PRINT November 1995


Gus Van Sant's To Die For

FOLLOWING IN THE WAKE of the commercial and artistic failure of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Gus Van Sant’s new movie, To Die For, is perhaps his most conventional film, in spite of its fractured diegesis and multiple points of view; conventional, certainly, in its ostensible subject, a satire of the mass media, particularly the allure of television. This rather disingenuous theme, through which one arm of the media “critiques” an obstreperous rival, has been traversed in many movies: Network, The King of Comedy, Being There, and more recently, Serial Mom and Natural Born Killers. The trend reminds me of the title of one of Richard Foreman’s plays, Film is Evil, Radio is Good—you make the necessary substitution. The plot of To Die For, loosely based on an actual crime involving a Maine schoolteacher who enticed her teenage lover to murder her husband, has already served as the subject of a TV movie. In fact, as I was watching certain scenes in Van Sant’s consistently arty film, I could not help but vaguely recall their prosaic, docudrama counterparts.

Despite its banal precursor, To Die For is a fun movie. The hitherto drab Nicole Kidman, once a vaporous nonstar star better known as Mrs. Tom Cruise, has undergone a remarkable transformation. Henceforth, call him Mr. Kidman. As Suzanne Stone, a New Hampshire weather girl driven by an insatiable lust for TV fame, Kidman achieves the pitch of methodical craziness that mostly eluded Kathleen Turner as the homicidal clean freak in Serial Mom, earning for herself the hackneyed epithet, “over the top.” At the same time, the very extremity of Kidman’s character obliquely calls attention to fissures in Van Sant’s conception. Suzanne has no psychology in the ordinary sense of the word. She’s pure drive, blind ambition incarnate. (Enthusiastically praising To Die For to a friend, I kept mistakenly referring to it as I’ll Do Anything, the title, I believe, of an inglorious Julia Roberts vehicle.) By contrast, all of the other characters belong to the conceptual/esthetic order of realism (pace Barthes, etc.). Indeed, it is as much the astonishing realism of the three cretinous high-school students Suzanne enlists for her documentary Teens Speak Out (and subsequently lures into a plot to kill her inconvenient schlub husband, played by the still nibbly Matt Dillon) as it is Suzanne’s high-octane craziness that makes the movie fly. The scenes with her protégés, Jimmy, Russell, and Lydia make To Die For into a funny (read: better) version of Kids. There seem to be two, maybe two-and-a-half movies at work here: the übermovie that proffers a satire of television and lust for fame—the dullest aspect of the film—and the interstitial, “under” movie(s) that give it the savor of real art.

Received wisdom has it that great works of art are supposed to reward us by their very complexity: we’re meant to enjoy Ulysses in part because it is hard to read. Irony and ambiguity should heighten esthetic pleasure. The Turn of the Screw is good because reading it is so frustratingly like having an argument with an articulate crazy person. Even less classically/New Critically “resolved ” texts are cherished precisely for their aporias and ellipses (e.g., Shakespeare’s problem plays, the poetry of Christopher Smart, Bouvard et Pécuchet). Movies, on the other hand, don’t necessarily demand such complexity to be good; in fact, they may succeed because of the legibility of their codes (viz. most classics of Hollywood cinema, as well as certain specialized genres, like Hong Kong gangster flicks). Straightforward, unproblematized, linear narrative can be every bit as rewarding as, say, Bergman’s Persona.

To Die For, ostensibly a crisp Hollywood product glazed with an indie/art patina, ends up, inadvertently or not, offering some of the “difficult” pleasures of the literary movie; it starts to seem really good precisely for its relative “failures”—thematic glitches, uncertainties of tone, abrupt shifts in emotional register, overall lack of cohesion. The conventional storytelling-cum-moralizing that drives the movie—is Suzanne Stone a bad woman, the übermovie asks rhetorically—is periodically but decisively undermined by the more perverse, socially unredeemable pleasures Van Sant actually depicts on screen. “I never gave a rat’s ass about the weather,” jailbird James says early in the film. “That all changed after I met Mrs. Maretto [Ms. Stone]. Now I take it very seriously. Now, whenever it rains, or there’s thunder and lightning, or it snows, I have to jack off.” This is very funny—satire, the übermovie whines—but the really funny thing is, the sex scenes are, mirabile dictu, actually sexy. “ It was like living in a really great movie,” Lydia explains, “except it was kind of X-rated because of all the sex stuff.”

My favorite scene, set in a car, is the one in which Suzanne first plants the notion in Jimmy’s head that he should murder her husband. She weeps, she complains of spousal abuse, she threatens to go into hiding in an out-of-state woman’s shelter. “A guy who would do that stuff to a woman like you doesn’t deserve to live,” Jimmy sputters. A mood of calm suddenly overtaking her, Suzanne looks up at her humpy juvenile-delinquent lover and intones, “No, I suppose he doesn’t.” At exactly this moment, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” comes on the radio. “Oh, I love this song,” Suzanne shrieks, and the weather girl jumps out of the car for an impromptu dance in the pouring rain. Watching Suzanne dance, radiantly happy, her short blue-and-white skirt flying up to reveal her edible thighs, we see her as Jimmy does—a goddess, but like the deities of antiquity, a capricious, even dangerous being. The dance seems to move in slow motion, and gradually the übermovie’s soundtrack—sustained, gloomy, fatal chords—drowns out Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s the most beautiful moment in the movie. Obviously Van Sant felt that way, too, because he replays it toward the end, as Jimmy finally confesses to the cops. “No, it wasn’t like that,” he sobs. “We were in love. ”

David Rimanelli is a frequent contributor to Artforum and The New Yorker.