By Don R. Lewis | April 14, 2008

I’m a big fan of Gus Van Sant’s films. Be it the films themselves, the courage he shows in hop-scotching styles and genre or the simple power of the images and stories he brings forth, Van Sant never ceases to follow his muse. I also love the way he dares to make non-mainstream fare and then back it up with a studio project. I don’t know why more filmmakers don’t do that. Aside from boo-boo’s like the pointless “”Psycho” remake and the inherently doomed “”Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” Van Sant always brings something interesting to the screen. However I’ve noticed a rather disturbing trend in some of his recent films and I want to see what everyone else has to say.

I’m going to come right out and say something that might not be popular or politically correct but I have to ask, what’s up with Van Sant’s fetishising of teenage boys and why is it acceptable? The shower scene in Van Sant’s Columbine inspired “”Elephant” where the two young, unknown actors strip down, take a shower together while making out seemed oddly tacked on and rather lecherous. Now in Van Sant’s latest film “”Paranoid Park” the director chooses to show his star, young Gabe Nevins (another unknown teen actor who was apparently cast via some myspace ads looking for young actors”¦gross) stripping down and taking a nice, long hot shower. The camera lingers on his wet face and hair and travels down his body with the streams of water. It just feels kind of wrong to me and yet no one else seems to care or feel it’s inappropriate. Or maybe they do and don’t feel comfortable saying something about the elephant in the room. Pun intended.

After “”Paranoid Park” ended, I started to walk home and tried to tell myself I was just being too overcritical and sensitive. There was nothing to what I had just seen and what I had seen in “”Elephant” I thought. Plus it feels homophobic to even say such a thing which is a shame because there’s nothing homophobic about not being thrilled at seeing sinewy teenage boys in various states of undress. I wouldn’t want to see teenage girls portrayed this way either. Yet, as I walked on I realized I had also caught something in the shooting style of “”Paranoid Park” that was equally off-putting and finally lead me to write this piece.

As someone who spends way too much time studying film, I caught some pretty clear references in “”Paranoid Park” to Kenneth Anger’s “”Scorpio Rising” which is a really cool, Brechtian styled short film from the 1960’s. In the film Anger features popular music of the day with really languid, fetishised shots of greaser guys working on and riding their motorcycles. “”Scorpio Rising” is like a sexless gay porn featuring the Fonz or better, a really arty Queen video and it’s very clear in its intentions.

Yet the homosexual overtones of “”Scorpio Rising” don’t bother me because the men in the film are just that, adult men and they consented to looking sexy for Anger as they slowly lubed a chassis or their hair or shined some chrome. Cut to “”Paranoid Park” and Van Sant repeatedly uses similar techniques as Anger as we see toned young boys skating shirtless in slow-motion or we see Alex’s face softly lit and focused on like a film star from the 1950’s. In another scene a conflicted Alex slowly walks down the hallway, the camera focused on his face while Billy Swan’s classic seventies pop song “”I Can Help” croons in the background. These are all clear parallels to “”Scorpio Rising” yet here the focus is on young boys instead of young men. The males in the frame are not yet at the age of consent so by definition (and, well, law) they cannot be considered able to consent. Can they?

I hate to come off like a neo-con, but Van Sant’s use and eye for young teenage boys seems exploitative and it’s really starting to creep me out. These are teenage boys under the age of 18 and I don’t see why this camera gaze is acceptable or at least not questioned. Again, maybe I’m just being too sensitive or maybe even reading too much into the film. But then again, a pattern is a pattern and an homage is supposed to speak to it’s predecessor and I feel “”Paranoid Park” and “”Scorpio Rising” are too similar for it to be a mistake. What do you say Film Threat readers?

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  1. keala says:

    He always chooses unknown boy actors for His “boy muse” movies, and how many of them end up drug addicted, dead(river pheonix) or on the streets after is interesting…..I know someone close to him in many of the movies and there is a very creepy connection here, I think. River ended up dead and Gabe Nevins ended up on drugs and selling himself on the streets(per the new ‘Gabe’ book released this week), I also heard the guy from elephant ended up living on the streets after. Should it be looked into…….I think so. Gus even endorsed the book of Gabe Nevins saying “I wish I had been there”. the book graphically shows gabe naked and strung out. It is quite devestating to look at and I didn’t know him personally. I saw a picture in Gus’s house called four boys and a gun that he took. it has four late teen early 20’s guys naked on a couch fighting over a pistol………very wierd?!?!

  2. tamsugah says:

    I am a huge Gus Van Sant fan, and I am a woman, but I come away from his work (my own private, elephant, paranoid park…) feeling he has a very sexually predatory perspective in showcasing young pubescent males in his films. I especially agree with your initial comments above and I think he treads on a slippery slope in the work he does with young men and crosses the line more often than not. Perhaps it feels less overt to the audience because it’s done with boys.

  3. Dewaere says:

    Re: the shower scene in “Elephant”

    In the film’s context, this occurs just before the massacre. One says to the other,”Have you ever kissed anyone?” After a negative reply, they kiss. Because of Van Sant’s homosexuality, many people (including annoyed gay men who get unnerved that suggesting these boys are gay and killers is very un-pc) have taken issue w/ this moment, and do not take it beyond being a “gay” kiss, when in reality, it’s just a human moment, expressing a human need.
    In addition, the suggestion of fetishizing and/or exploiting young males is rather silly (although I agree that L. Clark does just that and more). These guys agreed to perform as their director asked; this suggests a culpability that is definitely a two-way street.

  4. Llamo says:

    This could seem to have very little connection, but Gus Van Sant was an executive producer for the art-house film “Wild Tigers I Have Known.” It’s a gay coming-of-age story, and in the movie, a teenage boy is shown masturbating (not graphically).

  5. Vic says:

    I feel there is a big difference between Van Sant’s compassionate gaze and and Clark’s lecherous one. Notice that the semi-nudity in Paranoid Park is non-sexual and the sex scene is very chaste. Compare that to Clark’s repulsive Ken Park (coincidently) which includes oral penetration and a graphic auto-erotic asphyxiation (including graphic climax). You know that well endowed teen’s clip is running on an infinite look at Larry’s house. Clark certainly crosses a line that I feel Van Sant has not come close to.

  6. Whitney says:

    Hey Don. seems like this fetishization was okay when it came to films early in his career like My Own Private Idaho, but now things seem to be getting a little out of hand. I wonder if that’s just my perception of the age gap that now exists between him and his actors.

  7. Don Lewis says:

    Agree with everything you wrote, Dave. Obviously I was hinting at the things you said in my piece but I felt in the context I was placing things, to say that seemed to detract from my argument.

    And I agree that Van Sant’s proclivity towards the young male gaze doesn’t make me dislike his films, it’s still, well, getting a little creepy.

  8. Dave Lawler says:

    No one is saying what we’re all thinking – Van Sant is homosexual and often caters to his personal sexual taste just as heterosexual filmmakers show tits and a*s. He may like looking at young boys the way heterosexual dirty old men enjoy looking at jailbait girls. The Psycho remake was an extended treatise on the nature of violent hmosexuality. I know Van Sant claims he didn’t direct Vaughn to portray Bates as an overt homosexual, but look at the performance. He’s very much a closeted homosexual in the remake, acting out. I think Van Sant is a wonderful filmmaker, and it doesn’t cloud my judgment in terms of his aesthetic.

  9. Don Lewis says:

    I guess one point I was raising is that it’s really not “o.k.” across the board. I mean, although Clark and Van Sant haven’t been accused of anything aside from shooting underage sex or sexiness (?) people like Roman Polanski and Victor Salva are vilified for crossing the line whereas it could be argued Van Sant and Clark are feeding the fire that leads to people crossing the line.

  10. Mark Bell says:

    What was the point of the “Psycho” remake? Because THAT sucked a*s…

  11. I have to disagree. Clark’s themes are based around clunky observations about children, while his upfront and often extended look at teenage and prepubescent sex borders on pedophilia quite often. At least Van Sant makes a point with his movies.

  12. I think in Clark’s case though, at least with Kids anyway, he isn’t obsessed with it. Rather, he examines it in more important ways than any other filmmaker. I actually commend him for that, though I haven’t seen Ken Park yet though, so what do I know.

  13. You’re not incorrect in your observations. As for Clark, there’s a whole other plain of perversion, IMO. The man just is infatuated with prepubescent sexual relations.

  14. Nathaniel says:

    I have not seen Paranoid Park, but I know that Larry Clark’s films have been scrutinized for the same reason.

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