1991-2000DramaGus Van SantQueer Cinema(s)USA

Gus Van Sant – My Own Private Idaho (1991)


Non-normative texts concern themselves with subject matter that is marginalized, or not widely accepted as “normal.” Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho – an ode to the abandoned, and the isolated – is an example. It’s an exercise in brilliant directorial innovation, and cinematic ingenuity – required viewing for the capsized, fissure-ridden heart.

The film offers up a discourse on the fragility, and the emotional and intellectual convolution, of children who are left with the burden of trying to understand why their parents have abandoned them. This search becomes obdurate and lost, in the cases of Mike Waters (a physical and emotional narcoleptic, played to perfection by River Phoenix), and Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves); Mike is subverted by an idyllic yearning for the past, while Scott is consumed by familial regret and rebellion.

We are introduced to the seedy life of the male street-hustler, meeting an interesting cast of characters such as William Richert’s Bob (an aging hustler dubbed the “grandfather” of the streets), and his sidekick, played well by Flea. The surface plot follows Mike and Scott, as one attempts to find his missing mom, while the other plays
“rebel-without-a-cause” to spite his capitalistic, superficial father. Their journey at first invites escapist vice and decadence, leading them through the hustler-dense areas of Portland, Oregon and then to Italy, where Scott meets an idyllic girl who makes him want to lead a normal, straight life, and then on to the trailer park that houses Mike’s biological father, and finally, to a funeral.

The outset of the film sets the metaphoric stage well, as Mike is alone, in the middle of a barren street, equipped with an object that iconographically controls time (a watch), and accompanied by an enduring symbol of innocence (a bunny)… both of which are no longer reliable. Van Sant skilfully externalizes the internal in this opening sequence, with “cinema-of-attraction-shots” (single-shot visuals that resonate, whether or not they’re included in a full-length narrative), like the use of a collapsing house to underscore perverse pleasure, or the jarring sight of a school of salmon swimming against the current. Van Sant builds on this externalizing-of-the-internal throughout the film, with a colour code that exposes the symbiotic relationship between garish reds, which connote heat, passionate-rebellion, liveliness, and danger, with antiseptic whites – representing emotional sterility and blankness. By including handheld camera shots, zooms, tracking-shots, and visuals layered with a musical choice that patronizes American folklore songs, a strong and pertinent social commentary begins… one that asserts the innate fallibility of American values. This commentary bookends the film, as the visual depiction that concludes the proceedings is one of American greed, and callousness… Mike’s fate being the unfortunate sum to life’s harsh equation.

Motifs of America’s need to pledge allegiance to normality (found in references to white-picket fences, pets, and family cars), and the struggle inherent in nature, lend to the film’s brilliance – the freedom experienced by fish is undermined visually throughout the film, as they are swimming backward, or seen in states of ossification as frozen, or as a statue. In the end, Mike is a self-proclaimed, “connoisseur of roads, who’s tasted all different kinds of roads.”

There are many other points of interest that deserve mention; simply said, My Own Private Idaho is a cult-American classic that – like anything cleverly multi-layered – should be surveyed and examined several times in order to fully appreciate how and why this film works as a brilliant piece of art, and entertainment.

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