Modern Mondays: Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy” 2002-2005

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“Ours is a culture notoriously uncomfortable with death. We’ve minimized and sterilized our rituals for processing it; we pack it away in Styrofoam and plastic wrap at the grocery store; we worship our children and pour our resources into the fantasy of postponing old age. Yet it courses into our collective consciousness with renewed insistence every day. Death in Iraq, death in New Orleans, death in Sudan, Afghanistan, Israel, Indonesia. Death on local streetcorners and in apartment buildings down the block. More death than it seems possible to comprehend.”
– Holly Myers

I’ve admired Gus Van Sant’s films since first seeing Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991) in the early ’90s but my relationship with the director’s work has occasionally been strained. I still don’t understand why Gus Van Sant thought remaking Hitchcock’s Psycho (1998) was a good idea and I’ve found some of his films such as Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) unwatchable but I keep coming back to his work. Van Sant has been very active in the last 10 years and his films have received a lot of critical attention but I think his “Death Trilogy” which included the movies Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005) are the director’s most interesting recent films. They’re good movies on their own but together they make up one of the most compelling cinematic experiences I’ve had in the last 10 years.

The three movies that form Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy” are not easy viewing and demand a lot from their audience. They also deserve more attention than I can give them at the moment so I thought I’d share some excerpts from one of my favorite pieces written about the films by the Los Angeles based critic Holly Myers for n+1. In Myers’ lengthy piece called Nothing Happens to No One: The Death Trilogy of Gus Van Sant she brilliantly explains exactly why I find the director’s “Death Trilogy” so intriguing. She also does a terrific job of pointing out the importance of these American films and why they’ve made such a lasting impression on me.

“Like the two subsequent films—Elephant (2003), based on the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, and Last Days (2005), a fictionalized account of the death of Kurt Cobain—Gerry cuts through the shock, the bafflement, the extravagant displays of empathy and moralistic hand-wringing that invariably characterizes Hollywood and the media’s treatment of death-stories by dispensing with the basic conventions of narrative and character. Van Sant does not sensationalize. Instead, in each film we see plot distilled to a single, profound arc: the slow, strange transition of a body from being alive to not being alive. Taking the silence, the mystery, the essential unknowability of death as a given, Van Sant makes no attempt to interrogate or explain. He simply enacts this transition and encourages his viewers to watch . . .The result is closer to meditation than to storytelling, and the films are difficult in the way that meditation is difficult, which has made them—Gerry in particular—a hard sell.”

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“Because this is cinema in a rare state of purity. Gerry is closer in some ways to the early films of Edison and the Lumiere brothers than to the crime films and biopics that Van Sant’s death trilogy might be classed with today, or even to the filmmaker’s own mainstream movies such as Good Will Hunting and Finding Forester. Van Sant has explained his return, with Gerry, to the art house methods of his earliest films as a result of his desire to return to the use of a small crew, to a more flexible and immediate experience of filmmaking, and one senses this return to the elemental in the bare aesthetic of the films. Their intense visuality recovers a moment in film history when the sight of a train barreling down a track, a dog jumping into the air, a woman feeding her baby, or two men dancing was enough to hold the camera in thrall and fill the theaters. Of course, the moment was short-lived: as the novelty of moving pictures began to wear off, and new technology enabled longer running times, filmmakers turned to narrative—specifically theatrical and literary conceptions of narrative—to feed the audience’s attention. What the film scholar Tom Gunning has called the “cinema of attractions,” a cinema based primarily on “its ability to show something,” gave way in the early twentieth century to a cinema of storytelling, a shift completed by the introduction of sound in the late 1920s.

“The cinema of attractions didn’t disappear entirely, but it went underground into avant-garde practices (of the Dadaists and the Surrealists, for instance) while American studios codified what’s now known as the classic Hollywood style. When the studio system began to collapse in the 1950s and ’60s and the dominance of its style began to fade, a new avant-garde emerged in Europe, more visible than any before or since. Godard, Truffaut, Antonioni, Fellini, Buñuel, Bergman—their films varied widely but were generally distinguished by an interest in the dismantling of narrative, the disruption of Hollywood-style continuity, and, above all, in the intrinsic cinema-ness of cinema, manifest in what Pasolini characterized as the “felt presence of the camera.”

“It’s Van Sant’s investment in this cinema-ness, in the presence of the camera and the question of what the camera can “show,” that aligns him most clearly with this European lineage, and separates him from so many of his American counterparts. In his death trilogy, Van Sant sets psychology aside, not, one gathers, because it’s unimportant, but because it’s something the camera can’t know. And yet these are not cool and unemotional films—far from it. Van Sant is a sensualist. One of the things the camera can know is the body, and the body can be as emotionally eloquent as the speaking voice, if not more so.”

“What develops over the course of the three films is not insight but compassion. Faced with the silence of death, Van San eschews the furious psychologizing of death—journalism and mainstream filmmaking, resists the desire for explanations and justifications, and simply gazes at an open mystery, leaving it intact. There is none of the hysterical static that typically overtakes our discourse about death. Van Sant’s “death trilogy” is a meditation in the literal sense of the word. These films are not about reading or speculating; they don’t answer questions. They simply illuminate by watching. That’s what cinema can do.”

I highly recommend reading Holly Myers’s entire piece about these films which can be found at the official n+1 site.

All three films can be bought at Amazon.com and they’re available for rent from Netflix.com and Greencine.com

Modern Mondays is an ongoing project here at Cinebeats where I share a few thoughts or lengthy rants and raves about my favorite films produced during the last decade. Films previously mentioned on Modern Mondays include:

The Left Bank (2008)
Love Songs (2007)
Bright Future (2003)
Control (2007)
The Quiet American (2001)
A History of Violence (2005)
This Is England (2007)
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Innocence (2004)
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Cloverfield (2008)
Last Life in the Universe (2003)
Before the Fall (2008)
Calvaire (2004)
28 Days Later (2002)
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006)

2 thoughts on “Modern Mondays: Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy” 2002-2005

  1. ARBOGAST says:

    Elephant and Gerry are disturbingly elegant films that aren’t compromised one bit by their artistic excesses. I’ve rewatched both several times, which is a luxury I don’t often afford myself (and literally can’t afford to do very often). Like you, Van Sant has frustrated me in the past but I’ll always give him a chance.

  2. Kimberly Lindbergs says:

    I find all three films really compelling (I believe Last Days is problematic for a lot of people because it’s a fictional account of an extremely well-known figure in popular culture) but there’s something about Gerry that makes me want to watch it again and again. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is, but I’m really drawn to the movie and find myself thinking about it a lot.

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