Saturday, January 25, 2020

Gus Van Sant | My Own Private Idaho

the things we’ve seen
by Douglas Messerli

Gus Van Sant (writer and director) My Own Private Idaho / 1991

By any traditional analysis Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho is a kind of mess, a mish-mash of a story about Portland-based gay hustlers and an on-the-road tale that resembles, at moments, the wild, early life of the young future Hal hanging out with Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry plays.
       The swings between the two tales occur without any cinematic apology for not truly being fused together. Scenes from the childhood life of Michael Waters (River Phoenix) are mixed with the surreal statements by gay magazine cover-models who suddenly spring to life and the existential angst of Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), the wayward son of the Portland mayor. Gay desire is met with heterosexual hauteur, grungy street adventures alternate with wealthy homes and offices filled with all the trinkets that money can buy. Poverty and fortune seem almost indistinguishable in Van Sant’s fantasy, just as beauty—expressed primarily in the Idaho landscape—and squalor rub shoulders. Van Sant’s work easily shifts from street love to a romantic heterosexual Italian-based idyll.
      In fact, My Own Private Idaho might easily be summed-up as a chaos of opposing images and directorial styles.
      And all of this is wrapped up with a ribbon of Mike’s narcolepsy, a condition that constantly interrupts his active attempts to hustle both male and female clients. But, in a sense the metaphor Van Sant has chosen to embrace is absolutely perfect: this is a film of dreaming and dreams, past and present, which overwhelm nearly all of its characters.
      Each of the gay hustlers in this work—most of whom refuse to describe themselves as homosexuals—spends the movie walking and working in a sleep-like condition, dreaming of love, money, or even a way out of the stupefaction. Only the handsome Scott knows that he will be able to find the inheritance to exit his semi-rebellious behavior. All the others are not so rebellious as they are simply trapped in their attempts to find modes of survival.
     Yet, despite its collection of disparities, Van Sant’s film is absolutely likeable and brilliant, a film which when I saw for the second time the other day, an extraordinarily emotionally nuanced work that stands out in the early 1990s (though originally conceived in the 1970s) as a kind of beacon for LGBTQ desire.

    The hinge to the power of this film is River Phoenix’s (older brother to Joaquin and many other Phoenix-family actors, who died tragically of a drug overdose outside Johnny Depp’s Viper Room in West Hollywood only two years after the release of the picture) performance, as he takes to the road—a dangerous thing for a young man with his condition—to discover himself, his mother, and, hopefully the man he loves, Scott. He doesn’t fully succeed in in any of these attempts, and it is his failure to achieve those goals that gives heart to this film.
      Simply the view of his slightly gold-haired stubble of his face, the always slightly confused look of his eyes—as if a deer caught in headlights—and his stumbling, bumbling attempts to get through each day, with or without drugs or money, along with his absolutely loving devotion to Scott, who when Mike expresses his love for him, declares “I only go to bed with men for money” inures us to this unlikely hero.
      Money is everything for Scott, and he even declares early in the film that he will make a complete change when his father dies, and he inherits his fortune. This young Scott, like Henry IV quickly gives up his ways when he is declared as the young “prince,” abandoning and denying his young friend Mike and even his substitute father, Bob Pigeon (William Richert).
      Reeves plays him as a nonetheless likeable figure, helping Mike to track down his brother back in Idaho, who insists that their mother was infatuated by a local cowboy who was Mike’s father—although Mike seems to perceive the real truth, that his own brother was his father.
      Scott’s attempt to track down Mike’s mother slightly redeems his later actions as well as his refusal to actually accept Mike’s love for him—although there is one liberating scene in which the police invade Pigeon’s illegally occupied apartment building wherein Scott pretends to be fucking Mike in order to protect them from what the police are actually seeking: drugs. There is no doubt that the later turncoat, Scott, truly loves Mike. But as he has been taught by his father, he loves money and societal mores more. Even he, when Mike claims his father was not a normal Dad, quips “What’s a normal dad?” Normality in this world of seeming perversions has little meaning.
       Scott leaves his young acolyte Mike alone in Italy, running off with his new princess Carmela
(Chiara Caselli) and leaving his old world behind. He rejects even the recognition of his former hustler friends, and when his former, “real” father, Pigeon dies of a heart attack, attends like the good boy he has suffered to become to his father’s funeral, while a short ways away, the hustlers revel over Bob Pigeon’s coffin—another the film’s obvious dichotomies.
       Somehow Mike finds his way back to his own Idaho, returning us to the opening scene of the film as he falls again under another narcoleptic attack. If the road onto which he collapses has previously been totally abandoned, a truck now appears out of the nowhere, men exiting it to steal his clothing bag and shoes, while another soon after appears to retrieve his sleeping body. We can only imagine where that might take him: this is 1991 and AIDS is already prevalent when AIDS patients died every two-moments, as was the gay-hate which led to Wyoming-born Matthew Shepard’s brutal death only 7 years later.
       Throughout the scenes in Pigeon’s hovel for homeless hustlers, he and his boys talk again and again about “the things we’ve seen.” By the end of Van Sant’s film we have seen them as well, and hopefully been rendered, through that process, as more empathetic by those visions. Mike’s private Idaho is now ours as well.

Los Angeles, January 25, 2020
Reprinted in World Cinema Review (January 2020).

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