Portland native Gus Van Sant is a true artist filmmaker. He is also a painter, screenwriter, photographer, and musician who has had a major influence on America’s indie scene since the early 1990’s. His extensive and rather eclectic film catalogue presents a high degree of directorial versatility, as it weaves between the worlds of mainstream Hollywood and avant gardist Arthouse with ease.
Despite having a laundry list of great films to choose from – including critically acclaimed movies such as Goodwill Hunting (1997), Elephant (2003), and Milk (2007) – I think it is My Own Private Idaho (1991), his low-budget avant-gardist project about a narcoleptic male prostitute, that will be remembered forever as an indie classic.
My Own Private Idaho is truly a one-of-kind of film. It is essentially a love story following two young gay prostitutes living in Portland, Oregon. One is Mike Waters (River Pheonix), a tough street kid who suffers from narcoleptic episodes that cause him to pass out in moments of high stress - not an ideal medical condition given his situation. The other is Scott Favour (Keanu Reeves), a rebellious rich-kid who has chosen this lifestyle to spite his parents. Together, they appear to drift through their dangerous lives in a state of unconcerned detachment, taking each day at a time, meeting new and increasingly strange clients.
Here’s four reasons My Own Private Idaho is a certified indie classic:
1. Pushed the Boundaries of Film and Played with Cinematic Conventions
At times My Own Private Idaho can feel more like a contemporary art piece that should be playing in a museum than a movie you’d catch at your local theatre. It is highly stylized and experimental, with Van Sant making no effort to tell his story the ‘normal way’. Following an episodic structure, the film continuously jumps between sobering realism and abstract expressionism. It almost uncomfortably blends Shakespearean monologues with documentary style interviews. It cuts off powerful emotionally candid moments with striking surrealist montages. It follows an airy dream-like logic, but regularly grounds itself in harsh depictions of reality.
Check out the trailer below:
2. Landmark Film for New Queer Cinema of the 1990s
Like many of the other LGBT films to be released during the 1990s, My Own Private Idaho looked to disrupt traditional heteronormative depictions of identity, gender, and sexuality by presenting new degrees of authenticity in its representations of the LGBT community. Van Sant offered images of homosexuals that were as complex and deep as other heterosexual dramas dealing with similar themes such as love, innocence and self-destruction. Idaho is unapologetic in its depictions of LGBT life in the 1990s. Instead of presenting images that would try to assimilate LGBT life to society’s heteronormative conventions– by portraying positive depictions of happy gay couples, for example – Idaho looks to challenge and disrupt these conventions by giving us a harrowing glimpse into the lives of these marginalized groups.
3. Narcolepsy as the Perfect Metaphor
One of the most memorable and distinguishing features of My Own Private Idaho is Mike’s bizarre narcoleptic episodes, which serve to constantly disrupt the pacing of the plot by triggering an abrupt shift in time and space. Within these sequences Van Sant often chooses to jump-cut to vague imagery of long highway roads, rushing rivers, and farmland. Every time Mike suddenly passes out due to his condition, we are reminded of his vulnerability. He wakes up from these episodes not knowing what has happened, questioning whether or not he has been taken advantage of. As a viewer we too experience this sense of helplessness, as the film simply moves on to the next scene without providing an explanation as to what has happened or where we are now.
4. The Ghost of River Phoenix
River Phoenix died at age 23 of a drug overdose on October 21st 1993. He was destined to be one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, and it was his incredibly mature, nuanced, and intimate performance as street hustler Mike Waters in My Own Private Idaho that truly solidified his great potential. Now, watching his captivating performance in the film can be a haunting experience, especially considering the degree to which he immersed himself in the role. Phoenix spent a lot of time interviewing and hanging out with real street hustlers, he made efforts to dress and act like them and even began experimenting with their drugs of choice. Perhaps, this is why Phoenix’s Mike is so natural and convincing. The character lives and breathes. His vulnerability and desperation comes in the form a whispering voice and an apathetic detachment, rather than splashy “Oscar worthy” emotional outbursts. It truly feels as if Mike exists outside of the film; and maybe he did, somewhere in the troubled heart of Pheonix, making the performance all the more unnerving considering his subsequent drug-related death.
Check out this famous scene, which Phoenix wrote himself: