My Own Private Idaho (1991): Van Sant’s Masterpiece?

My_own_private_idaho_poster_gus_van_santFilms with similar themes or issues often appear in cycles, as was manifest with the new black cinema of the late 1980s and early 1990s, in the work of Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing” in 1989) and John Singleton (“Boyz N’ the Hood” in 1991) and others, energized by the broader socio-political contexts of American society at that time.  Similarly, specific factors have affected gay cinema of the 1990s, prime among which was the AIDS epidemic.  For years, there was fearful avoidance of dealing with the AIDS phenomenon, then controversy erupted over the kind of “morally responsible yet realistic” entertainment that artists should be making about AIDS.  As I showed in, this dilemma became clear in the reception of Haynes’ “Poison,” which came out in 1991, the same year that Van Sant made “My Own Private Idaho.”

The exploration in “Drugstore Cowboy” of young hustlers living in society’s outer fringes, as well as that film’s Portland settings, are also manifest in the critically acclaimed “My Own Private Idaho,” arguably Van Sant’s strongest, most ambitious feature.  Once again, Van Sant chose a subjective perspective, telling the narrative from the P.O.V. of the protagonist, Mike Waters, an apocaleptic street hustler.  In earlier versions, Van Sant entertained other titles for his film, such as “In a Blue Funk” and “Minions of the Moon.” The film’s ultimate moniker derives from a song lyric by the rock group B-52, and also from Van Sant’s trips to Idaho.  He has always regarded Idaho as more than just a geographic place—a state of mind, a refuge taken for comfort.

My_own_private_idaho_5_reeves_gus_van_santAfter the critical and commercial success of “Drugstore Cowboy,” the studios courted Van Sant with lucrative offers, butheresisted the mainstream.  His interest in “My Own Private Idaho” was deemed “too risky” by the studios.  After all, one of the very first scenes depicts the hero, Mike, having oral sex for pay with an older man in a seedy motel.  However, with the support of the young and bright executive Cam Galano of New Line Cinema, Van Sant got the green light for a $2.6 million movie, to be released by Fine Line Features, the art division of New Line, soon to be headed by the entrepreneurial Ira Deutschmann.

A personal film, “My Own Private Idaho” reflects some of Van Sant’s own experiences.  Michael Parker, a homeless street hustler who smokes pot, served as inspiration for the character of Mike Waters.  Scott Favor, the tale’s other lead, is a rich boy who goes slumming in the underbelly of Portland and Seattle. As the product of upper-class family, Van Sant could relate more easily to Scott: “Scott is, or could be, me, coming from the blue-blood and royalty of Portland.” The project became even more personal, when Van Sant cast himself in the film as the ponytailed bellboy in the Idaho hotel.

My_own_private_idaho_4_reeves_phoenix_gus_van_santWhile the film was in the planning phases, Michael Parker was supposed to play Mike, and Rodney Harvey was going to be Scott. Both were close to Van Sant: Parker played the harassed youth in “Drugstore Cowboy,” and Harvey, an Andy Warhol alumnus, was pulled out of that picture due to drug problems. But the critical acclaim of “Drugstore Cowboy” enabled Van Sant to send the script to bigger agencies.  After struggling with some talent managers due to the script’s riske contents, Van Sant was able to get a high-profile ensemble, headed by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in the lead roles of Mike and Scott, the appealing street hustlers.  In a bizarre turn of events that seldom happens, the fictional Mike and Scott and the real-life hustlers, upon which their characters are based, appear in the movie in smaller roles.

The film is cast with eccentric actors, many of whom veterans of Van Sant’s previous efforts.  The raucous, chicken hawk Bob Pigeon, an unappealing part, is played by filmmaker William Rickert (“Winter Kill,” among others). Robert Lee “Bob” Pitchlynn (a veteran of bits in previous Van Sant films), the inspiration for the Bob Pigeon character, was cast as Walt, the first john who performs fellatio on Mike.  Grace Zabriskie, who had played Matt Dillon’s mother in “Drugstore Cowboy,” plays a wealthy matron who pays for the company of younger men.  The European gentleman Hans, a traveling car parts salesman who likes male hustlers, was played by the German actor and cult figure Udo Kier, who had earlier scored in Andy Warhol’s productions, “Blood for Dracula” and “Flesh for Frankenstein.” “My Own Private Idaho” won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay, and it also gained River Phoenix the Best Actor honor at the Venice Film Festival. Quite established for his age, Phoenix had already impressed in “Stand by Me” (1986) and had already received a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for “Running on Empty” (1988), Sidney Lumet’s political melodrama. Van Sant’s feature also helped Keanu Reeves, then best-known for his “Bill and Ted” movies, to get better screen roles.

Thematically, the film explores the notions of being an outsider (even if one belongs to the upper class or power elite), family abandonment, unrequited love, self-estrangement, social alienation, and the meaning of friendship and family bonds, all concepts that Van Sant has explored and would continue to examine in future films.

As usual with Van Sant, the screenplay was a reflection of all the literary sources that he had absorbed up to that point.  He had publicly acknowledged, in addition to Shakespeare, the influence of the playwright Sam Shepard, specifically in the intense scenes in which Mike and Scott visit Mike’s brother, Richard (played by James Russo).  In those scenes, significant revelations are made about their troubled family past, how their unstable mother fell for a gambler-cowboy who did not love her; how Richard spent time in mental institution; and how their mom shot her beau in a movie house while they were watching “Rio Bravo,” Howard Hawks’ 1959 cult Western, starring John Wayne. Says Richard: “The popcorn spread all over the floor soaked with blood,” an image seen in a powerful flashback.

Van Sant has always admired John Rechy’s 1963 chronicle “City of Night,” which he read and reread in the 1970s, while observing hustlers. The book helped him to understand the denizens of Hollywood Boulevard, as they walk the streets aimlessly, go on the prowl, relax in coffee shops and video arcades, pass time between tricks and drug boosts, and crash out at friends’ apartments or in cheap hotel rooms rented by their customers. There were also negative points of reference, to use a more sociological jargon. While impressed with the visual texture of Martin Bell’s acclaimed documentary, ”Streetwise,” which deals with homeless teenagers in Seattle, it was hard for Van Sant not to notice the conspicuous omission of male prostitutes from the narrative. The stark documentary “Streetwise” was nominated for the 1984 Oscar, but, ironically, the winner that year was “The Times of Harvey Milk,” about the gay politician, a figure that had intrigued Van Sant and would be the subject of his 2008 film, “Milk.”

As a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” now set among street hustlers, “My Own Private Idaho” is by turns nonchalant and touching, structurally loose but coherent, graced with unexpected lyrical images and narrative hairpins. Shakespeare is used in the film to convey the transcendence of time, suggesting that Mike and Scott are figures that can—and do–exist anywhere and anytime.  (That they do exist becomes clear in the film’s Rome sequences, when they meet Italian youngster who are both their counterparts and their clones).

In this post-modern skid-row tale, Van Sant reworks ideas from Shakespeare in a light and playful mode.  Van Sant must have also been inspired by Orson Welles’ 1966 film, “Chimes at Midnight,” which is based on Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” with the then portly and grandly operatic Welles as Falstaff. Having teenage hustlers lapse into Shakespearean verse, in a deliberately modern and stilted way, didn’t always work for some critics, but it suited the story and added an original touch.  Spectators used to more conventional fare found the film’s veering off the narrative track disturbing and problematic.  For them, the tale was like a pileup of open parentheses within parentheses, which never got fully closed (by design, as far as Van Sant is concerned).[ii]  This kind of critique points to the expectations of critics who favor clear closures over ambiguity and uncertainty.

On a closer look, however, “My Own Private Idaho” reads more like an expanded version of Van Sant’s earlier films, elevating their issues to a more lyrical and symbolic level.  A narcoleptic hustler, Mike is haunted by his mother’s abandonment when he was a boy.  One of the narrative’s strands depicts Mike’s desperate and obsessive search for his mother, reversing the conventions of most Hollywood movies, in which it is usually the parents who search for their missing children or relatives, from John Ford’s seminal “The Searchers” all the way to Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore,” and John Boorman’s “The Emerald Forest.” Throughout, Van Sant inserts images of Mike’s mother caressing him as an adolescent (though emotionally he’s still a child), while reassuring him, “Don’t worry.  Everything will be all right.”  Later on, brief vignettes of the mother and Mike as a baby are also shown, evoking the image of Madonna and La Pieta (which, as I showed also prevails in Almodovar’s oeuvre).

The ailment of narcolepsy is a metaphor for the effects that Mike’s emotional life has on his physical life, and vice versa, the impact of his illness on his helplessness on the streets. But narcolepsy also fulfills a narrative function, as a time-traveling device and as a way to segue from one locale to another.  Structurally, the film is divided into chapters, each set in a different place, which is indicated by a title card. The narrative begins in Seattle, then moves to Portland, Idaho, and Rome before ending back in Portland.  Mike is observed falling asleep in one site, and then being carried away while sleeping, or reawakes by himself in another place.

Mike falls in love with Scott, a fellow hustler who stands to inherit a fortune from his father, Portland’s paraplegic mayor; in Shakespeare’s plays, he was the king’ son.  Until then, Scott looks upon Bob Pigeon, a cocaine-dealing braggart, and the film’s equivalent of Falstaff, as his “true father.” Like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal figure, Scott intends to renounce his street life and repudiate his friends when his father dies, which he does, in a heartbreaking scene set at the cemetery.

“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 and drifting a uniquely American lifestyle.

Once again, Van Sant courted controversy in treating the homoerotic exploits of hustlers.   All along, Van Sant insisted that it was not a gay story, a label that was attached to the film due to its subject matter in the pre-release publicity.  “It doesn’t bother me if people call it 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.” Explaining his perspective, Van Sant claimed that the film’s hustlers 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 don’t think of themselves as gay.  In real life, the clients, 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 early 1990s.  The prevalent hysteria in American culture was a combined result of the public’s ignorance and the media deliberate neglect of the AIDS epidemic.  But Van Sant was cautious in the specific way he depicted sex on screen, a function of his shy 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 made sure 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 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, were shot at Portland’s Film Follies Bookstore. Initially, Van Sant wanted Mike’s to say “G-String Jesus,” but it was changed to “G-String” in order to avoid offending the religious factor.  The line is delivered while Mike is tied to a post, wearing a loincloth padded with foam rubber in order to make his crotch look bigger.

There was a lot of anxiety at New Line 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.

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 tableaux of specific positions, but not relying on actual sexual movements. Taking a different approach would have lapsed the scenes into pornography and also change their dramatic purpose. It was important to Van Sant that the visual style of the explicitly gay scenes is varied and not stereotypical, and that the sexual acts serve the narrative dramatically.  For example, the scene in the coffee shop, when the real-life hustlers Michael Parker and Scott Patrick Green and their cohorts relate spontaneously their first sex-for-pay adventures was done in a realistic cinema verite mode. But the three-way orgy between Mike, Scott and Hans was shot in a more stylized way. Finally, the seduction scene between Grace Zabriskie, who’s dressed in white, and Mike in her salmon-color bedroom ends on a funny, surreal note, when Mike literally falls asleep in her arms as they begins making out.  At that moment, the older Zabriskie is like Mike’s missing mother, holding her lover-boy and boy-lover in her arms in yet another evocation of Madonna and La Pieta.

No doubt, the film’s strongest emotions are evoked in 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 their 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 the clear distinction between love and sex is in his “other” life.

Mike’s sexual ambiguity is seen as integral to his state of emotional arrest and 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 that he wants to kiss him, and the two embrace.  It’s so dark, however, that it’s hard to see what exactly is it that they do, not to mention the fact that the scene ends abruptly.

The couple’s visit to Rome searching for Mike’s missing mother is propelled by the timeless quality of the Eternal City, as well as by the place’s prevalent homoeroticism in Renaissance art. There has always been a tradition in Italian culture of male prostitution, a tradition that had inspired many of its gay directors, such as Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini. What makes the foreign scenes distinctly American and Van Santian is that, as soon as the guys arrive in Rome, they have a moment of recognition–they see male hustlers that are just like them.  In a symbolic way, Mike and Scott meet their counterparts who are essentially extensions of 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’ photogeneity as well by his valley-kind of speech, which gave the Shakespearean scenes, sort of a more formal and artificial eloquence. When Mike and Scott communicate, it’s as if they speak their own secret language that only makes sense to them and only they can fully understand it.  The two actors’ differing styles complement each other.  There is a playful, childlike spontaneity to Phoenix, a Method actor known for researching thoroughly each and every of his roles.  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 different from the green-dominated scheme of “Drugstore Cowboy.” More specifically, the salmon color is extensively use, 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, and his various shirts and t-shirts. The strong yellow color stands out in the various cars and taxis, the jackets of the cops who raid the house, the interiors, and the sunflower that Mike holds so touchingly towards the end.

Van Sant was hoping 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.  Many scholars and critics (including me) consider the film to be Van Sant’s masterwork.