MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (Gus Van Sant, 1991)

Romantic and atmospheric, Gus Van Sant’s passionate, personal My Own Private Idaho confounds and infuriates.

Mike, the main character, is a narcoleptic street hustler. Separated from his mother and semi-estranged from his brother (who is also his father), the boy is always on the move, facing hardships daily, full of unsatisfied aspiration. The wholeness for which he yearns, though, is a will-o’-the-wisp. The style and the form of Van Sant’s film address a double motive: to show both the boy’s fragmentation and his attempt to piece his life together. As a result, the film seems pulled apart, at loose ends—a reflection of Mike’s own state of being.

Mike’s life is enormously difficult. Many others are in the same sinking ship, and each is helpless. Van Sant vividly creates their milieu: streets at once teeming and vacant; chop suey joints; rooms of sexual trade, many, depressingly, with identical door arrangements. The camera makes an astonishing foray into a porno shop where suddenly animated magazine covers—Mike appears on one—disclose some of the feelings of these street children; and there are documentary, possibly faux-documentary, interviews that reveal even more of what America’s street children daily have to deal with, and with what few defenses.

Each has a tale to tell—an American pilgrim’s lack of progress; but Van Sant’s film follows Mike. He and his best friend, Scott Favor, are on a quest to find Mike’s mother, their search taking them to many places, even Rome, Italy. However, Mike remains motherless and even loses what “family” he has when Scott, his protector, abandons him. At the end of the film Mike falls on an Idaho road in one of his seizures. A car stops, and (to an ironic accompaniment of “America the Beautiful”) two men strip him of his boots; then another car stops and he is taken away—whether to be cared for or exploited again, who can say? “Have a nice day” flashes across the screen. Earlier Scott’s defiant line, it now seems Van Sant’s sarcastic farewell. Van Sant challenges us to acknowledge these homeless children. He wants us to help them. They have his heart. We feel his sting.

If this ending is brutal, offensive, the opening of the film is matter-of-fact. In homage to the beginning of a masterpiece, Jean Renoir’s Une partie de campagne (1936), which (following Maupassant) traces the course of a missed opportunity for love, Van Sant substitutes for love, the word highlighted on Renoir’s dictionary page, the word narcolepsy, thus identifying Mike’s chronic condition with its cause, the mother’s love he misses—a connection, during seizures, his “dream” of her comforting him reinforces. But the Renoir allusion does more besides; it predicts how ineffably sad My Own Private Idaho will become. Renoir’s is among the most ironical and exquisitely sad films about missed love ever made.

When an indeterminate, recurrent Idaho road replaces the dictionary page, Mike abruptly enters the frame, as though conjured by the road; as Mike puts it, the road has a “fucked-up face.” Thus the road endlessly stretching ahead and this boy traveling it—a Wordsworthian solitary in a visionary landscape—are each identified with the other. (Something else is evoked: the worn feeling of drifting souls that pervades Federico Fellini’s 1954 La strada.) Rushing time-lapsed skies and upstream-leaping fish—flamboyant images to return at film’s end—project (like the road) Mike’s aspiration, the soul behind the seizures. Form is ironic here, for the sequence “pieces together,” rather than some continuity implying integration, a glimpse of Mike’s fragmented nature. The one “continuity” here is Mike’s yearning for integration. The one constant is loss.

Another key scene encapsulates the film’s analytical method. In Italy, Scott turns Mike from the door in order to make love with the girl, Carmella, who will become his wife. The couple embrace, striking a stand; water in the basin on top of it whirls, sways, touches the rim. The sensation, erotic and dynamic, is meant to carry over and emotionally animate what follows: a series of short, static shots—not freeze frames or photographs, but the actors holding poses—showing the naked couple variously intertwined. Is Van Sant trying here to marry two of the arts he practices, filmmaking and photography? If so, it doesn’t work, and Van Sant himself knows it cannot; no dynamic transference occurs, the “snapshots” of almost motionless flesh proving impervious to their liquid preface. This passage thus becomes a formal revelation of the failure to which Mike’s quest—to find his mother and achieve wholeness and (re)integration—is doomed. Mike’s exclusion from the scene, therefore, also is pertinent; underscoring this is the fact that, earlier, a similar sequence of “frozen” naked poses involved both him and Scott, as well as an older man.

In other ways, too, the film resists coming together. For instance, its action shifts back and forth between different cities (mainly Portland, Oregon, and Seattle) and that other “location,” the Idaho road. Geographic particularity yielding to abstraction, the unspecified spot is identified, as already noted, with Mike’s journey of aspiration; it isn’t a place on a map but a place of the mind. (Hence the title—not Idaho, but My Own Private Idaho.) This in effect keeps Mike apart from our world even as he is somewhere lost in it. Also, a mix of genres helps keep the film from becoming “whole.” The fictional and the documentary elements form a suspension, not a solution, in part because the relative formality of some of the scripted language won’t mesh with the street children’s casual, untutored remarks. There is, too, a disparity between the plotted action and improvisation; a deeply affecting instance of the latter finds the boys, while camping, briefly coming together body and soul across the gulf of their widely different needs and sexual inclinations.

But most striking of all is, in an undigested form, the intrusion into the film of the Henry IV-Falstaff-Prince Harry fathers-son triangle from both parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. (Van Sant may have been inspired by Orson Welles’s 1966 film version, Chimes at Midnight.) Having left home in teenage rebellion against his wealthy father (instead of King of England, mayor of Portland—a substitution methinks will not work), Scott street-drifts, waiting upon his inheritance. Whenever the plotline, rediscovering it, hews to the Shakespeare, the effect jars, not the least so because the boy who otherwise betrays only the faintest formality (“My father thinks I’m a threat; he doesn’t know I’m just a kid”) suddenly mouths heavy-duty, sometimes ludicrously updated Shakespeare-speak. Finally, when the film’s Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare halves try coming together over Henry V-Scott’s ascension from street to society, the film is split beyond repair.

This in fact takes the film into its most highly problematic area. For, although we may swallow whole Scott’s rejection of the Falstaff figure, his former street tutor, Bob, the accompanying rejection of Mike, shortly after Scott has told him, “You’re my best friend,” is intolerably painful. Van Sant’s Shakespearean source well argues for the first rejection; now responsibly positioned, Scott is duty-bound to honor his father’s legacy. But into this how can we fit his discarding Mike, whose mother, at the very least, Scott could easily now hire a private detective to find? Sensibly we say, “In order to leave his street life behind, Scott must sever his ties to Mike”; but emotionally? We feel violated, appalled. What has happened to Scott? At her father-in-law’s stately funeral, Carmella’s uncomprehending look as her husband ignores, just yards away, Mike’s participation in Bob’s raucous, makeshift funeral ceremony suggests that Carmella has become, perhaps with his tacit consent, the repository of Scott’s now dormant humanity. Embarrassment over their one homosexual encounter cannot excuse Scott’s shift away from the friendship of a lifetime, which in no way would even his bride wish him to cancel. But who knows? Maybe Scott, in a long shot, is the one who takes Mike into the car at the end. (Before abandoning him in Italy, he tells Mike, “Maybe we’ll meet somewhere down the road.”) But short of this extremely remote possibility, the too casually ended friendship—for so long its heart and its soul—ensures the film a shattered coherence. This, the fiercest rupture, short of outrageous miscalculation Van Sant himself must have foreseen.

I know: The unity and coherence of any film can be easily lost during the process of paring material down to a manageable length. But throughout this particular film a pattern emerges that permits the film’s “ruptured” quality to resonate with artistic purpose. Of course, whether this was the best tack for Van Sant to take is another matter. (Shakespeare purists won’t think so.) Still, it does argue for an aesthetic to grapple with a work that, consistently if at times gratingly, clarifies thematic content by formally embodying it. For Van Sant, a smooth, worked-through wholeness would obscure, even deride, the fractured young lives he portrays with such energy and compassion. The result of his efforts took the International Critics’ Prize at Toronto.

The lead acting in this film is already legendary. Best Actor here and abroad (Independent Spirit Award, National Society of Film Critics, Venice Film Festival), River Phoenix is to-the-bone as Mike. His is a performance of massive conviction, heartfelt emotion and quirky humor—an unshakable accomplishment. Phoenix’s role here, moreover, is trebly haunted: by Lou Castel’s searing epileptic Alessandro, a family-entangled Norman Bates, in Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (1965); by the experiences of the actual street kids who are Mike’s analogues; and now, at age 23, by the passing of River Jude Phoenix himself, the most gifted American film actor of his generation. Keanu Reeves stuns as Scott. It is much the more difficult of the two roles—impossible, really. Reeves’s performance encompasses and (almost inconceivably) integrates the very wide range of Scott’s behavior: the emotional neediness he shares with Mike, his resolute pride when he entreats his father to believe in him (and not some Hotspur-coz in Vancouver), the brisk sensitivity of his falling in love with Carmella—and all the while with Reeves laying the groundwork for the big chill-to-come by casting a low-keyed, steady light on the something hard as ice at Scott’s narrow core. Perhaps Van Sant tries too hard to make Scott a vehicle for his own anguished satiric commentary on America; but under his sympathetic guidance his two young actors soar, creating very different portraits of fatherlessness and motherlessness, and charting, piercingly, two incompatible destinies that crisscross in a tight, lonely breathing space.

The supporting cast, though, is variable. Humorous as he is, William Richert, a film director, is only a middling Falstaff—although he does succeed (or, through him, Van Sant succeeds) in relating his Falstaff-Bob to the Bob that (splendid) Matt Dillon played in Drugstore Cowboy (1989), thus helping the later film to become an oblique sequel of sorts to one of Van Sant’s most remarkable achievements. On the other hand, beauteous Chiara Caselli beautifully plays Carmella, another orphan, whose kindness and warmth give us what hope we have (or pretend we have) that her husband Scott’s turned-down-mouth implacability is just a temporary dour mask. As a grown man worshipping his deceased mother’s memory, Udo Kier is Van Sant’s weirdest orphan. His performance certainly contributes to the atmosphere. Finally, James Russo is adequate as Mike’s hapless father and brother, who lost his mother, really, when they became lovers. All the major characters (including Bob who, older and adrift, is his own father now) compose, then, a combinate portrait of orphanage, especially motherlessness.

At its best when focused on blighted young lives, My Own Private Idaho is bold, distinctive, lyrically aching, nearly devoid of hope.

Have a nice day.

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