My Own Private Idaho (Van Sant,1991) postures itself as the archetypal road movie, yet closer inspection proves that the film aspires to greatness by borrowing from the masters of art and literature.
An obese derelict strolls the sidewalks of downtown Portland accompanied by his rent boy. “The things we’ve seen,” the young companion muses. Borrowed from the pages of Shakespeare’s Henry the IV Part 2, director Gus Van Sant transforms Sir John Falstaff into a transient with a pedophiliac attraction to boys and Prince Hal into a prostitute awaiting a family inheritance on his twenty first birthday. While the story and characters belong to Shakespeare, Van Sant is also clearly referencing Orson Welles’s underrated masterpiece, The Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1965). The result is a postmodern simulacrum or “a copy of a copy of a copy” of Shakespeare’s tale of juvenile indiscretion and disregard for patriarchal authority re-imagined as a modern fable about street hustling.
Van Sant parodies both Welles and Shakespeare without malice. The homage to Henry the IV takes up only a small percentage of the film and the stylized acting suggest, “A play within a play.” Additionally, the theatrical device recalls “The Mousetrap” play Hamlet uses to ensnare his Uncle Claudius into confessing the murder of his father. The exaggerated performances also serve to disassociate the audience from the harsh reality of street life and remind us that we are indeed watching a work of fiction.
Instead of pushing boundaries by exploiting gratuitous scenes of homoerotism simply for shock value, sex is depicted in stylized freeze frames reminiscence of renaissance paintings. The images are simultaneous intimate and comical, beautiful and flippant. Staging the actors in awkward postures illuminates both cinema’s historically bogus reverence of sex and the absurd nature of coitus itself.
The film cleverly mixes genres by weaving a documentary-like sequence between the modern restaging of Shakespeare and the traditional road picture. As the lead actors dine at a Chinese restaurant, the narrative dissolves into a confessional for minor characters who detail their entry into the world of prostitution. The harrowing tales of rape and abuse destroy dramatic film conventions and provide a sobering slap to the face of an audience who romanticize the life of rent boys.
Far from an empty pastiche, My Own Private Idaho, reinterprets classic texts into a modern tale of passion and exploitation. Like a chameleon, the film seamlessly navigates between genres enhancing its dramatic impact. Postmodernism provides the film the necessary breathing room to explore the desires of its characters in their search for love.