between the safe terrain of Hollywood and the treacherous waters of indie films that focus on fringe-dwellers and difficult subjects. Movies like “Finding Forrester” and his remake of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” contrast sharply with indie hits like “My Own Private Idaho” and “Drugstore Cowboy.” Whether you’re more inclined toward big-budget movies or seeking out avant-garde gems, Van Sant has likely made a movie that is right up your alley. Throughout the past week the Walker Art Center has held the first half of its Gus Van Sant film retrospective, and in case you haven’t made it over to the Walker yet, don’t worry, there’s still a lot of great stuff left.

Coming up first is a screening of one of Van Sant’s most famous movies, and one of his earliest, “Drugstore Cowboy.” This 1989 release stars Matt Dillon as small-time criminal and full-time junky, Bob, the leader of a ragged troupe of like-minded addicts who are always on the run – either from the law or toward the next score. Dillon’s sweetly naïve portrayal makes Bob into less of the average demonized junky and more of a lost little boy who happened to get caught up in big boy vices. “Drugstore Cowboy” also starred a very young Heather Graham in one of her first big roles, and certainly one that hinted of her acting ability far more than “License to Drive.” Van Sant used surreal imagery and voice-over narration to let the audience into Bob’s head and see him in a way in which we don’t often see junkies – as human beings.

Next in the series is the black comedy “To Die For,” a story of ambition, murder, lust, betrayal and a few good laughs. In one of her early award-winning performances, Nicole Kidman was hilarious as the somewhat dim-witted, very attractive and completely goal-obsessed small town TV personality bent on becoming a famous news anchor. The explorations of the role of the media, the alienation of modern life and the distortion of reality that can come with the pursuit of success at all costs are expertly manipulated by Van Sant. As a result, the movie raises many pertinent questions while it is simultaneously making the audience laugh.

The two final events of the retrospective are definitely the highlights: First, Van Sant’s new movie “Gerry” will be screened here, before going into general release in March. The finale of the event, the Regis dialogue, features Van Sant in person. “Gerry” finds Van Sant back in the territory it seemed he had forsaken for big-budget, high-profile Hollywood movies. A more avant-garde film, “Gerry” is less “Good Will Hunting” (despite also starring and being written in part by Matt Damon) and more a metaphor-rich study of man as a reluctant, imperiled traveler through the barren wilderness of life.

Wrapping up with the man himself should provide a great opportunity for anyone who has seen any of Van Sant’s movies and had questions to finally get the answers you seek. An evening of clips and discussions featuring Van Sant and critic/producer Scott Macaulay, it promises to be an informative and entertaining culmination to this encompassing retrospective of one of America’s most consistently intriguing directors.

Film retrospective and Regis dialogue “Gus Van Sant: On the Road Again.” Screenings through Feb. 28 are $7 at the Walker Art Center auditorium. ($5 Walker members). Saturday, “Drugstore Cowboy”; Sunday, “To Die For”; Feb. 26, “Gerry”; Feb. 28, Regis dialogue with Gus Van Sant and Scott Macaulay.

Gabriel Shapiro welcomes comments at [email protected]