Objects of desire: Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho

As Gus Van Sant turns 70, we revisit this deft appraisal of his New Queer Cinema classic.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)
This feature first appeared in the January 1991 issue of Sight and Sound

At the opening of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, we look down a very long stretch of two-lane highway, bisecting the desert scrubland, curving upwards as it disappears into the distant mountain haze.

Like a shot, River Phoenix skids into view. His cheek, with its ragged blond sideburns and faint tracing of acne, is disorientingly close. It’s like waking up with a stranger’s head shoved against your own. Phoenix coughs; you can feel his breath in your ear. Phoenix plays Mike, a narcoleptic gay hustler whose parentage is as incestuous as that of Faye Dunaway’s sister/daughter’s in Chinatown (1974). But since Mike’s origins are below the poverty line, this is no Greek tragedy, just an extra Oedipal wrinkle in an already disenfranchised existence.

Mike looks down the road and decides he’s been here before. “I know this road. It’s one kind of face. Like someone’s face. Like a fucked-up face.” Just in case the viewer is not yet in touch with Mike’s way of seeing, Van Sant irises down around the relevant features: the eyes are two bushes; the smile, a depression in the black-top highway. Suddenly Mike falls down in the middle of the road in a narcoleptic stupor. He dreams a faded home movie of himself as a child, safe in the arms of his mother, a bottle blonde with a Mona Lisa mouth seated on the porch of a wood-frame house. Clouds rush across the sky, salmon leap slow motion upriver towards their spawning ground, and Mike wakes in a Seattle hotel room, being sucked off by a balding beer-bellied john. As in Blow Job (1964), Andy Warhol’s notorious porn send-up, genitals are safely out of frame. Mike reaches orgasm and a wooden house comes crashing out of the sky, splintering on the highway.

My Own Private Idaho shifts fluidly between close-up and panorama, intimacy and distance, symbiosis and alienation. While there is something of Godard in Van Sant’s depiction of sex as labour and/or theatrics, his films are associative rather than didactic, closer to Pasolini’s in their blend of neorealism and poetic lyricism. The influence of the European art cinema notwithstanding, Van Sant is a distinctly American filmmaker with an extraordinary sense of place. Like the David Lynch of Eraserhead (1976) and Blue Velvet (1986), Van Sant uses elements of Hollywood psychodrama and American avant-garde trance film to explore the subjectivity of young men coming of age.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

In the past six years, Van Sant has made three features: Mala Noche (1985), a $25,000, black-and-white stunner about a gay skidrow store clerk’s sexual obsession with a Mexican illegal migrant worker; Drugstore Cowboy (1989), a $6 million Hollywood indie production starring Matt Dillon as the leader of a quartet of junkies who rob pharmacies to feed their habit; and My Own Private Idaho, starring teen idols River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, about the unrequited love of a teenage gay hustler for the slumming preppie prince who briefly acts as his protector. Set in and around Portland, Oregon, where Van Sant spent his adolescence and where he lives today, all three films identify with the subcultures they depict, whether gay, junkie or both.

Profiles of Van Sant treat as axiomatic the facts that he was born into an affluent family and that he is openly gay. Van Sant is “openly gay”, but he questions the usefulness of the term. “A person’s sexuality is so much more than one word, ‘gay’. No one refers to anyone as just ‘hetero’ because that doesn’t say anything. Sexual identity is broader than a label.”

The son of a corporate fashion executive, Van Sant grew up in the wealthy suburbs of New York City, moving to Portland when he was in high school. “I was a preppie wannabe but my parents wouldn’t let me go away to school. They didn’t want to miss me that much. I was all they had,” he says jokingly, and then qualifies, “Well, I have a sister.” Van Sant’s first talkie, made in high school, is reported to be about a brother and sister who go on a trip; the sister is killed in a car accident.

Van Sant attended the Rhode Island School of Design from 1971 to 1975, along with David Byrne and the other members of Talking Heads. It was a few years after David Lynch had graduated from the Philadelphia College of Art. Like Lynch, Van Sant shifted his focus from painting to film part way through college. The explosion of the 60s underground film scene was over, but Warhol was still an influence.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

“I’d seen Trash [1970] and I knew the Velvet Underground, but I really didn’t know Warhol’s aesthetic,” Van Sant recalls. “In 1974, there was a party on St Valentine’s Day. It was the first time Talking Heads played, but they called themselves the Artistics at the time. They did pop songs and then David Byrne would take over and he’d do his stuff. He did ‘Psycho Killer’ and there were no words, just ‘psycho killer’, ‘psycho killer’, over and over. They were also doing covers for Velvet Underground songs and I remember thinking, ‘Man, it’s so clichéd, I mean we’re obsessed by Warhol because he’s a painter like we are.’ I remember being too nervous to dance so I pretended I was watching the band, but it felt like there was nothing to watch so I was there for no reason. At RISD, everyone was into fame, that was a Warholian thing. Art was beside the point, but everyone was really a good artist.

“It felt like there was nothing to watch so I was there for no reason.” Warhol himself could not have said it better. Like Warhol, Van Sant has the charismatically absent presence of the obsessive voyeur. He also shares the slightly hunched, arms wrapped, self-protective stance of the ‘pale master’ and a reputation for silence, notwithstanding a gift for the gab. “Everyone has a crush on Gus,” commented a woman who briefly worked with him. (Warhol held a similar fascination for the regulars who hung out in his Factory.)

After the success of Drugstore Cowboy, Van Sant bought a large Tudoresque house in Portland Heights, the quietly moneyed section of the city where his family had lived. During the production of My Own Private Idaho, members of both the cast and crew, including River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, moved in. So Idaho’s alternative family had an offscreen life as well. Where Warhol, the son of working-class Polish immigrants, fixed his gaze on glamour, wealth and fame, the upper-middle-class Van Sant is fascinated by adolescent drifters, naive and vulnerable. And unlike Warhol, whose distance from his subjects was palpable in his work, Van Sant connects with his characters through a shared sense of alienation. He once described his method of working with actors as slipping inside them, like a hand in a glove. Such an empathetic collaboration would have been outside Warhol’s psychological capacities.

After graduating from RISD, Van Sant spent a brief time in the film industry as an assistant to Ken Shapiro, director of The Groove Tube (1974). His first attempt at feature filmmaking, ‘Alice in Hollywood’, was never completed. He moved back to the East Coast and worked in an advertising agency. One of his short films, The Discipline of D. E., adapted from a Burroughs story, got some attention at the New York Film Festival in 1977. About seven years later he read Mala Noche, a novel by a Portland writer, Walt Curtis. He moved back to Portland, and using his own savings made it into a film.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Mala Noche is remarkable for its richly textured black-and-white imagery, the evocativeness of its crudely recorded soundtrack, its matter-of-fact, explicit depiction of gay sex, the connections it makes between sexuality and power, and the absence of sentimentality in the performance of its leading actor, Tim Streeter. Streeter lets us see how the character’s racism – his contempt for the Mexican who is the object of his desire – feeds his obsession.

Mala Noche won the 1987 LA Film Critics award for best independent feature. By then, Van Sant had co-written the script for Drugstore Cowboy, based on an unpublished autobiographical novel by James Fogle, a convicted felon. The script caught the interest of Laurie Parker, a production executive at Avenue. Drugstore Cowboy was a critical success and made money at the box office. As a result, Van Sant was offered big-budget films to direct. Instead, with Parker producing, he opted to make My Own Private Idaho. He says he sent the script to Phoenix and Reeves, never dreaming that they’d accept. Given the performance Van Sant got from Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy, how could they refuse?

In more ways than one, Drugstore Cowboy is Van Sant’s straightest film. The narrative is less associative, the visual style less improvisatory than in either Mala Noche or Idaho. The film’s strengths lie in its detailed depiction of lower middle-class suburbia and its non-judgemental and non-romanticised attitude towards drugs. With Nancy Reagan’s hypocritical ‘Just Say No’ campaign in full swing, Dillon’s speech about how heroin made it possible for him to tie his shoes every morning without going nuts was as subversive as it was honest.

Despite Drugstore Cowboy’s putatively heterosexual orientation (junk precluding much libidinal investment of any kind) and the conventional linearity of its narrative, its image of an alternative family unit prefigures Idaho’s band of outsiders. Bob (Dillon) and his longterm girlfriend (the dry-spoken Kelly Lynch) act as dad and mom to the novices, Rick and Nadine. In a twist that anticipates Mike’s confused parentage in Idaho, mom beds down with her son when dad tries to go straight.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Drugstore Cowboy is about dropping out of middle-class tedium; the more surreal Idaho juxtaposes the societal extremes of haves and have nots. For the first time in his films, Van Sant uses a lead character, Scott Favor (Reeves), the son of a mayor, whose class origins correspond to his own. But unlike Van Sant, who chose to make Idaho rather than any of the big-budget films he was offered, and to make it on less than half the budget he had for Drugstore Cowboy, Scott betrays not only his friends, but also his own sexuality for money and power.

If Scott is both the villain and the object of desire of My Own Private Idaho, Mike is its governing consciousness. The irony here is that the narcoleptic Mike is literally the most unconscious character ever to hit the screen. In terms of Van Sant’s beat romanticism, Mike’s absence of consciousness is what saves his soul. It’s also what makes Idaho, for all its black humour, rapturous beauty and cinematic invention, politically less tough than Mala Noche. On the other hand, the oneiric structure – the filtering of the narrative through Mike’s snoozing subjectivity – gives coherence to the film’s remarkable heterogeneity, its split-second shifts between the burlesque and the heartfelt, Rudy Vallée and The Pogues.

Mike and Scott are part of a gang of street prostitutes who hang out in a derelict hotel. Their leader is Bob Pigeon (William Richert), a fat, beer-guzzling chicken hawk who’s got a thing for the narcissistic Scott. Bob and Scott act out their relationship as Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Prince Hal, challenging each other to ever greater heights of bowdlerised verse. Scott has also fallen into the habit of taking care of vulnerable Mike, whose narcolepsy endangers not only his income, but his life.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

As a final fling, before cleaning up his act so he can inherit his father’s political mantle, Scott goes on a trip with Mike, who’s in search of his long-lost mother. Huddled beside a campfire in the desert, Mike risks, or perhaps courts, a repetition of his primal loss by confessing his love to Scott. “I just want to kiss you, man,” he says softly, hugging his arms around his chest. Phoenix fills the moment with an absolute, naked need that blasts through easy tags of homo/hetero/bi. (That sexuality in Van Sant’s films is too complex for labels doesn’t make his work any less gay.)

It’s a bit too much for the self-protective Scott. After a terrifying encounter with Mike’s alcoholic brother/father (James Russo) and an acrobatic bedroom threesome with the ubiquitous Hans (Warhol superstar Udo Kier), whose impromptu cabaret performance rivals Dean Stockwell’s in Blue Velvet, they wind up in Rome, where Scott, in a homophobic panic, falls in love with an Italian beauty. Her wordless adoration makes him feel that he’s really a ‘man’.

‘’I’m sorry we didn’t find your mother, Mike,” Scott mumbles guiltily as he presses money and a plane ticket into Mike’s hand and rushes out of the door with his bride-to-be. It’s a permanent parting of the ways. Back in Portland, Scott comes into his inheritance and Mike is out in the cold.

My Own Private Idaho ends with a double funeral. Scott’s two fathers – Mayor Favor and Bob Pigeon – have both died and are being buried in the same graveyard. The schizoid structure is, for once, not a projection of Mike’s fragmented psyche, but a mini-allegory of the polarisation of Reagan/Bush America. Eyes front, spines stiffened, the properly heterosexual Favor clan, now led by Scott and his wife, is desperately trying to ignore the carnivalesque spectacle taking place a few hundred metres away, where Mike and his fellow outcasts are dancing on Bob Pigeon’s grave. One close-up is enough to suggest that Mike’s first eruption of anger is also his first taste of liberation.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Threaded with home-movie images (no filmmaker has ever been better than Van Sant at forging and integrating these), My Own Private Idaho is a crazy quilt of family romances. Everybody is either looking for or escaping from their families, organising new families, or poring over photographs of other people’s families. Mike’s sadistic brother/father has a mail-order portrait business in which people send him their family snapshots to be copied. “I like to have them around. They keep me company,” he laughs, waving his bottle at the grotesque array. And in the campfire scene, Mike prefaces his lovelorn confession with the agonised question: “Do you think I’d be different if I’d had a normal Dad?” “What’s a normal Dad?” shrugs Scott, the sophisticate.

Deeply regressive, Mike’s desire for family is for the safety of the mother’s body; his narcolepsy is his defence against the agony of his childhood abandonment. Anything that reminds him of his lost mother triggers a violent psychosomatic reaction. He shakes so much he looks as though he might explode, and then keels over in a stupor. Because he short-circuits before he can connect past and present, he remains as asocial as an infant, and in that sense, innocent. Idaho’s fragmented editing style – its heterogeneous visual associations and dense layering of spoken word, concrete sound and music – evokes Mike’s confusion of inside and outside, past and present.

And what cannot be said can sometimes be sung. Songs like ‘Deep Night’ and The Pogues’ ‘The Old Main Drag’ can both punch up an irony and cut to the quick. This is certainly the effect of the lyric ‘Locked in the arms of love’, the last line of the 20s ballad ‘Deep Night’ and of Idaho’s soundtrack, crooned by Rudy Vallée over the closing credits. Its irony at this point is compounded by the fact that Van Sant has used the song earlier – as an accompaniment to Mike’s date with a kinky john who fetishises Little Dutch Boy household cleanser.

Even more interesting is Van Sant’s use of instrumental arrangements of songs like ‘Home on the Range’ and ‘America, the Beautiful’, which are, at least in the US, part of a collective cultural consciousness. What happens here is that the viewer silently sings along with the film. And I suspect that Van Sant is counting on that process, both to trigger memory of the lyrics and of what the songs meant when we sang them as children and teenagers.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

The best-known patriotic hymn, ‘America, the Beautiful’, is oddly elegaic, a quality emphasised in the film’s hushed-pedal steel guitar arrangement. Van Sant uses the song twice. The first time – in conjunction with Scott telling Mike about his conflict with his father – it functions ironically to connect the betrayal of familial love with the betrayal of the American Dream. The second time the song is heard is in the enigmatic coda that follows the funeral scene.

Mike is alone again, back on the road. “This road will never end, it probably goes all around the world,” he says, and then promptly collapses in a stupor. A car pulls up. Two men get out. Mike does not even stir as they strip him of his shoes. The opening chords of the song are heard as the car roars away. The camera cranes up to an eye-of-god angle and we look down on Mike’s fragile, sprawled-out body and, in the distance, the “spacious skies” and “purple mountains’ majesty” that the song refers to. The camera doesn’t move. The song continues. A second car drives up, a man gets out, picks up Mike’s sleeping body, puts it in the back seat, and drives on. Given the narrative of the film, we have reason to suspect that this is no rescue, but a prelude to some horror down the road. But what tips the tone of the scene – and the meaning of the film – towards some possibility of affirmation is the fact that as the man carries Mike to the car, the line we’re singing in our heads is about crowning America’s good “with brotherhood”. At that moment one wants to believe in the possibility of brotherhood as one did when one was 12 – to say nothing of the particular charge the word has in a gay context.

Van Sant’s Private Idaho is a place where one can hold fast to the desire for “brotherhood” and to be “locked in the arms of love”. Betrayed countless times, the desire is never vanquished. For the surrealist beat, “A throw of the dice does not abolish chance” (Mallarmé).

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