Gus Van Sant’s film and the ’90s cult of the alternative
Gus Van Sant’s 1991 indie darling My Own Private Idaho perplexed and provoked, inspiring a new ethos for a new decade: being different was better than being good. Gentlemen of the Shade examines how the film was a coming-of-age for a generation of young people who would embrace the alternative and bring their outsider perspectives to sustainability, technology, gender constructs, and social responsibility.
My Own Private Idaho — fragmented and saturated with colour and dirt and a painfully beautiful masculinity — also crept into popular media, and its influence can still be traced. R.E.M. Portlandia. Hipsterism. James Franco. Referencing the often-funny and sometimes-tragic cultural touchstones of the past 26 years, Gentlemen of the Shade sets the film as social bellwether for the many outsiders who were looking to join the right, or any, revolution.
Jen Sookfong Lee writes, talks on the radio and loves her slow cooker.
In 2007, Knopf Canada published Jen’s first novel, The End of East, as part of its New Face of Fiction program. Hailed as “an emotional powerhouse of a novel,” The End of East shines a light on the Chinese Canadian story, the repercussions of immigration and the city of Vancouver.
Shelter, Jen’s first fiction for young adults, was published in February 2011 as part of Annick Press’ Single Voice series. It follows a young girl as she struggles to balance her first and dangerous love affair with a difficult and demanding family.
Called “straight-ahead page-turning brilliance” by The National Post and shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award, The Better Mother, Jen’s sophomore novel, was published by Knopf in May 2011. Set in Vancouver during the mid-20th century and early 1980s, The Better Mother is about the accidental friendship between Miss Val, a longtime burlesque dancer, and Danny Lim, a wedding photographer trying to reconcile his past with his present.
A popular radio personality, Jen was the writing columnist for CBC Radio One’s On the Coast and All Points West for three years. She appears regularly as a columnist on The Next Chapter and Definitely Not the Opera, and is a frequent co-host of the Studio One Book Club. Jen is a member of the writing group SPiN and is represented by the Carolyn Swayze Literary Agency.
Born and raised in East Vancouver, Jen now lives in North Burnaby with her husband, son and hoodlum of a dog.
A little too Gen-X self-congratulatory for my taste, and more nostalgic flashback than cultural or film analysis (not to mention shallowly researched), but still a pleasant extended essay on "Idaho," and worth a read of you're a fan of the film.
I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for feedback and review.
This was an interesting look at the author's interaction with the film and the culture of the early 90s. It was an adequate discussion of the work of Van Sant and the celebrity of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix. I'm sure it fits in nicely with this series, and I don't have any major complaints. It was a good enough launching point. It's just very slim and didn't really surprise me.
Gentlemen of the Shade is a wonderful, albeit slim, companion piece to Gus Van Sant’s film My Own Private Idaho. I liked how the author recounted her own experiences upon seeing the film for the first time and how it impacted her views on sexuality and mainstream culture as an adult. Although this is a very short book (which is unfortunate because I wouldn’t have minded reading 100+ more pages of this), I felt like there was a lot of interesting critiques of not only the film itself, but also of River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as well as other popular films, television, and music from the nineties and how they compare and contrast with My Own Private Idaho’s representation of LGBT+ themes and characterizations. The author’s focus on the characters of Mike and Scott representing alternative lifestyles that were a rebuff of nineties mainstream popularity definitely helped me form a greater appreciation for the film.
One of my favorite lines from the book comes near the beginning when the author describes Mike and Scott’s relatability to those who might feel like outsiders living on the fringes of society themselves: “They made choices that weren’t about finding the right university so they could get the right job and buy the right house in the right neighborhood. They made choices that were soaked with risk but also possibility and believed that being different was better than being good. They lived on the margins of the visible world.” The biggest compliment I can give this book is that it made me want to go back and rewatch the movie so I could pick up on everything the author talks about. I thought the author made a lot of insightful comments on the importance of My Own Private Idaho and how it was a significant cultural shift for films and their approach to telling LGBT+ stories. I would highly recommend this book for fans of My Own Private Idaho or anyone looking for nineties nostalgia and film analysis.
I love film criticism, especially when it's as well written as this one. Jen Sookfong Lee does an excellent job of describing the context of when "My Own Private Idaho" was released in 1991--what was happening in Pop Culture and how gays and lesbians were being portrayed in films and on TV. She explains where the movie fit in with the Grunge scene, how it influenced fashion, and the risks River Phoenix and Kanequ Reeves when they starred in it.
My favourite parts of the book were when she compared the story of Mike and Scott her own story of growing up in an immigrant household and who the movie changed her perception of what one could expel from life. Her short biography about River Phoenix's life was also really touching. Reading the book I was constantly reminded of learning of his death in the New York Times, and the morbid trek my roommate and I took to the Viper Room in LA to see where he died.
If you're looking for a light read, I don't know if this it. It's a slim volume but there's a lot of information in it. Parts of it read like a university thesis, but I was totally fine with that. If you take film seriously and watch movies over and over again to figure out what makes them great, I would recommend this book.
No es un libro que solamente se enfoque en la película, sino un libro que habla del contexto de la época en la que se realizó la película, se lanzó al público y el efecto que tuvo en toda esa generación. Lo cual es una maravilla. Creo que también sirve como guía, por las referencias que hay dentro, de esas películas que sirven para distinguir aun más como era el entorno, expectativas de ese entonces. Tengo sentido mmmm en fin. Fue una buena lectura que merece una relectura en el futuro.
I'm glad I read this book. The first time I didn't pay attention to the movie and the second time I liked it but I didn't understand the significance so this book created a context I wouldn't have otherwise. I like and understand Gus Van Sant's style more now.
probably closer to 2.5. I know the whole point of this series is that it’s a) a short essay and b) the authors subjective view of the piece of pop culture, but the things that interested me about it felt way too briefly touched upon. just personal preference I guess.
Over the past few weeks, I have been slowly making my way through the extended essays on Generation X Pop Classics book series by Canadian publisher ECW Press. I might not have ever picked these up were it not for their availability on Hoopla through my library and it popping up with a quick search for one of my favorite things in the world, Twin Peaks. From there, I realized that there was a series of books that explored some of my favorite obsessions, and I burned through all of the ones that were available that caught my attention. Below, find my reviews of the books I read this year in the order that I read them, starting with Twin Peaks...
WRAPPED IN PLASTIC” - Andy Burns on TWIN PEAKS (#4)
Andy Burns’ Wrapped in Plastic is the first of the Pop Classics series that I read, and entirely the reason I read them. I am a fan obsessed with Twin Peaks, as is Burns, and in the slim 100 pages of this book, we are treated to a beautiful love letter to Twin Peaks. Here is the thing... I started with this book, and I am already a complete fanatic of the series, so I found this to be a fun read and I loved Burns’ work only for a review and admiration of a lot of material I was already aware of... It wasn’t particularly illuminating to me, but to lesser fans might be. I loved it only because I appreciated it in the way Burns and my friends love the series. Plenty enough for me to read, savor, and enjoy this slim book. The books I followed it up with, however, were much more enjoyable in depth, scope, and craft.
“GENTLEMEN OF THE SHADE” - Jen Sookfong Lee on MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (#7)
One of my favorite films of all time, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho was a piece beautifully lost to time that was finally re-released by Criterion when I got to see it. I am glad I waited, as my knowledge of what the piece was attempting would have been lost to my ignorance of the world and Shakespeare and everything else. It’s clear that Lee had the same feelings about the film, and this book contextualizes and studies the wonder and spectacular nature of Van Sant’s work that places it in a universe of its own. Lee manages to pick up the reins for all of us of the same generation and age – the gen-xers barely on the cusp that missed it but rewatched and experienced what is amazing about it, and are able to walk back into a piece that seems to wander through musical, pastiche, Shakespearean sendup, intercut sketch story, striking documentary, and wonderful gay prostitution drama. The dream world of Idaho is a dream world of the renaissance, and we live in a slant among all of the elements mentioned in my previous sentence where all of them can exist at the same time. It is a really cool movie, and while I felt like I understood it, Lee is able to partly attach her own biography to the piece and project her own experiences on this beautiful work of art that she then teases apart for us in the context of the film itself, life in the times it was released, and in the world she lived in. Overall an excellent book and a beautiful study on one of the most underappreciated films of our time.
“IT DOESN’T SUCK” - Adam Nayman on SHOWGIRLS (#1)
This was easily the best of the series - and surprisingly it was the first of the series. The book explores and contextualizes the film SHOWGIRLS – it's genesis, how Verhoeven constructed an extremely dry-as-a-saltine farce on par with his other films that were received in the manner that they were meant to: BASIC INSTINCT, ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL, and STARSHIP TROOPERS. In this book, Nayman does a stellar job at defending the film as a work of art that is intentionally, almost brilliantly bad and works as a satire for American life and culture as a whole. There are gorgeous examinations of the film scene-by-scene, but also in comparison to the contemporary films trying to do the same thing (Mulholland Drive) and its ill-fated, director-endorsed sequel that turns up the farce to ridiculous levels while dropping the budget to an inconceivable $30,000 (and is different than the film’s original sequel set in LA, BIMBOS). An excellent book that helps to understand one of the greatest flops in cinematic history, vindicating its very existence as what the author calls “A Masterpiece of Sh**.” The book ends with a lengthy and illuminating interview between the author and Verhoeven.