Most, if not all, of the directors of the New Queer Cinema didn’t want to be called part of the New Queer Cinema.
You can’t blame them.
The filmmakers involved — including Gus Van Sant, Jennie LIvingston, Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, and Derek Jarman — worked in every tone and color imaginable (eventually, in Jarman’s case, literally only one color); in documentary, narrative fiction, and experimental work; movies that were shaped by queer culture, that critiqued queer culture, that outright rejected it. The only thing they really had in common was an unapologetic and unashamed queerness, rare in much of modern history and practically endangered in the AIDS-ravaged, Reagan-dominated 1980s. (Jarman would die of the illness in 1994.) Those commonalities were enough for critic B. Ruby Rich, who coined the term, and there’s certainly value in tying these filmmakers and their works together, historically if for no other reason.
But in the end, the directors and their works stand alone, the product of voices as distinct as any other, and more distinct than many movements before them. No other movie looked or sounded like My Own Private Idaho. Not many movies would come close in the years that followed.
The trailer makes the whole film look like such a mess I almost didn’t link it. It’s true this is a shaggy dog story on paper — it’s about narcolepsy, and inheritance, and heteronormativity, and class, and oh yeah, it’s a travel story, too —
But in Van Sant’s hands, it’s not a mess at all. As with his earlier Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho focuses on the fringes, using the real stories of criminals and hustlers to inform its rambling narrative. (Drugstore Cowboy was based on the memoir of career criminal and addict James Fogle; Idaho on the novel City of Night by John Rechy and the street kids Van Sant had encountered over the years, particularly in the late 1980s when he was working on Mala Noche.) But in a major departure from Drugstore, Van Sant brought in a second thread: William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. Using the “cut up technique” championed by William Burroughs, Van Sant blended in the stories of two men: a prince in waiting and his penniless companion, one biding time before his inevitable ascension, the other hopelessly, desperately in love. (You see why it might be difficult to make a decent trailer out of this; I still think those editors could have done better.)
Unlike its lead, My Own Private Idaho is rootless, but never lost. River Phoenix’s Mike keeps looking for the unconditional love he can’t have, and might never have had at all, and the journey takes him as far as Italy without really going much of anywhere. Mike’s in love with his best friend Scott (Keanu Reeves, playing his cards very close to his chest), and Scott…well, Scott travels with him for a while, filling in some of the blank spots when Mike’s narcolepsy attacks and keeping him safe. They’re friends, probably, and partners of a sort, but there’s something precarious about it, even before Scott starts slipping away.
Scott is the film’s biggest mystery. He promises that he’ll change when it’s least expected and insists he’ll leave the world of hustlers behind, a promise he intends to keep — and does. He grows up and straightens up — in both senses of the term — and passes over to a more respectable, moneyed life with a beautiful woman. The prince comes into his own, a king in control of his own destiny.
Did he care about Mike? Is he capable of caring about anything? (It’s notable that Scott responds to Mike’s confession of love by reminding him that he only has sex with men for money, and that most of his denials are about what he can’t do, not what he won’t.) In the end, it doesn’t matter. Like Mike’s missing mother, Scott is unreachable, and the last time we see Mike, he is truly unanchored, a little boy lost. (He is, crucially, perhaps tragically, not alone. A thousand movies could be made about what happens to Mike after the final scene, and fortunately, none of them will ever exist.)
Van Sant “cuts up” and includes so many authentic pieces in Idaho: his father was an actual, no-joke traveling salesman, and his family moved often during his childhood. His firsthand experiences with street kids, and the authentic voice in City of Night. The way that, in the ’80s, many public figures chose the respectability of heterosexuality. Phoenix himself rewrote Mike’s dialogue in the campfire scene, saving it for the day of filming. And, of course, the love and trust between Van Sant’s two leads hold everything together.
My favorite story about the making of this movie is also one of my favorite stories about River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, and their friendship; Van Sant gave each actor a copy of City of Night. Reeves read the book immediately, and then sought out and read everything else Rechy had written; Phoenix never even finished City of Night. They balanced one other, on- and offscreen. By all accounts, Phoenix’s early death still haunts his friend, and watching My Own Private Idaho, that lends a surreal subtext to it all; Reeves became a good old-fashioned conventional \movie star, of course, with more riches than the fictional Scott might dream of, but it was Phoenix who slipped away, forever beyond his friend’s reach.
Fate, of course, lends a distressing undercurrent of realism to this; in 2023, Reeves is visibly graying, and his recent hits include themes of aging and reckoning with the past. River Phoenix, though, stays forever young on our screens. The end of the film, where Mike is picked up by strangers and taken to somewhere unknown, has a deeper, more haunting resonance now.
What happened to the men who attended the prince in waiting? History doesn’t tell us, and neither does Gus Van Sant. He just leaves us with the mystery, the loneliness, the open road.
And of course, the B-52s’ “Private Idaho” inspired the title.