Drugstore Cowboy

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Junkies’ Lament

Nathan Kosub on Drugstore Cowboy

Michael Almereyda’s William Eggleston in the Real World begins with the eponymous Memphis photographer receiving a shooting assignment—Gus Van Sant wants pictures of his Kentucky birthplace. Clearly Van Sant has an interest in the art of photography; Eggleston isn’t cheap, but neither is he a surprise choice. Hiring a celebrity to document your hometown is vanity more than anything else: in Van Sant’s case, the vanity of an unearned artistic pedigree bankrolled by petty cash from an inexplicably sustained run of commercial successes.

It is easy to love William Eggleston’s photographs, but for any student of photography, they are a beginning, not an end. That Van Sant, now, would still want Eggleston to take pictures isn’t the self-justification of being able to afford the object of long desire. Instead, the commission is endemic of stagnant interests and stunted growth. If Van Sant’s eye hasn’t matured past an early interest in framing and light, how has his art?

Van Sant’s first hit was Drugstore Cowboy. It is a movie about drug culture, about Portland and the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s, and about the reliable marketability of pretty young actors playing outlaws. 1989 (the year Drugstore Cowboy was released) was the year for a director with his first success to buy a print from the famous photographer he loved. Buy, frame, hang, and move on.

But Van Sant didn’t. Matt Dillon, who looked best at 15 in Over the Edge and right about the time of Van Sant’s To Die For became a dough-faced sleaze, still carries the nonchalance of a good-looking pusher in his mid-twenties as Drugstore Cowboy’s protagonist, Bob. Kelly Lynch, James LeGros, and Heather Graham play his friends, his junkies, his team: Dianne, Rick, Nadine. Gentry (James Remar) is the narcotics officer who learns to sympathize. Everyone gets a first name only. That makes the story smaller, more like a tale. It allows the film to be about its own subjective reality, and not the world outside. Time passes for Gentry, and us, rather pleasingly through the window of a Chinese restaurant where the agent eats lunch most days. There is rain; the impression of cool air; flowers on the table; and red characters on the door.

Bob and his dependents rob pharmacies to sustain their addictions. They run from the law in rented rooms and keep close company in the lulls in between. One night Nadine dies of an overdose, alone. Bob buries her, then enters a methadone program in Portland, where the movie ends, like it began, in an ambulance, accompanied by a voiceover from Bob. Reviews from 1989 praise its even-handedness.

Drugstore Cowboy is a moderate exercise in sentimental filmmaking that suffers for being the bearer of the next twenty years’ bad news. Contrivances dictate direction. When the narrative needs the characters to move (since it does very little with them from location to location), Bob tricks a pair of undercover officers into getting shot. Later, a sheriffs’ convention moves into the motel where Nadine dies on the day that Bob, Dianne, and Rick try to leave. Bob carries Nadine to his trunk in a makeshift body bag in the middle of a parking lot full of squad cars. Both scenes feel extraneous long before funny; they stall, and the movie stalls, too.

Gus Van Sant is responsible, at least in part, for the popularity of both River Phoenix and Elliott Smith. Each achieved, in death, a wider audience that might not have been possible without, respectively, My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck might have sold their Boston script anyway (they were already actors), but surely they owe Van Sant, too. But it is easy to believe that Van Sant is merely serendipitous and even then only sporadically. On the heels of Good Will Hunting, Van Sant remade Psycho (maybe the most bankrupt artistic decision in the history of the industry), then directed Sean Connery in the role of Robin Williams in Finding Forrester. I am still amazed at the speed with which Gerry, in 2002, brought critics back to the table.

Artistically, the clearest line in Van Sant’s career is the line from Drugstore Cowboy to Gerry. Each film was a start for Van Sant: Drugstore Cowboy his first commercial success, and Gerry his critical comeback. Gerry, for me, is almost without worth, a film that devalues landscape, scriptwriting, acting, editing, and direction by never exercising a choice. When a camera is allowed to pan indefinitely, or an actor to sit staring off to the right of the frame for minutes at a time, the director abdicates his claim to authorship, and makes instead a collection of images that are rudderless, without intent, and, subsequently, without consequence. The movie occupies three dramatically different landscapes (filmed across multiple continents); each place, by itself, is too unique to be anonymous, but Van Sant reduces them all to the sounds of either wind or silence, to the mere color gradations of sunset or sunrise—to metaphors for isolation that clarify nothing, whether Matt Damon and Casey Affleck take their hike through Utah or Argentina. When Van Sant isn’t lobbing tumbleweeds at his actors’ backs through a canyon (has a tumbleweed ever been more out of place?), he reminds us that terrain is not profound simply because someone thought to bring along a camera.

Drugstore Cowboy is a beautiful Oregon film; unlike Gerry, it resonates by being particular. In a random and refreshing helicopter shot, Van Sant shows off the countryside that pillows a car on the highway. He frames the sky from the rooftop of an apartment building in a way that notes the time of day. Van Sant then revisits the shot as the film progresses. But the invention seems instructed by a photographer’s eye, and lacks a director’s understanding of movement. In one telling scene, Bob runs into the wrong bathroom to escape pursuers. The feint is obvious to the audience, but Van Sant still includes a close-up on the “women’s restroom” sign. A director might assume that the eye is naturally drawn (by way of the panning camera) to the sign on the door; the photographer, accustomed to studying a picture at a pace the moving frame does not allow, films by reinforcing.

Sometimes the strengths of each medium mesh. When Bob begins his methadone treatment, he rents a small room, makes tea for himself, and stares out the window at the city beyond. It is important, in a scene like this, that his cup of tea be given a physical presence—almost a personality, in its role of relief and distraction both; relief from the long day, probably too cold, and distraction from the drugs that brought him here. The cup does have that quality. Like the static shots of the sky over the roof of an apartment building, it recalls a quiet state Bob lost. Or, at night, a fragile time-lapse shot captures the moon behind a bank clock; as its hands move forward, the moon traces the stars. But then, in the credits, Bob and his friends reappear in homemade Super 8s. They kiss, they smile (cue happier times), and in one particularly nostalgic pan, a one-eared dog hops by. Drugstore Cowboy is probably, with Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant’s best document of place. But it is, in moments, terribly insincere.

Van Sant’s fatal flaw is perhaps in not being much of a writer. The only two films by Van Sant not based on material by or co-written with other people are Elephant and Last Days. That three names were crowded onto the byline for Gerry (Van Sant and stars Affleck and Damon) is a joke; the closest the movie comes to real dialogue is a grammatical reinvention of the title. “Gerry” functions as both a proper noun (the two characters refer to each other, and to a friend, as “Gerry”) and a verb (Damon and Affleck “gerry” through a canyon or up a ridge more than once), but evokes nothing so much as a scene in the movie Super Troopers when two Vermont patrolmen dare each other to use the word “meow” as often as possible in a routine traffic stop.

In Drugstore Cowboy, much time is given over to William S. Burroughs’s appearance as a junkie priest Bob meets while he undergoes treatment for his addictions. Burroughs has a presence, a deliberation to his delivery, and a cadence to his voice. He is a pleasure to listen to and to watch, and we, like Bob, pay attention to what he says. Van Sant’s mistake is in not pulling back the reins before we realize that we are essentially witnessing an improvised diatribe—that this is no longer about the film, or addiction, not really—but Burroughs himself, speaking here as he would in an interview, railing at the powers that be. Van Sant’s abdication of his own script in favor of Burroughs’s improv implies both Van Sant’s insecurity with his own writing, and his unwillingness to insist, for better or worse, on seeing his script through. Thus he is spared the embarrassment of a bad reception that “presuming” to speak for a counterculture figurehead like Burroughs might entail. But, consequently, Van Sant is also denied the motivation to improve that criticism can sometimes inspire. When no choices are made, nothing is learned.

The praise that accompanied the release of Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (the title in full) implied that, in the unknowable end of Kurt Cobain’s drug addiction, Van Sant found a sufficiently enigmatic subject for the indefinite, open-ended revelations of Gerry’s long takes and patient cinematography, and for the success Van Sant enjoyed for refusing to moralize drug culture in Drugstore Cowboy. But what, exactly, does a wordless screenplay say about addiction? What does a guest appearance by Harmony Korine say about Van Sant’s sincerity? Last Days is full of organic images, like a walk at twilight in blacks and blues. Van Sant relies on time to make his points, and here on beautifully saturated forest climes. Cobain died in Oregon, which should be perfect for the director of northwest travelogues. If so, why did he shoot Last Days in upstate New York? Shouldn’t that matter in the way people talk about it? Isn’t that like a car chase done with computers instead of cars: an insincere act that forfeits on the film’s professed intentions (in the car chase, to entertain, and in Last Days, to empathize)?

Worse, Last Days is as sentimental as Finding Forrester, and I’d have preferred seeing Blake blow his brains against the greenhouse wall to his spirit’s ascension from the window frames. A single moment like that—so cloying, so obvious—renders any critic’s claims to the film’s small graces moot. What’s more, the wordless redundancy of Last Days suggested that Gerry was not an experiment, but a new direction for the way Van Sant told stories (culled, apparently, from Casey Affleck). It seems fraudulent to me because, beyond the appeal of woods and hues, there is nothing to say and nothing to show. It’s pretty, but so were the shots of water boiling in a cheap saucepan in Drugstore Cowboy.

And so it goes. I agree with those who criticize the extended Falstaff sequence in My Own Private Idaho as a tedious mistake in an otherwise remarkable movie. But time and again, the merits of Van Sant’s films are undercut by fundamental flaws; to my mind, these errors in judgment do not dog Van Sant’s reputation so much as define it. That Van Sant now edits his own movies makes them that much more of a hobby, or at best a private obsession. Drugstore Cowboy is the right kind of movie for a director to make a name for himself, but his ensuing career revealed a vacuity that the so-called reinvention of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days only underlined, not opposed.

Still, three of the featured players from Twin Peaks costar in Drugstore Cowboy: Heather Graham, Grace Zabriskie, and, of course, the cold and rainy woods that Lynch moved north to Snoqualmie Falls, Washington (hometown of one of the great Hollywood beauties, the actress Ella Raines). In Hollywood, one idea gives way to another. An actress in a movie inspires a character elsewhere. Gus Van Sant lucked out in never having to try very hard—an Affleck is always, I’m sure, up for a co-writing credit on a new project—and, somehow, the movies have come to him.

At the end of Drugstore Cowboy, a junkie—a lonely sort—shoots Bob. He lies on the floor until a neighbor, surely anesthetized to these soured addictions, makes a call to the police on the telephone in the hall. The scene is sweet, but it is not enough. A friend of mine saw Drugstore Cowboy and moved to Oregon not long after. But that is not enough, either.

Drugstore Cowboy begins and ends with a close-up on Bob, prostrate in the back of an ambulance. A face can say so much. It is singular, like a photograph, and the close-up is a constant in Van Sant’s films. With time, though, his faces said less; the camera increasingly bore the paralysis of arrested development. Drugstore Cowboy (like My Own Private Idaho) meant something to kids my age…back when we were kids. If, in Drugstore Cowboy, critics found sympathy for the next generation, we met the influences we inevitably outgrew. The next generation will be the same, with films of its own. Some movies are different; we still watch the French New Wave. But we’ve grown up, and we need to talk about Gus Van Sant less, not more.