Preface: This is the essay I wrote for my final in Self Reflective Avante Garde Film on the movie My Own Private Idaho DIR. Gus Van Sant, I recommend that everyone see this film! I received an A in the course and it was by far one of the best experiences I’ve had in school this year. Here’s my essay!
My Own Private Transcendental Hell
“There’s not another road anywhere that looks like this road. I mean, exactly like this road. It’s one kind of place. One of a kind. Like someone’s face. Like a fucked up face” (Van Sant). Within the world of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho subjective influences play a key role in showing the viewer how the world works around the main character’s lifestyle, and how the main character views and experiences the world around him. The idiosyncratic influences on the film’s main character evolve and inform the viewer’s opinions of the difficulties that the character Mike is going through. Mike is a narcoleptic, quiet, gay man who spends most of his days working the streets as a male hustler and looking for his long lost mother who is hidden not just through her gypsy-like lifestyle but more through Mike’s inability to accept the truth of the past. Gus Van Sant shows us through various forms of fragmentation within the films editing, cliched characterization, exhibitionism, transcendence, transgression, the cyclical form of Mike’s life, as well as gender and character as performance and alienation, the quest of Mike to find answers to multitudes of questions he has about his past. Refusing to accept that the questions may not have the answers he’s looking for. My Own Private Idaho is a study in the flawed subjectivity of Mike and how he will forego any worldly pleasures in order to get what he truly wants out of the world, and how the answers he’s looking for do not truly exist.
The world surrounding Mike is in squalor, he lives in a broken down homeless hotel of sorts, where his main partner in crime Scott and him patiently make plans on how to live. The cliched characterization of these two people leads the viewer to see that My Own Private Idaho deals with studies in how two polar opposites work together. Polar opposites in the form of ideals about the future, with one character, Scott, having planned that he is going to make a turnaround upon his 21st birthday in order to impress his parents. While Mike has no plans except to understand where he came from and what happened to his lost Mother, and to continue as a vagabond gypsy prostitute. Two characters who have complete opposite motivations in their lives, to show the characterization of two people who have ideals that differ highly but compliment each other. With Van Sant’s careful build up of these characters he shows that the main character Mike’s actions are completely fueled by a desire that can never be satisfied as his memories have been altered by his increasing problems with narcolepsy and drug use. With this clear juxtaposition between the characters Mike and Scott, Van Sant shows the audience that the film is an exercise in how close two people can become when they have such differing views. The subjective part of Mike’s story is really what brings together the dynamic between him and Scott. With subjectivity the beliefs and ideals that a person have are exclusive to what is inside the person’s mind, without outside influence. With Mike, his ideals and drive are exclusive to him and only him. Through the characterization of Mike the reasons for his actions are brought up and shown to the audience, in repetitive scenes where he sees what appears to be his past family through 8mm film and distorted sound bits. By showing this the director creates the character cliché of someone with a troubled past searching for non-existent answers that has become a norm in multiple films throughout cinema. The banal character creation that Van Sant employs to bring the subjectivity of Mike’s mind to the surface shows the illusionary nature of the film and how the quest for answers in Mike’s life is fruitless.
My Own Private Idaho makes use of fragmentation through the films editing, often cutting to different images with narration laid over. The use of this technique within the film brings the state of mind that Mike is in to the surface for further analysis. The opening scene after the title sequence shows Mike receiving fellatio from another man, however the scene is split up into several parts from the editing. The scene opens with an image of River Phoenix’s face as he slowly opens his eyes, then quickly cuts to the image of salmon swimming upstream and then quickly cuts again to an image of a serene lake. After these images are displayed the camera finally shows Mike’s face again and shows that he is indeed receiving a blow-job from another man, and as he reaches the point of orgasm the film cuts again to the image of a dilapidated house falling on an abandoned stretch of road, then it cuts back to Mike’s face to show him opening his eyes again as the act of oral sex is finished. This scene is completely broken up and gives the audience a seemingly unconnected group of images that build up to a simple act of oral sex on the main character. Gus Van Sant purposefully fragments scenes in the film to create images with specific meaning to the story arc and personalities of the characters. With the shot of the salmon swimming up river the theme of home is immediately established. As salmon only move up river to breed, and swim upriver in an incredibly difficult quest to get home, procreate, and then die. This mirrors Mike’s quest in most aspects, the salmon fight against something that does not want them to continue, while Mike is going against the world in a quest to find his home in order to bring his family history into focus. The scene shifts to the image of a serene lake, representing Mike’s journey to find peace in his life through having all of his questions answered, as well as a certain fleeting serenity due to the sexual act being performed on him thats related to his extreme pleasure with some parts of his lifestyle. The image of Mike reaching the point of orgasm then cutting to a massive house breaking on a highway relates to the overall theme of Mike’s journey for finding a place to call home. The relation of extreme pleasure correlates to him finding a true home rather than having one be destroyed and or non-existent. Directly showing Mike’s feelings involving home and what it means to to be at peace. Mike sees finding home as the ultimate pleasure and desire, whether home be found in another person or a house that he can barely remember, all he can imagine is the extreme happiness of finding that one true place.
This fragmentation of the film relates to the journey of Mike going towards home, and farther away from it at the same time, it shows his complete and utter devotion to his expedition for a place that he can be at rest. The broken nature of the film shows Mike’s increasing issues with his narcolepsy and by extension his subjective issues within himself based off his wants and needs. The broken up nature of the beginning scene places Mike’s ideal dream of finding a home next to the blurred visions of his troubled past. His brain has jumbled his memories so that he can no longer remember who his real father is, where his mother has gone, and what his original home looked like. This leads into an intense internal battle with which he believes wholeheartedly that his home is where his mother is, and that’s why he searches so desperately for her, however due to the confused memories it’s impossible for him to realize if his memory is the truth or if it’s a fallacy. Thus, throwing his progress into question as the answer of if there ever was a home for Mike is thrown away with the idea that he can’t tell what truly happened with his mother or family life. The movies fragmentation through it’s editing lends itself to the interpretation that the entire film is an surreal experience for Mike as he searches for the answers that he think will bring him peace. For example with the rapid editing that is present throughout the film, within different scenes cutting from the action to the considerable amount of cloud footage that is present throughout the movie Van Sant creates a larger image of Mike’s forged memory. The image that Mike is searching for something further, with the images of the clouds speeding past to show that his life is moving a mile a minute with everything that is happening around him, but also that what he wants is fogged over due to his past experiences. The splintered form of the editing within the movie is used to show the impossibility within Mike’s quest for answers, as well as revealing to the viewer that Mike is simply to broken down mentally to handle the truth of his past as well as what his home was truly like.
The exhibitionist nature of the character’s within the film adds to the difficulty of the quest that Mike is on, as throughout the film Mike moves from place to place with his friend Scott to create a feeling of home that even then eventually gets squashed. The main character’s best friend and major hustler Scott Favor is the epitome of an attention seeking person. He behaves and acts in a way that is to deliberately attract attention to himself and to the acts that he is committing. All of this is to simply make his parents more surprised at him when he makes his big ‘turnaround’ at the end of the film. Throughout the entire film Scott is aware of what is going on around him and actively participates in it, however he always knows what’s going to happen on his 21st birthday and thus is simply a character that is performing his own play for the people around him. This directly effects Mike with the fact of him thinking that Scott is his best friend, when the truth resounds that Scott is friends with him for the moment and not for the long haul. Through the usage of attention seeking behavior in the character Scott, Gus Van Sant is able to bring forth the issues revolving around Mike’s search. For example, in the scene where Scott and Mike sit together before a fire getting ready to spend a night under the stars. While sitting in front of the fire Scott begins to converse with Mike “Getting away from everything feels good”, automatically bringing the attention to him as he has simply been ‘getting away’ from everything in his entire life, knowing that he is returning to his life of comfort with his parents when he turns 21 (Van Sant). The scene goes on to show that Mike is curious as to how Scott’s family works, and is more than a little bit jealous “If I had a normal family, and a good upbringing, then I would have been a well-adjusted person.”, mainly due to the fact that Mike only has an idea of what a home is like, of what it entails to be a person with a normal upbringing (Van Sant). Due to Mike’s troubles and difficulties dealing with his past the character of Scott serves as a character who has what Mike needs and wants but decides to be flippant with it. He truly wants home, not only to understand where he came from and feel happy, but to put an end to his never-ending search for a normal home with a normal family. While Scott continuously brags about what he is going to do and Mike sits idly by, listening and wishing he could remember what it is that lead to his current situation in life.
Scott Favor is the flamboyant, braggart while Mike is the shy recluse that tags along with him. The issues with this being that Mike envy’s Scott for what he has and brags about, with his family that wants him back and the plan that he has in store. While Mike only has a series of addresses and the truth which he refuses to accept, with this there is a great dilemma as Mike’s mother is revealed to have been psychotic, and that his father is actually his brother. All the while Scott’s intense need for attention brings the focus back to him, with repeated cuts during the reveal of who Mike’s father truly is to Scott as he comments to himself about the conversation that’s happening, as well as exploring the squalor that the brother lives in. Through Scott’s condescending comments such as “Oh come on man, how corny” in reaction to the brother’s story of how Mike’s mother killed the man she was seeing, Scott is revealed to be completely self involved. By creating a character that is so involved with himself and what is going on in his life rather than actually helping his friend, Van Sant shows that Scott is only in this for the ride until his 21st birthday. The director creates this character to show what Mike actually wants and how Scott owns what Mike wants but takes it for granted and shows that he is indeed a character that is only looking for what he wants and is constantly attracting the attention of others to show his superiority as he is not truly homeless or in squalor and has not had a difficult life. By this character existing within the universe of My Own Private Idaho Mike’s journey is all the more complicated for he has a vision of what a normal home life is like, and how Scott could have had one if he hadn’t been so selfish. While Mike’s intentions for finding a home are pure and understandable, Scott’s ambitions are rather upsetting in that everything he’s doing is for the spotlight rather than for the love of his family. Scott is a practicing exhibitioner in every way, creating an all the more difficult track for Mike to find his family, with Scott finding love, poking fun at the things that happened in Mike’s childhood, as well as only ferrying him around in an attempt to waste time until his 21st birthday, this all creates a confusing image for what Mike perceives to be a normal family and even makes it more difficult to find the answers to questions that may have none to give.
“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” (Van Sant). With these ending lines by River Phoenix’s character Mike Waters the world of difficulty that Mike lives in is shown in a whole new light. This line reveals the cyclical nature of Mike’s life, he begins his journey on a road that he says “I always know where I am by the way that the road looks. Like I just know that I’ve been here before. I just know that I’ve been stuck here, like this one fucking time before, you know that? Yeah. There’s not another road anywhere that looks like this road – I mean, exactly like this road. It’s one kind of place. One of a kind… like someone’s face…” revealing that he began on a road and he will continue to be on this road for the rest of his life (Van Sant). By these beginning lines and ending lines the viewer is able to piece together that his journey for answers and a home will continue as long as he continues to look for it. With the nature of the film revealed through these lines Van Sant shows that Mike will always be on road, will always be looking for answers that he will never find, he’ll travel the world looking for a home but will never find one. This plot device reveals further that Mike began this journey but has probably been on it before, shown through the fact that he wakes up on a road and then falls asleep on the exact road that he started on. Mike’s quest for answers that he will never truly find in his life, as he will constantly be on a never-ending road that goes around the world and back to where he started, his journey will lead him to more and more dead ends leaving him with the only option to continue on and hope for better. The reveal of the main character’s seemingly circular life, with the end starting where it began displays the difficult transition that Mike continuously faces, as he will always be searching for an answer to where his home is and what a home truly is, but will never find an answer. The circle that is Mike’s life relates directly to his flawed subjectivity, he’s continuously looking inward to understand the issues with his mind and what he’s searching for. He realizes that he will be on this road for a long time, reliving the same events and struggling to look for the same answers to the same questions that provide him with nothing but despair and hope at the same time. Mike looks in to himself to understand the circle that his life is, except that his subjective views are flawed, as he repeatedly falls apart due to his emotional issues and his narcoleptic issues that are slowly devouring him to provide him only with a repetitive road, and repetitive questions with no answers. As the road goes on and on, leaving Mike to continue traveling and questing for answers while the road he’s on won’t let him, while he allows himself hope for the future, even if he gets the same results over and over.
Like the other parts of the film that lean on things such as exhibition, character cliches, fragmentation and the circular nature of Mike’s journey, the role of transcendence also comes into play to bring forth the ever increasing problem of Mike’s search for answers. Transcending is the act of being or existing above and beyond the limits of material experience, Mike is a simple image of this. He lives in a state of destitution with a bunch of other homeless vagrants, prostitutes and drug users, working on the fringes of life, not worrying about what he looks like or where he lives but only caring about one thing. Mike is consistently relating to the fact that he needs and wants to find home, his subjective experience putting him in the position that he is aware of where he is and what he wants but is only able to emotionally handle searching for home, as that will always be his one goal. Throughout the film it is clear that Mike has gone past material existence as he is only searching for happiness in the form of a household and his mother. He truly has no care for the material things found on Scott’s side of the film, that Scott is going to return to a world of greed and self indulgence, showing that while Scott is stuck in the material world Mike has completely moved on to really only have one mission. Mike is highly introspective, he continuously is looking inwards to look for the answers to the questions that he has only to find that he cannot answer them as his memories are fragmented and broken. Thus relating back to Mike’s transcendence of materialism is further represented by his struggle with other things, in more obvious symbolism his problems with the motorcycle that Scott stole, he lies and said he knows how to turnover a motorcycle when it’s clear that he has no such ability as he is too busy searching inward to understand himself and his need for a place to call his own. In less obvious symbolism of his leaving things in the material world behind, there is again the scene between Scott and Mike in front of the fire, where he reveals his love for Scott, only for Scott to reveal that “…two guys can’t love each other” shutting down yet another attempt of Mike’s to find home in a person (Van Sant). To say that Scott is the reason that Mike is leaving the material world behind him would be a lie, but to say that it doesn’t at least contribute to it would also be a lie, as Scott is so materialistic and focused on what he needs that he doesn’t care how he hurts Mike, pushing Mike to leave everything else behind except his search for an emotional home. Not a material home per-say but rather a non existent form of home in the realm of emotional safety. The subjectiveness of Mike reveals that he is searching internally for the answers to his questions but doesn’t realize how the road is truly his home. His refusing to accept this reveals his merit as a transcendental human being in search of a place that only exists in the broken realm of his mind.
My Own Private Idaho deals with the theme of transgression throughout the entirety of the film with the main character of Mike and it directly relating to his campaign for answers. Transgression as the active exceeding of due bounds or limits, or otherwise moving past the limits of the human condition and the mental limits of the mind. River Phoenix’s portrayal of Mike shows the exceeding of the bounds and limits of his lifestyle through the search for answers that Mike is continuously on the road for. Mike has gone past material needs and wants by transcendence but he transgresses the limits of the conscious world to search inward for what he needs, which is to find a home. The limits of his mind however don’t allow him to move any further in his search as he attempts to move past his maximum capacity for thought. Mike moves through the world looking into himself to find what he desires, he copiously wants to find his true home through his mother, not realizing that he wants to find something that is emotionally stable in the form of a person. As his entire life has been one big mental upheaval for a very long time, and all he desires is a place to feel at peace and not be alone anymore. This is however a great limiting factor in Mike’s mind, as he cannot move past this one desire in his brain. While in the real world, instead of the introspective nature of Mike’s journey, he struggles against the walls that are set up before him. For example, everything that happens in the film seems to hold him back from his true journey. Especially the actions of his best friend Scott, which continuously offers Mike road blocks towards his true goal. The difficulty that Scott places in front of Mike later in the film is him falling in love with Carmella. Right in front of Mike, Scott acts as a massive emotional block on Mike’s search for home. As Mike had confessed his love for Scott earlier on in the film and Scott had responded “I only have sex with a guy for money…and two guys can’t love each other” shattering Mike’s looking for home within Scott’s love. By Scott falling in love with Carmella over a few days he directly insults Mike and shows that Mike could never find a home with him and that his search is rather futile. There are even more symbolic images of Mike not being able to transgress the limits of the real world, while he may be able to do it within his head the world around him refuses to let him. The difficulty with starting the bike in the middle of nowhere, the refusal of love from Scott, the chasing by the police in the homeless hotel, and of course the difficulties with his narcolepsy and not being able to remember where he fell asleep and how he got to where he woke up. All of these aspects of the film act as boundaries and limits in the search for peace in the form of an emotionally sound place to feel comfort and safety, that he can never truly find. Deep down Mike understand that this search is complete in the form of an endless road, the road has become his home and this journey has become his purpose, transcending past the physical and transgressing past the limits to understand this, even if he refuses to accept this truth.
The final aspect of the film that shows Mike’s flawed introspective subjectivity and difficulty with finding the answers to his questions is the gender and character aspects that exist as performance and alienation. Mike’s gender and character is that of a male prostitute who uses his gender and sexuality to survive on the streets that he lives on, using his gender to make money just so he can survive and continue on his journey. This is not what he wants or needs, his character simply uses these things to survive, the only thing he truly cares about is finding a way to get his home and mother back. Not knowing that his home doesn’t exist with his mother and that he is simply chasing a false trail of bread crumbs to find at the end that she is an enigma that only exists in his mind, he has introspectively created an image of his mother that does not exist. These traits of gender and character directly correlate to each other within Mike, as he uses his male prostitution to make money just for the journey as he has already transcended past the material and is looking for emotional safety and comfort. In other ways this also leads Mike to his transgression of the barriers that life has given to him. He is able to use his performance as a prostitute to survive, but as this is the only thing he uses to make money and is rather trivial in his goals. It is ultimately an encompassing form of alienation, he uses his body to get cash but has no emotional connection to anything as he is always focused on the things he’s searching for. This alienates him from everything around him, which is the decision that he consciously makes in order to find the one thing he wants. Mike is able to manipulate others with his chosen profession as he gets paid for providing pleasure, receiving nothing in return and obviously only using it to think of ways to move forward towards his end goal.
Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho is a study in how people will forego any worldly pleasures in order to get what they truly want out of the world. Mike goes through transcending the material world around him in order to focus more on his goal of finding answers, he also does this through transgressing past his own limits so he can actually find what he wants. In the end none of this matters as Mike will never be able to find the answers to his questions as they’re impossible to find. Van Sant creates a film with cliched characters, gender as alienation, as well as fragmented editing techniques in the film that shows the flawed subjectivity of the main character. Mike is a very difficult character to analyze as he only has one goal in mind and there is never a set in stone answer to the questions he’s asking. He goes on a massive trek to find the answers and to finally put together the parts of his childhood that he cannot remember and to put together the enigma that is his mother. Leaving behind every last material thing and allowing himself to look within to find clues that are subjected and broken. At the end there is nothing that Mike can do, his past and current mental condition block his ability to find answers and find peace, he will continually be on a circular road that goes on forever, never truly finding a home, or a place to rest his head and forget his troubles, no matter how much he gives up to look deeper within himself. As there are no answers to the questions he asks.
My own private Idaho. Dir. Gus Van Sant. Perf. River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves. New Line Cinema, 1991. DVD.