On My Own Private Idaho

My Own Private Idaho features Keanu Reeves (Point Break, The Matrix trilogy, Speed), and River Phoenix. It doesn’t espouse itself to be my type of film, so although I have seen it many times, I don’t resonate with some of it’s contents.According to Out Magazine‘s article, “The Enduring Power of My Own Private Idaho“:

When Gus Van Sant first tried to get My Own Private Idaho made, following the critical success of his film Drugstore Cowboy, the film’s overt sexual themes and a script that called for unusual effects, such as time-lapse photography, confused many. “I wrote the script on my Mac and used 24-point font for sections, other parts in 10-point, and the opening scene is of Mike getting a blowjob in a hotel room,” Van Sant explains by phone from his home in Portland. “It made certain people hesitate in the Hollywood community. I think largely it was the gay male hustler aspect. That wasn’t a hot topic at the time.”

Although “gay hustler film” may seem like a cliché genre at this point, when it was originally released in 1991, starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in the central roles, no one had made a movie that addressed the subject with such blunt honesty. With a new Blu-ray version available from Criterion—that includes extras such as a discussion between Van Sant and Todd Haynes, another filmmaker who tackled gay themes in his films to critical acclaim—it’s time for a new generation to discover one of the most groundbreaking queer films of the past 25 years and to appreciate how it helped make other pivotal cinema possible.

Finally, according to Decider Streamline‘s article, “WAS IT GOOD FOR THE GAYS: ‘MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO’“:

I have previously touched upon one of the leading artists working within the New Queer Cinema movement, Gregg Araki (although his earliest films are remarkably different in tone and style than the film I wrote about: Mysterious Skin). But no discussion of the New Queer Cinema could avoid mention of Gus Van Sant, who most people know as the director of Good Will Hunting, the film that earned Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Robin Williams Oscars. And it’s impossible not to discuss Van Sant’s third feature, My Own Private Idaho.

While Van Sant’s breakthrough feature, Drugstore Cowboy (released in 1989), did not feature any gay themes, his debut feature, Mala Noche (released in 1988), was revolutionary in that it depicted gay characters and relationships in an apolitical way. My Own Private Idaho continued that trend (as well as Drugstore Cowboy‘s depiction of street culture, trading drug addicts for male hustlers) and featured River Phoenix as a gay male prostitute in Portland who falls for his co-worker of sorts, Keanu Reeves.

Van Sant had started writing the film in the ’70s, focusing on a pair of hustlers in Hollywood. He scrapped the script after reading John Rechy’s City of Night, which follows a straight-identified male hustler who primarily sleeps with men who pay him for sex. Recognizing the similarity of his screenplay to an acclaimed novel, Van Sant shifted focus and directed his first two films (the second of which is perhaps more similar in tone as what My Own Private Idaho would become). When revisiting the script, which was comprised of two separate stories, he decided to combine them into one seamless narrative using the cut-up technique made famous by Beat author William S. Burroughs, who, like Van Sant, liked to focus his attention to those who lived in the fringes of society.

Phoenix plays Mikey Waters, a lithe young man whose aimless wanderings are only paused when he falls into narcoleptic episodes, leaving him unconscious in a variety of seedy locations. Mike is gay, whereas his frequent companion, Scott Favor (played by Reeves), identifies as straight. In one of the film’s most inventive moments, in which shelves of gay porn mags come to life as their cover stars become animated and address the camera, Scott expresses a nonchalance with selling his body to whoever is interested. While Mike’s plot centers on his efforts to find his birthmother (a journey that takes the pair to the state of the title and to the Italian countryside), Scott’s plot resembles that of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays. He comes from a rich family, but has forsaken them for a life on the street — which, for him, serves as some way station of immaturity he will eventually shirk to return to a life of privilege.

Mike, naturally, has an unrequited love for Scott, even if he isn’t sure himself how he identifies. It’s not exactly an event that occurs for him, a coming-out, other than a tender scene by a camp fire when Mike acknowledges his feelings for Scott. “I only have sex with a guy for money,” Scott says. “And two guys can’t love each other.” There’s a certain sadness in Mike when he replies, “Well, I don’t know. I could love someone even if I, you know, wasn’t paid for it… I love you, and… you don’t pay me.”

That’s the center of a meandering film, which, I am loath to admit, has never been my favorite. It received much critical acclaim upon its release and got the Criterion Collection seal of approval, but, like Van Sant’s less mainstream films (meaning: anything other than Good Will Hunting or Milk), I’ve never much cared for it. That’s not to say, of course, I don’t appreciate what it does, which is representing an often marginalized culture within the queer community. And it depicts a certain darkness with a surprising beauty and sensitivity, and it serves as Van Sant’s true masterpiece.

But despite its unappealing (at least, for me) elements, and its typical indie-movie wandering narrative, it’s the central story of Mike’s quest to understand himself that is the film’s most lovely — and heartbreaking — aspect. To be queer is for many a solitary experience; the same goes for the street kids, who must establish connections and platonic relationships in order to build a family and (temporary) homes. There’s nothing political about My Own Private Idaho, nothing that ruthlessly attempts to prove queerness as ordinary or normal. Instead, Van Sant achieves what few artists do: he tells a story about those with an experience other than our own, and does so with such a kind and hopeful eye and results in an audience’s empathy for those who seem lost and on their own.

According to Roger Ebert:

Drama thrives on the weaknesses of its characters, but what can we make of a hero who suffers from narcolepsy? At precisely those moments when he is called to rise to the occasion, he goes to sleep.

He misses most of the crucial developments in his own life, and must depend on the kindness of strangers even to pull him out of the middle of the road.

Mike Waters, the young drifter played by River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho,” is a narcoleptic. To those who do not understand the disorder, it appears that he must be on drugs, or mentally deficient, or from another planet. His condition has given him a certain dreamy detachment; there is no use getting too deeply involved in events you may end up sleeping through. Mike works as a male prostitute, and it goes without saying that narcolepsy is not an asset in his line of work.

Watching the film, I was reminded of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which Raskolnikov, the murderer of the old lady, suffers from epileptic seizures. He has some of the same moods and traits as Mike Waters does here: Both live in unreal worlds, detached from the ordinary progress of time by their conditions. In a sense, their own lives are so elusive that what they do to the lives of others is not very meaningful. Mike is like a holy fool or a clown, and his only real attachment is to Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), another hustler.

One comes from a rich family, the other from poverty.

Neither background would account for the strange existence they now share, drifting through the automobiles and bedrooms of strangers, acting out fantasy roles, spending long hours in coffee shops, smoking and talking and killing time.

The characters have been compared by one critic to Prince Hal and Falstaff – to the errant heir and his lowlife companion. It’s the strangest thing. Here is a movie about lowlife sexual outlaws, and yet they remind us of works by Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, not William Burroughs or Andy Warhol. Maybe that’s because Van Sant is essentially making a human comedy here, a story that may be sad and lonely in parts but is illuminated by the insight that all experience is potentially ridiculous; that if we could see ourselves with nough detachment, some of the things we take with deadly seriousness might seem more than faintly absurd.

The movie takes place in Portland, Ore., and the open spaces of the Pacific Northwest – the same territory covered by “Drugstore Cowboy,” Van Sant’s previous picture. Again he is looking into the lives of outlaws on the road. Life centers around who you get a ride from, where you spend the night, how much money you have in your pocket. There are no long-range plans.

Mike and Scott meet a variety of clients, including one who likes his apartment kept very, very clean. They encounter a young woman from Italy. They find themselves in Italy. It is almost hallucinatory, how one can be in Idaho today and Italy tomorrow, and have no money in either place, but if you make an object out of yourself, then people with more money and stronger wills are able to take you wherever they choose.

Although the central characters are prostitutes, the movie is not really about sex, which does not interest either Mike or Scott very much. What Mike wants is love, and by love what he really means is someone to hold him and care for him. He was deeply damaged as a child, and now he seeks shelter; it is a matter of indifference whether he finds it with a man or a woman. The achievement of this film is that is wants to evoke that state of drifting need, and it does. There is no mechanical plot that has to grind to a Hollywood conclusion, and no contrived test for the heroes to pass; this is a movie about two particular young men, and how they pass their lives.


3 thoughts on “On My Own Private Idaho

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