JON RAYMOND, Author
I first laid eyes on Gus Van Sant sometime around 1990. It was at the Clinton Street Theater, and he was screening Mala Noche in the lead-up to the release of My Own Private Idaho, I think. Or maybe it was 1989, leading up to Drugstore Cowboy. I’m not sure. Those years are kind of hard to penetrate these days. I do remember what he was wearing that night, though: a pair of scuffed Doc Martens; black jeans, possibly zipper-fly, with a slight taper to the legs; a plain black hoodie; and an olive green T-shirt (actually, I’m not exactly sure about the color; it could’ve been white or striped). I remember he could have used a haircut, too. I also remember the way he entered the building—a little bit hesitantly, his eyes carefully closed to peripheral distractions, hands in the pockets of his hoodie. He looked shy. Having never really seen a living artist before, this was a memorable night for me. So this is what a filmmaker looks like, I thought. Interesting.
These days you see a lot of filmmakers around Portland, as well as lauded painters, sculptors, musicians, writers and chefs. Sometimes I wonder what it’s like for a kid to grow up here now, knowing that at least some of the houses she walks by at night are studded with Oscars and Emmys, backyard studios stacked with canvases destined for international art fairs. It would be a different experience than my youth, for sure. Back then, it was an unthinkable proposition that Portland could produce objects about which the rest of the world gave a shit. To be in Portland was more or less to exist behind a two-way mirror, seeing out but not being seen, stuck in a world where time had stopped moving, maybe around 1978. (It wasn’t so bad that way, either.)
If there is one person responsible for coaxing Portland out into the wider arena of cultural history, it’s Gus. (Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss is responsible, too, but I think Gus deserves greater credit.) His utterly individual, yearningly beautiful early films, followed by his bigger, more commercially ambitious films, followed by his intensely artful death-themed films, followed by more big films, followed by more small films, have stacked up into a career that I like to think could only flow out of this earth. Quietly, almost invisibly, he has educated generations of art makers and aspirants here and elsewhere in the finer nuances of good taste and wild creative enthusiasm, standing as the main living conduit for the spirit of the beatnik poetry that infused him as a young artist and never left.
Walking out of the Clinton Street Theater that night, I didn’t really know how lucky I was. I knew the movie I’d seen was both gorgeous and tough, but who could have known I’d have the pleasure of living in Gus’ world the rest of my life?