What would Portland look like without Gus Van Sant?
The elk statue on Southwest Main Street would still be there, but would you see it the same way if Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix hadn’t huddled at its base in My Own Private Idaho? Would the “Nob Hill Pharmacy” sign from Drugstore Cowboy still hang on what’s now a sports bar? Would Old Town’s convenience stores and seedy hotels retain the same gritty charm were it not for the romance of Mala Noche?
Even if you’re too young to remember the Old Portland depicted in these films, certain landmarks take on Van Sant’s tint—either because they always had it, or because we now see them through his lens. And this city wouldn’t be the same place were it not for Van Sant, arguably the most important Portland auteur of our lifetimes, and a force that has inspired a generation of creators.
Van Sant’s success, of course, extends beyond the shores of the Willamette. He’s one of a handful of directors who successfully balances edgy and experimental films with hits like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. Van Sant’s newest film, Promised Land, is his biggest commercial release since 2008’s Milk. Like that film, it takes on issues of political and social importance—in this case, the contentious practice of hydraulic fracturing. But, as with Milk and much of Van Sant’s oeuvre, Promised Land is most keenly interested in the human textures of characters and their relationships with one another.
For this issue, we got the famously reserved Van Sant to talk movies with his friend and peer Todd Haynes, director of Far From Heaven and I’m Not There. They discussed the genesis of Promised Land, Van Sant’s rebellion against his generation’s MTV-influenced aesthetic, Old Portland, new Portland and Portlandia. We also asked Van Sant’s friends, admirers and critics to put his work in perspective.
Finally, I reviewed his new movie, Promised Land, starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski. It’s set not on the gray streets of Portland but in the Appalachian foothills of Pennsylvania. If you ever end up in that country, see if you don’t look at it through Van Sant’s lens. —Rebecca Jacobson