Sunday, June 14, 2009

Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Mike looks more like a gas station attendant, with a "Bob" patch on his breast, than a hitchhiker, standing alone on a road, out in the middle of nowhere; but it's an identifiable road, because with his fingers, Mike looks through them and can make out the "fucked-up face" of two bushes as eyes and a road as its mouth. This is Idaho, because the colored title-card preceding the sequence said so and later to be revealed Mike's childhood home. Right now the imagery of Idaho is blazing under his eyelids in a dream, with clouds moving quickly with time-lapse photography, more than likely from a narcoleptic episode, where an older woman has Mike's head in his lap, comforting him. It's the image of his mother, who Mike will go looking for later, but as he awakens to his orgasm and a couple of tens thrown on his stomach, Mike's back in Seattle, because Mike's a hustler.

Later on, as Mike hits the streets to work, he gets picked up by a wealthy lady driving a Mercedes. She takes Mike home and he's stunned, because he never gets picked up by ladies. In fact, this lady needs more than one guy to get her worked up, so she has three guys waiting. The other two, Mike knows. Mike goes first, but listening to the sound of the ocean and the sight of an older woman, similar to the woman in Mike's Idaho visions, makes Mike pass out again. His friends, one to whom Mike is very close, Scott, let him sleep in the cozy rich neighborhood. The next morning Mike meets a German, named Hans, driving a Mercedes, also, and offers to give Mike a lift to where ever he wants to go. Mike thinks Hans wants to do whatever he wants to Mike, so he refuses and passes out. Mike wakes up in Portland, his head nestled in the arms of Scott.Scott's a rich kid, and he's working the streets as a calculated plan, as he tells the viewer from the cover of a porn magazine. Scott is the planned aimless youth: at twenty-one, he inherits his father's fortune, but before that day (in one week), Scott reveals in a soliloquy that he wants to be the Prodigal Son. His father will love him more, Scott believes, if he comes back reformed. Scott is loved by Bob (and loves Mike), who is a older chap and spiritual guru to the street kids. Bob's verbose and Falstaff-witty and silly. With Bob's merry band, Scott and Mike pull a playful heist with the old geezer. Nonetheless, Scott and Mike take a break on a motorcycle to Idaho, and Mike recognizes the road with "the fucked-up face." Over a campfire, Mike reveals his love for Scott, but it's not returned. Mike and Scott look for Mike's mother, but run into Mike's brother. It's pretty painful for Mike, but he learns his mother's whereabouts. Scott and Mike go to a hotel, where they believe she works, but she doesn't. She left a forwarding address in Italy. Scott and Mike run into Hans, who gives them a performance in his hotel room, while they earn some travel money from Hans (shot in still shots).In Italy, Mike's sleeping on the streets of Rome with the other street kids. Scott gets a cab and they head to the villa where, supposedly Mike's mom lives. She's not there, but Scott meets a beautiful Italian girl named Carmella. Carmella falls in love with Scott, and these two leave Mike alone in the villa. Mike tries to work the streets of Rome but goes a little crazy. He flies back to Portland and goes a little crazier. He spends the night on the street, while Scott's seen in a slick, expensive suit. His father's died, and Scott's inherited. Bob recognizes Scott, but Scott turns his back on him. Soon, Bob dies and while Scott sits with Carmella at his father's funeral, Scott glances over down the hill, where the street kids, including Mike, are mourning Bob's death. Back to Idaho, and Mike's all alone on the same road. He has a fit of narcolepsy and passes out, his shoes get stolen and then someone picks him up in a car. "Have a nice day."I'd previously seen Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and was impressed with his blend of tragedy and comedy. Showing the life of drug addicts with slightly rose-colored sunglasses, but not completely romantic, was an alluring and captivating aspect of the film. I was sixteen and in the UK at the time, and was fortunate to see Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) on the big screen. It's use of time-lapse photography, and especially the Idaho and Italy sequences, were amazingly beautiful on the big screen. Its stars, River Phoenix, as Mike, and Keanu Reeves, as Scott, were well-known to me. Virtually no twelve year-old boy could say that he hadn't seen Rob Reiner's Stand by Me (1986) nor could he say that he didn't love it. Fewer folks, however, had seen Phoenix in William Richert's A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988), based on Richert's novel, but those who'd seen it liked it. Jimmy Reardon has a cult following today, and Richert played Bob in My Own Private Idaho (where he was very good). Phoenix gave an excellent performance in Sidney Lumet's terrific Running on Empty (1988). I'd seen Reeves, previously, in underrated Tim Hunter's River's Edge (1986) and as airhead Ted in Stephen Herek's Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989).Reeves is an interesting actor, who is highly successful today, but never known for his great dramatic range nor depth. Reeves's Scott is by far the most artificial and cosmetic character in My Own Private Idaho: extremely good-looking, charismatic, funny, and cold. Scott doesn't want to get close to anyone; and he runs into worlds where anonymity is the key: the streets, where he gets lost for months from his father, who has to send his mayoral troops to find him; and yuppie elite world, where virtually everyone looks alike, speaks the same way, and tries to buy the same things. If there was any connection to anyone for Scott, then it was with Mike. Instead, Scott doesn't explore those feelings and settles for a girl from another culture who speaks another language. Then again, Scott's not really from any particular culture nor does he really speak anyone's language. Perhaps Van Sant's casting of Reeves was ideal, because it works.While Phoenix gave an Oscar-nominated performance in Running on Empty, it is arguable that he gave his best performance in My Own Private Idaho, as Mike. When Phoenix died in 1993, the film sequence that I remember seeing shown over and over, by the media, was the campfire sequence in My Own Private Idaho. The campfire sequence is the film's pivotal scene, where the themes of unrequited love and alienation are polarized, and Phoenix becomes really, really vulnerable. Scott's character is complex, but Phoenix performs brilliantly. From his quiet moments to his emotional moments and to the surreal and beautiful sequences alone in Idaho and in Italy, Phoenix shines. Van Sant was certainly the king of the indie-movie hill in 1991, after Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. His next film, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) was a popular and critical failure, but Van Sant has gone on to become a very successful director, today. Even with all of his subsequent successes, I don't know if Van Sant ever recaptured the magic that he delivered in My Own Private Idaho. Its photography looks like beautiful animated still frames, and there's a current of energy running through the whole film that only wavers in tone but not intensity. When the film ended at the theatre where I originally saw the film, there was silence, except for one person giving an uncomfortable laugh when the end credits began. I suppose that that image sums up the film for me.


Geof said...

Being a huge Drugstore Cowboy fan, I am amazed to this day that I have not seen Private Idaho. I don't know it is because Keanu's in it or what? Maybe one day I will check it out.

Yeah Van Sant certainly moved alomg well after ECGTB alright. =)

Mr.LargePackage said...

Hans, I really enjoyed your review. It was very insightful and artistic. I am enjoying reading your blogs more and more and I can't wait for the next one. On a side note, if I don't get that money you owe me by Saturday, I am going to have to get large and in charge.

Neil Fulwood said...

I take my hat off to you, Hans. A lot's been written about 'My Own Private Idaho' in the 20 years since it was released, but I don't think I've read any other review that keyed into the film so totally in terms of imagery and got so close to the 'feel' of it.

'MOPI' is one of those select films where it doesn't matter what the story is, or whether there's a narrative arc, or how succinctly you can identify the characters. The 'feel' of it is everything, the way it lingers in your mind.

Hans A. said...

Geof--luv to hear your thoughts on this one. It's one of Van Sant's best.

Mr.LP--the check is in the mail.

Neil--thnx so much for your kind words. I really luv this one and enjoyed writing about it. Films like MOPI are just something else.

Thnx to all of you for reading and commenting. I really appreciate you.