As Woody Allen is to New York and as John Waters is to Baltimore, Gus Van Sant is to Portland-an artist whose unique, stylish vision has become part of the city's personality. His first three feature films, Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho-often referred to as "the Portland trilogy"-not only were instrumental in defining Gus as a filmmaker, they also helped to give Portland an identity that transcended the movies.
Before Van Sant's films, Portland was just another generic backdrop for movies like Last Innocent Man and Permanent Record. Van Sant took this Anywhere, U.S.A., and turned Portland into a supporting character. The underbelly of the city, with its rain-soaked streets, became his muse, and the junkies and hustlers who inhabit that world became his heroes. The dark, depressing milieu of alienation became part of his cinematic palette. "He captured that as a professional voyeur," says friend Chris Monlux.
Van Sant graduated from the prestigious private school Catlin Gabel in 1971, and then left Portland to attend the Rhode Island School of Design. After struggling unsuccessfully to break into Hollywood, Van Sant moved back to Portland in 1983. He brought with him a copy of Mala Noche, a book by local writer Walt Curtis that was given to him years earlier. He was determined to turn Curtis' book into his first feature-length film, and within two years he had achieved his goal.
Produced for $25,000, Mala Noche is an uncompromising tale of love and lust centered around a gay convenience-store clerk who falls for a Mexican immigrant. Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as "Best Independent Film" of the year, Mala Noche was a critical success.
The praise was unfortunately not enough to dislodge Van Sant from the furthest fringes of the independent scene. Four years later, everything would change with Drugstore Cowboy, a brilliant character study about of a gang of junkies, led by Matt Dillon, who score their fixes by robbing drugstores. Drugstore Cowboy catapulted the director into the national limelight, placing him in the league of celebrated directors like Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and John Sayles. His third feature, My Own Private Idaho, further explored themes of alienation and championed the underbelly of society. River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves starred as two street hustlers searching for a better life in a work that established Van Sant as a filmmaker willing to take risks, and solidified his reputation as a director who works magic with actors.
Despite all the success surrounding Van Sant by the early '90s, the man was still wrapped in a shroud of mystery. While filmmakers like Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino basked in the glory of their celebrity, Van Sant seemed determined to remain at least partially in the shadows. Aside from his sexuality-he is openly gay-he became best known for being little known.
His closest friends say that what others mistake for an enigmatic mystery man stems from a natural shyness. Others who've worked with him suspect that there's at least a degree of calculation in his detached cool. Either way, he's come to be viewed as a carefree eccentric immersed in his world of creativity-which includes painting, music and writing-who enjoys keeping company with pretty people, be they famous or not. He's an Andy Warhol in flannel.
"My name evokes a certain image for people-it's like a pirate's name or something like that. I make these dark films about drug addicts and male prostitutes in Portland, Oregon, and you have this sort of image, like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, or just some sort of weird gay pirate guy," Van Sant laughs. But, he adds, "I don't want to get trapped inside my own image; that, in itself, doesn't have anything to do with me."
The Portland captured in the early films of Gus Van Sant no longer exists. The seedy market in Mala Noche has been replaced by the upscale restaurant Lush. The industrial wasteland of Drugstore Cowboy has been transformed into trendy Pearl District galleries and lofts. And the derelict building that served as home to an army of street kids in My Own Private Idaho is now the refurbished Governor Hotel.
The changes that transformed Portland are reflections of Van Sant's own metamorphosis. He has gone from one of the most acclaimed independent directors in film, to an Oscar-nominated mainstream filmmaker, back to a director on the cutting edge of provocative cinema. His two most recent films, Gerry and Elephant, which have eschewed the storytelling conventions of Hollywood, bring a mix of positive and negative criticism.
"We're not necessarily used to our films being more like poetry," Van Sant says, "where it's not about specifying so much, it's more about ruminating, allowing your imagination to help, as opposed to getting rid of the imagination part and just having an explanation."
Van Sant's most recent film, the yet-to-be released Last Days, finds him in the same sparse universe as Gerry and Elephant. Chronicling the final days of a Kurt Cobain-like rock star, Van Sant describes the film as "trying to get as close as possible to something like the last days of Kurt Cobain, but it's not about Kurt Cobain."
Where his career will take him in the future is anybody's guess. But what is certain is that Gus Van Sant and the city of Portland will forever be joined in symbiotic relation, each defining the other. Portland is the city that nurtured Van Sant's creative vision, and in return, he gave the city an identity and mythology all its own.