My Own Private Idaho: Van Sant's Best Film? (Part Two)

Part Two

“My Own Private Idaho” begins and closes with a similar image. In the opening scene, Mike falls asleep on an empty road in Idaho. And at the end, Mike experiences again a narcoleptic fit when he physically collapses. While sleeping, a truck stops by and two men steal his belongings, including his shoes. Shortly thereafter, another car stops by and its unseen driver grabs Mike’s body into his vehicle before speeding away. In these images, the circular narrative celebrates the romance of the road as well as drifting as a lifestyle.

Once again, Van Sant courted controversy in his treatment of the homoerotic exploits of male hustlers. All along, Van Sant insisted that it was not a gay story, a label that was attached to the film due to the subject matter and pre-release publicity. “It doesn’t bother me for people to call it that way gay. The film was made by a gay person—me. But I don’t think it’s addressing a gay audience or issues in the gay world directly. It’s not done from a particular point of view about sexual orientation. It’s written with a general audience in mind.” To justify his perspective, Van Sant claimed that the hustlers in the film think of themselves as straight—they are like “pirates, street people.” He elaborated: “It’s a film about an area of society—prostitution—that’s not defined in terms of gay or straight. The hustlers and their johns definitely don’t think of themselves as gay. In real life, the clients for the paying johns tend to be middle-class businessmen or construction workers with families.”

Characteristically, Van Sant ignored warnings that male prostitution and homosexuality were taboos in the prevalent climate of the late 1980s and early 1990s, marked by public hysteria, largely a combined result of ignorance and media neglect, over the AIDS epidemic. But he was cautious in the specific way he depicted sex on screen, a function of his shy, repressed personality as well as fear of alienating a major segment of the film’s potential audience, which was supposed to go beyond gay spectatorship.

In both “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho,” Van Sant went out of his way not to depict the men’s lifestyle in a cheap or lurid manner. As he later commented: “The sex in ‘My Own Private Idaho’ is not so important. It’s sort of something that they do routine. As long as the audience got the idea that they are routine sexual objects, it isn’t really about sex.” To that extent, Van Sant shows the sexual encounters from the P.O.V. of the partners involved: “If you can get there and make the camera not a voyeur but a participant, you can get away with a little more. But it’s still a problem, because of our own perception of sex. I’m embarrassed by certain things. Being ‘bad’ is part of it, although it doesn’t have to be that way, and I know other cultures know that, but our culture is pretty uptight.”

One of the most eccentric scenes, set in a porn shop with the covers of gay magazines talking to the audience, was shot at Portland’s Film Follies Bookstore. Initially, Van Sant wanted Mike’s line to say “G-String Jesus,” but it was changed to “G-String” to avoid offending the religious factor. The line is delivered while Mike is tied to a post, wearing a loincloth padded with foam rubber to make his crotch look bigger.

There was a lot of anxiety at New Line Cinema about other sexual aspects of the movie, as yet unseen by the top executives. Rolfe Mittweg, a senior vice president, was quoted in Premiere magazine: “If Van Sant’s going to show erect dicks, I don’t know what we’re going to do.” Van Sant coolly responded: “Of course, it’s only a problem, because men get embarrassed when they see dicks on the screen.” The distributor sighed with relief upon seeing the final cut, in which there are no shots of penises, erect or otherwise.

None of the directors in this book has shown erect penises on screen. Waters has shown flaccid penises early on in his career, and Almodovar has depicted several such images, too. It is still one of the biggest taboos in world cinema. If memory serves, only a handful of directors have broken this taboo. They include Denmark’s controversial filmmaker and enfant terrible, Lars von Trier, in “The Idiots” and “AntiChrist,” France’s enfant terrible Leos Carax (“Lovers on the Bridge,” “Pola X,” and most recently, “Holy Motors”), and, of course, Paul Morrissey in his Dallesandro features.

It was important to Van Sant that the visual style of the explicitly gay scenes be varied, and that they always serve the narrative dramatically. There is a realistic scene in a coffee shop, when real hustlers Michael Parker and Scott Patrick Green and their cohorts relate spontaneously their first sex-for-pay adventures. Then, there is the more stylized orgy scene, a threesome between Mike, Scott and Hans. A seduction scene between Zabriskie, dressed in white, and Mike in her salmon-color bedroom ends on a funny, surreal note, when he literally falls asleep in her arms as they begins making out. At that moment, the older Zabriskie is like the missing mother, holding her beloved boy-lover in her arms.

In dealing with eros, Van Sant was guided by his philosophy that representing sex, rather than actually showing it, is more interesting. He wanted to give the viewers an idea of sex by showing still images of naked bodies in several tableaux that convey the specific positions, but not the actual movements. Taken a different approach, would have turned the scenes into pornography and also change their dramatic purpose.

There is consensus that the film’s most emotional scenes are the intimate interactions between Mike and Scott. When the duo hit the road to Idaho on motorcycles to look for Mike’s mother, they take a break. Sitting at a campfire, Mike proposes to have sex in order to relieve the boredom. It was River Phoenix who expanded the three-page scene in the script into a long eight-page act, which he wrote by himself, inspired by the mood of the text and encouraged by his mate, Keanu Reeves. To express his genuine feelings for Scott, Mike says, “I love you, and you don’t have to pay me,” indicating how clear is the separation between love and sex in his other life.

Van Sant saw Mike’s ambiguities as integral to his emotional arrest and sexual awkwardness. The scene in which Mike declares love for Scott made Mike “more normal, more positive,” even though in Van Sant’s initial conception the character was unable to say something like that. Van Sant explained: “I wanted them to fool around, to suck each other off, because they were in the desert and there was nothing to do.” That was the impulse of the scene, and the reason why Van Sant makes Scott say, “No, man, I don’t do that.” In the released version, Mike tells Scott he wants to kiss him, and the two embrace, but it’s so dark that it’s hard to see what exactly they do, and the scene ends rather abruptly.

The visit to Rome in search for Mike’s missing mother was propelled by the timeless quality of the Eternal City, as well as the homoeroticism of the place in its Renaissance art. There was also the old tradition of male prostitution, which had inspired gay Italian directors, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini. What makes the foreign scenes distinctly American and Van Santian is that as soon as the characters arrive in Rome, they have a moment of recognition–they see cliques of male hustlers that are just like them. In a symbolic way, Mike and Scott meet their counterparts who are essentially themselves.

With his exotic look, Keanu Reeves was extremely photogenic, and beginning to rise in films like “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” as well as “Point Break,” which he shot just before “My Own Private Idaho.” Van Sant was intrigued by Reeves’ looks as well by his valley-kind of speech, which gave the Shakespearean scenes artificial eloquence. When Mike and Scott communicate, it’s as if they speak their own secret language, which only makes sense to them and only they can understand. The two actors’ differing styles complement each other. There is a playful, emotionally childlike, utterly spontaneous side to Phoenix, a Method actor known for researching thoroughly each role. In contrast, Reeves is a more cerebral and detached actor, whose physical stiffness and emotional clumsiness serve well the character as written by Van Sant.

Dominated by yellows and reds, the color palette that production designer David Brisbin chose for the picture, was very different from that of “Drugstore Cowboy.” There is extensive use of salmon color, as in the bedroom walls of Zabriskie’s home, the interiors of the house where Bob presides over the hustlers, the zipper jacket worn by Mike, his various shirts and t-shirts. The strong color of yellow stands out in the various cars and taxis, the yellow jackets of the cops who raid the house, some of the interiors, and the sunflower that Mike holds so touchingly towards the end.

Van Sant hoped that his movie would have a broader exposure than “Drugstore Cowboy” and it did, though not substantially. “My Own Private Idaho” grossed about $6.4 million at the domestic box-office. However, far more important than the commercial success (especially by indie standards) was the near-universal critical acclaim.