His own private idealism

Some will say he's gone commercial, but Gus Van Sant is subverting movies from the inside. James Mottram investigates

At first glance, Gus Van Sant has come in from the cold. Next month's Oscar ceremony will see the idiosyncratic Oregon-based gay film- maker embraced by Hollywood as he competes for Best Director for his film Good Will Hunting.

The movie represents not so much Van Sant's calling card, delivered in 1988 with the sublime Drugstore Cowboy, but his letter of resignation. Traditionally structured and conventionally concluded, it's a safe tale of the discovery of a twentysomething blue-collar worker/ mathematical genius, played by wunderkind Matt Damon, who wrote the script with co- star and friend Ben Affleck.

While another addition to his canon of "stories about the coming-of-age", it's a far cry from the rawness of his debut Mala Noche, or the surreal quality attached to his 1992 tribute to johns, My Own Private Idaho. Van Sant's latest finds him in a softened reflective mood. Good Will Hunting has a healthy respectability about it. Be it loss of nerve or commercial cunning, the 45-year-old Van Sant has sanitised his obsession with the outsider for mass consumption. "Because of my past films there's a perception of similarity," he notes. "They've all been intensely risky. But there was always, to me, a beautiful, solid story. They weren't particularly optimistic. They were stories like life, honest stories about the way things come off. There was a melancholy involved in all of them. Good Will Hunting is more optimistic and sweet in its energy and that's because it came from Ben and Matt. The story fits with the sweet optimism they have."

Readily admitting that his films are metaphorical with regard to his own life, Van Sant has always been the one peering in. Drawing class-conscious preoccupations from his own privileged background, Van Sant spent his formative years in Portland before attending Rhode Island School of Design, alongside the likes of Talking Head David Byrne.

It was here that he would incorporate the slick Hollywood format into an experimental tack, with senior projects like Late Morning Start, a tactic he saw in the works of Godard and Bunuel. The tail end of the Seventies were spent assisting Ken Shapiro, director of The Groove Tube (the origins of Saturday Night Live-type skit humour; hippie performance theatre captured on 35mm). Paid by Paramount, Van Sant worked for six years trying to get projects with Shapiro off the ground, few of which came to fruition. Mala Noche, released in 1985, was Van Sant's antidote: "It was my new philosophy that my next project should be something they wouldn't ever make."

Yet a quiet but persistent rapping ever since has opened the studio door, notably in 1995 with the Columbia-backed To Die For, only for it to half- close on him again. A lack of distributive support, as in the case of To Die For, stems from the persistent "suspicion of the distributors that my films wouldn't make money".

Projects such as The Mayor of Castro Street, a biopic of assassinated gay San Franciscan Mayor Harvey Milk (to have been played by Good Will Hunting support Robin Williams) were green-lighted, only to be terminated when Van Sant underwent creative differences with Warner Brothers. Experiences too with company Fine Line, many there clamouring for the Shakespeare scenes to be removed from Idaho and calling for a re-edit on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, has left Van Sant wary of the business he so amorously flirts with. Take the Oscars.

"I don't think the Oscars are really in control of themselves. It's made up of lots of different voters. And it's like politics. If you support certain issues you're gonna get more votes. I've never really limited myself in that way for either a particular box-office or Oscar audience. I've always chosen based on what I considered a good story. Good Will Hunting's made more money and gotten more Oscar attention than my other films."

Not quite an elder statesman, Van Sant is fast-becoming everyone's favourite cinematic uncle, destined to guide fledgling film-makers through the cinema's avante-garde. Executive producer on Larry Clark's Kids (Van Sant himself influenced by Clark's photographic collection Tulsa), he has consciously surrounded himself by youth, both his characters and companions:

"It seems to be an age I'm stuck in. The age between 14 and 25 is to me where the most inspirational thinking comes about in our culture. The establishment doesn't take ideas from that age group seriously. Society says they're inexperienced - something that's said in Good Will Hunting. A lot of the ideas are worth pursuing. The germ of an idea is the thing of value."

An amalgam of Keanu Reeves' well-to-do Scott Favor and River Phoenix's gay hustler Mike in Idaho, Van Sant's consistent affiliation with the leftfield comes from the perspective of patron and patronised. Edging around Hollywood he may always have been, but like Favor he has escaped his family roots, veering from the expected path only to consistently, like Mike, search out questions of family and identity. Locked in this consistent dilemma of finding his place, Van Sant in Good Will Hunting has a solution. By subversively experimenting from the inside, as the evident homoerotic subtext between the Damon/Affleck characters indicates, Van Sant - rather like backers Miramax - straddles art-house concerns and commercial success.

Further evidence that Van Sant hasn't left his creative routes behind comes in the form of his first novel, Pink. As experimental as Good Will Hunting isn't, it focuses on an infomercial maker, a rock star and his wife and a guy in rehab. and, in Van Sant's own rather elusive terms, is "all about death, death being another dimension". As for Oscar night, it remains to be seen if Van Sant's ceremonial attendance will signal a sell out.

Good Will Hunting opens next Friday.

A Gus Van Sant guide

Mala Noche: Black and white $25,000 slant on Walt Curtis' Oregon-set novel of unrequited love and sexual obsession, winning the LA critics award for Best Independent Feature. Van Sant blends the neo-realism of Pasolini with poetic lyricism.

Drugstore Cowboy: Based on the unpublished memoirs of convicted felon James Fogle, Van Sant became hot property with this hip, vibrant 1970s paean to a merry band of pill-pilfering junkies. Rekindled Matt Dillon's kudos, gave notice to Boogie Nights phenomenon Heather Graham. His best movie.

My Own Private Idaho: A daring mix of Shakespeare's Henry IV and road odyssey, partially responsible for elevating River Phoenix to iconic status.

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues: Disjointed adaptation of Tom Robbins' hippie novel that swam in post-production mire. Uma Thurman's hitchhiker, complete with abnormally large thumbs, encounters John Hurt's misogynist queen.

To Die For: Nicole Kidman's media-hungry small-town weather girl claws her way to the top in his first studio offering. A subversive take on the nature of success.

Good Will Hunting: Oscar-friendly, character-driven feelgood, co-penned by its stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (pictured above). Visually sterile.

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