As critically polarising as his filmography is – in terms of both content and quality – it is hard to consider many filmmakers to be more iconic to the queer cinema canon than Gus Van Sant. Despite such duds as his flatulently pointless remake of Psycho and the dull A Sea of Trees, he holds an otherwise acclaimed, prestigious portfolio, with a particular flair for stories centred upon sexuality.
Some may argue his tour-de-force to be 2008’s widely acclaimed Milk: a remarkable biopic about the eponymous Harvey Milk, a San Francisco legislator and the United States’ first openly gay elected politician, the film following reality hand-in-hand up to his tragic assassination. Others, myself included, may delve deeper into his filmography to select what is perhaps regarded as the most iconic example of queer independent filmmaking: a similarly tragic character study about a young narcoleptic street hustler, Mike – wonderfully performed by a River Phoenix at the peak of his solemnly short career – and his struggle with unrequited love, My Own Private Idaho.
The film primarily explores the relationship between Mike and Keanu Reeves’ narcissistic Scott, a brotherly bond of best friends who both, and sometimes together, have sex with men for money. Unlike Mike, who relies on prostitution as his sole means of income, Scott does it for the thrill - he comes from wealth, the son of a prominent businessman. A combination of depression and his narcolepsy has led to Mike feeling increasingly isolated and disconnected from the world, Scott being his only real human bond. Van Sant best illustrates both Mike's attachment to Scott and wider disconnection through the scenes of paid intercourse: framed as a series of photographic stills, any intimacy is supplanted by invasive voyeurism, as if these acts constitute nothing more than a reel of examples for his prostitution portfolio.
This is further conflated by Mike's realisation of not only his homosexuality, but also of his love for Scott. In the film's most iconic scene, set against the expansive darkness of nighttime rural Idaho, barely lit by the warm glow of a campfire, he struggles to stammer a confession - "I love you... and you don't pay me" - before dropping into another narcoleptic slumber, as if a flight response to what feels an inevitable rebuke. Scott doesn’t believe that men can love other men. It's an age old issue trauma for the queer and the hetero alike, because that’s the thing – some people simply are not wired to love you back.
Ultimately, Scott inherits his father's fortune and abandons his best friend. The film closes on Mike in a narcoleptic stupor, alone and stranded at a desert road, Van Sant’s wide lens capturing the horizon at its most expansive, feeling almost infinite. A car pulls up next his unmoving body; a figure, unidentified, scoops him into the back seat. The stranger's intentions are unknown, but if the rest of Mike's story is anything to go from, the worst is inevitable. It's a tragically cyclical ending, one which greatly underpins Idaho's central dramatic question: how can you escape being lost to the world if you're lost to yourself?