My Own Private Idaho: A Quintessential Classic by Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant, one of the great names of 1990’s indie cinema, came into the full expression of his style with his second film, My Own Private Idaho. His intimate and authentic portraiture of sexuality and subculture have since made him a salient icon in both queer and mainstream cinema. Van Sant has since earned two Academy Award nominations for Good Will Hunting and Milk, while maintaining a meaningful partiality to themes of social subversion and estrangement.

My Own Private Idaho stretches from the American West’s pastoral skyscapes, through the underbellies of Portland & Seattle, to Rome and rural Italy following the exploits of Mike Waters (Phoenix), a street hustler laden with the search for his mother and a disheartening case of narcolepsy.

The film’s first act chronicles Waters’ grind, fired by Phoenix’s charismatic performance that earned him several awards. The narrative is burnished by his array of offbeat clients, highlighted with appearances by Grace Zabriskie (Twin Peaks) and Udo Kier (Andy Warhol’s Dracula). Mike’s Dickensian circle of fellow hustlers – all fresh faced and styled in alternative-chiq as one would expect of Van Sant – includes Scott Favor (Reeves), a wayward aristocrat slumming as a prostitute in a sort of poetic social experiment as he awaits his father’s inheritance.

The storyline evolves to reveal the interior strain of Mike’s unrequited love for Scott as a mournful echo of his longing for the mother who abandoned him. Eight millimeter film sequences and narcoleptic nightmares delineate the pain of past trauma and the dissipated isolation it casts over adulthood. Sex is viewed as an evasion, a commodity, and a natural symptom of devotion through Van Sant’s keen and sincere gentility.

My Own Private Idaho is a classic of independent film precisely for this unprecedented treatment of its subject matter. It comes from a time where cinema inspired us to find beauty in our anomalies and explore our deviant nature. It inspired a young generation of cinephiles to embrace their identities and to scorn established authorities through individual expression. The film’s tragic overtones serve as a call to courage, and for self-actualization despite the burdens of a tainted past or the aversions of mainstream mediocrity.

Screening Saturday, February 4th at 4:30pm

Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves
1h 44min

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Words by M.Pellerano