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There's no sectioning-off the categories of Van Sant's imagination; neither he nor My Own Private Idaho will sit still for it. The film deals in radical dislocations, alternative communities, and a polymorphous range of sexual expression. That this comes across with great natural vitality and spontaneity (and without any hint of self-serving political revisionism), is chiefly because its sociopolitical vision goes hand in hand with the exhilarating formal and stylistic freedom that marks Van Sant's film from beginning to end.
The director's larky excursions into verging-on-surreal stylization are vibrantly entertaining in their own right, but they also operate as expressions of generosity towards his characters, their needs and susceptibilities, their often eccentric way of seeing things. Back on that Idaho highway, Mike looks off into the distance and decides that the road reminds him of "a fucked-up face"; Van Sant masks a portion of the landscape into a silent-movie iris-shot, Buster Keaton style, and voila -- a fucked-up face absolutely. A session with a fastidious Seattle john becomes a droll musical number as Mike -- in maid's apron and bonnet -- tidies up the guy's apartment, a Thirties lovesong ("Deep Night") plays, and the john, without leaving the couch, begins to dance. A porn shop turns into a living picture gallery as Scott, Mike, and several other male models carry on a conversation from their respective magazine covers along the wall. And in a hustlers' diner, several freshly scrubbed, terminally adrift young street guys deliver deadpan monologues directly to the camera, as though in a Jean-Luc Godard film of the sixties. (Did Van Sant write their lines or just tell them to start talking?)
The most recurrent of Van Sant's stylizations, Mike's memory/dreams of his mother and a new-built childhood home, take the form of ersatz home-movie footage (a device Van Sant employed more casually in Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy). The color is leached, the focus erratic, the sharpness slurred by blowup from home-movie format. The movements of the figures are mysterious to begin with, and hint at a terrible instability beyond the functional jitteriness of the images. This is realism, of a kind: these qualities are byproducts of the imperfections of home-movie technology, the discrepancies between amateur and professional media. It is also eerily expressionistic. Madness gets loose in that emulsion. The object of desire becomes terrifying. And even watching the screen you have to wonder with Mike: was his mother's house blue, or green?
In the Seattle portion of My Own Private Idaho, Mike narcolepts when confronted with the prospect of making love to a client (Grace Zabriskie) who reminds him of his mother. Scott and another hustler haul him outside her wealthy home and deposit him in a nearby park. The other hustler goes to hail a cab; Scott lingers to deliver a few remarks about his own upbringing in a similar neighborhood, and about his feelings toward his patrician father. Mike hears none of it, though he is technically present and Scott ironically pretends that his friend is listening. Only belatedly do we realize that this speech was a spin on a Shakespearean soliloquy -- the first gesture toward one of the movie's most extravagant formal experiments.
Shortly after the setting shifts to Portland, Bob Pigeon enters the film and Van Sant adopts a bold new mode. Bob isn't just reminiscent of Falstaff, he speaks and is spoken to in fractured versions of speeches from Henry IV, Part 1. (Bob: "What time is it?" Scott: "What do you care? You wouldn't even look at a clock unless hours were lines of coke, dials looked like the signs of gay bars, or Time itself was a fair hustler in black leather.") Shakespeare's Boar's Head Tavern becomes a derelict hotel; the epically botched Gadshill robbery is re-created under a freeway bridge; and in Keanu Reeves's mouth Prince Hal's soliloquy about redeeming his reputation becomes "It will impress them more, when such a fuckup like me turns good!"
The recourse to Elizabethan rhetoric underscores the divergence between Scott (and the world to which he was born, and aims to claim for his own) and the simpler Mike (who is mostly sidelined in the Shakespearean scenes) -- a divergence that the easy roisterousness of their friendship tends to conceal (indeed, to conceal from Mike himself). Also, like the classical reverberations of Mike's incestuous history that come out during a visit to his brother's Idaho home, the Shakespearean framework foregrounds the timelessness of the recurring themes of fathers and sons, masked motives, and the sociopolitical callousness of intimate betrayal. Moreover, of all film attempts over the years to "update" Shakespeare, these passages of My Own Private Idaho are among the few actually to suggest the legitimacy, the funky freeform possibility, of this story happening again, getting reenacted by people with no idea they're reenacting anything.
Finally, though, Gus Van Sant isn't so much reviving Henry IV as paying passionate homage to Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff), Orson Welles's magnificent, little-known 1966 film about the greathearted old knight and the prince who killed his heart. From the first image of Bob Pigeon and a minion making there way across a junk-strewn urban plain, Van Sant takes pains to echo the very angles, compositions, movements, and editorial rhythms Welles himself deployed in his most personal Shakespearean film.
For all his brilliance -- and in part because of it -- Welles, like Van Sant today, stood outside the mainstream of commercial filmmaking. (Chimes at Midnight, like many another of Welles's directorial efforts, was made in Europe, on a helter-skelter schedule and precarious budget, with at least as much invention devoted to covering up the desperateness of the production circumstances as to realizing the drama.) Also like Van Sant, he didn't flout cinematic convention so much as he refused to be constrained by it; he honored film classicism, really, by reinventing and extending it. Perhaps above all, Welles shared with his latest cinematic son a tremendous sense of play. In both, vaulting skill and an awesome technical command go hand in hand with a creative exuberance that communicates itself exhilaratingly to the viewers of their films.
There's one other element among My Own Private Idaho's meta-cinematic references. The role of Bob Pigeon is taken by William Richert, another brilliant American filmmaker Hollywood has been too small to contain. (His writing-directing debut, Winter Kills, was abandoned by its distributor in 1979 but reissued by Richert himself in 1982, at which time it began to win acclaim as one of the best, and certainly most dazzling films of its time.) Apart from the droll felicities of his performance -- in Idaho's counterpart of Welles's own role in Chimes at Midnight -- the very presence of Richert is a Pirandellian masterstroke, and testimony to Gus Van Sant's regard for the genius as outlaw.
It probably goes all around the world."
The ending of My Own Private Idaho is deeply mysterious. Mike, alone now (Scott in yuppie excelsis, Bob Pigeon in the grave), is back on that Idaho road -- literally. In longshot, a pickup truck stops beside his narcoleptic form and two strangers pilfer his shoes and rucksack. They depart. A car arrives. A lone male figure gets out, collects the still-sleeping Mike, and drives off with him down the infinite line of empty highway. What has happened? In this life some people will treat you badly and some people will treat you well? Someone is about to make money off Mike while he sleeps (in echo of an earlier sardonic joke)? Scott has already repented of his desertion and come back to go vagabonding once more? We can't know, and also can't know whether to laugh or cry, though we feel like doing both.
After a few bars of "America the Beautiful" on a jangling guitar, the end credits play to the accompaniment of "Old Main Drag," a scabrous cynical/profane street-ballad by The Pogues. Then this is displaced by the ineffably romantic, ineffably forlorn "Deep Night" (from the Daddy Carroll scene). The musical juxtaposition recalls the alternative Martin Luther King Jr./Malcolm X quotations about violence with which Spike Lee ended his Do the Right Thing: Neither is true and both are true. But the bothness is truest of all.