August Van Sant: A Film Diary

Until we recorded the fifth episode of our podcast, I’d only seen two Gus Van Sant films: his infamous 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho and his 2018 biopic of the late cartoonist John Callahan, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. I thought the former was interesting, but not necessarily enjoyable, and the latter I thought was simply a good film. But I was never really drawn to Van Sant as a filmmaker. I’m not sure why. I’d heard high praise for some of his films, especially My Own Private Idaho, but I’d heard others panned into the ground. Maybe it’s just because he doesn’t have a public persona the way a lot of directors do: he’s a private enough guy that he doesn’t even have a personal life section on his Wikipedia and he doesn’t seem to have much appetite for self-promotion or even making calculated career moves.

Then I watched Good Will Hunting and it piqued my interest in the films of this mysterious man with a name that just about rhymes. So, I decided to watch them. All seventeen of them, over the month of August. I initially recorded my brief thoughts on each over on my letterboxd, now I’ve compiled them here, with some elaboration. I found very little advice on navigating Van Sant’s filmography when I started, so hopefully this can act as, if not a guide, then at least an example of how someone did it for others to follow or ignore as they see fit. You can hear my thoughts on Good Will Hunting on the podcast, but the rest of the gang is all here.

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Do I Look Like the Kind of Clown That Could Start a Movement?

It’s a pretty old story at this point, but it’s a good one: when Do the Right Thing premiered in 1989, a lot of film critics expressed concern that it would inspire black people to riot. The film follows a day in the life of the residents of a racially-mixed but largely black neighbourhood in Brooklyn that culminates in the murder of a black man, Radio Raheem, by the police. The police came because of a fight between Radio Raheem and the owner of the local pizzeria, Sal, so the onlookers who saw the murder blame him. One resident, Da Mayor, tries to persuade the crowd to walk away, but Sal’s employee, Mookie, played by director Spike Lee, throws a bin through the window. The crowd runs into the pizzeria and smashes up the furniture. One of Radio Raheem’s friends sets it on fire. It’s one of my favourite setpieces in the history of cinema and it terrified several white critics at the time

It should go without saying that none of those fears were borne out. No riots broke out at screenings of Do the Right Thing. And that’s why the story lingers. It’s a story about the racism of white critics, a nice shorthand explanation of how criticism itself is distorted when the field is dominated by people from a narrow set of backgrounds, whether the skew is racial, gendered or economic. But I think it’s worth recognising that when those critics wet themselves over the possibility of a film inspiring real riots, they weren’t only racist. They were also wrong. And not just wrong because riots didn’t occur, but wrong because riots were never going to occur. Sometimes people have rioted about films, like The Birth of a NationThe Rules of the Game or Padmaavat, a Bollywood epic from a couple of years ago that enraged Hindu nationalists and Rajput caste extremists who heard – incorrectly – that it portrayed sex between a Muslim king and a Rajput queen, among other things. But there is no evidence in the history of film that exposure to a movie’s content, as opposed to the mere fact of its existence, has ever inspired anyone to riot. In fact, everyone who has ever promoted panic about art causing violence of any kind has been wrong. They were wrong about Do the Right Thing. They were wrong about Doom and Grand Theft Auto and every other video game. They were wrong about comic books and “video nasties” and Eminem

They were wrong about Joker

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