Sunday, April 14, 2013

My Own Private Idaho

Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho tells the story of two male hustlers, Mike Waters and Scott Favor, who live on the streets, sell themselves to men and women, and eventually embark on a transcontinental quest to find Mike's mother. Scott (Keanu Reeves) is the rebellious son of a high-ranking family, who lives this life mostly to embarrass his dad, and Mike (River Phoenix) suffers from narcolepsya condition characterized by brief attacks of deep sleep, brought on by a chemical change in the brain that occurs during times of stress.

I read a quick run-down of the film's plot before pressing play, and learned that elements from Shakespeare's "Henry IV Part 1," "Henry IV Part 2," and "Henry V" were woven within Van Sant's screenplay. "Ah yes, 'to be...or not to be?'" I thought to myself before promptly realizing I knew diddly-squat about Shakespeare. Turns out that famous quote is from Hamlet. Who knew!!?!1!? Despite my pitiful knowledge of 16th-century plays, I was still able to fall in love with My Own Private Idaho. Mike is in a perpetual state of detachment. Constantly toeing the line between being cognizant and unconscious, he's never fully awake, and while it may not have been Van Sant's intention, the frequent lapses into Shakespearean dialect only heightened the dreamlike feel of the story.
 Another awesomely surreal element: talking magazine covers. And the title, "Homo On the Range?" Golden.
The twice recurring image of salmon swimming upstream was another beautiful touch. In fact, I felt it made clear the ending of the movie, which apparently has been deemed too ambiguous in the past. After living their adult lives in the ocean, salmon must migrate upstream toward the river gravel beds in which they were born—a harrowing voyage that requires them to fight against the current for thousands of miles. Surviving salmon, after miraculously finding their way back to their birthplace, lay eggs of their own and die, which enables the salmon life cycle to begin anew. Mike embarks on his own strenuous journey when he sets out to find his mother: traveling from Oregon to Italy and back again, he seems to have just missed her at every step of the way. Even when deserted and left with no additional clues, however, his journey continues, for his birthplace, Idaho, continues to pull him like a lure. We're left with the final shot of a sleeping Mike being loaded into the truck of a passing highway traveler. Despite this cryptic ending, we know his journey must endure. Like Pacific salmon, Mike will try to fight the current until he's home, and if he doesn't make it, there will be another floundering wanderer like him in search of the same elusive destination. What could better attest to this story's perpetuation than Mike's last words?
"I'm a connoisseur of roads. I've been tasting roads my whole life. This road will never end. It probably goes all around the world."
Even better than the film's dialogue and imagery was River Phoenix's performance. I had a marathon of his filmography last week, and this, as it does for many others, stands out as one of his greatest works. James Franco (who endearingly gushes about celebrities as much as I do in his Huffington Post Blog) once commented on River's performance in My Own Private Idaho, describing it as "funny and heartbreaking, [like] Charlie Chaplin and James Dean all rolled into one." I'd say that's a pretty spot-on observation. River incorporated physical comedy into his performance by twitching like an adorable puppy in his sleep, and then managed to portray some of the most genuine, understated emotion I've ever seen in the iconic campfire scene, which was written by River himself(!). Honest to sweet baby Jesus, if you're iffy about watching My Own Private Idaho in its entirety, just try the campfire scene.  He displays raw vulnerability and emotional strength at the same time, and Keanu Reeves does a fantastic job of playing off both sentiments while also adding to the scene's intimacy. And the hug. God, that hug is so sweet.

So, while the movie's plot revolves around two prostitutes, sex is one of the least important elements of the story. It's a gorgeous cinematic Bildungsroman (I may not be an expert on Shakespeare, but I remember this word from high school English class!) that focuses on the lives of troubled outsiders, the poetry of life on the streets, and the universal pursuit of love. Thanks for reading. I'mma steal one of my favorite lines from Keanu's character as a send-off: Wherever. Whatever. Have a nice day.

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