PRINT October 1991


Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho

REGARDLESS OF ANY REVIEWER'S claim that X director has brought an “edge” back to filmmaking, or Y star has transcended screen acting for something “beyond,” or Z writer’s imaginative process is both literary and visual, the success of most American movies is based on the fulfillment of our demand for closure. Mom almost never dies and Dad will almost always eventually provide, and we regard this condition as satisfactory for the task of watching. What we, as Americans, mean when we say we “like” a film—particularly an American one—is that it does not penetrate us beyond what is projected an the screen: the star in his or her proper vehicle, transported through a story line that ultimately leaves nothing to be desired. And we want all this from a director whose sensibility does not obscure our own, one whom we “get.” In short, what we want is the sense that life and its complexities regarding sex, race, class, television, health core, and on and on and on, will not overwhelm us. It’s not the film’s job to be the mirror of a world about which we know less and less.

Gus Van Sant, Jr., on the other hand, has developed his voice as a filmmaker by engaging our meditative consumption not in the standard working through of a fantasy structure (love or happiness or both in the Big Finish) but in examining what it is you or I might want to be. This intention has been obscured by critics, theorists, and other fans who have constructed around the work’s body a system of signs in extremis. Mostly what we get from these is Van Sant as homosexual martyr who will eventually be “killed” by the critics, or Van Sant as outlaw fag, considerate friend of the dispossessed—itinerant Mexicans in 1987’s Mala Noche, drug-addicted wanderers in 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy, homosexual rent boys in the director’s current film, My Own Private Idaho.

If My Own Private Idaho is “about” anything it’s about Mom as the figure who provokes eternal longing, the empty space of desire we attempt to fill with this beloved, or another, or another. Mike, the protagonist (the unsurpassable River Phoenix), is a narcoleptic street hustler from Portland who dreams of Mom—in 8 mm., in color, blown up, but always recognizable, though seen through the skein of memory. Narcolepsy, defined in Webster’s as “a condition characterized by sudden and uncontrollable attacks of deep sleep,” is the film’s brilliant conceit: it sets Mike in an internal world of non-control, where images in memory and images in “real” time overlap. A house with interesting angles, or a woman in the street who resembles Mike’s mother as he remembers her, can provoke an attack of sleep and dreams, which is where movies live: in the mind that dreams.

Mike may be in the middle of a trick—he will fall asleep. He may be walking up a road—he will fall asleep. His attacks (which are also related to avoiding stress) are an obvious metaphor for Von Sant’s movie-making process: the director is emotionally “uncontrolled” in his response to the cinema’s ability to convey the dream state and subliminal desire. Do films construct such desire? Does life? What Van Sant shows is cinema’s capacity to represent it. Mom, are you watching? Mom, I can do this. What is refreshing is Van Sant’s absorption in a craft that does not exist apart from the life of the mind and heart.

Van Sant leaves nothing out of My Own Private Idaho: not his visual sense, which saturates each exchange between Mike’s band of hustlers and the rest of the world in Godardian colors (specifically the Godard of Made in the USA, 1966), nor his literary one. The movie is full of the visual look and feel of words on the screen, from HAVE A NICE DAY, its final command, to the structuring of part of the narrative around Shakespeare’s Henry IV 1 and 2. The leader of the hustlers, Bob Pigeon (William Reichert), is based on Falstaff; his most beloved “son,” Prince Hal, is here named Scott. The fact that Keanu Reeves gives a stiff, wooden performance as Scott is probably intentional: Van Sant is “showing up” our penchant to identify with the male model of beauty and heterosexual desire. Reeves’ performance fits between our knowledge of who he is (a big star) and our ignorance of who he might be (an actor).

But what is it that goes into making any of us up? What is our story? Mike and Scott’s friendship, especially after they leave Seattle to look for Mike’s absent Mom, is a construct in which to act out longing. In one of the more painful and haunting moments of the film, Mike expresses (again) his awareness that he will have to bear the weight of Scott’s rejection: Scott is “straight,” and therefore an object generally desired in this common world. To Scott’s assertion “I only have sex with men for money” Mike replies “I love you and you don’t pay me.” For Mike, Scott is nearly Mom’s breast of desire. Is the breast filled with poison or nurture? This is the risk of vulnerability.

In My Own Private Idaho, boy after boy represents, somewhat, Van Sant’s ambivalence in regard to standards of male beauty: white, “butch,” sane. What could be disturbing about this, but isn’t especially, is that these boys are played for their limitations—we probably wouldn’t be interested in them but for Van Sant’s artistry, which elevates them at the same time that it illuminates them, and which makes us look. In the world of people of color, who are out there and part of Van Sant’s audience, this romanticizing tendency could be distancing, as it was in Mala Noche. But here his obsession with boys and their roles in a man’s world enhances the film’s sense of the claustrophobia of the small world in which none of these white boys is king.

Most American films reconstruct or recast reality (a negotiable term) as strictly “comedic” or “tragic”—desire as pure unadulterated fiction. But Van Sant is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s American counterpart in that he practices Pasolini’s dictum, “If I have to express you, I express you through yourself. The cinema is a language which expresses reality with reality. So the question is: what is the difference between reality and cinema? Practically none.” In his flat use of the wide-angle lens, Van Sant confronts us straight on with our bad teeth, ruined feet, and intact libidos. Unlike those of his contemporaries who, in the words of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, want to create American (read Hollywood) films critical of the status quo (Spike Lee comes most readily to mind), he kills the Great White Father of the American-movie system systematically. No real movie stars used as such. No real linear narrative. No real regard for mise-en-scène. No real love to be found at The End. So doing, Van Sant has become the boy our nation’s repressive climate needs: a gay who wants us to view him and his product as something “real.”

In the face of Van Sant’s ceaseless questioning, the center of most things preconceived will not hold. Like him, we should insist on remaking them.

Hilton Als is a writer who lives in New York. He is working on a collection of essays, Three Books of the Negress, to be published next year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.