Coming in at number 10 on the BFI list is My Own Private Idaho and it seems as good a time as any to revisit and review the 1991 Gus Van Sant classic, together with a brief discussion of its place and importance in relation to New Queer Cinema more broadly. As ever, the review will contain spoilers.
Van Sant introduces the viewer to Mike on a deserted road in the middle of nowhere, which Mike views as a kind of "fucked up face". There's a symmetry and quiet beauty to the surroundings but also a sense of alienation, as the camera captures the seemingly infinite length of the road which offers nothing on the horizon. The scene shifts as Mike slips towards sleep to a moment of calm which foreshadows the craving for maternal connection which forms a critical part of Mike's story. The viewer is taken into Mike's subconscious, caught between sleep and waking with the sequence taking on an ethereal, other-worldly quality.
Mike wakes and the viewer is brought abruptly back to reality by Mike's client enthusiastically blowing Mike. The camera angles hide the identity of the man on his knees completely and it focuses instead on close ups of Mike's back and thighs and then his face. After a moment, the viewer is back in Mike's head again. The image of a house which appears to represent a sense of home and safety for Mike, collapses into nothing as Mike reaches his climax. There's a sense of the impersonal in the sexual encounter, the camera avoiding all the usual angles which might give any illusion of intimacy. Instead the focus is on Mike's back and then what's going on inside his head, the suggestion being that the identity of the other man matters not - it is just another client, just another trick. Money is thrown carelessly on Mike's bare chest as he quickly buckles his jeans and then asks the client - Walt - for more money in exchange for a date.
The dangers of the work Scott and Mike both do are hinted at only briefly, violence and rape experienced by other hustlers talked about casually over coffee. In this scene the men talk over one another and the very real sense that nobody is paying much attention to anybody else's story. Stories are told with casual detachment and the sense of the hustlers seeking to distance themselves from their encounters with clients is subsequently reinforced. Scott and Mike's work makes sex a business transaction for them both and that disconnect between sex and emotional connection is further emphasised in the way Van Sant chooses to depict the two more explicit and prolonged sex scenes in the film. He puts together a series of stills in a slide-show like montage of actors caught with wide, glassy eyes and adopting magazine perfect poses. The pictures keep the sex scenes brief whilst suggesting a lengthy encounter. The technique removes any sense of eroticism from the scenes with the staged pictures at times quite comical and reinforcing the idea of sex as performance as opposed to pleasure. The presentation of sex in this manner enforces the notion that for Mike there is an 'out of body' element to his sexual experiences and that disassociation from self is further emphasised in Mike's other sexual encounters. In those moments flashbacks to hazy moments from his youth and the stress of the situations trigger his narcolepsy, leaving his clients wanting and Mike in a near comatose state of sleep. The stage is set, but he is unable to perform.
It's not just Mike's sexual encounters which are filmed in this way. Scott's threesome with Mike and the wealthy German, Hans, is depicted in the same way - with a series of stills depicting everything from cuffed hands to an open mouth paused over a toe. Interestingly, even where Scott supposedly finds love with Carmella, an Italian girl he meets, the sex between the two is depicted with the same posed photographs which are faintly ridiculous and devoid of any warmth or intimacy. The most intimate scene in the film is the one between Scott and Mike by the bonfire, as they make the trip to Idaho to visit Mike's brother and to find out more about the whereabouts of his mother. Mike confesses with aching desire how much he wants to kiss Scott while Scott insists that two men can't love one another unless there is money involved - the suggestion being that for Scott even love can be bought and sold, purchased in the same way as sex. There's a coming out of sorts as Mike states with quiet conviction "I love you and...you don't pay me." There's a gentle tension and incredible chemistry in the scene which is almost painful to watch, as Mike curls in on himself, wrapping his arms around his legs and keeping his head low - protecting himself physically from the potential emotional impact of abandonment and heartbreak.
The film is, in many ways, full of contradictions. Reeves portrays Scott with both humour and warmth at times and then, at others, with cool detachment. Phoenix's portrayal of Mike is brilliantly multifaceted and nuanced. The viewer both cries and laughs with Mike and feels his elation, his loneliness, his frustration whilst still being able to see the elements of humour in the character. There's a childlike quality to Phoenix's portrayal of Mike at times, emphasised by his moments seeking solace in the arms of a mother figure who can make everything okay. Between Mike, Scott, Bob and the other hustlers, there are moments of camaraderie, friendship and lightheartedness and scenes where the dialogue takes on the kind of bawdy riposte of Shakespeare's plays, with a contemporary spin.
Scott seemingly rejects everything his wealthy family stands for, finding warmth even in the darkest of places with his friends on the streets. He engages in conscious rebellion, yet just as sex is a performance, for Scott his life on the streets is also part of the play, the option to return to a life wealth and privilege always available to him. Because of the genuine warmth between Scott and Mike it comes as a surprise when Scott does choose the path of wealth and privilege. There's a suggestion from a nameless stranger that Scott might be well-placed considering a career in politics - just like his father before him - and it seems as if, instead of finding his true self, Scott has become everything he rejects at the outset of the film. In stiff, formal business wear, Scott is cold and two-dimensional and assimilates with the wealthy, the prosperous and the straight, with his new wife by his side.
Scott's decision is foreshadowed when he observes at the beginning of the film that "I will change just when everybody least expects it". Nevertheless, his transformation from street hustler occurs swiftly and, in the process, taking the viewer by surprise. Here Van Sant has done just what Scott promised from the outset in showing the viewer Scott's choice at the most unexpected moment. There's a blank determination to the way Reeves delivers his lines in Idaho - particularly towards the end - which echoes Scott's cool detachment from his former life. In a paper studying Greg Araki's works entitled Camp and Queer and the New Queer Director, Glyn Davis suggests the impersonal delivery may be intentional; a form of "queer camp performance...a specific acting style which historically links together the underground queer cinema" and which can be found in films such as Super 8 1/2 and Hustler White.
My Own Private Idaho is often cited as an example of a work which falls within the New Queer Cinema movement, albeit it had more mainstream attention than some of its contemporaries. Michele Aaron's introduction to a collection of critical essays on New Queer Cinema notes that New Queer Cinema frequently gives not only a voice to characters that are marginalised by queerness, but to subgroups within the community, in Idaho's case, the gay male prostitute. Although this is not uncovered ground these days and a raft of films which addressed male prostitution followed Idaho, there are only a handful which came before it. There's a nod to the unspoken homoerotics of the classic Western, from the riding on the modern day horse (the motorbike), the landscape, the bonfires, the lonely roads and the surreal and humorous interaction between the hustlers as models on magazines, with Reeves as the cowboy on a magazine Male Call. In these references there's an element of the tongue in cheek and in Idaho the love that usually doesn't speak its name does, in fact, with Mike's revelation to Scott during their travels. There's a certain ambiguity to the ending of Idaho and a sense of both ambivalence and hopefulness which isn't entirely stripped away at the conclusion of the film.
Interestingly for a queer film of its time, Idaho doesn't explicitly address AIDS. Michele Aaron notes that to fully understand New Queer Cinema it is vital to understand the concept of queer as "critical intervention, cultural product and political strategy - and [New Queer Cinema] as an art-full manifestation of the overlap between the three...the reappropriation of the power of the antagonistic, homophobic society...reclaiming the term of abuse...through a new approach to 'gay' politics: a taking on of the institution, rather than fearful, assimilated complicity". In expanding on the political and societal influences behind the New Queer Cinema movement, Aaron observes the increased urgency in queer politics which was brought about by the AIDS crisis. Although AIDS is notably absent from Idaho, commentators such as Arroyo in his essay Death, Desire and Identity: The Political Unconscious in New Queer Cinema have observed that although the subject doesn't receive explicit treatment, Idaho and other films of its time "depict the context of the pandemic through their their use of style, their romanticism, their representation of sexuality and time, and their dystopic viewpoint."
An important work in the context of discourse on New Queer Cinema and an unexpected hit at the time of release, My Own Private Idaho has retained something of a cult classic status. It is one of River Phoenix's finest performances and the film is rich with new things to discover on repeated viewings. A glorious, nuanced, sometimes surreal film which is both funny and heartbreaking all at the same time.