The Discipline of DE (1979) dir. Gus Van Sant
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How fast can you take your time, kid?
The existential instructional film is sort of a sub-subgenre of experimental shorts. This one, from a 27-year-old, Gus Van Sant shares DNA with Jørgen Leth‘s 1967 “The Perfect Human,” the short prominent in Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions. “The Discipline of DE” is an amusing faux educational film that takes its droll narration from a William S. Burroughs short story. In the decade that followed this film, Van Sant began his career as an indie darling. He’s maybe still most known to the general public for a trio of mainstream films between 1997 and 2000 (Good Will Hunting, Pyscho, and Finding Forrester). Unlike much of his work before or after, these films adhered closely – for better and worse – to the disciplines of creating a film for general audiences.
A basic familiarity with Van Sant’s catalog suggests someone tantalized by the precepts of Do-Easy, if ultimately dubious of its benefits. The analogy of DE principals and filmmaking are made explicit by the narrator. “It’s just like retaking a movie shot until you get it right,” he says. Indeed the film’s shots mostly line up as one-to-one illustrations of the tasks described, a job made harder by Burroughs’s precise prose (You must guide the dustpan gently to the floor “as if you were landing a plane.”) The “retaking a movie shot” line itself is accompanied by a precise recreation of an iconic shot from 2001: A Space Odyssey. We see hints of the obsessive shot-for-shot Psycho remake Van Sant would helm in 1998, maybe the most damningly literal application of the DE method to give an audience what it ostensibly wants.
Even as most of the film dutifully reenacts each rule (down to the cop making a gentle arrest) there are departures from the spoken text. The opening moments feature a crash under black that cuts to a dribbling glass of spilled milk. Very non-DE. Also unremarked is a shot of a revolver on the Colonol’s desk, foreshadowing the final application of DE.
Soon after Finding Forrester, it became clear that Van Sant was done shooting for the multiplexes. The improvised performances and loose structuring of Gerry and Elephant would make poor Colonel Sutton Smith carefully clench his jaw. At the end of the short, Van Sant epitomizes the discipline of DE in a movie scenario – an Old West gunfight coached by DE master Wyatt Earp. DE wins the day for the young hero though Van Sant spins chaos out of the victory. A chandelier crashes to the ground. The losing gunfighter spills to the floor like an upset glass of milk.
- I love the brief reaction of the smoker to “retaking” his cigarette toss into the ash tray. He’s somehow unfulfilled.
- I pointed out an annoying reliance on disconnected inserts in last week’s film, and this is a film half-constructed of inserts, so I have a special appreciation for the long take of the chair magically moving and getting reset.