Gus Van Sant | Good Will Hunting | Psycho

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Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant has made a wide variety of Hollywood and experimental films.

Good Will Hunting

Links with Elephant

Good Will Hunting looks different, now that Gus Van Sant has made Elephant. Both films have an academic setting, showing mainly young students, plus a few professors, floating around school buildings. Both films have a pair of alienated students as prominent characters; both pairs of students erupt with vicious violence against the other students.

Many of the young men in both movies wear brilliantly colored shirts with emblems on them: the hero's tee shirt with a geometry diagram in Good Will Hunting, the lifeguard's red shirt with a cross or the shirt with a bull in Elephant. These meaningful, symbolic emblems recall super-hero comic books, and the emblems worn on many super-hero's costumes. They seem to symbolize something about the character and abilities of the men who wear them. One also recall the emblem filled tunics worn by the men of Krypton, in Superman comic books.

Good Will Hunting has long school building corridors, down which the characters move, just as in Elephant:

Such stately camera moves down school building hallways are at the center of Elephant. Here they are in Good Will Hunting, apparently long before Gus Van Sant had his encounter with the films of Béla Tarr. Both of these scenes involve the math professor's encounters with other people, just like the hallway encounters that dominate Elephant.

Graph Theory

The math in Good Will Hunting is largely graph theory. One sees the hero making a series on graphs on the hallway blackboard. The long tracking shots to come in Elephant can perhaps be seen as a similar kind of graph.



The color in Van Sant's remake of Psycho (1998) is fascinating. It is a mixture of blue and red-orange, with an occasional bit of cool lime green thrown in.

This is a color scheme with a long history. It appears in such 1950's films as A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954) and William Castle's Western Masterson of Kansas of the same year. Vincente Minnelli used it in The Reluctant Debutante (1958) and Some Came Running (1959).

Contemporary filmmakers who employ it regularly include Pedro Almodóvar and Gus Van Sant. Their films are symphonies constructed out of the two colors. I went to see Gus Van Sant's Psycho twice, the second time just to watch the colors unfold on screen. One can also see a variation on this color design in Trainspotting (Danny Boyle).

An Orientation Reversal

The other notable aspect of the remake is the "orientation reversal". Norman Bates is played by a gay man in Hitchcock, and his victim Janet Leigh is a straight woman; in Gus Van Sant's remake, we have a straight Norman Bates and a gay woman as victim. This reverses a long and extremely dubious tradition in Hitchcock, in locating the abnormal in the gay - see Rope or Saboteur, for example.

The Audience

I tried to get co-workers to go see Van Sant's Psycho in 1998, when it came out. They were adamant that they Did Not Want to See It. I have no idea why! Perhaps the ad campaign was too successful. It painted the remake as the ultimate and most scary horror film, and maybe people thought the film would put them through some sort of trauma. Actually, it was just a fascinating drama. In any case, it proves once again the truth of Billy Wilder's dictum, "If the public doesn't want to see a film, nothing can stop them".