Categories
Calendar CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events FILM ARCHIVES Living NYC ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

In Beneath the Harvest Sky, Images of Young, Small-Town Life Will Linger

If the new hard times have been addressed in The Place Beyond the Pines and Out of the Furnace, films that depict hardscrabble America as rugged and feral, then Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly’s Beneath the Harvest Sky is those dramas’ Gus Van Sant-influenced cousin, detailing rural socioeconomic travails from a more youthful, romantic perspective.

Casper (Emory Cohen) and Dominic (Callan McAuliffe) are best friends in a poor Maine town who dream of escaping to Boston, an outpost that feels no closer than the moon. In a forgotten corner of the U.S., neither has much in the way of economic opportunity: Dominic works the potato harvest, while Casper apprentices for his drug dealer father (Aidan Gillen).

Yet the narrative is the least interesting thing about this perceptive, sometimes poetic feature. Gaudet and Pullapilly have a background in documentaries, and there’s a convincing naturalism to their storytelling.

Teenagers get into car chases with moose, fight at concerts in dirt fields, and shoot potato cannons, all to find some small pleasure outside their tedious routines, and it’s all captured with an unstinting gaze, the filmmakers’ takes long and camera handheld. The naturalism is sometimes infused with Van Sant’s romanticism, as in the potato scenes or a sequence where Dominic and Casper shove a beat-up car off a cliff.

While the narrative does make late, unfortunate lurches into overcooked-thriller territory — complete with an ending that exemplifies the term “deus ex machina” — the images of young small-town lives resonate and linger.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES Living NYC ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Gus Van Sant’s Psycho Just Turned 15 — and is More Fascinating than You Remember

Fifteen years ago today (December 4, 1998) an unusual movie was released, and roundly rejected: director Gus Van Sant’s off-puttingly faithful remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Fresh off the critical and commercial success of Good Will Hunting, Van Sant could’ve tried for another feel-good hit or a high-profile for-hire gig. Instead, he cashed in all his mainstream chips to not only put his hands all over an untouchable classic, but to do it in the strangest way: He used the original script with only minor modifications, he re-recorded the same score, and, in many scenes, he even mimicked Hitchcock’s compositions and camera moves, causing his Psycho to be labeled a “shot-for-shot remake,” though that’s an exaggeration.

Psycho ’98 opened to poor reviews, though not as harsh as those of Van Sant’s five-years-earlier Tom Robbins adaptation, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. While that fiasco has been largely forgotten, the Psycho remake’s infamy continues to grow. I know from conversations with friends and movie fans on the Internet that the topic brings forth a violent bitterness normally reserved for discussion of Star Wars prequels. As recently as this year, Entertainment Weekly readers named it the No. 1 worst movie remake.

But they’re wrong. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Van Sant’s Psycho works, but it absolutely is misunderstood. People look at it as a normal commercial movie with normal commercial motives. This is not Michael Bay’s production company, Platinum Dunes, buying up Friday the 13th and The Amityville Horror as brand names to repackage for today’s youth. This is an independent, outsider director, based in Portland, finding unexpected Hollywood success and using that window of opportunity to perform an experiment that 1) nobody else would be likely to do and 2) could only really be done with studio resources.

What it isn’t

In the 15 years before Van Sant’s Psycho, I count around eight remakes of beloved horror movies, including David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead, and Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers. But in the 15 years since they’ve practically become a genre to themselves, with upwards of 35 remakes of horror classics (depending on how you define “classics”), including new versions of Black Christmas, Carrie, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, The Evil Dead, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Omen, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to name a few. Some of these are fun; most are stylish but dull, seemingly made by people with no clue what made their predecessors so powerful. All of them try to “reimagine” their stories to appeal to a new generation, making the monsters bigger or faster, giving the killers backstories of childhood heartbreak, putting cell phones in the victims’ hands, sometimes adding contemporary music or removing thoughtful subtext.

Van Sant spends less time reinventing than re-creating, and he recruited an all-star team to do it. Original screenwriter Joseph Stefano was hired for the “rewrite” (things like changing the stolen $40,000 to $400,000 and the $10 hotel bill to $36.50). Pablo Ferro, famed title designer going back to Dr. Strangelove, “adapted” Saul Bass’s original credits sequence, changing the names and tinting the bars green. Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek re-orchestrated Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score. Avant garde composer Wayne Horvitz provided “additional sound design” and an end credits duet with guitarist Bill Frisell that riffs on Herrmann’s themes. American Werewolf in London makeup genius Rick Baker is one of three names credited with designing the new Mother dummy. Even the kitchen knife, according to the credits, has a pedigree: It was provided by Hard Boiled director John Woo. The remaker given the most leeway must have been Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer revered for his work with director Wong Kar-wai. He had to copy some of the existing compositions, but at least he got to shoot them in garish color.

What it is

Going to such great lengths to duplicate a work of art that already exists may seem befuddling in the context of big-opening-weekend-equals-profit horror remakes. But Psycho ’98 has more in common with an obscure projected called Flooding with Love for the Kid, in which actor Zachary Oberzan adapts the entire novel First Blood by David Morrell in his apartment with his camcorder and only himself to play every part, from John Rambo to the pack of bloodhounds that track him. Or maybe it’s more similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, the backyard Spielberg remake by 12-year-olds. Or YouTube clips where enthusiastic fans remake their favorite movies with Legos or video game characters.

Of course, these homegrown projects have an underdog quality and amateurish charm that a $60 million Universal Studios production can’t. Otherwise, though, they work in similar ways. They aren’t trying to best or replace their source material, or make it palatable to young audiences. They instead work in relation to the original. Without having seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you couldn’t appreciate the ingenuity of those kids replacing a Nazi-sympathizing monkey with somebody’s wiener dog. And without a familiarity with the real Psycho, there’s no point in seeing the counterfeit. These are companion pieces, part cover song, part new production of a play, part stunt, and part tribute.

It’s hard to enjoy most remakes unless you can put the original out of your head to avoid comparisons. Here, comparisons are the whole point. If those kids had been obsessed with Clint Eastwood’s Firefox instead of Raiders, would you really be able to sit through the whole thing? Similarly, Van Sant had to choose a film as well known as Psycho to give us the surreal experience of watching a film we’ve already seen, but different.

Hitchcock built Psycho on surprises (spoiler — Marion Crane dies and Norman Bates did it), but the remake knows you know what’s going on. Think of the scene where Marion (originally Janet Leigh, now Anne Heche) goes into her motel room and Norman (formerly Anthony Perkins, now Vince Vaughn) spies on her through a peephole. In one of Van Sant’s most notorious modifications, we can hear Norman whacking it below camera while he spies on her. That may seem to violate the rules of suspense that Hitchcock followed — doesn’t that seem like tipping the cards too much if Van Sant doesn’t want us to know that Norman is a creep?

No, because of course we know who Norman Bates is. The movie is designed to not let you forget about Hitchcock. (He even cameos, chewing out Van Sant outside the window of the office where Marion works.) And don’t worry; the remake didn’t catch on in the popular consciousness. A decade and a half later, I think we can safely put away the fear of talking to some young person about Psycho and realizing they’re picturing Vince Vaughn.

Why it doesn’t quite work

Maybe that’s because Vaughn wasn’t up to the task. It’s an odd casting, but not as out-of-left-field at the time as it may seem now. Like Julianne Moore, who plays Lila Crane, Vaughn had done some TV shows, some acclaimed indies, and a Jurassic Park sequel. There was little sign that he would become the king of the pre- Hangover bro comedy with Old School and Wedding Crashers. I like his moronic smile as he watches Marion and her car sink into the swamp. Sometimes I like his nervous, nerdy giggle, but other times it seems forced, just like his heavy reliance on Perkins’s gimmick of nibbling on little pieces of candy during conversations. He’s taking a shot at it, but he’s not hitting the target.

Maybe it all comes down to that performance; a more distinctive and interesting Norman might have warmed more people to the idea of the remake.

Heche fares better as Marion, always looking for ways to play the same material differently. Instead of staring nervously at the pile of money on her bed she smiles at it mischievously, thinks about it, stares at it, hesitates, bugs her eyes out in surprise at herself once she’s tossed it into her purse. Later, she’s playful as she searches for a place to hide it in her motel room. She looks excited instead of pained.

When Norman tells her about his taxidermy hobby, she laughs a little at its weirdness. When he tells her “a boy’s best friend is his mother,” she winces and practically rolls her eyes. Her reactions acknowledge his social awkwardness but make clear that she doesn’t understand its significance. On the other hand, all this makes it less believable that Marion’s conversation with Norman would inspire her to go back home and accept responsibility for her crime. Just changing a little piece of a movie can knock another piece out of place.

My favorite recasting is pre-Lord of the Rings Viggo Mortensen, replacing John Gavin as Marion’s boyfriend, Sam Loomis. He seems like a good guy, content in his low-wage life at the hardware store but standup enough to take action when his girlfriend is in trouble. Mortensen is also manly enough to intimidate Norman, who he suspects stole Marion’s money, essential given Vaughn’s larger stature (and the impossibility of matching Perkins’s nervous chewing and tapping in that scene).

Other fine casting includes Philip Baker Hall as the sheriff and Robert Forster as the psychiatrist, really selling the explanatory monologue at the end with a more naturalistic delivery than Simon Oakland in the original. Maybe the difficulty of recasting is celebrity, not talent. Seeing solid character actors of today replace their counterparts from yesterday feels more natural than seeing stars filling in for stars.

Why it’s still worth your time

Once you have your new cast playing the same characters, saying mostly the same lines, with the same music playing, sometimes with the same camera angles and edits, you still don’t necessarily have the same movie. Van Sant’s experiment raises some fascinating questions: Can the magic of great cinema survive a piece-by-piece rebuild? I guess not. Is the undeniable strength of the individual elements (the story, the storytelling, the characters, the score) enough to survive a reshuffling? Not really. Can a director be disciplined enough to re-create every single shot of somebody else’s movie? In Van Sant’s case, the answer is no. Even in the iconic shower scene he follows the Hitchcock template to a point, then can’t resist throwing in cutaways to storm clouds and a close-up of Marion’s pupil dilating, putting an extra spin on the pull out from her eye, taking out a cut to the shower head so we move from the dead body to the money to the window in one continuous shot.

Most conspicuously missing is the shot of the shower curtain rings popping off one by one, replaced with an overhead view of Marion falling to the floor as the curtain rips. But this is Van Sant’s smartest change to the scene, as Marion lands with her ass up, spread in an ugly, vulnerable position that, like a toilet in 1960, is not an image we’re used to seeing in movies. (A smear of blood on the wall and two bleeding wounds on her back also bring the scene up to modern violence standards.)

One of the original’s other most iconic scenes, Arbogast’s stabbing and tumbling down the stairs, gets similar treatment. Here, the camera movement is imitated and visible face-slashing is added, as are inexplicable flashes of a naked blindfolded woman and a cow in a road on a rainy day. I don’t know what that’s about.

I like some of these flourishes (and love that the end credits roll over a new scene of the authorities dredging the swamp) but each step away from Hitchcock’s template is a step away from the bold idea behind the remake. If Van Sant was going to go this far in duplicating the original, it’s a shame he didn’t try to go all the way.

Grace Wong of CNN wrote, “this film breaks a fundamental rule of do-overs: if you don’t have anything to add, don’t do it at all.” But if you believe in the auteur theory, you know it’s impossible not to add something. That’s another big question: How much of a director’s style and voice can come through within the limitations of this type of remake?

Quite a bit, it turns out. Much of that credit belongs to costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, who’d been working with Van Sant since Drugstore Cowboy in 1989. She gives the leads a kitschy, thrift store sort of style. Marion’s pattern dresses, her big earrings and purse, her bumbershoot — all this suggests a kind of a quirky space cadet, but when you see Arbogast (William H. Macey) still wearing a fedora, and Sam’s Cowboy Curtis-esque version of redneck style, you realize these are just the types of clothes people wear in this world. Even Norman at one point sports a flashy collared shirt that seems a little too going-out-dancing for a sheltered mama’s boy in a dingy old motel (though you could say the same about the kaleidoscopic shower curtain).

Van Sant says on the DVD commentary track that he later found out Pasztor thought they were doing a period piece rather than a movie set in ’98. But the retro clothes fit the theme of people hanging on to and fetishizing pieces of the past. Norman of course has his taxidermy animals, a mummified mother, and his preserved boyhood bedroom. Van Sant adds military memorabilia and a vintage porno mag to the room, and replaces a Beethoven LP with a 45 of “The World Needs a Melody” by George Jones and Tammy Wynette. In another scene, Slim Whitman’s 1952 cover of “Indian Love Call” drifts eerily from the house. Records were a dead medium in 1998, long since replaced by CDs and not yet revived as the specialty market we have today. Yet Stefano and Van Sant change Lila’s original workplace, “Music Makers Music Store,” to “Hardcore Vinyl Record Store.” As Marion says about taxidermy, “That is a strange hobby.”

Interestingly, while Stefano was brought in to adjust the screenplay for inflation, the update has already aged enough to be a bit of a time capsule. Lila is often wearing headphones, her line “All right, let me get my coat,” changed to “Let me get my Walkman.” The phone Arbogast uses is upgraded from rotary to push button, but it’s still a pay phone, and when he doesn’t return when promised, Sam and Lila have no way of contacting him. Van Sant just missed the “this story wouldn’t happen in a world with cell phones” dilemma of modern horror remaking.

But this isn’t a modern horror remake. The conception and value of Van Sant’s movie is as an art project. If you’re looking to be scared by Psycho, or if you want to just sit back and be swept up in it, you’re probably out of luck. It’s more of a “What if?” than a traditional movie. “What if somebody tried to restage an old movie the way you would a play?” Actually, somebody did that. It was really weird. And what’s wrong with that?

I’m glad that Van Sant’s Psycho isn’t a horror favorite of kids who grew up in the ’90s. It shouldn’t be. But I’m also glad it exists for me to pull out and marvel at every once in a while. Experiments don’t always have to work to be worth doing.

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Promised Land’s Hard Sell

Salesmen are typically depicted in screen drama as the quintessential American phonies. The exceptions—in Barry Levinson’s Avalon or Whit Stillman’s Barcelona—are buried under a mountain of films proving the rule. That one set of phonies are being dramatically indicted by actors is an irony that we will leave hanging.

When we first meet Promised Land‘s phony, played by Matt Damon, he’s preparing to sell himself, to audition. Steve Butler is interviewing for an executive position at Global, a natural gas company whose bread and butter is fracking, the controversial practice of pumping toxic chemicals 8,000 feet underground to loosen up natural gas. Steve travels from small town to small town and persuades people to sell Global leases to extract on their land, and his ace results have attracted attention. He explains that this is a matter of his common touch with locals: “I’m from Eldridge, Iowa. It might as well be Rifle, Colorado; Dish, Texas; or Lafayette, Louisiana. I know them, they know me.”

Steve says his work is inspired by a sense of duty to these dying mill towns—”I’m selling them the only way they have to get back”—though an edge in his voice belies a deeper frustration and disappointment. Whether that frustration is with these people he claims to know or actually with himself is tested on a by-the-book sales trip to a town called McKinley in Western Pennsylvania. His partner, Sue, meets him there with a suitably beat-up Ford, their prop transportation; Sue is played by Frances McDormand, keeping up her end of a testy on-the-job rapport that’s a low-key pleasure. When they go shopping for middle-American costumes, Steve chooses plaid over camouflage, though, really, it’s all camouflage.

Steve’s approach assumes that all of flyover America is essentially the same. “I can’t believe this is right outside the city; it looks like Kentucky,” says Sue, to which Steve responds, “Two hours outside any city looks like Kentucky.” And everything is routine at first—the bribe to the local politician (a nicely played scene performed with hushed, hardball contempt by Damon) and the well-oiled pitches to property owners. But a science teacher (Hal Holbrook) speaks up at a community assembly, citing reports that fracking can contaminate water supplies, which leads the assembly to set a date three weeks off to vote on allowing Global to drill. This forces Steve and Sue to stick around McKinley and gives time for an environmental-agency worker (John Krasinski) to go door to door with a story about how fracking killed his family dairy farm.

Krasinski, shading his trademark affability with a touch of cocky righteousness, has the unlikely handle Dustin Noble, the actor’s second most unfortunate character name outside of Burt Farlander in 2009’s Away We Go, written by Dave Eggers. Eggers is credited with Promised Land‘s original story, which Damon and Krasinski developed into a screenplay; Damon was originally slated to make the project his directorial debut, but it instead wound up with Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant, who here is again in his deft, accessible, director-for-hire mode. Like Steve, Van Sant—who has a history in advertising—knows how to dress down and display the common touch.

With Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren, Van Sant has shot McKinley as an NPR-tithing audience’s dream of the idyllic small town seen in folksy music-video interludes, without an eyesore Walmart in sight. In fact, it offers little sense of the hard-times desperation that Steve’s pitch assumes—strange considering this film is the work of the director of Drugstore Cowboy, who has made a career of going down among the marginalized.

The PR war is waged through Steve and Dustin’s competition over a local schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) and in McKinley’s social centers: the diner, where Dustin gets tauntingly back-slappy with the locals, and the bar, where Sue takes the stage to sing Hank Williams’s gospel standard “I Saw the Light” to win hearts and minds. Hank Jr.’s “Family Tradition” is the true surefire crowd-pleaser, but her selection is significant; should it be doubted that environmentalism has adopted the trappings and language of religion, note that Promised Land (title courtesy Genesis 15:18-21) is essentially a conversion story, in which the cynical Steve is swayed from Global doctrine to the “delusional self-mythology” of prideful small-town independence he’s first heard scoffing at.

But though Steve knows the Global line backward and forward (“If you are against this, you’re for coal and oil. Period.”), his conviction seems to be wavering even as he delivers it. Steve’s conversion lacks dramatic heft, then, for it seems more a matter of predestination, his profound discomfort something incipient to his existence rather than the result of a slow undermining of confidence. New flecks of gray show at Damon’s temples, and foreboding of a looming existential cliff shows at once in Steve’s clumping gait, the sullen way he drinks, the ease with which Dustin gets under his skin. (Did Damon think of guiltily counting his Bourne bucks?)

Promised Land is a hard-sell movie because it doesn’t have the confidence in its audience to make any other outcome seem personally viable, to give the opposition a fighting chance or persuasive voice. Fast Food Nation gave Bruce Willis’s corporate higher-up the floor to deliver a tough, pragmatic monologue ending in “We all gotta eat a little shit from time to time”—a rogue element that gave an ideologically committed movie greater strength through tension. Ultimately, what causes the scales to fall from Steve’s eyes is his discovery that Global has been playing with a stacked deck, making sure they can’t lose. Here, Promised Land, whose ending never once seems in doubt, exemplifies in dramatic structure the same cheating its hero can’t stomach.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook FILM ARCHIVES Museums & Galleries VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Milk

Dir. Gus Van Sant (2008).
Van Sant directs his Harvey Milk biopic so carefully, there might be a Ming vase balanced on his head. No less cautious, Sean Penn drops his habitual banty roosterism to play the martyred gay activist, with the concentration of an actor entrusted to portray the future subject of a U.S. postage stamp: Content trumps form as communal solidarity redeems individual sacrifice.

Fri., Sept. 30, 7 p.m., 2011

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Gus Van Sant’s Teen Romance Restless: Bad Will or Just Bad Taste?

Too morbid to be a crowd-pleaser à la Good Will Hunting but nowhere near as confrontationally inscrutable as Gerry, Gus Van Sant’s latest—a middle-class hetero teen romance, no less—walks the line between mainstream sentimentality and dark art-house humor so effectively that it seems noncommittal. The movie takes place in Portland, Oregon, over three months as Enoch (Henry Hopper, Dennis’s boy), an orphaned high school dropout who attends strangers’ funerals for kicks, meets and falls in love with pretty, perky Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), who’s dying of cancer. The ghost of a kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase) plays guardian angel to the pair, generally getting the best lines (of handshaking versus bowing, he says, “White people—you have to grab everything”) and adding a magic realism component that’s as iffy as it is charming. Equivocation is the whole game here, though: Slight and frequently cloying, Restless is also achingly tender and unflinching on the subject of death. (Dying, on the other hand, gets a whitewash.) But its chief feature is listlessness, and the way Van Sant lapses into hokey montages of the happy couple’s hijinks and fey, whispery pop tunes in lieu of real dramatic tension finally smacks of mockery.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook FILM ARCHIVES Museums & Galleries Theater VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

My Own Private Idaho

Dir. Gus Van Sant (1991).
At once a story cycle and a collage, Van Sant’s third feature draws on Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Welles and Warhol: the self-conscious erudition is balanced by the reckless innocence by which River Phoenix throws himself into his role.

Fri., Sept. 16, 7 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 18, 7:30 p.m., 2011

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook FILM ARCHIVES Living Museums & Galleries NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Paranoid Park

Dir. Gus Van Sant (2007).
Lyrical yet gritty, Paranoid Park cashes the check that Van Sant wrote with his first feature, Mala Noche. In telling the tale of a Portland skater kid involved in the accidental death of a railroad bull, the filmmaker comes close to inventing his own film language. Chronology is shuffled, narrative gets dealt out as a succession of subjective impressions, and the world is made to shimmer with adolescent magic.

Sun., Sept. 18, 4:30 p.m., 2011

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook FILM ARCHIVES Living Museums & Galleries NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Mala Noche

Dir. Gus Van Sant (1986).
Van Sant’s sensational debut, in which a Portland loser carries a torch for a young illegal was at once a stunning iteration of the American indie-ness, a key example of the then new queer cinema and the founding example of Northwest grunge-a-rama.

Sat., Sept. 10, 4 p.m., 2011

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook FILM ARCHIVES Living Museums & Galleries NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Drugstore Cowboy

Dir. Gus Van Sant (1989).
Matt Dillon gave his career performance as hapless Portland junkie in Gus Van Sant’s soulful second feature—one of the saddest, most resonant American movies of the late ‘80s.

Fri., Sept. 9, 7 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 10, 7 p.m., 2011

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook FILM ARCHIVES Living Museums & Galleries NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

VAN SANT 101

If you didn’t manage to get a spot in that free summer school class Gus Van Sant was teaching at MOMA PS1, the Museum of the Moving Image has another way to learn from the master by attending a three-week 13-film retrospective of his works. It starts Friday at 7 with a screening of Drugstore Cowboy, Van Sant’s 1989 indie classic, set in 1970s Portland and starring Matt Dillon. Other films in the series include his first film Mala Noche (1985) and My Own Private Idaho (1991). The highlight is on September 14 when Van Sant will be in the house for a talk after the screening of his latest film, Restless.

Sept. 9-30, 2011