My Own Private Idaho

Director: Gus Van Sant

1991

“But in explicitly thematizing homelessness, homosexuality, and teenage prostitution; by offering up a protagonist who suffers from narcolepsy and romanticized memories of a mother who abandoned him as a child; and in paying extended homage to Orson Welles’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, Chimes at Midnight (1965), via a self-consciously anachronistic use of bardspeak in several key scenes, no one can claim that Van Sant was unwilling to alienate – even incurring the wrath of – unsuspecting middle-American audiences.” (800, Steven Jay Schneider, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) The cinematography is wonderful with the feel of vintage photographs. I am a Gus Van Sant fan – his films are always well thought out and perfectly executed and I like the fact that he doesn’t really compromise his vision for the sack of the audience. He’s a filmmaker that assumes the audience is smart enough to work out what’s going on and follow the narrative. There are some magnificently bizarre sequences like the trick obsessed with the boy of Dutch cleaner. It’s a fairly frank look at the reality of teenage prostitution with various characters telling their stories directly to the camera giving the audience no opportunity to ignore their tales of woe. It’s a clever way that Van Sant presents the sex scenes. Rather than filming them gratuitously which would have been all too easy to do in a film where one of the themes is teenage prostitution he instead presents them as strangely stylish vignettes.

“Scott is actually the rebellious son of a well-to-do Portland family who has chosen this lifestyle largely as a means of humiliating his father.” (801) In this regard Scott is very much like Hal in Henry IV although Mike is far from cast in the role of Falstaff, that role is reserved for Bob played brilliantly by William Richert. Keanu Reeves is actually a pretty good actor – it takes seeing him in films like this (and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Stephen Herek, 1989) to remind you of it. There’s a protectiveness to his relationship with Mike. He takes care of him during his episodes. I love the inclusion of Shakespeare’s Henry IV but then I am a bit of Shakespeare nerd girl – I could always listen to anything by Shakespeare! Mike and Scott have an unconventional relationship but then nothing about My Own Private Idaho really is all that conventional. “With Mike, on the other hand, what you see is definitely what you get: a quiet, dreamy, gentle boy who is in love with his best friend, falls asleep at the drop of a hat – frequently at inopportune moments, a trait the director taps for both humor and pathos – and is obsessed with finding his long-lost mom.” (801) River Phoenix is spectacular as Mike. There is always a sense of melancholy attached to his performances due to his tragic end at a young age just on the cusp of a truly incredible career. Plus he is beautiful, especially in his vulnerability. River does lost and vulnerable so well, there is an innate sadness to his performance. And he is mesmerizing, especially when he is the whole occupant of the screen – he just draws all your attention to a focal point.

“It is this latter quality that provides the impetus for the film’s rambling (but never slow) road trip of a plot, as Scott accompanies his always-endangered buddy on excursions ranging from Idaho to Italy in search of a myth of maternal love that the audience sees as the scratchy home-video footage of Mike’s mind.” (801) Mike seems entirely lost without Scott following their trip to Italy. There’s something adorable about his haphazard journey to find some sort of love from a woman who seems incapable of loving him. My favourite scene in the whole film comes on this crazy quest when Scott and Mike are around their campfire. It’s such a touching scene with Mike laying his unrequited love for Scott bare. And Scott, rather than being cold, or even worse mean about it gives Mike the limited comfort he can give when he doesn’t return Mike’s feelings.

“In this tender yet unsentimental picture, Van Sant succeeds as few other filmmakers have in conveying the subjective experience of troubled, disaffected youth.” (801) I always feel slightly unsatisfied at the end of My Own Private Idaho. Not because of Scott’s journey, which so parallels Hal’s in Henry IV, as he does exactly what he says he will  and throws off his current degenerate lifestyle once he comes into his inheritance following his father’s death. He cuts the ties to his former life so completely. It’s Mike that I end up wondering about – what becomes of him without Scott around to look after him during his episodes? Who is it that takes him off the side of the road and do they actually look after him? To me there is just this unresolved feeling to Mike’s story.

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