Screen Gems: The Red Barn in "My Own Private Idaho" dir. Gus Van Sant, 1991

The following article appeared in The Big Picture Magazine as part of their "Screen Gems" series, which presents the critical challenge of discussing a film through a significant object. Though not exactly a Maltese Falcon, the following piece is an attempt to communicate the potency of a rather large, falling object, the single shot that contains it, and what it was like to be there when it landed:

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 and salmon swimming upstream and bright green and red title cards. We are traveling with a narcoleptic for whom (not unlike the new cinema junkie I was becoming) 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 blow job persisting in our ears, we quickly cut back to that desolate road. 

 At the New Art in '91, not far from a host of family farms, the image of a red barn falling from the sky and 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 vision is perhaps one of disorientation, of loss, the stable object of the landscapes he dreams crashing through the sky in defiance. For Van Sant the barn is a sort of Bunuelian razor, a liberation of vision that prepares us for what's to come, as well as a tremendous way to symbolize an orgasm.  For me the impact of this object goes beyond that even, marking 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.

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.


Ken Sheehan said...

It was a stunning movie, words fail to express the impact it had on me... the dreamlike images, the landscape, the haunting feeling. I think that image of the red barn falling may have been influenced by Dorothy's House being tossed up into the sky by the tornado in "The Wizard of Oz"?

J. Hedrick said...

Yes! I love it. Thanks for reading, Ken.