Monday, January 3, 2011

My Own Private Idaho

I apologize for my infrequent posting; I've lost the fire, lately. I'm still watching movies constantly, but I'm more likely to climb into bed with a book than to collect my thoughts on a film. Luckily, My Own Private Idaho lends itself well to the kind of schizophrenic, incohesive pieces I feel capable of writing at the moment. Like a lot of great movies, this one is inconsistent. Supposedly, Idaho is loosely based on Henry IV, which leads to a middle act where the actors very suddenly develop Shakespearean affectations that were difficult for me to sit through. It wasn't my favorite, but because of general lack of cohesion in the movie to begin with, the segment doesn't not work, persay. The movie is at its best in the parts when Mike (River Phoenix) and Scott (Keanu Reeves) are awash in the landscapes of the West, interacting and balancing with their environment.

My opinion is that this movie would not work at all without the brilliantly understated performance by River Phoenix, which balances out some of the more audacious camera elements. The film creates a ballet between imagery and character as the film dips into Mike's subconscious, attempting to paint a brusque portrait of his experience in the world. The resulting movie is very dream-like, a story that tells itself more through imagery than dialogue or narrative. It's an experience best understood by letting the images wash over you, which is, admittedly a task much more easily accomplished in hindsight, when taking screen captures.

Mike is a narcoleptic, a narrative or, anti-narrative device as the case may be, that allows him to drift disjointedly from place to place like a sleepwalker. Often shown dwarfed by landscapes, he is a kid with no destination, seeking a path for himself. For the moment, and for the purpose of the film, the path on which he settles is the search for his lost mother. Gus Van Sant leaves many little treasures in the frame, like the road sign below, the engraving on the fountain, the ominous portraits crafted by Mike's brother. These details all suggest unease in the hustlers' existence within an environment that is not quite an underbelly, but more of an alternate universe. Dressed in warm colors, Mike often seems to blend into his surroundings like an animal whose skin is meant to camouflage. He is a native of the landscape, as the still-frame suggests, belonging everywhere, and consequently, nowhere in particular.

Of all the locations Mike stumbles through, only one repeats itself, or seems to hold any meaning for him. Ironically, it is a stretch of road, solidifying the idea that perpetual motion is, above all, what characterizes Mike. Several times he mentions that the road resembles a "fucked up face," and by the power of suggestion, we begin to see it too. The landscape is a specter that haunts this film, a character in itself. The perfectly insular American-ness of this movie is only slightly spoiled by a brief foray into Italy, but this alienating pilgrimage merely serves as another way for Mike to forge his identity as a lost boy. Jumping the pond in search of his mother, and funding the trip by hustling, Mike ends up losing another piece of himself in Scott, who abandons him for an Italian woman. Italy is just another corner of the world for Mike to work the streets in solitude. No matter where the hustlers go, the landscapes are vast, and the interiors are dark and claustrophobic.

Van Sant uses a variety of techniques to give us access to Mike's internal world, creating a haphazard collage that somewhat approximates the meanderings of the human mind. Mike is haunted by flashes of home-video memories of the mother he cannot truly remember, which often demarcate periods of sleep. Sex is represented in a series of still frames, as if stilted by Mike's refusal to fully imagine Scott with a woman.

In the end, the narcoleptic is swallowed into the world to continue his itinerant voyaging, his endless search for belonging. The landscapes in this movie are truly breathtaking, and the treatment of the gay themes is incredibly tender. I've rarely seen a better, more whole representation of a gay person on film, even if he happens to be emotionally shattered. Still, I don't really believe that this is a movie about the gay experience as much as it is about the universal need for a sense of stability, the set of expectations and emotional ties that create the idea of Home, even if Home just means the companionship of the one you love.


  1. I couldn't agree with everything in this entry more. Thanks for helping me to see more out of everything I watch with you.

  2. btdubs, Videogum is going to WMOAT Garden State. This will b fun!

  3. I really like your write-up of My Own Private Idaho, and agree with you on most of your points, (apart from the fact that River's performance was what made the film work - or that it wouldn't have worked without it -, and the Shakespearean language in the film, which I love to death.)

    Either way, I love your stuff, and this write-up is one of the many reasons I followed you!

    Keep it up, man.