December 19, 2012

Queer Review: My Own Private Idaho (1991)

My Own Private Idaho
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writers: Gus Van Sant. Based upon Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V by William Shakespeare
Cast: River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, James Russo, William Richert, Udo Kier, Tom Troupe, Flea

My Own Private Idaho is an experimental indie film from the early part of a decade when indie films once flourished. While fairly artsy, bordering on pretentious, and with obvious references to select works of Shakespeare, Gus Van Sant's film is easy enough to admire, even if I'm not sure that I liked it. In any case, it's infinitely better than the other gay hustler film that I've seen, the Best Picture Oscar winning Midnight Cowboy, which was was nothing more than a homophobic crapfest.

Narcoleptic street hustler Mike Waters (River Phoenix) embarks on a journey to find his mother, while accompanied by his friend Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves). Along the way, Mike reveals that he is in love with Scott, but Scott ultimately rejects Mike's advances.

The Queering
My Own Private Idaho is more character study than anything else and generally, completely elliptical in it's style and presentation. There are obvious references to Shakespeare's plays, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V. Scott is clearly based upon Prince Hal/King Henry the Fifth, while his friend Bob Pigeon (William Richert) resembles the fat knight Sir Falstaff.

On the plus side, it's hard to find a more nuanced and psychologically complex queer character than Phoenix's Mike Waters. Keaunu Reeves, one of the more wooden performers in Hollywood, manages to give the most charismatic performance of his career. The cinematography is always interesting and there are many memorable images, such as the shot of a house that falls out of the sky in the middle of nowhere.

My biggest issue with the film, is that at times it feels too pretentious and doing stuff merely for the sake of being arty. For example, the shot of a house that falls randomly out of the sky in the middle of nowhere. The slow nature of the plot would be forgivable if it wasn't for the fact that there's a lot of material that feels like padding or was included simply to give the production that special "indie" vibe. I do not mind slow films so long as the deliberate pacing serves a purpose. Van Sant could have tightened things up a bit and delivered a superior motion picture.

Then there is the issue of the transitions from the stylized Shakespearean-esque dialog that Scott uses when speaking with his dad or Bob and the more natural rhythms of the scenes featuring Mike, which I frequently found to be a bit jarring.

On the whole though, this is an ambitious and challenging motion picture and people should not avoid it because of the less successful material.

For those who like more artistic films with ambiguous characters and slow plots, this is one of the better films that I've seen of that nature.

The Rating
*** out of ****


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