Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Gus’ Own Private Idaho

Gus Van Sant adapted the seminal hippie novel Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and it bombed.

He remade Psycho and it tanked.

His first feature to use name talent, Drugstore Cowboy and Matt Dillon respectively, was a nonjudgmental glimpse at the lives of junkies in the age of Just-Say-No.

He collaborated with Buck Henry on To Die For which gave Nicole Kidman much-needed and deserved credibility and made the world safe again for satire.

He has shot the video for the little boys in Hanson and their song “Weird” and he shot a video for poet Allen Ginsberg who liked little boys. Weird?

He’s a novelist and a musician and an anomaly.

Gus Van Sant is an openly gay director who commands the attention of Hollywood despite an uneven career that has included major commercial and critical flops.

Most filmmakers would never have been able to weather the storm. The fickle public would have lost interest. The even fickler studio heads would have moved on to greener pastures. Funding would dry up, disappear. But even Van Sant’s failures and experimentations reflect truths that speak to everyone. With difficult material, Van Sant has always had the mental wherewithal to return to an emotional and spiritual center to which we can all relate. Certainly this is the case with the quintessential guy flick, Good Will Hunting. But perhaps this is best represented in the quintessential gay flick, My Own Private Idaho.

Van Sant isn’t afraid of his or anyone else’s sexuality. He can make homo-centric films, but just as easily, he doesn’t have to. Most of his features include at least one gay character—Van Sant’s life includes at least one gay character …himself—but his movies are more thematically all-encompassing than niche-marketed celebrations of high camp or what-have-you (Not that there’s anything wrong with that...)

Van Sant chooses to explore universal themes of longing and emptiness. Even with its bittersweet gay romance at the center, My Own Private Idaho was about so much more.

My Own Private Idaho wasn’t Van Sant’s first gay-themed film. In 1985, Van Sant raised $20,000 to shoot Mala Noche, the tender, lyrical love story of a young gringo’s attempt to bed a teenage Mexican, based on the novella by Walt Curtis. The gritty black-and-white film earned Van Sant accolades, not just from the gay and lesbian film festivals for which the film was intended, but from the independent film community at large. The success of Mala Noche allowed Van Sant to make the pivotal Drugstore Cowboy, a low-key look at the world of criminal-minded speed freaks. Although Drugstore Cowboy only returned a fraction more than its budget, the critically-lauded film gained Van Sant notoriety. Film companies were literally throwing million dollar checks in Van Sant’s direction for him to make whatever he wanted …except My Own Private Idaho.

…Idaho wasn’t commercial. It wove Shakespeare in-and-out of the narrative. Its characters were street people, prostitutes and junkies--and homosexual ones at that! In the first scene, a main character gets fellated, for the love of Mike (which just happens to be that character’s name)! Studios balked. Production companies back-peddled. But then, against all conventional wisdom and the admonishments of executives, managers and agents, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves bought a one-way coach ticket to Idaho.

Fed up with offers to play the same character they always played in prep school pap and bland family tearjerkers--regardless of the $20 million price tag attached to those properties--Phoenix and Reeves were eager to do something interesting, literate, and, ultimately, fun.

My Own Private Idaho was originally two separate scripts. One was an adaptation of Henry IV, Part I, inspired by Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight and updated to modern-day Portland. The other was the story of a narcoleptic hustler in search of his mother. When no studio fish were nibbling at either script, a frustrated Van Sant combined elements of both to create My Own Private Idaho. This script fit all of the requirements of interesting, literate and fun. In spite of its meager two-and-a-half million dollar budget, Phoenix and Reeves jumped at the chance.

Interestingly enough, the gay love story at the heart of the finished film was only barely hinted at in the original script. Phoenix’s Mike and Reeves’ Scott were only involved in gay sex by necessity; they were living by their wits, hustling merely a means to an end. Even the beautiful campfire scene in which Mike confesses his love for Scott was initially an inconsequential moment in the film. As it was written by Van Sant, it was intended only as another episode—Mike is bored and horny, but doesn’t want to fly solo, so he comes on to his buddy. In the film, the moment becomes crucial, defining for Mike.

Van Sant had the confidence to allow the actors to not only improvise in the scene, but to alter the very nature of their characters. In fact, Phoenix didn’t improvise; he rewrote entire passages, building on the original dialogue, to transform this little moment into the pivotal scene for his character. Van Sant consulted with Reeves to insure that this didn’t cause friction. Reeves was brave enough to willingly accept the changes. The sexuality of the characters was no longer merely suggested; Mike was overtly gay and Scott was receptive to his advances, albeit awkwardly, clumsily.

Van Sant’s fearless faith in his actors shifted the tone of the entire movie. A rich, dreamlike film, perpetually leaping back and forth in time, but somehow simultaneously timeless—not unlike a dream—My Own Private Idaho strikes a universal chord. It is a visual poem about the quest, both internally and externally, for belonging. However, the campfire scene—certainly universal in its own right—was a more personal, intimate look at love, the quieter story of two men finding each other even as they search for their place in the world. This story further illuminated the universality of the movie—it became Everybody’s Own Private Idaho.

And that is Van Sant’s genius. He has the marvelous ability to invite us into worlds inhabited by junkies, thieves, street people, disaffected youths and even narcoleptic homosexual prostitutes and, somehow, make us all relate.

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