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Monday, July 5, 2010

Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho"

(originally published here at

Gus Van Sant has been, in my humble view, one of the most important filmmakers in the world, over the last twenty years or so. Although his career really took off after Good Will Hunting(1997), which garnered over 200 million at the box office, (as well as Oscar nods for the then-unknown Ben Affleck and Matt Damon for the screenplay, and a long-overdue one for Robin Williams as Best Supporting Actor) Van Sant’s first truly great film was “My Own Private Idaho” , which was released in 1991.

“My Own Private Idaho” is difficult to sum up in a few words. Indeed, to abbreviate it thus would be an exercise in futility. For it combines elements of the classic road film, high Shakespearean drama, the bildungsroman, and some which defy description, in a heady cocktail which stays with you long after the end credits start rolling. Starring River Phoenixand Keanu Reeves as a pair of young hustlers, it remains one of Van Sant’s finest films, and mind you, he has made some very fine ones indeed. Mike (River Phoenix) is a young gay hustler, who suffers from narcolepsy, a condition which causes him to fall asleep during stressful situations. He also has a troubled past, leading to his having frequent visions of his absentee mother. His best friend, Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) is the son of a mayor, but chooses to live the life of a street hustler, hobnobbing with low-life urchins and petty thieves, one of which, Bob Pigeon (William Richert) becomes a mentor to him. Scott confides to Mike that he will inherit his father’s fortune when he turns 21. The crux of the film lies in the trip the two take, in order to find Mike’s mother, who he hasn’t seen in years. The trip makes the pair confront some uncomfortable truths about their lives and their relationship.

Due to his frequent narcoleptic episodes, Mike often wakes up to find himself in places he doesn’t remember going. Early on in the film Mike comments, “I can always know where I am by the road.. this here road.. there isn’t a road anywhere which is like this, I mean exactly like this. It’s one kind of place… one of a kind. Like a face… like a fucked-up face.” During the last part of the dialogue, we are seeing the road through Mike’s point of view, where he watches it in between his first and second fingers, and the shot zooms out to make it seem like we are watching it through a lens, or an ocular device, with the road converging to a point in the distance, the sky with clouds which are too picturesque, a clear reference to the standard ophthalmologist’s test which we take to check our eyesight. From the outset, the often conflicting and overlapping nature of narratives, depending upon the “impediment” which we place on them, (i.e. the different points of view) has been hinted at. That Mike is a classic drifter, is emphasized by the frequent shots of clouds speeding by overhead, a mechanism familiar to movie buffs, and one which would have been banal and superfluous in a lesser film.

But what really makes all this come together, and also plays a large part in making this the film that it is, has to be River Phoenix’s jaw-droppingly good performance as Mike. The gossamer vulnerability of Mike…. the way he aches for his long-lost mother, Phoenix makes it apparent, during the first fifteen or so minutes of the film, that he had gone under the skin of his character (a term used and abused by every Tom, Dick and Harry nowadays, on both sides of the ocean). When he begs an old client, a middle-aged man, for a few dollars more, we feel Mike’s quiet desperation. When he’s with the oddball street thieves, dancing away the blues, we see Mike and his presence for what it is, an elaborate self-parody. So involved was Phoenix during the production of the film, that he re-wrote a critical scene of the film( Van Sant did not have storyboarded scene sequences in any case, choosing to improvize, as he would a decade later, in the bleak desert drama, Gerry) where his character Mike professes his love for his best friend, Scott. Looking at this scene today, as well as the film in general, one cannot help but draw parallels with Heath Ledger. Two truly awesome talents, both making waves with their superlative, unusually sensitive portrayals of homosexual characters, both dying tragically early, from drug-related episodes. (Phoenix died, all of 23, in 1993, a couple of years after the release of “My Own Private Idaho” )

That doesn’t mean we take anything away from the brilliant Keanu Reeves. Yes, that’s right. I said “brilliant”. Over the years, Keanu Reeves has been one of the most criticized mainstream actors in Hollywood. Described variously as “plastic” , “stone-faced” and “cold” Reeves has faced a lot of flak, both for his style of acting, and for his choice of roles. The fact that he isn’t your typical Hollywood star didn’t help. (He’s fiercely private, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and doesn’t take pains to go on well-televised PR trips) His story arc in this film placed him in the shoes of Henry V, upon whom his character is loosely based(the Shakespeare play Henry IV, both parts, is the basis, hence the rich father and the son who’d rather be a vagabond, a wastrel than to follow his father). Bob, his mentor, then is Falstaff, one of the unforgettable Shakespearean characters, a fat, flamboyant, cowardly fool, who leads the future king astray. In the superb sequences between Scott Favor(Reeves) and Bob(William Richert in a delightful cameo), most of which are taken directly, or in a slightly modified manner, from Shakespeare’s original text, Reeves turns in a razor-sharp performance, swaggering his way through the Bard’s inimitable puns, and the wordplays, barely breaking a sweat. Far from being plastic, this is Reeves finding his calling in Shakespeare.( He went on to play Hamlet, in a prominent theatrical production, to rave reviews, a few years later in 1995)

It is instructive to note that Gus Van Sant initially had separate scripts for each of the two main story arcs, i.e. Mike’s story and Scott’s(which was basically a modern-day retelling of the Henry IV plays). He then utilized the “cut-up” technique made famous by William S. Burroughs and his seminal 1959 novel “Naked Lunch” which is cited by many critics as one of the starting points of post-modernism in literature.(Yes, “cut-up” means exactly that: to cut up and rearrange an already existing text; Burroughs had previously co-written and appeared in Van Sant’s previous film“Drugstore Cowboy”) Overall, the film also has formal similarities with Burroughs’ work, the meandering storylines, the lack of a “resolution” or a denouement, and the fact that one could go through the individual segments in a different order, without affecting the efficacy of the narrative.

But obviously, as with Burroughs’ work, this did not go down well with a section of the critics, particularly those from the old school, so to speak. Richard Schickel, reviewing the film for TIME magazine, said “What plot it has is borrowed, improbably from Henry IV” (if borrowing from classical sources is such a heinous crime, then “Throne Of Blood” ,“Maqbool” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, should all stand in the dock), adding for good measure, that “even this is a desperate imposition on an essentially inert film” . Remember, it was the sagely TIME magazine which went on to include Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Devdas” in its Top Ten list for the year 2002, citing “the pretty frocks worn by Aishwarya Rai” as one of the stellar reasons behind its choice. Another critic said that “My Own Private Idaho” was (and I quote) “nothing but set-pieces, tossed into a mix whose meaning is almost certainly private”.

These are, almost certainly, the same critics who famously articulated the “Good Gus/Bad Gus conundrum” , attributing to Van Sant a schizophrenic output, which according to them, veered between the very, very good, and the absolutely horrid. Predictably, the films which they hold up as being examples of the Bad Gus persona of Van Sant turn out to be the ones which do not follow the Great Hollywood Plot (Elephant and Gerry are two such notable examples), the ones which are truly exuberant artistic expressions of a master, but are trashed because they defy genres and do not conform to stereotypes, thus making them tougher to “pin” down. Perhaps these critics do not understand that art is innately easier to understand then to describe.

“My Own Private Idaho” exhibits the assured yet playful brushstrokes of a master artist, who would go on to make the superb “Good Will Hunting” , the minimalist masterpiece “Elephant” (which was inspired by the Columbia high school massacre) and most recently “Milk” which has to be one of the films of the decade. He has continued to tinker with the medium, experimenting boldly, his cinematic instincts sharp as ever, and his buccaneering spirit intact.

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