Gus Van Sant’s 1991 magnum opus My Own Private Idaho is remembered for a myriad of reasons. Some insist that it is important because it remains an indispensable part of New Queer Cinema while others hold onto it as the finest moment of River Phoenix’s fleeting career. My Own Private Idaho is all of that and so much more, presenting a collection of vignettes that chronicle the tragic condition of lost youth.
The origin of My Own Private Idaho is diverse, following in the footsteps of seminal works by Shakespeare and Dostoevsky as well as John Rechy whose novel, City of Night, impressed Van Sant so much that he decided that he could not tackle the subject in a better way and discarded the idea for years. However, more than anything else, the film is rooted in the experiences of Portland’s notorious street hustlers.
My Own Private Idaho stars River Phoenix as Mike, a narcoleptic sex worker whose brain literally shuts down when he is overwhelmed by anxiety which is terrible since almost everything makes him anxious. Without a family to fall back on, Mike caters to the needs of perverse men who pick him up at night and kick him out with a $10 bill.
Van Sant’s film works so well because it is intimate and universal at the same time, transitioning from meditative reflections to frenzied, discursive confessions about life like the ones in Richard Linklater’s Slacker. Behind the tough visages that these hustlers have fashioned in order to survive on the streets, we recognise the helplessness of young boys who are treated as expendable commodities and are routinely violated by predators.
While My Own Private Idaho was championed as the apotheosis of independent filmmaking, it did not have the same effect in everyone’s minds. In a recent interview, Van Sant reflected: “There was a news camera down where it was shown in Portland for the first time, and somebody asked this woman what she thought of the film, and she just didn’t know what to say. She was like, ‘I don’t know.’ They asked, ‘If you had to say, 1 to 10,’ and she said ‘three.'”
The film is routinely cited as one of the most famous examples of the New Queer Cinema movement but it wasn’t even accepted by the community when it first came out. GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) accused Van Sant of portraying homosexuality as a symptom of deviancy embedded in the larger framework of heteronormativity. “Eventually, within a year or two, they kind of recanted their position, but politically it was not hailed as a great queer film or anything,” Van Sant recalled.
According to the filmmaker, he never expected My Own Private Idaho to become an essential block of queer cinema’s history because these hustlers exist on the margins of society. It has managed to do just that because of the endearing characters who walk straight into our hearts despite their marginalised condition. The person most responsible for this phenomenon is Phoenix who handles the complexity of Mike with a poetic vulnerability and tragic innocence.
Through its formal experiments with visual narratives and its interesting treatment of society’s perversions by making them cartoonish, My Own Private Idaho has a multiplicity of ideas that it tackles and questions it generates. For most audiences, the central idea remains its commentary on class conflicts, privilege and Mike’s friend Scott (played by Keanu Reeves) who accompanies him to the other side of the planet only to abandon him in a second.
For Scott, all of it is a game that he plays while looking down at the safety net of his inheritance and knowing that there’s no real risk. That’s exactly why Mike’s existence is heartbreaking; he is truly and terrifying alone. Abandoned by his mother and with a brother for a biological father, he is unaware of his own identity and embarks on a meaningless odyssey which leads him right back to Idaho.
My Own Private Idaho still haunts me because of the way the world treats Mike – a boy who had the courage to say: “I could love someone even if I wasn’t paid for it.” In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that Mike “must depend on the kindness of strangers even to pull him out of the middle of the road” while referring to the final scene but it never struck me as an act of kindness when a man packed Mike (who was asleep) into his car and drove off right after he was robbed. I will always see it as yet another episode of the commodification of Mike’s docile body ad nauseam.