Take a Hard Left at Disneyland
By Howard Feinstein
It gets even less Disney. The lens worships Alex, especially when he changes from his blood-splattered clothes and takes a cathartic shower in slo-mo. He loses his virginity by essentially bottoming for his pesty girlfriend ('in Blake Nelson's book, Alex knew that she would take charge,' Van Sant explains). A homo flashback from Alex's point-of-view during the lovemaking was in the script. 'There was a scene that suggested an earlier sexual encounter with his friend Jared that we never shot,' admits Van Sant. 'The parents were sensitive to it.'
But the furtive glances and lingering stares between Jared and Alex and between Alex and Scratch silently address that nameless love. As does a shot coming immediately after the abortive hetero sex scene of Alex, Jared, and a third guy sitting comfortably in a hot tub. The casual domestic glimpses of Alex's soon-to-be-divorced father and 'Uncle Tommy' foreground the boy's repression.
Van Sant has been chronicling gays and other marginals (junkies are a favorite, as in his breakthrough Drugstore Cowboy) ever since his first feature, Mala Noche (1985), in which a gay liquor store worker has an affair with a Mexican immigrant. Remember River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves's hustlers in My Own Private Idaho? Check out the male prostitute Van Sant introduces in direct address in the hilariously titled short, My New Friend (1987).
Whether gay or straight, his subjects tend to be youthful. 'Mala Noche and To Die For had young casts,' Van Sant confirms. 'Elephant was my first film with a completely young cast. I'm attracted to characters who are young. 'It's my calling.' He understands firsthand the angst of the confused teen and twentysomething. 'I came out of the closet when I was 30, which is quite late,' he recalls.
Ironically, his next project is about a much older subject: 48-year-old San Francisco city supervisor and gay activist Harvey Milk, tragically slain in 1978 by a deranged conservative fellow supervisor. Milk, which features Sean Penn, points to another, more mature side of Van Sant. Perhaps it's time for some balance: He turned 55 last summer.