I recently netflixed the 1991 Gus Van Sant film My Own Private Idaho, starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. The story centers on Mike (Phoenix), a young gay Portland street hustler who suffers jarring narcoleptic episodes. He’s in love with Scott (Reeves), the wealthy mayor’s son who turns to the hustling life out of a sense of defiance and restlessness. Scott takes care of Mike when he suffers his stress-related sleepy breakdowns, and the two eventually embark on a quest to locate Mike’s mother, a figment from the pastoral Idaho childhood he frequently dreams of. Thanks to a large tip from a kinky German patron (Udo Kier), they make it all the way to Italy. Mike’s mother eludes them, but Scott falls in love with an Italian woman, later marrying her and gravitating back to straight society and the success that awaits him. Mike, more lost than ever, returns alone to the Portland squatter’s den where Bob, his mentor, and his fellow street kid hustlers await.
The film has its flaws, the most glaring of which is Van Sant’s attempt to incorporate Shakespearean dialogue from Henry IV, especially early in the film in a drawn-out sequence detailing Bob’s mentorship of Scott and the rest of the hustlers. Once that pretension drops away, however, Phoenix’s delicate performance (James Dean updated and therefore, more subtle) and the beauty of the framing and cinematography make My Own Private Idaho incredibly memorable. Even Reeves is well suited to the role; Scott is fickle and distracted, but feels compelled to protect Mike. The touching campfire scene in which Mike professes his love is at once exhilarating and heartbreaking.
The film opens and closes with Phoenix narrating in the middle of an empty Idaho highway, and these and other scenes in the film are occasionally interrupted with Mike’s home-movie style memories: a distant view of a modest house, a woman, a child.
The shots in Italy emphasizing Mike’s loneliness are simlarly affecting (and roads continue to be a theme):
The funeral scene toward the end is one of the most memorable. Newly reformed Scott attends his father’s funeral, while at the same time a makeshift “funeral party” for mentor Bob rages just down the hill. For some reason, the exuberance of this scene reminded me of the end of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, which is pretty impossible to describe in words. Mike still has conflicted feelings towards Scott, as we see in his sidelong glances across the cemetary.
Despite its flaws, this film to me represents Van Sant’s particular visual genius at its best.
On a side note, this film visually reminded me of another I enjoyed recently, Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise, from 1998. The film stars Vincent Kartheiser (of Mad Men) and Natasha Gregson Wagner as Bobbie and Rosie, dirt poor teenage delinquents recruited by a big-time crime couple (James Woods and Melanie Griffith) for a job that goes horribly awry. Similar to My Own Private Idaho, lost kids in search of parental figures are the focus, but instead of the delusional ramblings of Bob, we have sweating, swearing, homocidal maniac James Woods. They get deeper into drugs and violence, Rosie ODs, and Bobbie must escape the wrath of Woods in a nail-biting finale at an isolated rest stop.
What’s striking about the film is the way, similar to My Own Private Idaho, that it juxtaposes a gritty city landscape with a pastoral country one. Later in the film, the characters must relocate to what’s basically the middle of nowhere in the western plains. Where the city was visually cluttered and grimy, the rural locations are shot through a lens of perpetual dusk, dim but sharp and occasionally bathed in an orange glow.
The final scene, of which I cannot find an image or video anywhere, sticks with me as a higher-stakes reimagining of Truffaut’s final tracking shot of Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows. Bobbie runs for his life through a field of corn just barely high enough to conceal him, accompanied by the aformentioned orange glow and Dylan’s hymn “Every Grain of Sand.”
I’ve always been a sucker for endings, and what these two films lack in plot and character they more than make up for through the sheer power of images.