Perhaps the most remarkable descent in the history of Hollywood filmmaking wasn't that of Christopher Nolan, who went from Memento to Batman, Inc., nor Spike Jonze, who rewrote the poststructuralist cannon with Being John Malkovich and besotted us with Where the Wild Things Are, nor even William Friedkin, who scared the bejesus out of humans with The Exorcist and ended up, two decades later, directing Shaquille O'Neal in Blue Chips (yet failed to exorcise the demons of Kobe, it would seem). No, the steepest decline in the history of Hollywood, excluding Brigitte Nielsen's, has to be that of Gus Van Sant, auteur of the indie classic Drugstore Cowboy, as well as more recent and gripping dramas like Finding Forester, Goodwill Hunting, and, most alarmingly of all, the '98 remake of Psycho. It isn't often that someone with Van Sant's indie credentials, ones burnished on the podiums of Venice and Cannes, stoops to making Red Hot Chili Pepper videos or sentimental crowd-pleasers like Milk.
Part of it stems from his activism. As one of Hollywood's few LGTB directors (out, that is), he can't be blamed for pandering to the Democrats and casting Sean Penn (though where Terrence Malick gets off doing this, I don't know). One also begins to suspect, after seeing a film like To Die For, which stars Nicole Kidman as a fame-seeking, ivory-toothed weathergirl, that Van Sant is so cynical he might actually be immune to accusations of "selling out" and instead sees these commercial ventures as covert and unrecognized stabs at Hollywood. After all, it took critics close to two decades to realize that Douglas Sirk, Hollywood's most tear-jerking melodramatist, was actually mocking its conventions with subtly anarchic films like All That Heaven Allows. That's a generous reading of Van Sant. The more likely explanation is that he simply wanted cash. And who can blame him? Besides, it isn't every day that we get to see Robin Williams cry, or Matt Damon do complicated math.
Looking back at Van Sant's early classics, however, it's not so clear that he was ever the bête noire that indie aficionados maintain. His two most known films of the period, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, revolve around, what else, drugs. There's also a smidgeon of homosexuality in them, although anyone familiar with the films of River Phoenix, not to mention his private life, can attest that mainstream classics like Stand By Me and Indiana Jones were probably far more gay.
Sure, the two early Van Sant films are powerful, and it's hard not to be moved by the sight of an aged William Burroughs, in Drugstore, sporting a fedora and lamenting the ever-growing clutch of the State. "I predict in the near future right-wingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus," he bemoans, which might have sounded hauntingly prescient had Nixon not coined the War on Drugs in '71 and Interpol not been spawned some fifty years prior. One also has to ask whether habitual users of the sort Drugstore portrays—that is, those raiding rural pharmacies and holing up in dusty motels—could look like Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, and Heather Graham. It is impressive that between all their break-ins and brushes with the law, Matt Dillon finds time to shave, and Heather Graham mascaras hers eyes. And believe me, it ain't easy finding blush in the backwaters of Oregon, especially when you're high on Oxymorphone.
Indeed, the remarkable thing about drug use, much like homosexuality, is that it allows otherwise conventional people, and often those who would be at the fore of society (i.e. white, educated, upper-crust males), to appear moderately downcast, if not on the fringes. How else to explain the appeal of laudanum to Coleridge, opium to De Quincey, pot to Jack Kerouac, and junk to William Burroughs? These are people who would otherwise spend their Fridays with Shakespeare. Instead they get wrecked, pen a few dreams, and produce vital pages of the Norton Anthology. By the same token, upstanding chaps like E. M. Forester, Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal, and many, many more, would probably strike us as conventional, if not outright Tory in their sentiments, had they not indulged in the Unspeakable Act.
Yet what saves Drugstore Cowboy from oblivion, aside from the charm of Matt Dillon, which is hard to overstate in its effect (God wonders what would have happened if he had stuck to crime dramas instead of making Herbie: Fully Loaded), is the synthesizer music, which casts an eerie pall over the film and probably captures the horror of drug use better than anything ever drooled by Bill Burroughs and his ilk. There's also a wonderful scene with a body, which happens to be Heather Graham's—a corpse that appears almost stunning in its necrotic decay and forced me to seriously consider my urges. Finally, Kelly Lynch, for whatever reason, is entirely convincing as a junkie—probably because she starred previously in Road House with Patrick Swayze, and that would make anyone jump.
Like My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore is a wondrous film and comes highly recommended, though it is not for the faint of heart—unless, of course, you happen to be equipped with 40 cc's of pharmaceutical hydromorphone, in which case you could probably just write your own script.
J. A. Bernstein is the pen name of Rob Lowe. When he isn't wooing starlets, he's pursuing a doctorate in English at the University of Southern California. He would like to add that his eyelashes are real.