When Gus Van Sant started giving me breaks to time-lapse photography of clouds over the countryside to indicate breaks in the mental landscape of his narcoleptic protagonist, which occurs in the very first few minutes, I realized I had missed an important piece of information about My Own Private Idaho: that it was avant-garde. I knew it was a key entry in queer cinema, but films earn that designation for showing queer lives, not for necessarily making the bold ass artistic choices frequently beloved of the queer community. But when they do, we get things like a shot of an old wooden barn being dropped from a height and smashing into boards on an empty blacktop road to indicate a character’s orgasm, and that’s only the second scene!
That was also, as it turns out, not the only important piece of information I had missed before watching this. I know that at one point in my life I had stumbled over the detail that My Own Private Idaho was loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. I say stumbled over because I did not pick up this information and carry it along with me from that moment. Instead, a combination of realization & recollection broke over me like a splendid sunrise somewhere around the point Bob appeared, and I at last put it together that Keanu Reeves wasn’t being given odd little monologues just as part of the art, but because Keanu Reeves was specifically playing rent boy Prince Hal, quasi Shakespeare-sounding-like dialogue with his homeless Falstaff and all. I WAS GONE.
Not that I wasn’t already gone for this movie, I was gone for it even before the cut to Scott holding sleeping Mike in his arms like an alt Portland Pietà on the steps of the elk sculpture downtown, though I can tell you that would have done it.
I was gone for My Own Private Idaho because it was eccentric but emotionally earnest, and 1991 enough for things like living skin mag covers to land more experimental than twee. Something of a low-fi Velvet Goldmine but about street hustlers in the Pacific Northwest. And even at its greatest aesthetic extremes, there’s always something raw and vulnerable in those central two performances, particularly in what lovely, lost River Phoenix is doing in his portrayal of someone who is narcoleptic but also tired, the spit-shined performance he sometimes drags on for his trade never effectively covering the scuffs and bruises of his Richard Siken longing. But there is also something tender and open at the heart of Keanu Reeves’s luminous beauty, even when he’s being a bastard—it’s the quality that makes him such a good casting for Prince Hal. There’s a shared sincerity in the souls of these two young actors, a certain honesty that helps lend the whole project its scuzzy sweetness, while that tragedian backing lets us feel our sadness as part of a tradition old and grand and classical, which is kind, really.
Listen, is it flawless, does everything always work? Probably not! And I was at first going to leave half a star of room out of a sense that maybe I should, [gentle voice] go easy.. But then I remembered the way Van Sant did the sex scenes in those cuts of breathing tableaus and about had an artistic heart attack all over again, SO: