Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For June, we celebrate the birthday (and the sensitive, insightful eye) of Gus Van Sant. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Looking at Gus Van Sant‘s career now, it’s almost impossible to imagine him as the young, weird, experimental New Queer Cinema pioneer he started out to be. But regardless of the stages of his career, he’s long been fascinated with alienated, misspent youth, from the queer outsiders of Mala Noche to the delinquent, drug-addicted rebels of Drugstore Cowboy. My Own Private Idaho, arguably the apex of his New Queer Cinema days, looks down the barrel of both these classes of kids, and in so doing remains one of his most achingly poignant and stylistically daring works.
Idaho opens on the dictionary definition of narcolepsy — “a condition characterized by an extreme tendency to fall asleep whenever in relaxing surroundings.” In a literal sense, that defines the medical turmoil of young gigolo Mike (River Phoenix, in one of the most soulful turns of his too-short life), who falls into sleep and seizures at anything resembling the memory of his dead mother. But so much of Idaho has the affect of a dream, from its expressionistic moments of fancy (the boys in a men’s magazine coming to life and talking to the camera, the Lynchian clients Mike tends to entertain) to the thematic stupor its characters fall into.
Both Mike and his friend, the Henry IV-inspired Scott (Keanu Reeves), are waiting to wake up in their own ways: for Mike, he craves the safety and security of a home and mother he no longer has. For Scott, his life of fancy-free poverty tourism, spending a gap year on the other side of the tracks before inheriting his father’s riches and enjoying a life of privilege, is the dream from which he must someday wake.
Both men are queer, but queer in ways that elide the explicit homosexuality on which this movie’s reputation is often pinned. Mike and Scott both engage in relations with men, but in a purely transactional manner: they’re marks, clients, boys to be used and consumed by men for fleeting moments of escape. In interviews, Van Sant has hinted that Mike was originally planned to be asexual, but Phoenix’s pained eyes and lost-boy innocence allows us to see the boyish love he carries for Scott. It’s misspent, of course; Scott, for his part, is trying on homosexuality just like he is poverty — a phase he can play around with before he has to put his big-boy pants on and join his rightful place among the economic elite. He even runs away from Mike’s love by shacking up with an Italian goddess in Rome.
Instead, Idaho feels more about queerness in the broader, academic sense of the term — the people and concepts considered abject by mainstream society. Its characters are informed by the push and pull of class, the homeless rent boys Mike and Scott hang around with (led by the enabling, Falstaffian Bob Pigeon (William Richert)) thumbing their nose at the establishment.
Scott’s dance between the mainstream normalcy of upper-crust heterosexual life and the freewheeling, queer world of Mike is never better expressed than the joint funerals of Bob and Scott’s mayor father. Scott’s side is all repressed solemnity, Mike’s a shouting, cacophonous carnival mourning their patriarch by raising a ruckus, just like he’d want. In one scene, we get the appeal of queerness: we don’t have to hold ourselves down in silence. We can shout and wail and party until the sun goes down. We can be who we really are, freed from propriety or responsibility.
We don’t have to hold ourselves down in silence. We can shout and wail and party until the sun goes down.
This sense of freedom extends to the filmmaking, which is some of Van Sant’s most vibrant: rather than committing to a single gimmicky conceit (a la Psycho or Elephant), Idaho drifts in and out of stylistic modes. From its faux-erudite Shakespearean dialogue to absurdly potent images like an entire house crashing to the ground at the moment of Mike’s orgasm early in the film, there’s a ramshackle romanticism to the way Van Sant presents his world.
But through it all, Van Sant’s characters want to find home. Whether it’s in the arms of a lover, or the reassurance of their childhood home or Mike’s search for his own mother, the title itself feels analogous to the queer “We’ll Always Have Paris” – our Idaho is a place where we can be loved, safe, protected. For the queer youth of America, that place is frustratingly hard to find, especially for its most vulnerable populations (trans women of color in particular).
As the closing minutes of My Own Private Idaho reminds us, America’s a place willing to prey on us as soon as our back is turned — or in Mike’s case, when one falls asleep on the side of the road. As an unconscious Mike is hauled into a pickup truck by two mysterious men, his fate uncertain but uneasy, we hear “America the Beautiful” playing in the background. This is America, argues Van Sant — for queer people, ‘normal’ isn’t just out of reach, but threatens to swallow them whole. The only solution, it seems, is to relish the freedom of your self, for however long it lasts.