Reviewed by Mike Restaino
“We are living in a country drugged on so-called entertainment. The movies have become the Sirens that Odysseus had to plug his ears against in self-defense. They collaborate in leading us to our doom, encouraging us to hide from the Bogeyman, pay up at the Multiplex and always, obediently, to play Follow the Leader.
Where is our modern Circe, the sorceress who can teach us to plug our ears against the seductive, destructure Sirens of our time?”
San Francisco International Film Festival, 2004
There’s a dramatic synergy at work in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho that pulsates far beyond the walls of its art-theatre pretense. Now that we have a good decade-and-a-half of hindsight through which to view this staggeringly original work of postmodern tomfoolery and raggedly emotional treatises on the nature of youth in a romantically downtrodden world of junkies, hustlers and general malaise, it’s clear that Private Idaho is less a movie as it is a kitchen-sink-and-all mélange of ideas and sense-feelings dressed up to look like an ‘indie’ film from those anti-major, who-needs-studios glory days of the 1990s.
While the film developed a formidable following during its initial release, the film’s real legs appeared when My Own Private Idaho could not be sufficiently and directly relegated to a specific independent-film notion or sub-genre. We had boy-toy pin-ups Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix playing the two lead roles in the picture. Keanu is a rich kid who lives on the street and does ‘what the boys do’ simply in rebellion to his rich father’s patriarchal influence while River plays the outcast nomad on a constant search for ‘home’ that very well may never end. But this picture is no mere ‘dress-up’ of matinee idols to instill a specific, guttural edge; it’s an aesthetic collage on a Hollywood scale, the showcase of a team of filmmakers and artists going out on a limb to address a feeling that both mall multiplexes and stale art house fare was ignoring.
The term most applicable to Private Idaho is simple: Risk.
Hollywood had no idea what to do with the film (that should come as no surprise), but even the ‘queer cinema’ movement – at that point in the early 1990s beginning its nascent nosedive into mainstream cinematic consciousness – wasn’t ready for the slippery mercury of Private Idaho. An independent film from the director of the critically-lauded Drugstore Cowboy that didn’t just feature gay characters but was literally and exclusively about multiple homosexual protagonists’ plights was enough to have Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals frothing at the mouth, but the most majestic nuance of Gus Van Sant’s direction and authorial control in the film is that he refused to fetishize the homosex in his picture.
Long story short: It was too ‘queer’ for art-houses and too ‘arty’ for ‘queer cinema’.
Just look at the state of ‘new queer cinema’ today. B. Ruby Rich, the film scholar who is credited with coining this term, announced in a 2004 interview that this sub-genre was ‘over’: “It’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It’s the worst nightmare of every gay activist from the 1970s and 1980s who said, ‘If you don’t watch out, you’re going to end up with ‘lifestyle, lifestyle, lifestyle’. I don’t think I’m getting my politics from The L Word. There’s nothing formality-breaking going on there.”
As homosexuality in mainstream American media has become more homogenized – and therefore significantly more user-friendly – there’s been a certain ghettoization of rambunctious ‘queer cinema’. Jonathan Caouette’s half-documentary/half-book report Tarnation is an avant-garde exception to the rule, but the ‘queer’-centric films and television shows of today seem to relish in the only slightly scandalous lifestyles of their characters.
“Shiver with glee as Colin Ferrell and Jared Leto exchange an EMBRACE in Oliver Stone’s Alexander! Do your best to contain yourself as Madonna and Britney Spears pleasure us with a tongue-kiss on a major award show!” In doing everything possible to make same-sex romance and courtship look, smell, and feel heterosexual (or, in Madonna’s and Britney’s case, desirable by heterosexual society), ‘new queer cinema’ has lost its edge, its impetus, and its reason for being. No longer a political framework, the vast majority of ‘queer cinema’ is now just as bland as the majority of ‘straight cinema’.
Meet the new boss – same as the old boss.
So even though My Own Private Idaho is now considered a harbinger of the heyday of ‘queer cinema’, it nevertheless didn’t give the burgeoning market the kind of eye candy and easily-accessed narrative it thought it desired. Sure, Keanu and River are handsome fellas, but they remain unkempt and dirty throughout the whole picture (never once do we see them pay strict and narcissistic attention to their own appeal), and the structure of the picture was enough to scare anyone who disliked provocative cinematic storytelling right back into the mall where they belonged.
“I don’t want knowledge. I want certainty.”
– David Bowie, “Law (Earthlings on Fire)”
“I’m a connoisseur of roads. I’ve been tasting roads my whole life. This road will never end.”
– River Phoenix, My Own Private Idaho
Because of My Own Private Idaho’s decidedly atypical story structure, it insists upon being viewed as an unknown, as an original narrative with no tried-and-true point of reference. It’s not as though the film isn’t a potpourri of various film styles and storytelling styles, but the way it combines these elements in its own unique way disallows a comfortable and predictably formal analysis.
First of all, My Own Private Idaho is a relatively nomadic tale. River Phoenix’s Mike is a drifter, a narcoleptic wanderer fleeting around his beloved northwest as though there were no other real place for him to possibly go. His character’s life desires aren’t for monetary reward or love, necessarily – they’re for closure, for an end to the miasma of lost opportunities and unclear events in his mind.
Abandoned by his mother – or at the very least estranged from her (this is never decisively defined) – Mike looks for a kind of maternal caring from everyone he meets, be it johns, friends or potential mates (about half-way through the film, Keanu’s Scott character becomes the apple of Mike’s eye). Because of this relatively naïve motivation – if this was any other filmmaker’s project, the gay hustler Mike would want acceptance, money, or success before he wanted inner connectivity – Mike is inherently and difficultly child-like in his drive.
The symbolism of mother-search is an obvious and age-old plot device, but there’s a futility to Mike’s drive in Van Sant’s eerily elliptical universe. Mike desperately longs for a stability and peace that he pins on the recovery of his mother – wherever she is – but his very lifestyle, his method of existence insists upon constant motion and travel. Like the lead character in Van Sant’s wildly underrated Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Mike is destined to be a nomadic wanderer, a man who must keep on walkin’ no matter the consequence or risk.
He has no interest in money or pleasures of the flesh – yeah, he loves a little nose candy now and then, but that’s more a pattern of his hustler lifestyle than overarching physiological addiction – he wants a center.
When we meet him, he’s stranded on a road, and when we leave him, he’s stranded on a road – maybe it’s the same road, and maybe every road is the same.
“Unless hours were cups of sack…and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses…”
– Henry IV (Part 1) [1.2. 6-9]
“Why, you wouldn’t even look at a clock unless hours were lines of coke, dials looked like the signs of gay bars, or time itself was a fair hustler in black leather.”
– Keanu Reeves, My Own Private Idaho
“How long is ‘t ago, Jack, since thou sawest thine own knee?”
– Henry IV (Part 1) [2,4, 324]
“How long has it been, Bob, since you could see your own dick?”
– Keanu Reeves, My Own Private Idaho
A benchmark film for developing gay teens and avant-garde-loving cineastes alike, My Own Private Idaho doesn’t merely showcase its characters as metaphors for the plights and rises of gay culture in 1990s America – Van Sant injects what could have been just another gay hustler tale with another dose of arty provocation by having his characters speak in bastardized Shakespearean English for a solid twenty minutes toward the middle of the film.
Keanu Reeves’ privileged son rebelling against the sins of his father reflects the drive of Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) to a T, and once Keanu’s character realizes the ‘error’ of his omnisexual ways, his rebirth into upper-class northwestern society riffs on Henry V, where the main character goes to a country where he doesn’t speak the language. Keanu’s girlfriend in My Own Private Idaho is from Rome; he brings her back to his homeland and begins an ultimately successful political career.
It’s not merely that Van Sant borrows liberally from these sources (almost every major dramatic film does that): he earnestly has virtually his entire cast perform complete scenes from Henry IV. Of course, Van Sant doesn’t go all the way with it – part of the charm he’s able to beam on his hustler characters here is that they’re by all means Shakespearean, but they’re Shakespearean with contemporary street credibility. Yet the fact that he infuses his film with these scenarios allows his cast of characters to take on a more universal quality.
With these scenes, the citizens of Van Sant’s various dens of iniquities cease being decidedly ‘other’ characters and share a unexpected universality of human existence. It seems too pretentious and, well, geeky to work effectively, but with a few exceptions (there are still those who find the Henry IV sections of the film to be an odious dramatic mess) this sequence sheds a light on the connectedness of human existence within the realms of dramatic artistic creation.
The characters in My Own Private Idaho are younger and more sexually liberated than the cast of Shakespeare’s works, but Van Sant puts that seemingly air-tight distinction behind a lovely fog of filmmaking mystique. Sure, these kids are street hustlers exchanging carnal playtime for cold, hard cash, but their similarities to Shakespeare’s denizens are many.
Van Sant connects the socially complicated characters of his film not with any kind of contemporary popular normalcy (“gay ’90s teens are just the same as straight ’90s teens”), but with the cast of a 400-year-old play. Any assessment concocted by youthful viewers in an attempt to find acceptance with the dramatic world in My Own Private Idaho won’t find simple accordance with the pedestrian banalities of status quo modern culture, but with a grander, more expansive world of literature at large.
To connect with My Own Private Idaho is not to just feel like you belong, but that you belong to a history of knowledge and literature as well as the ancient world that still exists in history and literature.
“Wherever, whatever, have a nice day.”
– My Own Private Idaho advertising slogan
So it goes without saying that a ‘queer cinema’ movie with Henry IV aspirations wasn’t exactly your neighborhood summer blockbuster, but My Own Private Idaho nevertheless continues to enthrall. A movie that’s both a defiant political and social construct of its time as well as a timeless investigation of the complications of the human animal’s heart, Gus Van Sant’s exceptional 1991 masterwork (now given a superb DVD edition from The Criterion Collection – www.criterionco.com) may be too complex and multi-faceted to achieve the kind of mainstream appeal it deserves, but the fact that it attempts to construct a new and cumulative mythology out of the many sources it obviously gleans inspiration from lends it a dramatic sheen that most so-called ‘art’ films only dream of achieving.