Today, June 13, is the book birthday of our latest pop classics title release, and we invite you to join us in revisiting the film and 90s nostalgia at large!
Gus Van Sant's indie drama, My Own Private Idaho, was a bellwether for the boom of alternative pop culture in the 1990s. For many in mainstream America, it was the first queer film they saw. Jen Sookfong Lee examines the impact of the movie and how it broadened our understanding of sexuality, gender constructs, and social responsibility. Not to mention, you might find a little gushing here and there over Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix's painfully beautiful masculinity.
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I had always thought of the 1990s as a very particular time, as an era when our views of the world and our individual positions in it were constantly shifting, and what we learned in the 1980s about capitalism, HIV/AIDS, sexuality, and diversity was being challenged and rebuilt. But I’m also aware that I’m looking backward through a thick layer of nostalgia. I graduated high school in 1994 and finished university in 1998. I fell in love in 1995 and again in 1997. I wrote a sonnet for the skinny and awkward Beck and, in a fit of obsessive optimism, sent it. (If you’re wondering, he still hasn’t replied.) It was the decade of my adolescence and young adulthood, and my friends and I changed in many huge ways and many small ways. It was possible that I was confusing these individual changes with global, social ones. After all, no one is more narcissistic than a gloomy 19-year-old writing love poems for famous musicians. And it’s not just me: the internet has ballooned with people in midlife writing about their young adulthoods, about that time they saw Jane’s Addiction in a 150-seat venue accessible by a stairwell set deep into a Boston alley. The creative output inspired by the 1990s — in film, television, and books — is just beginning. Think of Fresh Off the Boat, Straight Outta Compton, the explosion of grunge-inspired fashion at Urban Outfitters. The 1990s might have had far less influence than I, or anyone else my age, could objectively measure in 2017.
But as I thought deeper, I came to understand that 1991, when My Own Private Idaho was released, was a year full of opposition, drama, banality, and tragedy. Paul Bernardo murdered Leslie Mahaffy. Generation X by Douglas Coupland was published. The Gulf War. Full House. The conflicts and contradictions were everywhere. You just had to know where to look.
The 1990s were years that produced huge cultural changes, shifts in popular thinking that would shape the trajectory of politics, relationships, and social constructs for the next two decades. Without the 1990s and how it shone a light on outsiders and the culture they were producing as well as consuming, so much of what we’ve created since then as writers or filmmakers or musicians would not exist. And our intimate lives — whom we sleep with and how openly we do it — would have looked very different. After all, without RuPaul or Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, we wouldn’t have the same tools we have today to discuss or even acknowledge the spectrum of gender and sexuality. My Own Private Idaho, released in September of 1991, was one of the harbingers of this sea change. From its visuals to its lead actors to the lo-fi titles that flash between scenes, Gus Van Sant’s film is a cinematic fortune cookie: it gave us, an audience who was already dissatisfied with mainstream culture, a beautifully (yet still messily) wrapped narrative that helped shape our forming sensibilities, whether we knew it yet or not.
SHINY, HAPPY PEOPLE
It was tough to deny: if you were living in the Western world, you could easily be lulled into cultural and political complacency. And a large part of this privileged blindness had to do with the power of majority culture. In a review of My Own Private Idaho published in The Washington Post, Desson Howe likens the film to the ringing of wind chimes, an unimportant sound to some. He writes, “Those with ears to hear will love this music.” It was those of us with ears attuned to other, less obvious frequencies who were more than ready for Gus Van Sant’s music.
In order to understand the firm grasp majority culture had on the world, we have to remember that our engagement with culture was entirely different in 1991. This was before the internet gave voice to oddity. Writers of fan fiction had a hard time finding each other. Cosplay partners were few and far between. You couldn’t pull out your phone and find a BDSM hook-up in five swipes. By necessity, a large portion of the world was watching or listening to or wearing the same things. We talked about Seinfeld on Friday mornings because we all had the same cable television subscription. We read Rolling Stone to find out which musicians we needed to pay attention to because that was the only popular music magazine available at every corner store. We all wore the same floral dress with the denim jacket from The Gap, the coolest mall store that wasn’t cool at all. The idea that the United States was exporting a kind of cultural colonialism with its domination of entertainment was starting to take shape. Bill Clinton, the U.S. president who was famous for his flawless speech delivery and saxophone playing, became a high-profile symbol of American cultural polish when he was elected in 1993. Everything seemed shiny and easy and happy, but, tellingly, only two years into his presidency, he would begin his affair with Monica Lewinsky, the relationship that finally cracked his smooth public faćade.
Before Bill Clinton, other realities were emerging to mark 1991. Conflicts were simmering in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Rodney King was beaten by police officers in Los Angeles. In South Africa, it was the end of apartheid. Freddie Mercury openly died from complications of AIDS. If you were the sort to pay attention to the undersides of things, to the ringing of wind chimes, as it were, you noticed. In Vancouver, where I grew up, women from the impoverished and ghettoized Downtown Eastside were disappearing. When I accompanied my mother to Chinatown, which is part of the same neighbourhood, I was morbidly fascinated by the women who stood on street corners while I was carrying plastic bags of oranges and barbecued pork. When I passed them on the sidewalks and looked at their faces, they weren’t so different from me. Some of them were the same age or listened to the same music or wore the same shade of lipstick. It was one of the few times that the gloss of the early 1990s cracked in my everyday life. In 2007, Robert Pickton would be convicted of murdering six of these women and charged with the murders of 20 more.
There was an abundance of hypocrisy in the world around us. Before My Own Private Idaho, I was only dimly aware that this was true and was still, at least partially, a believer in the prettiness of the culture I had grown up in. After My Own Private Idaho? That was a whole different story.
WHEN GRUNGE HAPPENED
No discussion about culture in 1991 would be complete without Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. Nevermind, the album that catapulted the band to mainstream success, was released on September 24, just three days before My Own Private Idaho had its theatrical release in North America. In retrospect, it seems serendipitous.
Recently, I watched the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, written and directed by Brett Morgen and co– executive produced by Frances Bean Cobain, Kurt’s daughter with Courtney Love. Through journals and drawings, I very distinctly saw and felt Kurt Cobain’s pain at living his adolescence in an inhospitable world. With divorced parents, he lived in a series of homes, never really settling with either parent or his extended family. He had difficulty with his peers until he found a community of punk musicians, which eventually led to the formation of Nirvana.
. . .
It didn’t really matter what you thought of their music. There was no denying their impact on a Western world that had become forebodingly homogenous.
The same world that was ready for Nirvana was ready for My Own Private Idaho and, by extension, for culture from the margins that didn’t care about perfection, or even quality. The culture that would eventually dominate the 1990s circled around authenticity, perspective, and, above all else, singularity, even if that singularity included missteps and artlessness. How many times did I have a conversation with my friends ridiculing the “posers” who only discovered Pearl Jam after they played Saturday Night Live in 1992? How meanly did I laugh at New Kids on the Block when the band tried to grow up and changed its name to NKOTB in 1993?
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