Screengems: The Red Barn in My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)

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First of all, there is still an Art House in Champaign, IL. When I saw My Own Private Idaho there in 1991 it had been called the “New Art” theater since around ‘87, when it was resurrected from its seedy past as a 70’s porn venue. The theater has been in existence since the early teens, since before the slash of Bunuel’s razor, since long before I witnessed an image orchestrated by Gus Van Sant that kind of changed my life.

My Own Private Idaho begins with two introductions to the central character of Mike (River Pheonix); one where he ponders the physiognomy of a desolate road, and another where he wakes from that possible dream to an unsure sexual encounter. The two openings are connected by a montage of Idaho landscapes, salmon swimming upstream, and bright green and red title cards. We are traveling with a narcoleptic for whom the moments between waking (between films, that is) have become like fleeting snapshots. As the situation comes into focus, the young boy waking, the strains of a wooden chair and a hungry blowjob persisting in our ears, we quickly cut back to that desolate road.

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At the New Art in ’91, not far from a host of family farms, the image of a red barn falling from the sky – splintering the yellow line with surreal precision – sent a shock of laughter and surprise through the audience that I can feel in my chest to this day. For Mike, this image may be one of disorientation, of loss, the stable object of the landscapes he dreams crashing through the sky in defiance. For Van Sant it may just have been an inspired way to symbolize an orgasm. For me, the impact of this object marks a change in the cinema landscape that is still worth considering (maybe even by Van Sant, whose admirable but utilitarian work on the recent Promised Land is far from satisfying fans of his more experimental classics). It marks the end of the suffocating, commercial cinema of the 80’s that followed the marketing lessons of Jaws and the Star Wars franchise to a fault.

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My Own Private Idaho is built from the kind of radical adaptation and invention that was scarce in the decade that preceded it. It’s a daring work of the avant-garde that combines a spectrum of language ranging from the natural storytelling of young street hookers to the metered rhythms of Shakespeare, calling forth a generation of films that take risks, that seek to return poetry and experimentation to the movies, that take teen heartthrobs and animate them within the covers of gay porn mags in an America that would rather see them in Disney fare (it calls forth Spring Breakers!).

The barn, for me, has become a momentous screen object, one that marks a challenge in the course of film history, one that falls from a place of anger, liberation, urgency in a moment of waking and Reichian abandon. It’s a howl cutting through the solemn funeral of the aristocracy. It’s an orgy on the coffin of the 80’s. It’s a simultaneous “Have a nice day” and “Fuck you” to the artlessness of conservative America, both then and now. In 1991, it was a moment of connection that I hadn’t yet experienced at the movies. And today, there’s still an Art Cinema in Champaign, IL.

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