My Own Private Idaho (1991)
“When you wake up, wipe the slugs off your face. Be ready for a new day.” – Scott Favor
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Starring: River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves
Cinematography by: John J. Campbell & Eric Alan Edwards
Editing by: Curtiss Clayton
A Movie About Drifting
The other night I got caught up in an episode of King of the Hill.I had seen the episode before, in which it’s revealed Dale’s father is a homosexual, but I never noticed the title: “My Own Private Rodeo.” The connection between the episode and the film is obvious: both deal with homosexuality, but it still managed to irk me. It’s not that I thought it was mocking Van Sant’s film, rather, I found it to share common themes of longing, homelessness (Dale’s father works and lives at the rodeo), and separated families; what troubled me was, from a pop-culture perspective, the thought that people view Private Idaho only as a gay film. To me, and to many others, it’s much more than that.
My Own Private Idaho is three tragic stories functioning as one. The first deals with our protagonist, Mike (River Phoenix), a gay street-hustler, continuously drifting through his own haunting sense of time and space. His story is hopelessly tragic due to his inherent sense of homelessness. In fact, the only real feeling of “at home” Mike has ever experienced in his life is revealed during his epileptic seizures; the warm security of his youthful head rested on his mother’s lap is the only real shelter he’s ever had. What’s so troubling about this is it’s where his mind goes while he’s at his most vulnerable; passed-out on the hot cement at the liberty of any passersby. We drift along with Mike through Portland, Idaho, and Italy searching for his mother, only to discover he is more alone than we ever expected.
The second story is about Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), another male-hustler, wandering the barbaric streets of Portland. The greatest difference between Scott and Mike is Scott’s freedom. He’s not drifting in search for something he’s lost, he’s drifting for the thrill of it. He can leave the underworld at his own free will since his father is a wealthy political figure. By doing so, he confuses Mike’s predicament even further; giving him an ephemeral sense of love and commitment.
The final story is that of Portland’s street hustlers. Inspired by real people, as well as John Rechy’s novel City of Night, Gus Van Sant films their tragic world in a way that troubles any prejudice. You see them – literally, many real street-hustlers appear in this film – not as degenerates, but as people.
An Ambitious Story
You hear it often, people championing a film because of its original story, yet, I wonder, can you even write an original story anymore? It’s not that everything has been done, it’s just that we’re living in an age of influence. Thanks to the internet, we can easily create a new self made entirely of links, pictures, videos, quotes, and recipes. In other words, we are what we eat, read, and watch. As strange as it sounds, people are even becoming famous – in the sense they have many followers – just for re-posting things they’ve found on other sites. I frequent many sites that only post unoriginal pictures, yet you still get a sense of the person’s sensibilities, aesthetics, and character.
This is all well because, at the least, it means people are still interested in art, yet I’m troubled that it often stops at that. Using famous pieces of art as a platform to create something original is nothing new. It’s what Gus Van Sant does with My Own Private Idaho. The film is a product of its influences. From Shakespeare (Henry the IV Plays) to Orson Welles (Chimes at Midnight), Private Idaho is showcase of Van Sant’s artistic depth. Yes, it’s flawed, but that doesn’t make its ambitions any less impressive. What I’m trying to say is, we shouldn’t be afraid our own work won’t live up to its influences.
The movie, which was made on a movie budget of $2.5 million, went on to gross over $6 million at the box-office. And this was in 1991! Imagine, a young director pitching a rehash of Henry the IV that takes place in Portland’s male-hustler underworld to a major studio. Mr. Van Sant did it, failed, and still managed to create a beautiful film with a meager indie-budget. Watch it.
Reasons to Watch
– River Phoenix becomes Mike; his performance is one of the most convincing I’ve ever seen.
– The cinematography is inspiring. John Campbell’s time-lapse sequences reveal more about Mike’s altered sense of reality than any of the dialogue.
– The use of this song.
– The sex sequences are filmed in a unique, empathetic style. I’m not sure if I’ve seen a director approach sex in such a way.
– Flea is in it!
– This movie feels and looks like a grungy 90s fall. I love the way fall looks after it rains, which is one of the reasons I love this movie.
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