Gus Van Sant eases borders into oblivion. In all four of his feature films--Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, and now Even Cowgirls Get the Blues--characters test the margins by way of drugs and sex and sometimes love, much as Van Sant himself defies esthetic limits. In Drugstore Cowboy, Matt Dillon leads a crew of pharmaceutical pirates as visions of spoons and syringes dance in his head; in Idaho, the doors of perception swing open on a stretch of asphalt, only to close whenever River Phoenix takes a dive.
At first glance, Tom Robbins' creaky '70s novel, with its soft-core feminist whimsies, seems strange territory for Van Sant. Take another look, though, and there are plenty of clues as to why he decided to make time with Sissy Hankshaw, the hitchhiking beauty whose massive thumbs take her from coast to coast, woman to man, and back again. "They were not a handicap," goes the book, and so too the movie, "rather, they were an invitation, a privilege audaciously and impolitely granted, perfumed with danger and surprise, offering her greater freedom of movement, inviting her to live a life at some 'other' level. If she dared." Suck on that.
I talk to Van Sant by phone. He's at home, in Portland, Oregon, where he's lived and often worked since he left Madison Avenue and headed west. Just by chance, I ask him if he's been following the Menendez case, the one in which two young men claim they shot their parents because Dad had sexually abused them. Just by chance, Van Sant is watching Court TV ("There's Woody Allen"). Though he hasn't been tracking the trial, he tells me, almost by way of apology, that "Buck Henry thinks it's the biggest thing since Leopold and Loeb." I wonder if he's pulling my leg, and I worry he won't put down the remote, feelings that linger, even after I hit stop on the tape recorder.
MANOHLA DARGIS: A friend of mine has this idea he calls "waiting for Elvis," which has to do with whether someone in the movie business could create the sort of seismic shift Elvis did in music.
GUS VAN SANT: Ha, ha, ha.
MD: Instead of Bing Crosby you're listening to Elvis, instead of Hollywood you'd be watching Kenneth Anger. Could a filmmaker shake up the apparatus?
GVS: The person who shook up the apparatus before was D. W. Griffith. He invented a new way of looking at the image, he used cutting, close-ups, and so forth to present the story. As far as someone coming along and changing the way we look at movies I think that's very much possible. I guess David Lynch with Twin Peaks kind of suggested that: what he does is present the emotions, as opposed to logical dialogue and stories.
MD: More like music.
GVS: Yes, presenting the emotion as opposed to the logic. I thought that was a jump in a different direction. You could watch movies in a string of, say, emotions, so eventually that would be the story, more like a poem as opposed to prose.
MD: You do that.
GVS: I have done it in parts of my films but I haven't done it throughout. I've pretty much stuck to the narrative style.
MD: Still, you're fearless enough to drop a house in the middle of a scene.
GVS: The barn crashing to the ground was the character crashing to the ground, emotionally, which was a more abstract explanation of his point of view.
MD: In Drugstore Cowboy objects fly though the air, in Cowgirls Sissy stands over a mountain range like the 50-foot woman. Where does that come from?
GVS: The house flying and the barn crashing were directly taken from my painting. With Drugstore we were trying to make a visual montage of what he was up to when he was shooting drugs. When we got to the point of actually shooting it I thought what I would do instead was draw on a previous image, which to me had a lot of time and emotion invested in it, which comes from my paintings, which are usually landscapes with things floating around in the sky, and then occasionally there's a house, in some of them there's a house crashing into the road, which I think comes from just a childhood traumatic emotional period where we moved away from the house. …