Published Oct 06, 2015In 1991, when Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho emerged as the very embodiment of the low budget American art film, the vocabulary of cinema was changing. The extremist superficial sensibilities of '80s entertainment were morphing into a manic mishmash of neon sensationalism and entirely emotionless, subtext-free pap by the early '90s, inevitably hitting a breaking point that allowed marginalized voices to emerge. Though independent art-house cinema existed at the time, as did queer cinema (albeit, typically in a tragic vein where homosexuality was positioned as a curse or an illness), it didn't typically find the sort of audience and mainstream dialogue that Idaho managed to achieve, thanks in part to the presence of teen heartthrobs Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix.
Gus Van Sant, who was essentially a privileged art school brat, had just directed Drugstore Cowboy when Idaho was given the green light. This was the film he wanted to make initially, but financial backers were a little hesitant to fund a film about gay hustlers, instead feeling more comfortable throwing money at a movie that documented the junkie lifestyle. The success of that film gave Van Sant a bit of flexibility, though. As discussed in the illustrated conversation between Van Sant and fellow art-house/queer/academic auteur Todd Haynes, and in the "Making of" supplements included with the Criterion Blu-ray release, this tale of outsider alienation was actually an amalgamation of three separate scripts that was actually envisioned without known actors in the leads.
These insights ultimately explain how and why Idaho unfolds the way it does, and why it's such an oddity. It's a film about Mike Waters (Phoenix), a narcoleptic street hustler on a quest to find his mother, but the mother is never really a tangible reality and, as presented through flashbacks and peripheral assertions, isn't even an idealized vision of how his journey will end. Rather, this curious watershed moment for gay cinema unfolds as an exploration of class divisions and social behaviours, as perceived by an outsider through the template of a road movie. Mike's relationship with Scott Favor (Reeves), a rich boy dabbling in the street hustler lifestyle as an act of rebellion, is more vital than this quest, as is the candid documentation of these boys and how they operate on the margins of society.
These divisions in narrative focus and preoccupation seem to stem from the melding of several concepts. The basic backdrop of My Own Private Idaho is a stylized metaphorical road trip movie; Mike is perpetually on the road, travelling from Idaho to Portland to Rome and back, slipping in and out of consciousness only to emerge in new spaces and new situations. It's a dreamlike existence, out of his control and without any clear focus, but Van Sant captures his psychology through hazy home footage flashbacks, time lapse photography and distinctive visual cues — such as a shed falling from the sky during an orgasm — heightening the sort of disconnect that Mike feels. Though Mike often has Scott by his side and encounters a brother (maybe father) at some point, the road trip convention constantly leaves him on an empty road to nowhere. He's trapped between two worlds, having some foundation in legitimate society — not entirely being a part of the street boy world — but not being allowed to function within an affluent, heterosexual world of "normalcy."
But this basic template, which is easily the strongest component of the film and is very much grounded by Phoenix's broken down (but not entirely defeated) depiction of someone marginalized by sheer disposition, is splintered. Peppered throughout the basic story are vérité-style interviews with actual street hustlers and, more notably, an entire storyline that mirrors Shakespeare's Henry IV. Though the introduction of Bob (William Richert), the Falstaff of the piece, does provide an overriding framework for Van Sant's eventual juxtaposition of class system dynamics, it's also quite jarring, and is arguably the least successful component of Idaho.
The introduction of revitalized Shakespearean language and a chorus of rent boys living in dilapidated buildings (like Oliver Twist set in a Terry Gilliam environment, but with butt sex and cocaine) is an interruption. The tone and style of the film changes, and these manic sequences, with their stilted dialogue and surrealist sensibilities, don't have the sincerity or focus of the overall framing device, ultimately hindering some of the audience emotional investment. But once Idaho reaches its final act and Scott embraces his affluent birthright — ultimately culminating in a funeral that juxtaposes the severity of the rich and the anarchic honesty of the poor — the storyline adds a dimension of purpose to an otherwise somewhat desultory film.
Where Van Sant succeeds more admirably is in his handling of how these two worlds — the affluent and the poor — intersect. When Mike serves as rent boy to rich, eccentric gay men, he gets a glimpse of their idiosyncrasy. One man's obsession with the Dutch Boy archetype and a German man's (Udo Kier) need to perform musical numbers with an oversized lamp pre-coitus demonstrate the sort of behaviours that need to be repressed in rich, polite society, but are acceptable in their presentation to, and exploitation of, the less fortunate.
Though My Own Private Idaho is a bit of a mess and works mostly out of luck and passion, it's also a vital work that holds up well over time. It opened doors for other queer filmmakers to make films for audiences outside of the usual limited queer urban viewer and introduced an intriguing, if unfocused, new voice to the cinematic lexicon. As discussed in the "Kings of the Road" interview with film scholar Paul Arthur, it was part of a movement of queer cinema using the road trip convention to challenge and broaden the scope of a genre that was known for exploring notions of masculinity and the male identity.
The Criterion Blu-ray also includes deleted scenes, interviews with River Phoenix, a conversation between producer Laurie Parker and Rain Phoenix, and an audio conversation between writer JT LeRoy and filmmaker Jonathan Caouette. It's also presented with a restored 4K digital transfer and 2.0 surround DTS Master Audio, making it easily the best home video presentation of My Own Private Idaho in existence.