Gus Van Sant: A Pioneer and a Legend in Queer Cinema

by Raeven Huxley

From My Own Private Idaho to Milk, writer, director, and producer Gus Van Sant stands as a visionary and timeless queer creator. Creativity and ingenuity comes naturally to this creator, who unlikely knows the meaning of the phrase “it can’t be done.”

Just who is Gus Van Sant? His named sounds as if he were a German poet, or a Dutch clothing designer. But no, although is he is of Dutch descent, Gus was born in the United States; Kentucky to be exact. He moved from East to West coast during High School, and then attended the Rhode Island School of Design to pursue art. Super-8 filming and recording really captured Van Sant’s attention in his younger years. He made small autobiographical short films, which later inspired him to get into making feature-length films.

Gus holds a very special place in my heart as a very “human” writer. His characters make mistakes, possess their own imperfections, fantasies and delusions just like anyone on this earth. Viewers can mourn, hope, and truly empathize with the characters. Why? Because they are just like us.

The experimental and truly different shots Gus graces us with excites the viewers and makes them feel like they are witnessing something never-before done. A great example of this lies in one of Gus’s most unique works, My Own Private Idaho (a personal all-time favorite of mine.)

Young Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix on the set of My Own Private Idaho

The uniqueness of the sex-scenes-that-are-not-really-sex-scenes may go unnoticed by the inattentive eye. On two separate occasions a series of clips of actors in suggestive poses appear on-screen in brief succession. The clips are video stills; the actors holding as motionless as possible for the few seconds they are on screen. If someone wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention they may think it was a photography montage. And that may have worked just as well, but Gus and his creative mind had other plans. I remember watching it for the first time years ago, and I became truly excited to see such a different take on what many other directors might turn into a gratuitous smut scene or the all-too often pantomimed deed shot just right, as to not earn a more restrictive MPAA rating.

All throughout Van Sant’s films you can see little things that he just does differently than most filmmakers. Scene after scene, words like “creative” and “experimental” float through the mind and can be appreciated by just about anyone who enjoys something a little off-the-beaten-film-reel.

Besides his experimental directing style, Gus also has a knack for coming up with creative ways to get around budget and logistics issues. I had never watched a “making of” documentary from start to finish until I saw the one created about My Own Private Idaho. It is most certainly worth a watch.

He has an impressive seventeen films in his portfolio. Many of his films are not widely known, although in my opinion they should be. I hope this article prompts you to check out something new, created by Gus Van Sant.

Casey Affleck and Matt Damon in the quiet but brilliant Gerry.

His complete filmography includes:

-Mala Noche (1985)

-Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

-My Own Private Idaho (1991)

-Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993)

-To Die For (1995)

-Good Will Hunting (1997)

-Psycho (1998)

-Finding Forrester (2000)

-Gerry (2002)

-Elephant (2003)

-Last Days (2005)

-Paranoid Park (2007)

-Milk (2008)

-Restless (2011)

-Promised Land (2012)

-The Sea of Trees (2015)

-Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018)

You may be wondering, where is Gus Van Sant now? Looking at his filmography, historically he releases a film every two years on average. But let’s face it, 2020 was an utter wash in the filming industry. I hope to read or hear about a film coming out in the next year or so. Keep your eyes peeled; I know I will!

Many of the films listed above received critical acclaim for directing and actor excellence, however others did not. In fact some of them, for example The Sea of Trees, received very low ratings in the box office and by critics alike.

One takeaway from looking at Van Sant’s movie history is that the man makes what he wants to show and share with the world. He doesn’t create crowd-pleasing fodder for the masses. He shares his weirdness, his uniqueness with the audience and they can determine whether or not they relate to it, or are inspired by it. I personally am deeply inspired by Gus, because he goes to show that art is simply self-expression. And we should all feel free to express ourselves just the way we are, and not be ashamed of it! We shouldn’t have to worry what others think of us. And that is exactly what Pride month is all about. We are here, we’re queer, and we celebrate our weird.

Sean Penn takes home Best Actor for his performance in Milk (2008)in

Have a safe and wonderful rest of Pride month and always remember that you are special, and you matter.


The Queer AF Writer

Raeven Conifer Huxley

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