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It’s night in the desert. Mike (River Phoenix), a teenage hustler given to bouts of narcolepsy, and Scott (Keanu Reeves), a slumming preppy prince, are huddled over a campfire. “I just want to kiss you, man,” says Mike softly. The words and the barely audible sound of his voice, caught between hope and despair, speak to anyone ever ripped apart by unrequited love. For all its flannel and Gore-Tex, the scene is a startlingly naked expression of lovelorn longing. Credit both Gus Van Sant, the director, and Phoenix, his perfect actor, with the heartbreak that floods My Own Private Idaho.
Released in 1991, Idaho was Van Sant’s third feature film and remains his most anarchic and, in many ways, ambitious. It’s certainly the film in which his art-school sensibility and the postmodernist aesthetics that dominated the art world during the seventies and eighties are most in play. Van Sant attended the Rhode Island School of Design from 1971 to 1975 (among his schoolmates were David Byrne and other members of the Talking Heads), shifting his focus from painting to film partway through his time there. The explosion of the sixties underground film scene was over, but Andy Warhol was still an influence, as were Kenneth Anger and other avant-garde film diarists who toted their 16 mm and Super 8 cameras everywhere. After a brief stab at working in the Hollywood film industry and a stint in advertising in New York, Van Sant made his first released feature, Mala Noche, in 1985, with roughly $20,000 of his own money. A gritty, lyrical black-and-white stunner about a gay skid-row store clerk’s obsession with a Mexican migrant worker, it caught the eye of some discerning Hollywood producers and led to his making his second, slightly more conventional feature, 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy, starring Matt Dillon as the leader of a quartet of junkies who rob pharmacies to feed their habits. The toughness of both films, the director’s obvious empathy for alienated adolescents, and his talent for getting shockingly genuine performances from his actors helped him land the teenage idols Phoenix and Reeves for My Own Private Idaho.
What is striking about Idaho today, in light of Van Sant’s later films, is its extraordinary hybridity. Where Psycho (1998), Gerry (2002), and Elephant (2003) are each structured by a single daring formal device—the shot-by-shot mimicry of Hitchcock’s original in Psycho; the extended tracking shots in Gerry and Elephant—Idaho is a collage that includes even a kitchen sink and some Dutch Boy cleanser for scrubbing it down. Van Sant mixes and matches scenes of documentary-style realism with campy musical set pieces, improvised dialogue with bowdlerized Shakespeare, dream sequences shot in grainy Super 8 with 35 mm vistas of the Pacific Northwest, and, on the soundtrack, Rudy Vallee with the Pogues. The main source materials for Idaho’s screenplay were two completely separate scripts and a short story, all written by Van Sant. One of the scripts was a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV.
Van Sant ties these various elements together by filtering the entire narrative through Mike’s consciousness. The irony is that the narcoleptic Mike is among the most unconscious characters to ever hit the screen. Abandoned by his mother early in life, he was raised by his brutish brother/father (with echoes of Chinatown, although, since Mike’s origins are below the poverty line, his incestuous parentage is no Greek tragedy, just an extra oedipal wrinkle in a disenfranchised existence). Mike’s narcolepsy is his defense against his childhood agony of abandonment. Anything that reminds him of his lost mother triggers a severe psychosomatic reaction. He shakes so violently he looks like he’s going to explode, and then keels over in a stupor. Idaho’s fragmented editing style—its heterogeneous visual associations and dense layering of words, sounds, and music—and its split-second shifts between the burlesqued and the heartfelt evoke Mike’s confusion of inside and outside, past and present, dreams and waking life.
The film opens on the road, for it is, above all, a road movie. It is the road onto which both Mike’s interior journey from fragile adolescence to precarious adulthood and his desultory attempts to find his missing mother are mapped. We look down a long stretch of two-lane highway, bisecting the desert scrubland, curving upward as it disappears into the distant mountain haze. Like a shot, Mike skids into view. His cheek, with its ragged blond sideburn and faint tracing of acne, is disorientingly close. He looks down the road and decides he has been here before. “There’s not another road anywhere that looks like this road . . . It’s one kind of place . . . Like a fucked-up face,” he says, talking not entirely to himself but not quite to us either. Just in case we’re not yet in touch with Mike’s way of seeing, Van Sant helpfully irises down around the relevant features: the eyes are two bushes and the smile the shadow of a passing cloud. Suddenly, Mike collapses in the middle of the road. He dreams a faded home movie of himself as a child, safe in the arms of his mother, a blowsy strawberry blonde with a Mona Lisa smile seated on the porch of a wood-frame house. Clouds rush across the sky, salmon leap in slow motion upriver toward their spawning grounds, and Mike wakes in a Seattle hotel room, being sucked off by a balding, beer-bellied john. Mike reaches orgasm and a wooden barn comes crashing out of the sky, splintering onto the highway.
Having shown us something of Mike’s dreamy mindscape and the way he makes a living, Van Sant then introduces us to his social set, and in particular to the object of his desire, Scott Favor. The son of the mayor, Scott is sowing his wild oats by hanging out with this group of homeless rent boys and turning the occasional trick himself. Scott is the film’s Prince Hal. Its Falstaff is Bob Pigeon (William Richert), a fat, beer-guzzling chicken hawk who’s got a thing for the narcissistic scion. Scott has also fallen into the habit of taking care of the vulnerable Mike.
It’s on a trip to find Mike’s mother that the two friends spend the night, like so many cowboy duos have done, huddled over the campfire. And Mike, more daring and desperate than those cowboys before him, risks, or perhaps courts, a repetition of his primal loss by confessing his love to Scott. When I interviewed Van Sant at the time of the film’s release, he said that he’d originally thought the scene would be much more casual. “The character of Mike was originally kind of asexual. Sex was something that he traded in, so he had no real sexual identity. But because he’s bored and they’re in the desert, he makes a pass at his friend. And it just sort of goes by, but his friend also notices that he needs something, he needs to be close, so he says, ‘We can be friends,’ and he hugs him. That was all it was going to be. But River makes it more like he’s attracted to his friend, that he’s really in love with him. He made the whole character that way.”
Mike’s raw need is too much for the self-protective Scott to cope with. After a terrifying encounter with Mike’s alcoholic brother/father and an acrobatic bedroom threesome with Hans (Udo Kier)—the ubiquitous john who seems to have pursued them across several states—they wind up in Rome, where Scott, in a homophobic panic, falls in love, not with a French princess but with a mysterious Italian beauty.
Idaho juxtaposes the societal extremes of haves and have-nots. For the first time, Van Sant includes a leading character whose upper-middle-class origins correspond with his own. But unlike Van Sant, who for most of his career has stayed true to his own Americanized version of the “art film,” Scott betrays not only his friends but his sexuality for money and power. The film climaxes with a double funeral. Scott’s two fathers—Mayor Favor and Bob Pigeon—have died one right after the other and are being buried in the same graveyard. The schizoid structure of the scene is, for once, not a projection of Mike’s fragmented psyche but rather a mini-allegory of the economic polarization of America that was already grotesquely evident during the Reagan–Bush I era and is even more pronounced today. Eyes front, spines stiffened, the properly heterosexual Favor clan, now led by Scott and his wife, is desperately trying to ignore the carnivalesque spectacle taking place a few hundred meters away. Mike and his fellow outcasts are furiously dancing on Bob’s grave. One close-up is enough to suggest that Mike’s first eruption of anger is also his first taste of liberation.
Threaded with home-movie images (no filmmaker has ever been better than Van Sant at forging and integrating them), My Own Private Idaho is a crazy quilt of family romances. Everybody is either looking for or escaping from their families, or organizing new families, or poring over photographs of other people’s families. In the campfire scene, Mike prefaces his confession of love by agonizing, “If I had a normal family and a good upbringing, then I would have been a well-adjusted person . . . Didn’t have a dog, or a normal dad, anyway.” “What’s a normal dad?” asks Scott, the sophisticate, with a shrug. Something in the way he says “normal” recalls the moment in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita—another absurdist road movie about impossible love—when Quilty (Peter Sellers), masquerading as a lonely policeman, terrorizes Humbert (James Mason), who has been passing off the underage Lo as his daughter. “I wish I had a normal, nice, little, normal daughter like that,” leers Sellers.
Deeply regressive, Mike’s desire is for the safety of the mother’s body. “Locked in the arms of love,” the last line of “Deep Night,” the Rudy Vallee recording heard several times during the film, is the last line on Idaho’s soundtrack, played over the closing credits. To what, then, does the film’s title refer? “My Own Private Idaho” is an imaginary place where one is locked in the arms of love—that is, both protected and free. It is the promise of America, chronically out of joint with reality, especially for its most vulnerable inhabitants. At the end of the film, Mike is once again alone, lying unconscious on the highway. The occupants of the first car that stops steal his shoes and leave. A second car pulls up, and the driver gets out, picks him up, deposits him in the backseat, and drives off. It’s the last we see of Mike. Throughout the scene, we hear the strains of “America the Beautiful,” the anthem couched as a prayer for the inhabitants of this natural paradise of “purple mountains” and “fruited plain” to treat one another as brothers. Is it “brotherhood” that Mike finds, or some darker fate? Given the temper of the times, the glimmer of hope in Van Sant’s open ending has all but faded away.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor at Film Comment and Sight & Sound. She also writes frequently for Artforum. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2005 DVD edition of My Own Private Idaho.