JAMES WESTBY, Filmmaker
In Last Days, famous and troubled musician Blake (Michael Pitt) gets a visit from a Yellow Pages salesman. Blake is wearing a dress with combat boots and can barely speak. The salesman comes in, pitching Blake to buy an ad in the phone book, seemingly oblivious to anything remotely odd about the circumstances. Their conversation continues about an ad that Blake supposedly took out for an auto parts store in the previous year’s edition of the Yellow Pages. It goes on for several minutes, in an unbroken take. Sad, sweet, awkward and hilarious, the scene is magical. And it serves well to illustrate the genius moments of comedy in Gus Van Sant’s films.
In my late teens, VHS viewings of 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy were multiple. This was a movie that harked back to the American cinema of the ’70s, a gritty and stylized look at drug thieves with an antihero who was a badass, but also kind of a pussy. And it was funny. Kelly Lynch calling James Remar a “fuckwad”? Friends and I said “fuckwad” for years, and I still pull it out now and again. Call somebody that: It feels good. The humor and personality of this film and its dialogue and delivery remind me now of the qualities I love most about my favorite Portlanders: dry, deadpan, mischievous, hysterical.
And the atmosphere of Drugstore Cowboy was stunning to me. Portland seemed an awful lot like home (I am from Washington state), but in the film it was somehow richer and more haunting and beautiful. I wanted to look and act like Matt Dillon’s character Bob. When he walks by the old lady at the beginning of the film and says, “I like your hat,” it’s comic genius. I moved here because of that movie.
The trajectory of Van Sant’s career is even funny. Few other renowned filmmakers have done so much goofing, intentionally or not. After some serious critical and popular success, he blasphemed and remade Alfred Hitchcock’s beloved Psycho. And Gerry? Gerry is fucking insane. It’s about two young men, both named Gerry. They walk through Death Valley. That’s kind of where the synopsis ends. I have never seen a Béla Tarr film in my life, but I love Gerry. I also love the idea of someone showing up to see Gerry, excited for the next collaboration between Van Sant and Matt Damon, that Good Will Hunting duo. Gerry is required viewing. It was not made in Portland, but it might be my favorite Van Sant film. At the very least, it is his funniest.