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Wishlust wanderings; or, Snapshots of the Damned
on January 19, 2004
When *My Own Private Idaho* hit the rental shelves of the local movie theater way back in the early 90's, its reputation spread immediately among the young and restless of my small, conservative home-town. The consensus was of near-unanimous disgust, with common descriptions including "sick," "depraved," and that age-old chestnut "Confusing" with a capital "C." And yet my opinion was, typically, not that of the consensus. My artist's spirit identified with the wanderlust-yearning and puckish wonder inhabited in the vagabond Scott and Mike - a somewhat-sheltered mind's naïve lust for that opposite of its own experience. Although I certainly found myself shocked by the depiction of homosexual prostitution, the romantic tone and Shakespearan prose-play helped to penetrate (so to speak) this gutterpunk-fantasy firmly into the deepest reaches of my life-thirsty cerebrum; if anything, I found the homophobic snarls of my teenage compatriots in regards to this film more disturbing - on an immediate, reactionary level - than any fantastical degradation the film itself presented.
Immersed in that heady sensation of nostalgia and curiosity, I looked forward to a mature re-viewing of this art house masterpiece: of filtering Van Zant's intentions through an adult lens. Accordingly, I found that which impressed me most as a child seemed less important to my current mindset, and vice versa - no longer was I wholly enraptured by the wide-shots of empty highways and the plethora of bizarre chance encounters (elements so common to life on the road): having Kerouac'ed my way across the world, I must admit to preferring my own experiences to *Idaho's* hodge-podge questing. Consequently, the depiction of street-life squalor, early 90's-era Portland style, resonated far deeper this time around: a bell-toll for the doomed.
River Phoenix shines in perhaps his defining role as Mike, a homeless narcoleptic endlessly conking out in moments of stress, shivering and twitching in ecstatic remembrance of mommy dearest and sharecropper-esque glory (decrepit farmhouses and dust-bowl potato-sprawl): several scenes, including his breakdown at the fire and romper-stomp at the funeral, shine with a quicksilver talent so brilliant that it easily transcends the drug-addled ghost Phoenix was already beginning to become. As for Keanu Reeves... well, I've always been of the opinion that he is the most underrated of H-wood's golden A-list, a man with deep presence and charisma, hampered by a stoic demeanor and tonal limitations. I must admit I found it rather disconcerting to see Neo preening on the cover of a porno-rag: still, Reeve's subtle reactions to Fat Bob and Mike's outspoken coat-tail riding; his recitation of Shakespeare, Henry V style, with a cowboy twang thrown in at the pivotal tension-trigger; and finally his ascension from rebellious naïf to "master of the universe"-Reeves gives an outstanding performance, among his very best (though this may come across as an oxymoron to some - so be it).
Moreover, the very tools that romanticize *Idaho's* ne'er-do-well protagonists -- Celtic rhythms, lurid colors, Ye Olde English capering - also flip-side emphasize the constant-trauma and grimy exploitation of the LCD rent-boy's raw existence, with suffering only alleviated via spurts of snorting, drinking, mischief and, perchance, a miraculous stranger's unexpected generosity. As Fat Bob and Mike's illusions of wealth-an eternal party utterly devoid of street-life cost-unravel, the subsequent denouement is immeasurably augmented by the early 'warmth' of the film, and the steady chill that seeps through the cracks, numbing body and mind, overwhelm its progression until abrupt collapse upon the desolate highway of the ending.
A few noteworthy scenes: When Fat Bob coldly warns Mike about "Living on yer [arse]," the horrific undercurrent ramifications cut the usual tongue-wag riffing like a knife. Likewise, near the movie's conclusion, when Mike slumps into his ump-teenth narcoleptic fit on a filthy concrete street, the camera pans to Scott newly-settled in his seat of mobile power, enforcing the inevitable destiny of these lost souls, harlots high and low: one elevated to the highest reaches of society, the other forever abandoned to the cold stone and cold hands of the Outskirts.
*My Own Private Idaho:* a paean for the lost and lonely, the gutterpunk romantic in us all. Five stars.