Van Sant: My Own Private Idaho (1991)
I can’t think of a film that spoke as directly to my sense of queer embodiment as My Own Private Idaho when I first watched it on VHS in the late 1990s. Gus Van Sant would go on to explore queerness in all kinds of ways, but for me, this will always be his most resonant statement – the film where everything came together. It drifts from Seattle, to Portland, to Rome, and back to the Pacific Northwest, with periodic interludes in Idaho, taking us through a very loose adaptation of John Rechy’s City of Night that revolves around two male hustlers – Mikey, played by River Phoenix, and Scott, played by Keanu Reeves. That said, there’s not much of a plot, and not much in the way of characterisation either, since this is a film driven by body language and bodies in space – especially the vulnerability of the queer body in space.
We first meet Mikey in the middle of a vast Idaho landscape – fields in all directions, and a road stretching off into the distance. Mikey reflects that “I always know where I am by the way the road looks,” before collapsing right in the middle of it, suddenly deep asleep. Mikey, it turns out, is a narcoleptic, meaning that he can fall asleep anywhere, anytime, with no warning. Sleeping is an even more private and vulnerable act than sex (there’s a reason it’s called “sleeping together”) and whenever Mikey falls asleep, he immediately converges public and private space. Since he could fall asleep at any moment, no space is quite public or private either. From the very beginning, then, the queer body is defined as placeless, unable to occupy either private or public space, meaning that sex is always, to some extent, in public.
The film is largely driven by Phoenix’s extraordinary body language around these cusps between waking and sleeping, public and private life. To some extent, the story has to play second fiddle – it has to be emergent, since there was no Hollywood genre at the time that would fit this queer body language. If anything, Hollywood tends to double down on the distinctions between public and private space, meaning that much of Van Sant’s film plays as a meditation on what it would take to tell a story that accommodates these bodily thresholds. In that sense, My Own Private Idaho is a line of flight from stories that insist on sharp demarcations between private and public life, and the normative bodies that go with them.
Starting with this opening scene, Van Sant uses an imaginary version of Idaho to evoke these narcoleptic transitions. In his fantastic version of Idaho, public visibility is intensified – there’s nothing but wide open space as far as the eye can see, while Mikey tends to fall asleep in the middle of the road, the point of maximum vulnerability. Yet this Idaho is also irreducibly interior, full of subjectifed images – clouds that move at a different rate from their shadows, hypersaturated landscapes that can’t possibly be real, montage sequences that approach mock-pastoral in their bizarre combinations of images. Idaho is literally a whole state, but it’s also a private state of mind, a place where public and personal distinctions don’t quite stick.
In other words, Idaho forms a schism in public and private space here. The cuts to (and within) Idaho are as important as Idaho itself, ensuring that Mikey is never quite situated in space. Instead, he seems to exist, pregantly and precariously, as a montage principle himself, in the cuts between scenes. He inhabits the invisible syntax that normally differentiates public from private in Hollywood editing, as space expands and contracts around him like the slide guitar that accompanies the Idaho scenes. As a result, Idaho itself is also somewhat distended here – although it’s technically part of the Pacific Northwest, Van Sant shoots it as a totally different region from Seattle and Portland, all plains and bright sky in contrast to their overcast gloom.
As a result, when the film proper starts, there’s an incredible freshness and potency to space – the porosity of the Pacific Northwest seeps into every frame. The opening act follows Mikey and Scott in the routines of their hustling business, as Van Sant continues to prevent space ever quite settling around them. Mikey’s body language now resolves (somewhat) into a New Wave cool, just as Van Sant blends a more European style of absurdity with his US indie backdrops, while the interior spaces are all awry, set against edgy, offbeat, minimal décor. Like the hustlers, we’re never quite inside, and never quite outside – just cruising, in transit.
Beyond a certain point, queer sex, in the film, simply is this collapse of private and public space. While Mikey and Scott never have one-on-one sex, Scott supports Mikey in these transitions from public to private space – he’s his narcoleptic companion, cradling in him his arms whenever he suddenly falls asleep. The iconography of Scott carrying Mikey inevitably recalls the postures of AIDS sufferers, and their companions and carers – and while AIDS is never mentioned in the film, it’s always there in the background, as the point where this schism between public and private life is most traumatic. These scenes with Scott and Mikey thus chart passages between places where sex is supposed to happen and spaces where sex actually does happen – most memorably early on, when Mikey faints in a bedroom, and wakes up in a public park, where Scott has carefully deposited him before getting back on the hustle.
Similarly, sex, for Mikey and Scott’s clients, is primarily about sending space awry. In fact, we don’t see much regular sex in the film – just a collection of oddballs who use sex to dismantle the interior spaces that are typically used to signify what privacy should entail in Hollywood. An early client forces Mikey to clean his hotel room, while rubbing his feet on the ground in glee, casting him in the role of a domestic servant only to reverse the dynamic with his own infantile pleasure. A later client uses a hotel room to perform a campy musical rendition that totally exceeds the dimensions of the space, turning the space itself off-kilter in the process.
The more sex they have, then, the more that Mikey and Scott find it harder to settle in either private or public space – especially Mikey, who is perpetually slouched, slumped and sprawled across private-public thresholds, in a proto-narcoleptic posture that pre-empts the sudden sleep that is inevitably going to come. The only interiors we see are associated with clients, and neither Mikey nor Scott are ever at home – Mikey because he is literally homeless, and Scott because he is completely alienated from his home and his father, the mayor of Portland.
No surprise, then, that gay cruising sites are the most pregnant spaces in the film – and that these quickly segue into all the interstitial spaces in the city that aren’t quite public or private. As we move from an island in the middle of a spaghetti junction, to a tent city on top of a dilapidated skyscraper, to a labyrinth of overgrown alleyways, Van Sant evokes an emergent city, a mercurial city – a city that exists primarily in the sudden transitions that constitute the hustler lifestyle. The fringes of the film bleed straight back into this city too, and play out largely as docudrama. Van Sant initially wanted to shoot the film with real hustlers, like a queerer version of Kids, and you see some residues of that first project in the bit players here.
By the end of the first act, Van Sant yearns to transcend the film together and escape to a medium that bridges public and private space even more emphatically than cinema. He comes up with an eccentric solution – Shakespearean drama. In the early 90s, Shakespeare was a token of highbrow cinema, but Van Sant takes it the other way, restoring Shakespeare as a mass medium, a space of mass communion between private and public lives. He does this by restoring the homosociality of Shakespeare, reimagining the last three plays in the Henriad – Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V – in terms of Mikey and Scott’s hustling.
To some extent, this is a neat fit. Scott, like Prince Henry, is deliberately engaging in a hustler lifestyle so that he can impress his father, the mayor, by transforming on his 21st birthday. Scott also represents the seedier side of life, not unlike Falstaff. But the resemblance ends there, since Van Sant introduces a Falstaff surrogate, Bob Pigeon, played by William Richert, to ensure that Scott doesn’t have to reject Mikey as thoroughly as Hal rejects Falstaff. Bob is the motor engine of the film’s hustling, and appears to be both the main client and proprietor of Mikey and Scott’s brothel, which is situated above the theatre where he works and performs. The Globe, here, is thus part brothel and part theatre – occupied entirely by men in either case, and driven by Richard’s loosely Shakespearean diction and directions to them.
This abbreviated second act may well be the most unusual adaptation of the Henriad ever filmed, and a clear reference point for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. This is especially clear in a fireworks scene that anticipates the moment when Luhrmann also embraces the queer vitality of Shakespeare – Mercutio’s drag show at the Capulet party. But you also see it in the grungey cadence of the Shakespearean delivery here – Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance of Romeo borrows from Scott and Mikey in equal measure – as well as the imagery of the derelict brothel-theatre itself, which pre-empts the ruined beach theatre of Luhrmann’s film.
This compressed second act ushers in an even more evocative third act, and a movement back away from the Shakespearean diction, as Mikey and Scott embark upon something resembling a road trip. This is ostensibly to track down Mikey’s stepfather, and then his mother, but we’re never given much of a rationale for it all. In fact, Mikey and Scott don’t even decide to go on the trip per se – Van Sant simply cuts to that same Idaho road, where their motorcycle has broken down en route to an elusive somewhere. Rather than traversing space in any linear way, Mikey and Scott now further corrode the thresholds between public and private space, culminating with the most romantic cusp yet – a fireside, where Mikey mercurially moves out of his own personal space and into Scott’s, to admit that he loves him.
By this point, the prospect of gay sex, and gay love, has fissured space and time, as Mikey’s narcoleptic lapses grow more drastic and evocative, gradually congealing into a line of flight that collapses sleeping, and running away, into the same continuum of gestures. This is the body language of the closet, where no utterance is quite public or private enough – an embodiment of what Eve Sedgwick called shame consciousness; the need to contort the body into positions that allow it to perpetually pre-empt the shame that is always coming its way.
Yet this is also a vision of what José Esteban Muñoz called queer futurity – the body longing, willing itself, to escape the here and now. Sedgwick argued that queer people often survived by adopting a reparative approach to situations that seemed bent on deliberately destroying them, and Van Sant takes that same reparative outlook on space now, permitting Mikey and Scott to discover a fugitive intimacy in precisely those publics that would most seem to exclude them. You’d think that moving from a big city to the Idaho plains would be a step down in terms of queer safety, but Van Sant plays it the other way here, allowing Mikey and Scott to hide in plain sight, and luxuriate in a precarious space on the cusp of private passion.
This queer futurity is clearest in the film’s central sex scene – a threesome between Mikey, Scott and a client they meet along the way. It occurs in the “privacy” of a hotel room, but that interiority only intensifies the precarity and vulnerability of queer bodies in space. This is the most beautiful moment in My Own Private Idaho, as Van Sant cuts between a series of tableaux vivants in which the three men all hold sexual poses – but imperfectly, quivering as they strain to stay in place, not unlike the bold vulnerability of Ferris Bueller’s friends when they stand off the Art Institute of Chicago. At this most private sexual moment of the film, the pregnancy of public space returns severalfold as an erotic and electric charge. The inability to achieve a properly private moment now becomes an asset for queer sex, as Van Sant understands it, which is powerful precisely because it can never be privatised by Hollywood.
Over the course of this meandering third act, Mikey’s body language gradually coalesces into an orientation towards his mother, who left him when he was a boy, and has been wandering ever since. To some extent, Mikey’s wandering is his mother’s wandering – especially since his mother also turned from a cruiser to a full-blown wanderer due to a similar schism in interior and exterior space. We hear, from Mikey’s stepfather, this his mother was a loose woman, and that her last and most dangerous date took place at a drive-in screening of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. A complication ensued, Mikey’s mother shot her date dead, and she’s been drifting across the country ever since, without once making contact with her son.
This primal moment took place against the expansive space of the drive-in, but also the chamber drama of Rio Bravo, conflating public and private space so completely that it induces Mikey’s stepfather to misremember Hawks’ film as primarily taking place outside. Mikey apparently arose directly from that spatial schism, since his stepfather claims that this date was his real father. That doesn’t make a lot of sense in the film’s time scheme, but it doesn’t need to – the point is that Mikey is suspended between his father and stepfather in the same way that his mother was suspended between the cloistered spaces of Rio Bravo and the expanse of the drive-in theatre. Mother and son are driven to cruise by this spatial rupture.
To some extent, Mikey and Scott start to settle into queer and straight archetypes at this point. Mikey is the gay man, longing to return to his mother, while Scott is the straight man, longing to outdo his father. Yet these paths gradually merge and mingle, evoking a more emergent queer future, and keeping the space between the two men unformed, unresolved and open to possibilities that couldn’t quite be formulated in American film at this time. In part, that’s because Bon Pigeon has taken on the role of Falstaff, meaning that Mikey and Scott are never dichotomised in quite the same way as Hal and Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays.
Any residual dichotomy completely dissipates when Mikey and Scott arrive at the last stage in their journey – Rome. On the one hand, this is a denuded and deracinated version of Michael Corleone’s return to the mother country in the Godfather films, the last breath of a tangible destination for Mikey. Yet it’s also an impoverished version of Scott’s straight narrative too, as he arbitrarily discards Scott for the first woman he meets, and then brings her back to Seattle to complete his plan to surpass his father’s authority once and for all. The last echo of Mikey’s search for his mother is a shot that recalls the opening of The Searchers, in a distant echo of Rio Bravo, but with Mikey in the stance of the woman looking out the door, as he inchoately realises his mother is just a figure for his own restless need to wander.
However, there’s still a rift between the two men that continues into the closing stages of the film. After leaving Scott with his lover in Italy, Mikey self-induces narcolepsy for the first time, paroxysming his body onto a hotel bed where he promptly falls asleep. When he wakes up, he’s shifted to the most suspended space so far – an airplane en route to the Pacific Northwest, presumably poised over Idaho at the very moment he regains consciousness. Conversely, Scott never meets up with Mikey when he follows him home. We first see him again in the first decisively interior space of the film – a stretch limousine – before learning that his father has died, meaning that Scott can step into his shoes, as Hal turns into Henry.
Even in these closing scenes, however, heterosexuality doesn’t exactly exist outside the need to resolve this schism in private and public space. At the end of the day, heterosexuality is a spatial orientation above all in My Own Private Idaho, meaning that Scott’s reformation feels curiously unfinished against Van Sant’s porous backdrops. Scott never overtly rejects Mikey, but instead rejects his proxy, Falstaff, who invokes the heteronormative project with an appeal to God before dropping dead in shock. The absurdity and hyperbole of this death scene exhausts any residual distinction between Scott and Mikey, or at least dilutes it, culminating with a funeral scene in which Scott watches Mikey cavorting with the hustlers away in the distance, as Van Sant’s camera joins in the fray and then spirals vortically up into the clouds.
And the film ends where it began, with Mikey back in the same primal Idaho landscape, poised precariously in space. Leo Bersani once wrote that the gay man cruises the world, and Mikey mirrors those sentiments: “I’ve been taking roads my whole life. This road will never end – it probably goes all around the world.” As soon as he says it, or thinks it, he falls asleep in the middle of the road again. A car stops, two people jump out and steal his clothes and shoes, but he survives. Then, as the camera pulls back, a second car stops, and a man pulls him into it, and drives away. This could be danger, but it feels more like succour, or at least a queasy place between the two, as queasy as the film’s own refusal to ever find a home. We’re too far away, now, to know if this is Scott, but by this stage Scott has faded into something more mercurial and emergent than a discernible character – he’s become a placeholder for the way queer men hold each other through the private-public cusps the film so beautifully embodies.
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