Essay #7: My Own Private Idaho

Andrew Reichel

ENGL 368-Watching Movies

Prof. Spadoni


Mike’s Own Private Fantasies in My Own Private Idaho

My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991) is two films in one. The first and more prominent is focused on Mike Waters, a gay narcoleptic street hustler. The other is about his best friend Scott Favor, also a male prostitute, but straight, and who does not actually need to turn tricks to get by. Despite the grim subject matter, the movie frequently goes into fantasy sequences, with the contrast between these two styles used to observe how the differences in background between Mike and Scott mean they cannot be together.

After an opening shot showing the definition of narcolepsy and a colored title card that says “Idaho”, Mike is shown on a long stretch of Idaho road with a shirt saying Bob on it, before coughing and looking around at the surroundings [0:32-1:52]. He says that he always knows where he is by the way the road looks, and he knows he has been here before [2:00-12]. His explanation: “There’s not another road anywhere that looks like this road”, then says “it’s one of a kind, like someone’s face…like a fucked up face” [2:25-48]. This is only the first appearance of faces, such as when we see a lamp with red smiling face stickers on it [1:01:54].

Mike then undergoes a narcoleptic episode right in the middle of the road [3:20-48]. We see a time lapse of nature before cutting to a woman with Mike’s head in her lap, stroking his hair while making reassuring comments, with a shot of a house in the middle of a calm landscape accompanying it while a dreamy folk song plays [3:53-4:05]. The woman is his mother, establishing his fantasies of being with her in a safe place. We also hear some thunder in the background, a sign that reality is intruding on his dreams. Mike will enter this fantasy one more time, and the thunder is louder as she says everything will be all right [7:33-8:16].

The opening credits begin, with more brightly colored title cards (one establishes that Mike is now in Seattle) and pictures of landscapes alongside shots of Mike’s body as he has sex with a client in a chair, still half asleep [4:15-6:10]. Mike’s dreams start off fanciful, such as a shooting star to wish on and a cowboy roadside attraction, but as the dream ends he sees images of salmon swimming against the current, and when he climaxes he sees the house from his fantasies fall out of the sky and be dashed into pieces. His client pays and leaves while coughing [6:29-34]. All the coughing among the men who sleep together seems like a symptom of AIDS, but the disease is never mentioned once, in another case of reality and fantasy blurring together.

Mike then has an embarrassing, extended encounter with a client, arriving in red pants that match the house walls and the smiley face stickers we see later [8:50-11:30]. We cut to another evening when he gets picked up by a rich older woman in a fancy car, who takes him back to her house where he meets Scott and another hustler, Gary [11:41-12:42]. Mike soon leaves and goes into another room (again wearing red), expresses some admiration for trinkets shaped like salmon, picks up a seashell, and listens to real ocean noises before being interrupted by the client coming in and flirting [13:06-14:35]. This triggers another narcoleptic episode, with videos of his mother playing with him as a baby appearing as he collapses [14:46-58]. The ocean may be very close to the West Coast, but for Mike it is nothing but something stressful.

Scott and Gary carry Mike out of the house and Scott establishes that the narcolepsy is brought on by stressful incidents: “Some hustler, huh?” [14:54-15:33] Indeed, Mike’s narcolepsy feels like a twisted punishment, with Laura Mulvey’s claims in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” that “the determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly” applying to Mike having fantasies about his mother even though she is not even of the gender that Mike prefers, and they are not particularly pleasurable (715). Mike and Scott may have the same occupation, but Mike is the one who is viewed as an aberrant.

We then shift to Scott’s perspective, as he drags Mike to a lawn and tells him to stay in the nice neighborhood [16:00-16]. Scott begins performing a Shakespearean-style monologue about his strained relationship with his rich father as a folk song version of America the Beautiful plays over Mike’s fantasies [16:16-17:00]. It is a moment of chemistry between the two in the shape of merging fantasies, with the more rigid, American, and formal version of Scott’s blending with Mike’s freer, impressionistic, folksier one. It is also the start of the movie using the two different styles of dialogue to contrast the differences between characters.

A man enters a porn shop, passing by several magazines with titles like Male Call and with front covers to match [17:41-18:16]. Several of the covers have the hustlers from Mike’s gang on them, with Scott in a cowboy hat (tying him to the cowboy in Mike’s opening dream) and talking in Shakespearean about his wealth [18:17-19:24]. Mike wakes up, and a German man, Hans, drives up in the woman’s car and offers a lift before asking an upset Mike “Do you want to be my friend?” [19:25-20:30] An upset Mike walks off after declining and then undergoes another episode [20:30-21:19]. Another colored title card saying “Portland” appears [21:20]. Hans will appear a few more times throughout the film, always being contrasted with Scott as the gay version of Scott, who Mike is nevertheless not attracted to because he is not American enough for Mike. This becomes particularly notable when the Idaho road reappears, and is emphasized when Mike wakes up in Scott’s arms by a sign saying “The White Man’s Path.” The latter says Hans drove him back, but Mike says he cannot remember him [21:31-51]. They go to a diner, and bring up that Bob from Mike’s shirt is in the area, with Scott saying that Bob was in love with him and that he loves Bob more than his parents [22:00-23:32]. The other hustlers show up and one casually relays a horrifying story about being raped with a bottle in a bad encounter, making the shallowness of Scott’s desire to annoy his father look even more stupidly spiteful [24:00-25:46]. The hustlers wake up on a roof, as the same music from the porn magazines scene plays, and Bob is shown walking and talking in the same Shakespeare fashion as Scott, namedropping the Chimes at Midnight, a Shakespeare film adaptation [26:00-28:38].

Scott, dressed much nicer than the other homeless kids living in the building, goes to see Bob and finds both a sleeping, slovenly Bob and Mike stealing some cocaine [28:47-29:29]. They wake up Bob, which prompts him and Scott to go into matching grandiose yet modernized monologues while Mike desperately snorts cocaine in the hallway (the fundamental clash between Mike and Scott begins to be shown), but Bob realizes the cocaine was stolen, causing a lengthy scene of bath-robed Bob and suited Scott ranting at each other in Shakespeare while a high, coughing Mike talks fairly normally [29:47-32:25]. The trio is already not a well-matched group, and we then learn that Scott is set to inherit his father’s fortune and he plans to reform himself after inheriting it to impress his father more by maturing [33:21-34:15]. Bob’s gang then robs another group from Beaverton, but when Mike and Scott are separated, Bob talks like a normal person for a few seconds while Mike adopts the Shakespearean style when Mike/Scott scare off Bob with a prank [36:50-37:00 and 37:24-30]. The dialogue is yoked to Scott, and Bob/Mike adopting it is rooted in a combination of their sexual desire for Scott and his reign over Portland that is established right afterwards [37:32-38:00].

After a lengthy scene where Mike and Scott mock Bob for the prank, the police raid the apartment [38:01-45:31]. They soon see Scott pretending to have sex with Mike and force him to see his father, but Scott’s conversation with them is in a normal style as he plays with Mike’s nipples [45:32-46:48]. He is putting on an undesirable image as part of his street hustler act, and when he has a talk with his father, he is dressed in a casual style that is very similar to Mike’s [47:06]. His ultimate desire to please shines through when he goes back into Shakespeare [47:42-48:19], and then natural when he is with Mike in the diner and Mike decides he wants to visit his brother in Idaho. We see another blue screen saying Idaho, followed by a highway sign telling tourists not to laugh at the natives [49:11-36]. As Mike walks across the road, we see that it is the one from the opening [49:36-43], and he says he has been on this road before [49:50-54]. He once again makes the “fucked-up face” comparison: “Like it’s saying ‘Have a nice day’ or something” [49:54-50:07], a statement that is usually accompanied by a smiling face.

The two make a fire and Scott says that he told his maid “Have a nice day,” when he left [51:00-07]. This statement is hugely illuminating, both in how Scott flaunts his privilege and in how it makes the comparison between Scott and the Idaho road explicit. They are both fucked up faces that Mike loves and values, but they also exploit his vulnerabilities and narcolepsy. They also start off the movie letting him off easily, with Mike miraculously getting back to Portland post-opening sleep and Scott leaving him somewhere safe. They are his own private Idaho.

Mike says that if he had a family like Scott, he would have come out well-adjusted, although Scott plays it off as nothing (effectively denying his privilege) [51:23-34]. In the fetal position, staring at the fire, Mike changes the topic, saying he “doesn’t feel he can be close” to Scott even though they are next to each other [52:35]. Mike tries to inquire into Scott’s feelings on him, but when Scott does not understand, Mike trails off into nothing, with Scott finally saying he only has sex with guys for money: “Two guys can’t love each other” [52:55-53:37]. Mike sadly replies with: “I could love somebody…even if I wasn’t paid for it. I love you…and you don’t pay me. I really want to kiss you, man” [53:53-54:18]. He continues with “Good night man…I do love you though. You know that,” with Scott eventually letting him hug him as they go to bed, but Mike is unmoving and seems to have had another episode [54:20-55:00]. The stage is set for Mike and his own private Idaho to break up.

The next day opens with thunder [55:14] and a cop appearing when they cannot start their motorcycle. The cop is Native American, one of the “natives” mentioned on the sign, and a symbol of Western imagery, complete with Mike making his way across The White Man’s Path. Mike tries to run but falls asleep, and we see Scott carrying him like a bride over the threshold, having arrived at the trailer of Mike’s brother [55:44-56:32]. The Idaho road, in both incidents, is still being kind to Mike. Mike’s brother Richard, who has alcohol and anger problems, tells Mike a story about their family that both portrays Mike’s mother as mentally unstable (essentially implying that it runs in the family), contains more Western imagery when Richard is talking about John Ford, and winds up immediately being revealed as a complete fabrication when Mike says he knows Richard is his real father [1:00:03-3:13]. However, while he tells it, we see shots of the home video footage [1:01:02] as Scott looks around, muttering “how corny” when Richard finishes the story [1:01:42]. While the divide between Mike and Scott was manageable in Portland when Mike was trying to be like Scott, Scott is now in Mike’s portion of America, and has no desire to adapt beyond the most surface level, such as his speech patterns and dress.

Richard points Mike in the direction of a hotel called, fittingly, The Family Tree, and Mike finds out his mother is in Italy “to find her family,” but before they can leave they see Hans, who Mike now remembers [1:04:39-1:05:29]. His earlier claim to not remember him was most likely a lie since he was more interested in Scott. They go up to Hans’ room and he buys them food and flirts, before dancing with a lamp to a gloomy-sounding German song about sitting on a bullet (an extremely explicit gay sex reference) [1:05:50-8:58]. When Mike nearly goes into an episode from Hans’ behavior and un-American nature, Scott stops the music (more affection), and the group has a threesome that is portrayed as a series of the actors holding sexual poses while carnival music plays [1:09:38-58]. These encounters are the beginning of the end, with Scott slowly losing his patience with Mike and having sex with men he is not attracted to.

The boys sell their motorcycle to Hans, who is promptly pulled over by the Native American cop for speeding on the Idaho road (as opposed to not going at all, underscoring the differences between Hans and Scott) [1:10:00-11:10]. A colored card saying “Roma” appears, and we see Mike asleep on the street as a series of young men, one of whom has a red jacket like Mike’s, talk in Italian [1:11:25-12:00]. Scott, who asked the hustlers to watch Mike while he got a cab, picks up Mike and they drive to a country house [1:13:00-20]. While Mike looks for his mother, Scott is approached by a girl who is dressed similarly to him [1:13:42]. Her name is Carmella and the two make uneasy conversation, and Carmella reveals that she learned English from Mike’s mother but she has since gone back to America [1:13:51-15:06]. When Mike reappears, calling for his mother, Scott says that Carmella knows Mike’s mom before going to the thundering home video, implying that the reveal caused Mike to pass out [1:15:29-45]. We next see a sobbing Mike in Scott’s arms, trying to remember the color of his mom’s house and humming Home on the Range to jog his memory, but the home video footage (which features a sunflower toy) is so washed out that the color of the house cannot be determined, and we zoom further and further away from Mike’s mom and him as a baby until they are blurs and the song fades out-Mike is rapidly losing hope, and says he is ready to leave whenever Scott wants, clearly desperate to return to any part of America [1:15:47-17:09].

We next cut to Mike walking up some stairs before Scott shuts a door in Mike’s face [1:17:21-35]. Inside, we see Carmella against a paler version of the red walls that characterized Mike’s hookups as Scott and Carmella kiss, before bumping a bowl of water that slops and spills around sensuously [1:17:36-59]. However, the washed out color and not the passion is what carries over to the sex, with the same series of frozen poses as in the threesome. Mike’s exclusion is underlined, and paints the encounter between the two as nothing more than Scott being a prostitute in the insulting sense of the word. After some shots of Mike wandering around and looking at sheep [1:18:00-25], an annoyed Mike watches Carmella and Scott insipidly flirting at dinner, then listens to the two having sex while he tries to sleep [1:18:26-19:30]. Right when he appears to be on the verge of having an episode, he goes outside and talks to Carmella while a sheepdog is nearby, where she says she thinks she is falling in love before we go back to him lying in bed, making it unclear if this scene is even real but making it very clear that Mike is going to be defeated by Carmella in his desire for Scott just as the sheep is controlled by the sheepdog [1:19:31-21:22]. Sure enough, Scott gives Mike money before apologizing and flatly saying he is in love with Carmella [1:21:24-22:05]. The two leave in a cab, but while Carmella kisses Scott, he is reading a letter and smiling [1:22:42-23:03].

Mike, meanwhile, is seen with the male hustlers who helped him earlier before having an encounter with an older male Italian client, causing him to fall asleep out of frustration [1:23:04-24:25]. We then cut to him on a plane asleep, arriving in Portland (another colored title card) [1:24:26-48]. Whatever happened to Mike after Scott left, it seems like a particularly fragmented bad dream from being out of his comfort zone and across the ocean, but whether it was something he dreamt or something that genuinely happened is left ambiguous. Mike has another hookup upon returning, where he walks like he is staggering out of sleep and the scene cuts right when he appears to be having an episode [1:25:48-26:32]. When he is in the street the next day, he begins laughing hysterically, but then goes into an episode for no apparent reason and, still laughing, falls asleep dangerously close to a broken beer bottle and dreams of his house again [1:26:34-27:25]. We then see a sleeping Mike from a car window, before it is revealed that the car is driving a fully suited Scott, who does not react, having fully abandoned him [1:27:26-45].

Mike wakes up with Bob and his gang [1:27:47-28:31]. Bob sees Scott pull out of a limo with Carmella and going into a fancy restaurant, and realizes Scott has gained his inheritance (hence the letter) [1:28:32-29:00]. Scott looks fairly bored even when discussing his father’s death with a colleague [1:29:16-38]. We also see Hans in the restaurant with a man that looks very similar to Mike, showing that Hans is done with Mike [1:29:12].

Bob enters the restaurant to glares, with Bob believing that Scott will listen to him [1:30:00-18]. Bob tries to get Scott’s attention, starting off with Shakespearean before just yelling “I mean you, Scotty! It’s me! Bob!”, but Scott replies with “I don’t know you, old man. Please leave me alone” as we faintly hear laughing [1:30:20-41]. A crestfallen Bob then listens to Scott disown him and say the only reason for listening to Bob was the need to earn his real father’s love, but there is a red light (the color of Mike’s meetings) shining on Scott’s face the whole time, essentially painting him as a whore [1:31:07]. Bob dies in his sleep and the escorts, all speaking in Shakespeare, claim that Scott broke his heart [1:31:31-33:04].

At the funeral for Scott’s father, there is a flag of a beaver, a very subtle callback to the rival gang from Beaverton that the escorts were opposed to [1:33:06]. This is rendered more loudly when the escorts hold a rowdy funeral only a few feet away for Bob while Mike is playing with a giant sunflower like the toy from his earlier fantasy, the closest thing he has to something from his past at this point [1:33:38-34:25]. One of the escorts begins screaming Bob’s name, and everyone else joins in, disrupting the funeral for Mr. Favor as Scott stares blankly, with Mike yelling maliciously while pointing at Scott before everyone in the group starts making out on top of the coffin and we see the swimming salmon, implying another sleeping fit [1:34:26-35:28].

We go back to Mike’s road and the colored title card saying Idaho shows up [1:35:35-42], with no telling how he got there. He gives a slight variation on his opening speech: “I’m a connoisseur of roads. Been tasting roads my whole life. This road will never end. It probably goes all around the world,” before falling asleep [1:35:45-36:17]. The camera zooms out, making him look very small and insignificant [1:36:18-37:00], but we go back to close-up as a truck pulls over and the two drivers steal his shoes [1:37:01-38]. America the Beautiful begins playing more slowly, as we go back to the zoomed out view, another car pulls up, and the driver comes out and puts Mike in the car before driving off after the song has ended [1:37:39-39:18]. Another folk song begins playing as we see Mike’s house again [1:39:19-25], and then a black title card with a different, blue font says “Have a nice day” before the credits begin [1:39:26].

Mike and Scott are both unable to handle the difficulties of their time and frequently resort to denial to cope, but Scott’s problems are minor when compared to Mike barely able to function. In the end, both choose to follow in their parents’ footsteps, but while Scott’s father left a very clear way for him that ensures Scott will never have to worry about his future, Mike’s mother is a mystery and Mike tries to forge his own path. He is tragically not equipped for this in any way, and is left at the mercy of the Idaho road, which no longer treats him kindly and leaves him to whatever fate the merciless world chooses to push on him.


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