It’s easy to forget the difficult road many of our favorite filmmakers had to take before making their first great film. Knowing that The Godfather was Francis Ford Coppola’s 8th feature, or that recent indie smash Blue Valentine took director Derek Cianfrance the better part of 12 years to get on the screen, with money he ended up winning from a contest, doesn’t always jibe with our romantic view of filmmakers careers.
Gus Van Sant is no different. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design he moved to Los Angeles and made a slew of short films on super 8 and 16mm, of which the Discipline of D.E. seems to be the 6th.
For this short, Van Sant choose a wonderful short story by William S. Burroughs (who would later appear in Drugstore Cowboy) and set it to images on 16mm black and white.
The film outlines the discipline of D.E. (do easy), a zen-like philosophy that proposes all human activity be done in the simplest, most easy way possible. It begins with an elderly Colonel’s discovery of D.E. and continues on to demonstrate how we can vastly improve our lives by following D.E.’s simple principle.
There is a delightful ironic tone to this piece, which never fails to remind me to pay attention to my everyday life. It’s difficult not to envy the silverware going perfectly into its respective drawers, or the clean, simple sound of the plates stacking neatly onto each other. It’s not easy to put this principle into practice, but you’ll never forget it the next time you break a glass or hit your knee on a chair—”Go back and repeat sequence.”
Van Sant understands that filmmaking is the ultimate expression of D.E—you have to keep doing things until you get them right. After Mala Noche (1986), his first feature, he made three more shorts before rejoining Burroughs with Drugstore Cowboy (1989). With films like Elephant (Palme D’or Winner), Milk (Oscar Winner) and Last Days (basically just awesome) he seems to be onto something.
When I’m on set directing next month with the sun going down, the camera running out of film, and a chainsaw going in the background, I’ll be thinking “How fast can you take your time, kid?”