Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho is the film I recommend to all my Portland transplant friends. It provides a glimpse into the city almost two decades ago. The Pearl, for example, didn’t exist; Blitz-Weinhard’s malty steam suffused the area. The loading docks were loading docks by day, prostitute promenades by night. Powell’s was half its present size (but still huge) and the Stark Street American Apparel was the Great Northwest bookstore. Portland was rainy, gritty, and possessed a noirish beauty. I like to think it still does.
It’s a gorgeous and daring and resonant film that still feels fresh and vivid . . . . And for someone like me, an unapologetic civic jingoist who didn’t know Portland well at all in 1991, it’s a revelation.
The film is filled with uniquely Portland signatures, from actual civic landmarks to beloved buildings to oddball local characters. Van Sant’s hustlers and junkies inhabit the north end of Portland’s downtown, lolling around a restaurant (then Chinese, now Thai) at the corner of Southwest Broadway and Ankeny, living in the then-under-renovation Governor Hotel, flopping in doorways near Jake’s Famous Crawfish, the venerable bar and restaurant in the downtown gay district (the dear departed Great Northwest bookstore makes a cameo appearance).