Gus Van Sant has had a varied career, to say the least. To date it has included: indie hopeful, indie darling, aspiring Oscar-bait director, Hitchcock-aping charlatan, Sean Connery enabling mainstream hack, avant-indie improviser, Cobain and Columbine interpreter, Kevin Smith stunt cameo, established Oscar-bait director, and most recently restless wanderer (har, har, har) caught between the pressures of the indie and mainstream worlds. If it sounds like I’m being a little unfair to Van Sant, who is a legitimately talented and interesting (if frustratingly inconsistent) director, that’s because I am. But really, his filmograhy invites it. And I’m still a little cheesed about his approach to the Psycho remake.
But now add to the list: aspiring indie-pop taste-maker. While the process of “discovering” a new recording act is often more convoluted than is presented in promotional materials—Diana Ross’s famous “discovery” of the Jackson 5 was in fact the work of some combination of Sam and Dave, Gladys Knight, one or two Pips, Berry Gordy, and the crack Motown Marketing Department, effectively everyone except Ross—but I think it’s safe to take a recent press release for Van Sant’s latest film Promised Land at face value when it labels the almost-too-hiply named “Milk Carton Kids” as Van Sant’s “latest musical discovery,” which leads us the question; he’s discovered more?
Unfortunately it sounds like, though the quality of his other discoveries remains up for debate as I have yet to find them, Van Sant had better stick to wearing his Director’s hat, and put his hopes of being a label impresario aside for the time being.
It’s not that the song, entitled Snake Eyes, or the Milk Carton Kids are bad or anything, it’s amiable, pleasant, folk-tinged indie-pop, which is, in its own, kind of the problem. While this isn’t the time or the place for a treatise on the currnet state of “indie” music—and believe me I’ve got a lot of thoughts on the subject, and one or two of them might even be worth something—there’s just something about this song, with its simple strummed chords, minimal structure (I honestly can’t really tell if there’s a chorus) and pleasant-but-shallow lyrics that think they’re touching on profundity, that fills me with a big feeling of “so what?”. What possessed Van Sant with the feeling that this was something the world had to hear? What is new or vital about this music? What is it doing with the folky elements it’s laying claim to? If this felt like a new part of the folk tradition that would be one thing, but mainly Milk Carton Kids sound like part of the folk-is-really-cool-right-now tradition.
In a way, this song is emblematic of the problems I’m hearing people have about Promised Land which, full disclosure, I have not yet seen, and which I do not have any overriding desire to see. Namely that there’s some good, interesting ideas that might even be important, but the blandness and safeness of the execution render it incapable of making a significant impact. So expect lots of Grammys and Oscars.
Now, when do we get Gus Van Sant’s Vertigo?