My Own Private Idaho
August 25, 2005
Gus Van Sant,
Starring: River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, James Russo, William Richert, Rodney Harvey, Chiara Caselli, Michael Parker, Jessie Thomas, Flea, Grace Zabriskie, Tom Troupe, Udo Kier, Sally Curtice, ,
Van Sant skillfully legitimized everyday existence with Mala Noche (1986) and Drugstore Cowboy (1989) by presenting fascinating explorations into street life. These films never exploited or romanticized their rather seedy subject matter, but viewed the characters impartially, leaving it up to the viewer to make a value judgement. My Own Private Idaho (1991) is arguably his best effort to date because it is his most personal project, a labour of love that shows a filmmaker at the apex of his powers.
The film focuses on the adventures of two social outcasts. Scott Favor (Reeves) is a rich kid from an affluent family slumming with street folk as an act of rebellion against his father, the Mayor of Portland. It is only a few days until he turns 21 years old, at which point he will inherit a lot of money. His close friend, Mike Waters (Phoenix), is a narcoleptic dreamer prone to lapsing into a deep sleep during times of stress at the most inopportune moments. Mike is the son of a mysterious waitress, (we only catch glimpses of her through his grainy, Super-8 reminiscences) and this results in a desire to track her down. It is a quest that takes both hustlers from the streets of Portland to America’s heartland as symbolized by Idaho, and finally a trip to Italy.
My Own Private Idaho is Van Sant’s own unique spin on the road film. The motion picture opens and ends with Mike on the road—a deserted, picturesque stretch somewhere in Idaho. In both scenes Mike delivers a monologue, a Kerouacian ode to the road before passing out in a narcoleptic fit. There is something about this road that induces Mike’s seizures. Perhaps it is his observation that when looked at in a certain way (with the visual aid of an iris lens) the road seems like “a fucked-up face, like it’s saying, ‘Have a nice day.’” His black outs act as a portal that allows us to enter Mike’s world: the private Idaho of the film’s title which offers us glimpses into his dreams, his aspirations, and gives us clues to his past. Mike’s narcoleptic escapades are comprised of fragmented, fast moving clouds in vast, blue skies; salmon jumping up stream; and old, scratchy, 8mm film of Mike’s trailer park past.
Mike is clearly the heart of the film with Scott’s story taking up very little screen time. With his narcoleptic flashbacks we see most of the film through Mike’s eyes. He yearns for love and eternal friendship from Scott in an incredibly touching and tragic scene where the two are sitting by a campfire on the road to Idaho. Mike tries to articulate his feelings for Scott when he says, “I love you and you don’t pay me.” Mike conveys a feeling that Scott could never imagine, let alone feel. This scene is the highlight of the film and really showcases Phoenix’s formidable acting talents. Keanu Reeves, as in most of his other films doesn’t really act, but rather reacts to what other characters do as this scene so adequately demonstrates. While Phoenix suggests so much by doing so little.
He delivers an intelligent performance by giving life and depth to the character of Mike. The way Phoenix looks in the film, a combination of messed up hair, bedraggled clothes, a rumpled appearance and mannerisms to match that make one think of James Dean’s tortured teen, Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause (1955). Like Dean, Phoenix can suggest emotion from simple movements and gestures. His performance in My Own Private Idaho, with its willingness to take chances, ranks right up there with some of the great performances of our time and makes one realize what a talent has been lost in his death.
My Own Private Idaho didn’t break any box office records or win any Academy Awards, but it has endured. For a film that made so many studio executives nervous, it does not go for the shock value of its subject matter. Van Sant presents his hustlers as real, three-dimensional characters with humanity and the capacity for tenderness and humour. What could have become exploitive trash in the hands of a lesser talent, becomes a touching, poetic quest for family and identity that aspires to a level that most films only dream of attaining.
In lieu of an audio commentary, the second DVD features a two-hour conversation between Gus Van Sant and filmmaker Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven). The two men talk about many aspects of My Own Private Idaho, including the meanings behind some of the imagery and the significance of the ending. This track is loaded with many wonderful insights into how the film was made.
“The Making of My Own Private Idaho” is a retrospective documentary that features the insights of key crew members, editor Curtiss Clayton, directors of photography John Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards, and production designer David Brisbin. They gush about working with Van Sant and what a personal, unique project, unlike any other they had done before or since.
“Kings of the Road” examines the elements of Henry IV and Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1965) that Van Sant integrated into his own movie. Film scholar Paul Arthur speaks in rather academic terms in this informative extra.
There is also an engaging conversation between the film’s producer, Laurie Parker, and River Phoenix’s younger sister, Rain. They talk about his performance in Van Sant’s movie. The two women do not dwell on River’s tragic death but rather focus on his work.
A real treat for fans are six deleted scenes that include more Shakespearean-influenced dialogue as Scott stages a mock encounter with his father as played by Bob (Richert). Another scene finally reveals who exactly picks up Mike at the end of the movie.
Also included is an hour-long conversation between JT LeRoy and Jonathan Caouette. They both used to live on the streets, Caouette used his experiences on his film, Tarnation (2004) and LeRoy wrote the screenplay for Van Sant’s movie, Elephant (2003). They talk about their impressions of the film and about the authenticity of its depiction of street life. Van Sant makes an appearance and answers some of their questions.
Finally, there is a 64-page booklet with an insightful review by Amy Taubin, Lance Loud’s excellent on-the-set article (originally published in American Film magazine) and interviews with Van Sant, Phoenix, and Reeves (that originally appeared in Interview magazine).