Canon Entry - My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho is a meandering messy combination of two stories. River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves play Mike Waters and Scott Favor, two young street hustlers. Mike has narcolepsy, a condition that seems to dictate the direction of his life (quite literally). He finds himself at the mercy of “friends.” His quest to find his mother drives most of his plot but only tenuously so. Scott on the other hand is the son of the mayor of Portland, and he will inherit his father’s power and fortune once he turns 21. He is into hustling for the thrills, and he lives as someone who knows he has the biggest safety net possible and that there’s literally nothing that he can do that will endanger his prospects for the future. Much of the dialogue and aspects of the plot are taken from the Henriad, Shakespeare’s series of plays that revolve around Henry the Fifth, from callow youth to calloused king.
As one might expect, the movie was the result of two different stories that Gus Van Sant was working on, neither of which seemed to warrant a feature-length film on its own. This film comes perilously close to not working because of this disjointedness. When either character becomes the focus of the film, even the filmmaking changes drastically. Mike’s story is told in woozy flashbacks and visions. It is clear that he sees the world in a different way, as in his opening monologue on the open road where he talks about how landscapes can look “like a face, like a fucked-up face.” He seems to stumble through life through a combination of begging, vulnerability and depending on the kindness of strangers.
Scott’s story on the other hand is more comical and cynical. Our first introduction is a wonderfully strange scene in which the covers of gay porn magazines come to life. He frankly informs us that he is in the gay hustling business for thrills and that he will come into his fortune when he turns 21. A major source of pleasure for him is the companionship of Bob Pigeon (the Falstaff figure), an old street hustler whom Scott delights in trading wits with and also harassing.
Bob acts as a father figure to Scott and (to a lesser extent) the other young street hustlers that inhabit his eminent domain, and it is the importance of parental figures that connects these two young men who couldn’t be more different on the surface. For Mike, the clearly more disenfranchised one between the two of them, finding a parental figure, specifically his mother, becomes his driving motivation. Mike perhaps has more the recognizable symptoms of why someone would go into street hustling in the first place: lack of a stable family life, impoverished background. His whole quest to find his mother is his attempt to inject stability in his life. Even the way that he lets people use his body, sexually or otherwise, could be seen as an extension of this longing for stability, since even if he is being abused, at least he is being useful.
For Scott, the whole world is his playground and the people in it are meant to serve him. The way he blithely tells the police to go away reeks of privilege. His relationship with Bob is one-sided in a way that one might not expect. While Bob believes that he is setting himself up for the future by ingratiating himself with a rich yet generous enfant terrible, it turns out that it will be the other way around. This same dynamic is evident even in Scott’s relationship with Mike, although it is a bit more complicated. Though he helps Mike get to Italy and accompanies him, he is the only one who actually benefits from this trip by hooking up with a beautiful Italian girl who had learned English from Mike’s mom. It is difficult not to see this as Scott profiting off Mike’s misery even if that hadn’t been his intention.
What seems to tie together Gus Van Sant’s work is his focus on the disenfranchised and how they negotiate alien and often hostile spaces. Even in his more popular work such as Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, we see this attraction to outsiders. While these films are enjoyable in their own way, what puts them more on the crowd pleasing end of his filmography is that the disenfranchised get a chance to escape their status, making them ultimately wish fulfillment fantasies. In his other films (the ones I enjoy more), escaping disenfranchisement is not such an easy feat.
The only one who escapes successfully from a disenfranchised life in My Own Private Idaho, is Scott, the character who was never in danger of true isolation and otherness in the first place. By tying these two disparate stories together, Van Sant presents a deeply idiosyncratic vision of the American dream, or its perversion anyways. The American dream is all about individual agency dictating one’s chances for material success. That class, family and wealth did not matter as long as you had gumption and cunning. In Idaho, the American dream is shattered beyond recognition as the poor are valued merely for their functionality while the rich can run amok with no serious consequences. That these two young men could be friends at one point represents how these two aspects of American society are inextricably intertwined - that one’s delusion enables the other’s reality.